“You’re My Hero” – Understanding the “Why” of Our Influences and Us

Every artist gets into art because of someone else. We see what others have done and say to ourselves “That looks like fun! I want to do that!” But simply copying those we look up to doesn’t work in the long term. We, as artists, need to strive to better ourselves, so that one day hopefully WE are the influencers. How do we do that? How do we create a mixture of those we admire and our own personality? It begins by understanding the “why.”

On the outset, the vast majority of creatives start by simply emulating. To learn an instrument you learn to play existing songs; to learn to paint you learn existing styles, so on and so forth. Our budding minds are taking this information and subconsciously filtering it through our perspectives and experiences. It might not come out in our work at this time, but it’s beginning. This emulation stage is incredibly important for one’s creative growth, because not only are you learning your craft, you’re (hopefully) learning why your favorite songs/paintings/etc. are your favorites. Why is McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby” so catchy? Why is Picasso’s “Starry Night” so beautiful? Learning the “why” behind your favorite pieces opens up the creative universe for you to travel.

As embarrassing as it is to admit, it took me a long time to learn this fact. When I was a teenager, I wanted to learn how to play guitar and my parents booked me a guitar teacher. However, this teacher, while a good guitarist, was not so good at keeping an easily distracted teen on track. As such, I ended up spending over a year effectively memorizing tabs to my then-favorite songs because he could figure them out by ear. It was easy and after a while I (very foolishly) thought this was how it was done. I wasn’t yet filtering my influences as much as I was simply regurgitating what they’d done. I did try to write a few songs, but I got nowhere because I was simply copying riffs from other people. Near the end my teacher lightly tried to get me going on some rudimentary music theory, but I soon stopped taking lessons altogether because I was bored. I was absorbing, but I didn’t understand the “why” in order to apply what I had absorbed. Do I blame my old guitar teacher for not keeping me focused from the start and effectively delaying my progress by years? No. He was getting paid for what was probably easy work. Do I wish I would have known certain things regarding art appreciation sooner? Yes, but that’s all in the past and also why I’m telling you this now!

It wasn’t until college that I started to learn how to appreciate art, why a piece is considered good, and how to filter influences. Gaining this foundation was vital to my growth and it’s vital to every artist’s growth. You start by emulating, yes, but then, once you begin to learn the “why” of art, and after a some time, practice, and study, you must begin to add your own flavor to the recipe. You keep going, keep creating and eventually you notice you’re crafting something you haven’t seen before, but you like VERY much. Every artist needs to strive to eventually find their own identity and apply your own “stamp” to your work. I am still working on this, as I think many many artists, even the well established ones, are as well.

A trick I learned to help move myself along on this path is to look at what you’re doing and say to yourself “what is one thing I can change in this piece?” Then try to alter that bit by doing something you haven’t done before. This might involve moving outside your comfort zone, but don’t be afraid. In fact, strive to try things outside your comfort zone. It doesn’t have to be drastic, either. A little can go a long way. By doing this you’ll force yourself to grow towards being a better artist. It might not always be successful, but at least then you’ll know what DOESN’T work and you’ll have gained some knowledge because of it.

I’m specifically applying this practice to my song sketches. While degrees of success may vary, I’ve been actively working to inject new ideas (for me) into the songs. Could I rely on sitting down with an acoustic and bang out a song? Yes. Do I want to? NO. There’s no fun in that (for me) and frankly I think if that’s all I did it’d be boring for you, too.

Plus, that’s not what my influences would do/have done. I’m not going to name any specific artists (although a few you might easily guess just by listening to my songs), but my main influences cover a lot of ground and are/were constantly trying new things. I feel that is a far more important take away than just their style, which is easy enough to emulate.

So take a look at what you’re doing now and who has done it before. Look at how they added themselves into their work and why it works so well. Then, look at what you’re doing and find ways to add yourself into the mix while still honoring those who got you to where you are. Then, one day, hopefully someone will do the same to you.