How can an artist be original?
July 31, 2009
keith andrew in Finding Your Voice

Simple answer? You can’t. So don’t bother trying. Ok I’m being harsh… But you can aim for other things that are more important than ‘originality’. And in doing so, maybe hit on something that could be considered ‘original’.

In a recent interview, rock legend Roger Daltrey had a few things to say that shed some light on the issue as it relates to artists and performers today.

The interviewer first comments on the fact that much (if not most) of what musicians (bands in particular) attempt today are largely based on the foundations laid by iconic bands such as the Who. He then asks Daltrey if he thinks music has stagnated. His reply was surprisingly humble and candid-

“Well, I don’t really like to comment on things like that. I think in our day, it was easy to be original because nothing had been done. There was us, a few others and the Beatles. It was still a big empty canvas, but now so much of the canvas has been filled. That isn’t to say that some other bugger won’t come along and paint a completely different picture.”

So in essence he was saying that largely because of scarcity, it was much easier to be ‘original’ and consequently be considered innovative. I don’t think he was totally dismissing the talent involved (lord knows, there was a lot of talent in the British invasion) but he was simply saying it was easier to stand out because there wasn’t a sea of artists you were competing with. Unlike now where jut about EVERYBODY is in a band or was in band or plays something or knows somebody who was in a band and so on.

And having a clue on the nature of creativity he doesn’t pessimistically discount the possibility someone might come along and change everything either. But he acknowledges the obvious- it was easier to be ‘original’ back in the dawn of pop rock -much easier than today where one can arguably say just about everything has been done.

So I started thinking -can an artist (in the broadest sense i.e. musician, player, writer) be original in our age of overabundance?

Answer?

Maybe.

What I do think is, in our age of information overload there is not much point in making ‘originality’ the primary goal.

So what does an artist aim for if it is nearly impossible to be original -I mean really- what has not already been done? There once was a time in pop culture where you could sit there and think of something that hadn’t been done as was the case with the Who-hey let’s smash instruments and write a rock opera! Or Alice Cooper -let’s mix the macabre with theatrics. Or Santana- let’s bring Latin flavor in to rock. Now it appears to be impossible to be original if you set out to be original. So what does an artist aim for?

It’s what I like to call resonance.

As much as technology develops and changes the world in which we live, and in many ways changes how we think, feel and interact, there are some things at the core of the human soul or psyche that will never change. And it is those deep immutable elements that will always be reached -and resonate- through art. They will resonate something of a higher truth, hope, and existence. There is something in us that always longs for and reaches for something greater than ourselves and it is art that resonates and stimulates that ‘something’.

So artists/performers/players/writers must ask - does your idea/riff/song/whatever- first move something in you? Does it strike a chord of emotion? If it does -if you are being honest and authentic- there is a strong chance that it will resonate something in another as well. Because what an artist often does is give voice to that which everyone else feels and experiences but does not know how to express. Artists provide reflections. Artists provide narration. The artists that are performers or players give voice through their instruments and ‘say’ what others feel. That’s what resonates.

So although it may be increasingly difficult to ‘be original’ as Daltrey said, a musical artist can always be authentic and resonate with the listener.

How is it then does resonance take place? How can an artist have anything to say when everything has already been said?

1. Authenticity

An artist has to be real for anyone to care. People smell a phony a mile away. Now more than ever since ‘everything has been done’ . And since it is so easy to access virtually anything at anytime anywhere, people are not easily smitten with, “Wow, I’ve never seen/heard anything like it!” Truth is -they probably have. On youtube. This morning. But if there is something real, something true in whatever an artist is doing, people will sense it. And be attracted to it. And want more of it.

2. Honesty

But to be authentic and resonate you really have to be honest. Why are you doing this? Why are you writing this song? Why are you playing that beat? Does it feel good? Does it move you? Is there a burden there -a passion? If yes -lay into man -with conviction! If no- be honest. And start over.

3. Quality

Look, one good thing about originality being hard to come by is there is much less room for crap to get the spotlight just because no one has seen it before. Now you really have to be good. Or honest. Or both. Quality doesn’t necessarily mean pristine; it can be lo-fi but it has to be good low-fi. There has to be something authentic that is translating through that less than stellar recording or performance or whatever. Also, the novelty of ‘shock value’ has long since worn off. Thank God. It may have once been ‘original’ and therefore culturally,musically/artistically relevant to get onstage and puke, curse, and throw fits, but not anymore. It’s just stupid.

4. Craft

All you need is a red guitar, three chords and the truth. But, you have to put in the time effort and work to develop your craft. As your craft develops you have more vocabulary to speak the ‘truth’. Drummers- learn them rudiments. Songwriters- study the great tunes and what makes them great. But always come back to the fact that it is something deeper that you need to communicate.

Originality is difficult but not immposible. It is just now -more than ever- a by-product of authenticity. And if through that authenticity something resonates with the listener that is what matters. That is what makes a difference. One could argue in circles about what is truly original anyway –but what is certain is it is pointless to seek after it. It may come –but it must be an organic arrival.

Keith Andrew is a writer, drummer and musician. He is the creator of the blog BehindTheKit.com and currently plays in a ‘post-rock’ band called The Tall Ships who are painfully close to releasing their new record.

Article originally appeared on Music Think Tank (http://www.musicthinktank.com/).
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