A few years ago, I read an interview with Brett Andersen from Suede, in which he said something along these lines: all successful artists have followed a similar journey, comprising four stages: the struggle, the stratospheric rise, the crash, and then the renaissance.
I’ve always been fascinated by the creative process, especially as it evolves over time. I’m not so interested in the forensics of creativity in the moment — to me a lot of that is beyond analysis. I find Song Exploder mildly entertaining but not gripping. The songwriting process is one thing, but the process behind an album is another. But even more than that, the journey of a career in creating music is something different entirely. This is especially the case when those careers span decades and cover album projects in the double digits. For many of these artists and bands, creativity isn’t a stable force but has ebbed and flowed. Along with this, commercial success has come and gone too — perhaps several times over.
Take Paul Weller’s solo career, which began after his time in two hugely successful pop groups, The Jam (‘76-’82) and The Style Council (‘83-’89). Since his highly successful and influential debut in 1992, he went on to have phenomenal solo success, first with Wild Wood (’93) and then Stanley Road (‘95). From there he became an icon, known as The Modfather, and the founding father of Britpop and all that. As the century turned however, his albums Heliocentric and As Is Now were not particularly well-received and they didn’t ‘sell’ either. A British icon multiple times over was dropped from labels and left floundering just like any other collateral damage in a ruthless industry that churns artists through the mangle.
Not only that, but he must have found himself disorientated by the tectonic changes happening in the music industry, first with Napster and then with Apple and iTunes. It was Weller that provided one of the very best quotes about the industry’s comprehensive mugging by big technology when he described the iPod as “like having a fridge with no fucking beers in it”. Artists always say it better.
It took a lot of digging deep, re-thinking and just plain carrying on before Weller turned things around again and climbed back up the hill of ‘success’. He didn’t achieve this the obvious way either (perhaps there wasn’t an obvious way). The 2008 double album 22 Dreams was much more experimental, taking in jazz, folk and the soul-pop more associated with his Style Council days. Weller had replaced almost everyone in his band. It worked. At the dawn of the streaming era, Paul Weller was back on top creative form, and he continued a rich vein of creativity ever since — his most recent solo album, On Sunset, was a UK #1 (though I’d love to hear his verdict on what that means these days).
I don’t know about you, but I want to know about how he did it.
Our artist pages on The Song Sommelier have focused on many similar careers: Suzanne Vega, Aimee Mann, Nick Cave. Then there are the bands that have steadily thrived over the decades without ever troubling the singles charts at all, such as Spoon and The National. There are those bands that have sabotaged themselves in order to reset for a career the way they wanted it — not how others wanted it — I’m thinking Radiohead here, obviously. We’ve examined the careers of all of these bands from the fan’s perspective.
In the Art of Longevity, we look at careers from the artists own perspective. We hop into a music time machine and head backwards or forwards in time, through the ups & downs, ins and outs and roundabouts (you get the idea) of the music industry. Ultimately we’ll reflect on learnings, wisdom, battle scars and wounds and ask “what really defines success”. It’s a question many fans and fellow musicians and all aspiring musicians want to know answers to.
After thinking about this for many years, I finally launched The Art of Longevity as a podcast series and in Episode 1, I talk with Olly Knights, singer and songwriter of Turin Brakes. In a discussion spanning 20+ years, and zipping back & forth in our own virtual ‘music time machine’ we chat about the crash & burn (and magnificence) of Dark on Fire and the reconstruction of the band and subsequent career as they plot a route to album number 9.
To hear the podcast choose on of the various services: