“I am on a lonely road, and I am traveling, traveling, traveling…
Looking for something, what can it be?”
I must have been 17 years old when I heard those words by Joni Mitchell for the first time. Many years have passed since then, and I could sing all songs on ‘Blue’ – one of my all time favorite albums – in my sleep.
As I’m writing this, I’m looking at the album cover of Hejira, that I keep on the Fender Rhodes.
Joni and the highway.
Next to the Fender Rhodes is a vintage globe. Behind the picture is a little suitcase, that one of my sisters made me. She knows me well.
I love traveling.
Last fall, I spent two months on the Canary Islands and soon I’ll be packing my bags again. “Sounds wonderful, a vacation!” is what many people tell me when they hear about my plans. But that’s not why I travel.
I change scenery because I need to.
Because it’s in my blood. When other kids were covering their bedroom walls with posters of pop and rock stars, I covered mine with pictures and postcards from other countries. I was obsessed with maps, and memorised all the capitals in the world, the big rivers, mountains… I had penpals around the world, and knew it: as soon as I could, I’d be on the road.
Because it calms me down. This might sound completely contradictory to many people, as many associate traveling with stress. But for me, it’s sort of the other way around. Too long in one scenery, I end up feeling restless and trapped. Repeating the same patterns too long, inspiration leaves. Solutions to problems don’t present themselves as easily, because it’s difficult to zoom out. The thought of movement gives a sense of freedom. Leaving is not always pleasant though. The day before I leave is always the worst part, and I’m always postponing packing until the last moment. It feels so definite. There’s melancholy, mixed with an inexplicable sense of excitement. And then, once I’m on the road, a strange calm settles over me. Whatever might be troubling in that moment just seems to disappear. On the road, I feel present, fully in the moment.
Perhaps because of my own wanderlust, I’ve always been drawn to stories about travelers, wanderers and seekers. Many of the songs I sing tell stories of being on the road, like this one (from Joni) – from my program Sad Songs For Happy People, here in a recording together with Thomas Böttcher on piano:
But aside from being a gypsy at heart, there’s a professional reason for changing scenery too: Because my creativity and art needs it.
Why do artists travel?
Many artists have lived nomadically, or traveled extensively. Ernest Hemingway, for example, lived in Paris, Pamplona, Madrid, Cuba, and Key West. Why do artists seem to need changes of scenery?
To report back to others about things found and experienced.
Lawrence Wreschler writes in “The Sense of Movement“:
For if, in fact, there are many senses of movement—the call to travel taking myriad forms—surely one of the most compelling is that of exploration, or expedition, the sheer draw of the unknown beyond […] Because as long as there have been explorers (surveyors, conquerors, claim-stakers), there have been artists along for the ride, and subsequent waves of artists documenting the newly forged terrain, its vistas, flora, and fauna (both animal and human), for the folks back home. (Doubtless there have also been generations of artists among the local indigenous peoples, documenting and trying to make sense of the mysterious arrival of these oafish invaders, but that too is another story.)
Conquerors and claim-stakers aside, there’s an interesting point in this “documentation and trying to make sense of things”. You could say, every artist is on an expedition of their own. The unknown terrain is perhaps our own soul, our own life, and our connection to the world that we try to make sense of. The road fills us with experiences and encounters that provide us with images for mapping out that unknown terrain, and with stories for the art we create.
To learn about a certain thing or object.
Research trips, learning more about a specific music style, studying under the guidance of a master teacher… Many artists roam the world pursuing more knowledge.
I’ve done many study trips too, participated in countless courses around the world, or traveled to far away locations in order to learn more about music styles that I love. Sometimes you might also need to visit a specific location in order to connect deeper with the songs you sing. Arriving in Rio de Janeiro by airplane for the first time, the lyrics of Jobim’s “Samba do Avião” finally made total sense to me.
For a new perspective on things.
In order to feed the creative brain, we need to look at things from multiple angles. Traveling might result in a new way of writing, composing or painting. The change of location might also present a solution to a problem.
In the words of Henry Miller:
“If we are always arriving and departing, it is also true that we are eternally anchored. One’s destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things.”
To stay creative.
Traveling can literally make our brain more creative. New sounds, smells, language, tastes, sights and sensations create new neural pathways in the brain.
Nurturing your creativity with your wanderlust really isn’t so much about the destination as it is about the journey, about changing your routine, and about noticing things.
One of the walks I did while on El Hierro in November last year, comes to mind. There’s a sacred tree on the island, the Garoé. It’s mentioned in all the tourist guides. Together with visual artist Clemens Kinkert and poet/visual artist Tessa de Swart, we decided to visit the location. After a drive through misty, winding mountain roads, we got out of the car and continued on foot. The walk took us through highland sceneries where the clouds were sailing by at fast speed.
Finally, we arrived at the location. And there it was. The Sacred Tree.
But it’s not the original tree. Like the plaque on the rocky mountain wall says, “On this location stood the famous Garoé, the Sacred Tree of El Hierro. A hurricane uprooted it in 1610.”
Do you know of any trees that got their own memorial plaque?
The Garoé was considered a sacred tree, because it supplied the indigenous people of the island, the Bimbache, with drinking water. You might shrug your shoulders and think that the uprooting of a tree isn’t such a big deal, but because fresh water was scarce on the island, the uprooting of the tree led to the death of many of the inhabitants. The tree standing in its place was planted there as a memorial tree in 1949.
I can tell Joni now, that I’ve been to a tree museum.
I was touched by the story of the Sacred Tree, and also how it reminds us of the importance of taking care of our natural resources. But it wasn’t really the tree itself that made the trip there memorable and inspiring.
As we were walking to the location of the Sacred Tree, we stopped to say hello to a local cow relaxing in the fields, saw a big black beetle crossing the dirt road, looked at the clouds sweeping across the scenery in rapid speed, the big black birds preying in the sky, the ghostly dried-up trees standing on the side of the road, the light green mountain roses growing on the side of the rocky cliffs. It was quiet up there in the mountain fields. The air was fresh. My head was emptying and filling up simultaneously, with images, words, melodies, ideas.
A lot was born from that day trip to the Sacred Tree – lyrics, melodies, observations for my new solo program, philosophical thoughts about life and creativity, insights about how to proceed with a specific business idea, clarity on decisions that need to be taken, food for project ideas that I might not even have conceived yet. This blog post.
That’s why I travel and change scenery.
5 Creativity boosting tips from a traveling artist
Changing scenery doesn’t always have to mean long-distance travel. The idea of Harry Potter popped into J.K.Rowling’s head on a train ride from Manchester to London.
You don’t necessarily even have to leave the place where you live.
If you find yourself stuck in a creative rut, or lacking inspiration, try out one of these things:
- Spend a day in your home town doing things only tourists would do. Don’t just visit the obvious art galleries, but do other things that a tourist would do. No tourism in your area? Entertain yourself with the thought of what you would show someone who would be visiting. Then do that.
- Get on a bus or train, and drive somewhere you’ve never been. Get off at a train station you wouldn’t usually get off at (depending on the area, make sure to do your background research in order to stay safe). Bring a camera and a notebook. Don’t bring a map. Ask people for directions instead.
- Go sit in a café, bar or restaurant you would otherwise never visit. Observe people. Engage in conversations with strangers. Order a dish you have no idea what it is.
- Go to the airport. Sit down and observe people. Who are they? Where are they going? Why? What do they carry in their suitcases? Look at the departing flight schedule. Pick out a destination you have never visited or perhaps even heard of before. Google it. Learn about the culture or about a specific custom in that place. Look up a recipe with traditional food from that place. Go buy the ingredients and cook that dish.
- Take another route to work or to your local supermarket. Take the longest route possible. The slowest route. Or take the same route you always do, but in a different way. Instead of taking your car, bike. Walk it. Look left, look right, look to the sky, look to the ground. Notice all the things you usually wouldn’t notice.
Observe. Ask questions. Make connections. Tune in to your senses.
What you see, hear, taste, smell, feel and experience becomes food for your art.
Back to Joni Mitchell. She has changed scenery many times throughout her life and career. When Malka Marom asks Joni about traveling in the book “Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words” Joni replies:
“Yes, it’s a nomadic life, isn’t it? I guess I have become a gypsy. It’s hard for me to put down roots, even the idea … I like this transient way of being. It’s almost like I’m hot on the trail of the song. I like my freedom to wander. […] Freedom to me is a luxury of being able to follow the path of the heart, to keep the magic in your life. Freedom is necessary for me in order to create, and if I cannot create I don’t feel alive.”
Thank you Joni, for so beautifully explaining the most important reason for creating.