Gerry Leonard on Bowie, Spooky Ghosts & Creativity.
Yesterday afternoon I had the pleasure of attending an IMRO Seminar by Dublin-born / New York based guitarist and producer Gerry Leonard. In the past couple of decades he has played with and co-written songs with countless artists, best known among them being David Bowie, Suzanne Vega and Rufus Wainwright. He’s also released a couple of records under the project name of “Spooky Ghost”. I’ve been lucky enough to have seen him play live with both Bowie and Rufus. He’s a very creative and atmospheric player so I was very excited to spend some time in his company.
During the talk, which lasted for a little over an hour and a half, he played some of his own compositions and some David Bowie material and talked about his working methods and how he approaches various creative projects. It’s always a pleasure to listen to good musicians speaking about their passion and very often, the best musicians are the most down to earth generous people you could meet. Gerry seems like an incredibly humble and gracious guy who continues to love and work hard at his craft.
I took a few pages of notes at the seminar which you can read through below if you like.
I will highlight some of the core ideas he touched on below and my thoughts on the same.
1. What’s a perfect Day?
“A perfect day for me involves playing guitar, good espresso and being involved in good musical projects, projects with substance. There is a time for input and a time for output.“
~ I’m forever fascinated with how other creatives spend their time. Good to know coffee is high on Gerry’s priority list too! It’s a nice thing to think about dividing the time between input and output … you can’t always be in creative mode or you’ll burn yourself out. There must be time too for gathering thoughts, experiences, stories and impressions. Creativity then is putting all these strands together in new and interesting ways. He also talked about how he will spend days just figuring out new pedal arrangements and other technical things like this.
2. “Figure out what you’re good at …”
He talked about moving to New York for the first time and realizing that he was now just one more guitarist in a city full of great players. In order to find work, he said it was essential for him to take a step back and figure out exactly what it was that made him unique. That was a nice idea for me, to take the time to look at your own unique set of qualities and figure out how to move forward from there, to step into the maze knowing exactly what you’re about.
He spoke in terms of projects all the time. From years of working with so many different artists it makes sense that he would have a very definite sense of a project and the clear division between each one, and of course the unique challenges that each one brings. As a solo artist, I am forever working on my own stuff… of course I experience different album and tour projects (and the co-write project I’m most excited about The Great Trade) but it’s easy for everything to kind of blur and to lose a sense of direction. I like this language of thinking in projects and solutions. It’s almost scientific. Figure out what the hell it is you’re trying to do and do it.
He talked about working with Suzanne Vega. They set a schedule to meet once a week, every Thursday and work on songs. This is how anything gets done. In small steps. They add up you know. Work out a plan to move the project forward. In fact he even spoke of songwriting as a way to move the project forward. For me the project is the songwriting, but I can see the logic in this though process too. You’re not going too far without songs.
4. First Thought, Best Thought
“Make bad demos, work quickly, play with ideas, first thought best thought” …
He talked about getting the ball rolling when starting on new recording projects… I liked the advice he gave to make bad demos. Don’t be too precious early on, be playful. If it works … great. If not throw it out!
5. Our art doesn’t have to be everyone else’s art
“Be kind to yourself. Try to do our work, but always be kind. Our art doesn’t have to be the same as everyone else’s art. The process is important. You need the input and the output, the highs and the lows” – Gerry Leonard
Here’s Gerry himself speaking on Irish TV about his process in working with David Bowie:
Compliment this article with Peter’s cover version of David Bowie’s Lazarus, then dig into Mason Currey’s wonderful book “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work“.
Discover more about Gerry Leonard on his own blog and at his official twitter.
Thanks for reading! Feel free to share your reactions / further thoughts on the creative process in the comments below.