21 Artists Give “Advice to the Young:” Vital Lessons from Laurie Anderson, David Byrne, Umberto Eco, Patti Smith & More

Never meet your idols, they say. It can put a cramp in your appreciation of their work. There are always exceptions, but maybe Bill Murray proves the rule. On the other hand, you should always learn from your idols. There’s a reason you admire them, after all. Find out what it is and what they have to teach you. In the series we feature here, Advice to the Young, many an idol of many an aspiring artist and musician offers some broad, existential advice—ways to absorb a little of their process.

Laurie Anderson, above, tells us to “be loose.” Widen our boundaries, “make it vague,” because “there are so many forces that are trying to push us in certain directions, and they’re traps…. Don’t be caught in that trap of definition. It’s a corporate trap…. Be flexible.” Good advice, if you’re as eclectic and loose as Laurie Anderson, or if you seek artistic liberation ahead of sales. “I became an artist because I want to be free,” she says.

Just above, Daniel Lanois, superstar slide guitarist and producer of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, U2, Peter Gabriel, and Emmylou Harris, tells us what he learned from working with Brian Eno. His advice is impressionistic, alluding to the importance of atmosphere and environment, as one might expect. It’s about appreciating the process, he suggests. He does get concrete about a difficulty nearly every artist faces: “if you have a financial limitation, that might be okay. You don’t have to have everything that the other people have. I think a financial limitation or a technological limitation may free up the imagination.” In an age of home studios, that’s always welcome news.

David Byrne has always told it straight, in his cultural criticism and songwriting, and in his segment, above, he steers hopeful musicians and artists away from the dream of Jay Z-level fame. “Often the artists who are very successful that way” he says, “they don’t have much flexibility. In achieving success, they lose a little bit of their creative freedom. They have to keep making the same thing over and over again.” Byrne’s advice solidly underlines Anderson’s. If you want creative freedom, be prepared to fly under the radar and make much less money than the stars. Ending on a starkly realist note, Byrne admits that in any case, you’ll probably need a day job: “it’s very, very hard to make money in the music business.”

Novelist Umberto Eco also brings us down to earth in his interview, saying “not to think you are inspired,” then slyly dropping a cliché: “genius is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.” The old wisdom is truest, I suppose. He also urges writers to take their time with a book. “I cannot understand those novelists who publish a book every year. They lose this pleasure of spending six, seven, eight years to tell a story.” Eco’s advice: rise through the ranks, “go step by step, don’t pretend immediately to receive the Nobel prize, because that kills a literary career.”

Patti Smith, comfortably addressing an audience from an outdoor stage, urges them to “just keep doing your work” whether anyone’s listening, reading, etc. To those people who criticize her success as selling out her punk rock roots, Smith says, to laughs, “fuck you.” She then transmits some advice she received from William S. Burroughs: “build a good name. Keep your name clean. Don’t’ make compromises, don’t worry about making a lot of money or being successful; be concerned with doing good work.”

Easy perhaps for Burroughs the adding machine-heir to say, but good advice nonetheless, and consistent with what each artist above tells us: do it your way, don’t get pigeonholed, work with what you have, don’t worry about success or money, keep your expectations realistic.

You can watch more interviews with Marina Abramović,  Wim Wenders, Jonas Mekas, and many more on this Advice to the Young playlist assembled by The Louisiana Channel. All 21 talks in the series can be viewed below:

Related Content:

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John Cleese’s Advice to Young Artists: “Steal Anything You Think Is Really Good”

Walt Whitman Gives Advice to Aspiring Young Writers: “Don’t Write Poetry” & Other Practical Tips (1888)

Ursula Le Guin Gives Insightful Writing Advice in Her Free Online Workshop

Akira Kurosawa’s Advice to Aspiring Filmmakers: Write, Write, Write and Read

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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