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

Inspiration

“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! :)

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Livin' Large

Have you ever been out with friends, laughing and dancing past midnight, and felt so alive that the rest of your life seemed to lose its importance in comparison?

I have. And it's a lie. 

Not that staying out late isn't fun. It is. But I think that we youngsters, especially we youngsters who escaped from a small city to a larger one, have a tendency to think that going out is important. 

It's important to us that we create a life different from the one we had before, be that a small town life or just a conflicted teenage life. So we try to "experience life to the fullest" and pepper our conversations with "YOLO." We're not really sure what that means though, so we throw ourselves at big city experiences with the intensity you're supposed to reserve for your life's work, seeking out new spaces to have 5-hour alcohol-fueled conversations with friends until we have to drag ourselves to the subway to go home. We tell ourselves we're living large.

What if we're missing the point? What if blowing off all this steam is a poor subsitute for creating the life we want?

Maybe living in the moment isn't going out on a Tuesday; maybe it's sitting in meditation and feeling peace in the silence. Maybe living large isn't spending all your money to feel cool at a club; maybe it's chasing your dreams and doing the hard, foolish work to make them happen. 

In our twenties, we feel like we have to pack in all our living because once we get "old" we'll turn into family/career zombies, so we pour all our energy into these fun times we think are what we're supposed to do in our twenties. But what if twenties-style fun actually facilitates us becoming zombies later? What if we poured our energy and young foolishness into having impractical goals and creating the life we want, a life that we'd want to live even when we're "old?"

After all, you only live once.  

Monday, February 18, 2013

On The Road: Philadelphia & Harrisburg

Wow, what a whirlwind! This weekend was a number of firsts for me: first Philadelphia show, first Harrisburg show, first time driving a car in Manhattan, first time being an hour and a half late for soundcheck, first time losing my laptop…

I love driving, but I've been terrified of driving in Manhattan ever since I got here. I'm the person who closes her eyes when the cab I'm riding in swerves in and out of lanes to avoid traffic. When I picked up my Zipcar (a cute red Ford Focus hatchback named Fettucine) on Friday afternoon, my heart was pounding and I was muttering nonsense to myself the whole time. Once I picked up Sam in Tribeca, I was hit by a wave of "Yeah! I can do this!" Scratch that off the bucket list!


We crossed the Brooklyn Bridge to pick up Brett and his keyboard. The car turned out not to have the amount of storage space I thought it would and for a time Brett was sitting cross-legged with the keyboard where his feet should be. By the time we picked up James, another rather tall guy, we figured out we could put one of the seats down and make the two men sit next to each other in the backseat. 

We hit crazy traffic on Staten Island, and for a while moods were still high and the guys were jabbering away. After about an hour of sitting in traffic, I said "Uh, I think we're going to miss soundcheck. It's 4:30 now and we're supposed to be there by 6." Brett called MilkBoy and let them know we'd be there around 7, but that sounded pessimistic to me. Unfortunately we hit more and more traffic and then missed an exit because Siri doesn't speak loud enough to be heard over music and man voices, so by the time we got there I was stressed and jittery and it was actually 7:20. Thankfully the headliner was late too! Brett and I had a simple setup and just had to line check so it was all good.

Brett played first, and it was nice but also surreal to watch him play. I'm so used to singing on stage with him and I know the words to all of his songs! For once I got the chance to observe his passion from the audience and I really enjoyed it. He dedicated his new song "Expiration Date" (one of my faves!) to me while I ordered tofu scramble before the kitchen stopped serving food.


After my set I scarfed down my breakfast-for-dinner and sat back to watch soul singer Brian Owens. We said goodbye to most of our Philly friends, checked into our hotel in Old City, and then went out for midnight tapas at a swanky 50s-style diner/lounge. In New York, a place like that would've been packed, but they sat all 6 of us without a wait! By the time we left, the Philly scene was winding down and we were amused by all the drunk girls losing their shoes as they tried to hail cabs home.

Saturday morning we checked out of the hotel and had a lovely brunch (tofu scramble and vegan chorizo for me!) before Sam and I left for Harrisburg. We drove through Lancaster County and passed signs for places like "Dutch Wonderland" and "Noah! The Experience." We got to Harrisburg in time to attend one conference session, "Mistakes Musicians Make" by producer Jason Rubal, which gave me a new perspective on focus and work ethic. I made myself give him a CD which was torture for me since I'm not a salesperson at all, but he was nice about it. I've been thinking about his session ever since. 

Back at the hotel, I went to get out my laptop to find a place to have dinner. Because of my dietary restrictions (gluten free vegan FTW), I had researched restaurants beforehand and I knew there was a list on my computer. I looked into my backpack and froze. The laptop slot was empty! I was so busy making sure no one else left anything in the Philly hotel that I had left my own laptop! Trying to stay calm, I called the last hotel and fortunately they found it in the room where I'd left it and held it for me. Whew.

The venue where I played was a beautiful restaurant in downtown Harrisburg with a gorgeous grand piano. I slowed down my songs to fit the mood of the place and was well received.


Afterward we hung with a friend of Sam's from college and two women at the bar stopped by to get a CD. I was impressed with all of the other singer-songwriters who played after me. Such talent in this world! 

Sunday morning, we drove back to New York (stopping in Philly to get my laptop, of course). Once home we immediately took a nap. I was exhausted! But I loved driving, getting to see new cities and old friends, and playing for new people. There's a sense of freedom in traveling like this, but also a sense of connectedness. Everywhere you go, there are people who connect to music and will appreciate what we do. Hopefully we can do this again soon!


Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Getting Out of Town

New York is a wonderful music community. There are hundreds and hundreds of shows going on here every night, venues for every genre (except maybe hardcore), and other musicians at your level no matter what level that is. For the most part, I love it. But New York infects music fans with the paralysis of choice. How can you ever pick just one show per night when there are so many? How can you enjoy the show you're at knowing you rejected so many others to be there?

When I played in Pittsburgh with Achordial Brio and Jennifer Vazquez, I was shocked at what respectful music fans lived there. The people packed Cannon Coffee for artists they had never seen before and they listened attentively to every note. In New York, the same show would've been played to a third the number of people, and they all would've been yelling over the music or checking their phones. And here I had thought such apathy was a universal experience.

So every now and then, I like to play out of town. Not just to meet new people and hopefully make new fans, but to put things back in perspective. If you've ever lived in NYC, you'll know that there's a constant feedback loop that makes everyone think they're living at the center of the universe. In reality, we just live in a different universe. No better, no worse, just different. Every now and then it helps to look from the outside in and see that again.

And so we're off! To Philadelphia, to Harrisburg, to Cape May. To play for new ears, to meet new folks, to see the country, to put things back in their place. I hope you'll join me! 

Visit the shows page for more info.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Psychology of Mediocrity (A Page From My Journal)

I resist practicing because it makes me feel incompetent. And then I feel incompetent because I haven't practiced. Pretty stupid. At least if I'm incompetent, I'll prove myself right. I won't ever have to mourn a dream squandered by bad luck or circumstances out of my control. I'll be in control of my failure because I was the one who wasn't good enough, and I can blame myself. God, how idiotic.

Self, I know you're trying to protect me, but I don't want to be protected. I want to be great. I want to live my dreams, not just mourn them. Thanks for the effort! But we don't need that anymore. We're strong enough to handle putting ourselves out there, experiencing possible disappointment and all that jazz. We are grown up enough.

I know how much previous failures/insults/disappointments hurt, and I appreciate that you're trying to protect me from that, but I say no thanks. I can handle it. I can handle the uncertainty, and in fact I choose it. I choose to live dangerously, not knowing the outcome because I can only control myself, and I choose to be great