John Goodwin is a composer, a painter and a sculptor. And by the way he approaches the musical notes, canvas or mosaic, he is a definition of the word “artist.” Born in Los Angeles and located in Nashville, John Goodwin composes music “in relative solitude”, far from the agitated world of today’s record business. John Goodwin is critical of today’s music and music business and his arguments are hard to deny. Nevertheless, his songs have been recorded by well-known artists who sing them with success: Rita Coolidge, Kim Carnes, Brad Paisley or Jason Reeves. They are joined by John’s childhood friend, actor and singer Jeff Bridges, whom he describes as “one of the best people he’s ever known.” An interview about music and the music industry of yesterday and today, his life as an artist and his “rather simple” wishes: JOHN GOODWIN, exclusively for LaRevista.ro.
You write music, you paint, you sculpt. You are definitely an artist, but what do you most consider yourself?
I think that I’m primarily a writer of songs and secondarily a recording performer of my own songs. Beyond that, I’m a co-writer of songs with a lot of people I write with. Those are the main ways I spend my time as an artist.
And what would come next?
When I’m not writing songs, I may be creating visual art – at least, I hope it’s art. In some ways, going back and forth between audio and visual forms, I can’t say that I’m primarily a musician or a visual artist, even though the visual arts I create mainly happen between the musical experiences. When I’m painting, I am as much a painter as I am a songwriter when I’m writing songs. Each pursuit involves me completely. One process doesn’t start where another one stops. ‘Next’ is whatever happens when I take a break from making music. I may reach for the paints or mosaics or a video camera. It all depends on where inspiration leads.
How do you think your work is different from what other artists do?
My work is different from what other artists do in many ways, which is good. We all have our unique paths in life and every moment we experience, we can only experience through our own eyes and perceptions and not through anyone else’s. So the art we make should be different than what others do and unique to our individual paths. In that way, if I’m doing my work well, what I do is naturally going to be different from what the guy down the street does. What makes us similar is probably the similar tools many of us use to create music or visual arts. What makes us different is what kinds of experiences led us to the place where we are presently being creative and how we approach our own canvases at that point.
One thing that may make what I do different is that I grew up with the ‘60s and 70’s music, a time in which artists’ work was known for uniqueness more than resembling what other people who were working in the same media were doing. The musical and social environment I came from made people want to be themselves in a field where these days, a lot of people are trying to be similar to others in order to be embraced by the industry, which isn’t really looking for great differences between creative people. It’s looking for commercial similarities. The music industry seems to want more of the same rather than different and possibly better or more compelling. I felt like my work being different from what other artists do is a good thing. Now it can seem like a professional liability.
So how original do you think artists are today?
Artists today are as original as they are willing to be unique in their own ways. Back in the sixties, when listeners heard artists like Bob Dylan, Otis Redding, Joni Mitchell, The Temptations and other gifted musicians, they heard people who were all so different from each other, so original, and originality really helped define them as artists and have their own careers. If someone came up and tried to sound like Joni Mitchell, nobody would want to hear that because we already had Joni and nobody could do her better than she did.
Today, some artists sound more original than others, but I think that a lot of the big recording acts have been encouraged to sound like most other people in their genre so that the record companies can recognize and identify what they do as something they could sell based on what they’ve previously sold and not in terms of it’s unique and amazing content. A lot of people who could be real artists have totally abandoned being more original in order to sound like other people who are commercially successful making similar sounds to the ones they make. Success is almost based more on conformity than originality. Inherently, everybody is uniquely original, but according to so-called commercial practicality, most musical people are expected to conform to stylistic standards set by other people and that’s why so many people sound the same instead of original today.
Do you think it is possible for an artist to be himself today and still be successful, commercially speaking?
I don’t see the music business discovering and presenting the public with artists who are uniquely original and true to themselves. I think most of the ones we hear in the mass media are true to commercial standards rather than to personal statement. Think about all the amazing songwriters, singers and musicians who the music industry turned us on to between 1959 and 1979 when the music business really had to find something to appeal to people’s passions in order to sell records. Artists who try to approach the music business today as unique individuals might stand out in a way that would make acts who try to conform to industry standards look bad. I saw unique musical talent being phased out of the music business in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. I think the rule in the music business is that if you want to be commercially successful with their help, you have to create songs that sound like other songs that are on radio today, rather than write songs that come from your unique point of view as an artist. What they’re currently selling became more and more similar to and derivative of other songs they marketed after the 1980’s, when the entire music business became more corporatized and more concerned with the bottom line, rather than with discovering unique artists with talent, who expressed their uniqueness through their own kinds of music.
I guess the short answer is that if you are true to yourself and unique, you’re pretty much on your own as far as the music business seems to be concerned. If you want to be original and don’t want to sound like the current top 10 selling songs, you pretty much have to go it alone in trying to get your work heard. Part of the reason I say that is because I haven’t heard a lot of unique singer/songwriters succeeding in today’s music market or even being presented to the public by the music business as it’s traditionally existed. I’ve heard singers who a lot of people think are unique, but I don’t buy it. To me, they all sound like people who are trying to get into show business rather than people with a burning message to deliver. I’m sorry some of my answers are long but this is a complex subject that took decades to evolve and change from one thing into what it is today.
What do you think will happen next?
The music industry, that is, the people who have the power to decide what is going to be recorded and promoted the most heavily – they don’t want anything to change. As far as they’re concerned, what’s happening now is perfect as long as they keep getting richer by putting that kind of music out there. But this is how it could change: if one cool, really brilliant song ever got on the radio, the people who run the music business might have to change the way they find and present new music and adapt to the changes in taste that a new, great, original song could create. We’ve seen a few examples of that happen in the recent music business history. Like, when Alanis Morissette came out, the music industry had to adapt somewhat to match her new popularity by looking for other things that were as unique as some of what she did. That’s also what happened in a much bigger way when the Beatles came out. It forced the other big record companies in the world (RCA and Columbia) to adapt to what Capitol, who had the Beatles, was having major success with. Now I believe that people who work in the music business are doing everything they can to guard against unexpected changes that they didn’t orchestrate from happening. If a truly brilliant song did appear on the radio and the public started getting into it and wanting more of that kind of sound, everyone in the music business would have to compete with the new trend rather than just re-supplying the old one. I don’t know if that kind of quality via content shift is going to happen, and if it does, it will probably be by accident. I want to hear original music and not just that of people who are conforming to commercial standards. The result of conforming is dehumanizing and artistically vacant because it tries to categorize us as a listening public rather than appealing to us an individuals through individualist creative statements.
I remember when the big change in the music business happened – when they went from selling artists to marketing acts. What I think happened is that as rock & roll and other commercial music forms evolved from ’59 into the late ‘70s, the music business started to grow into a much bigger business than it ever had been before. I think the giant corporations saw that happening and they thought: “Hey, we’ll buy these record companies and big publishing companies and make them serve our interests.” Sadly, their interests had more to do with marketing product than discover unique talent. And they all started changing the music business into what it’s become, for the most part. Also, the corporations who took over weren’t very good at finding great original music. They knew how to sell plastic but they phased out most of the people who knew how to make what was on the plastic sound really cool. The whole concept of how music would be discovered and presented to the public completely changed and I think the mission statement of the music business became: “There are a lot of ignorant people in the world and we are going to try to get as much of their money as we possibly can by pushing their buttons with generic musical statements”. It’s very different than how the old music business used to discover and present the work of super-talented people to the public. One could say that the switchover the industry pulled kind of worked in the sense that they did sell a lot of the new kind of music. We’ll never know how much more of the old kind of music they might have sold if they’d stayed with that. The music on the radio just kept sounding more and more like it was made by people who were more hired than inspired. The way in which the new model didn’t work is that following the 60‘s and 70‘s, the music business pretty much stopped turning the public on to the level of talent they discovered in those earlier decades.
I see it as a very political direction.
It’s totally political. The way the music industry changed is similar to the way certain governments changed the ideals they started out with, when they had established their positions of power and became more concerned with managing the power than with furthering the ideals that got them wide public support and power in the first place. Under the same banners (or labels), they started selling bad ideas instead of good ideas, and if a bad idea was commercially successful, they could always say: “well, see, it worked, people bought it, so we’re going to keep doing it. Our success is our mandate.” To tell you the truth, I think the Beatles literally laid the foundation for the size of the music business that emerged after their era. They made buying records and stereo equipment and even musical instruments a big thing in our society. As far as I’m concerned, everyone with a career in the music business owes a lot of it to the Beatles because they helped build the music industry and pop music into a global thing.
I would love to hear artists as talented as the Beatles or Bob Dylan on the radio, but when I turn on the radio, but I’m not hearing that that kind of brilliance being presented by the big music industry. Of course, only God can send us an artists like Bob, but the music business doesn’t seem to care about or be able to recognize songwriters with real talent who are just burning up the cosmic telegraph lines with their poetry and their soulful take on making music. It’s political because the whole thing originally gained wide public support as such a soulful, personal thing and then it was turned into such a stylized, commercial fashion thing.Semnat de Corina Stoica