In April, almost four years to the day after releasing their first album, The Lumineers came out with their sophomore album, Cleopatra. It’s hauntingly beautiful from start to finish. I’ve had it on repeat—more or less—since April. (Gale Song, Sleep on the Floor, Ophelia, Cleopatra, and Patience are my favorites. Give it a listen if you have the chance. It’s really something else.)
(Quick tangent: I’ve always loved The Lumineers. Their first album got me through some particularly hairy stretches. Stubborn Love is on my Favorite Music Video Mount Rushmore. And last year, when I was in Denver, I would regularly scope out every coffee shop near their rumored neighborhood in Wash Park and hope to see them. No luck.)
A few weeks before Cleopatra came out, the Denver trio released behind-the-scenes videos about making their singles, Ophelia and Cleopatra. This is my favorite genre of video—the immersive, chatty, transparent look into an artist’s creative process. There are voiceovers full of reflective wisdom. There’s raw, live music that’s figuring out what it wants to be. The visuals and sound aren’t polished, and neither is the song. It’s OK if it’s a little messy cinematically or if the sound quality isn’t album-ready; simply hearing and seeing them create is immediate and infectious. We’re right there with them.
The line in the Cleopatra video that killed me—and continues to kill me—is from their producer, Simone Felice (at 1:35):
“If we’re lucky—and if we listen—the song’s gonna tell you what it wants.”
Our ability willingness to listen—to our instinct, to our sense of wonder—is a muscle we can continually strengthen; it’s also a muscle that can atrophy if we neglect what’s right here. It’s not until we let go of our preconceived notions of how something should look that we truly begin to engage with process. There’s no muse. There’s no one telling you what to do. It’s just you and a growing sense of comfort with how to fill the blank page—with patient, boundless receptivity. It’s an unshakeable confidence towards the unknown. It’s a lot of pure-hearted, mindfully observant, seemingly disconnected micro-decisions that shape a cohesive, macro body of work. We don’t know what kind of work this listening relationship will produce; that’s terrifying at first, but we ultimately take comfort knowing the work will be a reflection of us and our values whether we can see it or not.
I was reminded of this role of listening after recently revisiting one of my all-time heroes, Mr. Rogers. If you have time, watch the whole 15 minutes. If not, here are three gems:
Charlie Rose: What have you learned from the kids?
Rogers: Practically everything.
Rose: Like what?
Rogers: How to know that it’s alright to say what comes to your mind right away.
Rogers: A lot of people have allowed me to have some silence. And I don’t think we give that gift very much anymore. I’m very afraid that our society is much more interested in information than wonder, in noise rather than silence.
Rogers: I want to learn how to be the best receiver that I can ever be. Because I think graceful receiving is one of the most wonderful gifts we can give anybody.
I love that. Graceful receiving. We can never do enough of that—in our work, in our lives. I hope Boston Beings provides some semblance of that.
I wanted to learn to write, which was ultimately, still, as my mother had taught me, a confrontation with my own innocence and my own rationalizations.—Ta-Nehisi Coates
The question is then parked in our unconscious, where it stays until a seemingly random trigger provides the spark that connects a few million neurons in our brain, at which point a fully formed answer is provided, as if by magic.—Will Gompertz