I wanted to share another great piece of storytelling I recently encountered. For the past couple of weeks I have been blazing through the podcast series Dead Eyes. The podcast is hosted by comedian and actor Connor Ratliff, who tries to solve “a very stupid mystery” that has haunted him for two decades: why Tom Hanks fired him from a small role in the 2001 HBO mini-series, Band Of Brothers.
Such a simple, narrow subject gives way to an amazing series of deep & interesting conversations with brilliant artists, creatives and performers (Jon Hamm, D’Arcy Carden, Elijah Wood, Damon Lindelof and many more) about the pitfalls of working in the entertainment industry, and the nature of rejection and ambition. While the central tale of his rejection from Band of Brothers forms the spine of the series, it branches out in unexpected and interesting ways that And the whole tale is told in such a gentle, unassuming, entertaining way, that you can’t help but be swept along.
You’ll have to listen to the series yourself to find out if he ever manages to solve the central mystery (or indeed if he gets to talk about it with Tom Hanks himself). Spoiler alert: The journey is as good as the final destination. Highly recommended listening!
A few years ago I was lucky enough to become friendly with the brilliant Shane Langan and Nial Conlan, curators & hosts of a wonderful gig in Dublin called the Weekly General Meeting. As an offshoot of the show, they also had a podcast that showcased some of Irelands best established & emerging artists. I was featured as a performer in the very first episode alongside Hozier and Arthur Mathews (Father Ted), and they invited me back to talk about my philosophy of creativity, and ultimately to share my top 5 tips about being successful in your creative endeavors. This is the interview (starts around the 25 minute mark) and if you don’t have the time to listen, here are my original notes for the interview that capture the essence of the conversation, as well as adding some additional thoughts to it :
1. BE A LUNATIC Be a lunatic and shoot for the moon. Commit to it, then figure out how to do it. As JFK said about the actual moonshot. “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills”. In essence I am saying, simply grab a hold of an idea, own it, and do it yourself. Figure out how to do it along the way. The Brownbread Mixtape show that I hosted for a decade, as well as the LINGO spoken word festival I co-founded, were both anchored deeply in that idea. Dream big, shoot for the moon, and use your passion as fuel to make it happen.
It’s important to be a doer instead of a talker. Forget about “some day”, make it today. And surround yourself with people who say YES. Immerse yourself in a community of folks who say “Why not?”. Wild flights of fancy are worth the effort. Especially if you have others around you who want to realise the same ideas. And even if you fail, you will have built strong bonds with other creatives, and will likely learn something from the overall experience.
2. BE INCLUSIVE – A rising tide lifts all boats. I believe that. Especially when it comes to the creative community. When sizing up all angles of a creative undertaking, I believe it is important to always think about how to bring as many people along on the journey as possible. For example, when curating a line-up, I place real importance on the variety of voices represented onstage. And when it comes to the audience, my style of performance and MCing is about breaking down the line between me and the audience. I want to make everyone feel like they are fully part of the experience. The great Irish writer Dermot Bolger paid me the highest compliment by describing my live performances as follows: “… there is the feeling you felt at punk gigs in 1977 of no separation between performer and audience.” For all of my poetry performances, and especially as MC at The Brownbread Mixtape gigs, I was really focused on drawing the audience in, making them feel welcome and valued, hearing their stories, and ultimately making the experience theirs as much as mine. This takes some time and it takes commitment to build that trust. But I always go in trusting the audience. Trusting their intelligence. Trusting their willingness to connect. And the end result is a room full of people feeling connected on another level. And part of that is down to me and the people in the room, and the other part is down to the power of great art. Art is the great connector in the universe.
3. BE COOL Be cool and be kind. To artists. To audience. To everyone. To your work. If you are good to others, they will pay it back, or, even better, they will pay it forward. I didnt have an agenda other than to have a great night filled with great art, and in return we would all feel a bit more happy & connected afterwards. Sounds like common sense, but it isn’t common practice always. Most people are just looking for a nice gig with a welcoming audience. And I know that I can always provide that. Whatever comes after that is a biproduct of the energy you transmit. In a nutshell, my artistic philosophy has always been this – Be good and good things come back to you.
4. BE SPECIFIC The more specific you are, the more universal it becomes. When it come to creative work and outputs, my greatest successes have usually come when I applied this principle. James Joyce even said much the same thing – “In the particular is contained the universal.” This has held true for both of the award-nominated Fringe plays I wrote (Three Men Talking About Things They Kinda Know About and The Definitive View with Sneachta Ni Mhurchu). For both shows I chose topics and details that were ultra specific to me personally, or to the country I live in, and through that lens I was able to reflect greater truths and moments of catharsis in every place they were performed in (from London to Paris). Because those moments are really microcosms of grander human themes and experiences. If you get real & vulnerable with people and take them to a specific place, they will likely go with you and immerse themselves willingly, because you want to share something. Because at the core of your creation is often a fundamental human truth that resonates deeply and emotionally. And that is the best you can hope for with your art.
5. BE OK WITH WHERE YOU ARE RIGHT NOW In life. In your art. There are so many things competing for your attention and for your time, and, as hard as it is, you must simply accept your circumstances. When I have forced myself to create something, it is rarely as good as the times where I have a fire lit inside me. And this is not an excuse to be lazy or to procrastinate, but rather a grander idea about accepting the demands of your life at any given moment and being fine with how much you can create at that point in time. Be it your family, your job, your commitments – these things may slow you down, but look at them as opportunities to live your life and fill your cup with experiences that can later be translated into your work. Forgive yourself for the days where nothing creative happens, but don’t forget to celebrate the days when you do create something new. And be prepared to fail. Be prepared not to please everyone. Be prepared to go long stretches without creating. But remain a believer in your ability to create. That is being. That is creating.
One of the very best working storytellers today is Jon Ronson. His recent BBC Radio series, Things Fell Apart, which focuses on the human stories at the centre of the culture wars, is an absolute gem. Expertly crafted tales of people’s stories that have had huge ripples on our culture and communities. Equally interesting is the conversation between Jon Ronson and Louis Theroux, where they explore their unique brand of storytelling and what drives them to tell them in their specific original way. Fascinating insights from two masters of their craft. The link here is to the BBC website, but it is available on most podcast platforms.
I had the pleasure of speaking to Irish journalist Philip O’Connor for his “Irish in Sweden” podcast ,where we talked about many things, including Swedish and Irish identity, the joy of IKEA, the quotability of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and who I would cheer for in a footie match between Ireland and Sweden. It’s a terrific podcast series and well worth subscribing to, but if you’re keen to hear just my section on this episode, I enter the conversation around the 42 minute mark.
This year I have found myself diving deeper into podcasts than ever before. They are great company on long walks. Personally I am drawn to podcasts that centre themselves around storytelling and creativity. So, the list below is a reflection of those personal tastes. These podcasts are also not necessarily new ones in 2021, they are simply the ones that resonated with me this year.
Creative Processing with Joseph Gordon-Levitt As someone who is driven by a creative approach to everything I do, I am always looking for new ways to learn about how others look at creative problem solving. This podcast series from Joseph Gordon Levitt is a super accessible entry point into learning how some of the most creative minds across different industries think. He talks to everyone from filmmaker Rian Johnson to professional poker player Liv Boeree. Joseph Gordon Levitt is someone I have a tremendous amount of respect for and his HitRecord community, which I’ve written about before, is something I admire deeply. Listen to the podcast here
Reply All I particularly love podcasts that tell stories in an interesting and creative way. Reply All is probably the very best of that kind out there. While it has stuttered somewhat since it’s original host ignominiously left the show, it still manages to cover some of the most interesting stories I’ve heard in podcast form. Each episode follows a little thread from the internet and spins a masterful yarn, and the end result is always a far grander meditation on life and the world we live in. A great entry point is # 158 The Case of The Missing Hit. It has all the hallmarks of their great storytelling, with a unique perspective on the oddities of life in the age of the internet, and, best of all, it has a proper little mystery at its core. Rarely have I been so swept along in a story, and I wont spoil it for you, but in broad strokes it dives into the curious case of a catchy pop song that nobody seems to remember. And like all good tales, the ending is absolutely terrific. Listen to the podcast here
Mike Birbiglia’s Working It Out We can learn so much from comedians, who have a real gift for turning the everyday into compelling, funny stories. One such comedian is Mike Birbiglia, who is a consummate pro at crafting tales from his life into thoughtful and funny stories. If you haven’t seen any of his specials, they are well worth a look (several can be found on Netflix). On his podcast he welcomes a different comedian or creator each week, and together they work out original, untested material. It is a disarmingly easy listen and gives you unrestricted access to the creative process from some of the finest creative brains in the world. I have learned something from almost every single episode. Time well spent. Listen to the podcast here
Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend I’ve always been a huge admirer of Conan as both an entertainer and comedian, and these interviews are hilarious and deeply moving at times. Conan is able to switch tones and tempo with such ease, and his pre-show banter with his production team is as engaging as the podcast itself. There’s a perfect blend of tomfoolery and serious introspection, and it often hits something really truthful. Which is Conan’s superpower. All in all, it makes for a really pleasurable listening experience. Some of my favourite episodes include Jameela Jamil, Bruce Springsteen, Sarah Silverman and Weird Al Yankovic Listen to the podcast here
How I built this with Guy Raz If you aren’t already listening to the podcast series How I Built This, you’re truly missing out. A thoughtful and insightful interview series that talks to entrepreneurs, moguls, innovators and creators from around the world, to understand how they built some of the most recognisable brands and companies around. The informal and honest conversation uncover so much about what it takes to create something from nothing. Compelling content, well told. Listen to the podcast here
Song Exploder This fascinating podcast series (and now also a Netflix series) is one of the very best at illuminating the creative journey. It is a brilliantly simple premise. Each episode picks a single song, and through a conversation with the songwriter and other contributors, it documents the creative journey of the song to completion. Not only is it a fascinating look at how some songs are truly more than the sum of their parts, but it also gives a rare peek behind the curtain of some of the most successful musicians of all time, and, more importantly, the ingenuity that underpins their work. In addition to learning more about some of my favourite artists of all time like Wilco, U2, Bjork and Hozier, it has really opened my ears to artists I would never have otherwise encountered. There isn’t a bad episode amongst the catalogue, and I defy you to listen to an episode and not be excited about hearing the featured song in its entirety at the end. Listen to the podcast here
As someone who adores great storytelling, I am very drawn to the work produced by Gimlet Media, who are masters of the art. Late in the year I stumbled upon Heavyweight, a terrific podcast centred around personal stories. Each episode is a cleverly constructed journey that begins with a person who has an unresolved moment in their past ( a heavy weight) and the host, Jonathan Goldstein, takes them (and the listener) on a journey to resolve or reckon with that moment. It’s a simple premise that could easily fall apart in the hands of a lesser storyteller. If you’re looking for a new podcast to kick off the new year, this one is a doozy. Listen to the podcast here
I have been listening to The Midnight Miracle podcast and I cannot recommend it enough. Some of the smartest, coolest, creatives in the world talk about music, politics, and a whole lot more – all mixed together with amazing musical interludes. No surprise that they are going to release these podcast broadcasts on vinyl soon – they are little self-contained gems. I got a subscription to Luminary just for these and it’s 100% worth it (as it happens I have also found a bunch of other fascinating podcasts on there incl. Trevor Noah and Russell Brand). If you are even a tiny bit of a fan of the mighty Dave Chapelle, Yasiin Bey (mos def) or Talib Kweli, this is an absolute must listen. Next level learning for aspiring creative people
I have mentioned the podcast Reply All on here before, and I’ve bored many a friend about its brilliance. In short, its my favourite podcast, and the latest episode might just be their best ever. It has all the hallmarks of their great storytelling, with a unique perspective on the oddities of life in the age of the internet, and, best of all, it has a proper little mystery at its core. Rarely have I been so swept along in a story, and I wont spoil it for you, but like all good tales, the ending is terrific. Anyway, have a listen, it will bring you joy. And don’t just take it from me, The Guardian reckons it might be the best podcast episode ever. Like, ever, of all podcasts.
Have been on a bit of a kick trying out new podcasts and tv shows, as well as revisiting some old faves. Here are some of the best I’ve been watching, listening to, and reading of late.
Conan O’Brien needs a friend: Candid, funny, honest conversations with fascinating artists and comedians. Hosted by one of the most original and brilliant American comic minds. One of my favourite new podcasts
Reply All Easily the most interesting and engaging podcast around. Likeable, engaging hosts explore the minutiae of the internet, that end up becoming fascinating explorations of what it is like to be a human in the digital age. Funny, interesting, unique.
A Touch of Cloth – Genius parodies of crime procedural dramas written by Charlie Brooker, and starring John Hannah
All of the Fast & The Furious films, in a row. Yeah, that’s right! My son asked me, how would you rate them on a scale of 1 to 10. I replied, they are both a 1 and a 10, thats what makes them amazing. These have been so much fun to watch with my brother-in-law David, as we have also come up with a set of awards for each movie “Worst Dialogue”; “Most nonsensical car-related dialogue”, “Worst actor”, “Best preposterous stunt” “Actor who doesnt realise they are in a Fast & Furious movie”
Avengers: Endgame Haven’t been that invested in the Marvel series overall, but this was a rolicking, enjoyable closer to the series. Spoiler alert, Beards and Haircuts are part of the story.
Ready Player One: Zips along and is a fun read. Could have maybe done with another round of edits, but you forgive it for the pacy, pulpy fun that it is. For kids of the 80s its a treasure trove of fun.
Many moons ago, when I was gigging more frequently and reciting poems and performing sketches, I was lucky enough to be part of a regular night called the Monthly General Meeting, which was a showcase for the most inventive and willdy wonderful creative minds in Ireland. On one of the particular shows, I was on the bill with soon-to-be global musical phenomenon Hozier, as well as Arthur Mathews, the co-writer of Father Ted (possibly the greatest sitcom ever). I recall the gig itself was in the unusual and interesting surroundings of a newly refurbished Georgian building in Merrion Square (it has since become an office building of some sort) For a while Shane (Diet of Worms) and Nial (delorentos) who ran the night, produced a terrific series of podcasts entitled The Weekly General Meeting focused on creativity, and I featured on the debut episode. Take a listen to the episode and I urge you to listen to the entire back catalogue, every one of them a snapshot of a golden age in Irish creativity, amiably hosted and curated by two great artists.
I’m always on the lookout for inspiring stuff that looks at the creative process and delves into it with creative people. One of my current favourite obsessions is the brilliant Meet Your Maker podcast, where the amiable host Liam Geraghty interviews a slew of fascinating, creative people across multiple disciplines (puppetry, comics, special FX) and hears about how they have found their chosen craft, and the many ways they approach it. The episodes are short and sweet (ca. 15 mins) and the seasons are just a handful of episodes so you’ll blaze through them. The production quality is very high (radio broadcast level) and the topics are always really intriguing. Have a listen and pass it on. One of the very best out there.
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