How to Be Creative, Starring Jackson Browne’s Teakettle

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I absolutely love this video. It’s from Alison Ellwood and Alex Gibney’s new Eagles documentary on Showtime (and if you’re my age, here’s a warning: you will watch this obsessively,  because it’s a time machine to your teen years, and because it’s wildly entertaining for reasons that Bill Simmons details here.

But what I really love about this clip is that it shows how lead singer Glenn Frey began to master the creative skill that underpinned the band’s success. And he did it in an unusual way: by listening through his floorboards to his neighbor, Jackson Browne.

Here’s Frey:

 I didn’t really know how to write songs. I knew I wanted to write songs, but I didn’t know exactly, did you just wait around for inspiration, you know, what was the deal? I learned through Jackson’s ceiling and my floor exactly how to write songs, ’cause Jackson would get up, and he’d play the first verse and first course, and he’d play it 20 times, until he had it just the way he wanted it. And then there’d be silence, and then I’d hear the teapot going off again, and it would be quiet for 20 minutes, and then I’d hear him start to play again … and I’m up there going, so that’s how you do it? Elbow grease. Time. Thought. Persistence.”

It goes on from there, all great stuff. For me, the takeaways are:

1) Proximity. Glenn Frey didn’t read a book about songwriting, or hear a talk. The breakthrough started with his social network — on making friends with a guy who was involved in the same craft, and at a slightly higher level. Frey and Jackson Browne became neighbors, and the lessons began.

2) Habit. Through Browne, Frey learned a lesson that eludes many creative types: it’s not about inspiration. As the artist Chuck Close says, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us show up and get to work.” Browne’s teakettle goes off at 9 a.m., the process starts.

4) Looping. Browne’s creative process is built on the act of circling back through the structure — changing a small piece and looking at the entire thing, then doing it over and over. This is the pattern with any creative act, whether it’s writing or juggling or comedy. It’s an act of construction, where each piece impacts the whole structure.

5) Repetition. Frey learns the repetition isn’t boring; it’s actually kind of thrilling, because it’s the tool that builds songs.

There are also a few other valuable lessons in the documentary having to do with peyote, groupies, and Stevie Nicks — but I’ll leave those for you to enjoy.

Speaking of enjoying, I hope you’ve all been enjoying the summer. Now that September almost here, I’ll be posting more often, starting with a Q/A with David Epstein, author of the new book The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance. If you have any questions for David, please let me know (we’re talking on Weds Aug 14).


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12 Responses to “How to Be Creative, Starring Jackson Browne’s Teakettle”

  1. Jared Mathes says:

    Dan,

    Thanks for this video. Great insight.

    One question I have been thinking about lately is how much practice or competition outside of one’s ability is the most beneficial? Is there a sweet spot within the sweet spot?

    I have often taken my youth girls volleyball team to compete against teams above their skill level. Sometimes with great success and sometimes we get “blown out of the water.” I feel there is much to be learned at all levels of the “above my skill level” spectrum, but sometimes I am challenged by parents and other coaches on this. It would be nice to have something more scientific to back up my assumptions with.

  2. djcoyle says:

    Hi Jared, Good question. I’m not aware of any formal studies, but there are anecdotal examples of this effect — I’m thinking of Marta, the Brazilian soccer player, playing with boys’ leagues, or an MLS goalkeeper I met who realized his potential when he was asked, as a kid, to play on an adult team. The other dimension of this is on the motivational side: exposing your players to better players “light them up” about getting beyond their own limits. But as you hint, it’s a fine line, and one that depends a lot on expectations and context — and that applies to both players and parents.

  3. Tom Bauer says:

    Gotta say the timing of this is right on: an hour or two before I came across link I was thinking about my writing, working a short piece, and starting to edit, go over it before the end. I decided maybe I should push through to the end and then edit? I love the editing a bit much, you see, going over and over it, getting it all just right…and then there’s Jackson Browne doing his thang, and me thinking okay, fug it, I’ll do what I want! I will never forget the first time I heard Winchester Cathedral and that incredible Running On Empty album…awesome! Tom.

  4. Hogan Nago says:

    Dan, ask David Espstein knowing what he has learned from athletic performance and writing his new book, how he would train a young athlete, that did not come from one of these special nurturing environments, that has passion, commitment and the work ethic to succeed. Can they?

  5. Dennis says:

    “no one is born with the anticipatory skills required of an elite athlete”

    I’m sure you’ve probably already seen this article, but I thought I’d post in case others haven’t.

    Why Pujols can’t touch this pitch
    http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1208085/1/index.htm

  6. Robert says:

    “One question I have been thinking about lately is how much practice or competition outside of one’s ability is the most beneficial? Is there a sweet spot within the sweet spot?”

    You would want to preface this at hand, make the level of skill desired first and then spend time getting focus and depth as short and intense as doable to make it work. How much time is always hard to say due to physical stamina plays a role there.
    Normally I do what is working first for warm up, then add what is worked on until either time or repetitions are met within the desired skill requirement, then repeat what works again.

    It helps to set the individual have control (do what they already can) then add what they want to work on (above/outside their level) that allows them to work it and have the opportunity to go back and do what works already if needed. Its more often about to build the attitude to make the individual ready to do that work and make it work than to actually doing it.
    Once this kicks off, they will spend more time refining their skills due to the players find they get better and once they get there, then they spend more time working on the skills they cant do yet.

  7. Clive Rushton says:

    Sweet spot within the sweet spot: in swimming we have a 3-2-1 principle made popular by Australian Bill Sweetenham. 3 competitions below your level (to experiment, learn winning etc.), 2 at your level (put yourself on the line and test if you can gotbit right) and 1 above your level (get your ass kicked and earn!). That combination of 6 twice a year making 12 competitions is a pretty good rule of thumb but there’s also a good case to be made for more than that. Of course in swimming you can pack multiple events within a single competition and they can be of varying standard so the actual picture looks pretty complex.

  8. Clive Rushton says:

    Aarrgghh! Typos, sorry.

    gotbit = get it
    earn = learn

  9. James says:

    If Frey had noticed his insight in the words “Elbow grease. Time. Thought. Persistence.” perhaps he could have written a book about skill acquisition and learning back in the 70′s. Being a musician, and noticing the power of focussed repetition he might have called it, “The Talent Coda”

    His comments are perfect, and music is great.

  10. J.P. Grider says:

    This was a great post. Very inspiring. I am not a song-writer, but I am an author of fiction. Though our initial idea may come from inspiration, the meat and guts of a novel come from perspiration. I just found your blog today. I am now a fan. Thank you.

    p.s. Loved the flashbacks to the ’70s Jackson Browne.

  11. lafata says:

    Love it/love it/love it wow.Thank you so much.My biggest regret is I have never met Jackson I have met Ringo and the president of the USA
    but so what .I really wanted to meet Jackson.What an incredible
    career and body of work.Heres this nerdy skinny little guy who couldn’t get laid if he had Brad Pitt as a wingman .Steps to the
    mic and starts to play and sing and within 16 bars you realize he’s the poet who can marry lyrics and melodies into this wonderful art we call music.Hey Jackson do you want to sell that teapot?

  12. djcoyle says:

    Sorry about the delay in posting your comment! Been on the road and am just catching up now.

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