11 The Light of Peter Himmelman

Peter Himmelman started his creative life in avant-garage bands, in Minnesota, but unlocked his artistic core when he wrote a nakedly emotional love song for his dying father, in 1983. Today, after transitioning through a number of creative roles—including composing for TV and children’s music—he’s followed his restless muse to a new role as a lecturer, coach and author, helping others realize their own human potential. “If you cling too closely to what happened in the past and don’t create space for what’s happening now, it’s very difficult to move forward,” he tells Robert Cherry.

Peter Himmelman often begins his Big Muse workshops with a challenge to his audience: “When was the last time you cried for the sheer beauty of being alive?” While ostensibly hired by corporate clients to unlock the latent potential of an organization’s collective creativity, Himmelman always sets his sights on a higher plane—waking people to what he calls “the deep, crazy mystery of being human and alive.”

It’s a tall order, but Himmelman has never taken the easy, much less expected, route in anything he’s pursued. A large cult of music lovers knows him best as a critically acclaimed singer-songwriter who signed to Island Records in the mid 1980s and steadily amassed a body of song that can stand next to the best of the more metaphysically inclined writers like Cat Stevens, Leonard Cohen and Peter Gabriel.

His total commitment to observant Judaism, which limited his ability to tour on weekends and holidays, played a role in rendering him “the best singer-songwriter you’ve never heard of”—as one record company promotional campaign once touted—but, more importantly, it also helped accelerate his personal growth.

As his spiritual and family life took precedence over the clichés of rock stardom, and practical needs collided with a creative restlessness, he embarked on a series of personal reinventions, from TV composer (including Emmy-nominated work on Judging Amy), to children’s music composer (including the Grammy Award-nominated My Green Kite), to—mostly recently—creativity coach, via the founding of Big Muse.

In 2016, he captured his creative philosophy in a book titled Let Me Out: Unlock Your Creative Mind and Bring Your Ideas to Life. Far from the typical “how to” tomes on creativity often written from a purely academic standpoint, Himmelman’s book is unputdownable, thanks to his conversational voice and the “been there” personal narrative that supports each lesson.

Creative courage has been The Fire Theft Project’s major theme from the start, with the goal of capturing stories about the risks required to lead a creative life. But as Himmelman writes, it’s not enough to simply tell people, “Have courage! Take risks! Go for it!” Instead, he breaks down the process into actionable steps he calls “Brain Bottle Openers,” provocative exercises designed to overcome fear, stasis and that naysaying voice we all hear in our heads (which he personifies as a feeble, if ultimately well-meaning, character named “Marv,” to diminish its power).

The book, in fact, is so on the nose in terms of what we hope to accomplish with the magazine, that this could be our shortest interview ever—just a thank you to Himmelman and the strong suggestion that you, dear reader, grab a copy of Let Me Out at your earliest convenience. Fortunately, Himmelman was generous with his time and gave us a deeper look into his philosophy on humanizing the world.

How did the process of writing the book help you crystalize your philosophy on creativity?
Writing really amounts to a clarification of thought. So when you take ideas that are abstract, that you feel on almost a subliminal level—and I’ve probably carried these ideas with me for most of my life, certainly most of my working life—and ask, okay, how would you enunciate them, I started to learn a great deal about my own process.

They were things I just took for granted, habitual ways of doing things. I looked at the strengths and the weaknesses—the liabilities in the way I worked—and then asked myself, how can I convey the ideas that seem most helpful to me to other people? And in that process, yes, a lot of ideas not only crystalized, but other questions arose.

I encourage everybody to write a book. It doesn’t have to be published, but the idea of taking one’s thoughts and clarifying them, putting them in order so that you clarify your speech… I think writing a story is something that should be on people’s minds.

The book is a great instruction manual for unlocking creativity, with lessons backed by a narrative about your career arc and personal reinventions you’ve had to make along the way. It’s a beautiful way to connect with the reader, saying, “I’ve been through this situation, here’s how you might apply it to yours.”
Yes, certainly you’re trying to establish a connection, and one way human beings establish a connection is to not principally talk about only the successes we’ve had. That seems to be a go-to for a lot of people. What really bonds us is the deeper connectivity of expressing the times when the path we set out on did not lead us exactly where we assumed it might. Those are the universals that connect us—the pain, the rejection, the very human stuff—so we don’t appear to be this man or woman of steel, impervious to failure.

Of course, one needs mastery of skills to advance in whatever one does, but what really connects us on a universal level is saying, ultimately, I’m somewhat bewildered. I’m a spirit encased in this flesh suit—to put it in a rough metaphor—and I’m walking the Earth, and I’m not certain about too many things, and the things that I am certain about are not tangible, like love, trust, loyalty and compassion.

In the book, you recommend reframing “success and failure” as “expansion and contraction,” in terms of personal growth. You reframe other over-used terms, as well, to show how definitions themselves can limit us.
Right. Getting back to the benefits of writing a book, you start to think about words in a different way. They’re raw animal sounds, but we have attached meaning to them, and sometimes the meaning is not the same for me as it is for you. Or, the meaning becomes trivialized. The word “creativity” itself, I don’t rebel against it, per se, but it’s so overused that it almost has as much meaning to me as a belch.

If I work with a company, quite often I’ll ask them, “What are you looking to achieve?” And they’ll say, “I’d like to see my people become more creative.” It means nothing, so then you have to parse that word and say, “Well, if your people were more creative, how would they act differently? What kinds of conversations would you hear? What kinds of actions might you see?”

What response do you usually get?
There’s a certain commonality in that people want others to show up as human as possible. At least in theory. I work with a law firm, and in some ways they’re quite progressive. So what does it mean to them to be “creative” in a professional services industry? It’s not like they’re doing digital design or something. But as they started to get into the conversation of what does “creativity” mean, they said, “The entire law profession is on the threshold of facing disruption by things like LegalZoom, and our attorneys have always prided themselves on their brilliance at creating contracts—and rightly so.

“We don’t want them to stop being capable in that area, but we want them to leave that behind for a higher thing that cannot be imitated by the internet—and that’s creating human connection, both with people at the firm, with existing clients, and with potential new clients. We want to explore what it means to be deeply empathic, so that our skill, aside from being masterful at creating contracts, is that we understand in a deep way.”

Now, it’s really easy to be cynical about this; it’s really easy to laugh at it. In fact, I ran this situation by a friend who’s a general partner at another law firm and he said, “Sounds like a bunch of hippies over there.” And I said, “Well, tell me what you focus on?” He said, “We focus on the bottom line.” I said, “Let me ask you something—what are the challenges to your bottom line?”

He thought about it and he said, “Well, if a lawyer quits to either do something else or to join another law firm, it costs us a fortune to train someone. So, preventing lawyer attrition, that’s one. Number two, is maintaining the client relationships we have, because they’re cherished. And three, getting new clients.”

So I said, “Which of those things does not consist of a purely emotional, human, empathic understanding? It’s about human powers, and if you don’t see that as strategic, then you’re missing the point.”

That’s a great example. Especially since lawyers are not perceived in the popular imagination as the most human of people. [Laughs.]
Yes. And in the book, I spend a fair amount of time disabusing people—myself included—of the notion of who’s creative and who’s not. Typically, we’re assuming that a tap dancer, or a choreographer, or a designer, or a musician… they’re creative. The actuary, the insurance salesman, the dentist, the lawyer, the mail carrier, are not considered creative.

And those are terribly troubling assumptions. They don’t allow for the understanding that, as a musician myself, I’m often caught in habits and routines. In that state, I’m not creative at all, while a mail carrier, the way he may be collaborating and interacting with people, he could be in an incredibly creative point in his life. If we hold on to these rigid assumptions, it really diminishes our ability to move forward.

I worked with a group of data analysts and I asked the question, “Who feels themselves to be highly creative?” And nobody raised their hand. And I said, “By the end of this session, I will totally prove otherwise,” because I know I can, because it’s true. Creativity is not a performance art; it’s an openness to what’s happening around you. It’s really a cognizance of the great mystery of simply being alive.

People have always said, “I love what you do [in your workshops]. You should do takeaways.” Takeaways for me are sometimes difficult, because the things I do are by design somewhat indirect, and I prefer that people take away whatever it is they’re going to take away. But I’ve been starting some of my workshops by saying, “We are alive on a staggeringly beautiful planet. That’s the takeaway I really want you to get from this whole thing.” And people are generally like, “Who the hell is this guy and what is going on?”

And then I ask people, “When was the last time… and I know it has happened to everyone in this room… who will be courageous enough to say when was the last time you cried for the sheer beauty of being alive?”

And there’s always a pause and then someone will sally forth and say some beautiful thing and then another person will say something, and all of a sudden you’re humanizing the room. It’s a great way to start, because that’s the essence of creativity—an awareness of the deep, crazy mystery of actually being human and alive.

The other positive thing about recognizing the distinction between mastery in a performing-arts field and the sort of creative energy that anyone can apply, is that it also allows people who do work in artistic fields to consider how they might apply creative energy to other areas of their lives where maybe they don’t have mastery.
You bring up such a good point. It’s such a paradox, at least for me. Mastery can be the biggest debilitating factor in moving forward in creativity, because it becomes a protective, insulating device, as opposed to something that gives you courage to take on something that you cannot do well.

I was in New Orleans about six months ago and I met this guitar player. He was busking in a park, and he turned out to be this Argentinian guy named Martin Moretto. He’s a fantastic player; he plays chord-melody. So, for people who don’t know guitar, it’s like you have to play these very intricate chord shapes—Wes Montgomery was probably the master of this—where you place the melody on top of the chord, so you can play the melody and the chord at one time. It’s very difficult. And I asked this guy Martin, “Could you give me lessons—I live in L.A.—over Skype?” He was like, “Sure.”

So while I was getting the lessons, it was part wonderful and part painful, and I would tell him, “Martin, it’s so hard to feel so inadequate at something that I typically feel proficient at.” My fingers didn’t move where they needed to be. And he laughed and said, “This is how we do it. We stretch ourselves.”

And I learned so much from him, not only about guitar, but also as a metaphor for life. Sucking at something is the most important thing an adult can do. You constantly have to be doing something that makes you feel like a beginner and become inure to the pain that it can offer.

Had you not been open to admitting personal limits, you probably would have missed out on that experience.
To be honest, it’s difficult to show the world—this other guitar player—that you actually aren’t as good at something as you think you are. But that’s how you create space to learn something new. You have to put one thing aside. Relationships change, marriages change, everything changes, and if you cling too closely to what happened in the past and don’t create space for what’s happening now, it’s very difficult to move forward.

The theme of impermanence plays a major role in what I’d call your origin story as an artist. Your dad’s illness and that beautiful song you wrote for him on Father’s Day before he passed seems like ground zero for you as a creative person. Is that something you recognize?
Yes, sort of. [Impermanence] is definitely a major strand. The quick story about the song I wrote for my dad, is that, before then, I was playing songs I had written patterned after Prince’s [first single] “Soft and Wet,” songs like, “Baby, Let Me Be Your Cigarette,” and lyrics like “I’m your fireman. Show me where you’re burning. I’ll be there to hose you down…” Good thing those songs—which were being looked at by major labels in New York—never got me signed, because my kids would be so embarrassed of their father.

But this song that I wrote for my dad, it was on the last Father’s Day of his life. He died two months after I wrote “This Father’s Day.” He’d struggled with cancer for four years. They thought he would only live for four months and my mom was throwing this big family party for him, and she had said, “Peter, write a funny song to cheer up your dad.”

And I got home from this gig at four in the morning and I realized, “Oh my god, there’s a big party for my dad,” and I’m like, “This is over. I’ve got to blow the lid off this bullshit. This is the last Father’s Day.” And sometimes the best songs are born just out of feelings, without any analysis. Well, I wrote this song for my dad. It popped out in a second. I recorded it that morning, and at the end of the song, I literally started crying, and my first instinct was just to erase it. But then I decided in some—I don’t know, I guess you could call it a courageous moment, but I didn’t think of it as that at the time—I decided to leave it as is, and I brought it upstairs to the party.

When the song came on, the entire family started howling in grief like hyenas, and they all left the room, and it was just me and my dad. A year later, I put it out as a record, as a tribute to my dad, not thinking about a record deal. And you have to understand, this was a broken song, it was broken at the end. It was a guy crying, a young guy who was 24. And it was that song and other songs—not as painful, but coming from a much deeper and truer place than “I’m your fireman”—that got me a huge deal with Island Records and I started to understand in some way what I had to offer.

I could do the clever stuff, but what I really wanted to be a part of was something that was connective, real, that brought people to a clearer sense of who they were and what their place was on the planet. Obviously, I’ve not achieved that with everything I’ve done, but it is a True North for me.

Songwriting has remained a constant in your life. How has writing the book and coaching others affected your music? Do you consciously apply the lessons you teach to your own process?
Well, for example, right now I’m in the middle of this kind of mania that I get into and I’m very sleepless. My wife is like, “You’re so weirdly in your own head and so distant, and yet you’re so fragile and needy at the same time.” It’s probably really annoying to live with me during those times, but songs are channeling out all the time. After crystalizing the ideas in the book, I don’t think anybody has benefited more from it than me in terms of my own ability to open up these spaces. I don’t know what other people are going to think about the new songs, but I can judge the work that I do against other things I’ve done, and I think it stands up. I’m more excited about it. That’s why I can’t sleep.

Another thing I was thinking about this morning in terms of reinvention, my idea as a young man was to become a musician and rock star. And then as I got older, to be a rock star but to have little kids and a solid family. We’ve been married for 30 years, my kids are out of the house, and the reinvention is now very internal—how can I develop not only my songwriting and my performance skills, but what is it that I want to tell people? Do you know who Owen Husney is?

Prince’s first manager?
Yes, he got Prince his first record deal. He teaches a class about the music business, and I’m a guest lecturer. It gives me a chance to say, well, it’s not just about music. It’s not just about learning about publishing and copyright. It’s about finding a place within yourself to understand what it is that you are here to purvey, aside from your own self-aggrandizement, which is definitely a part of it. It’s still a part of what I do; I love the adulation and all that stuff, fine, that’s a given. But what is the point? What is it that makes you unique as an artist? What is your point of view? Why are you here? What are you doing?

I don’t think it hurts the process to at least privately have some consideration of that. What is your sense of purpose? Some people don’t think there is a sense of purpose. You live and you die, and that’s it. I think otherwise. Jimi Hendrix’s purpose, for instance, whether he was very clear on it or not, to me, it was like, “I’m showing you something beyond the immediacy of your surroundings. I’m going to take you on a trip and show you there’s something more. You’re looking now at the tip of the iceberg. Let me take you down under the water and show you something bigger.” And when you see something bigger, you become more hopeful, and your dreams and your deepest aspirations become engaged and enlivened. The intention needs to be examined.

Conversation edited for length and clarity.