Recently I went through one of the more affirming and thought-provoking audition experiences I've ever had. Usually when you go into auditions, you're seen for less than five minutes. More often than not, you never hear back, which means of course that you didn't get the part. During this recent one, though, it felt more like a best-case scenario job interview: A group of us got to know the creative team and interacted with them on a human level in addition to showing our performance skills. I got a callback, and during that second phase, the genuine getting-to-know-you vibes continued. I didn't end up getting the job, but I'm grateful to have gotten to go through such a humanizing process.
One of the pieces of the callback intrigued me. They gave us a little info sheet to fill out, and the last page had a question I've never been asked in an audition. It asked us to assign percentages between how much we wanted to be a part of the project versus how much we wanted to "win" the audition. Without thinking for more than a second or two, I wrote 100% on the wants-to-be-in-the-project line and "0%" on the line for wanting to "win." And I meant that. Not because I'm some pure person with no competitive instinct, but because I just don't think about auditions that way.
When I was in my darkest place around acting, I blamed my giving up on the fact that I hated auditions. I told myself that I wasn't the type of person who could withstand that inevitable constant rejection. During that sad period, I remember running into a former classmate on the subway who was going to Juilliard for grad school at the time. Not only is he an incredibly talented and sweet person, but he had always been so supportive of his classmates and complementary of my work in particular. On our happenstance run-in, he asked me whether I was still pursing acting and I said no, I wasn't like him. I said didn't have the ability to withstand the constant disappointment and heartbreak that came with the pursuit of that calling. I told him that not only was he so talented, but he had that amazing ability to persist in the face of that shit. He got off the train at the Juilliard stop, and I felt my chest get hot with jealously that I wasn't the type of person that I perceived him to be.
My problem was not that I saw auditions through the lens of winning or losing. I never thought of myself in competition with other people. Instead, I saw the results as a measure of me as a human being: I'm good or I'm bad. Not that my talent is good or bad: Me. I hung my own self-worth on whether I could prove to the decision-makers that I was a worth-while person. Obviously, this isn't a sustainable way of thinking, and over time it resulted in me auditioning less and less. Even in college, I gave up on auditioning for student-run productions by sophomore year because I went out for a couple and didn't make the cut. Perhaps in part because of my sheltered upbringing, I lacked the mental strength to be okay when some stranger didn't choose me as the best. Kind of pathetic, really.
Over the couple of years where I gave up on creative stuff, I would often think of seeing that former classmate in the train. He had believed in me once upon a time. As I saw his career grow and grow through Facebook's algorithm showing me exciting updates, I wondered why I didn't do myself the service of believing in myself at least as much as him. When I decided I had to go back to my creative goals because it was the only way to undo my daily misery, I realized I needed to teach myself to think of auditions in a different way.
I started to attend open call auditions that I knew I had basically no chance of getting (you wait in line for hours, hundreds of people are seen). I almost aggressively didn't want to be cast, but to rack up experiences to demystify the process and make myself not give so much of a shit anymore. I wanted to learn from that piece of the process on its own, to teach myself to not even think about whether or not I would hear back from the decision makers. Eventually, after spending a few months going to bunches of auditions, I got to a place of equanimity. I also got cast in a couple of things along the way.
Nowadays, I still don't think of auditions in terms of winning vs. losing, and for the most part, I'm over the idea that they have anything to do with who I am as a person. Instead, auditions have become more like going to the gym or brushing my teeth. They are a habit that I incorporate into my life on a regular basis that have a cumulative positive impact, but I don't spend too much time dwelling on them after they're over.
To be good at auditioning is to keep going to them and not to worry too much. That's all.
My dad had a revelation about figured bass notation recently, and he explained it to me during our last chat on the phone. His lightbulb moment became mine as well as he described this new nugget of understanding he had achieved. My dad has been taking jazz piano lessons for several years, after studying classical piano technique for a few years before that. He is such a good practicer. After coming to piano later in life, he has gotten really good. I love talking to him about these revelations, which span from theoretical to physical to spiritual.
Thanks to my parents, music has been a part of my life since I was a fetus. They exposed me to a huge range of music via their joint record collection and live concerts; they enrolled my sister and me in the San Francisco Girls Chorus; they put me in violin and then viola lessons when the Girls Chorus became too stressful (the SFGC has won Grammys because they are hardcore); my mother let me use her old guitar to teach myself songs from my dad's Beatles songbook which led to me making up my own songs at around 12 or 13. My mom used to blast her vinyl copy of The Music Man to wake my sister and me up for school. When I decided to record my original songs as an album to sell for an Economics project in high school, my dad acted as my sound engineer, never once acting awkward when most of the song lyrics centered around hormone-addled boy-related content.
When I quit the San Francisco Girls Chorus at the beginning of puberty, music transitioned from a regimented, practiced art form into a more free-flowing, therapeutic one. Instead of learning repertoire curated by my directors, I taught myself what I wanted to learn. Instead of applying the music theory I had learned in Chorus to the guitar as I taught myself to play, I would learn how to play chord shapes from tablature notation, then write songs by ear. Each chord had a feeling, and I made up melodies that matched those feelings. Song structure had been burned into my brain in such a way that I naturally made verses, choruses and bridges without really calling them those names or thinking in those terms. I would sit on my bedroom floor leaning against my bed, strumming. As melodies formed, I would usually start crying. I knew if I was crying, a song was coming out. Around this time my own musical tastes were forming apart from my parents' record collections, and I would lay in bed reading liner notes, listening to albums that made me cry, also. Music, a sense beyond sound--bringing these waves of emotion through our entire bodies. Like orgasm, like swimming in the ocean, like shavasana.
The only problem was that the tears weren't relegated to the privacy of my own bedroom. In my viola lessons, I would often get sidetracked by crying instead of using the lessons to get better at my instrument. Somehow music became a conduit for any intense emotion, and playing music in many different contexts brought on different kinds of tears. It was embarrassing. And they weren't just the cathartic tears of songwriting; they were often tears of frustration. I became preoccupied with the idea that because I quit the Girls Chorus, I wasn't a real musician. I watched my sister learn her repertoire for the higher levels of Chorus that she had attained--she had stuck it out, as difficult as the environment was. I was a quitter. Here I was, starting violin way later than other students whose skills had surpassed mine when they were 6 or 7 years old, then switching to viola since fewer students played it so I would have more opportunities to play in ensembles. I avoided practicing viola because I wanted it to sound good immediately without all of the annoying scales and exercises. I wanted the transcendent musical feeling without the work that led to it. I castigated myself for my laziness. I kept writing songs, spending hours and hours playing the guitar on my bedroom floor, singing, crying. But that wasn't real musicianship. My self-taught guitar was subpar in my eyes, and this worry was solidified by comments from a guitar-playing friend who had taken lessons for years. When I released my Economics project album, his compliments were backhanded. The songs were pretty good, he said, but I really needed to work on my guitar playing skills.
I began becoming aware of music snobbery. There was not only a right way to study music, but also a right way to appreciate it. I became self conscious of my obsessive, focused attention on a few artists/albums. I started internalizing the idea that the only way to be a true music aficionado was to have an encyclopedic knowledge of a vast array of "important" music and musicians. This music, these musicians--usually dudes. The purveyors of taste--usually dudes.
In college, I auditioned for a jazz vocal technique class. I was a lover of Billie and Ella, introduced via my parents' records. My parents are jazz fans and had taken me to so many concerts--I remember a barefoot drummer at Yoshi's in Oakland making a lasting impression. I remember an evening of jazz at the Monterey Bay Aquarium--piano against the backdrop of the sunfish swimming through his enormous tank. Though my jazz knowledge was perhaps not as complete or "right" as it could be, I was accepted into the class (I auditioned with Billies Blues and The Man I Love) and I adored it in the beginning. Our homework was to memorize Miles Davis's trumpet solo on Freddie Freeloader, to listen to Chet Baker singing Just Friends! Eventually we were assigned The Autumn Leaves and were to work individually with our professor on our vocal interpretation. I went to my appointment and sang through the song as my professor looked at me with an odd expression. I want to say disgust, but my memory is usually meaner than reality. When I finished, he said I sounded like a cheesy lounge singer. Ouch. I was failing to measure up, again. I couldn't get over his dislike of my work (I of course interpreted it as a dislike of me as a human being). I was seethingly jealous of a beautiful blonde girl who was the teacher's pet--he praised her constantly in front of all of us. I quit the class before the semester even reached a halfway point, preferring to stick with my ear training class, instead. In Ear Training, I accessed the memories of chords being associated with feelings, and I remembered their correct musical names by categorizing them with a feeling or impression they solicited in my mind.
I kept writing songs, probably bothering all of my suite as I played loudly in the common room. I had a year-long dry spell when a friend died, and I worried that maybe my ability to love and write music had died, too. But it came back. Processing all of these emotions through made-up melodies.
Toward the end of college, I decided to take jazz guitar lessons. I found an amazing teacher. Unfortunately, I fell back into the pattern of using lessons as therapy sessions. Embarrassing myself--lots of tears. I learned an immense amount, but usually practicing on my own time led to working on my own songs using the new jazz chords that I had learned to play instead of doing the exercises and repertoire I was assigned. I owe those lessons for Raw Material, but I couldn't get over the idea that I wasn't using the lessons properly, that I still wasn't a real enough musician.
I started attempting to play out in New York City at open mics, then started organizing shows, collaborating with other musicians. I began working with an incredible fiddler, a Grammy nominee, and in the back of my mind I was dumbfounded as to why he would want to work with the likes of me. When hardly anyone would show up to some of the shows I put together, I found more evidence that I was fooling myself. Not a real musician.
I keep thinking I should be over this, that I've had enough experience with music, that I have enough love for music that I've proven myself worthy of being a musician. I've written the music for two shows, released my own work, sang in NYC theatrical productions, and I continue to process emotion through writing music. I've learned to claim that emotional connection not as a failing, but as a gift. But I still find myself feeling those old feelings of being an imposter, of needing to overstate all of my musical credentials while not really believing them, feeling jealous when I perceive another musician as more skilled, more talented or more successful than me. The funny thing is, usually when I've spoken to other musicians about this, they feel it, too.
At least now I can identify these impulses: They are not truths. They are just thought patterns that I have embedded in my head over years of worrying that my musicianship will never be enough for some mythical powers-that-be.
Please, mythical musical powers-that-be: Let me be more like my dad. Let me find the magic in figured bass notation. Let me have his love of practicing, the unselfconscious gumption of a man in his 50s going from being a beginner to being really good, simply by showing up every day. Let me find the same tears of 13-year-old me, sitting on my bedroom floor, playing music because I have to.
I am "sporty," but I am not an expert in MMA, or any martial art, or any sport for that matter. I became a weight lifting enthusiast in college, but no team sports really stuck. I played soccer as a little suburban Bay Area kid, but I gave that up for music and theatre stuff long before puberty. I tried Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in college but was turned off by how the moves made me dizzy, and by the overwhelming amount of times a sweaty crotch ended up in my face in the movements I learned during the first practice I attended (I think the word repugnant was invented for that purpose). I eventually settled on rugby for a semester, the bar to entry being quite low since hardly any Americans knew the rules (me included...even after that semester). For a while all of the bruises I collected on my thighs from tackling my opponents felt like some badass badge of honor, but that feeling quickly dissipated when I got my first more serious injury: in practice, a teammate tackled me and I fell on my ankle wrong, causing damage to some cartilage and my ability to walk. Damn. I realized that I actually dislike violence and would rather not do irreparable damage to myself. I quit the team and went back to my yoga and solo weightlifting ways (I've injured myself going too far with that shit, too, but that's another story). Even in my brief forays into various sports, I never watched any professional athletics. The only time I've followed any sports-related news has been by accident on the way to finding out how to execute workout movements myself.
That is, until Ronda Rousey.
Maybe I was indoctrinated by the media. Maybe it was my dastardly feminist bones becoming inflamed with the symbolism of it all. Maybe it was the contrarian inside me that insisted on liking MMA to the confusion of my boyfriend (who has actually trained in martial arts), who introduced me to Ronda a few years back but was sure I wouldn't want to watch her fight since like I said, I dislike violence (and I still find the men's fights really boring). Maybe it was the fact that one of my fitness heroes, Krista from Stumptuous.com, referred to mixed martial arts in some of those articles I read early on in my love affair with lifting. Whatever the cause, somehow Ronda got me to care about a sport. An extremely violent sport.
Ronda is fucking amazing. She's a judo Olympian. A true badass with an incredible understanding of her sport and a reckless mouth that could back up all of the smack talk by making her opponents tap out in under a minute. Undefeated again and again and again until her record was 12-0. In 2011, the owner of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (who both looks like and has the demeanor of a caricature of a car salesman crossed with a supervillain) was asked, "When are we gonna see women in the UFC?" To which he responded, "Never," supposedly because he couldn't fathom female fighters drawing in viewers. And Ronda proved him so, so, so, so, wrong: she was the first female champ in 2012 (though maybe we've been conned and the "Never" comment was a PR stunt to make sure people like me started giving a shit when women entered the UFC). Last Saturday night's MAIN EVENT Ronda Rousey/Holly Holm fight broke records in UFC viewership. So much of the UFC's hype has been centered around Ronda in the past year or two, and though she was booed when she won fights early in her career, on Saturday night it felt like everyone wanted and expected her to win.
But she didn't.
Enter 19-time boxing champion Holly Holm. She's the opposite of Ronda in every way, from fighting style to public persona. Extremely humble, even meek in interviews. When we heard what her amazing boxing record is, we immediately decided to be one of the Pay-Per-View watchers that night. Even though I had an early morning to perform in a brunch show the next day, I had to stay up and watch. Ronda's weakness, her standing game, would be truly challenged by a complete master. When Holly entered the octagon on Saturday, she began energetically shuffling back and forth, a focused calm on her face. That energy carried through to the fight, where she made Ronda chase her all around the ring. When Holly did strike, it was with the precision of an artist.
Holly beat Ronda unquestionably, soundly, fairly, and completely. By knockout in the second round. She knocked out the unknockable Ronda! As jaws dropped 'round the globe, I googled to find more Holly and encountered this video:
Though Holly did prove the video's title to be true, the more interesting comment she makes in it is that everybody is beatable. Not just Ronda: Everybody. One of the captivating things about Holly is that she has a veteran's wisdom when she talks about her sport; the confidence of a 19-time champ tempered with a deeper understanding not only of the fallibility of anyone who steps in the ring, but the importance of her coaches and her support network and their ability to lift her already amazing talent to greater levels. That phrase really hit me and keeps replaying in my head. Everyone is beatable. How terrifying; how liberating.
As I continue to engage in this uphill battle that is living a creativity-centric life, I worry less today: these difficult things, these insurmountable things, they are beatable. I myself am beatable, but somehow this knowledge frees me be beaten if I must, and then move forward anyway. One of the songs on my new EP (out January 6th ;-) ), Fits And Starts, is actually kind of about this phenomenon, though I think Holly said it better and more succinctly. Everybody is beatable: That's why we fight.
Things are feeling turbulent this morning, and most mornings these days ("Please don't confront me with my failures / I have not forgotten them..."). Worried about my EP, feeling impatient about when it's going to be finished and whether I'm doing things properly and how to promote it. Worried about other artistic commitments and making sure I finish everything and do a good job. Worried about money and where it's going to come from over the next several months. Worried about not being there for my sister's pregnancy, wanting to be present for the birth of these twins she's having, that she's wanted for so long. Wanting desperately to move forward on all of my artistic fronts, feeling grateful for my progress but scared, determined but overwhelmed, joyous but often embarrassingly on the edge of tears. Oy vey is the refrain (which makes me think of my beautiful late grandmother, the actress, who always wished she had lived out her dreams and talents more fully).
In these emotionally fraught times, I am so grateful for Rupaul's delightful podcast that he hosts with Michelle Visage. It was there that I was introduced to Saturn Returns, an astrological concept that I have leaned on as various aspects of my life have become uncertain and unpredictable. Saturn Returns is the idea that in our later 20s, we experience a major shift in understanding about ourselves that can be deeply unsettling and chaotic. Apparently its effects can even go on into our early 30s, so I better get used to this ride. It is supposedly a time where our true paths become clearer and we experience awakenings about who we are meant to be. Although I'm only a casual fan of astrology and don't have a very deep understanding about Saturn Returns beyond what Rupaul taught me, learning about it has somehow given me a sense of calm amidst my uncertainty about what the hell I'm doing. When the unpredictability of my current life path starts feeling too crazy for comfort, I tell myself, "It's okay! It's supposed to be like that because of Saturn Returns!" Somehow explaining this insanity with an outside astrological force has helped me to embrace it and create a degree of separation from it instead of falling too deeply into a worry spiral. I'm surfing instead of getting pulled down by the undertow. I chuckle to myself, "Dang, that Saturn Returns is really getting me today."
Even though it's sometimes uncomfortable and scary, I am living a life closer to what 12-year-old Jenni would be proud of, and it continues to get closer each day. Acting in a TV pilot. Making music both for my solo release and for an upcoming Shakespeare stage production. Surrounding myself with like-minded folks who are also pursuing their creative goals. The turbulence is just a part of it. Thank you, Saturn Returns.
I've been working on a new EP called Adulthood over the past several months. Originally I wanted it to have a live recording feel in the vein of Raw Material (except better because I asked some amazing musicians to come into the studio and join me...shout outs to Genevieve and Brockmann!), but then I listened back to the recordings and something about them didn't feel fully realized. The drums and bass sounded amazing but I wasn't 100% behind my own performance. I started to get into a funk about the whole thing, like, "Aaaarrrggggh I have to do it all over again! I suck! Blah!" But then I remembered that I have a tendency to be fatalistic about things, and I came up with some ideas that we could execute at the home studio of my engineer, Joe Davi, that could help out the songs. On one song in particular, Righteous, I saw that we needed to redo the vocals and guitar completely, so we decided to start with that one. I also asked my friend and fellow singer/songwriter Lachi to come to the studio with me to help me out. Thank god for that woman. Not only did she help me to stop stressing the fuck out and have FUN with the vocals on Righteous, she pushed me to realize that if I redo the guitar and vocals on all of the songs, I will be much happier with the entire thing. Now we're half way through bringing the EP to a place that I'm super proud of and excited about sharing. It will take a little longer than I previously thought, but who cares???
When we finished working on Righteous, I left Joe's studio beaming. When I got back to my apartment, a deep urgency came over me. I wanted to find new music to listen to and fall in love with, and I wanted it immediately! Something about feeling excited about music that I created made me start fiending for the creations of other musicians. And so began my current state of falling in love with a bunch of new music that has initiated an inspiration loop. It started with Courtney Barnett.
In that first burst of happiness after my time in Joe's studio, I decided to go to Metacritic and peruse the critically acclaimed artists of the moment because I figured I should know who the artists currently being buzzed about are, anyway. When I was in my funk-mode about my own music, I was feeling resentful of music as a whole for a couple of months, and I could only listen to albums completely outside of my genre that I already had loved previously, like the Goat Rodeo Sessions or something. But with my new rosy outlook on life, I wanted to listen to other female singer/songwriters in particular! So clicking through the Metacritic top 20 at that moment, I found Courtney Barnett. Fucking great. It felt like fate taking hold when the first song on the album was a sketch of a scene between two people in an elevator: I had just written a song about this horrible experience I recently had in an elevator with a stupid jerk who trapped me in there! (Don't ask...the future EP that that song will be on is tentatively called "Motherfuckers" in my mind...a compilation of songs about various stupid jerks.) Courtney! I love you! Every song has these layered, vivid lyrics that feel like prose. Her singing is so straightforward and clear; she is a storyteller through and through.
In my newfound love-state, googling and googling, I saw that Courtney had been on an episode of All Songs Considered. A connoisseur of both podcasts and NPR, I'm not sure why I wasn't subscribed to that show already so I listened to that particular episode and also subscribed. This led to my next love affair.
Kate Tempest! I love you! Another brilliant lyricist, this time in the hip hop genre. Her episode of All Songs Considered also cut to my core for reasons beyond great music; she spoke about how she's grateful that she's starting to find success in her music career at this point in her life, at 29 years old, because she's in a place where she's ready for it and appreciative of it.
Of course, there are some amazing super young artists out there as well! All Songs Considered also led me to my next love affair: Girlpool.
Cleo and Harmony, I love you! Katie Presley picked the first song from their Tiny Desk concert and the title track of their latest album, Before the World Was Big, as her early choice for her favorite music of 2015 so far. Nostalgia about childhood is one of my main pastimes so this song was everything for me. Yes, yes, yes: "I miss how it felt standing next to you / wearing matching dresses before the world was big."
Meanwhile, back in the studio, Joe, Lachi and I tackled the re-recording of the vocals and guitar for my song Rock After Rock. Then I put some vocal harmonies in, Lachi laid down some lovely background vocals and some understated synth, and Joe added some lead guitar which I am obsessed with. Again, I left the studio with that high-on-life vibe, so stoked about the direction the song had taken. Walking to the L train, Lachi asked me whether I had thought of where I would want to do an EP release show. She suggested Rockwood Music Hall as a good option, so yesterday I started perusing the upcoming show schedule to listen to some of the folks that are slated to play there in the near future. I clicked through a few people at random, then stopped cold on a song that completely grabbed me. Enter my next love, Kevin Garrett, who's playing at Rockwood this Saturday.
This song! Kevin, I love you! I immediately went and downloaded the EP, and googled around to follow him on Twitter. His most recent tweet at that moment led me to the next queen of a human being that I am now fully taken by: Emily King.
Aaaaaah! Amazingness personified! I found a review where the the entire album was available for streaming, and I could not take my headphones off and pull my ears away until I had listened to the whole thing. In the middle of the second song, I opened iTunes and bought the album. In the middle of the third, I bought a ticket to her upcoming show at Bowery Ballroom. She. Is. Everything. Apparently she had a Grammy nominated album back in 2007 so I'm not sure how I missed that, but I'm so grateful to be discovering her right now! Apparently her parents were a singing duo; check out the adorability:
The last song on The Switch is a beautiful ode to her parents and it's a complete tear-jerker. It's such a tasty, lush album from start to finish. I listened to it in its entirety again while riding my bike to a cappella rehearsal, so entranced, so grateful that I still have the ability to feel this way about new music. Emily, I love you! See you on July 27th!
In my more depressed moments, I've been scared that I'll never fall in love with music the way that I was obsessed with The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill as an 11-year-old discovering my own musical tastes for the first time. I've worried that I'll never sing every lyric with such gusto as I did when I was a high schooler so taken with all those artists from Saddle Creek Records: Bright Eyes, Rilo Kiley, The Faint; how they completely took over every car ride and every morning getting ready to go to school. But today I'm realizing the parallel between those obsessions and my current burst. When I was into The Miseducation, that was when I started writing music of my own for the first time. When I was into those Saddle Creek artists, I was finishing my very first album of songs to sell as a project for my Econ class. Then I remembered the song I wrote after I heard Once Again, John Legend's second album (excuse the slightly cringey intro to this 5-year-old video):
Creativity is a feedback loop. Sherman Alexie and Jess Walter have talked about this on their wonderful podcast : to be a writer, first you must be a reader. Apparently one of Sherman Alexie's (hilarious) pet peeves is when writers say that they can't read other people's writing when they're working on their own. Hello, you must be a reader to be a writer! Being a fan is fundamental. This phenomenon spans every creative field of every conceivable type, and it gets to the nature of what art is: Deep communication with other human beings. I am so grateful for this current period of falling in love with and getting excited about other artists, and it's no coincidence that it's happening when I'm feeling so good about my own creativity. Today is my birthday, happy birthday to me: I still have the ability to fall in love.
I had the luxury of learning about racism from a book, The Watsons Go To Birmingham, in fourth grade or maybe third. After a day at school discussing the book in Mrs. H's (mostly white) class, I sat in my mother's lap and cried, appalled that the book was based on true things. Having grown up in the south, my mother had seen some of the true things described in the book. She hugged me as we cried together over these historical tragedies.
And this week these tragedies are not historical, they are present tense. More black people have been killed in a church by a racially-motivated white person who hated them. Our president's face was altered by grief and disgust as he spoke to me from YouTube, another press conference about people violently killed by bullets.
What moment is this we're living in?
Sometimes reading the news I say to my mother, my communities in New York and California are such a bubble, it feels like reading about the Watsons' experience, do these ignorant people exist in reality? But what sort of bubble is it, really? I remember Dominican kids at the school where I worked mercilessly and maliciously making fun of a kid whose family was from Somalia because she was darker than them. Hello, African diaspora calling the kettle black (and those sentiments are reflected in the actions of the Dominican government). Riding my bicycle through New York City, I pass through neighborhoods clearly delineated by race and ethnicity. When I recently brought my boyfriend to my hometown in California, he loved my neighborhood but lamented the possibility of bringing up a child in a place where the only black face he saw was in the mirror.
And what is my role in this? These things are not about me, although they are about all of us. How do I think without co-opting, how do I shut up without being complicit in my silence? How do I act and speak correctly without being one of those irritating white people who claims allyship with a loud yelp which gratingly interrupts those supposed allies? When I find myself crying, so heartbroken and disappointed in us and mournful for those families who now have been assaulted by violent, senseless death, are they #whitetears? I am not absolved of my own racism because of my non-white friends and domestic partner, or because I am Facebook friends with police abolitionists, or because I read Ta-Nehisi Coates articles. And what about one of my best friends in the universe, who is a connosieur of Malcolm X speeches, who listens to them to fall asleep at night, who is also a black, who is also a cop, whose intellectualism and opinions don't line up neatly with what my liberal sensibilities and blogs tell me are correct? Containing multitudes, I guess.
Back when I was a personal trainer, one of the sales guys, a former pro basketball player, tall, dark-skinned, always smiling and joking and kind, found a client for me to work with. I asked him what she looked like so I could find her in the gym. I forget exactly how he described her besides that she was a black woman, and I followed up by asking what her hair looked like. He said she was bald. I said okay. In disbelief that I gullibly believed him when he was just joking, he told me he was kidding about the bald head. I said, okay, some women keep their hair really short, I thought that's what you meant. He said, Oh, you saw that movie Good Hair? You know about all that? Clearly he was (gently) calling me out for trying to be "down" or something, and I was so embarrassed. I never felt comfortable around him again, even though he had been one of my favorite coworkers to talk to with his big-brother energy and super straight-toothed smile.
My white fragility.
Hopefully I'm a bit more thick-skinned nowadays, having been called out several times since then.
Jay Smooth taught me that though we may say racist things that doesn't mean we are fundamentally racist, that we are fundamentally bad people. As a white person, as a human in the United States of America, by definition I have said and thought racist things. That is reality. It's like in meditation practice where we learn that we aren't our thoughts; we have thoughts. We learn to notice our thoughts going by like a stream of water; we observe them. We notice patterns, we work to deconstruct our own flawed thinking.
I'm sick to my stomach, my chest in knots, as flashes of killed people stick in my mind. The thoughts of crying faces, of children, of entire networks affected. In the articles I read, they say the theme of the week at Emmanuel AME is "The Power of Love." I want to sit in my mother's lap again. So much has changed, nothing has changed. How come my whole subway car isn't crying?
The woman who led the yoga teacher training that I took in 2013 emailed all of her former students a few days ago. She was checking in to send her love and to let us know that she's moved to another state to pursue things outside of yoga. As I read her note, I was transported to the moment in time when the teacher training sparked a shift in me. This morning, I sat down to write her back; to thank her for the huge impact the training had on my life, and to wish her well as she moves to a new path.
While I didn't become a full-time yoga teacher afterwards, the teacher training was a series of revelations. I had been going to yoga classes for about 10 years when I decided to enroll in the course, since I was just a teenager, but I had never studied the underpinnings of yoga. I had attended class after class, letting teachers' words wash over me and enjoying the physical relaxation and high that happened afterwards. Attending class was an opportunity to disengage from my mind through challenging myself physically. I was a passive participant. At the beginning of the teacher training, my attitude toward my own life was similar; I experienced my life as happening to me instead of taking an active role in making things happen. Mostly, anyway. I was beginning to crawl out of that headspace after reading The Artist's Way, and the teacher training was like a trail of jelly beans that a better version of myself was leaving for me to lead me the rest of the way out of the forest. Through studying the philosophy of yoga, reading new books and old books, talking and laughing with my fellow students, I began bringing purpose to the physical expression of yoga, and living my life on purpose again.
One of the texts we were assigned to read in the teacher training was Pema Chodron's The Wisdom of No Escape, which is a collection of transcribed lectures about meditation. I still think about it all the time. Chodron is a Buddhist nun who runs an abbey in Nova Scotia. The book is such a clear and attainable avenue into understanding meditation. "Meditation practice isn't about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better," she says. "It's about befriending who we are already." Throughout the book, Chodron relays a bunch of fables and old traditional stories that demonstrate her points about cultivating a more precise and gentle outlook when learning different meditation techniques. One of my favorites is about the difference between heaven and hell.
"A big burly samurai comes to the wise man and says, 'Tell me the nature of heaven and hell.' And the roshi looks at him in the face and says: 'Why should I tell a scruffy, disgusting, miserable slob like you?' The samurai starts to get purple in the face, his hair starts to stand up, but the roshi wont stop, he keeps saying, 'A miserable worm like you, do you think I should tell you anything?' Consumed by rage, the samurai draws his sword, and he's just about to cut off the head of the roshi. Then the roshi says, 'That's hell.' The samurai, who is in fact a sensitive person, instantly gets it, that he just created his own hell. It was black and hot, filled with hatred, self-protection, anger and resentment, so much that he was going to kill this man. Tears fill his eyes and he starts to cry and he puts his palms together and the roshi says, 'That's heaven.'"
I love how the samurai, "is in fact a sensitive person." I love that he cries, I love that he's just trying to figure things out like all of us, even though he's this violent ball of muscle. Hell of the mind, heaven of the mind; we've all had versions of both.
I wrote my old teacher the email thanking her, wishing her well. I wrote, "Although I didn't go the route of becoming a teacher like some of my fellow students, the lessons from the training have resonated with me since then. Your classes, the readings, the conversations and the community helped bring me to the more peaceful and focused place that I've come to now. It brought me out of depression and taught me tools for staying out. It inspired me to stay connected to my dreams and creative aspirations."
When I hit send, the email bounced. She closed the account---the address no longer exists. She's moved to a new chapter, just like I have, just like she helped me to do through her course.
Starting around when I was thirteen years old, every Saturday at noon I would set up my dad's leather armchair in front of my parents' sound system, turn on my local public radio station, KQED, and recline as Ira Glass introduced my favorite show, This American Life. I would organize my Saturdays around this (these were the days before podcasts), and if a friend called me during my show, I would ask my mom to tell them I would call them back at 1pm. I would make plans around this Saturday routine, and my best friends knew this.
Right after college, when I was floundering and confused and feeling lost without the structure of school, I got an internship at a public relations company that specialized in music. For a hot minute, anyway. It was an unpaid situation, but I figured that since it was music-related, and self-promotion had always been the thing I was weakest at as an artist, getting the inside scoop at a public relations firm might help me get familiar with the business side of the industry. It was a tiny company founded by a woman who seemed pretty badass judging by the company's website. When I went there for the interview, I discovered that the company had just three employees; the founder, who was probably in her 40s and kept her two tiny dogs in a little fenced-in area by her desk, a very chic version of a punk rocker who was probably in her 30s, and the youngest, the one who interviewed me: a very sweet Long Islander who appeared to be a few years older than me. The three women shared a large room in a beautiful building, and I was excited at the prospect of working at a female-centric firm.
The excitement wore off pretty quickly. On my first day, although we were all in one room with no partitions whatsoever, the only one of the three ladies who spoke to me was Miss Long Island. She was super nice and welcoming, but the other two completely ignored me. The proprietor spoke to the other intern that it turned out I was replacing, a guy who was leaving because he was about to go back to college in the fall, but she never made eye contact with me. As the days went by, this became a clear pattern and I started to feel increasingly awkward. I also noticed that the two older ladies often spoke to the younger one in a brusque, disrespectful way; they had a too-cool-for-school vibe that rubbed me the wrong way. Miss Long Island continued being very nice to me, but she was clearly over-worked and stressed, and since she was the only one who talked to me and showed me how to do anything and I had no previous PR experience, I was often left confused as to what I should be doing as she got yelled at by the owner. The owner's dogs yelped incessantly, adding to the tense vibes. After witnessing one too many scenes of Miss Long Island getting a condescending tongue-lashing, I decided that because I wasn't a fan of the environment and I wasn't getting paid, I would bow out. I had barely worked there two weeks, so I just sent them an email letting them know I wouldn't be returning, and I even mentioned how awkward and unwelcome I felt (probably not the most appropriate email I've ever sent).
As a response to my email, the 30-something punk lady had a pithy reply. She copied and pasted the definition of "amateur" and hit send. "Amateur: noun. 1. a person who engages in a study, sport, or other activity for pleasure rather than for financial benefit or professional reasons. 2. a person inexperienced or unskilled in a particular activity."
Ouch. That one cut me down. Although it was somewhat accurate (after all, they weren't paying me for what I was doing, so even if I kept working there I still would have partially fit the definition of an amateur), the clear shadiness of the intent got under my skin. After all, I was at a pretty amateur level with everything. I was playing some small shows and working on the recordings that I ultimately released as Raw Material, but I certainly wasn't paying the rent with my music. I was getting a small stipend from the play I was in at the time, but it was nowhere near rent-paying levels either. It was as if this lady sensed my insecurities about never getting anywhere with my creative ambitions and knew that this one little email would be the perfect insult. Looking back on it, that email perfectly demonstrates why it was a good decision to leave that internship. They were not very nice, and the whole thing was kinda bullshit anyway.
I was reminded of that anecdote when I started reading Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon yesterday on the subway ride home from my a cappella group rehearsal. I got major flashbacks to the whole episode when I turned the page and saw this:
Talk about re-claiming something that's usually used as a belittling mockery! Kleon writes, "We're all terrified of being revealed as amateurs, but in fact, today it is the amateur---the enthusiast who pursues her work in the spirit of love (in French, the word means "lover"), regardless of the potential for fame, money, or career---who often have the advantage over the professional. Because they have little to lose, amateurs are willing to try anything and share the results. They take chances, experiment, and follow their whims. Sometimes, in the process of doing things in an unprofessional way, they make new discoveries. 'In the beginner's mind, there are many possibilities,' said Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki. 'In the expert's mind, there are few.'"
Wow, I'm not sure why I never realized that amateur had its etymological roots in "love." The literal meaning of the word is actually a celebration. In the years since that email exchange, I've been so caught up in the negative connotations of the word, but Kleon's point is so true: the passionate, whole-hearted openness that comes from a beginner's mind is exactly what brings us to the pursuit of our creative goals. The minute the too-cool-for-school attitude sinks in, when cynicism overtakes us, is the minute that we lose the free and joyful aspects of making work. We start taking ourselves too seriously, worrying what other people might think of us, forgetting why we started making things in the first place: We fell in love!
I'm grateful for the brief and oddly mean experience at that PR company. It taught me what not to do if I ever get in a position of power where people are working for me; I hope that I will always be kind and welcoming to people who are new to a situation where I have a little more seniority. And now, maybe I can retroactively interpret "amateur" as a compliment, and infuse its bright-eyed spirit into everything I do.
My earliest acting memory is from the third grade. My class was putting on Really Rosie, a lovely musical with book by Maurice Sendak of Where The Wild Things Are fame and music by powerhouse singer/songwriter Carole King. The show is a series of character sketches of a bunch of crazy kids who live in a neighborhood in Brooklyn and hang out with each other on their stoops. I had the great privilege of being selected to play Pierre, a no-goodnik kind of kid who proclaims, "I don't care," in response to anything anybody ever says to him. I went to a tiny Charter school at the time. There were about 11 kids in my grade level, so it wasn't exactly so prestigious to be chosen for the role. Prestige be damned; it was a concept unimportant to third-grade Jenni. I was thrilled because I thought Pierre was the best character in the whole play. A villain! What a meaty role! Good little girl that I was, I was excited to play my polar opposite.
When rehearsals began, the mom directing the show met with each of us individually to go over our songs. The first lines of Pierre's song say, "There once was a boy named Pierre / Who only would say, 'I don't care.' / Read his story, my friends, for you'll find in the end / That a suitable moral lies there!" As we were going over the song, the director made a suggestion. Since I was a little girl, maybe it would make more sense to change Pierre to Claire. She sang, "There once was a girl named Claire / Who only would say 'I don't care.'"
Immediately I wasn't a fan of the change. Even as a third grader, I could tell that "Claire" just didn't fit the music like "Pierre" did! I protested, and insisted that I wanted to play Pierre, not Claire. It didn't matter that I was a girl; we were just acting, anyway, and that's what Maurice Sendak wrote! Pierre sounded better and would be more fun! The mom/director was fine with that (I think she was more concerned that I might've been offended for being cast in a boy's role). I went on to play Pierre with gusto, and I fell in love with performing in the process. I regularly pretended to be characters I dreamed up in my head in the company of friends, but this was the first time that I discovered the magic of pretending in front of other people. It felt fundamentally correct and it hooked me.
I continued participating in my little Charter school's productions throughout the rest of elementary and middle school, but when the time came to transition to my community's large public high school I was very nervous. The grade levels had around 500 students apiece, which felt like a massive seismic shift from my little Charter cocoon. Luckily, my freshman English teacher was also the head of my high school's Drama department. Early on in the school year, Mr. Craig gave an assignment to memorize a monologue from a Shakespearean text. Eager student that I was, I was excited at the prospect of getting an A for an assignment that I felt sure I would excel in. What I got was even better than high marks: When I performed my monologue for Mr. Craig, he was impressed with my acting ability and encouraged me to audition for the upcoming school play! I was over the moon. For the first time, I was getting praise for this thing that I loved from an authority figure other than my parents or my tiny insular community. The affirmation felt incredible, and I went on to act in a bunch of productions that Mr. Craig directed. His recognition of my talent was deeply impactful (and I still think back on it to this day when I'm feeling insecure).
The first taste of rejection in the context of acting was bitter, of course. In my junior year, my high school was set to put on Guys and Dolls, one of my favorite musicals of all time. I grew up on the 1955 film version, crushing hard on Marlon Brando as my sister and I would watch our VHS tape copy over and over again.
The best female role in Guys and Dolls is Miss Adelaide, Frank Sinatra's love interest in the movie, played by bombshell Vivian Blaine. She is the hilarious and sexy ring leader of the Hot Box Girls, a showgirl nightclub act with some fantastic numbers throughout the play. I wanted to be Miss Adelaide so bad. I was anything but the bombshell type; I was a little chubby, a little awkward, but completely certain that I could embody the role. Unlike my Pierre days, though, the drama department was not casting against type. The musical was being directed by one of the mothers of another junior girl who was active in the drama department, and she cast a tiny, beautiful senior girl in the role of Miss Adelaide. To add insult to injury, that particular senior girl was the object of affection of the boy I had a crush on at the time; he would constantly gush about her hotness, to my deep dismay. I didn't even get the other main female role, Sarah, the prude and dowdy missionary; that role went to the director's daughter. No, I was cast as a nameless member of the missionary marching band. Outrage! The indignity! How very dare they! Taking deep offense to this slight, I decided not to participate in the show at all. Academic achievement had taken center stage in my world anyway, so I gave the explanation that I had to focus on my BC Calculus and AP English homework. I couldn't sacrifice the time when I had much more important things to do.
Academic perfection was the "real" work; artistic stuff was just fluff. Who wants to be a starving artist anyway? Shouldn't I get a real job when I become an adult? Besides, all the rejection...who needs that abuse? Even if you reach the height of fame and fortune, the world will watch you fall and make an E! True Hollywood Story about it afterwards. The negative cultural messages about becoming an artist were clear and getting clearer as I finished high school and transitioned into college. I didn't even consider conservatory programs because I didn't see them as a "real" education. Even as I continually took Theatre courses in college, I resisted declaring Theatre as my major until I absolutely had to because of Barnard's deadline. Even then, I considered it to be a default choice because Theatre courses were the only content area that I had taken every single semester of my time at college. I didn't have enough credits in any other content area to be able to finish a major in the four years without devoting all of my time to it, and then I wouldn't have enough room in my schedule for Theatre classes!
Again, the affirmations and rejections from outside authority figures loom large in my mind when I think of my college years. Another memory that I hang my hat on when I feel insecure is from after the auditions for the Fall semester Theatre classes my sophomore year. The auditions were always held in Barnard's theater, with all professors and other auditionees in the audience. This was always intimidating, and the Fall audition in my first year of school was a disaster; I forgot my monologue in front of everyone in the packed theater and stupidly apologized instead of just starting up again. For some reason I subjected myself to the auditions again the following year, and that time I felt great about my performance. After auditions were over, one of the professors I revered from afar who taught acting at Juilliard as well approached me, ME, out of all the crowd of students filing out of the theater, and said, "Your performance---that was acting." Wow. And I thought, well, maybe I'm good if she thinks I'm good! But that pride and confidence did not come from within. It was completely contingent on outside praise.
The incessant messages about the hardship that artists endure continued through college, and often came directly from my Theatre professors. Several of them would comment that being an actor is incredibly difficult, and if you could possibly imagine being able to be in any other career on the face of the Earth, you should pick that one instead of acting. There wasn't much practical advice about what the day to day life of a professional actor actually looked like, though. Meanwhile, I auditioned for a few student-run productions early on in my college career and didn't make the cut, so I quit auditioning for student-run projects all together. I told myself, "I don't ever get cast in student productions," because of a few unsuccessful attempts. I wish I had taken the lesson that auditioning and not getting roles is simply part of the process. Instead, I internalized the idea, "I only get cast in the Theatre department's productions. I am good at school; I am not good at things that aren't directly a part of school."
The intrinsic connection to performing that I had discovered in my Pierre days had completely fogged over with the need for approval from forces outside of myself. Instead of taking refuge in the knowledge that acting and performance were a fundamental part of me (and who gives a shit what anyone else has to say about it), I started to tell myself that I couldn't possibly be an actor because I couldn't take the rejection and I hated auditioning (even though I had barely experienced much of either). By the time I graduated from college, I had given up before even beginning. I decided the smart thing to do would be to focus on my singing/songwriting if I did any creative thing at all, because at least I could do that without having to audition for the approval of a director. But even in that context, praise and approval from outside were paramount in my mind and I began to lose the love I had for music, too. Rilo Kiley lyrics come to mind: "Get a real job / Keep the wind at your back and the sun on your face. / All the immediate unknowns / Are better then knowing this tired and lonely fate." So I got a real job.
Luckily over a few years of living the wrong life I maintained relationships with people I knew from the Pierre days, who saw my misery and questioned it; who challenged these negative notions about being an artist that I built in my mind over the course of years. I have written about the path back to the things I care about and deprogramming that misery again and again and again, and the process continues. The person who introduced me to The Artist's Way, the book that spurred my return to creativity, was actually a co-star in Really Rosie. Every day I try to take a small step toward a life that that little girl named Pierre would be proud of.
Looking back on the Pierre days, I'm realizing that his story is an allegory for this process of deprogramming negative messages we've internalized and returning to the things we care about. In the final verse of Pierre's song, his surly attitude leads to him being eaten by a lion (the lion tells Pierre he's going to eat him, and Pierre says, "I don't care."). Pierre's parents find the lion, realize Pierre is inside, rush him to the hospital, and the doctor turns the lion upside down and shakes him. Pierre tumbles out, and his brush with death transforms his attitude. "He rubbed his eyes and scratched his head / And laughed because he wasn't dead." The last line of the song? "The moral of Pierre is: CARE!"
Janet asked me the other day: Would you believe that this is your life now if someone had told you about it a year ago?
If you had told me a year ago that I would be on my way to paying my (admittedly cheap) rent with my art, I would have been highly dubious. If you told me a year ago that in a year, I would be cast in a TV pilot about singer/songwriters and producers, would extend my group of friends to include a bunch of creatives that inspire me daily, would form an a cappella group alongside an incredibly talented and infectiously ambitious singer/songwriter, and would write the music for a brand-new musical murder mystery dinner theater show that I would act in as well, I might have actually laughed in your face. But here we are in November 2014, and these things and more have happened.
For three and a half years, I felt as if I was trapped in the wrong life. I would wake up each day in New York City, the only place I have called home as an adult, but instead of moving toward pursuing the artistic goals I moved here for at 18, I would ride my bike to an office in a school to sit behind a computer. I became very proficient in Excel. I met lots of amazingly lovely coworkers. I practiced my Spanish. I taught yoga to children and ran workout club with some of my favorite adults, which was probably the best part.
The misery of living the wrong life seems common; I see it all around me now. I am glad to have lived it precisely because it is so common, because I can understand a lot of human beings better now. It is the persistently deflating experience of walking through a life that doesn't fit right, that gives you blisters like too-tight, too-cheap shoes. The feeling that maybe everything you ever dreamed for yourself was very stupid. When I got my school office job, I quit the play that I was in at the time. I decided that I needed to focus on working to support myself financially, so I wouldn't have time for that sort of thing. I kept writing songs, but the songs got sadder. As the months and years went on, I stopped picking up the phone when my mother or my best friends called me, because I didn't want to report the lack of things going on.
Part of me doesn't want to write this post at all because what if I jinx myself? What if as soon as I hit "Save & Publish," all the strides forward get erased?
I started to de-program my misery in November of 2012. The main tool for this process of de-programming was The Artist's Way, a book that outlines a 12-week process for igniting creativity and rehabilitating the artist self. I have since gone through the book's process with three different groups of friends in three separate 12-week spurts. I am now working through Finding Water, another book from Julia Cameron's creativity canon. The books have helped me to self-identify as an artist, a term which I have always felt discomfort with, and they have helped me reframe my idea of what being an artist means. The books helped me move away from my internal critic's voice, a voice that told me I wasn't good, that being an artist is stupid, that I'm not pretty enough to be a singer or actor, that I'm not that great of a musician, that nobody cares so shut up. I can talk back to that voice now.
I was listening to Aisha Tyler's podcast last week and Marc Maron was on. I adore the Girl On Guy podcast because Tyler has incredibly frank conversations with artists of all kinds, and these conversations are like case studies of how people get to where they are. The podcast helps me on my path to try to live the life that fits me properly. I'd never had much exposure to Marc Maron before the podcast, although I did know that he is a successful comedian who has a very successful podcast himself. Right away, Maron reminded me of someone who would be a work acquaintance of my parents; intellectual, snarky, cynical, East Coast liberal vibe. Kind of hard to listen to for me, but maybe in a good way. There is this tension with him between being so incredibly sincere, but then completely shitting on that same sincerity. There was a sense that he is reaching professional fulfillment, but he's still personally miserable.
There was one point in the podcast that really resonated with me and the struggle I've had over the past few years to try to move toward my creativity and away from the wrong life. I guess I felt sort of defensive about it. For some reason, even as he's seen so much success over the past several years and even though he has been doing standup for decades, Maron is still uncomfortable with claiming the title of Artist. Not only that, but his voice dripped with condescension when he talked about people who describe themselves as "positive" or anything to do with "self-help," and these things somehow were grouped under the same stupid umbrella as people who call themselves artists. The word "psychobabble" came up. It was kind of interesting because he had just been dissecting how our parents have an impact on our psychology as adults, but somehow that was the right kind of psychobabble and these "positivity" people had the wrong kind. He went on to say some stuff I've heard from other successful people before about how most people pursuing comedy just have a "hobby." It always seems to be successful people subscribing to that idea...as though their success negates the fact that they struggled for years to get to where they are, and that many outsiders might have called their passion a "hobby" to belittle them earlier in their career.
So yeah, I got kind of defensive! I have been actively trying to cultivate a positive mental state (and just freaking blogged about it) and I owe a lot of my current mental health to The Artist's Way, a book that can be found in the self-help section and which has "artist" in the title. When I first picked up the The Arist's Way, it was 2010, and I had all of the same gut reactions to it that Maron brought up in the podcast. Somehow, though, in November of 2012, even though I still had all of this resistance to the idea of a book helping me because it must be bullshit, I was so FUCKING MISERABLE that I started reading it anyway. And I started to email my friend each week about my progress, and she emailed me hers. And you know what? IT HELPED. Because the thing is, as an adult, very few people really give a fuck about you for the most part. Helping yourself is really your only shot. We secular, intellectual, middle-class liberal folks are so quick to cynically shut down anything that isn't within a narrow realm of approved choices, for mental health or anything else. But that worldview is exactly what led me to trod through the wrong life for more than three years, outwardly numb and inwardly gutted.
I am so grateful that I lived the wrong life for three and a half years. My skin got thicker, my spine got stronger, and I can now proudly embrace the Artist moniker. I can now recognize that being an artist is not some silly fantasy; it is a daily commitment. We are artists, damn it.
On Tuesday I saw Jason Mraz and Raining Jane play at Radio City Music Hall. Wow. What a beautiful, beautiful show. It was the kind of show that I can't stop thinking about. Not only was it sonically gorgeous and beautifully staged while remaining all about the music, but in the moments where the artists spoke to us, I felt completely, 100% connected to what they spoke about. The concert was a gift. To be honest, I don't even own any Jason Mraz albums (although now I am absolutely going to listen to all of them)---my boyfriend, O, is the longtime Mraz fan. Going into the show, my knowledge of Mraz was all from O excitedly playing me YouTube videos of songs from the Mraz cannon from time to time (and sometimes even adding interpretive dance) over the course of our relationship. Mraz's voice is undeniable, and when O mentioned going to see him at Radio City I was definitely on board. However, it was one specific video that O showed me a couple of weeks ago that made me say, "Hey, did you get those tickets? We're going to the show, right?"
Mraz, in pajama bottoms, straight-up jamming for a small audience at a Borders in London. After O played me that, I knew I had to see this guy live. The incredible thing about the Radio City show was that all of the honesty, magic and humility that comes across at this tiny unplugged show completely came across in the grandeur of Radio City.
Raining Jane opened and talked about their journey to eventually working with Mraz and collaborating on the latest album. I obsessively look up artists' ages on Wikipedia in an attempt to amass proof that I haven't passed my sell-by date as an artist yet, and Raining Jane's story is definitely more evidence that if you keep doing what you love because you love it, it all works out in the end. When Mraz entered the stage and he and the ladies started harmonizing together, tears started streaming down my face. Beauty. There was an intoxicating effortlessness and joy throughout the performance.
During one interlude between songs, Mraz talked about his creative process and the importance of writing for ten minutes in the morning. Okay, Mr. Mraz, I thought, the universe is sending me a message through you! I am a huge believer in stream-of-consciousness writing in the morning, a spiritual practice I learned from The Artist's Way, but I've been super lax about writing my pages lately. Not coincidentally, I've been feeling a bit creatively stunted lately, too. Okay, universe-by-way-of-Jason: Thank you for the reminder.
At another point, Mraz talked about how folks have criticized his newer work, saying that he's changed or that he's "too positive." That they miss the old Mr. A-Z. Of course he's changed and grown over the course of his career, he said! Then he explained that he considers his relentless positivity "an achievement." Wow. That one hit me in the gut, too. As someone with a tendency to fall into depression then spend months trying to crawl my way out, I understand exactly what Mraz was talking about. Keeping a positive mental state is often daily work. Preach, Jason, I thought. Preach.
I wonder if the couple behind me realized they were playing out exactly what Mraz was talking about when O and I heard them starting to huff and puff when Mraz started talking about his work with environmentalism. Apparently Mraz has an interest in organic farming and has his own land where he has built a small farm. As Mraz described the land and his spiritual connection to the food he grows, the dude behind us sighed and said, "Really?!" Clearly the dude was bothered by the political turn that the show was taking, and after intermission, the couple was gone. Too couched in what their expectations of what a Jason Mraz show was going to be, they didn't like it when the artist in front of them had opinions that didn't deliver exactly what they wanted.
While the vast majority of the audience was present and enraptured by what the artists onstage were giving to us, some other folks walked out when Mraz brought an Egyptian singer playing an oud onstage. When he began singing in Arabic, more tears welled up in my eyes: his voice was absolutely gorgeous. The blend when he harmonized with Mraz sent chills from the top of my head to my neck and through my entire body. I've been Googling daily trying to figure out who that Egyptian singer was in the days since the show because his voice affected me so much. But again, I could see a few audience members were not receiving the show that they thought they signed up for as they left the theater.
Luckily I was too high on the music to be bothered by a small minority of audience members' behavior (although more than once I thought, "What the hell. As big as Jason Mraz is, there are still some idiots that will talk through his show???"). But in the days since the show, I've been trying to figure out what it is that makes people react like this to artists that they say that they're fans of. Yesterday, I read an article by Talib Kweli called "In Defense of Ms. Hill" that has brought me a little closer to understanding it. Kweli's article is a response to another article called "It's Finally Time To Stop Caring About Lauryn Hill." I admit that I can't really bring myself to read an anti-Lauryn article---I only read Kweli's response. Lauryn Hill created two of my favorite albums of all time (Miseducation and the Unplugged album) so I'd really rather not increase my blood pressure by reading anything that tells me to stop caring about her. One of my strongest musical memories is listening to The Miseducation over and over again on a portable CD player while my parents were driving us around Virginia for a trip to see our extended family, entranced by Ms. Hill's voice. Kweli talks about the insanity of getting upset with artists that have given us so much joy through music. How in the world can we dismiss an artist who has already given us so much beauty? They don't owe their art to us; we were lucky to receive it.
Today it hit me: I think this anger with artists happens because of the balance between consumption and creativity. If our personal scale tilts toward consuming more than creating, we tend to become more critical of the artists we love because we don't understand the inevitable change that happens to an artist's work over the course of their life. Consumption breeds consumption; we want more instead of feeling gratitude for what the artist has created. When we create art ourselves, we understand that what we made yesterday has to be different than what we create today.
Just like the couple behind O and I at the Jason Mraz show, there is this tendency to want our artists to repeat the same thing they gave us in the past, even though they have changed. While I'm no Lauryn or Jason, and I pray for 1/1000th of the success that they have had, even I have experienced a little of this. Recently I met someone who loves my older work. I played them some of the new stuff I'm working on for my new album, and they clearly were not as jazzed. Who I was in 2010 is not who I am in 2014, and I could see the veneer of disappointment on this person's face when my new stuff didn't connect with them in the same way as the older stuff.
I was talking to O about this tension between consumption and creation and why we're mad when the artists we love change, and he pulled up the below interview with Jay Z. In it, Jay quotes his verse from the DJ Khaled song They Don't Love You No More. "People look at you strange saying you changed/Like you worked that hard to stay the same."
Jason Mraz, Lauryn Hill, Talib Kweli, Jay Z. Millions fall in love, then millions revolt when the high they first received doesn't repeat itself. I'm guilty of it, too. But next time I start getting overly critical of an artist, I think I'll write a song, instead.
I recently had the pleasure of spending a bunch of hours with a group of incredibly talented, creative and inspiring musicians. I am so grateful for those humans. There is no better salve for hopelessness than being surrounded by passionate people.
A particular conversation stands out in my mind from my time with that group. We were all seated in a semi-circle waiting for what was coming next, and the hosts of the event we were waiting for began asking some provocative questions about the nature of commercially successful music. What does it mean to be a musician who is in the business of music? How do we, as artists, deal with commerce? Some heated dialog ensued! There were questions of whether we should "dumb down" music for the masses. The musicians in the group were passionately defending long-lasting artists who have a place in the history books but also the trashy one-hit-wonders that we all love. Someone made the point that nowadays people don't consume albums like they used to; the single is king! Folks were vehemently proclaiming the necessity of honesty in music, that truth is the most important thing! It was a spirited discussion to say the least. We were agreeing with each other a lot--very passionately. An outside observer may have interpreted it as an argument, but truthfully it was just a bunch of people who have a deep love of music commiserating about and reveling in that fact.
As the conversation marinates in my mind, I am thinking of the yoga students in my after school program. They are middle schoolers, predominantly fifth graders (although the program includes students up through eighth grade). After we have snack, play some yoga games (yoga freeze tag is a favorite), and do a seated meditation, we start the actual yoga asana class. I always play music. The kids LOVE music--of course! One of the incredibly adorable moments was when Tito El Bambino's "El Amor" came up on my playlist (I adore that song and I karaoke the shit out of it)--the kids are mostly Dominican and they were SO SURPRISED that I knew it. After the initial shock of a white woman knowing a song in Spanish, the kids sang and grooved through the vinyasas. Without fail, when I fire up my phone to start the music, I get a lot of requests for certain songs. "Play some Rihanna!" "Do you have any Drake on your phone?" Don't get me wrong---Take a Bow remains my jam five years post-release. Everyone knows that Marvin's Room is EVERYTHING. And Take Care? I got chills the first time I heard that song, and I dance my ass off to it in zumba class. I will most definitely include awesome pop songs in my yoga class playlists. HOWEVER. When I put on Saul Sweet's Bloodsport remix, or Banks' cover of Are You That Somebody, what happens? The kids groove and jam out! Because the music is good! It's emotionally impacting! Moving your body to good music feels amazing!
When there is passion and honesty behind music, it is palpable and it connects. I think sometimes as musicians we sell our audience short. The kids in my class may not know Raleigh Richie because he's not on Hot 97, but his voice cuts to their core and the deliciousness is undeniable. The Beyonces of the world aren't the only ones who can make an impact on young ears. The only disconnect is bringing that music TO those young ears.
I tend to forget a lot of things (The things that I don't know could fill a million volumes / and the things that I do know I often forget / And the things that I haven't done could fill a million volumes / and the things that I have done I often regret). I don't recall a lot of the particulars of my semester abroad in London back in college (though it wasn't very long ago), but one magical realization from a class with Mick Barnfather has woven itself into the fabric of my understanding of the world.
Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan 'Press On' has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.
Let us all heed Rupaul's wise advice: What other people think of me is none of my business.
Three years ago I had just finished recording a bunch of songs. I was also frantically looking for a job, living in a cheap Crown Heights apartment in a very awkwardly tense roommate situation, and in the downswing of one of those depression cycles. Listening to too much commentary from my inner critic (the Lil Hater) and outside negative voices as well. Unsatisfied with the recordings because they hadn't come together in exactly the way that I planned, I left them sitting on my hard drive, languishing. I remember listening to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy on the plane ride back to New York from my California Thanksgiving and crying because it sounded so amazing, and so goddamn expensive. Why didn't my recordings have the production value of a multi-Grammy winning globally recognized artist????
Since then those recordings have felt a bit like a clogged artery. Like I've had to pee for three years. Listening back to them is kind of like reading a journal from that time period. But I love them. So I've decided to perform heart surgery on myself and just post the damn album. Maybe I'll re-record some of the songs at some point or maybe not, but for now, they're all available for download at bandcamp.
I hope you like them, raw as they are. If you do, share them!
The very first song I ever wrote was from a place of intense, raw adolescent lustful insanity. The first line said, "I wanna love so deep my veins swell with it / Til it hurts so good and I can't get rid of it / Makes my whole body strain just to have a little bit / Give it to me, give it to me." Diaries from that time period were cringe-worthy to say the least. Around then I wrote a love letter to my crush under the pseudonym "Blackbird" only to have it returned to sender because I PUT MY RETURN ADDRESS ON IT. Wow, 11 year old Jenni. Just wow.
Lust was a comfortable theme as hormones continued to rage through high school. The album I recorded and sold for an Econ project included such favorites as "All Kinds of Woman" and "Under My Skin" which says, "Thinking of you makes me thirsty / I wanna taste you til I drink you dry."
Then I fled California, not realizing how much better it is than everywhere else. I was only about a month into college when John died, and then I didn't write anything for a year or so. Then it was all I wrote about. Now we're on the eighth November after that one. Jesus.
Old habits die hard. I like to think that the lust-related songs I wrote about in late college and after graduation had a little more of a sense of humor to them. "He says he like my pretty eyes and the messages they send / but I'm pretty sure it was my thick thighs that got him in the end." Haha, I think that's funny at least! I got some laughs the most recent time I performed Call Me Baby. And I'm still with that guy.
I guess I return to sex in my writing because I know it's interesting. It's always been an effective channel for both passion and self-deprecation. Depression has been a psychological mainstay since I first started writing songs back in the adolescent days but I've always avoided writing about it directly since it seems like such a boring topic. I'm sad and despondent for no reason!!! Blaaaaahhh! I was listening to Jackson Galaxy's audiobook (he's the star of My Cat From Hell on Animal Planet and also a singer/songwriter…I love him so much don't judge me) and he's talking about all of his struggles with drugs and alcohol and living in a warehouse with no bathroom and I was like jeez, that's tortured artist to the max. What's my damn excuse for feeling shitty about life? So Stay Out All Night is the first song dealing with the tendency to stay in bed and avoid speaking to other human beings for no reason whatsoever.
Like many other artists of various kinds, I'm perpetually convinced that the most recent thing I made will be the last thing I'm ever capable of making--the last time the muse strikes. History seems to prove otherwise, but if it is true, at least I exorcised this familiar demon.
Summer in New York is everything. If it weren't for summer, I would've been gone already. If it weren't for my bike, summer wouldn't be half as awesome.
In eighth grade, my mom bought me a used Minolta X-570 for an after school program. Over a decade later, one of the greatest pleasures I have is taking that camera out into the world and taking photos of beautiful things. Click through the gallery and take a ride through uptown Manhattan with me!