Tim Kinsella on the Wonders of Collaboration

Tim Kinsella on the Wonders of Collaboration

I haven’t seen many reviews for my new Good Fuck record with Jenny Pulse. In fact, it’s been little more than a couple terse blurts that thoughtfully say: “Tim Kinsella makes annoying music; Tim Kinsella made this, this is therefore annoying music.”

So I guess it’s up to me to write my own review this time. Of course, I’m a smidge biased since our music mostly sounds exactly like I want music to sound, and, of course, I could never presume to actually hear the songs any more than one could taste their own tongue. But I can consider the process of our collaboration.

And, in that dept, I give our band an A+++ #1 5-Star Gold Rating! Lucky me — I think 1,000 times per day!

(Note: such a review is bound to get a little disorganized as every door opens to two more doors, which each open up to two more doors. So I apologize, sorta, but that’s the nature of the topic — collaboration. So if you require a tangible thesis to feel satisfied after a few minutes reading, I suggest you stop now and find a good recipe or page of the dictionary instead.)

Occasionally people I meet in passing — never people I actually know — will comment on their idea of me as being prolific, as if prolificness is in itself a virtue or meaningful aspiration. From my perspective, nothing could be further from the truth.

I am a rigorous editor because I truly respect the massive degree to which one careless misstep infects its neighboring songs with its stink. A very, very small ratio of what I make ever gets shared publicly, and hopefully it’s the same small ratio that effectively expresses what I intend it to.

But keeping in mind the unlikelihood that anyone will ever hear any specific wipeout liberates me to take creative risks. And if it seems from the outside that a lot of material gets released, that’s simply a matter of ratios — so much is made that some small percentage is bound to leak out.

But why this compulsive behavior, however productive or not it may seem to be? I have tried to work normal jobs. In fact I have worked many, many normal jobs and many, many shitty jobs over many, many years. Only in the last few years have I come to peace with the fact that when I am not making music, I am miserable — like irredeemably, unable to muster the will to live, don’t leave me alone near an open window miserable.

And I am happy as a fuzzy bunny painting its eggs when I’m recording. I need to be recording just as much as I need food and sunlight and water, or more so as the case may be. I don’t care if that comes across as entitled. I’ve been just successful enough as a musician to keep working at it, but never successful enough to get lazy, so I know how hard I’ve worked for this privilege.

Over the years, slowly and tiptoeing encroachingly, my creative processes started to overtake the entire ho-hum of my day-to-days. But only in these last few years have I learned to nurture that symbiotically so it’s both healthy for me and healthy for the work itself.

Certain job-jobs have felt meaningful in this way: talking through poststructuralism 101 with a new batch of 19-year-olds every year keeps me sharp, editing other people’s wild jams helps me set standards for my own output. And these are forms of collaboration I am projecting out into the world for my own ends when I return to my little lab.

I have always shifted back and forth regularly between working with groups and working on my own. A close friend and collaborator complimented me 15 years ago by saying that my true talent and the fundamentally effective thing about Joan of Arc is the surprising combinations of people working together in the same group. So, new collaborations have always been a thing that I depend on to keep me sharp and help me excavate or highlight certain hidden dimensions in myself, or in the songs.

But usually this has been within an ensemble or small group. Good Fuck is different in that it’s one-on-one, 50/50, the organizing principle and the outcome of our shared life.  By collaborating we each cultivate and nurture the sensibilities we feel we need to be creative.

Off the top of my head, benefits include:

There’s intimacy in sharing risks, in trusting your partner won’t let you make a fool of yourself.

Through partnership, a new and singular way of looking at the world emerges, creating a new filter. This keeps us present, each comparing the effect of this new filter to each of our assumptions about the world we each knew before this filter, and it keeps us attuned to our commonalities, refining and sharpening what exactly we want this filter to be.

It’s practical — setting the daily routines with intentionality — and it’s spiritual, learning to expand and deepen and trust. Something as simple as reading the same thing blossoms unforeseen results that can be called both practical and spiritual.

We both get to try out each other’s creative practices and we both play off of and reflect against each other’s practices at strange angles neither of us could’ve imagined on our own. That’s the trick: developing routines together that can predictably result in surprising results.

The constant conscious balancing acts of discipline/inspiration and intuition/craftsmanship and tradition/experimentation all get negotiated and tilted differently than any one person could know how to do it.

A very nuanced and particular expression will be necessary for us to both feel that we’ve lived up to the expectations and responsibilities of our different lineages we feel accountable to.

Each song requires the measured sense of how much of its writer is purposefully inserted into it or withheld. And although I could never measure how much of myself comes across the body of work as a whole, whether intentionally inserted or not, I do know that I discover a lot about myself through the process of working through each song. I love how I surprise myself. Partnering sets up new obstacle courses for each partner to move through, each surprising themselves with their expanding potential.

Creativity gets simpler and simpler the more one invests in it, and it also gets harder and harder to exactly the same degree. We sort of get better at seeing and listening and evaluating, but maybe it’s not better, just different. And as this evolution gets entwined with the creative partner, the expression deepens.

You are not the same person after completing a major project; essential lessons learned fundamentally shift you. And to do this as a duo tightens your entwining.

There are always more and more formal lessons to unlearn, and unlearning is so much more difficult than learning. A trusted collaborator gives one the courage to willfully forget what’s necessary to willfully forget.

The standards of measuring success and failure get renegotiated, and nothing — nothing —propels one forward more so than investigating those assumptions.

I remember the terror of my first performances. To sing in front of people — or scream as the case may be — felt like the heaviest, most powerful and empowering gesture in all eternity. I aim to preserve that feeling somehow, that the performance. Even if it’s every night for a month, and especially the more it becomes muscle memory — it can never collapse into demonstrating ego or virtuosic power. It can so easily tilt into this if you aren’t on guard against it. It takes sustained attuned perception to prevent this. The music needs to remain about vulnerability at every moment. Finding new ways to pull the carpet out from under one’s self is easier with a partner.

When you are being true to what you feel the song needs, you never need to try to invest any of yourself in it. Your stink can’t help but get on it, so long as the stink of insecurity doesn’t get to it first because you’ve messed it all up trying to push it in some direction because you think people will like it. But if you let it be itself and nurture it, it will gratefully and generously reflect its gardener. So collaboration, duh, how else might you expand the varieties in your garden?

Only in rare defensive moments, usually dealing with a stranger, do I ever clearly distinguish between Tim the Musician and Tim the Guy. In fact, I am completely unable to distinguish between the two, I don’t get home from work and take my uniform off or enjoy the game and forget about music. To be able to live full-time like this as yourself and with a partner deepens both binaries while simultaneously fusing them.

The ultimate gift is the permission we give each other to each be ourselves, that being yourself and expressing yourself is not only OK, but powerful and good. Strictly by remaining present for each other we help each other overcome any limiting images of ourselves that require defeating.

We keep each other optimistic and motivated. When one of us is grumpy or lazy or uninspired the other says Shut Up, Get to Work, or leaves the other alone and goes off to work on their own and work is still getting done for the partnership.

We help each other navigate and decode the pressures of perceived expectations, self-awareness, snags in the rapids, which shortcuts and tricks that we think we know are right for this moment and which are holding you up and need to be thrown away for the time being.

Film, painting, poetry, dinner: all of them feed into the music’s sensibilities, and what a unified vision to have all these things in common.

Together we can distinguish what we know we know from what’s OK to let go for now, to wait for it to reveal itself.

Any time I’ve ever accidentally heard one of my own old records, I’ve been shocked to realize that whatever is happening structurally or sonically or thematically or linguistically is expressing some idea that I thought had just occurred to me in the previous weeks. My old records truly confirm for me in this way that I really am myself — myself turning around variations of these preoccupations in my head since the late ‘80s. I don’t mind accidentally repeating myself. I trust the intervening years will inevitably reveal some quiet evolutions. But having a partner to bounce these recurring themes and modes against sure can’t hurt but broaden and deepen them.

I’ve been very lucky to have longstanding creative partnerships with some of my best friends: Bobby, Theo, my brother. And I’ve had longstanding collaborative relationships with people that I feel very little personal connection to and never interact with otherwise. And it’s easy to recognize the difference in the output in terms of its formality, in construction and execution.

I have always truly and deeply believed that playfulness is the key to creativity — structured unstructured time — all this discipline and theory and discussion so that as soon as the playpen is open all involved are prepared to turn off their conscious minds, which would only limit the possibilities. So if the act of creativity is in itself liberating, what creative partnership could ever be more potentially liberating than that of lovers?

So in conclusion, A+++ #1 5-Star Gold Rating for us for how we live together.


Tim Kinsella is a musician, author, and film director from Chicago, Illinois. He has been a member of many bands, including Cap’n Jazz, Joan of Arc, Make Believe, Owls, Friend/Enemy, Everyoned and others. Good Fuck is his newest project, a collaboration with his partner Jenny Pulse. Their debut self-titled album dropped February 22.

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