Rick Rubin, an excerpt from his book “The Creative Act”

Rick Rubin, an excerpt from his book “The Creative Act”
Rick Rubin, an excerpt from his book “The Creative Act”

“A distillation of the experience of decades”, writes the Guardian about “The creative act: a way of being”, the book by Rick Rubin which, tackling expectations, is not a collection of tasty anecdotes from the hall of engraving but something that looks more like Brian Eno’s “oblique strategies” (but in prose form and not ‘instruction cards’).
We have already reported it here and will write about it in the book review column; meanwhile, courtesy of the publisher Mondadori, we are publishing a short extract, three paragraphs taken from the chapter “Breaking the monotony” (the translation is by Daria Restani).

Write for someone else

To a musician used to writing for himself, I usually offer this: “Imagine an artist you love asks you to write a song for his next album. What’s that song like?”
Creating something that would excite him to hear his favorite artist sing, depersonalizes the process and can allow the author to step out of himself. An iconic song of female empowerment, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”, was written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin. King – and then, of course, Aretha Franklin – sang it. I was amazed to discover that the lyrics were by Goffin, while King had written the music.

Sometimes I ask the musician to think of an artist whose lyrics and point of view are decidedly different from his own, just to break up that feeling of monotony that can arise over time. If an artist always writes texts a little over the top, we could turn to an author who writes in a more intimate way. If you tend to have style X, it can be interesting to choose an artist who has the diametrically opposite style. It may not make a good song out of it, but it sure will be inspiring to see where this new approach takes you. Sometimes it will lead you right where you were meant to go.

Like the other exercises described, this one too can be applied to any artistic field. If you are into painting, creating a new and original work with your favorite artist can open a channel that brings interesting results. Many artists have the perception of what is in their baggage, and this ultimately risks limiting them. So, try going out of yourself and rummaging through someone else’s baggage.

Add pictures

I was working on an album and the band was having problems with the keyboard solo.

The mood wasn’t right. We were looking for a more epic effect. So instead of using a musical reference, we imagined a scene. We have proposed the description of the aftermath of a battle: «Imagine a wonderful green hill, covered with trees and flowers, a place of extraordinary beauty. A battle has just ended. The smoke lifts to reveal, scattered throughout, the bodies of wounded soldiers awaiting help to arrive.’ After vividly describing the scene, we said, “Let’s play the solo like this.”
and we hit the RECORD button. The keyboard player started playing in a wonderfully touching way.

Since that time, we have frequently resorted to this technique. Often we don’t even know what links there are between the image and what we want to hear. Thinking about a certain scene or story, or imagining that you are writing the soundtrack for a film before starting to play, often helps to give a clearer direction to a melody still uncertain about which path to take.

Limit information

When an author sends the demo track that a band will have to record in the studio, I absolutely don’t want the musicians to be aware of the musical choices made for the demo. So I usually only play it to one of them, usually the guitarist, so that he learns the chords, writes them down on the lyric sheet, and then passes it on to the others.
At that point, the guitarist and singer could perform it, with no hints of rhythm other than the speed implied by the way they play it.
When you work with great musicians, it leaves them free to put more of themselves into the performance.

Instead of recording a good version of the demo, they will use their creativity and decision-making autonomy to take the song to a new and, often, unexpected place. If, after trying different approaches, the result isn’t up to par, they can always listen to the demo, but that almost never happens.

The general principle is to maintain a protective attitude, and to avoid that the people who are working with you on the project experience things that could interfere with their creative process. Limit information to the bare minimum. If you want artists to put their hearts and souls into something, give them maximum freedom of expression. Whether you give a screenwriter a book, an outline, or just a sentence to make a screenplay out of, each of these inputs will lead to wildly different results.

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