Sometimes an idea needs to rattle around the back of your brain for a while, like a nagging itch, until you can no longer ignore it. Eventually, that notion is going to have its day, and as I’ve gotten older I’ve found you best let it. One such idea found its way to the forefront as I sat on the floor of my daughter’s playroom last year. We were listening to an old vinyl copy of Sleeping Beauty that came with a read-along book – remember those? Periodically, a tone sounded to indicate we should turn the page. My daughter just loved this retro multi-media experience, and it occurred to me that maybe it could be new again.
A year before that, I’d completed one of those dream jobs that reminds me how lucky I am to do what I do. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers hired me to make photographs for their then upcoming record, Mojo. He also asked me to design the album package, shoot four music videos, and make a short documentary about the band. I got to hang out with Tom and the band for a week as they played music and told stories. I suggested to Tom that I make a pilgrimage to the South to photograph and film some of the places evoked by the songs. He was all for the idea, and I decided to drive around Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and Tennessee to find imagery that looked like the album sounded.
I firmly believe that a change of venue is often the best thing for creativity. As I drove through small towns along the Mississippi river, I was captivated by how unique the landscape was. The smaller towns, particularly in lower income counties (and you will find a lot of those in Mississippi), had a time machine quality to them, as if nothing had changed in years. Then it hit me why – there were no chain stores, no Wal-Marts or Applebee’s or Best Buys. It was if corporate America had passed this part of the country by; maybe there isn’t enough profit incentive to put franchises in these towns.
In three days, I had a lot of footage for the documentary, and a lot of really interesting pictures for the record. I came back to California with my haul, and Tom loved the images. He said he related to the region and to some of the odd details I found; they reminded him of the songs on the record. I was elated, because I thought the pictures were special, and reflected the mood of the songs.
Well, one week later Tom called, and lo and behold, he’d changed his mind. He wanted to use the portraits I’d made of each band member on the cover instead of the pictures from the South. The photo story I’d envisioned for the album was reduced to one small picture on the back.
So what to do? Being a bit stubborn, and convinced I was on to something, I flew back to the region and spent another week on the road making more pictures. I went back several times over the course of a year and amassed a weird collection of photographs of a geographic area defined by economic decline. I wasn’t seeking out blight or poverty; I was just mesmerized by these towns that existed off of the corporate and cultural grid.
So what do The Heartbreakers and the rural South have to do with the Sleeping Beauty Record Read-Along? Well, that morning I realized that these were pictures in search of a soundtrack. They’d been orphaned by Tom Petty and were seeking an aural companion. I was sure that paired with the right music, the photos would make perfect sense. And there it was. The complete idea took shape in my brain and I could see the finished object, shrink-wrapped and on shelves.
That very day I cold-called Blake Mills, after procuring his number from a mutual friend. Blake is an amazing musician. He is known for his guitar playing, but is also a genuinely original songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist. I am a huge fan, and hoped he’d be open to my weird idea. We met at my favorite taco stand later that week, and to my surprise, he was totally into the idea, and wanted to start right away. Within a few weeks we were in a recording studio—I projected the images on a big screen while Blake played a host of instruments and composed music based on their subject matter. In a few weeks, Blake had created an entire soundtrack, and exceeded all my expectations. He found a way to underscore the mood of the images and yet the music he created was so organic, it was almost as if I’d had it in my head when I went out to take the pictures.
And now here we are, Blake and I, with a Book and Record Read-Along of our own. The finished idea is called Some Where Else, a 150-page book and a full-length record (on 180 gram white vinyl, of course). It’s unlike anything I have ever done, and yet I feel like it best illustrates my artistic style. It’s a mixture of music and photography, and brings me straight back to childhood and why I wanted to make things in the first place: that desire to create, out of the clear blue sky, something new.
Jeff Bridges has mined this territory for years. He is the master of multiple artistic disciplines. He manages to invest everything he does with a childlike enthusiasm – from a quick pencil sketch to an album of original music to a photography book – staying open 27/4 to a roiling headful of ideas and possibilities whenever they’re ready to surface. He is an inspiration to anyone who aspires to the life of a renaissance artist. And he yangs just when you think he is going to ying. As we all should, every now and then.