Patti Smith doesn’t consider herself much of a musician, but she’s probably about the only person to hold that opinion. Almost 40 years into an epic artistic odyssey, the singer, poet, painter, actor, photographer, fashion plate and, above all, icon shares some of the secrets to her success.
Cher is already Cher
Early on in my career I got a lot of different offers. There was one producer who saw me do a sort of musical poetry reading. I guess I was funny and I had a wry sense of humour and he had this idea to shape me into a seventies-style Cher. Of course it was an honour that someone wanted to invest time and money in me, but this guy had a specific vision for me and it wasn’t what I wanted to do. People often get tempted by success, celebrity, but I’ve always tried to sidestep the opportunities that aren’t in keeping with my personal vision. Everyone has to make a living – I worked in a factory, I was a really bad waitress – but in terms of your art, that’s not something your should compromise. You might think you will only compromise for a while, but that’s not the way it works.
Be selfish every day
I’m a very routine-oriented person. I get up really early and I write for a couple of hours. I’ve been doing this since I had my children in the early eighties. It’s not for any particular project. There is no agenda. I just write whatever I am feeling. I’ll go to a café and get some coffee and maybe do a little more writing or reading and then I’ll start my day, whether as a worker, a mother, the leader of a band. It’s so important to me to have some time to myself. I don’t have duties, I’m not dealing with anything external. It doesn’t have to be writing. Maybe you’re taking a walk by the sea, saying prayers, working in a garden, baking bread. I love that when I get to whatever I have scheduled for that day, I have already achieved something for myself.
Screwing up is good for the soul
I am constantly making mistakes on stage. I’ll blunder or forget words and then I’ll just make a joke and we’ll just start the song over again. If you’re honest and good with people, they tend to be very rallying. Much more than polish, performing requires honesty, so I’m big on owning up if you’re a little nervous of if you’ve messed up. Mistakes aren’t the end of the world. I took both of my children on stage with me when they were younger because I wanted them to learn that it’s okay to mess up. I think it’s an important lesson in resilience.
I’m a girl … get over it
I wouldn’t call my style gender bending. It’s gender ignoring. I know I’m a girl. I was a wife, I’m a widow, I have two children. I love those roles, but as an artist I never wanted to be trapped with any label. I don’t like being called a female singer, a female artist. We don’t call Mark Rothko a male painter or Picasso a male cubist. As a person I'm happy to be a female, but creatively speaking, I don’t want to be compartmentalized. I think the best art is unfettered. Unfettered by race, age, gender.
There’s no “I” in performer
I don’t consider myself a musician or really much a singer, but I guess the best advice I can offer for any performer is to listen to others, rather than only paying attention to the voice in your head. Some of the work I do is very solitary, but music is collaborative and when you’re on stage it’s really important to listen. That’s how you improvise, that’s how you grow. As a performer I’m keeping my channels open to hear the audience, to feel them and just as a human being and someone who wants to have an impact on people, I would say it’s so important to have empathy. In performance you’re really nothing without the other people. A great night is when everyone is melding together.
This interview has been condensed and edited