I’ve been making music professionally for 20 years now, over half my life. The creative process is the aspect of life I have studied most closely, and most consistently, over the years. I have found it to be a path that is challenging, rewarding, highly conducive to inner growth, and fraught with contradictions. The ability to sit in the tension of these contradictions is ultimately often the greatest test.
There is no surefire path to creative success, no guarantees. That being said, by opening our minds and hearts and being willing to stretch our own psyches beyond their habitual ways of thinking, we create the environment conducive to the natural occurrence of creative thinking. I hope some of this is useful to you.
1. Surrender, surrender but don’t give yourself away
Yes, those are Cheap Trick lyrics, and yes I find them immensely profound and spiritual. I saw my old friend Harmony Korine’s new movie Spring Breakers recently and was so impressed to see that he has evolved as an artist and storyteller, moved with the times and embraced the vernacular of the current age. But he has also held true to his primary interests and themes that he was passionate about as a 20-year-old burgeoning filmmaker. This is a slippery balance to maintain but one that ensures a career arc that is interesting from beginning to end.
2. Err on the side of ugliness
When faced with a decision, choose the uncomfortable one. For me, this has often meant vulnerability. I try not to repeat myself, and I try to push myself into new areas to explore with each new project. There is a gorgeous and subtle power that a little fear brings into the creative process. Be open to being wrong. Be open to being embarrassed. If you have to choose, make the choice with more to lose.
3. Think big
Art is one of the most profound mirrors of the human psyche, both individually and collectively, and when you make work, try to tap into the most fundamental struggles and glories of what it means to be a human. Make work for little kids; make work for old people.
Don’t exclude anyone. Make work that the masses will relate to and understand in the most pure sense—because we are all human.
4. Think tiny
Make work for yourself. Make work for your friends, family and community. Keep everything intimate. Understand that greatness is impossible to predict, but if it occurs, it grows out of the deeply personal. Embrace your idiosyncrasies and personal quirks. Never put what “they” tell you above your own taste.
5. Substance over style
If punk rock taught me anything, it’s that you don’t have to know anything to make art. You could bang pots and pans into a boombox (much like I did at 14) and find that it affects people. It’s all about energy. Music has consciousness and a vibration, and that is what connects to the listener’s heart. Of course, skills are great, and knowing how to play an instrument or engineer your own work are fantastic things to have in your bag of tricks, but don’t ever make them the primary focus of your work. Let your intention and emotion be the driving force of the work. The rest is just the details.
Ben Lee’s new album Ayahuasca: Welcome To The Work is out now.