Jon Batiste on the art of pushing your limits (Transcript)

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ReThinking with Adam Grant
Jon Batiste on the art of pushing your limits
May 10, 2022

[00:00:00] Adam Grant:
Hey WorkLifers, it's Adam Grant. Welcome back to Taken for Granted, my podcast with the TED Audio Collective. I'm an organizational psychologist. My job is to think again about how we work lead and live. Today, I'm talking to musician, John Batiste. He dominated the music awards this year, winning five Grammys--including Best Album--beating out Taylor Swift and Billie Eilish. Jon has also won an academy award for his composing on the Pixar film, Soul. And in his spare time, he's the band leader and musical director for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. So it's safe to say he knows a little something about finding your creative muse. Tell me where you were when you got the news? I'd love to hear the story of what happened and how you were.

[00:00:54] Jon Batiste:
I never expect any nominations. I always, once I put an album out, I put it behind me. I really feel that that's the only way that I can move forward as an artist. So when they said my name, I said, oh wow, we were in there. We got two that's great. I'm good with two. That's that's more than I was expecting. And it kept going man, every time by the third or fourth time after those two, it started to feel like they were trying to prove a point like this is six, seven Grammys. We're approaching history. These are across all of these different genres. Oh, what you mean? It's nine. Okay. If we get to double digits, that would be crazy, but let, let's not get our hopes up. Wait a minute, general categories? You mean "Album of the Year", "Song of the Year." This is ridiculous. It took about a week to process it all, to be honest.

[00:01:50] Adam Grant:
I mean, it makes it all the more extraordinary, right? That you have the independent judgment. So people in multiple genres saying, "Hey, this is, this is remarkable."
[00:01:58] Jon Batiste:
Yes. It's incredible, man. Where I'm talking to you right now is my dressing room at the Ed Sullivan Theater and this album was made in this dressing room. The beginning of this album, the blueprint, was created here in six days, and then over the course of 18 months and ending really in the heat of the political and social unrest that we had during the first wave of the pandemic in New York City.

[00:02:25] Jon Batiste:
Finishing the album through all of that tumult was something that I felt was an achievement for me as a man and as an artist to have really put this into music, put all of these fields in all of these thoughts, and everything that had led up to this moment, this combination of my life, 33 years old. So for now to be nominated in this historic way is beyond words.

[00:02:54] Adam Grant:
Well I could not be more excited for you. What you've already said so far raises a bunch of questions for me, Jon. The first one is, tell me about why you like to put an album behind you when you're done with it.

[00:03:04] Jon Batiste:
I think you're in the moment when you're making the album. So it's only logical that once the album is done, the moment has passed. If you're making an album, you're also going to deliver it to the public. And once you do that, it's theirs. It's the soundtrack to their memories. Their lives is what they hear, whether it's at their weddings or when it's a tragedy in their life. And they go to your music for solace, or they go to your music to have a catharsis or some sort of connection to feel like they're not alone. There's all these ways that people write to me and connect with me talking about ways they've danced to my music or song alone. Or, saw me at a concert and a song connects to their life in a way that I could never fully understand, but I deeply appreciate that-- is what's in the future for an album. That's what the future of it is. It's a communal experience that people continue to add on to, and it really grows without any of your consent. You made it, it's gone. It's for the people. Now, if you dwell on that, you don't grow as an artist and you don't allow all of that, that, that beauty, that life experience to come in, you can't receive it if you're still stuck in the moment.

[00:04:25] Adam Grant:
That's such a beautiful way to look at it. One of the things we see in psychology is that one of the reasons people get typecast is they start to define themselves by their past work. And also their audience defines them by their past work. And then they, they essentially get trapped in what was once for a lot of people, an exciting new identity, but they can't really escape it or grow beyond it.

[00:04:47] Jon Batiste:
Well, there's something about inspiration that I feel in its most pure sense defies any form of marketing or branding. If you follow that pure inspiration, your artistry and your expression will continue to evolve. And you'll never be typecast, or stuck in a box.

[00:05:09] Adam Grant:
I know that you come from a legendary music family that goes back more generations than many people can even count in their family tree. I'd love to hear a little bit about your early introduction to music and what it meant to grow up in a family where, where this almost defines your identity before you've gotten to choose one.

[00:05:27] Jon Batiste:
New Orleans is a special place because the history of it rooted in a lot of atrocity, you know, the enslavement of my ancestors, but also the beauty that emerged in Congo Square in particular and the different styles of colonization and the ways that, it being one of the biggest port cities in the world at that time, it invited so many different influences from other cultures to co-mingle and something about the traditions of the food and architecture and the dance and of course, the music, have endured for many, many years--centuries to the point that being born into that in 1986, as a young man in a musical family, in a tradition of musical families, musical tribes, I was able to benefit from so much ingrained culture that was just a part of the fabric of my everyday life. So that was a big thing for me. And also my mother. She's not a musician. She's not the musical side of the family, but she comes from the side of the family that has this gene of complete erudite and also perseverance in the face of marginalization that that I learned from, and I didn't even know I had it until I needed it. It was this ability to study and to grow and to read and to put yourself into all of these different activities, whether it was learning how to code when I was 15, or doing gymnastics and being embarrassed that I was doing gymnastics of ballet when I was in middle school, but then realizing, wow, that helped my dancing--learning all of the different moves that for chess openings and realizing, oh, that's helping my piano playing. Just the ways that she exposed me to all these activities and the way that her father and activists during the time of Martin Luther King and the Memphis Sanitation Strike and him being the first black president of the hotel workers' union in Louisiana and him being one of the first to integrate his branch of the Navy. That kind of stuff, it's an intangible benefit to your artistry. It's hard to put it into words, but it adds such a depth to who you are.

[00:07:52] Adam Grant:
Did you feel like it was preordained that you were gonna become a musician? Was there pressure to go in that direction or was that a pure choice on your part?

[00:08:02] Jon Batiste:
It was a pure choice for me, even though when I felt it was preordained, I resisted it. So it was a step-by-step process. I was a kid growing up in this musical family, my father being my first musical mentor, amazing mother who's given me all these opportunities to check out things outside of music and I'm just a kid that's got a lot of activities going on in a very musical city. And then I get to a point where my talent starts to emerge for music in a way that allows me to branch outside of my family. And to start working with my peers who were these literal young geniuses. I mean, some of the greatest musicians in the world I just happened to grow up with and we started bands together. Troy Trombone Shorty Andrews, he's 15 I'm 14. We started playing every night in the city. I'm going to two schools at one time. And after school I'm playing these shows in the city. And this is a schedule that maybe starts at 6:00 AM and ends at 1:00 AM some days. So I get to a point where I graduated high school a year early, I'm 17 years old, and I have disability to choose a path. As a young kid, I was like, well, I don't want to be a musician everybody's musician. But now as a 17 year old staring at the world in front of me, I'm like, well, I could either go and do something, or I could go to New York. And I could try to be a musician and see where that takes me if I leave the safety and I leave what I deemed the predictability of staying home and doing it, and I chose the latter.

[00:09:50] Adam Grant:
This is interesting because it reminds me of some research by my colleague Shasa Dobrow on people who have a calling from music. She's a former musician turn sort of organizational psychologist like me. And she's found that when early on students or kids have a calling for music, they start to tune out real feedback on, on whether they have the skills that they need to succeed. And sometimes they get so locked into this path that they can't really necessarily read the room and find out. Maybe this is not going to work out for me. It makes me wonder whether this uncertainty that you had until 17, about whether this was a career allowed you to explore a little bit more with an open mind.
Is this something I want to do? Is this a skill set that I want to continue building and pursuing? How do you react to that?

[00:10:36] Jon Batiste:
Well, it was a really important relationship that helped to convince me of music being a career path that was viable. And that's-- that made all the difference. You know, the last year of this high school experience that I'm describing, I really had the chance to spend the majority of that year with the late great Alvin Batiste. He's about the age of my grandfather and we don't know how we're related, but he's one of maybe 30 Batiste who were around when I was growing up, who I didn't know specifically how we were related, but they also were musicians. So Alvin Batiste is this incredible avant-garde clarinetist, one of the originators of new Orleans, contemporary jazz, along with the late Ellis Marsalis who was of course of the Marsalis musical family. And they had a band when they were teenagers. And this band basically created a lot of the New Orleans jazz standards that are a part of the lexicon of what we all learn, how to play when we're students. And he's teaching me all these songs and he's putting me in his band and we go on the road and he's really just showing me experientially what it's like to be in a band at a level that is of the highest level. Basically the youngest person in the band by 30 years minimum and he's 70 at the time. So you can imagine just the experience of being around the elders and, and really seeing, okay. Wow. This is how you do it. There's something about being original. There's a value to that, that I can continue to develop. That's what took me into the path of being a musician. The fact that I could make it my own, if I could make it my own. That's what really drew me in.

[00:12:36] Adam Grant:
Well, let let's talk about that skill of being original. I have a former student, Justin Berg. Who's now a Stanford professor who just finished a study on one hit wonders versus repeat hitmakers. And he found that that one hit wonders, basically started out with songs that were similar to each other and fairly typical for their time, which allowed them to take off early, but limited their range over a longer period and that the people who made repeat hits, they started out with much more novel genres and also songs that were more different from each other, which made it harder to get traction early on, but ultimately allowed them to define something new and original, and keep producing different music. It seems to me that you took the latter path and I'd love to hear how you did that. And also what kind of resistance you faced and how you dealt with it. Because from what I've heard of your music, it doesn't easily get defined by a genre. It doesn't fit in to a familiar category.

[00:13:32] Jon Batiste:
That's really by choice. There's a philosophy, in fact, that guides me. It's more of a philosophy about how we as humans can use music as a part of our lives to create community. There have been all of these different ways that we've used music in New Orleans that are rooted back to what I call social music, the music that is not only just music to dance to, but there's music when someone's born, there's music when someone passes away, there's music to eat to, there's music when you have this experience of celebrating the family lineage and Mardi Gras and celebrating the traditions of everybody coming together in Congo Square and all that continues today. So I find that for me, my early experiences led me to the philosophy of social music And those early experiences where people thinking I was weird and me being a student at Juilliard and people thinking, "Oh, hey, what is he doing? Why is he playing in the subway? Why is he doing this in the crowd? And taking people from the crowd and bringing them outside?" There was always this pushback. I got, there's always a sense of resistance that. Ever since I started really on this quest from 17 years old to just be original and to find my own way, it was always pushed back from the elders, from people who I admired from people who didn't get it from my peers. At times I had to find my tribe and build my tribe because they were the right people who could understand at least somewhat the vision that I had for the music and presenting social music. So, yeah, man, it was pushed back a lot of the time.

[00:15:21] Adam Grant:
And how did you know when to listen to it as useful feedback versus when to ignore it?

[00:15:25] Jon Batiste:
You know, it's like an instinct. I really believe your instinct can be honed. And it's, it's your true north. So you have this instinct when you hear feedback and there's first an emotional response because you obviously care. You, you want people to like you, you want people to like it, but then a certain part of you is like, well, you know, F them, I don't care what they think. Cause this is what I'm doing. And that's healthy too. So once you find your internal equilibrium with that, then I feel like you can start to assess things that people are telling you. And you also have to assess who it's coming from. You know, a lot of these folks would be telling me stuff based upon what was possible for them and what they were capable of. And what their limitations were in their era and what they thought based on those limitations, would it be possible for somebody like me based on their assessment of what my skills were, which nobody really knows what your skills are only, you know, only, you know, what you can be. They don't know what you can be.

[00:16:28] Adam Grant:
It is amazing how often people make the same mistake when they accept feedback as they do, when they reject it, it's just, they don't bother to ask, does this person know my domain? Do they know me? And do they know my audience? Right?

[00:16:41] Jon Batiste:
That's the good one, man. That's so true. It's like, who it's coming from makes all the difference.

[00:16:47] Adam Grant:
It does. So I want to talk about this idea of social music, because I think there's something incredibly powerful about it. It connects to this idea that Durkheim called over a century ago, collective effervescence, where you come together in a group with a shared purpose. And I think one of the hardest parts of COVID for so many people, you know, aside from the grief and the fear was the loneliness of not having that collective effervescence, not feeling the, the rhythm and movement of a group and, you know, quickly, we saw people try to overcome that by singing out their windows and dancing in their driveways. And you took that a big step further in 2020. I'd love for you to talk a little bit about the importance of social music and the way that you stepped up after the murder of George Floyd.

[00:17:34] Jon Batiste:
We have a lot of responsibility as artists to not just create things that are for people's entertainment. When you say that music can move people in a way that maybe a speech or words or anything else, it doesn't go as deeply into the soul of a person. It doesn't hit them in a way that can inspire them in the same sense. You can think about music as a way to peacefully protest or peacefully ignite in a way that nothing else can, you can find it to be a way to bring them to a realization that maybe they wouldn't have come to otherwise. It adds nuance. It adds color to something that could be seen as black and white in particular, in our political climate, where everything is made that way. It is such an incredibly profound and effective tool. When the artist focuses it on these other objectives outside of entertainment. And there's a true depth and historic power to people gathering and having something, someone, whether it's the musician, whether it's the cause or whether it's a mixture of both, something that helps them to resonate on the same frequency helps them to be in one accord. And when groups of people like that across the world as we saw it in the wake of the death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, when you see that actually happening, that's such a golden opportunity for the artists to be effective. The artist as citizen, has a golden opportunity for you to really show and utilize the full power of music to actually make impactful change in people's lives.

[00:19:35] Adam Grant:
What was the message that you wanted to convey with "We Are"?

[00:19:38] Jon Batiste:
I wanted to defeat and defend against apathy. Apathy is the killer of all that we fight and hope for in our society. It's the thing that made millions upon millions of people not go out to vote this last administration, when they took over The White House, that was the result of that. We have so many things that we see that have caused us to throw our hands up, whether it's the advancement of culture in a way that we don't like, or it's the technological revolution and there's a lot of isms that come along with that--age-ism racism, sexism, all of these isms that connect back to the destruction of culture. And I find that we got to find a way to get back to the basics of human connection and genuine human exchange. So I feel like we are here is, is the question and the answer in a lot of ways, if we're asking what the solution is, and we don't look to ourselves then who else do we look to? If we don't look to the people in this generation that have been chosen to be here right now, if it ain't on us, then who is it? How do I create a timeless legacy that will continue to inspire people for generations even years after I'm gone, centuries after I'm gone.

[00:21:23] Adam Grant:
Wow. You think that far ahead when you're making an album? I think I might not get out of bed if I'm worried about centuries down the road.

[00:21:29] Jon Batiste:
I think that far ahead, but it's also no pressure. You're in the moment because you're capturing the moment and that gives you an ease because you work on the craft and you work really hard on it, and you work on the skills and you work really hard to be able to execute, but then when you get inspiration and you want to capture a moment, the moment is all there is you can't make it be anything more and less than what it is.

[00:21:55] Adam Grant:
Well, clearly I need to spend more time listening to the moment. I'm normally trying to force my plan into whatever moment is, is free on my calendar.

[00:22:03] Jon Batiste:
Man. I feel you. I feel you. It's a practice. I'm not the one to say that that doesn't work either because sometimes that works, but I do believe in the power of the moment overall. And if, if I can stay in the moment, everything will be great. That's something that's really hard for young musicians to learn that I always try to teach. That's the only thing play the moment. That's it. And if you do that, Then it has the opportunity of being great. It has the opportunity of being timeless. If you've worked on the craft and developed it enough to actually execute that.

[00:22:42] Adam Grant:
I want to talk about one of the places where you get to work on your craft quite a bit, which is of course, on Colbert. You have a front row seat to something that's really fascinating to people, which is a creative process in a different realm, which is comedy. And I'm curious about what parallels you see between the comedic creative process and your creative processes and musician

[00:23:02] Jon Batiste:
Structure. Everything is about structure. And timing. The medium of comedy has room for music, but it's almost just punctuation. It's ancillary in a sense, the music is in the rhythm of how the joke is being delivered or how everything about the structure of the joke is set up. So I would say music and comedy are really like cousins in the family tree. They're not quite siblings, but they're cousins and they're definitely have the same bloodline.

[00:23:38] Adam Grant:
Was there a particular moment where you felt like I've hit my stride or I figured this out.
[00:23:43] Jon Batiste:
It wasn't a comedic moment, but it was a moment I spoke about the late Kobe Bryant.
[00:23:51] Jon Batiste: On the show. And it was a moment that made me realize that the full range of who I am as a person could exist in this role. I realized that there was room for my whole being. And by the way, Stephen is a genius because he's able to have that range himself as the host.

[00:24:15] Adam Grant: You mentioned this range on the show, and there was a moment, a few weeks ago that I thought was profound. Andrew Garfield was on and Stephen Colbert was asking him about the loss of his mother. And he said, he started to see grief is unexpressed love and that he didn't want to let all his grief go because holding onto it was holding onto some of the love that he didn't get to show her. And I'd love to hear you riff on that a little bit. Cause it fundamentally changed my thinking about grief. And I think it had that impact on a lot of people.

[00:24:47] Jon Batiste:
Whoa, man, that was a moment that changed my perspective on grief as well. Just thinking about how in such a dark time in one's life, How do you find the light? I'm always searching for the light. I'm always looking for a way to connect grief to some sort of redemption and he really put it into words more eloquently and precisely than anyone I've heard, it's just about a renewing of appreciation for what we have in this life. To be alive, to exist with the ones we love and to know what they gave us endures once they're gone, because it's just that strong.

[00:25:42] Adam Grant:
It was such a deep observation to say that look, you know, when, when you're grieving, it's not just sadness. It's also love. You don't have to avoid it. You don't have to run away from it. You don't have to rush to process it. You can keep a little bit of a close, and that is a way of staying close to people that you've lost.

[00:25:59] Jon Batiste:
Yes. It's a way for us to stay close to them and to share what they meant to us with those who we love.

[00:26:11] Adam Grant:
What's in the horizon for you? What are you, what are you looking forward to? What are you thinking about next?

[00:26:15] Jon Batiste:
Well, these are great questions because they really do dovetail. I'm processing the grief and also the, the triumph of this American experience. This is an incredible epic piece of work that I'm premiering at Carnegie Hall next year. The working title as of now is American Symphon_y and I call it _American Symphony because it's a piece of work that is taking all of the forms of social music from the beginning of America and its inception as a country where everyone philosophically is tied together, no matter where they're from, they're raised, their creed, everything is under the banner of America. And what that's caused to transpire over centuries are many tragedies and many triumphs. And how do I, the artists that I am today, the space that I inhabit in culture, how do I process them? And present it in an epic work in the year 2022. What does that sound like? Who's playing in the orchestra? How do I present this and make it as authentic and comprehensive as possible?


Adam Grant: Taken for Granted is hosted by me, Adam Grant and produced by TED with Cosmic Standard. Our team includes Eliza Smith, Jacob Winick, Hannah Kingsley-Ma, Aja Simpson, Samiah Adams, Michelle Quint, Banban Cheng, and Anna Phelan. Our fact checker is Meerabelle Jesuthasan, original music by Hahnsdale Hsu and Allison Layton Brown.

[00:28:18] Jon Batiste:
Video games were the way that I learned how to compose before I realized I was learning it. I

[00:28:24] Adam Grant:
I'm around whenever you're looking for a Mario Kart escape.

[00:28:26] Jon Batiste:
[Laughter] I'm down. Let's get it.

[00:28:30] Adam Grant:
I have to warn you though. I get a little competitive in video games. So you might not like that version of me.

[00:28:35] Jon Batiste:
That's all right.

[00:28:35] Jon Batiste:
Well you got to win. That's the game.
[00:28:38] Adam Grant:
I know you'll just end up composing some new video game theme music to distract me.

[00:28:42] Jon Batiste:
That's on my bucket list. Video game music. [Laughter]