The Artist’s Lamentable Way

Body and Soul video image

If you want to listen to music (me singing Billie Holiday’s Body and Soul) while you read, click the image or here; the Youtube will open in a new page. Then come back here to carry on reading.

Ever come across the idea that it’s noble to be a poor and miserable artist living in a garret, unappreciated by the world, and that artists who don’t have that experience aren’t being true to themselves? It’s seductive, like the idea that poverty is romantic and worthy of being elevated in grand masters’ paintings and that the artist or the poor wretch also finds their misery romantic.

Right. It’s romantic until you try it or find yourself there. You don’t like it and nobody likes you. There’s a great blues song Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”. It’s been sung by Bessie Smith, Adele, Eric Clapton, Janis Joplin – each one a fantastic rendition – and a host of others, for good reason; it’s gorgeous and the words are pretty damn true.

It’s also true that many artists have experienced poverty and rejection of one sort or another and their creative response has been mighty powerful. But the notion that you have to be miserable to be a true artist is formulaic, so it can’t apply to all the artists all the time. As an African American musician Ella Fitzgerald didn’t have it easy, but she also didn’t go through the pain that Billie Holiday or Etta James did, but all three of them are brilliant. Michaelangelo never experienced Van Gogh’s depths of misery and rejection but they’re both superb artists. Ella had a different temperament to Billie and Bessie. Michaelangelo knew how to market himself whereas Van Gogh, poor soul, had no social skills at all.

Some people get less creative when they’re down and out, others get more. There just isn’t a formula for it. Like there isn’t a formula for the perfect painting, the perfect song, the perfect screenplay.

There’s a monumental industry built by self-proclaimed authorities on the subject of artistic perfection. And they all need you to believe that you can’t judge the quality or otherwise of your own work and that if you don’t do what they say (because they know how to do it) you’ll be a failure. The screenwriting industry is a great one for that.

But here’s my difficulty with it. With painting you can see if the artist hasn’t accurately represented what they’re painting. It’s called anything from Expressionism to Cubism to Abstract. I’ve seen paintings that are picture perfect and I can see that the craft is good but the art doesn’t move me, whereas a painting that’s kind of childlike and loose will touch my heart.

With music you can hear if there’s a wrong note but I’ve been at classical concerts where the solo violinist played quite a few wrong notes but oh my God their passion was supreme and I and the whole audience gave them a thunderous standing ovation. What about quality of sound or depth of interpretation? Don’t even go there. No wait a minute, let’s go there. I think Adele sings like a dream and a lot of people in the world think so too. But what about Rod Stewart? You can’t compare his gravelly voice to Adele’s but he’s divine. IMO. My Dad didn’t agree with me. But then he loved Bing Crosby. As it happens I like him too.

As for books, plays, screenplays, there’s no penultimately perfect one: there’s no single Writer God whispering into anybody’s ear. There are a gazillion Gods all jostling with each other “I’m right!” “No you’re not, I am!” I just partly read a John Grisham novel and I found the dialogue is unbearably stiff, unnatural and often just irrelevant; it doesn’t move the story along at all, so the pace positively crawls. But many will say he’s brilliant. I saw a one-man play by Tennessee Williams starring Al Pacino. The man was a few yards away from me for heaven’s sake. I yawned all the way through. I tell you, I missed my opportunity there; the audience was invited to give feedback on the acting. I had some that I thought could be really helpful; Pacino acted at the same level of intensity; if he’d broken it up he’d have been brilliant. I didn’t send my letter in. What the hell was I thinking? Forehead slap!

So here’s the thing. Quality of art and success are two totally different animals and IMO it’s best not to confuse them. Success in the world is sometimes on account of artistic integrity and the artist refusing to change to suit the world. At first they might get rejected but often the power of their work eventually speaks to the masses; not always in their lifetime, alas. Sometimes success comes to those who study a sector of ‘the market’- you know, those mindless beings who can’t think for themselves and just want to be force fed – and then give it what it thinks it wants.

If you can figure that one out, kudos to you and bingo! Dollars in the bank. Inner satisfaction? I don’t know, who am I to judge? I like dollars a lot and they give a gal a creative boost for about ten seconds then the motivation factor pales. Same thing with external ‘discipline’. The only thing that turns me on consistently and sustainably is love of what I’m doing.

To get back to success, sometimes it’s about being persistent. Sometimes it seems to just come upon you. Sometimes it’s because you know a lot of people. Sometimes somebody sees you in a bank and likes the look of your face. The next thing you know you’re starring alongside all the A-listers. Talking about Charlize Theron here. Sometimes, a la Diablo Cody, it comes to you when you’re a dancer in a nightclub and a director reads your blog and says I want you to write a script. You say nah, I’m not into that stuff. And, contrary to what everybody says (you only have one chance so don’t blow it) you don’t lose your chance, because when you change your mind and think you might as well try, you produce an Oscar winner. And you’ve never done it before, never studied screenwriting.

Formulas? Nightmare city for me. The best I can do is listen to my own standards and do my best to get better all the time, because that’s when I have more satisfaction and when I’m enjoying myself it’s infectious. And there seems to be something in putting forward a confident air. So that’s about as formulaic as I can get. I listen to Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Adele, Eric Clapton, Janis Joplin, Janis Ian, Peggy Lee and others and I learn from them something about how they use their voices and I fiddle around with acoustic and electric guitars and piano; think about fiddling around with a real fiddle again. For screenwriting I watch movies and read screenplays and decide what works for me and what doesn’t. For novels I like American crime writers like John Sandford so that’s kind of my style too. My art has been on hold for a while but my sketching and painting is kind of sort of Impressionist I guess.

Whether or not anybody else will agree with a person’s standards or like their artistic output is in the hands of the Gods, I reckon. I’m not above praying to them, mind you. Now and then. And when they don’t respond, I’m a great fan of the Tantrum.

One thing I do know; I don’t want to get to the end of my life and look back and see that I never even tried to do it my way. What a damn waste that would be.

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Singing my Way to Victory

For the past couple of days my flipping voice has clammed up again.  Damn, blast, and bloody hell.  This happened before, as soon as I took my singing seriously again my throat closed up, and inner implosion happened.

Whoo, I got so angry this time, it’s as if an inner torture takes over.  Decided this morning I’m not giving up again, no matter what.  Will get through this.  Will sing anyway, even if it sounds hideous and I want to cry and have tantrums.  I’ll sing hideously and cry and have tantrums, but I won’t give up.  It can’t go on forever.  And I have to do it first thing in the morning.  If I leave it too late, my body’s all tense, I’ve sat too long at the computer, life looks dirgy and I haven’t a reason in the world to sing.

So.  Up with the lark this morning.  Well, the late lark.  I put Stephane Grapelli on and jived around for a while – that made me want to sing!  Then did tummy exercises to same, had hot shower, good coffee and brought out the broom and stuck on the vocal exercises to sing along with.

Horrible at first.  Voice all taut, just wouldn’t come out, throat a boa constrictor.  Vocal chords all covered in cotton wool.  But I carried on, didn’t I, and pretty soon – whoopee – voice opened up.

The song of the day was “Anyone who had a heart”.  It’s a great pour your heart out song.  Then Midnight Sun sung by Ella of course.  Love that one.  Soulful love song.  I’m into love this morning, I guess.  Hey Jack, where the hell are you anyway?

I’ve started writing my book.  Having fun dreaming of being a jazz singer and script and novel writer woman of substance.  Fame and fortune just waiting for me round the corner.  And Demi Moore’s plastic surgeon.

Now there’s stepping out of history for you.

p.s. I’m sick of gloom and doom, sick of being unhappy, and very very very sick of my past.

Imagine My Frustration

There’s nothing like starting the day with vocal exercises while you sweep and mop the floor, then when your voice is warm, singing along with one of the greats, holding nothing back.  Today’s choice was Ella Fitzgerald, and I picked 3 songs, sang them over and over and over.  A Tisket A Tasket, Lullaby of Birdland, and Imagine my Frustration.

The first two are relatively easy, but the last one is a real challenge.  You should listen to it if you can.  It’s hilarious: Ella almost shrieks it – as you would if you were incredibly frustrated and pissed off – but of course her “shrieking” is out of this world.

Went down to the dance / Sat down by the wall / Invited to dance By no-one at all… / The company…was charming and gay / But nobody once looked over my way / And then in my ear / A voice said to me / Wallflower my dear, how come you can’t see / They couldn’t care less about your dress / As you might guess you’re in excess

Imagine my frustration with no invitation to dance…”

She doesn’t sing it like a wallflower, that’s for sure.  I love it, it’s a great song for letting rip, and one day I’m going to sing it on stage behind a mic, and a band backing me, having a ball.   Right now I sound like a terrorized cat!   It’s fine, I just have to get my voice around it.   Slowly does it.   Practise does it, actually.

Something’s changed.  Before, when I couldn’t get my voice around something, I’d get so crucifyingly critical of myself that I’d kind of collapse inside, and I’d lose my singing power, as if somebody pulled the plug out the wall.   It was the most horrible sensation.   It’s not happening now.   Even though my ear is more finely tuned, so I’m more aware of how caterwauling those high notes sound.   Whooeee!

Another song I’m having fun with, although I’ve never heard anybody sing it so I’m just doing it my way, is an old blues song, Moanin.   Much easier to sing, and so full of soul.  I imagine it comes from the days of slavery in America’s Deep South.

I’ve been thinking about musical success – excluding classical music – a lot lately.   I don’t think talent is what creates success.  It doesn’t ensure it, that’s definitely so.  I taught singing to adults who were trying to find their voice for a while, and I had the most remarkable pupil.  His vocal ability was a cross between Mariah Carey and Stevie Wonder.  Out of this world.  He came with a three octave range and was working on expanding it.

But he had no confidence in himself, and no belief that if he went for it he’d succeed.   He composed also – songs poured out of him.  His confidence and vocal control improved massively, but I didn’t have the tools to take him any further.   I told him that but he felt safe with me, so maybe that’s what he needed most of all.   Then he left to get a job in the US in the hotel industry.

It broke my heart to see that nobody could turn things around for him unless he made the choice.    It’ll never be too late for him, and I hope he finds what he needs to help him dismantle his belief that he can’t be successful, someone who can take him to the next level.

Right.   Time to do some work.  Piano’s taking a bit of a back seat at the moment.  I’m on the 4th draft of my script, though.  There are not enough hours left in my life, I’m sure of it.   Blast.

Never mind.  Life I love you anyway.