On Knowing Who You Are
Every time I’m approached to work on a new project with a new client, there’s a new challenge (obviously), but it might not be what you’re thinking. It’s important to me that everything I do moves the project closer to where the artist wants to be (not where I want them to be, not the label, not their support team.. the artist). But how do I know who this person is, from a creative standpoint, if we’ve just met? What do I do if the artist doesn’t even know the answer to that him/herself?
I assign homework.
No joke, we have actually developed a series of tasks at my studio that we require artists to complete before we take on their project. And I can tell you without hesitation that it has been integral to the success of every project in which it’s been utilized. Here are the 3 exercises we have artists complete and what we learn from each.
- List 10 songs you wish you had written. Sounds easy, right? It’s not. If you’re a music lover of any measure, you have more “favorite songs” than you know what to do with. Try narrowing that list down to TEN. I’ve tried it myself, and I never stop kicking myself for the songs I missed. But this is an important first step in the process of figuring out who an artist is. What we learn are the specific components of a song speak to the artist. What is the common thread between, say, Sara Bareilles’s “Love Song,” Pat Benatar’s “Heartbreaker” and Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain”? That’s my job to figure out. When I do, I discover a small part about where an artist’s musical “soul” resides.
- You are opening a 4-band concert. You get to pick the other 3 bands. Pick any 3 bands or artists, living, dead or defunct. But the line-up has to MAKE SENSE. Yes, the urge to add The Beatles to any line-up JUST to get to see them one list time is strong, but again, the show has to make sense. For example, here is one of my many failed line-ups: Me / The Sundays / King Diamond / Harry Connick Jr. A more successful go at this might be: Me / Aimee Mann / The Grays / Ben Folds Five. Again, it’s almost impossibly difficult to narrow down, but here’s what we learn: This shows us a more focused direction for songwriting and production style as it pertains to GENRE. It gives us the “dart board” at which to throw, so to speak. (I know, I know. Your music defies genres. Congratulations, you’ve just made it that much harder to succeed. #almostkidding)
- List 3 albums that you think SOUND GREAT. This is clearly the easiest of the bunch, but truth be told, some younger artists might not know what to listen for to KNOW what sounds great. But I’ll tell you what they do know. They know what they like. And while we can lament the accelerating demise of the quality of popular music, as long as people like Justin Niebank and Michael Brauer are still making records, there’s still hope. What we learn, of course, is what THEY think sounds good. This is, ultimately, more important than what you think.
If you’re an artist, know this. What we find is that these exercises tell you just as much about yourself as it tells us about you and your music. And the more all of us understand who you are, the better the end product is going to be. If you want to get a jump on things, go ahead and try this for yourself. If you’re so inclined, share it with us! In the meantime, thank you for your friendship, your interest, and your art.
Owen Sartori is a 35-year veteran in the music industry as a musician, songwriter, and producer. Currently, he is a co-owner of F5 SoundHouse in Minneapolis, MN and helps mentor, produce and write with/for artists wherever he is needed.
For more, visit f5soundhouse.com.