Unsolicited advice from an artist: should you stay or should you go?

I played with a folk-rock band for a while. It was a welcomed change from working mostly solo, or in pairs or trios. Truthfully, going into it I wasn’t sure of my role. The band was both fairly established in their sound, and wanting to build a “shared” band – where everyone sang, wrote, and played. The same, but different is hard to navigate. It made it a little tricky for newcomers like me. After about a year, I had my first band break up.

Musicians are so quirky. I love them for that. The three founding members were quite the characters.

The bass/lead guitar player was raised on Ozzy Osborn, dude – and he broke into great Aerosmith, Zeppelin, and Ray Vaughn licks at surprising moments. It always made me smile inside, though they could be hard to talk over. He had been off the sauce for a number of years and his body was littered with colorful tattoos. Through him, I learned to understand them and even admired the significant moments he wore on his skin. When he wore shorts, people stared at him like he was some kind of freak, which he wasn’t in the least. I couldn’t help but think of how many judgments I had made over the years at someone who looked just like him. Likely the only difference: I didn’t know those people.

Another member of the band was a keyboard/guitar/vocalist. He was everyone’s BFF with blond thinning hair that he swept out of his face regularly. He self-identified as a Unitarian Atheist.  I never did quite figure that one out, but I found it creative and loved his political and spiritual insights. (Whether or not they were spiritual to him, I don’t know.)  He remains one of the most likable and non-defensive people on the planet. He held the band together emotionally as well as in it’s musicality.

The third founding member was the lead singer. I had been warned that she had “LSD” – Lead Singer Disease – and had an interesting and accurate voice, and this was all true. She was the alpha of the group, although it didn’t seem like it at first. Early on she wanted to talk to me about our disagreements, which I didn’t think we were having. (And I tend to be sensitive to these types of things.) After talking to her, I realized that she was easily threatened and pretty much needed to be at the musical center of every song. Since we were covering some of my material, it would have been good to know. After I left, the drummer, another drummer, and one of the founding members all left the band. Talk about drama. Sadly, she also had some leaving to do – it was her second husband. She took up with the new producer.Musicians can be such fickle souls if they really give themselves to their music.  A friend of mine recently broke up with a musician after many years because she “just fell in love with someone else.” I told her, “never trust a musician.” Of course, that isn’t true across the board, but is a stereotype and I have some ideas about why we are so clueless.

First, musicians sometimes follow around their writing as if whatever they put into words is or should become reality. Couple that with writing about love and loss and presto: broken relationship. Often this is unclear to them – and this is why all musicians need a really good therapist. They often like to think of themselves as “aware”, but when it comes to love, they are as much in need of Sigmund as the rest of us.The other issue is that we are involved in MAGIC! Many of us talk about “the muse” being the originator or completer of our songs.  It’s like the insider’s handshake in some writer’s circles to shake your head and say, “I guess the muse is not speaking right now” – or something equally woo woo. This whole conversation can be very threatening and confusing to those new to the conversation, especially engineers and fundamentalists — which unfortunately tend to be attracted to their alter-egos. Moreso, it is a way for those of us who have a little trouble completing things to pass the blame to the universe. It can be very handy. You should try it some time.

However it is spoken about, nearly all artists have some sense of  “where did THAT come from?” When music or art or words pours out like we have magically been transformed into a god-faucet for a few minutes, it is a bit intoxicating, I must admit. And it does not help us stay grounded one bit. Serious songwriters, and I suspect other artists as well, know that this is the exception, not the rule. Sure, there can be a sort of spiritual nature to the whole process, but writing well is work. Finding the right image, the right descriptor, the right person to be speaking, the perfect bridge, the sexy lick that grabs a hold of you… it’s a bit of muse and a lot of work.

I surmise that this is – at least partly – why it can be hard for some creative folks to stay married. By it’s nature, creating music opens up an intimate part of ourselves. We share these vulnerabilities with others. We feel known and understood when our art is appreciated. These types of connections and experiences can take people away from themselves and their loved ones and blur the lines of belonging and connection, commitment and bliss. In some ways it is a necessary part of the whole creative endeavor.

The key is to acknowledge it, be grateful, and move on. For some of us this takes more practice than others. Dare I say that the universe really isn’t all about us? I have a feeling it is important for creative people to practice listening to themselves and take particular care to preserve and honor those that ground us. Granted, when one is caught up in musical work, it can feel a bit mundane to go back home to do the laundry, when that wise, smooth-talking muse-seeker is waiting for us at the studio. But, I have come to believe that the commitments we make to ourselves and others are part of what give us a foundation to do the work that matters most to us. Besides, wearing clean clothes is good for your reputation, so keep on it!

The tricky thing is that it can seem like our beloved is actually the block to becoming “all we are meant to be.” (Violin movement here.) I know more than a few partnerships that have ended because the partner who carries the weight of day-to-day living was “holding the other back.” This is true in some situations, but just for the record, I would like to offer you some unsolicited advice on how to know if this new “love interest” of yours is worth sacrificing your commitments for..

  1. Do you fall in love in seasons? By seasons I mean, every spring or every 2 years or whenever there are two full moons in one month or something equivalent. If the answer is “yes”, get down on your knees and thank your lucky stars that you are a lover and that falling in love is part of what you get to write about. Keep your pants on and take a good walk outside. You will likely find yourself falling in love with a flower and a sunset or the way the tree limbs look like they are embracing the sky. This is your sign. Falling in love 3x/day means you’re a mystic so start reading some Hafiz and writing about something other than the hot babe you’re imagining. Stay with your commitments. And remember that, for a mystic, love leads you back to yourself and ultimately to your higher power.
  2. Your partner is kind, but a wee bit boring. My friend, kindness wears well over the years and it gives you room to explore your creative side. You can be the wildly creative one of the two of you, which you know is what you really want. Your ego would suffer too much with two equivalent muse -wandering souls in a relationship. Plus, it is waaay too much competition. It’s really not as easy as it looks being in a relationship with an artist – just as your partner.
  3. Is your partner the only thing in the way of making you a super star? Really? Are they blocking your creativity or keeping your feet on the ground? Are they helping support your music habit? It doesn’t matter if you expect this to change after the next season of American Idol.  If the answer is, even begrudgingly, yes, get on your knees (again) and practice gratitude. And don’t forget to thank them. They probably haven’t kicked you out the door because they really love you. Now, splurge and invest in a promoter if you really want to do your music. You won’t be sorry.
  4. Do you feel like your partner never “got” you, but your barista really does? No matter that he is 20 years younger than you and lives in his van. He gets you, baby. Do I need to say more? No. No. No.

Creative souls can sabotage perfectly OK relationships. Don’t let you be one of them. Really.

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2 Responses to Unsolicited advice from an artist: should you stay or should you go?

  1. Jette Shears says:

    so, do I forward this to my musician husband? … not to worry, I don’t think either of us is getting antsy to throw the other one out and I, for one, have not met a hot barrista yet. After 24 years of marriage I do the laundry and Ken does the music. I sit back in awe and secretly wish music had been one of the foreign languages I studied in school over in Denmark. Maybe it’s not too late to pick it up. Would Ken pick up the language of laundry too then?

  2. Elizabeth says:

    You are so smart. I feel so lucky to be your friend. Seriously.

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