“Every good story starts from a wound.”
This is how Matt North – a professional session drummer – describes his approach to writing his first solo album, Above Ground Fools. He told me, “If it’s a song that’s going to have substance and an undercurrent, it’s nice if it comes from something that is real.”
In particular, North likes to write about how people overcome adversity. “I’ve realized through making this album that something I really like to write about is failure. Because I think it’s universal,” he said. “What I’m interested in is how people face it and dig themselves out of holes and move on.”
And North has had his share of failure. As an example, in addition to the repeated failed auditions facing any professional musician, North was cast to play the William Morris agent of Jason Alexander’s character for seven episodes of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, but was only able to film one episode when Alexander left the series to star in Bob Patterson.
“I’m not dishonest about how difficult that was. I had canceled all of my music for the spring,” he recalled. “I’m putting my pants on to go to work, and they call me up and say, ‘Don’t bother coming in.’”
Despite the pain, North sees such experiences as critical to long-term success. Referring to the distinction that Jim Collins makes between failure and fallure, North sees failure as a harmful process in which one doesn’t give their best effort while fallure is a constructive process by which we push ourselves to our limits, thus making progress regardless of the outcome.
“I saw a guy (Collins) on The Charlie Rose show, and he came up with the term ‘fallure.’ The example he gave was, imagine yourself hanging on a cliff and you’re using all of the strength you possibly can to keep hanging on,” North recalled. “And you hang on for as long as you possibly can, to the point of where you let yourself fall – you just can’t take it any more. If someone does that, I don’t consider it failure.”
“It’s noble that you hung on as long as you did.”
In contrast, he sees failure as perhaps less noble. “Let’s say you have a goal that you’re trying to do, and you let go of that cliff long before, when you could have held on for another year, another two years,” he said. “Consciously giving up and quitting – I consider that failure.”
As a result, North feels that his main focus in life is to push himself to fallure in everything he does – particularly his music. “Any audition circumstance, I only have one rule for myself … to be able to get through the audition and to be able to reflect on it and know that there wasn’t anything else I could have done,” North explained. “If I do all I can do, and I’m happy with the way I played, but I wasn’t chosen – was it a failure? I don’t think so. I think it just wasn’t a fit. It’s also, what did I learn from this so I can do better next time?”
Part of North’s ethos stems from his approach to music and songwriting. Rather than seeing songwriting as the result of random inspiration, North feels that songwriting is simply a matter of hard work. As a result, he keep to a strict daily regimen.
“This has never been anything but a blue collar job. And I laugh at any musician who has a part of their mind who someday if they work hard enough, this is going to be a white collar job. As a drummer, I’m like a carpenter who helps you build your house,” North described. “I’m not someone who believes this is terribly mystical or magical. I think it’s about who sits down in a chair and can stare at a blank page and put a lot of time and effort into it. For me, inspiration doesn’t hit until after I sit down and put in the effort.”
“Inspiration is the result of my sitting down when I’m not feeling inspired.”
While seemingly random inspiration can at times occur even when North isn’t actively working on his music, he feels that these moments are perpetuated by regular work on songwriting. “Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones said a great line. He said, ‘I really don’t have to write anything. I just have to keep my antennae up there to grab all of those ideas in the sky,’” North recalled. “But the more we work, the more that antenna catches those ideas. When you put that time in every day, you will reflect on it throughout the rest of your day … I’ll get an idea while mowing the lawn. Well, that idea was usually connected to something I was writing before.”
“Inspiration comes after the perspiration.”
“Every day I hear this amazing salesman in my head that tells me I don’t have to sit down and work on this song I’m trying to finish,” North described. “ The only way out is to go directly through it. That’s what scares people the most – there are no short cuts. I’m against creative people who ted to romanticize being a mess. They tend to mythologize the iconic rock stars who came before us who were alcoholics, drug addicts, clinical narcissists and they’ve gone through all this struggle.”
“Most of the people I know who get things done have their shit together.”
When writing Above Ground Fools, North found that he’d often experience fallure in songs that ultimately did not make the album. “I think that in order to get ten songs on an album … I had to weather through all of those other songs where I would call it a false start,” he said.
Right now, North is not experiencing much failure or fallure with his new album. In reviewing Above Ground Fools, That Music Magazine wrote, “This is the kind of music that settles into your head like it’s always lived there.” And Stereo Embers Magazine described the album as “a terrific, solid, highly recommendable record.”
But North knows that fallure is part of success. And so he has a simple plan for being ready in case things don’t turn out so well:
“Feeling OK with and laughing at falling on your face.”
Michael A. Friedman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with offices in Manhattan and South Orange, NJ, and is a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Contact Dr. Mike at michaelfriedmanphd.com. Follow Dr. Mike on Twitter @drmikefriedman