How do the world’s most popular musicians create hit songs? Is it natural talent, or do external influences affect their writing process? Dr. Jenny Boyd, ex-wife of Fleetwood Mac’s Mick Fleetwood and sister-in-law of George Harrison, spent four years interviewing 75 world-famous musicians on that subject and has now published her findings in It’s Not Only Rock ‘n Roll: Iconic Musicians Reveal the Source of Their Creativity. The book explores the drive to create, the importance of nurturing creativity and the role of unconscious influences in conversations with Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Joni Mitchell and more. Check out our exclusive excerpt of the book’s second chapter. You can buy the book at Amazon.
The Drive To Create
“Music is a means of expression that rings truer and is more connected to things inside than speech.”
– Lindsey Buckingham
When I first began this book, I came across a quote by Goethe which I kept pinned up above my writing table: “The first and last task required of genius is love of truth.” It is the vocation of artists to seek their own truth and then express it in their art. But to be a seeker of truth also demands certain qualities: drive, courage and motivation.
A creative person’s drive determines whether or not he will be able to express himself, no matter how much talent he has. What is the nature of this drive? Is it the need to make oneself whole, to complete the process of fulfilling one’s potential?
Some psychologists, such as Abraham Maslow, Carl Jung and Rollo May, have theorised that everyone has an inherent desire to actualise their true nature. Why are some people more able to self-actualise and to do so earlier and throughout their lives than others? From my interviews I discovered that this drive may in part be linked to an artist’s strong feeling of his own destiny, his call in life, as well as the fulfillment of his actual potential. Psychologist Frank Barron told me that the drive to create is fuelled by the need to express oneself artistically and to discover one’s own meaning in the universe.
For some artists, having found at an early age their natural means of expression, music became an easier way to communicate than any other. I remember when I first met Mick Fleetwood, he was extremely shy and found it difficult to carry on a conversation. He used to telephone me, say hello, then put down the phone receiver next to his drum kit, which he would then begin to play, while I listened for the next 45 minutes.
Mick exemplified how artists who discover themselves through their creativeness can more easily communicate their essence via their art form. Maslow described this quality: “Artists are in touch with their intrinsic nature and are continually in the process of becoming more of who they really are.” Being closer to the core of their being, they allow this basic elemental nature to guide their lives, which in turn results in their feeling more fulfilled and whole.
The Courage to Create
Courage also plays an important part in creativeness. It takes courage to be different, to go against the status quo, which creative people invariably must do. Artists have long been considered society’s “outlaws.” As Maslow wrote: “Every one of our great creators… has testified to the element of courage that is needed in the lonely moment of creation, affirming something new (contradictory to the old). This is a kind of daring, a going out in front all alone, a defiance, a challenge.”
Courage is essential for one to truly believe in oneself. This is another reason acceptance plays such an important role in the musician’s childhood. When that courage is mixed with faith in oneself, the artist gains a firm grounding from which to pursue his or her talent as a means of self-expression. By trusting themselves first rather than relying on the approval or consent of exterior societal forces, artists tend to reject tradition. They are not afraid to break down the old to make way for the new. Because of this feeling of trepidation, the artists can look into the depth of their imagination – into the world of chaos – fearless of being overwhelmed by the unknown. This courage and faith enables them to delve into disorder and stay there until they find meaning. As Rollo May says: “They knock on silence for answering music. They pursue meaninglessness until they can force it to mean.”
This fearlessness makes artists better able to integrate their inner world with the outside world. Whether this courage is innate or derived through a nurtured self-confidence during childhood is not clear. While most of the musicians I interviewed received encouragement during their early years, some did not. What gave this latter group the stamina to withstand the pressure to conform?
Some of them experienced the intense frustration of not fitting in with their environment or their peer group, particularly during adolescence. This led to an underlying feeling of having to struggle through typical social situations, yet they persevered as if they knew in the back of their minds that there was something much bigger on the horizon.
Whereas through socialisation most adolescents lose their childhood belief that literally anything is possible for them, many creative individuals never lose faith that whatever they dream will actually come to pass. This goes hand in hand with their sense of destiny, of being true to their inner voice. When I was first introduced to Mick Fleetwood, we were both 16, and though I was still a schoolgirl, he had already left his home in Salisbury, in south-west England, to make his way all alone to London. As a child he had discovered the drums, and it was an intense revelation for him: he knew without a doubt that he wanted to be a drummer. This was much, much more than a childhood whim. From that moment on, he lived and breathed the drums, much to the dismay of his schoolteachers, whose classes he failed, and his parents, who worried what would become of their wayward son. They needn’t have worried: Mick had more motivation and drive – to become a professional drummer – in his little finger than most studious schoolboys have in their entire being. Mick knew deep inside that his destiny awaited him ‘out there’ and that he was only biding time until the day came when he could
begin his journey into musicianship.
In our interview Mick vividly described his childhood, his drive, courage and determination, as if the day he discovered the drums were only yesterday: “I was obsessed with wanting to be a drummer; I didn’t drool over a musician and think, I’ve got to be like that player. It simply happened. That was it: I wanted to be a drummer, and I can’t remember why. It had to be from my dad. He would play the bottles or even play rhythms with the change in his pocket.”
“I remember one time when my family was driving through Europe, we stopped in a small German village. There were cows underneath the inn we stayed in and these old yogurt-eating guys who live to be 120, sitting around downstairs in the inn. They were all sitting around a 12-volt battery with a wire attached, getting a buzz out of it. That was the setting. Before going to bed that night, I crept downstairs and saw Dad in the bar with all these elderly guys, playing the bottles, having a great time.”
“At boarding school I became obsessed with playing drums. I never had a kit, never played, it just started to happen. I had this dream: I wanted to be playing in London
at a club. I had it all planned out. All I did at school was to send away for drum catalogues. The only other thing I enjoyed was the little bit of acting I did. I had a drum catalogue that was literally eight inches thick; I had taped them all together. I used to drool over these drums; it was my dream to have a Premier drum kit.”
“I remember going out on my own and sitting underneath a tree. I had my catalogues with me, and I just made a secret pact then and there with myself that I was going to play drums. I remember tears pouring down my face – and that was it. That was the moment I knew I wanted to do this. I ran away from school because I had this vision. I knew what I wanted to do, that was the commitment I made to myself. I made a private pledge, and I prayed to God, and then that was it.”
“I didn’t practise or work at being a drummer – I just did it. There were a few [drum styles] I mimicked, but that stopped after I started playing with other people. Apart from learning the songs, my practice was my playing. My dad was wondering what the hell I was going to do; he wanted to take me to an unemployment counsellor. But not long after that I started playing drums in London at the Mandrake Club.”
Mick’s experience illustrates characteristics of creative adolescents described by psychiatrist and author Silvano Arieti: “A few adolescents start to think that their own personal growth will continue if they reach beyond the limits of what seems to them a restrained and small reality.” Arieti pointed to the difficulty the creative individual encounters when he or she becomes aware of the “vast discrepancy between the human condition and his [or her] own ideals.”
As a child, blues guitarist Buddy Guy also had an active imagination, which took him far away from his tiny, rural hamlet. He grew up to live out his most vivid dreams: “I used to lay and dream a lot of times that I was onstage in front of an audience. It crosses my mind now every time I look out at a huge audience. Every time I look out there I remember those dreams, when I’d wake up and I didn’t even know what a guitar was.”
What happened to Buddy occurred to other musicians I talked to as well. Keyboardist Greg Phillinganes described the young imagination and ambitious dreams that prefigured his career: “I used to daydream about playing in front of massive crowds, getting the kind of reaction that the Beatles got. When I was in high school I grew strongly attracted to Stevie Wonder, musically speaking; I put posters of him all over my bedroom. I used to dream a lot about playing with him, and I told my friends that I would play with him one day. And then it happened. I’d seen him only twice in concert. I was introduced to him by a friend of mine who was asked to audition for him. The friend gave him a tape of my playing, so Stevie had me come out to New York from Detroit. I did that and was with him for almost four years. The childhood dream had been very strong – and that’s what happened. I was pretty amazed.”
Graham Nash also pursued his childhood dream of being a musician, against the odds. “If something hadn’t made me strive towards what I believed in, I could have ended up in Manchester in the mill. It was through parental encouragement and my taking advantage of opportunities that enabled me to do it. All my life I knew I would be doing this, though I must confess it’s gone on a little longer than I thought it would. I still have an insane drive to create and express myself, and it’ll never stop because I don’t know how to stop it.”
The Young Outsider
Several musicians recalled feeling strongly out of place during childhood. They sought ways to express themselves, “[to reach] beyond the limits of a small and restrained reality.” Because they found it difficult to communicate with others, they became more introspective than the average child. They learned to maintain and trust their own inner world, which most children leave behind once they blend in with others, largely out of the desire to be like everybody else. Singer, songwriter and drummer Don Henley, a founding member of the Eagles, described feeling like an outsider in the rough and tough Texas town where he spent his childhood: “The older I got, the more different I felt from the other kids. I felt I didn’t really belong in the town where I’d grown up, that the other kids were very different from me and I didn’t have anything in common with many of them. A lot of them were violent and insensitive, and I was a very sensitive little kid. I was rather small in stature, so I got picked on and beat up a lot. This is all very typical, and the older I got, the more I realised it was alright to be different, and that it was, in fact, a good thing.”
“In the beginning, when you’re young, you think that if you’re different, that’s not good. What Nietzsche speaks of as “the voice of the herd” is very strong in you. Then, the older you become, your confidence grows, and you realize that it’s alright to be different. Maybe they’re wrong and you’re right. But for a while, you think they perhaps know something that you don’t know. I had a reversal of that in my late teens, thank goodness.”
“After I got into junior high school, the thing to do, of course, where I was brought up in Texas, was to play football. That was the heroic natural thing for a male to do – and I only weighed about 98 pounds. So when I was 15, I tried to play football, and that was a miserable failure. The coaches were sadistic, it was very brutal, and I got pounded royally, so I quit that.”
“After I failed at football, I joined the high school marching band at the behest of a friend of mine. My first instrument after I joined the [high school] band was trombone. For a year another kid, who also quit football, and I had to practise by ourselves with very little instruction. Neither of us were progressing very well. We both used to go around beating on our textbooks with our fingers and with pencils – it just annoyed the hell out of everybody. One day someone said, “Why don’t you try playing drums instead of the trombone?” So we both switched to drums, and we were both naturals at it.”
“I taught myself and spent the next two-and-a-half years in the high school marching band playing drums. My mother bought me my first real set of drums when I was 17 and didn’t tell my father until she’d actually done it. We both sprang it on him that evening, but he was good-natured about it. A group consisting of myself and three other high school mates gradually evolved out of a Dixieland band, which included a lot of older gentlemen. We broke away and became a rock ’n’ roll band doing instrumentals. Then around 1964–65, after the Beatles were becoming the rage, we decided that we were going to have to sing, so that’s when I started singing. I had to learn to play drums and sing at the same time; I had mastered it pretty well after about a year.”
“[I think the choice to create] goes back to childhood. Take, for instance, a reasonably bright and sensitive little kid, a kid growing up in an environment that’s antagonistic towards sensitivity. I grew up with a lot of very rough people. I think that kind of environment drives you inside and makes you introspective. I was simply too young to have an insight regarding human nature or the human condition. I didn’t understand why people were the way they were. I felt like an alien. I believe that being exposed to that kind of adverse outer environment at such a tender age drives one towards a richer inner life, a life of dreams and fantasy, a life of yearning and creativity.”
Sinéad O’Connor described how she has followed her heart since childhood even though it meant being treated as a renegade by her peers and a problem by authority figures. Although hers is a lonely path, she has always valued her own sense of truth over society’s expectations: “I felt very much different [from the other kids], and they contributed to making me feel different. I still feel different. I always got in trouble all my life for saying things, saying what I thought, expressing myself. It just never occurred to me to be any different; I wasn’t trying to cause trouble. I’m not aggressive at all, but I’m very emotional. We’re brought up to not be emotional. It’s so hard, especially since I’m young. It’s difficult because you’re up against everyone, you’re on your own, you’re up against a wall of fucking trouble, because everyone’s telling you that you’re bad and you’re awful and you’re horrible, and you begin to ask yourself if you are. You begin to think it. It’s so hard to actually retain what your purpose is – or to even realise what it is – and think it doesn’t matter if they think you’re a bastard.”
Michael McDonald explained that he, too, felt outside the mainstream as a child, but that the benefits of this ‘forced’ introspection far outweighed the disadvantages. “I think a lot of creative people are emotionally handicapped in some ways, usually through experience. Therefore, the creative process is a thing that is developed because of those deficiencies, as a way of dealing with the world around them. I’ve noticed that with a lot of people that urge to be creative, that urge to find that experience over and over again, comes from a feeling of not belonging in this world, always feeling out of place. That kind of forces them to be observers because people who feel that a lot tend to observe other people. I know that’s how I was when I was growing up – always comparing everything around you to yourself. I think for people who write, their talent is born out of that constant questioning of themselves versus the environment.”
Jackson Browne described how he didn’t fit in with the surfer culture that dominated the southern California town where he grew up. Unlike the other guys he knew, who wanted to spend their spare time in wetsuits, Jackson was drawn to music: “I was 13 when I started playing the guitar. It was something I could do by myself when everyone else was surfing. I used to take the guitar when a group of us would go surfing at Huntington Beach, I would eventually end up sitting on the beach, playing guitar because I was so skinny, so little. My friends were all bigger than I was. In those days, wetsuits were very rudimentary big things that the water went sloshing through, and it was cold in the winter time. I would wind up sitting there, just having been washed up on the beach exhausted. Eventually someone said, ‘hey, if you’re not going to surf, if you’re going to sit there and play the guitar, I know a lot of guys who would want this spot in the van.’ So I decided to just stay home and play guitar; inevitably one thing takes over from another. So music became my big interest when I was 14.”
Julian Lennon told me he spent much time playing music as a child. Perhaps part of his need to express himself stemmed from his circumstances: The son of a Beatle, he was considered a curiosity by his schoolmates. Julian recalled the impact this had on his life: “I had a mad childhood, because having a famous father meant having fans outside your gate every morning before you walked to school. There would be hundreds of them. A lot of Americans used to stand outside and give me presents. After coming home from school, there would be a new toy every day. It was exciting.”
“But when I got older and was in school, I suddenly realised people were acting differently towards me. I couldn’t understand the reason why at first – then it dawned on me. A lot of aggression towards me was built on rumours started by one person. Just one of them was, ‘Julian has 10- and 20-pound notes stuck on his wall to impress people when they walk in.’ That gets around a town and everybody looks at you like you’re … you know. It was either because Dad was famous or maybe you could get something from me or from being associated with me. It was very bizarre. I started getting interested in playing music about then, when I was nine or 10.”
Eric Clapton’s family situation resulted in his feeling different from most other kids in his small village who were raised by the then-traditional mother-father unit: “I was born in Ripley, in Surrey, in 1945, near the end of the war. I was brought up by my grandparents; I was illegitimate, and my mother was too young to bring me up. She was 15 when I was born. My father had been transferred back to Canada, being a Canadian Airman, and I don’t really know if she left me in terms of abandonment or was told to go. It’s not very clear. I was brought up in the Church of England; it was a fairly religious society in the village. When I was nine, my mother came back to see if I was alright. That’s when I found out that things were not as they appeared to be.”
“From then on, I had a very confused childhood. I felt different from most of the other kids, but there was a little gang of about four or five that all seemed to have something in common in terms of being maladjusted. Most of these kids had moved to Ripley from outside the area. At the age of about five or six, they had been uprooted from their original village or town and placed in this little village. They weren’t at all happy with their situation, and so we seemed to have something in common. These were the kids I hung out with, and we were the first ones to start smoking and listening to rock ’n’ roll. I wanted to be different from everyone else. I sensed that I was, so I developed the philosophy of flaunting it, but that wasn’t in an outgoing way. Instead it was very introverted. I wanted to be a beatnik before beatniks were even heard of in Ripley. I was the village beatnik.”
“I was 13 when I started playing the guitar. I then stopped for a while when I became interested in art. I was very good at art and got a scholarship to go to a school in Kingston. I travelled from Ripley to Kingston every morning, half training to become an artist and half interested in music. The music got the better of me in the end, and I was thrown out of art school. At 17 I started to work professionally in a band. I was pretty much a loner in terms of what I believed in to be musical for myself and was very defensive about it; I was very serious and protective towards my musical ambitions. I don’t think I really knew that playing music was what I wanted to do for life until I was 20. I think I was probably quite serious about it though, so there must have been an inkling.”