I’m Writing A Newsletter, Because It’s Never Been Done Before 📖

Lessons from an indie rock icon on resetting your creative approach to better match your skill set.

(Hello I’m Nik/Unsplash)

Back when I was in my 20s, I wrote a lot of songs. My main inspiration was Elliott Smith, a guy whose sad-sap broad strokes probably inspired a lot of people who picked up guitars when they were in their 20s.

The songs were ultimately sad for lots of reasons, but they were the kinds of things I rarely shared with others because of how personal they often ended up being. When you’re only making minor chords, everything feels like a major statement.

Josh Tillman, who is exactly one day younger than I am, knows something about this, because when he was in his 20s and early 30s, he ended up doing this exact same thing with his solo records, released under the name J. Tillman. They were perfectly fine songs, but they were kind of these profound statements wrapped up in folk songs that honestly felt like they only lent themselves to a heavy mood. Here’s an example, from his 2009 album Vacilando Territory Blues:

Perfectly fine song, but something you might easily forget if you don’t know the guy.

But eventually, he came to the realization that just hitting people with scholarly, emotional folk music all the time was not fully taking advantage of his skill set. 

I saw him back in 2008, long before he became famous on his own, in Chicago’s Millennium Park, as the drummer for an emerging band at the time, Fleet Foxes. The band was great, but the banter—thanks largely to Tillman, who is a masterful joke-teller—was what made the show memorable.

Tillman eventually realized that audiences liked his sense of humor more than the sad songs he was performing solo, so he made a subtle shift and brought some of the cultural observation and witty banter to his writing.

“I had this realization that all I had really done with it was lick my wounds for years and years, and become more and more isolated from people and experiences,” he said as he made this realization.

And it worked. This is most perfectly highlighted by his 2012 song, “I’m Writing a Novel,” under his better-known musical persona, Father John Misty:

In many ways, the song makes fun of his prior persona. It tears it apart. It’s a creative victory because of that—and it would be the first of many.

The decision to touch on a broader palette of emotions and to point out the limitations of the earlier approach was a huge shot in the arm for his career.

Now, you can think Father John Misty is a showboat, or a smartass, or simply taking advantage of the notoriety the media offers him, but one thing you can’t say is that he’s boring. And I think the reason why he’s interesting is because he was able to add additional colors to his palette and do weirder things with them. He is now seen as a great musical thinker thanks in part to this shift. (And maybe drugs, you could argue.)

As a creative person, if you slam into people with the same two or three notes, people will get tired. Change things up every once in a while. You might find something worth sharing.

Time limit given ⏲: 30 minutes

Time left on clock ⏲: 4 minutes, 15 seconds

Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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