Posted on September 2, 2007 at 4:08 pm
Chris Goss writes:
I am currently at the beginning of my career as a television writer. You spoke at my college several years back, California State University, Fullerton, and I found a tremendous amount of honesty in how you addressed both the performers and the audience.
My question pertains to how success has changed you as an artist. As a young writer my goal is to achieve the seemingly impossible: actually get paid a wage to write something that more than my friends and family will read, watch and ultimately be affected by. That drive often layers directly into my creativity and passion to sit behind my keyboard, or open a blank pad of paper. Do you find that with success, fame and financial stability it becomes more difficult for you to churn out your material? On top of that, do you ever find that you are overwhelmed by what “they” – fans, executives, your own family – want in your attempt to live up to material written during a totally different time in your life? With success comes change. Do you find that to be true in how and what you write?
JRB takes a deep breath and says:
I’m often taken aback at how long I’ve been doing this, and I am amazed that I’ve stuck it out this long. But since I was at least fourteen, I have been single-mindedly devoted to the dream of being a professional writer, and it turns out that that’s exactly what I have become. Everything else I’m about to say pales before that. I have the unbelievable good fortune to do the thing that I’m most passionate about.
Of course I approach my work differently than I did when I was in high school, and there are positives and negatives to that. The most significant difference is that when I was a teenager I made it a goal to write a song every week, and most of the time I did. Even when I first got to New York, I was cranking out material all the time – if I met a singer I liked, I wrote her a song; if someone was doing a concert of young writers and was accepting submissions, I wrote a song; if they weren’t accepting submissions, I wrote a song anyway. Cabarets? Weddings? Auditions? Whatever anyone asked for, I wrote it, and on top of that I wrote songs for my own shows and my own concerts.
Thus far, thirty-four weeks into 2007, I’ve written fourteen songs. Ten of them were written for the second act of Honeymoon In Vegas (three of which were cut almost immediately after I wrote them). If it hadn’t been for that show, I wouldn’t have written much of anything this year. Writing has really become a job for me. It’s still a lot of fun, I don’t mean to suggest that it’s drudgery, but the whole sense of exploring my voice, discovering my art, bursting to life, that’s all gone now.
Which, if you’re a romantic, might sound horrible. But in fact, it’s great. What’s disappeared from my writing in the last four or five years is the empty grandstanding and showing off that informs so much of my earlier work. I’m not embarrassed by my old songs – in fact, I loved playing Songs for a New World at Strathmore earlier this year and rediscovering that material – but I’m very conscious of the effort. You can hear me, in virtually every bar and every lyric, working to let everyone know I was on my game. And now when I listen to young writers, I can hear it in their work: “Listen to me! I’m good! I deserve to be heard!”
Listen to Sondheim’s lyrics in West Side Story; they’re dazzling, but they’re effortful. Contrast that with Sunday in the Park With George, where Sondheim is so effortlessly in command of his craft that you barely even notice that the songs rhyme. I’m obviously not on that level, but if I compare Songs for a New World to The Last Five Years, I can hear the difference immediately. And 13 and Honeymoon In Vegas are even more assured, more comfortable.
The danger is that things get too comfortable, and I forget to challenge myself, or I fall back on certain tricks because I know how well they’ve worked in other songs. I think I’ve gotten to a place where my work has a clearly identifiable voice, but I have to be careful not to let that voice become the only one I know how to use.
It’s also scary knowing that so many artists did their best work when they were much younger than I am now. Paul McCartney was only twenty-five years old when Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released; I can’t even begin to wrap my head around the idea of writing such mature and accomplished material at that age, but it’s possible that history will look much more kindly on the Jason Robert Brown who wrote “King of the World” and “Stars and the Moon” than on the writer I’ve become and that I’m, frankly, much prouder of. All of my songwriting heroes had their biggest hits fairly early on in their careers, and it’s complicated to determine whether that represents their best work or not: Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Elton John, Stevie Wonder. Luckily, in the theater, there seems to be more room for a composer to grow, but it’s certainly not guaranteed to happen.
It may be that all that showing off and grandstanding is what makes some art explode off of the wallpaper. Maybe my voice was never clearer than when it was unadulterated by my so-called “professionalism” and “technique.” To be sure, I’d never write “She Cries” now the way I wrote it when I was twenty years old, but whether or not that’s a good thing is a question I find impossible to answer.
My writing has to do a lot of things these days, and chief among them is feeding my family (or, more accurately, paying my mortgage). It’s really weird for me to think that I make enough money from the songs I write to have a nice house in Los Angeles and two cars and a dog and an assistant and a nanny, but it’s true. But when I made that transition from Dreamer to Businessman, there was a trade-off. I used to have Things I Wanted To Say; now I have to balance that with the knowledge of what people are ready to hear. An artist isn’t supposed to admit that, I’m supposed to be entirely removed from commercial considerations, but l’m too old for that shit. I can’t be alone on the mountaintop at this point in my life. My daughter and my wife (and my dog and my assistant) need me, and they need the income that my work provides.
Does that make it harder for me to write? No, in fact, it’s the exact opposite: I don’t spend time chasing rainbows these days, I don’t spend hours in rapt contemplation of some Undefined New Sound, I’ve got shows to write. And while I remain one of the world’s master procrastinators, I love it when the shows start going the way I want them to.
Ultimately, the process is still the same: something in my head is trying to sing, and I have to let it out. All this other stuff is just commentary. At the end of the day, regardless of the pressure and regardless of the past, I get to lay my hands on the keys, open my mouth and my heart, and let it fly.