Dusty Santamaria is a songwriter, poet, and painter, currently living in Portland Oregon. He performs both on his own and as the singer and rhythm guitar player in the garage, country, rhythm and blues band, The Singing Knives.
Show and Tell Gallery: Do you use the word artist, poet, etc. to describe yourself? Do you feel like you don’t “deserve” to call yourself that because you’re not paid, published, etc. or famous? Have you always thought of yourself as an artist?
Dusty Santamaria: I think that art is doing something that you’re inclined to do by your nature. I try to steer away from using that word (artist) in many social situations because I’ve often heard it used as a cop out. People sometimes flash the title “artist” like it’s a badge of authority. And that’s fine in some circumstances. But I just find it exhausting. The kind of art that I think is most compelling is the stuff that penetrates straight into the human spirit as an entity, as a whole. Stuff that can be interesting and available to people outside of the artistic community.
S&TG: And what does it mean to you to be an artist, poet, etc? And have you always thought of yourself as one? If not, when did you?
DS: I learned when I was younger that I could use performance and songs to kinda re-weave a lot of situations into an arena which I could interpret and operate in. It was, and is, something I could use to reach a dialogue with the world that kept me interested.
S&TG: How long have you been making art?
DS: 3,000 years. Maybe 4.
S&TG: Why is your art important to you? Why do you spend time creating when you could be doing something completely different and no one else would stop you?
DS: That’s like asking a kitten why it doesn’t lay eggs. Again I believe that creation, in this realm anyway, in the realm of painting and poetry and song, is a physical response to a deep seeded compulsion. The idea of giving it up entirely never presents itself.
S&TG: What does it feel like to create? No, seriously, what does it feel like?
DS: It feels like feeding a hunger that sometimes you forget you have. It puts one in some kind of universal order. When the thing is working well, it’s a way to discover or rediscover your self respect. You know, to seize the day. But really, its a trophy of a human being’s need to work. But not in a job sense. Art is a place where you meet yourself in peace.
S&TG: What kind of art do you make? What excites you as an artist?
DS: What first turned me on to the notion of creating things was rock and roll music. Because it brought on a physical reaction. It changed my body chemistry. It woke up the senses. That first wave of American rock and roll music right after world war two. That’s what did it at first. I’d hear that stuff as a kid in various places and it felt like the gods were talking directly to me. It pointed a direction that I wanted to follow. It allowed me to glimpse inside a mysterious and ghostly world that I hadn’t yet seen anywhere else. I know that a lot of that stuff has been caricaturized as milkshakes and soda shops, and sock hops, but the essence of the real stuff of that time was pure animalism and sexuality. Those recordings have a particular energy unparalleled in the history of recorded popular music. Rock and roll is Dionysus. Later on I discovered the same thing in poetry. Poetry, when it works, also demands a physical reaction. It speaks to the senses. Words are a veil for a deeper reality. Organic pulses and musical rhythms. Natural rhythms. I try to make songs like that.
S&TG: What’s your creative process? Do you follow a routine?
DS: A lot of what I do is take rock and roll cliches, or more accurately, archetypal phrases embeded into the lexicon of that music and follow them with something compeletly outside of that tradition. For example: It’s Saturday night at the old dance hall, you’ve been cheated, you’ve been swindled, you’re preparing for the fall. But we will struggle and we will win. In the golden blood of the sunlight, compassion is coming around again. Saturday night at the old dance hall is right out of Little Richard and Gene Vincent. Excited about the weekend and the dance and the date, and all that, right. But for some reason, maybe it’s just the social order of the day, you feel cheated. But then that element of hope and humanity that I feel is necessary to incorporate in the creative process presents itself, and we will struggle and we will win, because compassion is coming around again. That’s something I learned Ken Kesey said when I played at an annual memorial party for him here in Portland. Kesey said, “Because human beings are compassionate, we will struggle and we will win.” I thought it was beautiful and I put it into the song.
S&TG: Are there habits or places that help you create or get you inspired?
DS: Sure there are, but you really can’t command them. It’s best to learn how to be responsive to the thing when it wants to get out. Like when a woman’s water breaks at the end of pregnancy and the beginning of birth. For songs, I find that it helps to be moving. Like being on a train or a Greyhound bus. Something where you can see the earth moving past you. Even though it’s not really moving past you, you’re moving past it. Walking urban streets is great for catching a line or two. You pass so many curious and surreal situations in the modern city. Pacing the floor of a hotel room is good too. That gesture has made its way into a lot of country songs.
S&TG: What have you learned about your art that’s surprised you?
DS: I’ve learned that a song knows exactly how it wants to be written. And the best thing you can do as its guide and interpreter in this world is to not get in the way too much with intellectual ideas or obsessions. Those elements are in there anyway. Hiding and in secret, but they’re in there.
S&TG: Who are your creative heroes?
DS: Right now it’s film makers. Maybe it’s because it’s winter but I’ve been watching a lot of films lately. Jodorowsky’s a big one. Jim Jarmusch, the American film maker, comes to mind.
S&TG: What are your dreams?
DS: Most of the dreams that I remember lead me back to the house where I grew up. A real beautiful dark old house in the country. Built from wood on top of a smoky hill. It had a real haunted quality about it. My dream life takes me all kinds of strange places. But I usually end up back there.
S&TG: What kind of support system do you have?
DS: I’m not sure what this question means. I find that the people I love are usually supportive and the people that are supportive I usually love. I think the two are entwined.
S&TG: What’s the most important lesson that you want to share with a beginning artist about how to be creative?
DS: When the impulse comes to lay the thing down, i mean in a notebook, on a canvas, with your fingers in chords on a piano, or whatever it may be, do it righ then. Find a way to catch it. inspiration is illusive and not always neccassary to create something, but if it comes, like the way it’s been knwn to come to young begining artists, then it has to be immediately addressed.
Making a living
S&TG: How do you pay your bills? Etc.
DS: Right now I live in a residential hotel. A furnished room about the size of a shoe box. So the only thing I have to pay for as far as living expenses is the room. Electricity, water, all that kind of stuff is thrown in. Week to week, or month to month. It’s ideal. I don’t have to think about it too much. Also my landlord prefers to be paid in cash at the bar underneath the room. I take him my rent and he usually buys me a beer.
S&TG: How does the way you make a living right now either support or complicate making art?
DS: Well, i drive a taxi cab. At night. So it supports songs in a way by allowing me to be in a dialogue with various representatives of the human condition. And of course hinders it because of time and not having a guitar at my disposal. But i find myself jotting down notes to myself at various time during the duration of work nights.
S&TG: What’s the most important lesson you want to share with an artist about how to make a living?
DS: Don’t surrender your values.
S&TG: Do you hope to make a living doing your art one day?
DS: I just always wanna be able to perform for an audience. And I’d like to do it in a lot of different venues, and in a lot of different towns around the world. But I’ve seen a lot of people get really delusional when they start devoting their energy to “success.” However you wanna measure that word. You know the story, people start obsessing about the big feast they’re going to enjoy at the end of the road that they don’t or can’t even notice all the marvelous things that are going on right where they are.
S&TG: Do you feel having to make money limits your creative life?
DS: There’s a funny saying that i heard from a friend in Berlin. She said, “When bankers get together they talk about art. When artists get together they talk about money.” I never give finances enough credit to feel limited by them. It’s more about having time to do these things. Money is just one symbol of worth. There’s a lot of other ways to measure the value of something.