The Sinister Truth The World Ignores

I’ve locked myself out of my apartment with my key in my hand.  I’ve been defeated by a simple doorknob.  I’ve head-butted dates instead of kissing them.  For most of my life, this has been chalked up to simple clumsiness.  But lately I’m realizing that it has less to do with clumsiness and more to do with me being left-handed and the entire ef-ing world being backwards.

You know when there’s a door that opens the wrong way and it really annoys you?  That’s all doors for me.  For the first time ever I’m dating a fellow lefty and – although we’re not always the most graceful couple – I have had significantly fewer accidental injuries than in previous left-right relationships.

In addition to this, picking up the bodhrán was the first time I was allowed to play an instrument left-handed – and I went from not playing at all to playing at an advanced level in the space of about 3 months.  Some of this is because I’ve slogged through learning instruments before.  Some of it’s because I’ve had years of musical training.  A lot of it, though, is being allowed to play with my proper damned hand.  (I refuse to say “right” hand; that word is no longer a synonym for correct in my lexicon.)

That's The Man's word, man.

That’s The Man’s word, man.

Throughout my life, I’ve learned to do things right-handed or ambidextrously, with decreasing difficulty as I’ve gotten older.  I’m not one of those writes-lefty-but-does-everything-else-righty left-handers; I’m a write-all-my-letter-E’s-backwards-can’t-hardly-point-with-my-right-hand left-hander.  A lot of things have been more challenging because of this, but when I mentioned the struggle I was going through growing up, adults shot me down.  Right-handers couldn’t relate and assumed I was making excuses.  Left-handers of my mother’s generation were just happy not to be doused in holy water and forced to use their right hand, so most that I’ve encountered have a pretty strong grin-and-bear-it mentality.

This is what they used to give you when you asked for left-handed scissors.

This is what they used to give you when you asked for left-handed scissors.

Where this difficulty hit me the hardest was learning instruments.  Although people will argue that guitar favors the left or that piano favors neither, I’d like to raise the point that that’s complete horse-shit.  Unless your shredding, once you place your left hand on the guitar it remains relatively stable.  Your right, on the other hand, is expected to either hold a steady and consistent rhythm or perform the constant fine motor movements involved in finger picking.  In Western music (and pretty much every style of music I’m familiar with) the melody of focus is normally concentrated in the treble.  This probably has to do with the fact that human hearing is most sensitive within the frequency range of human speech – usually the treble.  On the piano – while the melody may switch between ranges and hands – the more complex movement is most commonly in the right hand.  This, coupled with the fact that I visualize most things flipped to a right-to-left progression rather than a left-to-right one (likely from years of adapting instructions so that I could actually accomplish my task), made learning piano very frustrating.

Even more frustrating was the response I got from teachers when I brought up my challenges.  I was making excuses.  I wasn’t practicing enough.  I wasn’t committed enough.  I didn’t try hard enough.  This really stung and frankly discouraged me from pursuing it further.  By the time I entered college, I truly believed I just lacked the ability to learn an instrument.  I gave up on myself.  I wasn’t talented or maybe I was lazy and didn’t realize it.

It took until I was twenty-one and picked up a round instrument for the first time to realize this was not the case.  I could use it any way I wanted to.  When I started bodhrán lessons, I asked the teacher if it was ok that I play lefty.  He looked at me like I had two heads.  “Why not?”  My world was suddenly opened.  I had managed to become proficiently mediocre at both piano and guitar, but I could only imagine how much farther and faster my skills would have developed had another teacher said “why not?”

Learning an instrument that fast and that naturally made me realize that the problem wasn’t my ability to learn or play, it was that I was trying to learn on an instrument that was upside-down and backwards.  90% of the world is righty, so it stands to reason that so are instruments.  Why else would so many talented Southpaw musicians (McCartney and Hendrix just to name two) play with lefty instruments or inverted right-handed ones?  Why else does a left-handed kid instinctively flip a guitar over the first time you hand it to her?

Playing lefty definitely didn't work out for these guys...  Not at all...  [/sarcasm/] Image courtesy of boldsky.com

Playing lefty definitely didn’t work out for these guys… Not at all… [/sarcasm/]
Image courtesy of boldsky.com

A fellow lefty (and female!) bodhrán here in Nashville is also an accomplished French horn player, perhaps the only genuinely left-handed instrument in common use.  There are a lot of things that make it arguably the most challenging instrument in the brass section, some of those shared by other members of it’s family.  But one of the most cited reasons that people struggle with the horn is its left-hand bias.

Right-handed musicians are allowed to call this “hard.”  When I struggle with a righty instrument as a lefty, I’m “lazy” or making up excuses to get out of practicing.  You wouldn’t ask a right-handed player to play with their instrument upside-down, so why do we so casually demand it of lefties?

I’m not saying that aspiring lefty musicians shouldn’t learn to play righty.  Although it took me some time, I’m actually glad I learned to play guitar right-handed, though the option would have been nice.  I can pick up any instrument at anytime and don’t need to restring it.  But what could I have been if I were allowed to learn it the way that felt most natural for me?  I’m not the first Southpaw I know to muse on this, and I’m sure I won’t be the last.

If you’re teaching a lefty, I cannot emphasize what a disservice you are doing them if you don’t acknowledge the added challenge they have.  It extends beyond neural pathways; our musculature is notably different from that of a righty by the time we hit preschool.  We are overcoming some hurdles to play an instrument in a “conventional” manner.  When a teacher denies this and blames the student, it is demoralizing and discouraging.  In my case, it turned me away from learning altogether.  It took me until college to pick up instruments again and it was still hard as hell.  A disproportionate number of left-handers are drawn to instruments, so many that the music school I attended actually provided lefty desks – and occasionally didn’t have enough in a classroom.  Use this enthusiasm rather than stifle it.  Support them through what may be a slower or more difficult learning curve.

It’s often hard to see just how difficult everyday tasks can be for a Southpaw, so I can understand how teachers can make assumptions.  We figure out how to use right-handed tools (ever try using a can-opener backwards?  Trust a lefty, it sucks), we drive stick-shifts, and don’t complain about it much.  But that’s just it: we have to take the added time to figure it out.  (Also we die seven years younger on average, largely do to how shitty we are with right handed machinery and tools; so maybe we don’t drive stick.)

Please, try to use your can opener backwards and then imagine what a left-handed student is dealing with.  A little sympathy, a little understanding, maybe even the option to play lefty, and you could be teaching the next Jimi Hendrix.  They will likely be one of your most driven and enthusiastic students if you give them the chance.

As for me, I plan to get a lefty guitar one day.  I love my righty Martin and I will continue to play “conventionally” but I’d love to finally stretch my legs and run crazy on an instrument.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

P.S.: Check out my lefty bodhrán playing in my last blog here.

Bare Bones – Like Nothing Can Hurt Us

There are no bones on this track, but there is bodhrán!  This is the first of the acoustic tracks and videos I’m going to be releasing; pared down renditions of original songs featuring awesome performances by incredible acoustic musicians.

The song, “Like Nothing Can Hurt Us,” was a personal pep-talk.  I might have had a little… anxiety about starting a relationship.  I actually wrote a sister song to this first with pretty much the opposite message: “we’re doomed and it’s toxic and if I was smart I’d have nothing to do with you.”  I’d been burned in the past and there’s nothing like a bruised heart to make you think twice before starting something new.  But when I suddenly had someone as wonderful as Attractive Young Man (who actually recorded and produced the track) capturing my attention, I couldn’t bear to give in to my nerves.  I realized that – whatever wound up happening – it was worth it.  I would regret not giving it a shot so much more than if I got my heart broken.  Approaching the relationship by assuming the worst possible outcome didn’t do me any favors.  Plus my new motto is “what’s a broken heart except another song to write.”  I needed to approach it without the fear of pain, to love like nothing could hurt me.

Except bugs.  Nothing anyone can say could ever convince me that they're not all trying to hurt me.

Except bugs. Nothing anyone can say could ever convince me that they’re not all trying to hurt me.

It took a while for the whole song to come together – a couple months between when I wrote the hook and when I finished the final rewrite of the bridge – but I had a feeling I was on to something good.  It’s a love song for the YOLO generation, I guess.  And as much as I believe that you can generate your own inspiration, for this song I couldn’t just finish it.  It needed to come from a particular energy and state of mind.

When it was time to record, I was very excited and lucky to work with two incredibly talented musicians – Zach Torres and Gavin O’Broin.  I’ve admired both of these gentlemen’s musicianship, so it really made my day when they agreed to play.  One pre-production meeting and I knew I’d been fortunate to get the perfect players for the project.  They managed to interpret my semi-coherent playing and direction into something better than I had imagined.  Especially considering how short notice this was.  I hadn’t intended to use the recording session for this song, but when I heard about the NPR Tiny Desk Competition, I abruptly changed course.  Zach and Gavin were super flexible and patient.  I can’t speak highly enough about these guys.

As for the video – I’ve never done anything like it before.  Haven’t even posted a video of my cats on Facebook (how I’ve avoided even that, I can’t tell you).  I really would have thought I would have posted a cat vid at this point.  Would have thought I would have closer to five cats by now, too, so I guess you never can tell.  (I fantasize about finding a stray kitten on one of my jogs and adopting it and loving it FOREVER.)

Since this was for Tiny Desk, I had to have a tiny desk somewhere in my video.  Initially, my plan was to buy a dollhouse desk and use forced perspective to make it look like we were playing seated around it.  But when I realized that a decent looking dollhouse desk cost as much as my Ikea desk, I abandoned ship.  With no time to spare I cracked out the art skills and drew my own desk.  I’m kind of proud of how it came out, actually.

Combine 30 minutes, a #2 pencil, and a crippling sense of frugality and you get art, apparently.

Combine 30 minutes, a #2 pencil, and a crippling sense of frugality and you get art, apparently.

Attractive Young Man (whose name is Pete, by the way) has an awesome home recording space.  I got to sing through the same style pre-amp that Katy Perry, the Beatles, and countless other earth-shaking artists have used.  The open floor plan makes it a really comfortable, relaxed space and made it perfect for recording the video at the same time (although I’ll admit the close shots were done after the fact).  If you want hear just how great he can make three people in his basement sound, check out the song on Soundcloud.

Pete and I got to play director/videographer which was super fun and came out well, considering the first time I had ever used Pete’s camera or anything resembling it was a week prior when I asked for sandwich and was instead drafted into helping film his band Dirty Blind‘s music video.  My whole experience with video before this was a film class I took instead of English my senior year of high school (during which I was the only sober person in the room – it was my punishment for dropping AP English) and making “documentaries” with my Barbies and a handheld camcorder in elementary school.

If you’re curious to see how I’ve adapted my previous experience as Barbie director, here’s the video:

I’m a little addicted to the medium now.  I’m already planning my next recording sessions – and my next music videos.  They get progressively more ambitious with every passing day.  I’ve started thinking about filming instead of kittens while I jog.  (I need to think about something while I run, otherwise I remember how much running actually sucks).

This whole thing has me charged up.  It’s exciting to finally be putting things out there.  I’ve had a really hard time letting myself be a musician.  I’m very duty driven and if I feel like I’m supposed to do something, I’ll punish myself until I do it.  Unfortunately, I grew up in a town where you get a 9-5 office job with a good 401K that you don’t necessarily enjoy but that pays well and work there for 40 years until you retire and then enjoy yourself as you watch your 2.5 kids repeat the cycle.  Even with the support of friends and family it’s still hard to persuade myself that that’s not what I’m supposed to do – even if doing that sounds incredibly awful to me.  But the outpouring of excitement and goodwill I’ve gotten from people over this video is inspiring.  I’m starting to feel more confident in my decision than I ever have before and it’s thanks to all the positive comments from people I care about.  You all are the best, and I’m truly honored to know you.

Can’t wait to share what’s next!

Where The Girls Are Not

If you’re in the music industry or a musician, you’re probably already aware of the severe gender imbalance that still exists today.  If you’re not in the music game maybe you didn’t notice this.  Look at your iPod.  What percentage of the artists are female?  Probably less than half.  Now consider the dozens of people involved in making those songs; the majority of them are likely male.  During the July of 2013 only 10% of the top 20 country artists were female, and only 5% of the songwriters were.

“Why?” demand non-industry people when I mention this.  “How can that be?”

I’ve spent a lot of time pondering this myself.  Although my college had a fairly broken gender ratio (and sexual culture – though that’s an entirely different conversation), I didn’t find much opposition to women in the offices I’ve interned in.  In fact, most of them have been primarily female.  I’ve lain awake at night, pondering where the girls are and where they are not and why.  It seemed like there was some wall that locked women out of the industry, but I couldn’t see it.  Was I hurtling blindly towards it?  Am I destined to charge into the same roadblock so many other women seem to hit?

After a lot of consideration I have two theories (note: these are my own ideas, backed only by personal experience, the shared wisdom of mentors, and observation of the industry).  I think they are both contributing factors and likely exist parallel to one another.  One mainly impacts artists, the second has a broader reach in the industry.

The first I developed last summer and shared with a female mentor in a massive and rambling email at one in the morning. I call it the “Uncanny Valley” theory.  In digital animation, video games, and robotics, the Uncanny Valley is the place where characters who are too real and yet not real enough live.  The animation looks nearly photo realistic, but is missing the tiny muscle movements and gestures that would make it human.  And it’s incredibly creepy.

There’s a bit of a self perpetuating Uncanny Valley in Country music.  Often, the singer and writer are not the same person.  And often the writer is male, even if the artist is female.  I’m not saying that a male writer can’t write a song that is perfect for a woman, but those songs usually have nothing to do with being a woman.  The problem arises when a male writer or group of male writers write a song for a “generic woman.”  They often end up writing something most reflective of a giant archetypal sentient vagina, not an actual living female.  And the same thing would probably happen if you asked a bunch of women to write for a generic man.  Hanging around publishing offices and songwriting classes has allowed me to observe the sentient vagina phenomenon firsthand.  When you hear a woman sing one of these songs it’s just off.  Neither men nor women can relate to the content and neither men nor women can respect the character.  Suddenly you have a song that doesn’t sell and executives saying things like “women don’t sell” and using it as an excuse to not sign more female acts.

Women – when they are treated as human beings who share the same emotions and struggles as men, just with the added superpower known as boobs – do sell.  If you look at the hit songs by Country women from the past few years, a lot of the ones that had true staying power have very little to do with being a woman.  “Follow Your Arrow.”  “I Will See You Again.”  “The House That Built Me.”  Excluding Bro Country (hopefully until it gets lonely, gives up, and goes home), most male artists don’t sing songs about having a penis because no one gives a shit.  Similarly, women singing songs about how their world is defined by their vagina doesn’t work either because – again – no one gives a shit.  Including other women.  Which isn’t to say all music for women needs to be genderless – just, if you’re going to talk about what it’s like to be a woman in a song, maybe get someone who’s actually experienced that in on the writing process (i.e.: a living, breathing woman).

Being female is not a gimmick.  We make up slightly more than half the world’s population.  My gender has very little to do with the music I make and shouldn’t be a basis for hiring/signing me or anyone else in my “situation” [read: boobs].

But this theory leads to some more questions: where are the female writers and executives?

I asked my mentor this and she offered me an answer that made sense but that I didn’t fully understand at the time: many women want to raise families and they are often forced to choose between that and the music industry.  At the time, I accepted it but silently decided I just wouldn’t be one of those women – I would juggle it all.

This morning, I lay in bed coming off the high of recording a new song and trying to visualize honestly where my road might be headed and where I wanted it to go.  I admitted to myself for the first time, that if I had to choose between being someone’s mother and being a professional musician, I would choose to be a mother.  Complete understanding of my mentor’s answer hit me like a punch to the face.

In a perfect world, I would never have to make that choice.  But I live in this world.  It’s entirely possible that in 5 or 10 years I will be asked to pick between the two things that are most precious to me.  Unlike most other developed counties, the United States does not require employers to offer any kind of maternity leave.  Many times women must go on disability during their pregnancies, because apparently being a healthy adult female makes you disabled.  I’m entering a field where it’s unlikely I will be a full-time employee eligible for such benefits in the first place.  There is no one to offer me paid leave, no one to offer childcare, no one to offer health insurance.  This problem isn’t unique to the music industry but it’s virulent here.

No one would ever ask the same questions of my male peers.  No one would ever imply that they were less driven or “serious” or devoted to their craft because they put family first.  No one would ever demand that they choose a part of themselves to sacrifice in that way.

The urge is to declare it “unfair,” but fairness is a story we tell children.  We’re capitalists here.  Fairness is for commies.  What I should say is that it’s wrong.  It’s a false choice.  Women shouldn’t and needn’t be asked to give up their careers and ambitions, especially if we are not asking men to make similar choices.

I am still determined that I will find away to do both.  I’m not sure how and I’m not sure how to change the situation for other women without some kind of vast cultural shift, but I’ll lean on my youthful naiveté and idealism.  The first step, after all, is acknowledging that there’s a problem.  Let’s talk about it.  Let’s stop sweeping it under the rug.  Let’s get loud about it.  Step two will come along in due time.