Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman shares observations, insights, and updates relating to South Florida's musical environs. This week, Lee proves he's a really good listener.
It may seem odd, but I can attest to the fact that interviewing artists is often like engaging in therapy, both for me and the musicians involved.
How so, you ask. Let's put it like this. Most creative types crave affirmation. They need to have their egos massaged, their talents affirmed. On the other hand, when they feel unloved and unappreciated, they need someone to share their sadness, to pat them on the back and let them know they're not ignored or forgotten.
I've been thrust into that role more than once. For example, here's the reaction I got from one musician after I told him how much I admire his music. (The singer/songwriter in question shall remain nameless.)
"That is such beautiful praise and believe me, I welcome it. Thank you very much," he responded, before adding with some puzzlement: "Is there something weird about you? You seem to be a reasonable person. I'm so troubled and vexed by this, I gotta tell ya. Your opinion is such a minority opinion. I'm not being modest."
"But you have a fantastic following," I replied.
"I'm telling you, I think the perception that's out there among some people, is that are my fan base is way greater than it really is. In other words, if I had to depend on my fans for my living, for the living I provide for my kids, I would be finished. Done. Gone. Unless you can dissuade me of that, which would be the greatest gift I ever had. I would love nothing better than to make my money coming up on stages or recording. I'm just of the mind that that thing is done for me and I keep doing this thing because I love it, and I think that maybe there's something out there in the future for me one day, and maybe this is just a habit of mine or a compulsion to keep making this stuff."
Well okay then. What do you say to that? I became the soothing voice of affirmation, offering the reassurance that every artist needs. It's as if that individual is lying down on my virtual couch, expressing his or her fears and disillusionment while I offer the opportunity for them to vent and vet their fears. An interview is like a therapy session; but of course, as a scribe, my payment is less than that of a psychologist.
Most of the time, the insecurity evidenced above isn't so evident. Which doesn't mean it's not there at all, but rather that it's masked by the artistic temperament. It never fails. I'll offer an artist a compliment on their latest album or recent concert, and no matter who they are, no matter how big their name appears on the marquee, inevitably there's great gratitude. And it's not like the, "Oh, thank you very much," kind of gratitude. Most of the time, they're not just being polite.
The difference is clear. It's an effusive sort of thanks that comes across like a big exhale. Like they've never been given a complement quite this big before, even after a 20, or 30, or 40 year career. Tom Jones seemed genuinely delighted when I told him how much I enjoyed his latest album. Robert Plant was ever so gracious. The Kinks' Dave Davies was actually chuffed. Gene Cornish of the Rascals was remarkably humble. And it goes on and on. Compliments are always priceless.
It would be easy to dismiss this as a byproduct of artistic temperament. After all, if you're comfortable enough to share your craft with the world and to play up on the stage for hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands of fans, it's a pretty safe bet that you have a healthy ego to begin with.
On the other hand, a good interviewer/shrink should know how to encourage confidence. I recently interviewed perennial rocker Willie Nile, a man who's been making exceptional music for over 30 years despite achieving little more than a devoted cult following. So is he discouraged that he's never gained the fame that once seemed so inevitable, given the kudos that once had him compared to personages no less than Dylan and Springsteen?
"I didn't take it seriously," Nile insisted. "I always came at this from the sheer joy of it. People are always asking, 'Oh, don't you feel bitter because you're not as famous as so and so?' Sure, I'd love to be stinking rich, but I was never in it for the money. I was in it for the music. Was it disappointing? Absolutely. Sometimes I'd think, 'What am I doing?' I had a family to support and I didn't know what I was going to do. There were definitely some hard times."
If I was Willie's counselor, I'd be inclined to commend him on his healthy attitude. I mean, I don't have the professional training, but it is pretty obvious even to a novice that he has a can-do attitude.
All I do is try to ask the right questions. Inevitably though, I also think of myself as a sounding board, offering an opportunity to allow my subjects to say what's on their mind -- freely, passionately, and without fear of negative feedback. And hey, isn't that what a good psychologist does?
Now all I need is to get paid accordingly.
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