My little boy wants to marry Regina Spektor. He’s five. I had to make a poster of Regina to hang on his wall so he could gaze at her as he falls asleep. It’s adorable, and I cannot tell you how pleased I am it’s not Taylor Swift he’s in love with. So the upcoming release of Regina’s new album, What We Saw From The Cheap Seats, has been big news at our house. I checked out a pre-release stream of the new record, where she yelps, breathes quite frighteningly, does a few silly accents, and sings a drunken trumpet fanfare. On previous records, she barked like a seal, sang in at least three languages, and used lip-smacking sounds as percussion. So she’s not afraid to experiment.
And then I found out from this NPR interview that she doesn’t write songs down, content to remember what she remembers, letting the rest flutter back out into the ether. In 2005, she wrote the song “Fidelity” at 3:30 in the morning, then played it a few hours later in her first ever NPR interview, not sure when she started playing it if she would remember it all.
These things are stunning to me because of their utter fearlessness.
I share a feeling common among many songwriters — that each song I write will be my last. Or, at least my last good one. The thought, then, of letting a good song flutter away is terrifying. Hell, if I bang out a drumbeat I really like on the steering wheel, I grab for a digital recorder.
This all got me thinking about art in general, and how important fearlessness is to it. And more specifically, being unafraid to experiment and fail. When I started playing music, I was introduced to the idea of “the woodshed.” You go out to the woodshed, metaphorically, to practice. No one can hear you, it doesn’t matter if you screw up, and you do the work. As a writer, I love the similar concept of “the drawer.” The drawer is where you put the stuff you write that sucks. It’s ok you wrote it, it’s ok it sucks, and it’s ok to put it in the drawer so nobody can ever see it. I’ve got a bunch of stuff in the drawer.
There’s a big push right now to “Make Good Art.” The only way I know how to make good art is to make a lot of art. The more you make and the more things you try, the better you get and the less precious each subsequent thing becomes. The less precious something is, the easier it is to stick it in the drawer if that’s where it belongs or beat it and bang on it and change it until it qualifies as “good.” It doesn’t matter if it’s good, though, really. It matters that you do it. You think it might be a good idea to bark like a seal on your accessible, mainstream record? Try it. Maybe it’ll sell 50,000 copies in its first week. Or maybe it will hardly sell at all.
Orson Welles made a lot of radio in the 1930s. A lot. And today, we remember one hour of it. But it was a great hour. There are lots of fears that stand in our way as people who want to make things that don’t strictly need to exist. Hell with it. Orson Welles also said this, in his outstanding documentary F for Fake:
Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.
Go on singing.
(And Regina, next time you’re in LA, drop me a line. I was told to let you know you have a standing invitation to come to a picnic in our backyard.)