Tom Waits On … Finishing Songs

Making a record, you don’t really finish, you just stop. You just keep painting it and doing things to it and eventually, you have to stop.

Tom Waits on Tom Waits: Interviews and Encounters (p.224)

You don’t always know when a song is finished and I’m not sure if a song is ever finished to be honest with you. You know they’re constantly evolving. It’s like jump-rope songs you know. When are they done? They are never done. You know people are always changing them, changing the tempo, adding new verses, getting rid of old verses. So I mean, when you are ready to record there is a certain finality to that. . . a lot of people say, “You really captured something on that.” There’s something alive in a song and the trick to recording them is to capture something and have it be taken alive. So there’s always a trick in the studio.

Interviews And Encounters (p.337)

Somebody told me if you’re stuck in a song and you can’t move, take out the best lines. Get rid of them. Now finish it. That’s good advice.

Interviews And Encounters (p.439)

More Tom Waits wisdom here

(you can find a lot of the interviews online at www.tomwaitsfan.com).

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Tom Waits On … Protest Songs

I hate to sound cynical, but it seems to me that protest songs are like throwing peanuts at a gorilla. It’s hard to believe that a song like that is gonna make any difference in the course we’re on. I don’t want to contribute to the rhetoric, or even assume I have the ability to speak about these things on an intelligent level. I know my own limitations

I read an article in the New York Times…it haunted me, and that’s why I write many of my songs, because something’s haunting me and I need to get it outta my head. What else could I do? Nobody in Washington is calling me up to discuss our foreign policy.

Tom Waits on Tom Waits: Interviews and Encounters (p.384, 414)

More Tom Waits wisdom here

(you can find a lot of the interviews online at www.tomwaitsfan.com).

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Tom Waits On … Ghosts

When I listen to old field recordings, maybe you’ll hear a dog barking way off in the background. You realize the house it was recorded in is torn down, the dog is dead, the tape recorder is broken, the guy who made the recording died in Texas, the car out front has four flat tires, even the dirt that the house sat on is gone—probably a parking lot—but we still have this song. Takes me out when I listen to those old recordings.

Recording for me is like photographing ghosts.

Tom Waits on Tom Waits: Interviews and Encounters (p.359-60, 354)

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(you can find a lot of the interviews online at www.tomwaitsfan.com).

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Do You Have To Suffer To Produce Great Art?

Beethoven was my homeboy growing up. Every artist has a ‘narrative’ and Ludwig’s was suffering made him a great artist. The 5th Symphony was him shaking his fist at the lightning cursing fate. The world seemed to say, “You think he wrote that in his Malibu beach home while his lingerie model wife and 2.4 perfect kids lazed around the pool and the servants polished his Ferrari? No, he wrote it in a disgusting hovel with a piece of wood clamped between his jaws as he struggled to squeeze the last drops of hearing from the vibrations entering his skull. THAT, my boy, is how you create great art”.

This always bothered me. Not because I thought the statement wasn’t true . It bothered me because I wanted to created Great Art. And I didn’t want to suffer.

And as I grew older this worldview gained weight.

Shostakovitch labouring under the gaze of Stalin, the genocidal psychopath, Brian Wilson’s mental illness, Van Gogh’s self harming, Cobain’s chronic pain. All kinds of suffering – crushing poverty, disease, sexual shame, disastrous business deals, broken marriages, alcohol abuse, drug habits, wrecked friendships…

And yet so much beauty growing out of so much pain. Fragrant roses blooming with their roots covered in excrement.

A few years ago I reached a turning point. I was not creating great art. And I was suffering anyway. I was drowning, pulled down by all the things I didn’t feel I could share with my church. Or talk to my wife about. Or say to God in prayer. Or even write down in my journal. I had to get those things out. And for me, wired like I am, I had to set them to music.

At first they were simple and tentative

Looked for a star but the night was black
Fell from grace, right through the cracks

On the ropes and off the rails
Hanging onto God by my fingernails

but things started to flow. And I started to be more bold, more honest and even go beyond what I was feeling just to break down the walls.

Oh no, oh Noah you don’t know
The way my poor soul sprung a leak
My faith turned greener than cheap gold
As fake as American teeth

One day, reflecting on my journey, a tiny light came on. I realised I’d had it backwards.

Suffering doesn’t infuse art with meaning.
Art extracts meaning from suffering,
like one might draw poison from a wound.

We WILL suffer. We will ALL suffer. One way we can process it and work through the suffering, is to MAKE something. It’s part of what makes us human.

We shouldn’t court chaos just to feel artistic. Or wait for pain to come before we create. If you are in a good place at the moment, learn the nuts and bolts of your craft. It’s probably too late to take ukelele lessons when you’re lying in intensive care.

Postscripts

  • Another way we can heal is to appreciate something that someone else has made, probably through some suffering of their own.
  • If you want to remember Robin Williams this interview is a good place to start. I want to watch The Fisher King right now.
  • Depression is an appalling harvester of talented peopleKeir Francis
  • I think Cyril Connolly was full of crap when he wrote “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall”.
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Tom Waits On … The Music Business

I think you should fight for your independence and freedom at all costs. I mean, it’s a plantation system. All a record company is is a bank, and they loan you a little money to make a record and then they own you for the rest of your life. You don’t even own your own work. Most people only have a small piece of their publishing. Most people are so happy to be recording, which I was—you like the way your name looks on the contract, so you start signing. I got myself tied up in a lot of knots when I was a kid.

Tom Waits on Tom Waits: Interviews and Encounters (p.275)

The big print giveth and the small print taketh away.

The record companies are like cartels. It’s a nightmare to be trapped in one. I’m on a good label now that’s not part of the plantation system…Most people are so anxious to record, they’ll sign anything, it’s like going across the river on the back of an alligator.

Tom Waits in Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits p.456

My label [Anti/Epitaph] a bit of an asylum for damaged artists. It’s also very just and sane and fair. You know, you take your suit to the cleaner’s and you actually get your suit back.

Interviews And Encounters (p.302)

Showbiz is the only place where you can actually make money after you’re dead.

Interviews And Encounters (p.359-60)

More Tom Waits wisdom here

(you can find a lot of the interviews online at www.tomwaitsfan.com).

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