Himmelman’s how-to: Using songwriting to make a better businessman

Peter Himmelman conducts his Nov. 17 Big Muse seminar in Minneapolis. (Steven Cohen)

Peter Himmelman conducts his Nov. 17 Big Muse seminar in Minneapolis. (Steven Cohen)

MINNEAPOLIS (JTA) — The song piping through the sound system at Creation Audio Recording Studios in Minneapolis is bringing the crowd of 60 local musicians, yarmulke-wearing teens and baby boomers in white sneakers nearly to tears. It’s a recording featuring the soulful baritone of Peter Himmelman performing “This Father’s Day,” the tribute to his dying father that convinced Island Records to sign him in 1985.

Over the next three decades, the Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter went on to make 12 solo albums, compose music for TV series such as “Bones” and “Judging Amy,” and host a popular Internet show, “Peter Himmelman’s Furious World.”

Now Himmelman, who turns 54 this week, is trying out a different format, bringing the world his particular wisdom about how to transcend fear and unleash creativity through a new company, Big Muse.

As the music fades Himmelman, wearing his signature porkpie hat and towering over the seats, travels his intense gaze over the audience.

“In the space of nothing, this entire song fell into my life,” Himmelman says. “With no Marv, I had the courage to express myself.”

Marv?

Marv is a fictional character Himmelman uses to represent the inner critic in all of us, and he’s the central figure in his Big Muse talks.

“Marv is the voice that says, ‘No one’s going to come. You’re bald,’ ” says Himmelman, tipping his hat to show proof. “Marv says, ‘You’re not Bruce Springsteen. You never made it big. No one is going to care about what you’re going to say.’ ”

Pause.

“But you show up.”

These are more than theoretical fears for a musician who, despite having been nominated for an Emmy and a Grammy, and who happens to be Bob Dylan’s son-in-law, has struggled to eke out a living in an industry increasingly driven by single-song downloads and streaming music. Part of a class of musicians just shy of celebrity, Himmelman has had to continually reinvent himself to support his family through music.

Since he launched Big Muse in 2011, Himmelman’s seminars have been praised by corporate clients like McDonald’s and Gap for fueling team building through songwriting. Nonprofits like the Wounded Warriors Project, which helps military veterans injured overseas, also have brought in Big Muse.

The Nov. 17 event at Creation Audio was Himmelman’s first test of Big Muse in front of a general audience. Like his corporate powwows, it culminated in a 15-minute exercise in which each participant was tasked with writing an eight-line song. Himmelman’s band plucked two songs from the crowd and proceeded to strike up a rousing improv set. A guy named Barry started blushing as he heard his newly minted lyrics come to life: “Life without art always gets me down. It makes me feel like a clown.”

An hour later, in the din of a kosher cafe in St. Louis Park — the Minneapolis suburb of Himmelman’s childhood and the spawning ground of the Coen brothers, Peggy Orenstein and Al Franken — Himmelman excused himself to wash his hands before whispering a blessing and biting into a tuna melt.

“Look, it’s not easy being the only one eating sardines out of a can when everyone else on tour is eating filet mignon,” Himmelman says of his commitment to keep kosher, abstain from work on the Sabbath and wear tzitzit fringes.

Himmelman never experienced rock stardom. His familial and religious commitments led him to skip out on some key career opportunities, like declining an early opportunity to tour with Rod Stewart. His concern is with quality over quantity, the enduring impact of his songs rather than their revenue potential.

“I don’t want to skim the surface,” he says. “That’s not my purpose. My purpose is to reveal, to peel back the layers.”

Not that earning money isn’t a concern. After self-funding his last album, “Minnesota,” for $60,000 — “I made about $38 from it”– he felt deflated. Which is why Himmelman decided to try something different this time.

Last October, he launched a Kickstarter campaign for his forthcoming album, “The Boat that Carries Us.” The campaign raised more than its initial goal of $36,000, and Himmelman says the validation was motivating. The album is set for release early next year.

“[Kickstarter] had the most potent effect on me,” he says.

Rather than grieving the dying recording music industry, Himmelman still has the urge to create. In a filmed interview about the album with his son Isaac, 24, Himmelman says he would make an album every two weeks if he could.

But that won’t pay the bills, which in Himmelman’s case includes two kids in college. That’s where Big Muse comes in. Its genesis traces back to a revelation that Himmelman had after he was fired from the show “Bones.”

“I was in the Fox lot under the burning sun as this low-level producer fires me,” he recalls. “Half of me was elated and half of me was scared shitless. I thought, ‘I have kids to pay for.’ ”

Himmelman had been teaching a songwriting class and was reading about the writer Daniel Pink’s premise that “right brainers” — poets, artists, musicians — can help drive the new economy. That got him thinking about the connection between songwriting and business, how a right-brained activity might be of help in a largely left-brained arena.

“I wondered, ‘Who else out there has these feelings?’ ” Himmelman said.

Big Muse was his answer. Two years on, and with a forthcoming book, “Marv and the Big Muse,” the venture is only getting started.

But Himmelman says he will never stop making his music. The emotional connection that led to “This Father’s Day” nearly 30 years ago still informs his music today and pushes him to write enduring songs that will leave a legacy.

In the interview with Isaac, Himmelman asks about his son’s feelings watching his father “banging around” on instruments his whole life. Isaac, close to the same age that Himmelman was when his own father died, eventually answers.

“By default, I can see my whole life through your albums,” Isaac says, “as like a soundtrack.”

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