When it comes to being a success in the music industry, Jesse Cannon has a pretty sweet track record: He’s a quadruple-threat producer, engineer, manager and podcaster who has worked with an eclectic and extensive list of bands including the Cure, Brand New, Limp Bizkit, Saves The Day and Basement. He’s also had success documenting how the industry works with his widely acclaimed book, Get More Fans.
Now he’s using what he’s learned to tackle the preconceived notions about the creative side of music in his new book, Processing Creativity: The Tools, Practices And Habits Used To Make Music You’re Happy With. Jonathan Diener chatted with Cannon to learn more about his new book and how he thinks bands can achieve true creative freedom and happiness with their music.
I feel like the concept for this book would spawn from a conversation I’d have with my music friends around 3 a.m. at a party that we’d all forget about the next day. What made you pursue this idea?
Yes! I’m very good at documenting those kinds of things. A lot of this book is about documenting good habits. I have a very good habit of saying something to someone and then going, “I need a second to throw that in my OmniFocus app.” When I finished Get More Fans, I chopped 300 pages out of it that were more about songwriting, handling collaboration and things like that. Obviously since the book was already 700 pages, I wanted to get it below 1,000. It was too long and no publisher would print it because it was too big. When it came to the next book, I wanted to write the 4-Hour Workweek for musicians. Then I read a bunch of books about this and realized this would be way better.
I listen to podcasts about music all day and they don’t get that there’s a scientific reason that there’s even further things you can do, so I wanted to have that discussion. Once I started doing that in my productions, it was crazy how much better records got from doing some of the techniques from the book. It’s that usual thing of following my interests.
Does the book focus more on your personal experiences recording bands or your scientific research?
It was definitely the personal experience. A lot of Get More Fans was just the idea of “this is what all the good bands I knew would do.” I’m tired of answering this for the fifth time, I’d rather link you to an article and say it eloquently. A lot of the collaboration chapter was from working with a bunch of nightmare humans. I wanted to figure out why it went wrong. I started reading all of this science because of what was happening in the studio. I was dating a neuroscientist at the time, so she’d give me her login and papers on that subject. That helped a lot, too. It was a lot of “perfect storm” stuff.
So when it comes to emotion in music, what is your take on its importance?
I’m on record number 1,400 or 1,500 that I’ve worked on and there are some patterns you start to see. When I worked with Ross Robinson, I learned the more people made the choices to evoke emotion rather than make a sick riff or make something complicated, it had a better result. My least favorite is when people say, “Less is more.” Quantity is not an emotion. I’ve been really lucky that I’m friends with people who are in the studio with Dr. Luke or working with the weirdest metal records or huge indie musicians from where I live. When the stupid V-neck, swoopy hair Myspace bullshit trend of bands wanting to be people came around, it didn’t last. It’s more using your emotions than trying to guess what people want.
Are there general ways bands can get bigger, or do they have to focus on what works best for themselves as individuals?
I think you can explore what’s inside of you and that’s what people connect with. That’s really what the book is about. I make the joke where if you make atonal polka-infused songs, if that’s what’s resonant to you and that’s what happiness sounds like to you when you write a happy song or have a weird singing voice, I do truly believe the people can get really get good at expressing themselves in a certain way under certain limitations of their sound. I think about when I worked with the Cure. Robert Smith was never like, “Let me imitate this thing,” it was like he knew what tools and music were there and knew whether the song was getting closer or further away from the emotion. That was a big lesson for me, considering he’s one of the best songwriters of all time. I think if you get good at having a brain category of what, to you, feels like a good emotion, that’s how songs that will connect with more people are made.
Is there an actual way to harness pure artistic expression like Robert Smith would or does that vary depending on the artist?
A lot of that is creating an environment where people are vulnerable and open to ideas. You have to get good at expressing your emotions to want to do this. It makes you a better person, a better bandmate and it also makes music people like [you] more. Some of that technique is about getting okay with it. It’s easier for some of us who play the music people describe as “emo,” but it’s just such a pursuit.
Is this book geared toward people trying to get a bigger fanbase or for self-fulfillment in music?
The reason the title is Music You’re Happy With is because that’s the only thing you can control. It’s ironic since my other book is Get More Fans, but success is you being happy, proud and pursuing it. You talk to a band, make a record and in three months all you hear is everything you wish you did differently. When are we supposed to judge when the Velvet Underground was a big band since no one liked them when they were around? Or judge Refused by their fanbase on the day they broke up? I was there, there were 35 people there. Compared to when they played to 7,000 people in New York 15 years later. We have to make music that makes us happy, then put it out in the world and promote it hard.
What were some facts you researched that surprised you?
You ever hear, “Don’t tell me how to play my instrument and I won’t tell you how to play yours?” Google did this thing called Project Aristotle where they kind of had a thing like—you know how every supergroup record sucks? What [Project Aristotle] discovered was putting every best player on a team wouldn’t get the best results. What it’s actually about is good players in a great environment. You just need to follow better rules in an environment to get the best results. In the best bands I know, everyone is throwing in ideas in a pretty healthy way. The bands that have a healthier environment do better. It’s not just everyone being nice, [but] like one guitarist being really fucking bad and everyone just lets him play his parts. Then the record suffers from everything that could have been better.
Are you gearing toward a certain type of person with this book?
I definitely wanted to change how much I think music was going in a bad emotional way, in that rock was getting too much about imitation. I also wanted to change the way the suits think about [the creative process] how I talked about in the beginning of the book, all the labels talk about nurturing creativity. But why do they tell bands they only have a month to write a record between tours? I tell the story of Thrice not being happy with The Artist In The Ambulance because they didn’t have enough time to work on it. Then when they made something groundbreaking like Vheissu. I want the suits to see they should be more beholden to emotion. For big labels, whatever the last stupid thing they heard about a song they treat it as the bible. That needs to change.
Is it important for labels to fund long songwriting sessions and studio time to spawn creativity and raw emotion? Maybe even not set a deadline at all?
Yes. I argued for this thing called phased check-ins. I don’t necessarily think you can put a time on how long it takes each person to create. It’s good to have feedback from somebody outside of the band about these phases of writing a record and to not rush them. Like this huge band who had no vocals written and said they always do it that way. Well, what the old guard of major labels that spent all that money was really good about was the chaos we saw of the punk scene, bands that think they could do things that way, wouldn’t get to happen. You needed completed demos to get funding and keep going. In the more pop-based things, they’d decide if they need to send you to a producer to keep writing. Despite major labels’ ability to suck the life out of everything, there were some good practices that led to great records.