Kid Who Needed Advice

Here’s a screenshot of an old article that Steve Vai wrote in 1984:

Got an email this morning:

“Well i feel more and more compelled to give up on music. this is probably because i played music to not only make music but to do stuff with my friends. This did not last and blah blah blah. so to keep it short, how did you get the “will power” to write your own music? I usually find my ideas too be way too cheesy after the first track so i just stop. Do you have any advise you can give? Also keep in mind im not an ego maniac that wants a million dollars and a Platinum Record. Just want something to keep me busy on so i dont find myself wasting my life on video games.”

I gave the best advice I could, which is exactly what I need to hear myself…

“First of all, I think focusing on the music itself is futile. I have always found it very difficult to just “make music.” I believe that art is about expressing a meaning. For instance, that meaning could be Anger. Maybe you hate your day job, or your parents, or the place where you live. That has always been a major motivator for me. Whenever I’ve tried to make music without the purpose of expressing something, I’ve failed. It also doesn’t really matter how “good” you are at it, technically. That goes for any art form. Some of my favorite stuff has been made by people who would never get hired as session musicians or actors or artists. Music is just like writing or drawing, it’s just that it requires different instruments.

If you can tap into some strong emotions inside yourself, whatever it is that you REALLY DO feel, and try to make the music represent that, you’ll have something solid to work from that isn’t cheesy. And even if it is cheesy, go further and make it even cheesier. See how cheesy you can make it. Make it the cheesiest thing ever.

I’ve written many, many songs about how frustrated I was that I couldn’t ever find musicians to start a band. I lived in Florida for 30 years and it was impossible to get anywhere. So I just went with that, and wrote as many songs as I could about how futile it was. Even when I moved to San Francisco for a year, I couldn’t get anywhere. I put up a flyer in a music store and people would just write rude things on it. It turns out the music store employees were mocking me. They took my flyer and put it behind the counter and it was an inside joke for them. They’d look at it all the time and quote it, thinking I was a loser. I only found that out when I got a job at the music store, and they had no idea I was the one they were mocking.

So to answer your question, my willpower to make music came from anger that I could never get a music career to work for me. It just seemed like I was fucked right from the beginning, because no one ever liked what I did, I’d just get complaints and people saying, “No one is ever going to like that weird stuff.” I just kept going, being angry, trying to insult everyone with my music, being critical of society… fuck everyone… even though the music sounded like cheap video games… and eventually some people like Trey Spruance and Devin Townsend and Steve Vai noticed the statement I was making and encouraged me.

I don’t think it was ever about what I could play (although that added some kind of credibility to it), it was my anger and cynicism that came through. I said things that a lot of people were afraid of saying. I just didn’t give a fuck, because I didn’t think there was ever any chance of succeeding.

I always recommend these music lessons written by Steve Vai, which were written in the late 80s.

Anyway, just find something inside you that wants to SAY SOMETHING, and then just use music to do that. The music itself is only secondary to the meaning.”

He replied:

“man, i never would have thought that our experiences could have been so closely related. I really need to stop beating myself up and become a rebel like any other stupid artistic teenager. Anyway I thank you a lot for sharing your experiences with me and i will take your message to heart (if that isnt corny enough).”

I do my best to be honest and tell my story, and it seems to help others who are in a similar situation. I get a lot of appreciative emails like that. I’m glad I can pass the torch to some other frustrated kid.

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