Neil Peart is widely regarded as one of the greatest — if not the greatest — drummers in rock history. But the stickman for genre-defining Canadian prog-rockers Rush does not carry himself like a rock star, nor does he define himself by the trappings of fame.
Away from the stage, he prefers a life of quiet contemplation, good conversation, and the creative outlet of writing.
He grants very few interviews, but made an exception for Rock Cellar Magazine to discuss the superficiality of stardom, the joys of anonymity, and the meditative joys of being an explorer, a writer, and being what he calls “the world’s audience.”
Rock Cellar Magazine: First off, thank you for granting us an interview. You don’t give many.
Neil Peart: Ah well, you’re very welcome. Thank you so much in return.
RCM: In your new book Far and Near: On Days Like These, you write that “Magic exists, but it often requires some planning.”
NP: Yes, and the planning aspect is often underrated, at least if not dismissed, like inspiration is just supposed to happen to you. And I always loved a Picasso quote: “Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.” Now that’s so obvious and yet so prosaic and unromantic, you know some people would say, ‘oh no inspiration has to strike you like lighting,’ and I say no often times you have to really dig, and the mining metaphor definitely applies. You have to dig for it and sometimes what I go through in words and trying to outline something, I’ll try different points of view until finally I go, yes that’s it.
RCM: Is that also the case with songwriting?
NP: Oh yes, songwriting is a perfect microcosm for this because it’s maybe 200 words but I’ll labor for, oh, three days typically, all day long for three days over that. And I’ll go through a kind of an arc, where at first there’s a hope that I might be able to find something, convey it, and share it. And then I get caught up in the technicality of it and then I become discouraged about it and think, oh this is never going to work.
And I can remember times when I’d be on my way into the third day of struggling with a song and going ‘ah I might as well give this up, I’m just wasting my time’, and then bingo, I fiddle this around and this around, and do something and then I can see that it’s going to work. Not that it’s finished, the moment of triumph for me isn’t when it’s finished, it’s when I see that it’s going to work. And then of course that inspiration drives you with pleasure to go on and make it work, as it were.
Another songwriting insight just occurred to me, Tom Cochrane and I were talking about that one time, where we love to mention specific places, and I mentioned a song of his that has a line like “Can you remember the trip we took, In the Malibu to the west coast, We drove through a rainbow upon Rogers Pass.” And Tom’s response was, well I figured everybody has a Rogers Pass, and bingo, exactly.
And that’s what you try to do is bring something alive that was important to you, and it should be universal. When you can take something from the particular to the universal, and let’s face it that’s a beautiful definition of what good songwriting often is, taking something that resonates deeply with you or even pains you deeply, and finding a way to make that universal so other people can find their pain or their joy in it.
That’s an interesting thing I just thought of, yes, typically what you are trying to share is joy or pain, and if you can make yours ring with the listener or the reader then job done, I guess.
RCM: There’s a chapter in your book titled “Where Words Fail, Music Speaks.” Can you talk a bit about how difficult it can be to find the right words?
NP: It’s certainly a professional struggle in one way and interestingly it’s a way I often entertain myself, say, on a long motorcycle ride or a hike or cross-country skiing even, by looking around me or thinking about something, or a feeling particularly, and saying how would I put this in words or how would I express this.
It’s the perfect hobby I guess for a writer to have, looking around you and thinking in terms of, ‘how would you convey this’? Because that’s what writing as communication is about, conveying something to another person. And sharing it is one of the things I stress in my story, that I’m always wanting to share something that seems magical to me whether it’s a landscape or an encounter with a person, or even sorrow basically.
RCM: Yes, in your new book you “share a little of the darkness as well as the light.”
NP: There are words and sometimes they have to be reduced to an essence that is so keen, and also when I think of people offering their sympathy to me, some of the most effective words ever were, “I don’t know what to say but here’s my heart”. As simple as that.
And it’s refining the language down. I’ve learned so many things, I learned like in a landscape how you convey that, you tell people what they need to know first which is usually maybe the weather, and maybe where you are. You describe what you’re seeing and feeling about it from that vantage point. But it is always about how can I make the reader feel this experience the way that I do.
RCM: What motivates you to write?
NP: The desire to share. And I love the tools of writing. I’ll draw a drumming comparison there, drumming is about communication also and trying to move people, and the tools of it are the drums. And I have the same fascination for words as tools as I did since I was a child, from crossword puzzles to reading.