Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Sleepwalker's Bed: First Song

I tell people that "Numbness" was my first song.

Really it wasn't my first song. This was my first song. I wrote it at church camp when I was 12.

All I Want by Jana Fisher

I met a songwriter once who talked about grabbing songs out of the air. "All I Want" felt like it had always been a part of me.

For the next two years, I tried to recapture that moment by writing endless lyric poems on college rule notebook paper. It was never quite as magical. But at some point in that dry period I wrote lyrics I entitled "Numbness."

(I left out the part where I decided to be homeschooled for 8th grade. I got a lot of practicing and writing in — I even wrote a novel! — but my social skills atrophied. I went back to school for 9th grade but I was exceedingly awkward and quiet.)

Then one day my friend Lindsy wanted to go to youth group early to talked to the minister about getting baptized. Not knowing how to talk to strangers, I communed with the piano in the lobby. And I came up with this.

You'll wake up one day
To find yourself alone


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Sleepwalker's Bed: Quid es veritas?

I'm mortified by how transparent this song is. I've made honesty in song my motto, but sometimes it's too much.

I start this song with the line "I'm happy now," but I was miserable. Everyone knew my personal business and I gave them a song that would generate hundreds of whispers behind my back. In a way it's fitting; the "torture" was speaking up, and I dealt with overexposure by overexposing myself. I took back the power. I suppose I can be proud of that.

But I still don't know if I did the right thing. With so many sides to the story, how could I ever tell "the truth"?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Sleepwalker's Bed: Innocence



As an Evangelical, the virtue I coveted most was Innocence. Innocence wasn't just a characteristic of children and the naive — it was a state to which we aspired, like confidence, or Nirvana. The Innocent had greater faith. Their prayers were answered. They were simpler to love. The Innocent were somehow more complete than the rest of us, their personalities more pure.

Losing your Innocence, particularly as a woman, was a tragedy. To ask questions meant you were cynical. To have experience meant you were broken. Once faith no longer came easy, the only hope you had for living the life God intended for you was to pray earnestly for restoration of a child-like heart.

I wrote "Innocence Lost" while grappling with what it meant to be Innocent. Life happened and I lost my ability to believe without questioning. The community pitied my brokenness, and for a while it was easy to blame myself for becoming less-than instead of removing myself from the people who thought less of me.

Looking back, I think our cult of Innocence stemmed from a fear of the Question.

Paradox was uncomfortable. We protected ourselves from the uncertainty of our doubts by idolizing those who had none. We pitied the doubters so we could forget that we ourselves were just like them.

While worshiping the god of Innocence, I bitterly lamented how experience had made me weak and kept me from being my "truest, purest self." While writing this song, I started to see experience as something that made me stronger and in fact made my life richer.

Our experiences are, in fact, what makes us who we are.

Your love is behind me now
This is what I've bought
A second chance, but with the strength
Of innocence lost


Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Sleepwalker's Bed: Introduction

Four years ago this month, I thought my life was over.

When you feel like everything has been leading up to one event, what comes after that? In November 2007, I had just turned 19 and welcomed a thousand copies of my newly-printed album into my college dorm room. I had spent the summer in solitude recording my life's lessons in song, and now I was surrounded by the fruits of my labor in plastic-wrapped jewel cases. And I had no idea what to do next.

Of course life went on. I've grown, I've moved, I've written many more songs. But though she may seem like a stranger at times, the idealistic sincerity of the person who made that album is essential— it's still part of makes me me.

And so, as I make the transition from calling A History of Sleepwalking "my album" to calling it "my first album," I think it's important to revisit what made those songs so important that I had to set them down. For the next few months, I will be writing about one song from the album per week. I'll talk a little about the recording process and the story behind the song (though hopefully not so much that it will upset your own story for the song). You'll be able to download that week's song for free. You'll also be able to watch a video of me playing a stripped-down version of the song live (this means I will have to relearn how to play some of them! eek).

I'm calling this series "The Sleepwalker's Bed" for two reasons: first, we are exploring the roots of the album; but secondly, and perhaps most importantly, we are finally putting an end to the Sleepwalking period and moving on to new adventures that I will be sharing with you as our journey comes to a close.

So grab a blanket and a glass of warm milk and settle in for an exploration of the people we used to be. We'll have many new songs and stories to share when we reach our destination.

Love,

Jana

Thursday, November 10, 2011

I'm Afraid of Zombies

I'm not afraid of riding my bike in New York City traffic. I'm the only person I know who isn't afraid of cockroaches (the ones in Florida are bigger).

But I am afraid of zombies.

Not that I've met one in real life, of course. But there are so many good ones on TV ready to eat us! And they're hard to forget. I saw Robert Carlyle in Once Upon A Time the other day and I was worried he'd kiss someone and go on a rampage like in 28 Weeks Later.

Unfortunately this fear has begun to affect my everyday life through my obsession with The Walking Dead. You know, the show about Ranger Rick and a bunch of useless women running from very realistic (though can they be realistic if they aren't modeled on real creatures to begin with? I don't know) zombies in Georgia. I know every show there's going to be some zombie that pops up, some conflict about maybe leaving someone behind, some talk about how they'd probably be better off dead, but still I watch the show anyway.

This became a problem on the way home from DC. I had just played a three-hour show at Black Fox Lounge for some amazing, gracious people and I was on an endorphine high, talking and dancing like I was on speed. Our bus left a dark parking lot near Union Station around midnight, and I was somehow supposed to sleep. (Have you ever tried to sleep overnight on a bus? Bring flip flops. Your feet will swell so big that your normal shoes feel like they're made of fire ants.)

I drifted in and out of consciousness until 3am, when we stopped in Philly. And then the bus broke down. The driver couldn't close the back door or something silly, so for 45 minutes, he'd run the engine for 10 minutes, shut it down, and try again. Finally we decided we couldn't sleep through that anymore.

"You have The Walking Dead on your computer, right?" Sam asked.

"This is probably a bad idea, but oh well," I said.

We pulled out my laptop and shared a set of earbuds for the episode. Miraculously, the bus started moving then and everyone else went back to sleep, but at 4am the deserted streets of Philadelphia looked eerily like the streets of Atlanta that weren't inhabited by rabid zombies. We were tense from being creeped out in a cramped space where we had to be vewwy vewwy quiet.

The characters were wandering around the woods when one (useless) woman got separated from the group. Some person came at her with his arms outstretched. I stared at him for a full five seconds before my exhausted brain realized what he was: A ZOMBIE!

I yelped. Loud.

Everyone on the bus rose out of their seats and started snarling like zombies.

But somehow I'm still alive.

I must have an overactive imagination.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Reading Tori Amos and Patti Smith

I've been on a music biographies kick. I go through this phase periodically, usually when repeatedly dragging my keyboard to the depths of the Lower East Side gets me down and I need to be reassured that yes, other musicians have been successful, and yes, they were real people and not mythological holograms.

I'm currently working my way through Tori Amos: Piece by Piece. I've been drawn to Tori for several years-- I relate to her tales of how religious family life influences her writing and I often cite her as an influence even though I never can wrap my head around her lyrics. What shocks me about this book is how little Tori and I have in common. We're both preacher's kids, but I quietly accepted and deeply internalized my religion while she began rebelling against the patriarchy of it from day one. She connects with the Gnostic Gospels and Native American beliefs while my spirituality has never been remotely fluid. She invokes the "sacred and the sexual" while the idea of the two merging is difficult for me. I am fascinated by her strong sense of self and how different we are. The book scoffs at her "fairy princess" label but the more I read, the more I think of her as just that for her ability to float between worlds, to harness the power of different cultures and yet still remain untouched.

Earlier in the kick, I found unexpected inspiration from Patti Smith's Just Kids. I have to admit that I had no idea who Patti Smith was before reading it (shame, I know) but it came highly recommended from so many different people that I picked it up from the library … and devoured it. Unlike Tori, Patti seems within reach. She spends so much of the book wandering around without a plan, convinced Robert is so much more together than she is, not even making music. Somehow she kept putting one foot in front of the other until everything came together, and her seemingly aimless journey became her story. Patti lit a fire under me. I started taking guitar lessons again, took gigs in other cities, and experienced *gasp* faith in myself.

We always think our heroes are these superhuman creatures living on a higher plane, unwilling to extend us a ladder. But in fact they live the day-to-day just like we do. The only thing separating us from who we want to be is a willingness to work and never give up.

What should I read next? Please don't tell me my arch-nemesis Katy Perry is coming out with a biography … and don't say Justin Bieber either. I'll cry.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Things I Learned From DemoTape

For most of April and May, I was involved in a singer-songwriter competition called DemoTape. Thirteen of us came together every Monday for five weeks to perform one original and one cover, and in the end the winner was chosen by audience participation and level of singing, playing, and writing ability. The much-deserved prize of $1000 went to Jennifer Vazquez, and though I didn't walk away with any cash, I came away with valuable lessons I will never forget:

Owning who you are is one of the most attractive qualities in a musician (or a person).

Being a musician requires resilience. You have to be able to take criticism and learn from it, get over your bruised ego, and bounce back from it. Master the craft of the personal pep talk.

Art isn't playing only the songs that mean something to you. Art is learning to mean the songs that the audience wants to hear.

It doesn't matter how good you are or how many friends you have-- being a sore loser doesn't reflect well on anybody.

Failure is not a setback. Failure is a chance to learn lessons that will continue to propel you forward.

An industry that caters to teenage pop stars is missing out on the real talent. A true artist needs time to develop, pay her dues, and come back to conquer the world before she can show you something truly beautiful. Art that is consistently worked at only gets better with time.

In one way or another, the good guys always win.