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  • Writer's pictureLonely Artist Club

Colorworks: Band

Lonely Artist Club had the pleasure of connecting with Bret Dylan, guitarist and songwriter of Colorworks, to discuss his craft, passions and, most importantly, his music… let’s jump in!

 
 

First and foremost, I wanna give a shoutout to the rest of the Colorworks members. Can you introduce the band?

Sure thing! Siahna Im, Kailen Swensen, Asher Einhorn, and Billy Wu.


Okay, now let's talk art! What medium do you work with and how did you come to discover it?

My medium is music - specifically songwriting. I love all the arts, but music seemed to be what grabbed me when I was a very young child. There are pictures of me strumming a toy guitar with a giant smile when I was four or so. Apparently, I knew that I wanted to do this even at that age! I started playing guitar when I was 11 and quickly started writing my own songs, just emulating whatever I was listening to at the time. I had a band in middle and high school that was a great conduit for my and my friends’ teenage angst and hormones. We actually had some national success, surprisingly, and I felt compelled to write songs for the band, but I also remember fighting with myself. I felt like I had to write in a very narrow genre, with a very specific sound, and anything else that would emerge creatively would be a failure for myself. I remember having a difficult relationship with my own creativity at that time, and it wasn’t until I met my guitar teacher and mentor, Greg Carriere, at 17 years old that I started nurturing a healthy relationship with my creative impulses. Then at 23 I found a strong internal motivation to take songwriting seriously while experiencing intense heartbreak. 

Living alone in Seoul on a teacher’s visa and incredibly depressed, I started writing songs for myself for the first time in ten years. I had no band, no creative partners, no one to impress or prove anything to, except myself. And that allowed me to start writing from a place of vulnerability. I found the process to not only be healing, but incredibly exciting. I moved back to Seattle at the end of my teaching contract with a head full of ideas and immediately went to work in my parents’ basement writing more songs and recording them. I picked up lessons again with my old guitar teacher Greg, but this time there was a collaborative writing component to them - we essentially became songwriting partners over the course of a couple years, though for a long time it still felt like a mentor and apprentice dynamic. I soaked up everything I could learn from him with regard to songwriting, and implemented those lessons into all of the songs we would write. Colorworks was born out of those early songwriting sessions.


"I had no band, no creative partners, no one to impress or prove anything to, except myself. And that allowed me to start writing from a place of vulnerability."


Your music is so unique and we want to hear more about it, but first can you tell us a bit more about who you are outside of your creative work in music? I know, I know... I hate to have to drop the "Tell us about yourself" bomb, but the people want to know!

I grew up in the 90’s in a suburb of Seattle, so I had a comfortable and fairly boring childhood. I had an older brother and some friends, but my own imagination was my best friend, and I exercised it very often to entertain myself. The arts were not prevalent in my family home, though both my brother and I ended up in creative fields; he is a fashion stylist in LA. I’d say both of my parents are creative people who were encouraging of my brother and me to explore whatever it was we found fascinating, but they did not necessarily introduce us to the arts, or share their own relationship to the arts or creativity in any intentional way. I think both my brother and I took a lot of cues from 90’s TV and radio, as well from our friends who had more explicit connections to the arts. 

I started learning Taekwondo when I was seven years old, and continued that through college. That had a profound impact on my relationship with myself, my body, and the world around me. I learned about the importance of grit, patience, perseverance, and self-determination - qualities I think every artist depends on. Over the years I developed a keen interest in Korean culture through my Taekwondo instructor and his family, and I ended up obsessively studying the Korean language in college. I ended up living in Seoul for two years where I experienced the traveler lifestyle - meeting new people from all around the world all the time, living my professional and social life in a foreign language, following whims all over the peninsula. I do believe that if I hadn’t committed to music as my life, I probably would’ve continued as some sort of international digital nomad. I’ve since taught myself Brazilian Portuguese and French based on my experience learning Korean (and with the help of a wonderful Brazilian ex-partner and friend). I find languages fascinating and I love meeting foreigners from all walks of life. The more people I meet from far away places, the more I’m convinced that what we all share in common - the need for love and laughter, the desire for companionship and community, the draw of connecting to nature and animals, the magic and power of creativity and safe, stimulating environments - the humanity in all of that is far greater than what divides us. What they say about Aquarians being all about the universal, I guess I kind of identify with that.

I am a giant nerd for guitars and guitar related paraphernalia. Santa Cruz acoustics, Bad Cat Amps, Telecasters, preamps and all that. One of my closest friends, Adam Hanson, built by hand the guitar I use most, a Patriarch Queen. But I find that I also love the arts in all its forms, especially when done by deep, thoughtful minds with skilled hands. TV shows like Mad Men, The Queen’s Gambit and Better Call Saul, films by Stanley Kubrick, Wes Anderson and Akira Kurosawa, the architecture of Antoni Gaudí, paintings by Frida Kahlo and Edgar Degas, a great feijoada cooked by an elderly Brazilian couple - all of these things I find inspiring and intriguing. I guess I love immersing myself in the creativity of others. 


"I guess I love immersing myself in the creativity of others."


Almost every artist, at one point or another, experiences a creative block, right? Would you mind sharing your personal experience with managing and overcoming creative blocks or ruts?

Yes, I’d say the vast majority of people experience some form of “writer’s block.” For me, I can tell when I’m flirting with a creative rut when everything I create feels relative. When nothing jumps out at me as being fresh and exciting, but just derivative of other things I’ve done or am listening to. I used to struggle with this quite a bit, and I would just keep banging at the door hoping something great would show up on the other side. I’ve since learned that taking a more Buddhist approach of non-attachment eases my anxiety and helps me find my way back to fresh ideas. I will back off, go do something else for a while. Maybe that’s for a day, or for two weeks. It requires a lot of self-trust to intentionally let go of one’s art, and I think that can be very hard to do, especially when your identity is so intertwined with your creative output.

I’ve heard stories of Frank Herbert going on fishing trips for a few weeks when he was stuck with Dune, or David Bowie turning to painting for a day or two before he returns to music. I follow those examples, and will turn to poetry, or cycling, hiking or cooking. Anything that moves my spirit or my body. I know that the songs will be there when I return - I just need to return the metaphorical antenna with new experiences. Also, psychedelic drugs…


"I can tell when I’m flirting with a creative rut when everything I create feels relative. When nothing jumps out at me as being fresh and exciting, but just derivative of other things I’ve done or am listening to."


Creative blocks are challenging to overcome, but it sounds like you have a balanced approach to navigating them when they arise. Is there another part(s) of you work as a musician that is equally, if not more, difficult to manage or overcome?

Leonardo Da Vinci said something like “art is never finished, only abandoned.” This is the biggest challenge for me. Something can always be more refined, more polished or produced, better performed or edited into a sharper version of the idea. I’ve learned over time that this kind of quest for perfection can often kill the initial spark and magic of an idea. I think as an artist, the journey includes learning how to wrestle with an idea without pressing it into the service of one’s ego - or at least limiting that impulse! The more I can allow a song to tell me what it wants to be, rather than me forcing it into what I need it to be, the better the final product is, and the more fun the process becomes. When I can do that, I often find that the song will let me know when it’s ready to be released to join the world on its own terms.

I think there’s a tension between an artist’s craft and their imagination. Imagination can be limitless, but it can also feel so out of reach for an unskilled hand. And craft is such a powerful tool, but it really comes alive when it is a tool driven by imagination, rather than being the product itself. I guess it’s a balancing act. One’s craft demands years of their life to develop. Of course that requires exercising one’s imagination, but it also requires hours and hours of skill practice - scales on the guitar or piano for instance. There isn’t anything romantic or magical about that work. But if you can build a positive relationship with that work and find pleasure in it, you slowly find yourself being more and more capable of capturing inspiration when your imagination sparks. And imagination - that’s not anything you can force. I don’t think you can practice imagination like you practice a musical instrument. You just need to be sensitive to your own life, and the world around you, and things can start flowing. 

So on one hand you have intentional, self-directed work for the benefit and improvement of your art, and on the other you have a kind of hands off approach to your art. Finding the sweet spot between these two competing notions is the job of the artist I think. Or at least for me and my art. I think engaging with that dichotomy does make me a better artist, and the sweeter that spot, the easier it is for me to listen to my songs and abandon them with no regrets. 


"I’ve learned over time that this kind of quest for perfection can often kill the initial spark and magic of an idea. I think as an artist, the journey includes learning how to wrestle with an idea without pressing it into the service of one’s ego - or at least limiting that impulse!"


Well spoken! In the same vein as the last question, do you have any fears surrounding your art?

Absolutely! I fear my art being one of the greatest mistakes of my life. Being a songwriter and a musician, especially in the US, is one of the biggest self-inflicted career wounds you can experience. I’ve lost relationships that mean the world to me in part because I make very little money. I suppose one could say that those relationships actually weren’t the right ones for me, but when does the heart ever listen to reason? I’ve seen my friends and peers through the years build solid relationships, careers, buy and build homes, start families etc. And I’ve watched myself live on a shoestring, getting by on very little while I live completely in devotion to my art. But the fear of watching myself continue to struggle, getting older and losing out on opportunities to start a family and have a home, those fears don’t outweigh the fear of getting old and regretting that I didn’t give my all to my art. I’ve read interviews of people on their deathbeds - they pretty much all say the same thing: that they regret not having tried following through on a passion, or flirting with what could’ve been a passion. You know what no one regrets at the end of their life? Not working more. No one says “I should’ve just put in more hours at the job.” The important things in my life are my relationship to the people I love and care about, my relationship to my community, and my relationship to my own creativity. So here I am, afraid of failing but somehow loving the journey all the same. I guess that’s a success in and of itself. And so I continue…


"I’ve seen my friends and peers through the years build solid relationships, careers, buy and build homes, start families etc. And I’ve watched myself live on a shoestring, getting by on very little while I live completely in devotion to my art.

Speaking of passion and community... What are your thoughts on social media and its effects on art, music, and artists?

Well, I guess I’ll just be honest and upfront about this - I despise social media. I think Facebook, TikTok, Snapchat etc, in their current forms are contributing to the dulling and division of humanity as a whole, and that simultaneously frustrates and saddens me. Not to mention the way that social media companies rapaciously collect our personal information to sell to advertisers and what not. The industry feels like a cocktail of all the worst aspects of capitalism condensed into a handheld screen - for fuck’s sake! I wrote a song called Radio Caroline that was in part a reaction to my continued disappointment with social media, so I guess you can say I feel fairly strongly about this.

I won’t deny that social media has had some success stories. I’m sure there are people who have found deep and abiding partnership through some sort of social media miracle. I’ve populated my apartment with furniture I’ve found through social media marketplaces, so hey, that’s cool! I also know there are quality artists that have found an audience and fans that they never would’ve had, let alone the opportunity to introduce themselves, were it not for social media. But I reckon that for every artist of high quality that breaks through the algorithm, there’s a hundred influencers vapidly peddling the latest advertised product. God, is it depressing…

With regard to music and Colorworks, social media is the devil you have to feed and play nice with. Don’t get me wrong - I love connecting with people from across the world, and I feel so grateful and appreciative when someone finds our music, however they find it. Every one of those people have said yes to listening to us, and that’s truly all I want - is the opportunity to be heard! We’ve been exercising our creativity muscles to make the job of creating content fun and stimulating. For us, that’s shooting covers of songs we love and introducing each of our personalities as best we can. Siahna Im, our vocalist, is so much fun to work with because she not only has an intuitive understanding of what helps us connect with our fans and potential fans, but she also has the skills and patience to direct and craft the content. Callback to my waxing on craft vs imagination. 

If I would change anything about social media, I suppose I would completely erase the advertiser business model that these companies use. If everyone paid one dollar a month for a Meta subscription, maybe that would work better? Social media is kind of like a public utility at this point, given how ubiquitous it is and how it’s integrated with so much of the global economy. Get rid of the advertisers, and repurpose it for giving us more of what enriches our lives, rather than just feeding us a deluge of advertising garbage half the time. I suppose one person’s trash is another’s treasure… who am I really to say what should change? 


"[Social Media is] contributing to the dulling and division of humanity as a whole, and that simultaneously frustrates and saddens me."

Okay, time to name drop! If people are interested in getting into music who would you re4commedn they listen to and or research?

A fun question! I could go on about how great of songwriters and producers Radiohead and David Bowie are, but I’d like to recommend some artists that are less well known that I love. I’m a big fan of quickly, quickly out of Portland, Oregon. Really well crafted songs and well-produced. My friend Ben who creates under the name Midnight Cathedral, and my friends in Fruit Juice are two artists I can recommend people check out. Lesser known but absolutely fantastic songwriters I like: Emmit Rhodes, XTC, Nick Drake, Gillian Welch, and Ray Davies of the Kinks. I mean, yes The Kinks are internationally famous, but most people only know a handful of their hits. But when you listen to Ray Davies’ body of work throughout the 60’s, it’s astounding how good of a songwriter he was.


Sadly, we have come to the final, but arguably the most important, question... What advice would you give to other musicians and artists out there?

Vincent Van Gogh started painting at 27 years old, and died at 37. To my knowledge, he only ever sold one painting during his life. I’ve read so many accounts of him being told by the movers, shakers and tastemakers of the day that his work was complete shit. And yet he kept painting, expanding his imagination and his craft - why? I don’t know. Because it brought him something important I suppose, it certainly wasn’t money. We live in such a hyper capitalist society here in America, where success is measured by dollars, likes, shares, comments, etc. I think to be a successful artist, reframing success is important. Rather than success being the acceptance and celebration by society of the final product, success is the process and the doing. Waking up every day and committing to exploring one’s inner landscape, and following through with that commitment - that is success. 

I don’t like Jordan Peterson’s politics at all, and find many of his ideas to be corrosive, but I remember being inspired by a tangent about dreams he went on during some lecture on the Bible (file that under cooking dinner podcasts). He talked about how artists communicate deep truths about ourselves and the world that are very difficult to put into conventional words, truths that exist in individual and collective dreams. It feels like a very Jungian idea, and it still resonates with me. What truths can we bring back to the rest of our fellow humans, and how potently can we communicate them? I think of something like Revelator by Gillian Welch - it’s very difficult to tease out what exactly she’s talking about in that song, but god dammit does it feel like it’s important to engage with. Strawberry Fields Forever is another song that gives me that feeling. Starry Night and the Potato Eaters give me that feeling as well. There’s a truth there, and it’s beyond the limitations of conventional language. I feel like Stanley Kubrick was a master at communicating truths from the collective dream, and doing it in  such a masterful way that you can’t help but feel something deep and important after one of his films. 

I guess what I’m saying is being an artist is in the doing, the striving, the touching and communicating the dream, however the dream expresses itself to each of us. I think that requires a level of honesty with ourselves and those around us that can sometimes be scary to engage with, let alone express. I don’t think it’s often that dishonest people make great artists - sure, they exist, and some of them are widely celebrated (I’m looking at you Jimmy Page, you know you stole Bert Jansch’s tune!) Sure, there can be skill and maybe even artfulness in deceit, and there’s truth in that too. But I feel like they are half-truths, or that they are distorted by the ego that demands the deception. I find the courage and honesty of Brian Wilson, John Lennon, Kate Bush and Vincent Van Gogh to be what resonates with me. And I call it a personal success when I feel I strive for that level of honesty. Perhaps that might resonate with other people too. 


"Being an artist is in the doing, the striving, the touching and communicating the dream, however the dream expresses itself to each of us. I think that requires a level of honesty with ourselves and those around us that can sometimes be scary to engage with, let alone express."


Thank you, once again, Bret for chatting with us and letting us learn more about you and your work. It was truly a pleasure. We are wishing you and the band all the best.


If you want to learn more about Colorworks and listen to their music, check out their socials:

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