Introduction: Emerging from the Chrysalis
Something magical happened as I completed this book. One evening just before sunset I was in our backyard watering the planter boxes. On a stem of parsley I noticed a startling pattern of color, concentric rings of orange and black dots. Looking closer I saw the segments of a swallowtail caterpillar and could identify its tiny feet. For the next few days the caterpillar chomped on the parsley plant, absorbing energy for the next stage of its life. I placed a stick in the pot, at an angle to give the caterpillar a place to hang its chrysalis.
The caterpillar’s appearance felt like a message from the universe. For many months I’d been working on transforming interviews I’d conducted with some of the world’s most creative people into a coherent set of chapters. I’d distilled the essence of these interviews into a tonic of ideas about the creative process. And I’d written biographical introductions that sought to put each person’s life in perspective and offer insights about the sources of his or her art.
As I write this, on 2019’s summer solstice, our adopted caterpillar (my wife has given it the gender-neutral name Jordan) is undergoing a miraculous transformation into a butterfly. During the past week, we’ve watched the caterpillar turn into a chrysalis that matches the color of the branch from which it hangs, its striated brown camouflage the antithesis of the colorful creature it was just a few days ago. Yet it’s what is happening inside the chrysalis that is truly astonishing.
The caterpillar is dissolving, using enzymes to digest itself. It’s being broken down into nonspecific cells that can be used for any part of the butterfly. Yet some “highly organized groups of cells known as imaginal discs survive the digestive process,” according to Scientific American. Each of these constellations of cells is programmed to build a specific part of the butterfly. There are imaginal discs for wings, for eyes, for legs, for every part of the butterfly. Typically, after about two weeks, a yellow-and-black swallowtail butterfly will crack open the chrysalis, dry its wings in the morning sun, and fly off seeking nectar.
Why bring up a caterpillar in a book about creativity? First, because it offers such a rich metaphor, and the name “imaginal discs” suggests that making art depends on imagination. And to prepare for its transformation, the caterpillar needs to first feed itself, just as a musician or author must absorb the thoughts and influences that come from songs, books, conversations, memories, and observations. Then many creative people seek to isolate themselves, cocoon-like, to escape the relentless drumbeat of popular culture so they can hear their own voices.
“What I noticed at an early stage was that the writers I admire are living a long way from the world,” the author Pico Iyer told me. “The great originals are originals because they’re living outside the received conversation, outside secondhand words and secondhand ideas, to some extent living in a space of their own where they’re able to hear their deeper self and come up with things completely outside the norm. I think that’s why they really shake us.”
Isn’t that what we crave in this era of information overload: songs or stories that really shake us and offer new ways of seeing the world, of hearing ourselves, of feeling, on a soul level, our deepest truths? That’s why I’ve chosen the 31 creative people in this book. They’re original, pioneering, dynamic, and insatiably curious. The authors, musicians, and others profiled in these pages could coast on their earlier accomplishments, but every one has continued to seek adventurous new avenues for igniting their creative spark. And those who are now deceased, such as Joan Rivers and Sharon Jones, worked until virtually the day they died.
Of course, seeking solitude to hear one’s inner voice doesn’t mean we should shut out those who came before us. As Iowa folk singer Greg Brown says, “I feel links back to a time that not much is known about. Songs, poetry, whatever you want to call it, that urge, it just goes way, way, way back there. And that’s a good connection to feel to life. It’s hard for me to imagine life without that.”
Which takes us back to butterflies. As author Barbara Kingsolver notes, monarch butterflies that travel from Appalachia down to Mexico may live for just a few weeks. During a migration, one generation dies and the next is born—several times. That means a butterfly “returning” from Mexico to Kentucky could be the great-great-grandchild of the one that departed months before. And yet it returns to the exact spot from which its ancestors departed. Scientists don’t fully understand this phenomenon, but perhaps the butterflies’ internal compass is cellular. To consider this in human terms: the knowledge, dreams, hopes, and prayers of our ancestors reside within us. …
Innovative people have a brightness in their eyes, an inquisitive way of looking at the world, a desire to create things, even if those things are not tangible. But that spark doesn’t reside solely in people you may view as artists. It’s in all of us. “Surely something wonderful is sheltered inside you,” writes Elizabeth Gilbert in her book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. “I say this with all confidence, because I happen to believe we are all walking repositories of buried treasure.”
Most of the people profiled in these pages had a moment when they made a creative leap, a commitment to make something new. They took a chance. As a whitewater rafting guide, I think of that moment when my boat drops into a rapid—there’s no turning back. You just have to navigate the rapids as best you can. That’s what it’s been like for many inventive people. They’ve pursued their passion, not knowing where it would take them. They made a commitment and stuck to it, day after day, until the song was written or the book complete. …
Ultimately, The Creative Spark stands as a testament to the highest aspirations of human beings, showing how creativity enlivens our souls and enriches our world. And how it resides in each and every one of us, just waiting to break out.
Sonoma County, California
June 21, 2019
Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone
There’s something about the way Lucinda Williams sings—her songs just tear open your heart. It’s everything from her lyrics to her languid Southern phrasing to the emotion, longing, and desire in her voice. Ultimately it’s Lucinda’s authenticity that resonates with her fans, a legion that’s been building steadily since she released her eponymous album, Lucinda Williams, in 1988.
Though she’d put out a couple of albums nearly a decade earlier, it doesn’t seem coincidental that she titled her 1988 record with her name. That album announced Lucinda to the world with the defiant “Changed the Locks” (covered years later by Tom Petty), the plaintive “Night’s Too Long,” and the upbeat “Passionate Kisses,” which became a global hit and earned her a Grammy for Best Country Song in 1994, after Mary Chapin Carpenter covered it.
Lucinda—most fans call her by her distinctive first name—is often seen as a pioneering Americana artist, blazing a trail for many who’ve followed. Yet to categorize her music would be to diminish her art. You know within seconds that Lucinda’s songs must be hers—she sounds like no one else.
Her breakthrough album was 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, which won the Grammy in the Best Contemporary Folk Album category and which Rolling Stone called a “home-grown masterpiece.” It includes “Lake Charles,” a song about an old boyfriend who still held a place in her heart, and “Drunken Angel,” about a songwriter friend of hers who was shot to death in a bar fight. Both have become linchpins of her live sets. She views her 2016 album, The Ghosts of Highway 20, as a sequel. In Car Wheels, Lucinda is the kid in the backseat looking out the window, she told me, and in Ghosts, “I’m driving the car, looking out the window and looking back, thinking of the losses.”
On her album Blessed, Lucinda included a companion disc of raw early versions of the songs as she was working them up. It was like seeing an artist’s sketches before she paints, alongside the finished work. Many of her best songs have a deep sense of place—Southern locations, such as Slidell and Lake Pontchartrain, add texture to her songs.
I first saw Lucinda play in a small San Francisco nightclub in 1993—I had a girlfriend from the South who said we had to go see her favorite singer. The smoky club was packed—we climbed a stairway to get a better view of the petite firebrand as she set the hazy room ablaze with her singing and guitar playing. Between songs Lucinda would speak confessionally to the audience as if they were long-lost friends. My interviews with Lucinda, first in 2011 then in 2016, confirmed how genuinely open she is.
Midway through our more recent interview, which was scheduled to be a half hour but lasted nearly an hour, Lucinda told me about a family controversy that surrounded her mother’s burial. It was almost like she was confiding in me as though I were a friend, which in hindsight felt ironic because though we’d never met, I felt like she was a companion because her music tapped into my deepest emotions and meant so much to me.
Lucinda Williams was born in 1953 in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Her father, Miller Williams, was a poet and itinerant literature professor, her mother an amateur pianist. Her songs reflect a Southern gothic literary sensibility; in 2016 she told Rolling Stone: “I related to Flannery O’Connor at a young age. My mother’s father was a fire-and-brimstone Methodist preacher. I saw a lot of that kind of thing growing up, and I read about it in O’Connor. Her writing was really dark but also ironic and humorous. It informs a lot of my songs.”
In 2017, Lucinda succeeded in doing something few artists could successfully pull off. She re-recorded her 1992 album Sweet Old World, which she felt hadn’t received the attention it deserved, on its 25th anniversary. The new album, This Sweet Old World, illuminates Williams’ growth as an artist. She’s more confident now though her vulnerability still shines through on songs such as “Something About What Happens When We Talk.” Her voice sounds better than ever, aged and mellowed like a fine bourbon, on compositions such as the re-make of “Sidewalks of the City,” an overlooked gem.
Most recently, I saw Lucinda play at The Fillmore in San Francisco. My wife and I had spent the afternoon in the city at the Women’s March, a day after the January 2017 inauguration of President Trump. It rained heavily and we were drenched, but Lucinda lit up the steamy room. When we arrived we’d felt desolate about the political future of our country, but spending the evening with Lucinda was the perfect tonic. Her show was part protest rally, part revival meeting, and all no-holds-barred kickass rock show.
She opened the concert with the encouraging “Walk On,” and later played “Are You Down” and “Protection”—followed by an encore set that included covers of David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” It was exactly what we needed to hear. Lucinda didn’t sugarcoat anything, but her presence helped a roomful of disparate souls come together and believe that someday everything would be all right.
~ ~ ~
Could you speak about being so open about your emotions?
Well, I consider myself an artist first. It’s self-expression, which is what art is meant to be, is supposed to be. That explains why I’m able to put out that kind of depth with all that feeling and everything. Like an artist who’s painting or a photographer, I look at it in the same way. I do it for myself first to deal with it, to deal with the pain and deal with the situation and circumstances and all. It’s very cathartic and therapeutic. So it starts there and then comes out in the song and goes to other people. I just never felt self-conscious about doing that—maybe because I grew up around poets and writers and short-story writers. In the writing world, it’s done all the time. In other artistic worlds, nobody really questions that. I guess I’m kind of an anomaly in a way.
But isn’t there something more visceral about music that gets in your soul?
I totally agree. People don’t question the depth and all that as much in books and poetry. My dad’s writing, of course, really influenced me. I’m realizing that more and more, the older I get, now that he’s gone. I’ve turned two of his poems into songs, which was very challenging, and now I’m excited because I feel like, Wow, this is a whole new thing here, making a poem into a song really does show you the difference between poems and songs.
His creative writing students would say when Bob Dylan first came out: Bob Dylan’s a poet. And my dad would say: No, he’s a songwriter. When I took my dad’s poems and tried to turn them into songs, I understood what he was saying. He would write a poem about anything from a cat sleeping in a windowsill to a wreck on a highway. He has this one poem he wrote about passing a wreck on the highway on his way to meet with this woman—he has this dying need to be with this woman, and he passes this wreck and gets out. Later he feels guilty because he didn’t stay to help. This is really a tense poem.
My dad used to always say: Never censor yourself. I’m fortunate in that regard—I was very blessed because my father was a poet and sort of a mentor to me. I’ve always been somewhat of a rebel; it’s kind of in my blood. I like to push people’s buttons a little bit. I want people to be moved.
When we spoke years ago you suggested that the main similarity between poetry and songwriting is making every word count.
Exactly. Yes that’s it, and not sugarcoating things. There’s a place for those kinds of songs. I love great pop music—don’t get me wrong. But we’re talking about something else. Every single song doesn’t have to be this cathartic narrative. I saw Bob Dylan going through that. I saw him put out that album (in 1997) Time Out of Mind, that Daniel Lanois produced. I love that album. In the 1960s, half of us didn’t know what he was singing half the time. Time Out of Mind is more about feeling. I am not embarrassed to admit that Bob Dylan was my hero starting from when I was 12 years old in 1965. I just fell madly in love with him and his music and everything.
Right about the time that album came out, I was trying to put songs together for the Essence album. I had just come out of the success of Car Wheels, and Essence ended up being a whole different thing. I gave myself permission to come up with songs like “Are You Down.” At first I thought, I can’t put this out—it doesn’t have all of that lyrical intensity that people are used to, like “Lake Charles” and “Drunken Angel.”
Another folk singer who comes to mind when we are talking about sharing feeling through song and using words poetically is Greg Brown.
He’s great. Why don’t more people know who this guy is?
In 1994, he released an album that was lyrically beautiful and his fans wanted his next album to be similar, but he was inspired to do something quite different.
The only way to deal with that is just do what you’re in, and do it well. That’s one reason I feel blessed because I’ve been able—I’ve kind of worked on that. Like Bob Dylan and Neil Young, you can still be yourself and write good songs and just try and move around a little bit and let it move sloooowww. But some people get stuck and keep doing the same thing over and over. Some people call it the sophomore jinx. You put out one album, and it’s really well-received; then you get kind of stuck. You gotta write through that.
Do you feel that tension between expectations and artistic creativity and freedom?
Not anymore. But I felt it during that period after Car Wheels came out and the next couple of albums. I saw the reviews, and some of the fans’ responses; it was sort of a bumpy road I had to go through and get past. At some point, my fans just went, OK, I get it. This is who she is—she’s going to do this, she’s going to do that, whatever, but it’s still her.
When Essence came out, Robert Christgau (longtime music editor for The Village Voice) who was a huge fan, he was just like, “I don’t get it.” And then Robert Hilburn in L.A. (pop critic for the Los Angeles Times) wrote a glowing review of Essence at which point Robert Christgau went back and re-listened to it and then came out with a better review. It just had to sink in—it was just the shock of it all at first. I knew I was taking a chance—I just hadn’t written songs like that before, like (the song) “Essence.” I was kind of allowing the music to guide the songs more than I’d done before. I was just growing.
I’ve grown to the point where this is a good place to be. I am who I am. Oh God, I just quoted Popeye! (laughs). I am who I am and that’s all that I am.
I’d like to talk about the Ghosts of Highway 20 album because it’s so moving. I was in the South recently on Highway 20, so I’d like to ask you about the connection between road and place and memory.
What I’ve realized is that the song, “The Ghosts of Highway 20,” is like the song “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” part two. In “Car Wheels” I was the child in the back seat looking out the window, and in “Ghosts of Highway 20” it’s 40 or 50 years later. I’m driving the car, looking out the window and looking back. I’m kind of looking at the same thing, but in “Car Wheels” my parents are in the front seat driving, I hear the low rumble of their conversation, and I’m describing all these things. In “Ghosts of Highway 20,” I’m older. Now I’m an adult and I’m driving through and thinking of the losses.
What initiated that song was I’d gone back to Macon, Georgia, to play at the old Cox Theater, which had been recently renovated. That’s where the Allman Brothers used to play. I was amazed at how little had changed in the town. Macon is where I started school in the early ’60s. It’s where my dad took me downtown to hear this blind preacher street fair guy by the name of Blind Pearly Brown. He used to play on the street corner in downtown Macon. I was probably about six years old. That’s where we lived when he took me to meet Flannery O’Connor, who lived in Milledgeville, Georgia. We drove to her house, so all this stuff happened there. That part of my life was all around in that area there.
I realized later that Highway 20 runs through Jackson, Mississippi, where my sister was born. My dad was teaching at Millsaps College in 1957. And Vicksburg, Mississippi, where my brother was born. We moved around a lot when I was growing up. My dad was teaching, and he finally achieved tenure at the University of Arkansas, but that wasn’t until 1971. From the time I was born in 1953 until we moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas in 1971, he taught for a year or two here, and a year or two there. LSU in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is a big part of my life too, but those very early years were in that real deep Civil War area, also where a lot of blues artists were born and died. It’s just such a rich area.
How have you seen the road change?
When I was writing “The Ghosts of Highway 20,” I was imagining the roads that we would drive down then, which were two-lane blacktops. You don’t see a lot of those things that I describe, like the signs along the highway that say, “Repent now. The end is coming.” The dinosaur or the snake ranch, we’d stop and go in and look at these weird things. That’s a change that is hard to deal with because on the one hand it’s a lot easier to travel now. You have freeways and all that. I miss that time. I guess it’s easy to look back and romanticize it; I miss that part of the South. It’s still there, but you gotta look for it now. Macon looks like it’s stuck in time almost.
I need to visit my mother’s grave in Monroe, Louisiana, which also runs off of Highway 20. We were going to have a cremation and a memorial service. Her side of the family was completely different than my dad’s side of the family. Her father was a minister, and they moved around all over Louisiana. She had four brothers—she was the only girl—they didn’t like my dad. He was college educated and a poet. That’s a whole ’nother story. Her brother and his wife came, drove to Arkansas, which is where she passed away. I was in charge, being the oldest child; it was left up to me to organize everything.
Long story short, she ended up being buried in her family’s plot in Monroe, which I could tell you right now is not where she wanted to be. I didn’t even know there was a family plot. It’s a cemetery, is it going to be overgrown with weeds? I was so upset I didn’t even go to the funeral so of course I’ve been dealing with that guilt ever since then. I told Tom (Overby), my husband: We need to take a road trip, go to Monroe.
Do you feel like church and gospel music has influenced you?
On Blessed is a song called, “A Little More Faith and Grace.” That was a song that Mississippi Fred McDowell recorded; I changed the words, and I took the Jesus out of it. I didn’t want it to be Christian; I just wanted it to be spiritual. Both of my grandfathers were Methodist preachers. My dad’s father was a Christian in the true sense of the word. He was for equal rights and women’s rights.
One of my dad’s brothers, he was married, beautiful woman, two beautiful kids. He came out, this was back in the ’80s when it was not a comfortable place to be. My dad used to love this story: He said my uncle Travis sat down with my grandmother and said, Mother, I have something to tell you. She said, OK, what is it son? And he said, I’m a homosexual. She said: Oh lord, I thought you were going to tell me you’re a Republican. That’s my dad’s side of the family, hardcore Democrat. My grandfather was described as a socialist Democrat.
Like Bernie Sanders?
Exactly like Bernie. That’s why I loved Bernie. He reminded me of my grandfather on my dad’s side. Gospel music is just beautiful, the old hymns. That’s what inspired that song I wrote for my dad after he went, “(Let Me Know) If There’s a Heaven.”
That’s an amazing song. You have another song, “If My Love Could Kill.”
I had that line, if my love could kill, and I was trying to work it into a song somewhere because I just love the imagery of that. I don’t remember if I wrote it right before my father died or right after that, but it was pretty close to the time of his death.
We watched Alzheimer’s consume my grandfather, and it was like watching somebody die while they are still alive.
Yes, it’s horrible. It’s the most horrific disease because that’s exactly what happens. Your body shuts down eventually, but it’s not as if our dad was in bad physical health. He was in great physical health, and then that happens. It’s just tragic. It seems to happen to the most brilliant minds. I love performing that song. It feels good.
Does it make you feel reconnected to your father?
Yes, the other one I love to perform and that everybody’s really been taken with is “Dust,” the one that I did from his poem. People just love that. People have really embraced that song.
Do most people know it comes from your father’s poetry?
Yes, I tell them.
What’s the other song based on your father’s poetry?
It’s called “Compassion” from the album, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone. “Ghosts of Highway 20” was the last song I wrote for this album. “Dust” was written kind of towards the end.
How about “Louisiana Story”—what’s that song about?
I’ve been working on that for years. That’s kind of “Bus to Baton Rouge” part two. I’m reimagining my grandmother’s house in Baton Rouge, my grandparents on my mother’s side, the last place they lived.
You refer to ghosts often. Are they family or friends or places?
The ghosts are just part of my childhood, remaining memories. The ghosts are kind of like the spirits of my memory or something. You could say it literally, like my mother is buried in Monroe, and she’s gone now. But also just losing your childhood, that kind of loss too. You could also point to the Delta blues artists I grew up listening to and loved and who inspired me and influenced my music so much, who are from that area and buried around there. And you can also look at it like we were talking about the loss and change in the South with the advent of the modern highways and how it obscures a lot of that stuff that you used to see when you would drive.
Would you name a couple of Delta blues artists who influenced you over the years?
Pretty much all of them. Memphis Minnie, Robert Johnson of course, Skip James, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf.
Can you offer insight into the process of how you write a song?
Whenever I’m writing songs to get ready to make a record, I write by myself, my guitar and me, for my benefit. I record them into a tape recorder. I can’t write music so I got to get it down on tape so I can remember the melody and stuff. I work by myself, and I play it for Tom—he’s my best critic. You need to have a sounding board—there’s nothing like that feeling of finishing a new song. I take it up to Tom, and he listens to it. I wait for him to come back down from his office. I can tell by the look on his face, OK, does he like it? He’ll have a big smile on his face and say: It’s great honey. It’s great. And I go, Really, you like it? That’s the process.
You covered Bruce Springsteen’s song “Factory.” What led you to do that?
I met him before and consider him certainly an acquaintance. He sat in with us one time when we played in London. I worked that song up during the Occupy Wall Street movement. We were playing at the Fillmore. Tom came up with the idea of putting together a group of songs as a tribute to the workers, the working class. And that was one of the songs, “Factory,” which Tom turned me on to. It’s not one of Bruce’s more well-known songs. I just loved it. I loved the simplicity of it, what it said, the lines in it, the melody.
We wanted to put it on the album as a tribute to Tom’s dad because Tom grew up, believe it or not, in the small working-class town of Austin, Minnesota, where his dad worked at the Hormel meatpacking plant for 30-plus years. That line, “I’ve seen men walk through these gates with death in their eyes.” And Tom said, “I’ve seen those men. My dad was one of those guys, and he got out.” Usually in those towns it’s a very generational thing—if your dad worked in the factory, you worked in the factory. And Tom lost his dad a couple of months before mine.
Is “Can’t Close the Door on Love” autobiographical, and is that about Tom as well?
You know, yeah, I mean kind of, yeah. That was one I started a few years before and never did finish. You know, that was probably one of those days when we had a big argument or something.
Well, like all your songs, it’s honest.
One last question: Your writing has a strong sense of place…
It just comes out, that’s just attention to detail. I did move around a lot when I was growing up, and I’ve always enjoyed the character of different towns and different feels and different accents. The names of towns, it just adds so much more interest to the song.