Category Archives: Music/Dance

An Interview with Adrian Belew, Part 3

Musician Adrian Belew talks about the value of setting up obstacles, what excites him in other people's music, and how he recently joined forces with two kids who don't have driver's licenses yet to form the Adrian Belew Power Trio.

Adrian Belew

Photo credit: Image courtesy of Daryl Darko

Welcome to the conclusion of this three-part interview with guitarist, singer, and songwriter Adrian Belew. If you’re just jumping in, be sure to hop back to the start to hear Belew talk about collaborating with King Crimson and the Bears, why the last two years have been so productive, and how he lets goes creatively.

Is there anything you’ve learned about the creative process that’s surprised you?

I’m impressed to see that if you work really hard at something, it does eventually pay off. And nothing in my life has proven that to me as much as the creative process. Sometimes you do have to work at it; it doesn’t always just flow out of you like lava. Sometimes you really do have to sit and [say], “How am I going to make this work? What can I do?” And really go deep within yourself or at least concentrate to such a degree that it gets tiring, you know? So I’m kind of amazed that the process works and that it’s still working.

Have you gotten any advice about creativity that particularly stands out?

No — strangely it’s not something that I think artists sit around and discuss, although perhaps they should. It’s more to me just the doing of it. In King Crimson, for example, every time we approach a new record, we set up a lot of obstacles to challenge ourselves with. For example, we will say, “Okay, we’re only going to use these few things. Out of all the things we can use, out of all the time signatures or all the chord changes or all the tones or whatever you have on your palette, these are the things we’re gonna use. We’re gonna take this box of twenty-four Crayons, empty it out, and only use these six.” I think, sometimes, challenging ourselves all the time, that’s what it’s all about.

I learned that technique by reading about the way that Stravinsky wrote. That was just a bit of information that somehow stuck with me — that you could do that — you could put parameters around what you’re doing, and it would help focus your creativity.

Almost the entire opposite way of working has worked a lot for me as well. A lot of times I come in the studio and I just start on something — I have a sound and I just start playing something. And then I build from there. It’s not preconceived. It’s not all a target that I’m even shooting for. It’s just free-form, and you create something out of it.

So between those two things — one’s a very disciplined way and one is a kind of haphazard way — I think that’s where most of my work exists. [laughs]

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Category: Music/Dance

An Interview with Adrian Belew, Part 2

Musician Adrian Belew talks about teaching himself guitar at 16, what it felt like to sign on with Zappa's band, and how he writes and performs complex, multi-rhythmic pieces.

Adrian Belew

Photo credit: Image courtesy of Daryl Darko

Welcome to the second part of this interview with guitarist, singer, and songwriter Adrian Belew. If you haven’t already read the first part, you can find it here or jump to Part Three here.

Do you remember when you first started writing songs?

At age sixteen I contracted mononucleosis in high school and was forced to stay at home and be tutored for two months. And the requirement was that you be inactive. I was a drummer, and I could no longer drum. I had always had songs in my mind that would just appear, and I could kind of hear them full on as though a record was playing. So I decided to take those two months and teach myself to play guitar.

I borrowed an acoustic guitar from one of my band members, and by the end of the two months I had written five songs and put them on tape. I do remember little bits of pieces of them, but I couldn’t even tell you the melodies or titles.

The tapes are long gone?

I’m afraid so. I wish they weren’t. They’d be on my website right now.

Were you surprised at how quickly you picked up the guitar?

I was very surprised at my ability to just figure it out my own way. I could hear what I wanted and so I would just say, “Okay, this is the note that I want, and here is the harmony note to that. And if you put this other note with it you get an interesting chord sound that goes underneath it,” and just proceeded that way. I had absolutely no instruction from, really, anyone. And I didn’t try to learn it in a proper way. For many years I had no idea what the names of chords were.

So you just sort of intuited what the chords would be?

I think probably a lot of it was from my ability as a singer. Because from the age of five on I studied singing by just, you know, singing along with every record that I liked and every singer. I’d have to say that really my first musical ability was singing. I used to entertain my parents and aunts and uncles by singing along with the jukebox or singing with songs on the radio. And I just seemed to have a natural knack for harmonies.

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Category: Music/Dance

An Interview with Adrian Belew, Part 1

Musician Adrian Belew talks about collaborating with King Crimson and the Bears, why the last two years have been so productive, and how he perceives music.

Adrian Belew

Photo credit: Image courtesy of Daryl Darko.

This is the first part of a three-part interview. You can find Part Two here.

With both the Bears and King Crimson, you’ve developed longstanding creative relationships that have spanned decades. What do you attribute that to?

When you know something works, you should continue it. There’s a large part of me that’s solo oriented. Like a painter, I think sometimes, “Well, I don’t really need anyone’s help in this. This is me painting a picture or me painting a song.” So as much as I can, I try to do everything myself because that’s not only the most fun, it’s also the most rewarding.

But it’s very healthy to step out of that and share something with someone else where you’re not the only one in control and you’re not the only one with the ideas. Interesting things happen that way. So I’ve tried to kind of have a diet of both throughout my career, as a way to continue to be fresh and grow.

How does collaborative songwriting differ from when you’re writing solo?

Well, most of my collaborative things have been quietly done — you know, one or two people sitting down together, perhaps, unamplified, where you’re just trying to get a basic outline of something. Then you take those ideas away and refine them and you meet again and show each other your refinements.

If I’m working within, say, King Crimson, with Robert Fripp, that’s exactly how it works. It’s a quiet process and what you’re trying to do really is allow each other the freedom to try things and be a sounding board sometimes, or else be the one who’s leading the parade.

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Category: Music/Dance

An Interview with Dan Wilson, Part 2

Musician Dan Wilson talks about how much to let listeners in on the story behind lyrics, the benefits of Eno's Oblique Strategies, and the creative challenges he faced mixing his new album.

Dan Wilson

Photo credit: James Minchin.

Welcome to the second half of this two-part interview with musician Dan Wilson. If you haven’t already read Part One, be sure to check it out to hear about the summer day Wilson wrote his first song, the key role titles play in his songwriting process, and why art is a volume business.

I’d heard Semisonic’s song “DND” several times before learning that “DND” referred to the “Do Not Disturb” signs in hotels. I wondered what your thoughts were on how much you want to let your listeners in on the particulars behind your lyrics?

This is an important question. I’m torn about it. On the one hand, I’m a talkative guy who has a lot of ideas and they naturally come out in my lyrics. So I often am tempted to explain my songs, or at least tempted to lay out for interviewers (and through them, listeners) the thoughts or ideas or stories behind my songs.

But on the other hand, I have a vivid memory of being a kid and reading an interview with Paul McCartney wherein he said that his song “Jet” was about a dog. Not only that one, but “Martha My Dear,” that one was about a dog, too. These were two songs of his that I loved, and I was just deflated by the revelation — I had had my own mental images of the people in both those songs, not that they were visually detailed, but a kind of “songish” vision of the people and the stories. And to learn that these people were dogs was such a letdown.

Now, Sir Paul has every right to write songs about his dogs, I’ve got no problem with that. But in learning that those particular songs were about dogs, I was suddenly deprived of my own pleasant illusion that they were about people. And somehow they shrank in my mind as a result of being explained.

Another factor in all this is that I often don’t know what the songs are about until long after I’ve written them. This makes it tempting to share the interpretation — since in my mind, my explanation is as good as a listener’s. But on the other hand, once I’ve given my interpretation of my own song, it has the quality of being “the last word.” And sometimes, the fans come up with the coolest interpretations of their meanings – way cooler than the interpretation or intention I might have had.

So I try to curb my impulse to explain my songs, lest I shrink them in the ears of fans.

Is there any aspect of the creative process that still intimidates you?

It’s the writing. That’s the most intimidating part. Every time I finish a song, I get the feeling that it’s the last one I’ll ever write. It’s like suffering from a creative hangover. One of the things I’ve had to keep learning is the art of starting over. I’ve had to tell myself, “There will always be another song.” Which is hard to believe during that post-writing hangover.

In the actual writing process, the most challenging part is the lyrics. It’s as though the lyrics are the hard and laborious process that allows me to have the fun of working on the melodies. My guess is that lyrics are the hardest part for most songwriters. In the world of unfinished songs, I bet there are ten wordless tunes for every tuneless lyric. They’re just hard to get right. Bad lyrics distract so much from the melody. I keep trying to tell myself that the only requirement of lyrics is that they not be bad — “First, do no harm.” But I can’t help it, for whatever reason I have to keep working on them until I believe they’re great. And getting to that point is challenging.

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Category: Music/Dance

An Interview with Dan Wilson, Part 1

Musician Dan Wilson talks about the summer day he wrote his first song, the key role titles play in his songwriting process, and why art is a volume business.

Dan Wilson

Photo credit: Steve Cohen.

This is the first half of a two-part interview. When you’re done here, be sure to check out Part Two, in which Wilson talks about how he wrestles with how little (or how much) to let his listeners in on the particulars behind his lyrics, the benefits of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, and the creative challenges he faced mixing his new album.

What’s the first song you remember writing?

I can’t remember the title of the first song I wrote, but I do remember the day. My family was up in northern Minnesota on vacation on this particular clear, hot, summer day. I think I was twelve years old. My parents had bought me a guitar, maybe for my birthday in May.

My parents listened to The Beatles the whole time I was growing up: Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road. So the first book of sheet music they bought me was Beatles Complete. I think my brother Matt and I had been figuring out the chords in the book all summer. I believe that it was Matt’s idea to write songs — so he wrote one and I wrote one. We did the songs bit by bit over the course of the afternoon on our parents’ bed. In between “songwriting” we’d run out to the ditch by the road and play war with our plastic army men.

When we were done with the songs, we wrote out the lyrics on typing paper, with the titles boldly written on the top of the sheets. Very official. I’m trying to remember them but I can’t. I liked Matt’s more. The lyrics of mine seemed not so great to me. But the melody was satisfying — I remember thinking it sounded like a George Harrison song. Which I guess tells us which Beatle is mine.

I think the impulse came partly from just wanting something to do on a summer day. But also, once you have a bunch of the chords under your hands, you start to realize that “I can do this too.”

I told a painter friend of mine once that the reason I made paintings was often that I’d seen someone else’s painting that I liked, and I wanted to have one for my own. My friend replied that Picasso said the same thing: He’d see a masterpiece in the Louvre and say to himself, “I can do that! I want one of those.”

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Category: Music/Dance

An Interview with Van Dyke Parks

Musician and author Van Dyke Parks talks about smoking, collaboration, and commitment, plus: Brian Wilson, William Saroyan, and why "the arts are much more expensive than people think."

Van Dyke Parks

Photo credit: Rocky Schenk.

Is there anything you’ve found that helps get you into a more creative mode?

Yes — smoking is good. Smoking is very helpful. But it’s deadly, so today is my second day without smoking. I stopped smoking on Sunday, having smoked for years.

I think that smoking is a very good thing to do — it’s got the association with the Indians; it’s a peaceable thing. But like much else that the Indians gave us, we abused the privilege. And so, in my case I must simply stop. I’m too old to smoke. But I do believe that nicotine provides a great creative thrust….

In all the work I do, throughout my life, I’ve emphasized how fortunate I am to have people around me, and I kind of confirm what my father once said to the school at Andover when they asked if I showed any signs of creativity. My father wrote a letter to them as they were considering me for admission to that school; he said, no, my son has no creativity, but he has reactive abilities that are phenomenal and very useful. I resented that, perhaps — that my father said that. But I have found basically that it could be true, that I have a reactive ability.

I’ve always characterized myself in press and so forth as the “beta participant.” But in fact, now that we’re alone, I can say without fear or bravado, that I feel humbled and validated that you would ask me about the creative process. It’s almost as if I am a creative person. And I think all of that is just due to the fact that I have a great work ethic. I hammer at it. I sweat bullets. I pursue it. Wanting real talent, I compensate for it with something far more precious — sheer will.

I remember when I was a child in New York, I went to see a play by William Saroyan. I happen to know his wife through a live television show I acted on as an obedient boy. At any rate, I met Saroyan. And I asked him about the creative process. I wanted to know because I was so stunned by his work — he presented a vision of California that helped lure me to California in my later adolescence. And he talked to me about “getting the cat up the tree” — getting something to happen and resolving it, and so forth. And I asked him about how inspired he must be, and he said no, no, it’s all due diligence. Everything is just absolutely irrational tenacity.

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Category: Music/Dance

An Interview with Jonathan Coulton

Musician Jonathan Coulton talks about his year recording a song a week, why it's good news when his characters start saying ridiculous things, and the value of solitude and boredom.

Jonathan Coulton

Photo credit: Emily Rawlings.

In the course of the year you spent working on Thing a Week, did you develop any techniques that seemed to help you tap your creative side?

I wish I could say that I developed a sure-fire strategy for writing a song. That’s one of the things I was hoping would come out of Thing a Week — that I could somehow discover a process that worked every time. But it was always different.

I spent a lot of time walking and riding my bike, mumbling under my breath, making up lines about things I saw or thought of. Ideally, one of those lines would be interesting enough to stick with me and grow into something. Sometimes I would get inspired early in the week and the song would sort of write itself. Other times I would think and think all week, and Friday would find me with no good ideas.

The one thing I did learn was that even the good songs have a point when they feel awful — for me there’s always this deep valley of self-doubt when it seems like I should stop writing and abandon the idea. But sometimes even the songs that started with bad ideas would have a very strong finish, and I would find that I’d pulled something really great out of nowhere. Not always — there were certainly some songs that never really got good. And I think that’s an important part of the process too — you’re going to write some clunkers for sure, but you’ll never really know unless you write them. Starting a song is easy; finishing it is a lot harder.

How did you stay focused and productive, particularly on those days when you were feeling a little less inspired?

JC: Solitude and boredom. If I ever found myself stuck, that was usually a good time to take a long walk or a bike ride. There was something about separating myself from all the instruments and gear in the studio that made things move forward — I think it’s easy to get bogged down in a particular detail when what you really need to do is brush lightly over the surface of the whole thing. And I have so many patterns that I rely on when I’m actually playing the guitar that it can sometimes be a hindrance to write with it in my hands — my brain makes different choices when it’s by itself.

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Category: Music/Dance

An Interview with Natalie Marrone

Choreographer and teacher Natalie Marrone talks about dancing with her audience, finding inspiration at the coffee shop, and traveling to Puglia, Italy to research the tarantella.

Natalie Marrone

Photo credit: Stephanie Mathews

Where do you find the inspiration for your choreography?

Eighty percent of the time, the music is what feeds me information. It may not be the music I wind up using, but for me, any kind of inspiration starts with a visceral response to sound and wanting to move to that sound. And the sound isn’t always a beat, although I love rhythm and using polyrhythm. When a soundscape comes on that’s speaking to me, it’s almost like I have a socket and it plugs in and I know that I need to go from there….

One of the things that always inspires me is a person’s story as it’s written on their body — especially as it’s written on their face. I might not have a job soon if this Botox thing continues. [laughter] I look at people. I look at their physical shape and I look at the way they move. And just for an instant I can almost be inside their being. It’s always something about the story in the lines, the wrinkles — the story of their life is written there. I need to sit at the local coffee shop and just look at people and watch them walk. And feel their walk…. The other thing I really need is in-nature time. I get a lot of sensibility about movement just from the wind sometimes or from sensing the path of wet leaves underneath my feet.

Are there any other day-to-day activities that you’ve found helpful?

Cooking. I remember one time I was on a calzone kick. [laughter] I was in Ohio, missing home. So there I am just trying to do this, and as I’m kneading the dough, I’m simultaneously evaluating what it takes physically to be working a calzone and understanding the sort of physiological structure that I’ve been born with as it’s meant to do certain work, and certain dance, and certain play.

When I’m cooking a lot, I have these moments where I can feel an entire history of people just in the musculature of my body, and an identification with an entire community of people that really has been lost in many ways. So I’m not talking open the jar. I’m talking grow the tomatoes.

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Category: Music/Dance