The first step of making art is getting an idea. The second and final step of making art is making the art. Voila! Art.
The only problem is that making something creative has never even once been that simple. The thru-line between concept and execution tends to take on the jagged shape of monster teeth–and feel equally as daunting. Self-doubt, burnout, blockage, and pulling out fistfuls of one’s hair are but some of the lesser heralded symptoms of the creative process.
For anyone currently lost in that liminal space where art is supposed to happen, however, help is on the way. Comedy-adjacent musicians Aimee Mann and Ted Leo have a new podcast called The Art of Process, which essentially maps out the terrain of creative limbo and guides listeners through it, with plenty of detours for funny digressions along the way.
Mann first started to think more deeply about process years ago when she met the poet Billy Collins. It was during a White House celebration of poetry and prose, for an audience of high school students. (Let us all briefly remember a time when such an event did not sound like absurdist fantasy.) Earlier in the day, one of the students asked Collins a question that bedevils many an aspiring artist: “How do I find my own voice?” The acclaimed poet answered that one’s voice inevitably develops after mastering form and structure. Another poet advised the student to imitate other artists, and that the imitations would eventually morph into individuality. A third poet suggested writing out other people’s poetry in longhand, just to get the feel of actually writing out poetry.
Mann was struck by the variety in these responses. She’d been lately trying her hand at something new–illustration–and it had never really occurred to her that artists would have wildly different processes in different mediums.
Thus began a years-long obsession.
“I became endlessly fascinated by other people’s processes and seeing what’s similar between different disciplines,” Mann says. “Like, if you’re a visual artist, what does practice look like for you? Is it drawing a hand 500 times?”
As the idea of how different people do creativity continued germinating, Mann began to talk with friends and fellow artists about it. The topic ended up steering her into conversations so engaging and inspirational in their own right, she thought other people might want to hear them as well. They might even get something useful out of it.
Once the recent Grammy-winner realized that what she was considering was a podcast, and that she needed a cohost, there was only one obvious choice for whom to partner up with: friend and fellow traveler Ted Leo. On The Art of Process, the two have conversations with a distinguished lineup of creative guests–the first two are Wyatt Cenac and Rebecca Sugar–but they also slowly learn a lot about the differences in each other’s process as well.
“Ted is one of those natural musicians who has a great ear and a totally unique approach without having had a lot of structure from the outside,” Mann says. “I could not do anything musically until I learned some music theory and was able to analyze things in a mathematical way and then start from the structure and go off of it at will. But I could never have done that early on. I didn’t really have Ted’s kind of ear.”
The difference in their distinct approaches to songwriting have become more illuminated over the course of making the podcast, but they were already discernible when Leo and Mann recorded a collaborative album in 2014 as The Both. Apparently, the differences only helped.
“I think that what benefits some of our most interesting songs is the left turn they might take, because I don’t know what I’m supposed to do and I’m just following my instincts I’ve learned over the years,” Leo says. “But as a musician, to work with Aimee at the level she’s at, not just in terms of guitar but singing ability and matching vocal harmonies, I’ve had to learn more and I’m a better musician because of it.”
The podcast’s titular concept, exploring the creative process, mostly serves as a starting point for conversations that can and do drift in any number of directions. One way they seem to go fairly regularly, however, is to the topic of how one creates anything during this particularly chaotic chapter in world history. Perhaps in another era it would be different, but episodes of the show in its current incarnation are just as likely to focus on how an artist spends time in the studio as they are to delve into how that artist manages to sleep at night.
“It’s weird attempting to be an entertainer or a creative person if you’re sensitive to the world around you,” Leo says, “without having the weight of world issues really crashing against your door for the past two years.”
According to Mann, living with that weight might ultimately have been what pushed The Art of Process out of the ideas column and into reality.
“I think that, on a certain level, the impetus for doing this podcast was because the atmosphere is so weird,” Mann says. “The pursuit of process, or the end result, has a spiritual element to me, because when I see people who care about what they do, it’s inspiring. There’s a purity to it. And that applies across the board, not just art. That’s just something that’s wildly missing from this administration is giving a shit about doing anything that has an end result with any quality to it.”
Make a False Destination
Aimee Mann: I’m really in favor of the false destination: giving yourself an assignment that doesn’t necessarily seem like it’s useful at the time but is practice for the thing you’re trying to get to. Over the last couple years, I’ve been working on a couple of musicals, and writing songs with a specific purpose that has to cover specific ground is exactly the kind of song I couldn’t write before. But me and my husband started doing this thing where we would have friends over and make them perform a poem or a song or whatever–I know that sounds terrible–and it ended up being fun. We’d often do one for somebody’s birthday, and I found myself making up dumb lyrics for a friend’s birthday song. Doing that many times over the course of a couple of years turned out to be great practice for me to write about a specific thing and made it easier for me to write songs for these musicals. That was an unexpected way to practice doing something.
Set Aside Your Ego When Collaborating
Ted Leo: A shared aesthetic is important for creative collaboration, but one of the most important things is the ability to set aside your personal writer’s ego for what you agree you’re trying to achieve for the project. The idea that you may be personally attached to may not be the best idea for the project, and you have to be able to at the very least hear the other person out with true openness and at best be willing to throw your thing overboard to see if the other thing works.
Don’t Wait for Inspiration
AM: Inspiration isn’t gonna happen if you don’t have a guitar in your hand or you’re not sitting at the piano. If you’re in the car I guess it’s possible you could be inspired to write a song but sitting down and just allotting time helps me. I’ll set a timer for 15 minutes and say, ‘Okay, just do something. It doesn’t matter what it is. Just put some dumb thing on your voice memo and then you’ve done your writing work for the day.” But the more I write right now, the easier it is to write. It was always really painstaking for me. If I wrote a song a month, that was a miracle. So the more you write, the more you can write. I guess it seems obvious: “Oh yeah, if you practice something, you get better at it.”
A Cure for Burnout: Finish Something. Anything.
TL: Sometimes the problem with burnout is you just wind up in a self-fulfilling prophecy of defeat and procrastination. But just finishing something you actually like can be enough to get your engine moving. Just finish something, and I don’t even mean the thing you’re burnt out working on. Draw a picture. Write a poem. Do something else that might seem frivolous with a collaborator.
AM: Maybe write a dumb song for someone’s birthday. All that’s at stake is their happiness and your friendship.