You Will Never Make a Masterpiece

Kishi Bashi has some wisdom for young bands.

I’ve been asked many times what advice I would give to the young musician or band.

Making a living in music is tough — but then again, so is life! If you have that desire to express yourself full time, then you might as well just go for it and do something that you love. On the encouraging side, as long as people are falling in love, and as long as people need a distraction from their everyday life, there will be a demand for new music. It’s a part of our life, and it’s been this way since the beginning of mankind (yes, they have found a Neanderthal flute).

My job now is to make albums, play shows and think up new ways of expressing myself through my music, but that hasn’t always been the case. Among other things, I’ve been in a failed rock band, almost changed careers and moved in with my parents as a 36-year-old father. I’m writing to tell you a couple of my own anecdotes in the hopes that you’ll take something from them.

Yes, I Used to Play in the Circus

My wife and I lived in New York City for a little under ten years, and during that time, I cobbled together a living as a versatile violinist by playing everything from weddings and jazz brunches to mind-numbing new age gigs at craft fairs and malls. Weddings were the most pleasant, because they paid well and almost everybody was guaranteed to be happy and/or drunk. No music job was too small for me, because I knew even back then that making a living as a musician was a blessing.

I was also the violinist for the Big Apple Circus, and I honed my trapeze-accompanying skills there — among other things. Being a working musician in New York was a great experience in that it forced me to achieve a high level of musicianship for which I will always be grateful.

The Gig Triangle

I met Mike Savino in New York City. He’s a phenomenal solo artist going by the name of Tall Tall Trees and has created a unique style of banjo playing called banjo sauvage. Back then, he was swinging jazz bass player, and it was from him that I learned about the Gig Triangle.


The three sides of The Gig Triangle are: The Money, The Music and The Hang. At any given time, there need to be at least two sides of the triangle for the gig to exist. The money is good and the people are cool but the music sucks? Stay in the band! The music is inspiring, but the people are dicks and there’s never money? Time to quit! The music is inspiring, but the singer’s a dick and there’s no money ever? Time to quit!

Use this triangle to gauge your musical situation if you are ever in doubt. (Remember, two sides are enough reason to stay.)

Play Your Ass Off and Don’t Be a Dick

Music is a difficult field to make a living in, as are all artistic fields, but I’ve heard it called a “social art.” That means that we must interact with musicians and the audience in order for our art to even exist.

I can’t stress enough that personal relationships are probably the most important thing when it comes to finding musical success. I’m even afraid that it might even be more important than the quality of the music.

When I joined the indie rock band Of Montreal, Kevin Barnes pulled me aside and gave me some wisdom. He told me that the two keys to remaining in the band were: 1) Play your ass off, and 2) Don’t be a dick. He couldn’t have summed it up in a simpler way. On top of your music being great, you should be a pleasant person. In the rare event that you are a musical genius and a complete self-absorbed asshole, at least hide the unpleasant part until you’ve established yourself.

Personal relationships will get you that desired support slot. There are fans I’ve met who have become friends and have consequently opened up for a tour because their music was interesting and I liked them as people. I’m not saying to give your album to every band that plays your town, but an honest connection with your favorite artist may be a foot in the door.

I resisted the urge to CD-cannon the backstage.

There may be that time when you really need to sell your music as the best thing since sliced bread, but if you get in that habit too often, you’ll come across as opportunistic, and nobody wants to be around somebody like that. When I was a violinist in Regina Spektor’s band, we played a lot of incredible music all around the world, and there were so many bands and artists that we brushed up against that I was desperate to get my band’s album to. I resisted the urge to CD-cannon the backstage, and I chose to only approach bands that I was honestly a fan of and tell them how much I liked their music.

That’s how I hooked up with Of Montreal in the first place. I hung out with the band backstage once, and I talked to Kevin and offered to put some strings down on a track. I think he could tell that I was genuinely a fan, and the next thing I knew, I was in the band, which changed my life. Don’t be a dick!

Your Debut Album is Your First Home 

Labels and publicists, who are these people and do really I need them?

If your debut album is your first house, then the record label is the bank.

Do you have the money to build your first home? Yes. Home recording is so accessible these days that the ability to create professional-sounding music is only limited by your skill level and your imagination. (Skrillex seems to make everything in Ableton on his laptop!) If your music is strong, then the quality doesn’t matter as much — especially if it’s your first album. Your first home may not be a mansion with Italian marble interiors and an Olympic-sized pool in the back, but it can be modest and comfortable, and that will shine through. The same goes for your album.

Can you sell your house by yourself? Of course! But if you’re not a good salesman (and most musicians are not), then it’s oftentimes good to have somebody selling your album for you, and that’s where publicists come in. They can be expensive, but it might be worth it if you are in it for the long haul.

When you release an album, it’s like selling your house, but it’s also announcing that you are in the house business. Most known artists, if you look at their progression, have started with clunky starter homes and have slowly built up a following that comes to fruition when they release that mansion of an album.

You Will Never Make a Masterpiece

My rock band, Jupiter One, was desperate for success. Its debut album was somewhat known — not in a Pitchfork or hipster kind of way, but in a popular way. We had a song in a Mazda commercial and in many popular video games. We even got a decent co-publishing deal because of it, and we could sense that there was some momentum behind us.

Our album philosophy back then reminds me of Motown, where they would vote and pick the best single created that week. We were so obsessed with writing a hit that our albums resembled a patchwork quilt of songs woven together with a little experimentalism. In retrospect, this was a dangerous way to make an album, and ultimately music critics and the press would see through our apparent futility, coining our albums “eclectic” at best.

Music critics have the power to open the floodgates of industry, and we were well aware of it. A cool new band will quickly get support slots for equally cool bands, crowds will appear in towns you’ve never played and hip festival offers will roll in. These opportunities are most always quick to recede, however, and the new band that hasn’t done the legwork to build fans usually struggles if its follow-up album is not as engaging or surprising.

My booking agent has often reminded me how well I’ve done despite having “no press.” Basically what he means is that I have grown a strong, loyal fan base based on support tours, regional festivals and good old-fashioned promotion.

I’ve adopted this idea that you can’t make an album hoping that it’s great.

Jupiter One never got to be that cool, so we toured the country five times over doing our best to create a sustainable career. As the momentum in our band faded, I started working with more established artists including Sondre Lerche, Of Montreal and Regina Spektor. I noticed that their philosophy toward album creation was much different than mine. They perceived their music to be more of just a snapshot of their current artistic state and less of a search for the masterpiece that would catapult them into success. I came to realize that this attitude is essential when creating better albums. When I adopted this philosophy and applied it to making my own debut album, 151a, I thought about the larger sonic vision and omitted a couple of very poppy songs (much to the chagrin of my friends). Leaving favorite songs off the album because they didn’t fit was difficult, to say the least. My debut album was well received, and I’ve adopted this idea that you can’t make an album hoping that it’s great. You just have to be honest, and the more you open up, the more of your own humanity shines through. This is what connects with people.

I started watching this fun show on Netflix called The Get Down. It’s a fictional show about the advent of hip-hop in the Bronx, and there is a quote about music that I like: “It will move you forward and open up doors that everyone says are shut; then it will give you the world for free if you hold back nothing.”

Hold back nothing and your best art will flow forth.

Kishi Bashi is Kaoru Ishibashi’s self-recorded and self-produced project. Ishibashi is a founding member of Jupiter One, and, for a few years, was a member of the band, Of Montreal. His new record, Sonderlust, is out now.

(Photo credit: Shervin Lainez)