Rising Music Star Rob Graves: “Why everyone should understand that they are inherently creative”

I think everyone should understand that they are inherently creative. Many people view their jobs as non-creative, but I really think being creatively active is the natural state for people to live in. When you’re creating, you’re living in the present and giving that moment all of your attention. That focus on the “now” moment […]

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I think everyone should understand that they are inherently creative. Many people view their jobs as non-creative, but I really think being creatively active is the natural state for people to live in. When you’re creating, you’re living in the present and giving that moment all of your attention. That focus on the “now” moment is how you find peace and contentment, by not really worrying about the past or future. Creating helps bring us into this state.

Rob Graves is a Maine native and now divides his time mostly between New England and Franklin, TN. He is a multi-platinum producer, songwriter, and musician and his work has sold over 5 million records, with his combined body of writing and production generating billions of streams. Graves has earned two Grammy nominations and is a 5-time Dove Award recipient. Graves has enjoyed an impressive two hundred and sixty straight weeks (five years) of songs he’s either written or produced in the active rock top 40, including two number one songs (Halestorm and All That Remains,) several top five hits, and multiple number one rock albums within that span, and remarkably has written and produced over twenty-five number one songs across all Billboard formats, working with such artists as Richard Marx, Benjamin Burnley (Breaking Benjamin), and Joy Williams (The Civil Wars).

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Thanks so much for having me! I’ve been a songwriter and record producer for almost two decades now, and it’s a perfect example of the career that chooses you. Music always came naturally to me growing up, even though I really tried to do other things — I even went to college with the intention of being a doctor. But it seemed like no matter what I did, opportunities in music just kept falling into my lap, so I finally gave up and moved to Nashville. It all happened pretty quickly for me once I was there.

The one major change that’s happened recently, however, is I’ve decided to release a solo project. Throughout my career, I never really had a desire to pursue a solo career (and in many ways I still don’t), but recently I wanted to explore the creative process more intimately, so my solo piano project “Solstice” was born of that. It’s led to a much deeper study on the creative process, and I’m in the initial stages of writing a book on the topic.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your music career?

Sometime in the middle of my career, maybe five or six years ago, my publisher (then EMI) set me up to write with a huge R&B producer in New York. I’d rather not say exactly who this is, but he is a massive producer with many more hits than I’ll ever have. Let’s just say I felt a little out of my league. Anyway, I got to his studio and we sort of hit it off and started writing a track. He had this team of three or four other producers around him, all of them very talented, just hanging out in the background at their workstations, listening to what we were doing and programming little ideas to go with it. The overall energy was more intense than anything I’d experienced in writing before — just complete creative focus.

I noticed that at certain points, other people would be ushered in and would wait in the back of the studio for maybe ten minutes or so before being ushered back out — and he’d never stop working. It was like he didn’t even notice them. I was confused at first, but I eventually realized that these were all other writers or producers that he had appointments with. He was just passively clearing his day by ignoring them and waiting until they left.

I’m sure I wouldn’t have liked this story very much if I’d been one of those other writers, but watching this guy work was amazing. He’d latched onto one of my ideas and didn’t want to let it go. We worked all day until about 2 in the morning on the song — he called in two or three random musicians at different times, a celloist, a pianist, etc., and they just dropped whatever they’d been doing and came right in. It was an incredible experience, because I would tend to work on an idea a little and put it away, then come back to it, over and over. He was like a steamroller. He really capitalized on that fire that erupts when something cool first starts to happen, and he pushed everything else aside for it. That day really shaped how I create now.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I just finished a new record with RED, a band I’ve worked with a lot in the past. We feel this record is really special and can’t wait for people to hear it this year when it releases.

I’m about to start a still unannounced rock album in a month or so, but in the meantime I’m focusing on my solo piano project, “Solstice,” releasing Feb. 28th. I’m still composing more songs in that ambient, soundscape style, and hope to continue releasing similar projects as I go.

And lastly, as I mentioned earlier, I’m in the beginning stages of writing a book on the creative process.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

This is easy for me — Mutt Lange. I’ve met him twice, and I know he’d never remember either time, but I’ll never forget them. This is the biggest and greatest living record producer we’re talking about here, and both times he was literally the nicest person I’ve ever met. Not just to me directly, but to everyone. He made everyone around him feel important and valued — I can’t tell you how much I respect that, and how much I learned from it. Mutt is the only record producer who really makes me wonder if I know at all what I’m doing, just because he’s so good at it.

Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?

I’m always inspired by people who are able to do something completely foreign to the world they’re in, and redefine things for everyone. I think of the Brontës, or Mary Shelley, all of them able to write incredible works of fiction during a time when women writers weren’t taken very seriously. Or writers like Ambrose Bierce and Nabakov, who both practically reinvented the narrative voice of their times. It might seem funny that as a musician I’m drawing examples from literature, but I love to read and I pull a ton of influence from fiction.

I’m also incredibly inspired by the work of Alan Watts. I believe reading his philosophy books and listening to his talks really helped me unlock my creativity even further.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

This is a question I asked myself just a year or two ago and decided that maybe I wasn’t doing enough. I’m fortunate to be able to hear from fans who sometimes tell me that my music has helped them through rough times, or inspired them to do something. That’s obviously great, but it’s just a byproduct of what I’m already doing. So, I began to share a lot more on Twitter about the creative process and what I’ve learned over the years as a creative professional, and I try to do that in a positive and encouraging way. I also started posting improvised piano pieces to YouTube, more as a thank you to my followers than anything else.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I think everyone should understand that they are inherently creative. Many people view their jobs as non-creative, but I really think being creatively active is the natural state for people to live in. When you’re creating, you’re living in the present and giving that moment all of your attention. That focus on the “now” moment is how you find peace and contentment, by not really worrying about the past or future. Creating helps bring us into this state.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

The best thing I did for myself and my career was to move away from a major music city, and work from afar. It’s so easy to sink inside a bubble when you’re constantly surrounded by your work, and soon it creates this feedback loop, where your only input is just your output, and nothing new is being introduced. Granted, I wouldn’t have been able to live in rural New England and be a songwriter or producer without first establishing myself in Nashville, but I really encourage people to try and find ways to get outside of their normal working environment. I would also stress having a varied “diet” of inputs from related areas. For example, as a musician I try to consume everything from poetry to literature to photography to sculpture — anything and everything that inspires. I can then hopefully use that to bring some freshness to my music.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1. Indecision is worse than any choice you can make.

This probably sounds weird to most people, but I’ve come to understand it’s true. I used to labor so much over decisions but really, anything can work. Just pick something and go. If it’s “wrong” then you’ll know it soon enough and can change tactics then. But indecision paralyzes. Before you know it, years can go by and still no choice — or progress — has been made.

2. Don’t focus on the outcome.

When we worry about the outcome of something — how successful it will be, how much money it will make, if it will lead to something else — we do it for the wrong reasons. The best work will always be work that is done for its own sake.

3. It’s all just play.

I mean it. When you aren’t worried about the outcome, the pressure goes away, and that’s the really beautiful part. When you see a child playing, maybe skipping back and forth over a puddle, consider what she’s not doing. She’s not trying to see how high or far she can go, she’s not trying to do it so many times per minute, she’s not trying to get a degree in it. She’s simply doing it just to do it. It is its own reward — and our own work can be this way when we detach from outcomes. Detachment can also serve as a signpost: once you stop caring if your novel will make you a millionaire, would you still want to write it? You can see your own motivations so much more clearly this way, and often end up finding what you really want to be doing.

4. The beginner’s mind is superior to the expert’s mind.

There’s a Zen proverb that’s something like, “To the expert’s mind, there are few ways; to the beginner’s mind, there are many ways. Always have the beginner’s mind.” I’ve realized that true learning is actually unlearning. The more of my knowledge I can drop while creating, the less I’m influencing and shaping what really wants to come out. In the past I always tried to put too much of “myself” into something. You might otherwise know this as “trying to hard,” or, how it’s impossible to actually “act natural” when someone tells you to “act natural. The only way to act natural is not to act. Because in order to “act,” you need prior knowledge, and you need to “try.” When this knowledge and trying are put aside, what’s truly natural can emerge.

5. The voice in your head isn’t really you.

That little inner critic can be devastating in a lot of ways. For many, it will just silence them by telling them their work will never be good enough, and these people believe it. But this voice is just the primal reptile-brain, and it’s the thing that doesn’t want you to change, because to it, change equals danger. If more people knew this, they’d just smile at that voice and observe it, and see it for what it is.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she just might see this, especially if we tag them 🙂

This is a really tough one for me, as I generally don’t think in terms of who I’d like to meet and connect with (though maybe I should). I think Sam Harris is doing some incredible work with his Waking Up app and book, and I’d love to talk with him about how he views creativity in terms of larger consciousness. I also think Tim Ferriss and I would connect on a lot of creativity ideas — particularly this nuanced idea I have of how modern creativity teaching has really become about productivity teaching, and more of a distinction needs to be made.

I’ll also mention one more completely crazy one — Jerry Seinfeld. I love his series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. I’m certainly not a comedian, but I am enthralled with how quickly comedians can think (watch them deal with hecklers, it’s amazing). This is because comedians are directly in touch with a very deep part of their psyches, that part which all creators should be in touch with. It’s the complete flow state, where the thinking mind is silent and not interfering. Anyway, I’ve heard Jerry talk about this sort of thing with many of the comedians on his show, and I’d love to hear how he views this idea in terms of creativity in general, versus comedy specifically.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

The best place to find me is on Twitter, @robgrav3s. I tend to do a lot of long threads dealing with ideas like those in the “5 Things” above, so if you like that, I welcome you over.

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