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Rick Rubin on taking communion with Johnny Cash and not rushing creativity

Rick Rubin says he feels like there is some creative energy behind the universe.
Frazer Harrison
Rick Rubin says he feels like there is some creative energy behind the universe.

My mom was an artist. She welded big structures together and found beauty in barbed wire. She worked in clay. She even carved the female form out of giant pieces of styrofoam. She wasn't a big name or anything and probably only sold a couple pieces ever but that wasn't the point. For her, making art was like breathing. She had to do it. It wasn't for anyone else. It was for her.

I did not inherit any of her artistic talent but she modeled for me what a creative life looked like — the kind of joy and solace it could bring a person. I'd go even further to say it was an integral part of her spiritual life.

So when I read Rick Rubin's book, The Creative Act: A Way of Being, I saw her in those pages. And it made me think in a new way about the role creativity plays in my own life.

I go through phases where I need to make stuff. Sometimes I need to sing. Sometimes I need to take a ceramics class or learn a song on the guitar or the piano. But after a while, the urgency fades and the art-making takes a back seat to the responsibilities and rhythms of my regular life.

But as I think about the next chapter of my life, I want to figure out a way to be more intentional about how I harness those creative bursts so they become less like flashes of inspiration and more like a steady light that may intensify or dim but never goes out.

Who better to have a conversation about this than Rubin? He helped make hip hop what it is today by launching the careers of greats like LL Cool J, Run DMC, Public Enemy and The Beastie Boys. His talent as someone who could hear things in music others couldn't eventually spread way beyond hip hop. Now musicians from all genres show up at his studios in California hoping for a dose of the Rubin magic to take their art to the next level.

Rubin could have written a bestselling book about the music industry and insider stories about huge music stars. Instead, he spent eight years writing what is basically a spiritual text for anyone who wants to make something meaningful — not for praise or admiration or money, just because it brings you closer to who you really are.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Rick Rubin: I don't think of myself as a musician. I'm in tune with myself and I'm in tune with my taste and I can express it clearly. And that's pretty much my job.

Rachel Martin: Are you always right?

Rubin: No. I'm right for me. That's all. And that's all I'm trying to do. My job is to be true to myself. When you present a piece of work to me, I can reflect back what's going on in me. With as little noise involved.

Without worrying about, "Oh, but there's a release date. Oh, but how's the radio gonna react?" Forgetting all of the external baggage that weighs down the artistic process. And getting to a pure thing. You could almost think of it as a devotional act.

We're making something with our hearts and souls, and then we're sharing it with the world. And if people like it, it's great, and if they don't, we wouldn't change it, because we've made it with our hearts and souls, and it's true. It's a true thing we're doing.

Martin: In preparation for this conversation, I watched the 60 Minutes interview that you did with Anderson Cooper. Lovely conversation. You know, they give a title to their stories, and yours had the word "guru" in it. He referred to you that way, characterizing you as this kind of person. I mean, that word "guru" carries a certain connotation. And I know it was used, maybe, a little tongue in cheek. I'm not sure, but how does that word sit with you?

Rubin: I think it has to do with the fact that for some reason, and I don't know why, in college, I decided to stop shaving.

Martin: You think it's because you have a beard? [laughs]

Rubin: I think so. I think if I didn't have a beard, they wouldn't call me guru. [laughs]

Martin: Your book, The Creative Act, reads as sort of a spiritual text. Do you have a spiritual architecture to your own life?

Rubin: I will say I'm a seeker. So I read across the board, different practices. I'm looking at a bunch of books in front of me now. If you could see the books, you'd really laugh.

Martin: Tell me what they are!

Rubin: OK, so there's Wherever You Go, There You Are, which is a Jon Kabat-Zinn book on meditation. Below that is I Am That by Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj. Below that is Awakening the Third Eye. There's a book called 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School. There's a book called Entering the Tao.

Martin: Alright, you've made your point. [laughs] You're a reader, and a seeker. Those are all of a piece, for sure. I mean, a seeker is a thing that's sort of, not to push back on you, but it's an easy answer. Lots of people are seekers. Do you believe in God?

Rubin: Yes.

Martin: You do?

Rubin: Yes, yes, yes. Yes. I have a knowingness that there is a power greater than us that seems to animate everything. That's how I would describe it. However this system works, this world that we're in, this universe that we're in, however it works, I don't think it's accidental.

I feel like there's some creative energy behind it. We have help. When we're making something beautiful, we have help. We're not working alone.


Listen to All Things Considered each day here or on your local member station for more interviews like this.


Martin: I read that when you were producing Johnny Cash, near the end of his life, with his last albums, that you took communion with him. That was something that was important to him and you were enthusiastic about it.

Rubin: From the time he got sick, we did it every day. I said, "I've never done communion." And he's like, "Oh, it's a beautiful practice. Let's do it together." And then we did it together in person the first time. And then I said, "Well, while you're sick, should we just continue doing it every day?" And he's like, "Great, let's do it."

So we started doing it every day. And then when we weren't together, I would call him every day and he would say the words, and I would close my eyes. I didn't have the wafer physically with me, but I visualized the whole thing. I listened to the words and I experienced it with him every day. And then, when he passed, I could still hear him doing it. And I continued doing it for another six months.

Martin: Wow. I think that would change a person. To do that. Because it's not like saying a prayer with someone. I mean, it is a highly mystical Christian ritual whereby you imagine the wafer you're eating is actually the body of Jesus Christ and the grape juice or the wine is the blood.

Rubin: Yes.

Martin: You're not a Christian.

Rubin: No.

Matin: What effect did that have on you, sharing that with him?

Rubin: I'm a believer. And I got to share it with him, and he was a believer. And this was his way of believing. So I got to experience his way of believing with him. And it was beautiful and I truly believe it enriched my life. It's not calculable how powerful it felt.

Martin: Is art unfulfilled still worthwhile? And I'll say more. This is a totally selfish question that I don't know if I'm asking for forgiveness from you in some weird way.

Rubin: I forgive you.

Martin: Thank you. [laughs] I didn't even have to ask a question.

Rubin: I forgive you anyway. Whatever it is, I forgive you, but do ask the question.

Martin: I took a sabbatical from work because the news was burning a hole into my soul. And I decided that on that sabbatical I needed to learn how to play a particular piece of music. I'm not a piano player. I played, you know, as a child. But I saw the film Nomadland with Frances McDormand and the guy who did the soundtrack, Ludovico Einaudi.

Rubin: Amazing. He's amazing.

Martin: Oh my God. He's so amazing And I could not get that music out of my head, so I was like, I need to try to play this music. And I hired a teacher, and I practiced, and then my sabbatical ended and I had not mastered this piece of music.

And I haven't tried since, because I'm sort of embarrassed that I never did it. And so, I guess my question is, is setting an artistic goal and not meeting it, is there still creative value in it for a moment?

Rubin: Absolutely, and I don't know that setting a goal is the way to do it.

Martin: Hmm, yeah, a lot of our culture is structured around that, huh?

Rubin: Yeah, I tend not to set goals. I feel like a goal could be a limitation. Like, I can remember a big successful artist, a singer in a band saying to me, "I'm excited about our next album. We haven't started writing any songs yet, but we want it to be this kind of sci-fi punk rock thing." And I was like, OK, I'm listening. And then I said, "What happens if the best songs you write turn out to be more like Neil Young's Harvest?" And he's like, "Oh, that'd be great."

So then it's like, having the goal — that's not going to help you get there. It's more like, start finger painting and see what happens.

Did anything come from your piano experience? Did you feel more connected to the piano? Did you feel like you liked hearing yourself playing the notes? Was it a nice meditation being at the piano?

Martin: Yes.

Rubin: Can you go back to playing the piano for five minutes a day, 10 minutes a day, whatever — you pick the window without having this goal, but just, I'm gonna have fun? That might be a really nice gift to yourself.

Martin: And also, you forgive me?

Rubin: Yes, of course. [laughs] Yes, you are forgiven. It's so funny, I often say things that I have no authority to say. I have no authority in granting permission, but I do it just to break the spell in the artist's head.

An artist was telling me a story about how when they were out with friends having fun, they would have an idea for a song. And they didn't want to step away and write down the idea, because they were kind of embarrassed. And I was like, no, you have to do that!

This wasn't even an artist I'm working with. I said, I give you permission that when a song comes, you're allowed to do that. I'm giving you permission from this day forward, you can do that. Now, it's ridiculous. I have no authority over him. He knows I have no authority over him. But somehow, hearing it, it's like a key to a prison door opening. So I'm very free with sharing the keys to the prison doors.

Martin: It's the beard, man.

Rubin: Told ya. [laughs]

Martin: This book has been a big hit. Have you been overwhelmed by the response, and what have you heard from people?

Rubin: I'm delighted and surprised. I could never have imagined, because I think it's a strange book. I feel like, based on the questions you're asking, it's a strange book.

Martin: I mean, strange is the best, in my opinion.

Rubin: I didn't know who would like it, but I knew I wanted it to exist. It's the book that I wish I had when I was young. And it would be a good thing, if one person told me they loved the book and it changed their life. I don't know if it would've been worth eight years of my life, but it would've definitely felt good to at least know. It did what it was supposed to do.

Also, I was in a fire maybe six months before the book came out.

Martin: You were in a fire?

Rubin: I was in a fire, and I was sleeping on the second floor of a house. My wife and child got out. My wife said, "Fire! Get out!" I heard this, and thought, OK, it's a fire, she's gonna take care of it, I'm going back to sleep. And I went back to sleep.

And then I heard her screaming from outside, "You have to get out of the house, the house is burning down!" She said jump, and it was high, and it was a hard floor, and I felt like I would have gotten hurt, so I didn't do that. I went back in. I did everything wrong.

And then, I'm going towards the staircase on my hands and knees, because there's black smoke everywhere. And I crash into a wall, and then I'm crashing into another wall, and then I start getting lightheaded. And I realized, this might, this might well be it. And I saw my wife and child outside, and knowing they're safe outside, the only thought I had was, I'm so happy the book's done, because at least whatever I know can go on.


Listen to All Things Considered each day here or on your local member station for more interviews like this.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.