How I Focus: Dave Cobb Believes in the Productivity-Boosting Power of Winging It -

How I Focus: Dave Cobb Believes in the Productivity-Boosting Power of Winging It

 How I Focus: Dave Cobb Believes in the Productivity-Boosting Power of Winging It

This is How I Focus, a series about how extremely productive and highly creative people block out the noise and get shit done. 

When Dave Cobb walks into a room, good sounds usually follow. The music producer has won six Grammys by helping harness country and Americana voices like Brandi Carlile, Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton, and Sturgill Simpson. According to Cobb, that success has come mostly through winging it. “I have no clue what I’m doing,” he said recently, over the phone from Nashville, where he lives, works, and has been spending his quarantine. “I make it up as I go along.” Given that it’s worked out so well for him, and that we’ve all been doing our own version of winging it over the last six months, GQ spoke with him to see if he had some useful thoughts to offer. 

Use your fear.

A constant in my career and in my life is taking on something that’s completely out of my comfort zone. When you’ve got that roughness of not knowing what you’re doing, that’s when the magic happens. The excitement rubs off on people and they get excited, too. 

Years ago, my friend called when he was engineering a Chris Cornell record. He asks if I know anybody who arranges horns. I’m like, “Yeah, I do it all the time.” I’d never done it before. I lied through my teeth. So I get to the studio and Chris Cornell is there, and Steve Lillywhite, the producer and one of my heroes, is there. I’m like, “Oh, God.” [laughs] I start humming the horn line. [Lilywhite’s] like, “Yeah, I like that.” So I go to a friend of mine who writes music and I sing these horn lines to my friend. Then, I meet this horn section in the studio and I look like I’m conducting, but I have no idea what I’m reading on the paper at all. I can’t read music. So I’m acting like I know what I’m doing. I mean, I do know the line ‘cause I hummed it out. These horn guys start playing, and it’s perfect. It’s really good. I got hired to do horns. I just completely bluffed and got in there. I love stuff like that. I love the danger of getting into uncomfortable territory.

Keep a pen—or a phone—nearby.

My brain goes a hundred miles an hour all the time. I think every day I wake up with a great idea, and forget it by lunch. So now I try to document these things in my phone’s notes. It’s definitely easy to forget good ideas, and maybe timing is off sometimes when you have an idea. Then, when a dry day comes, you look through your notes, like: Oh, okay, let’s do that. All of a sudden it’s the right time for it. My dream is to create one day a week where I do nothing but sit in the empty room and think. And maybe somebody else who’s equally as crazy as I am, sitting with me. A bottle of wine helps, too.

(Some) slacking is okay.

I’ve always been a slacker. [laughs] I’m so bad at concentrating until I have to. School was always that way for me. I never studied for a test until five minutes before. That’s the way I treat being in the studio, too. I love spontaneity. I love that initial reaction. I’ve honestly completely winged everything I’ve ever done. I would be lying to tell anybody I do homework or study up. I mean, I study up by listening to music and enjoying records. The slacker part of me feels the emotion in the room: Sometimes you get there at one’o’clock, and it’s not the right time to record. So you goof off for a while.

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