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Thursday, June 5, 2014

Losing My Muse: There and Back Again

For the past year or so, I haven’t known what to say to people who asked me what was going on with my music. I’d usually say something like, “I’m busy doing other things,” or, “I’m taking a break,” all the while gritting my teeth to keep from saying that I was angry my songwriting had left me and I didn’t know if I would ever consider myself an artist again.

You see, I’ve been performing since I was four. Through everything, music had been the most stable chunk of my identity. But somewhere in my teenage years, making music became wrapped up in this grand idea of being Understood. I felt a lot of feelings that I didn’t know how to incorporate into my everyday life, and so I would pour them into my songwriting, creating music that was surprisingly dark and rage-filled for a quiet, mild-mannered girl, thinking that once I wrote the right song everyone around me would Get It.  

I self-produced an album, played a ton of shows, and released an EP. I was really proud of what I’d accomplished. But when it came to being Understood, I’d gotten nowhere. Last spring, as I was working on a second music video from my EP, I suddenly found myself out of motivation. I simply didn’t know why I was making music anymore.

Hurt at being so resented, my muse packed up and left. I stopped humming to myself and thinking of lyrics while I rode my bike. This sudden absence of musical creativity was terrifying — if I wasn’t a songwriter, then who was I? I spent many days feeling lost as I tried to figure that out. But I made a bunch of new friends who didn’t know that part of my identity. I wrote a (terrible) NaNoWriMo novel. I started the long climb up the mountain to be assertive and expressive in my everyday life. I got really excited about my career in the music industry. And I started to see that I was a complete person even if I didn't happen to be a person who wrote songs.

Just as I was starting to feel okay in this new life without music, music started to come back to me— the little whispers of lyric ideas, the melodies caught in my ears. It startled me at first, like an old roommate who still had the keys to let herself in. But I tried to put away my judgments and just let it come. Last month, I wrote my first new song in a year. 

And so now I’m playing my first show in nine months in Brooklyn on Saturday (shameless plug: it's at 7:30pm at Friends and Lovers!). But I have a completely different perspective on music than I did last spring. 

The truth is that music doesn’t owe me anything. Music isn’t going to vindicate me or solve my personal problems. Music can’t make me Understood by the world. But music can be my friend during the wordless moments, a validation of complicated feelings, a way for me to aurally hug other people and tell them they’re not alone. 

However much or little music decides to be in my life, I will accept it with an open heart full of gratitude, enjoying every small moment my fingertips graze the piano keys. 

P.S. I was inspired to write this by this article on Rookie about a writer with writer's block trying to be a normal human. Maybe you'll enjoy it too.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Are Musicians Free?

There's a kind of universal kinship among musicians. You see a great band and you're jealous. You see a bad band and you feel superior for being so much better. You see a mediocre band with undeserved attention and you wonder why that isn't you. But no matter who they are, there's a sense that you're all fighting the same fight, trying to make your voice heard and win the music lottery so you can stop sleeping in the van and living off bean tacos on tour. 

Last night I saw a young band from Wisconsin making their way through the Northeast. I expected to feel that familiar jealousy that they were living the kind of life I should be living and the odd pride that my fellow musicians were getting people to stop and listen to them, but I felt none of that. I was just an observer, listening to their music and their stories about sleeping eight to a tent, no jealousy involved.

I'm not sure I want that life. Maybe I just thought I should, and you know how that goes…

I want freedom. But being a musician doesn't feel like freedom. It means that everything I save goes into the next record, and I can't just go travel wherever I want because my destination is dictated by the next market I need to build on the next underfunded tour. I want adventure (in the great wide somewhere … sorry, I couldn't help myself) but I don't think I just want to "freefall through life" (anyone else out there watching OITNB? Alex Vause, amiright????). I want my adventures to be controlled. I want a plan. I want to work my butt off, to be great at what I do, and to have a home base but also to see the world, to always be growing, to always have new experiences and then come home to tell my friends about them. I want it all.

I guess there are different kinds of freedom— freedom from a desk job and the freedom that comes with security. I happen to work in the biz, at the best job a girl could hope for, so I think I'm okay just having the latter.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Rebuilding, or Why I Haven't Made Much Music The Past Few Months

Have you ever tried to make your life into a storybook, or thought about the story arc of your future biopic? Have you created a narrative for yourself and turned back to it for comfort when things didn't seem to go right? Have you let a self-imposed role tell you who you are?

What happens when you lose all that?


Ten years ago, I wrote a song.

I had been going to a second youth group with my friend from cross country. I didn't know many people besides her, and I was painfully shy. She wanted to come early to talk to the pastor, so I killed time messing around on the piano. I came up with an original rift, took it home to some lyrics I had written in my bedroom, and after an hour or so of pounding it out I had "Numbness."

Thus a confessional singer-songwriter was born.

No matter how shy or reluctant I was to express my emotions, I had songs to turn to. Every emotion got poured out (x10) in musical form. I thought that one day, the world at large would hear the songs and finally understand me.

I have to smile at that idealistic teenage dream. It never worked, of course. Even when they were heard, the songs seemed to always leave people more confused. Otherwise they were just overlooked as a quirk. And over time I grew to resent the mission of making the world get what went on inside my head.

(With lots of time, vulnerability, and effort, I can make a few friends understand. But in the end we're all alone inside our own heads, aren't we? Isn't that the human experience?)

I tried to guilt myself into making more confessional music. "But, Jana, the mission!"

It's not my mission anymore.

I'm not sure I even want to do this anymore.

Admitting that to myself has changed everything. I feel like I'm not only rebuilding my relationship to music, but also my whole life structure, how I see myself, what my life's about. It's beautiful and it's healthy... but boy is it uncomfortable.

First: If I'm not a confessional singer-songwriter, who am I? What are my defining qualities? Am I interesting, nuanced, worthwhile on my own? What kind of person do I want to be? Kind, adventurous, vulnerable, thoughtful, giving?

Second: If being a singer-songwriter is not my "destiny," do I still want to do it? Am I okay with the strong possibility that I might *gasp* fail? What kind of music would I make if no one were watching? Would I make music at all? Do I still have anything to say?

It's all rather complicated-yet-boring quarter-life crisis stuff—identity, purpose, goals, etc. It's funny, the kind of boxes we put ourselves in, the kind of baggage we carry with us. Not just with how we see our "destiny," but the roles we play in relationships, how we want people to see us. I still sometimes catch myself acting ditsy and cute to get people to like me. Every way in which I deny my true self has become painfully clear now.

What gives your life meaning? Write to me. I genuinely want to know.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

"Trayvon is Dead and None of Us Are 'Not Guilty'"

"The guy we call the Good Samaritan — even though he found this beaten, half-dead Jew, stopped, picked him up, took him to get help and even paid for it out of his pocket — he may very well have still hated the man and everything that he represented. The text didn't say that this was the only Samaritan in the region that happened to be a good guy, that he was somehow magically free of prejudice, or that he had entirely forgiven the Jews for everything that the Jews had done to the Samaritans. The choice that the Samaritan made in this parable was that when he was confronted by a person he undoubtedly saw as an enemy, he didn't have to decide about what he thought about Jews. He had to decide who he wanted to be."

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Me vs. The Should Police

I've spent years of my life living with a serious case of the "shoulds."

"I should practice more." "I should work out." "I shouldn't eat like that." "I should have more recordings done by now." "I should be in better shape." "I should live with less clutter." 

Thoughts like this would nag me day in and day out, like secret weights inside my chest. No matter what happiness I was experiencing that day, it was always tinged with bittersweetness, because I wasn't yet the person I should be. 

Every compliment was a double-edged sword. "That was a good song." Yeah, well, it should've been better.

And like any good rebel, I actively sought to shirk the incessant nagging. I should practice? Well I'll read articles online instead. I should de-clutter? I'll show you by buying more clothes. I should be more self-disciplined? I'll be lazier than you've ever believed I could be. 

Every day was like this. Years were spent in quiet misery, not just because I wasn't ever good enough, but because I couldn't seem to create the life that I wanted. 

But then I realized something. I shouldn't be superhuman. I shouldn't do anything. I want to have the life I want.

I don't play music because I should be a musician. I make music because I want to. 

I don't exercise because I should be fit. I exercise because it feels awesome.

No Should Police are requiring me to make new recordings. I record music because I enjoy it!

Now every time I hear myself thinking that I should do something, I remind myself that no, I actually just want to. With this simple change, I have stepped out of my guilt suit.

And you know what? The life I want is already here. I've been living it all along. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2013


“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”― Stephen King, On Writing

I love this quote, but if I live by it, I have to put myself in the amateur category. 

My songwriting process usually goes like this:
1) I'm screw around at the piano for funsies, come up with a phrase I like, and build a song around it.
2) A lyric comes to me and I build a song around it.
3) A melody comes to me, perhaps complete with lyrics, and I build a song around it.

I'm grateful to be flexible enough to have multiple processes, but all of them rely on waiting for inspiration. I've never sat down and said, "Okay, time to write a song. Let's get to work." The song has always chosen me.

So now I'm trying to work on a musical. Big huge exciting project! But also incredibly daunting. I just feel so stuck! I want to write the songs, I think about writing them all the time, but nothing just "comes" to me. 

I've worn this groove in my brain of being dragged around by inspiration. More than once, I've gone a year without writing a song because inspiration never struck. But when it does strike, time flies. A song comes out in a magical process that I barely remember afterward, making me ask if I actually wrote that song at all. And when it's done, the song just feels right.

Forcing a song into existence, however, is not so fun. At least not yet. I'm going against the grain here, pulling teeth. And I'm addicted to the rightness of an inspired song. Every lyric I have to work for feels wrong, limp.

But. I don't want to be just the broken confessional songwriter anymore. I want to be a pro. And to be a pro I will have to learn to create without a blessing from an inspiration fairy. 

So. I'm going to sit down and write. Every morning. Even if I come up with nothing. I need to wear new grooves in my brain, and the only way to do that is by being uncomfortable.

What about you? Can you work without inspiration? How does it feel? Any tricks/tips/encouragement?

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

On The Road: Haddonfield and Cape May (Complete with Photos and a New Song)

Aaaaand we're back, after another whirlwind weekend! So nice to be home, though hanging out in sweatpants and doing laundry is quite a change of pace.

My first stop was Haddonfield, NJ, to play at Jersey Java and Tea. It's supposed to be a 90 minute drive, so I picked up my car (a tiny lightweight Honda Insight hybrid that gets rattled as larger cars speed by) around 3pm. We'd packed it up by 3:30pm and I was feeling confident we'd get there plenty early. But first I had to drive in Manhattan again. I have a weird inability to properly use my horn, so more than once Sam had to reach over and hit it for me, especially when I had to slam on the breaks because some truck misjudged his ability to pull out into traffic, but we got off the island little worse for wear (except that maybe I'd made Sam a little crazy).

I've been trying to cut back on coffee, but driving is a special circumstance, right? When we made a stop for gas, I got a soy latte and I must say it was delicious. Also I find New Jersey's policy of only full service gas stations to be a little unnerving. The attendant couldn't get my Zipcard to work and since I couldn't test it myself I couldn't tell if it was the card or him! And it takes longer, and there's always so many cars in line… /rant

The drive through Jersey didn't seem that long, but it was 6:30 by the time we arrived at Jersey Java. Oops. I had 30 minutes for a quick soundcheck and to change out of my driving clothes. Then I'd left my makeup in the car and had to apply it in the rearview mirror and hope I didn't look like a clown. 

I started playing around 7 and it sounded surprisingly great in there! I pulled out some of my favorite "deep cuts" ("A Thousand Miles" anyone?) and played continuously for two hours. Some strangers wandered in and sat attentively on the couches facing my keyboard. One guy even stayed the whole time. 

The baristas offered to have me back, which is always a good sign since they don't have much choice in listening. Some friends showed up near the end so we stuck around after the show talking to them and drinking more coffee (I had more driving to do, okay?!). 

We left at 9:30 and scarfed down some lentil rice salad in the car before hitting the road again. I usually get pretty hyper after a show, but I was unusually hyper from the combination of adrenaline and caffeine as we drove down to Cape May. We jammed out to Marina & the diamonds and Ellie Goulding (and maybe Lady Gaga, don't tell) and I was bouncing in my seat, feeling pretty jittery and goofy driving in the dark. 

We arrived at the Merion Inn around 11:15 (again, 30 minutes before my set). I walked in with a pretty huge backpack on but the room was set up so that we would have had to walk right in front of the performer before me. So of course I backed up and completely knocked over the hostess's stand, disassembling a lamp and spilling all sorts of menus on the floor. It's not a party until Jana knocks something over, right? 

I was the last performer of the night, but the dozen or so people there were incredibly attentive (besides the couple making out at the bar, who were attending to each other). My friend Allison Tartalia from back in the DemoTape days was there, having played earlier in the night. I had different sets planned out for each night at Cape May, so this one was a combo of soft/pretty and super dark. I played a new song called "The Clincher" which I had thought was a bit of a weird one, but it was really well received.

I loved that piano and that room. Sam ordered tea and the owner brought out a whole box of herbal teas for her to choose from. I ordered Coke which was actually RC Cola (more caffeine!!!!). I said hi to the other performers and then we headed to the hotel. 

We checked in at 1am and discovered that our hotel room was actually a suite with a full kitchen. The best use we made of it all weekend was to make ramen (actually a Trader Joe's rice noodle bowl, but you get the picture) which we ate that in front of the TV in our pajamas. We were both too wired to sleep so instead we watched Employee of The Month, me without contacts in (I'm blind enough that I couldn't really see anyone's facial expressions) until finally falling asleep at 3am. 

Getting out of bed the next morning was torture, but we dragged ourselves to Bella Vida Cafe where I could actually order a tempeh reuben with Vegenaise and a gluten-free wrap. Delicious! After that we drove around a while, walking on the beach and freezing, driving by beautiful Victorian houses so Sam could take pictures, and then walking down the pedestrian mall and ending up at a coffee shop called Magicbrain Cybercafe (welcome back to the 90s!) with a little upstairs loft where we sat a while.

We attended a couple of conference sessions and then had dinner. My next set was in the main bar that was sort of in the center of everything. I got changed and I must've looked the part because a nice couple bought a CD without even hearing a note. (I couldn't talk them out of buying A History of Sleepwalking though, so who knows if they'll be back.) Everyone in that room was chatting and having a good time when the performer before me got out from behind the piano, stood on a table, and recited a long poem. Awkward…

I played my set, having a hard time staying focused because of all the people chatting, saying hi to me behind the piano, and putting cameras in my face. No one seemed to notice though. Allison Tartalia was after me (same bill again!) and then we headed back to the hotel. 

As always, I loved getting out of the city to play. Even if out-of-town shows are under-attended, the people are always so appreciative and open to new music. Take that, New York! :)