Q&A March 2012, Part I
4/25/2012 (updated 4/25/2012)

When you play your acoustic guitar live, how much of the sound that we hear actually comes from the guitar? Does most of what the audience (and presumably yourself) hear not come from the pickups? I'm puzzled as to why some players take really high quality instruments on the road (Jackson Browne with all his rare and collectibles, Martin Simpson with his Sobells, yourself with Lowdens) while others (who are not short of money) just seem to get a batch of reasonable quality, serviceable but not particularly notable guitars for touring purposes. No offence to Mr Lowden, I have played some of his instruments and they are superb. 

I just wonder if the amplification doesn't become more important than the actual instrument at some point. Thanks, Bob Dubery - Johannesburg

This is a very interesting question, and not totally cut and dried. I think, for the most part, that a great instrument with a pickup will sound better than an average instrument with a pickup. Danny Thompson's wonderful double bass, Victoria, an 1860 Gand, will sound generally superior, given a reasonable pickup, to any modern double bass built for the purpose of being amplified with a pickup. If the great tone is there to begin with, you've got something to work with. Try making a great film with a lousy script. Having said that, my second-best Lowden (one should not have favourites among one's children) sounds, if not actually better on stage, then is more evenly responsive, and can be eq-ed flatter. There are digital modelling things out there now, which can make your crappy Chinese acoustic sound like a vintage D45, but better, I think, to have the tone at the front end of the process… and ultimately, digital modeling can sound - digital.

I work as a child and family therapist. As you may know I've been a huge fan of your music for years. Your music has helped me to do my job in many ways. For awhile I've been intrigued with the connection between creativity and mental health. As an extremely creative person who has been lauded for your talent and for pushing boundaries, I was wondering if you might answer some questions about this.

First of all, can you recommend any good books on the connection between creativity and mental health? I've read a few and have not been really satisfied. It seems they only point out creative people who are also mentally ill such as Van Gogh and Picasso. I'm more interested in how creativity enhances mental health. I believe that there is a direct channel somehow in the brain that helps process and release pain through the creative process which can promote growth and healing. Of course it's all very complicated and there is no one answer for everyone, but as a therapist I believe that using a creative channel to express pain helps to mitigate it somehow. I also believe that being witness to creativity, i.e. listening to music or going to an art museum, can also mitigate pain, but in a different way. I'm not sure what the difference is. Any thoughts?

So my question(s) to you are, do you agree with this vague but hopefully formulating theory? Can pain be mitigated through the creative process, ultimately moving one towards more balance? As a "professional" creative person can you somehow see/feel how your performances helps process others pain? I also mentioned earlier that you are one to constantly push your creative boundaries. In so doing, it would seem you are creating new pathways in your brain. I believe that often people get stuck in old pathways in their brains as brains like what is familiar, which in turn can prevent growth. Patterns are often defensive and rudimentary in nature. Do you believe that by pushing those creative boundaries, as you do, one can promote new pathways in your brain, that can ultimately create or promote healing?  I won't get into the connections between spirituality, music and healing. I think it's too complicated to put into words somehow. But if you have words for this connection, feel free to share. I'd love to hear.

Thank you for your time and consideration. Also, thank you again for all your great music. Kurt Vonnegut said something like music is the only proof of God. Not an exact quote as my mind is addled with age, but that's the thought, I think. I'm going to go listen to some music now and paint. Take care, Celia

I don't know of any good books on the subject of music and mental health generally, but they must be out there. Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks discussed the use of music in Parkinson's Disease, and there has been a lot in the press lately about music and Alzheimer's. Because music is dealt with by a different part of the brain than speech, logic, etc., it does seem to be a bridge to repairing certain connections. Having a bit of a speech impediment myself, I know that you never stumble over words if you sing them. As for pain, I think that's much harder to pin down. When we create, or experience the creation of others, it seems to help with everything, including pain (even Damian Hirst?). Humans need creative expression, in varying degrees, to lead full, balanced lives. When those things are missing, an obvious therapy is to restore them. From my own non-clinical experience of playing music to people, everyone seems happier after a concert, and everyone seems changed after a concert (there are, of course, exceptions). I can only see music as an essential component of life. I'm told that the old Sufis in Andalusia used music quite scientifically to cure the insane.

If I use my brain in new, creative ways, I'm sure that will help my mental health, just as someone taking up Homeric Greek at age 60 will be helping to ward off mental degeneration. There might be someone out there reading this with more scientific insight, and we'd be happy to hear from them.