Your band just spent two years playing over 150 shows around the world; by the end of 2018, Not in This Lifetime... had become the second-highest grossing concert tour of all time.
So what do you do next? You could take a well-deserved break. You could write another bestselling book. Or you could rest on your considerable laurels.
But you're Duff McKagan -- so you take your experiences from the road -- and from decades of life experience -- and record Tenderness, his just-released solo album that is part acoustic, part alt-country, part Americana.... and all heart.
In case you live under a musical rock, Duff McKagan has played in bands like Velvet Revolver and Loaded. His book, It's So Easy: And Other Lies, was a New York Times bestseller and one of my 2011 Best Books of the Year. He works with homeless shelters in his hometown of Seattle.
And if that's not enough, he's the Guns N' Roses bass player. (And he wrote my favorite GNR song; try to guess it.)
Tenderness was originally intended to be a book about his experiences traveling the world during the Guns N' Roses' tour. Then Duff decided his thoughts were better suited for a record -- and offered the perfect opportunity to craft musical vignettes that reflect experiences we all share... and often struggle to make sense of.
In short, Tenderness, a collaboration with country star and accomplished producer Shooter Jennings, is great. (And compelled me to check out artists like Mark Lanegan and Greg Dulli, two people Duff cites as inspirations.)
All of which made it the perfect time to talk with Duff about collaboration, creativity, confidence, and the definition of success.
A problem most people face is they have few options for collaborators. You're you, so to me you have the opposite problem: You have so many options, it's hard to choose between them.
In the music world, it's not like I'm insulated. I meet a lot of people but I'm kind of in my pack of friends: People like Dave Grohl, Taylor Hawkins, Tom Morello... people you really like and stay in touch with.
But when you're on the road, your world becomes a little small. My wife and kids and my band. You play shows, and try to see your family as much as you possibly can.
So: My manager, Brian Klein, knows me well. He knows my influences. Working with Shooter Jennings was originally his idea. I've known Shooter since 2001; some of his first gigs with his band Stargunn were with my band Loaded.
Shooter's been living this great life making and producing great records... and he also knew my influences and what I was trying to do.
That's something many people miss. People ask me to connect them with a "name," regardless of whether that person is right for what they hope to do.
I totally get why people do, especially early on, but the last thing I was going to do was try to find a "name."
Because Shooter is the name.
I had about 8 or 9 songs, had this fresh idea of turning something like Sarah Kendzior's amazing book View From a Flyover country into an album...
Going up to his house for the first time with my acoustic guitar and his piano and wondering if the chemistry was going to work... and it worked. Which meant breathing a huge sigh of relief. (Laughs.)
And realizing Shooter was perfect.
I've talked to artists that who say creativity fades as they get older.
I understand the concept of writer's block, but there are ways to avoid it. For me, because for a time I got really into writing columns and writing books, that really opened up another vein of thought process. And I read a lot, which helps me constantly find new sources of inspiration.
Right now I'm on a major acoustic guitar phase. That's how I've written songs.
But I do go through little slumps. Fortunately I'm not in one now. I've written about 50 new songs. (Laughs.)
I've learned to take advantage of those creative periods and keep them rolling. I have three guitars out in my house at all times. Everywhere I go, there's a guitar. The key is to make it as easy as possible.
But writing music is also a discipline. Same with writing columns, writing a book... you have to write 2,000 words this afternoon. You can edit it afterwards... but you have to do the work. Sometimes the lightning bolts may come, but you can't wait for them.
But you still have to like what you do.
I'm fortunate to have a fascination with music. And I get re-fascinated with the bass all the time, especially in ways that I can get better.
When Guns got back together to do the tour, knowing how hard guys like Axl and Slash work... I knew I had to step it up and work as hard or harder just to keep up.
That extends to preparing for the Tenderness tour. I'm really inspired, I love the music, and I also want our shows to be as good as possible... so I'll spend 6 hours in the basement and just be getting into it. (Laughs.)
I know I'm fortunate. I have friends that have fallen out of love with what they do, and I haven't.
Speaking of GNR. Some of the audience for this tour won't know what to expect. Do you worry about connecting with people who might think they'll hear Guns 'N Roses, Velvet Revolver, Loaded...?
I don't. When I came up in punk rock in the late '70s, people celebrated being different. It was accepted to be outsider. You could be of any stripe. You listened to all kinds of music. You started a band and played a gig the next weekend.
It wasn't about trying to be a rock star. It was being part of a community and playing music with your friends.
That's another way I'm fortunate: Coming up in that environment taught me some sturdy lessons about connecting with the audience, how there's really no separation between you and the audience... I may be on stage, but we're all in it together.
That leads me to the subject of confidence. Walk onstage with GNR and you have this tremendous machine behind you. Walk onstage as you and it's still awesome... but different.
I've tried to instill this in my girls. The martial arts are a big part of my life, and they teach you that confidence is knowing you can do something even though you've never tried it.
For example: Can you climb that mountain? Yes -- even though you've never climbed before. You know you can climb it because you've done the work and are physically able to do what you choose to do.
I say to my girls, "You're McKagan girls. Head up, chest out, eyes focused... you can do anything you want to do at any time."
Last week I was in Seattle to play by myself, on acoustic guitar, for a radio station. First time I've ever done that. I was told I'd be a small room with an engineer. I walk in and they had a stage and an audience. (Laughs.)
Totally unexpected. Just me and my voice and my guitar.
So you have to find that thing, that "I can climb that mountain even though I've never tried it." Head up, chest out, eyes focused... and then just try to be in the moment and enjoy it.
I tell myself that all the time: You only get to do this for so long -- so make sure you enjoy it.
That's hard to do when you're nervous. I'm doing a TED Talk soon (actually, here it is) and while I don't normally get anxious about speaking... in this case, I definitely am.
The same thing applies. For this tour I don't have a big-ass band and production behind me. But I trust that I've done the work.
And remember, people want to see you do well. They want to see you kick ass.
I love to explore new music. The audience does, too.
And I'm excited to play with the band I recorded the album with. They're exceptionally good. I just hope to be kind of as good as they are. Just somewhere in the ballpark. Which is why I've been in my basement for 6 hours a day for weeks. (Laughs.)
But it really is true: The audience wants to see you do well. They're rooting for you. They want to have a great time. They want the night to matter.
That's not pressure: That's all of you being in it together.
How do you decide when a song is "done"? After a while I can get so deep in the weeds on a project that it's almost hard to tell.
My wife reminded me the other day about how I felt about my first book. She just released a novel she worked on for nine years. (The Velvet Rose by Susan Holmes McKagan.)
It's wonderful, funny, bright... I'm so proud of her.
But I was like you when I wrote my first book: I spent so much time on it I didn't know if it was good anymore. I started editing and moving stories around, trying to make it flow -- it was almost like songwriting at that point -- and I read it all the way through and said, "This sucks." (Laughs.)
But my editor assured me it was good, Suzy assured me assured me it was good... and when it came out, people seemed to like it. Fortunately. (Laughs.)
With a song, I have feeling for when it's done. On this album I took the Cormac McCarthy economy of words approach. Less is more. Every word has to be the right word. Don't rhyme fire with desire. (Laughs.)
And then there's when Shooter said, "Yeah, man, we're done."
Besides the voice in your head, you need people you trust.
How do you define "success" for this album?
The way the music business is today, "success" can't be sales. My goal is that some of the songs will get through to the right people.
For example, I recently visited a homeless camp called "The Jungle" in Seattle. It's one of the gnarliest in the country. And that could have been me. Nobody asked me for a dime. They just wanted to talk and not be judged.
I talked to one man who had been homeless for 10 years. He knows a guy I know, he used to work at a club I used to go to... talk to people and you realize they're just like you.
We hope to connect some fans with people on the streets and through that connectivity help one person at a time.
That's really what the album is about: People connecting with other people instead of focusing on what divides us. Current administrations, current corporate climates... those things always pass.
But making genuine connections with other people, both individually and as a society... those things should never pass.