You sit, eyes closed, and turn your attention inward. You focus your attention on an immediate experience, perhaps your breath or a mantra. You become more aware of yourself as a body breathing. When thoughts or emotions come up, you observe them with curiosity, openness and acceptance. Then you bring your attention back to the present. Each moment is a new experience. You enter an intense state of relaxation and alertness.
What does this have to do with the recording studio and producing hit records? According to Rick Rubin, a lot.
Recording Studio: Rick Rubin Meditation
Rick Rubin has produced numerous platinum-selling and award winning albums in his recording studio. Some of the albums he produced are considered classics, like thrash-metal band Slayer’s Reign in Blood or early hip-hop albums by the Beastie Boys, Run-DMC and LL Cool J. He has produced career-rejuvenating comeback albums by Johnny Cash, Black Sabbath and the Dixie Chicks. He initiated genre-bending collaborations, such as the rap-rock hybrid “Walk This Way” by Run-DMC and Aerosmith, and Johnny Cash’s covering of a Nine Inch Nails song. According to Eminem, who worked with Rubin on The Marshall Mathers LP 2, Rubin has an uncanny ability “to dip in and out of different genres of music and master all of them.” He is a true recording studio legend.
But what’s really impressive is how he gets people’s best work out of them. As Metallica’s James Hetfield said, when they wanted to people “to really hear Metallica,” they brought in Rick Rubin to produce. This ability to bring out the full potential of others is essential to all managers and leaders. How does Rubin do this so consistently and with such diverse people? By applying his experience as a life-long practitioner of meditation. Meditation and the recording studio seem to mix well.
When people meditate, they pay attention in a particular way: “On purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally,” according to Jon Kabat-Zinn, a founding member of the Cambridge Zen Center and creator of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Practicing this type of attention helped Rubin become a better listener.
“Many people don’t listen,” Rubin told me. “If you listen carefully, people explain to you what it is that they need.” Rubin gets artists to open up about their deeper motives. “I’ll spend time with an artist and listen very carefully to what they tell me and get them to talk about their true goals, their highest, highest goals,” he said. “We’ll go back to the heart of why they started doing what they are doing in the first place.”
Meditation helps people accept the full range of their experience, the good as well as the bad, the light as well as the dark. Rubin applies this non-judgment stance to help the artists he works with open up their creativity. “One of the main things I always try to do is to create an environment where the artist feels pretty comfortable being naked,” he said. “That kind of a safety zone where their guard is completely let down and they can truly be themselves and feel open to exposing themselves. It’s very powerful when people do that, when people really open up.” This is very helpful in a recording studio setting.
Based on his conversations with each artist in the recording studio, Rubin figures out how to support their strengths and downplay their weaknesses. Which is how he can work with such a wide spectrum of artists. For example, he encourages some artists to write while they are driving because that the attention they devote to driving prevents them from second-guessing themselves. For one artist who was struggling with lyrics, he invented a game with magnetic poetry to help him access his intuition about what the songs meant to him.
Sometimes just changing the context of the work—for example, by recording in a house rather than a recording studio, as the Red Hot Chili Peppers did while recording Blood Sugar Sex Magik—helps break artists out of their automatic habits and allows something new to happen. “Sometimes it’s about making it more comfortable. The distraction of less comfort can bring about a really good idea,” he said. One thing he likes to do is to have walking meetings on the beach. “It’s a remarkably different meeting,” he said. “The walking meetings tend to be much, much more productive than meetings sitting in an office.”