Are We There Yet?

NOTE: This blog was originally posted at BretAlexanderMusic.com

The Real GigI have spent this whole week mixing. It’s the last step in making a record. At least it’s the last step that the band is directly involved in. It can be a pretty draining process. There are lots of opinions to wade through. Lots of doubts and second guessing that goes on. So this week I will talk about “taste”, how to know when something is done, and how to not go too far. It’s tougher than it sounds.

The writer Saul Bellow is quoted as saying, “Works of art are never finished, they are abandoned.” This is true. So the real question is when do you walk out the door? And if you are in a group, how do you get everyone going in the same direction so you can finish? The truth is, it’s nasty business. I’d say money and artistic direction are the two most notorious band killers out there. I have always said that there is no better way to break up a band than to have them make a record. The recording process will pull your band’s shortcomings into sharp focus incredibly quickly.

If you don’t deal with them you will be disappointed at best. It will keep coming back to haunt you as the years progress. Do deal with them and you may kill each other. Or, at least someone might quit, get fired, or plot revenge against you. It takes a lot of balls to keep caring. Maturity too.

Now let’s talk about taste. Everyone has their own taste in music, art, movies, clothes, food, etc. And one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Many, many people love Nickelback. Many, many people love Brad Paisley. Countless others hate them both with a burning passion of a thousand suns. Such is the tyranny of taste.

I used to watch those extreme home makeover shows every once in a while. One episode the designer was painting a room with a color he called “mustard”. He was raving about it with every brush stroke. The homeowner walked in for the reveal and started crying because he had painted her walls the color of “baby poop”. There is no accounting for taste. And everyone thinks they are right.

Sometimes the artist doesn’t even know if he likes his own work. When Bruce Springsteen heard the test pressing of “Born To Run”, he smashed the record into tiny pieces. Couldn’t stand to listen to it. He thought it was the worst piece of shit he had ever heard. It’s a classic now, of course.

So, how do you wade through all of that? If you are a music creator, how do you know when it’s done? Or when it’s good? I use one simple rule. This works in other areas of your life as well. The rule is: “If I have to talk myself into liking it, it’s not finished.” If I have to talk myself into liking where I am, I’m on the wrong road……. Or, at least I’m not at my destination.

Carlos Casteneda calls this “The Path With a Heart”. The path that is extremely difficult and hard to master, but a labor of love. The “easy way” is smooth traveling with no worries, but it will drain you energies with time. Physically, spiritually, and emotionally. The path with a heart is a bastard. It will keep you up at night. It will tell you to keep working when you are absolutely certain you are done. Some days you go to bed hating it. But it will keep your energy at a high level at all times. You are on the right road….even if you don’t like where it turns on a given day.

And when you get to where you are going it will give you a rest. Until the next path appears.

If all this wasn’t hard enough, there is another point to consider. You’ve worked through everyone’s taste and you are on the right road. But for me the biggest problem with music making isn’t the fear of making mistakes or the fear of giving up. It’s the fear of going too far. It’s hard to know when to stop. You can ruin things this way.

A relative of mine was a construction worker who built high rises. I once asked him if he ever was afraid he might slip and fall. He said no, but he WAS afraid he might jump. Just be working away, lose his perspective and….. jump.

In the Nathaniel Hawthorne story “The Birthmark” a scientist has a woman who is perfect in every way except for one thing, a birthmark. He becomes obsessed with removing it. He concocts a potion to make it fade away. It works, but it kills her in the process. Such can also be the way with songs.

So that gives you a little roadmap to the artistic mind. What creative people think about while they try and finish the song on your car stereo or the movie on your flat screen or the painting on your wall. There are many other concerns. Business realities, personal issues, family problems all play a role. It’s a wonder anything ever gets finished. But it does.

It’s like the battle cry of every kid on his way to vacation. “Are we there yet?” “No honey, but soon. We are making good time.”

When we listen to music we make snap judgments whether we like it or not. Whether it’s brilliant or baby poop. But hopefully this little entry gave you a bit of insight into just how special the people who get it right time and time again really are.

Ok, gotta run. Back to my speakers. Time to listen

Bret Alexander is the owner of Saturation Acres Recording Studio as well as the guitarist and chief songwriter for The Badlees. His “Real Gig” blog runs each Friday.

The Real Gig: A Musician’s Guide to the Universe by Bret Alexander. June 14, 2013.