This past weekend in San Francisco, I went to see my favorite band, Shearwater, perform live at Bottom Of The Hill. I was worried I’d be disappointed; that somehow their live performance wouldn’t live up to the music I’d grown to love on their albums. I’ve been disappointed by bands I’d been in love with in the past, and it’s a tragic experience. Somehow, knowing that the band just can’t pull it off live tarnishes my experience of their music thereafter.
Not so with Shearwater. Not only did their music surpass my every expectation, but I caught myself thinking about the process of creation as they were playing. I found myself reflecting on what it is about music – about art in general, really – that resonates with us as emotional creatures. That night I had the pleasure of meeting lead singer and songwriter Jonathan Meiburg, and he listened kindly as I babbled incoherently about how much I love his music. Then I went home and reflected some more on what he’d said and how they’d played, and here are some simple thoughts I came up with after seeing their performance.
1) Art is about authenticity.
I’m not just talking about playing from the heart. They weren’t perfect; their music didn’t sound exactly like it did on the recording; they joked casually with the audience and I think Meiburg made a comment at one point about his other passion, ornithology. They laughed at each other. They were themselves. They performed not as performers but as themselves. They were honest, as is their music. Artists, real artists, can never be posers. False emotions are incommunicable – they get stuck somewhere inside of us, they break down like poorly-made cars. Somehow, the truth always comes out, and authenticity is what resonates.
2) Art is about emotion.
Shearwater’s music encompasses a variety of forms, from haunting piano melodies to rolling drums to tense, energetic anthems. They take you from the peaks of mountains to the river valleys below to spare, rocky deserts. They show you the range of human emotion, from triumph to love to sadness to anger. Art, like Shearwater’s music, should show you the full range of human emotion, in all its complexity and depth.
3) To be authentic and to be emotional, you have to channel your art through yourself, physically and mentally.
You cannot be impartial to it to your art. You cannot watch passively as it is created. I’ve seen bands play who looked like they were bored stiff while playing. I’ve seen musicians whose expressions never changed while playing a song. Similarly, I’ve met writers who couldn’t read a passage from their own books out loud to save their lives. I’ve read books that the writer seemed to have had nothing invested in. When Shearwater played, you could see the music written on their bodies, scrawled across their faces. When my friend Drew Chial read a favorite poem of his out loud, you could hear the tension, the intensity, in his voice. When another friend Rachael Spellman writes, you can see the things she sees as she describes them; you can feel the pain she’s feeling as she tells her stories. Art must be a process of channeling yourself into your work.
4) To be an artist, you must make art your life.
Shearwater’s been making music for over ten years. They’ve been playing and touring together for almost that long (maybe longer?). They’re experienced, dedicated, and passionate. They have made their art their lives, and it shows. I don’t want to say that you have to give up your job in order to be considered an artist, or that you have to abandon your family, or anything crazy like that. But in order to make good art, you have to make it a part of your life, and you have to dedicate yourself to constantly improving and working to be a better artist.
5) Finally, and this isn’t a prerequisite (we all know there are lots of asshole artists out there) but, at its roots, art is about love.
And because of that, you should love what you do, and you should love the people who love your work. This is about humility. Jonathan Meiburg was exceptionally humble and kind (as previously mentioned, he bobbed his head enthusiastically as I mumbled incoherently about how great his music is), and that taught me as much about art as anything he did on stage. Art is about love. It’s about communicating love, in some form or another. It’s loving what you do. It’s being passionate about your work. It’s loving those who understand the scribbles you’re putting onto a canvas, the words you put on paper, or the melodies you create from wood and metal and your own body. Art is about trying to make sense of the world and loving and appreciating those who follow you in your pursuits. Art is about love. Art is love.
Thank you all for reading, and I hope that, if you haven’t already, you have the pleasure of experiencing such a thing as I did last Saturday.