John Vanderslice’s Guide to Being a Productive Artist

The musician/producer shares what he’s learned from the pitfalls and victories of making records.

Hello, everyone, it’s John. I produce albums for many different types of artists in my recording studio, Tiny Telephone. Some of these have luxurious budgets with session players and plenty of time; other records are terror-inducing and brutally pressurized blips on the calendar. The following rules hold for both types of projects, and they’re mostly about making positive decisions and reinforcing habits that will make you a more productive, happier human.

1. Limit Options — Like, MAYBE to Two?

We lean heavily on tape machines at Tiny Telephone. The main benefit of working on a linear format like tape is the way it limits options and makes the tree of creative decision-making simpler. There is so much nervous energy when everything can be tweaked, edited, and altered. Linear formats tend to reward broad strokes and can simplify the art-making process.

How do you limit options? How do you let go of expansive possibilities? How do you tell people (or yourself) to stop? At Tiny Telephone, we have learned that recording to tape machines is the first step. We are automatically limited to 24 tracks (instead of infinity), and it commits us to a non-random access format that encourages performance over airbrushed reality. So strategize on ways to limit your options, regardless of the medium. Seeking out a trusted mentor or editor is crucial; it’s almost impossible to make something and have any clear view of what stands before you. It’s also critical (and very hard) to stay focused on the larger goal and stay out of the hall of mirrors of details and minutiae.

Recording studios make a majority of their money during the editing black hole. And like a black hole, time becomes elastic… Without the ability to edit things that don’t feel/look right, you are forced to ask bigger questions: Is this working, is the melody line good, are the lyrics interesting, IS THIS SONG GOOD?

2. Deadlines Are Your Best Painful Friend

I have made 11 full-length records. I would have made zero if I hadn’t been terrorized by deadlines. This is human nature. I used to feel inadequate for this, now I just use deadlines as my personal trainer/assistant.

Deadlines are the defining characteristic of every creative endeavor I’ve been a part of. I’m sure there’s a class of super artist that doesn’t need them, I just haven’t met any.

There is an agreed-upon truth at Tiny Telephone that it’s better to have too few days than too many days. Some of the least creative sessions I’ve been a part of were painfully overbooked. We all had enough time to reflect and rethink those intuitive, immediate decisions that end up being crucial for defining a record’s originality. And on that note…

3. Respect and Honor the Murky, Unknowable Unconscious Idea Factory

This is tricky to talk about without sounding a little disconnected from reality, but I firmly believe that art has to have some direct connection to the unconscious, to that automatic/surrealist part of our brain that has nothing to do with logical thought or knowable structure.  For me, it’s the place where shit gets unusual and original.

I’ve noticed that it often comes in short bursts when you’re writing songs. You might be looping some very straightforward chord progression, and then something else kicks in. Ideas start developing, patterns fall away, and things just start sounding stranger. The key is to follow this out as long and far as you can. Originality and banality can be very parallel and very similar feelings.

This is the moment to suspend judgement, just press onward and write.

(Photo Credit: Nicole Gluckstern)

Over the course of his 30-year career as an influential songwriter, record producer, and studio owner, John Vanderslice has carved out a singular place for himself in the landscape of American indie rock. On his new album The Cedars, Vanderslice finds himself favoring chaos and deconstruction over well-worn paths of familiar sounds and instrumentation for his new album-and the results have landed him in a place that’s uncharted, under the spell of a myth.