The most important lesson I’ve learned in my life so far is to be open to new things. Too often we close doors ourselves, narrowing our own choices, convincing ourselves that we are “not into” something or that we’re “not that type of person / artist / musician.” But this limits our experiences, and keeps us from learning and investigating–in my opinion, one of the main objectives of life.
But what’s odd about this is that, though I first learned this lesson long ago, I continue to learn it all the time. I find new ways in which I’ve limited myself, and these often have been in front of me all along. For example, as a guitar player, I’ve long thought of myself as a “songwriter guitarist” and have always limited myself in terms of being a true “guitar player”–whether this means someone who solos, or can play other people’s songs, etc. This has been relatively easy for me to do for years, as I was not concentrating on guitar playing. I was more often playing bass in collaborative, real-time settings, and only playing guitar around the house, most often as a way of composing.
But then, a few things happened. One is that Mystics Anonymous began performing live occasionally, and so I dusted off my guitars and began playing songs on guitar again, often re-learning things I wrote years ago or things I only played guitar on a few times as I recorded them. Some of them I even wondered if I could play guitar and sing at the same time–something I rarely did while recording.
The second thing that happened is I found myself more often playing with friends in an improvisational way. Sometimes I would play bass, or keyboards, or drums, or other things, but when I played guitar in this type of setting, I found myself really stretching out and playing in ways I rarely or never played before. It was fun. And liberating. And I learned a lot about the instrument as I did this. And it reawakened my interest in just “playing” guitar–not just using it as a composing tool, but just being in the moment and reveling in the instrument itself and what it can do.
The third thing is that, in the past 18 months or so, I began learning other people’s songs again. Something that, other than in my teens, I really didn’t do that often. Historically, I found learning other people’s songs to be largely boring (I’m not talking about other bands I’m in, I love that type of learning other people’s songs–I’m talking about listening to albums from major artists and figuring out how to play their songs). This came about through playing live, and often playing tribute nights. Suddenly, I was learning and understanding (or re-learning) how songs were constructed by Lou Reed, Brian Eno, David Lowery (Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker), XTC, Harry Nilsson, Robyn Hitchcock, Michael Nesmith, and The Band. This opened me up, not only as a player, but as a songwriter myself.
I’ve spoken with other artists and musicians about this, many of them far more accomplished than myself, and it seems a pretty common experience. There’s always more to learn. There’s always another way to be more open. And it teaches us so much.
So what have I done? I’ve begun playing guitar again more and more, actually buying some new pedals and getting interested in the instrument again. I’m still not a great guitar player, but I’m having a blast and learning and growing. I have a feeling it will show on my next album. Until then, excuse me while I go and crank up my amp…