Embracing The Dark Side: 3 Huge Things I’m Learning While Learning To Play Lefty

A few months ago, I posted about being a left-handed musician in a right-handed world.  At the time, I theorized about what would happen if I picked up a lefty guitar.  And that was all I had: theory.

However, a little over a month ago, I sold my Vespa and bought a lefty Taylor after speaking with an incredible musician, firekid, who supported my theory both with his personal experience and ridiculous skills.  I’ve only been learning for a few weeks, but it’s provided me with some great insights and I’d like to bust some myths for other musicians considering making a switch.

TRUE: It’s Totally Easier to Learn to Play Left-Handed as a Left-Handed Person

Logic told me this would be true; experience confirmed it.  There’s a ridiculous myth that Southpaws have an advantage with right-handed guitars because of our increased dexterity on the fretboard.  This seems to make sense on the surface until you consider the fact that more than 90% of the global population is right-handed.   So why would one of the most popular instruments in the world – an instrument occasionally called “the people’s instrument” – be designed to favor a tiny minority?  So, yeah, even without personal experience, that myth is busted.

As Adam and Jamie would say, MYTH BUSTED.  **Note: this myth not officially busted by official myth busters.

As Adam and Jamie would say, MYTH BUSTED.
**Note: this myth not officially busted by official myth busters.

Unless you’re doing crazy shredding or complex melodic work, your chord hand is pretty stationary.  The busy work is carried out by your strumming or picking hand.  While left-handed people are often more dextrous with our right hands than even right-hand dominant folks (partially because of how our brains work, partially because we’re forced to develop a certain amount of ambidexterity), it’s just plain easier to do the complicated fine-motor work with your dominant hand.

It took weeks for me to get even a basic strumming pattern down with my right hand and over two years to get something vaguely resembling finger picking.  I had a basic, alternating bass pattern down with my left hand in about a week.

Now, this isn’t to say that I’ve miraculously transformed into a guitar goddess, but I’m picking it up a hell of a lot faster than I did with my wrong hand.  Even the chord shapes are coming faster and cleaner.  Right now, I’m mostly waiting on callouses to form so that I can play for longer stretches.  I’m probably not going to be gigging lefty anytime in the next two months, but it’s not too far off.

We especially need to kill the wrong-handed-guitar-advantage myth because it’s toxic to fledgling musicians.  It 1) tells them that they don’t know their bodies and can’t trust their instincts, 2) places an unfair expectation that they should be – if anything – excelling, and 3) blames any struggle they’re having on some personal failing rather than an inherent disadvantage.  I’ve fallen victim to this messaging and it dramatically changed the way I’ve interacted with instruments – and not for the better.  Let’s make sure I’m a member of the last generation of lefties to be fed this lie.

FALSE: Switching to Lefty Will Confuse You And Make Your Right Handed Playing Suffer

This one is completely inaccurate; in fact, the opposite is true.  My right-handed guitar playing has improved as I’ve started practicing the left-handed guitar.

Now, putting down one instrument and immediately picking up the other is a little confusing.  But if I pick up the guitar, sit for about 20 seconds, and consciously acknowledge that it’s either right- or left-handed, I have no issues.  As a Southpaw, I’ve spent my entire life inverting things or doing things ambidextrously to use devices that aren’t designed for my body.  If you’re a righty musician with some bizarre urge to play lefty, you might find it more difficult to switch between the two because it’s unlikely you’ve ever had to do anything similar.  But if you’re a natural lefty, you’ve done this before, so don’t let anyone tell you you can’t.

You've mastered the little slice of hell known as the right-handed can opener.  Don't let anyone tell you you can't achieve your dreams.

You’ve mastered the little slice of hell known as the right-handed can opener. Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t achieve your dreams.

The strumming and picking have strengthened my left hand so that my chords are cleaner when I play righty.  I’m even beginning to use bar-chords, which were completely over my head until I started playing lefty.  Last night I randomly decided I’d play an F major on the righty guitar after having abandoned bar-chords about 6 months ago.  And it came out clean and clear.  Multiple times.

Similar to how playing bodhrán left-handed improved my right-handed guitar strumming, the picking patterns I’m playing with my left hand are translating to my right hand when I pick up my Martin.  If anything, playing guitar ambidextrously is reinforcing and strengthening my skills rather than diluting them.

TRUE: It’s a Great Boost to Your Self-Confidence and Builds Some Lefty Pride

As I said in my post about left-handed musicianship, it feels really awful to be told by teachers and mentors that you’re not trying hard enough or that maybe you just lack natural instrumental ability.  I’d like to note that the teachers telling me this were right-handed.  They had never experienced having to learn an instrument upside-down and backwards.

Imagine if this text was every device you've ever interacted with.  Remember this feeling next time your lefty friend can't use your discriminatory vegetable peeler.

Imagine if this text was every device you’ve ever interacted with. Remember this feeling next time your lefty friend can’t use your discriminatory vegetable peeler. 

Finally having someone say “They’re wrong, go try it the way your body and instincts are saying you should” was freeing.  We have a terrible habit, as a culture – perhaps as a species – of devaluing the experiences of others that don’t align with our own. It’s insidious, toxic, and pervasive.  My experience with this behavior as a lefty or similar actions by my male peers as a woman are drops in the bucket compared to the way it affects minorities or all kinds in the U.S. (and presumably other countries).

The amount of empowerment I was able to claim by proving the negative words I was being fed were wrong was huge.  I feel more capable, more independent.  I feel like I have more ownership of my own being.  My left-handedness became a valid part of my experience and identity.  It wasn’t an excuse; it’s a source of power, something that makes me different from 90% of the world.

It also grants me a super power that renders any device described as "ergonomic" entirely useless to me.

It also grants me a super power that renders any device described as “ergonomic” entirely useless to me.

And that’s just something as minor as being allowed to use my dominant hand.  Imagine how empowered someone would feel who spent their life being told their skin color or economic background or level of ability wasn’t limiting them; that they were just lazy.  Imagine how something on that scale could change someone!

The Long and Short of It

So I learned that, yes, if you’re left-handed you may want to try a left-handed guitar.  Chances are, you’ll find it more natural.  It’s not that it’s impossible to learn to play righty; after all, there are lots of fantastic left-handed guitarists who never touch a Southpaw instrument.  But make a decision because it’s what feels right to you, not what someone told you should feel right.

THIS FEELS COMFORTABLE!  YOU ARE ENJOYING IT!  ENJOY IT, DAMMIT!

THIS FEELS COMFORTABLE! YOU ARE ENJOYING IT! ENJOY IT, DAMMIT!

On a larger scale, I’ve learned that, when you tell someone how their experience should be their strength, you often transform it into their handicap.  This isn’t to say that every complaint everyone has ever made is valid, but if you’ve never felt what someone is feeling, you may want to hesitate before you pass judgement.  Advice, however well intentioned, is usually more helpful when it comes from a place of personal experience.

Picking up that guitar has transformed my left-handedness from a handicap to a unique feature.  And, in a few months, I’ll be able to play every song I’ve ever learned or written on both a left- and right-handed instrument.  How badass is that?  How cool does that sound?  It’s unlikely any righty has made or will make a claim like that.  Thanks to embracing my individual gift – a gift that was a handicap a few months ago – I can pick up any guitar and play.

Fellow Southpaws, it’s time to stop fearing the Dark Side.  Embrace it.

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Mountain Climbing: Walking a Creative Path Through the New Industry Wilderness

Sometimes walking this creative path feels like hiking up a mountain: it’s steep and exhausting, but I can see the top – however distant – and I know I’ll find a way to reach it because it’s worth the blisters and aches.  Other times, it feels like I’m scrabbling at the base of a sheer, insurmountable cliff.  If I were to look at when I get the latter feeling, it’s usually the days when my goals fall through or just aren’t there or when I hit another roadblock.  I don’t have a “path” in the way many other careers do, especially with the state the music industry is currently in.

"Sinking?  Who?  Me?" - the Music Industry

“Sinking? Who? Me?” – the Music Industry

This gives me a lot of freedom to make my own plans.  To a certain extent, I get to cut my own path and decide what the road I pave will look like.  But at the same time, I’m battling the bloated, old structures that are still grasping on to life in an economy and technological age that will never support them the way they’re accustomed to.  That’s a whole blog in itself, but what it really boils down to is that sometimes it feels like there isn’t truly a place for creative people in our world today.

Don’t get me wrong; we wedge ourselves into the chinks and cracks in society and many of us find a way to live.  Some of us transmute our passions into hobbies or part-time affairs because they never quite sustain us.  Some of us live on less or paycheck to paycheck in order to get the emotional and spiritual fulfillment we’re seeking.

Think of it as the grown up version of this triangle.

Think of it as the grown-up version of this triangle.

I’m still trying to figure out how to make my passion my livelihood and decide how much of that livelihood it should be.  Ever since I was a child, I have had the urge to create things – beautiful, good things that bring something wonderful into the world around me.  It’s what drives me to sing, to play instruments, to draw and knit and cook and write these blogs.  It’s the same urge that feeds my desire to be a parent one day.  I want to create concentrated reflections of love in my lifetime that can echo down through time to someone else who needs them, the same way other artists who came before me blessed me with their creations – some of which probably saved my life.

I’m not driven by stardom or fortune; I’d like to be able to raise a family one day without worrying how I’m going to feed it, but that’s all I really ask.  I’m not concerned with being famous or having people identify me on the street; I’m terribly introverted and talking to people is usually the most exciting (and mildly terrifying) part of day.  What I want is to be able to pay forward the gifts I have been blessed with – both my creativity and the impact that the creativity of others has had on my life – without starving on a street corner.

Or maybe it is our suffering that makes society happy and we're really just the next generation of sad clowns but no one's told us yet.

Or maybe it’s our suffering that makes society happy and we’re really just the next generation of sad clowns but no one’s told us yet.

Maybe I have a bit of a flower-child mentality.  Perhaps the world just doesn’t operate on words like “love” and “beauty” and “goodness.”  We live in a society that runs on words like “profit” and “sales” and “marketability.”  I recognize that my set of words doesn’t fit so neatly with our cultural vocabulary, and this means that I will have to work way harder than your average bear to survive on my little piece of poetry.  But I’m determined to find a way.

When I get caught up in the numbers and focusing on forcing my art to make money, my art suffers.  But when I just make my music (or knitting or writing) because that’s what I was put on this earth to do, it seems to affect people.  On those days where I’m climbing a mountain rather than just kicking a brick wall, I can visualize where I want my career to be in 10 years as clearly as if it were happening.  It’s almost like a vision.  I can see myself on stage, playing music that I wrote to be powerful and emotionally impactful – not marketable – to a crowd of people who are moved by what I create, not how I look or how short my shorts are.

I think this dream might be where the music industry is headed as a whole.  Maybe it’s a ways off or maybe it’s only the rosiest possible outcome, but I’d like to think that it’s at least where my little slice of the pie is headed.  I have to believe that that vision is the top of the mountain, and that I will find a way to reach it.  I firmly believe that I can build a career off of good music rather than good looks, a career founded on truly touching people rather than writing the next scientifically-proven-to-get-stuck-in-your-head flash-in-the-pan.

I just have to keep climbing that mountain.

At least it's a beautiful view.

At least it’s a beautiful view.

Do You Think I’m Sexy?

The other day, I had an interesting conversation with a friend of mine who’s both an incredibly talented musician and a brilliant music-business mind.  Sipping small-batch beers and shouting over a live band, he patiently listened to my frustration over being someone with a strong artistic background but limited business knowledge trying to launch a career where I have to somehow deliver great art while performing all the functions that would have been carried out by an entire team of people 20 years ago.  I’ve found it incredibly difficult and often feel like I’m running into a brick wall, especially when it comes to booking gigs and serving as my own promotions person.

As an independent artist himself, my friend said he had found similar struggles, but observed that male artists definitely had a leg up when it came to booking and promoting themselves.  Throughout his career, he has worked with other artists in a business capacity and found that female musicians, regardless of their quality, got fewer responses from venues and publications.  Even as a male artist, he had observed the glass ceiling that women come up against in this industry.

I found it to be sort a relief to hear someone – especially a man – make this observation.  In college, I found many (though not, by any means, all) of my male peers denying how bad gender equality is on our field.  When more than 70% of your classmates are having a totally different experience in the workforce than you, it can make you feel a little crazy, so it was great to hear my friend say “Yes, this exists and it’s a problem.”  In addition, it took some of the pressure off my art.  It’s not that my product is necessarily bad or worse than anyone else’s, it just might not be getting heard at all because my boobs block the sound waves from reaching people’s ears.

Pictured: Boobs

Pictured: Boobs

Stupid boobs.

Working all on my own, it was easy to forget how my gender might be affecting my career.  There’s no one to remind me about it.  I don’t get emails back from the people I’m contacting saying “Sorry, but boobs;” I just don’t get emails back at all.  I’m not saying this is purely because of my gender; I’m young and unpolished and often entirely unsure about what I should be doing.  But, considering the experiences I had that initially led me to stop playing jazz in restaurants, it’s not hard to believe that there’s gender bias at play.

My friend made another interesting observation: women need to make a choice about how they will use their sensuality in their careers.  Does the artist embrace her role as sex object or completely reject it?  Everyone approaches it differently and there are shades of gray between sex-pot and asexual androgyne.  But it’s something I hadn’t really thought about in regards to my career and it’s something male artists don’t have to consider to progress (though their physical appearance can play a role in their careers as well).

Though perhaps not to the same extent.

Though perhaps not to the same extent.

Carrie Underwood

Part of why I’ve ignored the question for so long is because I don’t look at myself as a sex object.  I look at myself as a whole person and I, perhaps naively, assume that’s how other people see me.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fit, healthy twenty-three-year-old woman and whether or not I look like a model, some people will find me attractive if only on the basis of my youth and everything that goes along with it – and I’m aware of this fact.  But it isn’t how I define myself.  If someone were to ask me to describe myself in a few words, “woman” might break the top five, but it wouldn’t be the first, nor would I consider it something that directly impacts the quality of my art.

One of the things that drives me nuts about the current state of music and the music industry is how quality often comes second to image or a quick but short lived profit.  Since the advent of television and the music video, there has been an understandable push towards more attractive artists, but – maybe I’m an old-soul – I yearn for the days of when it was more about the sound and the live performance than pretty faces and tiny waists.  As more and more consumers get their music from Youtube and other online video sharing sites, we’ll likely continue to see being physically attractive play a major role in getting your sound – no matter how good or bad – heard.  And I’ll buy in a bit and put on makeup because you can’t totally buck something as massive as a format shift.

Sorry, hipsters who are sure tape is going to come roaring back into style.

Sorry, hipsters who are sure tape is going to come roaring back into style any day now.

But having my gender – which has no effect on format or sound (other than males and females having different vocal tracts) or the quality of my writing and performance – impact my career trajectory is ridiculous.  The only significant impact my sex should have on my career is if I decide to stay at home to raise kids in 10 years.  I don’t want to be evaluated differently than my male peers.

With that in mind, I’m making the decision that I don’t really care if you think I’m sexy.  I didn’t study the art of seduction nor was I a pageant girl growing up.  I studied music, how to write it and how to perform it.  I can read sheet music in one key while playing it in another; I can hear a song on the radio and transcribe it in full; I can sing in styles from classical to jazz to rock and roll to country (with the twang and all); and not one of those things is affected by how sexy or female I am.  When you hear my music or see me perform, I want you to notice these things and judge me based on my abilities.  If you’re distracted by how sexy or androgynous you find me, that’ll be your own problem.

There’s a terrible trope that female musicians don’t sell as well as their male counterparts.  There are power-players on Music Row still spouting this idiotic piece of folklore.  If there is any truth to the rumor, maybe that’s because labels are attempting to sell sex to people who are trying to buy music.

So if you’re looking to buy music, I’m your girl.  If you’re looking to buy sex, try PornHub rather than Spotify.

This was in Times Square.  We are truly a bastion of culture and sophistication here in America.

This was in Times Square. We are truly a bastion of culture and sophistication here in America.

“Honey, We Have No Music Industry” – And Maybe We Shouldn’t

Last week, the incomparable and incredibly brilliant Quincy Jones gave an interview to The National where he commented “Honey, we have no music industry.”  As a musician, this would be a very troubling thing to hear, were I not already observing it first hand.  Mr. Jones pointed out how virulent music piracy was, how little impact streaming has on the musicians in question, and how impossible it is sell records now a days.  All of these things I have observed and agree with.

So things look a little dire right now.  Considering that the big solution from within the music industry is to make another streaming service designed by artists – even though I have a strong gut feeling that streaming will neither fill the gap left by record sales nor replace terrestrial radio in it’s function – I suspect we’re in for a bumpy, downhill ride.

But it may be for the best.  Maybe we shouldn’t have a music industry

I know, it sounds crazy that as a musician I’m saying we shouldn’t have a music industry.  Why would I openly express relief at the possible death of my livelihood?

Am I just really into shooting myself in the foot?

Am I just really into shooting myself in the foot?

As the industry stands, it’s not much of a livelihood for many if not most musicians.  The select few that either tour constantly (and usually as solo acts, because people don’t like to pay much more for a band, even if they’re getting more music) or that top 1 percent of artists that are getting top billing are the only ones who aren’t working day jobs to pay to work.  To put it into perspective, it’s like if the only lawyers who could pay rent with their work were Supreme Court Justices and CNN consultants.

There’s no longer a healthy musical middle class; it’s difficult for people to feed their families as musicians.  If we evaluated the income strata of the music industry the way we do countries, we’d be a third world nation.

But I’ve said as much before.  Why am I ok with the industry that, in theory, I should be striving to climb collapsing into history?

Because it was doomed from the start.

Even though we now consider a cell phone and internet access and electricity and even running water necessities, humans survived without these things (and still, unfortunately, have to in many parts of the world) for thousands and thousands of years.  As a species, we’ve spent a hell of a lot more time without these essential services than we have with them.  But I can guaran-damn-tee you humans were sitting in their huts singing to their babies 10,000 years ago and never even dreamed of an iPhone.

They would burn your iPhone as a witch.

They would burn your iPhone as a witch.

We are designed for music.  It is instinctual and so innate that our brains are structured to work with it – not just sound or language, but specifically music.  It affects us unlike any other art form and stretches across cultures.  We are so inclined towards pitch and rhythm that actual tone deafness – the inability to hear a melody, not just singing badly on karaoke night – is considered a neurological disorder; it’s known as amusia. It can be a side-effect of brain damage.  Basically, music is such a crucial part of our human experience that we consider people with an inability to understand it to have something wrong with them.

Music is in our wiring.

The music business as we know it – this massive multi-billion dollar industry – was only able to exist because technological constraints of the past hundred years allowed us to limit people’s access to both recorded music and live performance.  Even 20 years ago, corporations had the ability to control how and when people accessed music and demand payment for it.

Think of it like access to water.  As suburbs and towns became more densely populated or expanded to areas without readily available sources of well or river water, cities built water pipes to supply people with the ever necessary agua.  Because there was often no other viable source of water, residents had to use city water and utility companies could get away with charging for a substance you used to get for free from the river.

But if you cut off access to water because of an unpaid bill or sheer dickishness (I’m making that a word), people won’t sit in their homes and slowly die of thirst.  They find a stream (pun completely intended).  Heck, even if you have the option to use city water but your property has access to ground water, you’re probably going to dig your own well because why pay more for something that is not only a biological imperative, but that you can access for free?

20 years ago, the music industry provided a necessary service to people who could not dig a well or find a stream; it served as a melodic utility company.  But modern technology has rendered it obsolete.  There is a massive river of music running through our world and people would rather fill their bucket in the stream than pay the utility bill.  And I can’t blame them.

I used to get really angry about internet piracy.  It took taking a psychoacoustics course and seeing first hand how music is part of our biology to make me calm down and really think about why people are stealing.  If I could dig a well through the floor of my condo and have fresh, cool water for free instead of paying Metro Water Services, I would do it.  Screw resale value, I don’t want to pay for something that’s such a crucial part of my existence that I feel entitled to it.

Responsible home-ownership at its finest.

Responsible home-ownership at its finest.

Entitled to it.  People are entitled to music.  The public at large deserves access to music that touches our hearts, that makes us want to fall in love, that makes us want to dance and we shouldn’t have to pay to access it.  Never in human history have we so adamantly demanded that people pay for every drop of their sonic water the way we have in the last century.   It was a great experiment, but it just doesn’t work any more.

Musicians, of course, will still need to get paid, but using the current structure of the industry isn’t the way to do it.  If we’re providing a public and national service by giving people their melodic water to drink and creating culture to share with the rest of the world (which I would imagine is a way more effective method of spreading democracy than blowing up people’s homes), we should be compensated as such.  Pay us like public school teachers.  Pay us like any public servant in this country.  Pay us the way we pay ministers for their time devoted to lifting up the masses.

Music was never meant to be a business.  Melody arises from passion and talent and genuine creativity, and when you depend purely on capitalism to sustain it, you lose all of those things.  When the driving force behind creation is money rather than art, we all lose.  It’s how we wind up with very pretty people who can’t sing in tune without the help of a computer making another cookie-cutter pop song that we’re all supposed to pay $1.29 for the “pleasure” of listening to until another prettier person makes another virtually identical song for us to play on repeat.

Even Quincy Jones said that “when you go after the money, God walks out of the room.”  This is why we can’t have a music business.  Those two words don’t belong next to each other.  Business sure as hell doesn’t make music and music isn’t a sustainable business.

So I say good riddance to the music industry.  It was great while it lasted but it’s a deeply, deeply flawed system.

But what will we replace it with?  We still need professional musicians and – contrary to what many people seem to believe – musicians are not magical beings that don’t have bills or require food; as citizens of this dimension, we have rent to pay and stomachs to fill.

“They eat, like, cigarette butts and whiskey, right?”

This really isn’t that hard a question to answer.  A large portion of the rest of the world provides government funded grants to artists.  We do some of that in our country, but it’s pretty exclusive.  It seems that the vast majority of funding goes to chamber and avante garde music.  Yes, these genres need funding and they’re not going to get it from album or ticket sales.  But they’re also not really representative of our current cultural music.  Maybe I’m completely out of touch, but I don’t think the average American listener spends his Friday night rocking out to Schoenberg as he anxiously awaits the Tuesday release of the next great atonal record.  Considering that there are more Country radio stations than anything else and most people identify their favorite genre as Rock, maybe we should be putting our muscle behind the sounds that actually define modern America.

There’s a huge push to fund music programs in schools, but why create the next generation of musician if they are only destined to starve?  It’s like teaching someone to become the world’s greatest kayaker and then throwing them into the river without a boat or a paddle.

If we want good music, if we want new music, if we want music that instantly touches us without requiring a degree in jazz to understand it, we need to expand funding beyond orchestras and abstract performance art to the real, current music of the people.  If we want to spread democracy and capitalism across the globe in a way that doesn’t result in collateral damage and civilian casualties, we need new music – people’s music; neither bombs nor Miley Cyrus can achieve this.  Maybe it’s time for the Culture Czar or Minister of Culture Mr. Jones suggested so many years ago.  There are countries without universal access to electricity that have a Minister of Culture or Arts.

Our whole nation is headed for a sea-change.  The student loan bubble is going to pop sooner rather than later and while the national average for unemployment is around 5 and half percent, closer to 10 and half percent of people in their early 20’s are unemployed according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  One of Mr. Jones’ comments was that if all the young people pirating music worked for him for two months and then he didn’t pay them at the end, they’d see how unfair it was.  Unfortunately for Quincy, that’s a reality that many recent college grads wake up to every day.  They would probably be pretty unfazed.

Something’s going to give and things are going to change.  I can only hope our national perspective on music is one of those things.  There seems to be a perception that musicians are lazy or flaky, but I think the fact of the matter is that artists of all media require different work habits than your average “job.”  Because it’s not your average job.  It’s not your average business.  And the minute we stop trying to make it into that, is the minute we remember why we feel the need to carry 10,000 songs in our pockets at all times.

But what do I know?  I’m just a lazy musician.

Bare Bones: Writing and Recording “Bird of Prey”

If you’ve hung out with me recently, you know that I’m recording a new project – an album length release featuring some of the most talented people I know.  The first completed track that you can listen to now is “Bird of Prey.”  It’s not the traditional choice for a “single”; the decision was driven in part by the “pared down” nature of the arrangement that made it easier to complete before we left for a two-week long vacation (with a couple gigs thrown in) to the North East.  But it was more than just a matter of convenience; I really love this song and people seem to react to it.

“Bird of Prey” is one of those songs that I was singing to myself for months before I decided it was actually finished.  I had a friend who really, really struggled with empathy and I was finding it frustrating.  Though I don’t always succeed, I try to consider the effect my actions have on the people around me, so I found it hard to understand how someone could go through life without considering the feelings of others.  Eventually, I started to grow resentful.

Then one day during one of my embarrassingly long showers (I get a lot of writing done in the shower), it occurred to me that this person’s behavior wasn’t malicious or mean-spirited.  No one had ever taught them how powerful sympathy and kindness can be.  They were just doing what they felt they needed to do to make it through their day in one piece.  The image of a hawk came to mind: the hawk doesn’t hate the rabbit and it doesn’t hunt out of anger.  It’s just trying to survive.  I started singing the first part of the chorus to myself while washing my hair.  For the next several weeks I kept humming that part of the song and steadily adding words.

I let the song lie for a little while once I moved out of Boston.  Sometimes, I feel like a song needs another section, but I can’t tell what that new part needs to be and I give it a rest before I do more harm than good.  Several wonderful teachers have told me that writers have “input mode” and “output mode,” so I’m willing to let a song remain half-finished for a little while to complete it when I’m ready to go into “output” again.

It wasn’t until I got to Nashville that I played the song again and realized I’d finished it back in Boston.  The song wasn’t waiting for some additional part I was unable to visualize at the time, it was waiting for me to realize it didn’t need anything else.

Cut to about 8 months later when it came time to start recording.  “Bird of Prey” was an obvious choice to be included in the project based on listener reaction alone.  I already had an idea of the arrangement I wanted and from the get go it looked like it would be the quickest track to get done.

We split the basic tracks for the album (drums, bass, and rhythm guitar) into two sets of six in an effort to minimize the demand on everyone’s schedules.  This way the musicians would only have to learn six songs at a time and only need to commit to one full studio day per set plus a few quick rehearsals the week before rather than asking them to block out consecutive days for recording.

I was fortunate enough to get three of the most talented people I could have possibly hoped for to perform the basics: Andrew Peebles on drums, Zach Torres on acoustic guitar (of whom I have no photos because he was locked in an iso-booth without a window), and Gavin O’Broin on both upright and electric bass.  They managed to make even the pared-down, barest-of-bones tracks exciting.  As a writer and artist, it’s an amazing feeling to hear your compositions start to come to life for the first time.  Andrew, Zach, and Gavin’s incredible musical talents made the experience of hearing my songs fleshed out with a band even more special than it already would have been.

Also, they were the tallest session players I could have contacted.  Even the producer is over 6′ and Andrew must be at least six and a half feet, but being only 5’5″ myself, they all just came across as giants to me.

Andrew Peebles, pictured here rocking the drums.

Andrew Peebles, pictured here rocking the drums.

Gavin O'Broin, pictured on upright bass - also the only person I know who plays a full-size.

Gavin O’Broin, pictured on upright bass – also the only person I know who plays a full-size.

Even naked, “Bird of Prey” was taking on an energy that it had never had when I was playing it solo.  The rhythm naturally slowed to a languid pace, which really reinforced the image of hawk slowly circling on thermal.  With nothing but the three piece arrangement, it already built beautifully.  The stops that I would play on my guitar took on a new life with the full band, transforming into these short build-ups into cold silence under the vocal.

I obviously really enjoyed the track.

I obviously really enjoyed the track.

Overdubs really completed the auditory scene we’d been creating.  Fawn Larson (a fantastic artist herself) played two beautiful fiddle parts that lifted and softened the song.  It helped build this wonderfully Old-Time-y feel that I’d been hoping the track would have.  Will Payne Harrison (another great singer-songwriter) added banjo – an instrument I have always wanted to hear on my compositions – which brought some edge back in.  The song was taking on this oppressive, dolorous energy that worked beautifully with the lyrics.

Fawn blew my mind with her fiddle playing; she had a vision for the parts and it was amazing to see them come together.

Fawn blew my mind with her fiddle playing; she had a vision for the parts and it was amazing to see them come together.

I have always wanted someone to play banjo on a song for me.  Lucky for me one of Will's many instrumental talents is banjo playing.

I have always wanted someone to play banjo on a song for me. Lucky for me, one of Will’s many instrumental talents is banjo playing.

The last tiny detail we added was an electric guitar played with an E-bow, a device that uses two magnets to make the guitar string vibrate so that it sounds almost like a violin.  Pete Jacobs, who engineered, produced, and mixed the entire track personally added the effect.  It served as a pad, very low in the mix to subtly fill space and add depth.

Part of me feels like I need to shout the Captain Planet catch-phrase, looking back on how perfectly all of these individual elements combined to create a track that I’m really happy with and proud to call the “flagship” for the rest of the album.  Pete did an incredible amount of work to blend everything together into a cohesive package.  I can’t overstate how important his role as engineer/producer and as mix engineer was in creating a finished product.

It takes a lot of talent to turn a console into an instrument.  Pete has that gift.

It takes a lot of talent to turn a console into an instrument. Pete has that gift.

If you want to hear everything I’m talking about click on the embedded link below to listen.

And as one parting glimpse into the recording process, below is the most dramatic photo of our basics session, at which point Gavin played one very, very wrong note:

The less-than-quiet tragedy of a wrong note.

The less-than-quiet tragedy of a wrong note.

I can’t wait for the next track I can share with everyone.  Hopefully getting to see some of the steps involved in actually making it happen is an interesting perspective to read.

Peace out for now!

Living To Work

Almost two months ago, I left an internship that I was really convinced was going to be a day job.  It was going to be the coolest day job ever.  For six months, I arranged in-store concerts for bands at amazing venues like Amoeba Records; set up promotions with Other Music, Everyday Music, and Rough Trade; and organized on-air performances for independent artists.  I even assistant engineered a video shoot for Roland.  But I wasn’t paid and, when I finally made it an ultimatum, it became clear I was never getting paid.

Nope.

Nope.

For the last half of the internship, I was tired all the time.  It was really hard to get up in the morning and I started main-lining coffee to try and seem enthusiastic and stay alert (which had its own set of side-effects).  By the end of the day my eyes would be blurry from staring at a computer screen.  There were a few evenings where I was seeing double so bad I couldn’t reliably dial the phone.  My back injury flared up sitting in a chair all day, and I had to start going to a chiropractor again after spending one weekend unable to sleep because laying down was excruciating.

Have a friend kick you in the back a few times then repeat this mantra and you can understand why I maybe wasn't the chipperest employee.

Have a friend kick you in the back a few times then repeat this mantra and you can understand why I maybe wasn’t the chipperest employee.

Meanwhile, my stress level was through the roof.  I wanted so badly to be great at that job.  And I wasn’t bad at it.  They had never had a relationship with Amoeba before I established one.  But I studied songwriting, not business, and I didn’t know anything about distribution or promotion.  All I really had were great phone skills from Phone-a-thon in college and the pig headed determination to fit a square peg through a round hole.  I was pouring as much – if not more – emotional energy into my work than I was physical energy.

This made me realize that I can’t work to live.  I live to work.

I don’t know how to half-ass things.  On the rare occasion that I do, I feel miserable about it – nausea, headaches, sweating.  When I do something, I pour all of myself into it – even if it’s a spreadsheet.  It doesn’t make me a great multi-tasker and it means that I’m not always the fastest worker, but it does mean that I work really hard for the best possible product.  I’ll practice until my fingers bleed, run until I get shin splints and then run some more, dance until I fall down.

When I left the internship, I started waking up earlier – naturally.  The chronic pain I was experiencing subsided.  I had been pretty depressed and not even realized it.

Wait, this isn't what job satisfaction is supposed to look like?

Wait, this isn’t what job satisfaction is supposed to look like?

I was pouring that full-on, all-of-myself energy into the wrong thing.  Working as hard as I possibly can unpaid is fulfilling when it’s for my passion (i.e.: my music career) but is soul-crushingly demoralizing when it’s for someone else’s business.  I spend more hours a week working than I did before on things that often feel make-it-or-break-it to me, yet my stress-level is a fraction of what it was.  I”m sure part of that has to do with escaping a toxic living situation, but a lot if it also has to do with not spending myself on work that didn’t benefit me at all.

Looking back, I knew the job wasn’t the right fit for me for a while.  The only reason I hung on for so long were the regular mentions of hiring me.  Every time this came up I’d initially be very excited.  But as I’d lay in bed that night, I’d start crying.  Somewhere in my heart I knew it would never happen and I felt like an idiot for allowing myself to get strung along, but there was also a part of me that was terrified it would happen.  I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in actual physical pain for someone else’s vision when I had such a clear one of my own.

I really wish I knew how to work to live.  I’ve wanted to be a musician and fully commit myself to my passion since I was a kid, and as long as I’ve held that dream I’ve had people suggest that maybe it should be a hobby.  Surely there must be something else I would rather do for a living.  When you hear something enough, you start to internalize it.  I suspect that’s part of why I was so determined that I could enjoy and be successful at a part of the music industry that wasn’t making music.  I started to believe – like so many people seemed to be hoping for me growing up – that music was a fun side activity until my actual career started.

Because apparently in the real world you're only supposed to enjoy your work if that work is posing for stock photos.

Because apparently in the real world you’re only supposed to enjoy your work if that work is posing for stock photos.

But here’s the issue with that logic: I don’t make music because it’s fun or pleasurable or easy for me (it’s not), I make music because it’s a bodily function that I can’t resist any more than I can resist breathing.  I need to make noise – sometimes more than I need to eat; I’ve missed meals, appointments, sleep – all while deep in some weird zone of playing or writing or even booking shows.  It’s anything but a hobby.

And, contrary to popular belief, I’ve made more money making music than I have at any of the “real jobs” I’ve worked over the years.  Even while people were telling me it wasn’t a profitable career choice, I was filling the savings account that allowed me to move to Nashville and pay to work at various “real jobs” in the industry.  The craziest part of it was that I totally bought what people were telling me – that I couldn’t make money in music – even while I was cashing checks and counting the tips I made at gigs.

This isn’t to say I’m raking in the dough.  Right now I’m trying to reestablish my performance calendar after not gigging regularly for a couple years which takes time and patience.  But I sense that there is a million times more potential for growth and success making music than there was in a system that thrives on unpaid labor.  And at the end of the day, I’d rather go hungry for my own art than someone else’s.

You still can't eat passion, but you also can't eat

You still can’t eat passion, but you also can’t eat “college credit” so it’s not really a loss.

Now, talking about unpaid internships is a whole other blog post, but I have to say that I’ve had great experiences at all of the internships I’ve had.  I’d do every single one over again.  But there is something deeply flawed in a system that tells young people their work is worthless, that they don’t deserve to get paid for what they do.  Even pouring coffee and taking out trash.  We pay people for both of those roles: they’re called baristas and janitors.  “Experience” and “credit” don’t strike me as fair compensation, especially when the employers is directly benefitting from the intern’s work.  One of the events I arranged at Amoeba Records resulted in the on-site sale of 150 CDs.  If each CD was $10, that’s $1500 in sales in the space of two hours, but I never saw a cent and as a college graduate, credit doesn’t really mean anything to me anymore.

Look at all that

Look at all that “experience” she’s got there! Must be awful heavy!

I’m very fortunate to have the opportunity to attempt to live to work rather than work to live.  But whichever arrangement of those words works best for you, they all need to be present to be functional.  By this I mean, if you’re doing some kind of work, you should be making some kind of living.  For me, “experience” and “credit” don’t qualify as a living.  My utility company certainly doesn’t accept them as payment for my electric bill.

Apparently, they also refuse to accept IOUs.

Apparently, they also refuse to accept IOUs.

I guess, the ultimate moral of this story isn’t that unpaid internships are bad or “live to work” because not everyone is able to or enjoys living for their career.  The real moral is, listening to yourself is harder than it seems and incredibly important.  It can be challenging to differentiate the messages you’ve adopted from years of hearing them repeated and those that come from your true moral compass.  But once you sort the wheat from the chaff, you might be amazed by what you hear.

The Music Industry Is Full Of Desperate, Slutty Teens [and Other Misleading, Offensive Analogies]

In my last blog post, I indicted us all as consumers for not valuing and respecting musicians and their craft enough to invest money into it.  Today I’m calling out those of us in the music industry for being desperate, desperate sluts.

Honesty time: how many of you who are musicians have played for free or what winds up being less than the federal minimum hourly wage?  How many of you give CDs out for free?  All of you should have your hands up.  How many non-musicians have done this [excluding internships – musicians also do those and we’re even less likely to get paid for them than the rest of you]?  Would you do someone’s taxes for free?  Give their kid a set of braces?  Serve them a gourmet meal you went to culinary school to learn to make?

This is what a plate full of passion looks like.  We need to start getting compensated in cash, not

This is what a plate full of passion looks like. We need to start getting compensated in cash, not “exposure.”

Consumers don’t value our product, but how can they when we don’t seem to either?  The listener – whether that’s the public, a record label, a manager, or a publisher – is the senior quarterback.  His name’s Joey, he’s super hot and, like, everybody knows he never dates freshmen but we totally can’t stop thinking about him.  We – the musicians, labels, managers, or publishers – are the desperate freshman girl (or guy; there’s no right kind of love, even in a crass analogy).  We’re going to be called Becky.  We’re not super confident and way inexperienced, but so desperate for Joey’s sweet quarterback loving that we’ll gladly cash in our V-card on the delusional off-chance that sex will make him love us back.  If we had our head on straight, we’d recognize that that first time is very special and not something we can get back once it’s gone.  Also, Joey’s been making out with Tina behind the bleachers and she totally has his letterman jacket and everyone knows they’re going to end up together but he’s also a teenage boy of a rather lower moral caliber so he’s not going to turn down sex if we offer it.

Before we know it, we’ve given ourselves to Joey and he’s already hooking up with Tina again and isn’t even getting our name right when he sees us in the hallway between classes – if he acknowledges us at all.

“He called me Betsy!”

This is the music industry.  This situation is what happens every time we give our music out for free or sign a shitty deal with a publisher/manager/label because we’re so happy that they actually acknowledged us.

It’s time to get a grip, Becky.  Joey’s got zero emotional interest in you; he’s just in it for the cheap, awkward sex.

We give the public our music for free in the hopes that they’ll notice us, but they’ve moved on to the next desperate band trying to get followers before we can blink and you’ve made zero dollars or leverage-able connections in the process.  We sign a deal with a publisher that is going to leave us completely screwed in two years because we’re so excited that someone is acknowledging our talent we don’t bother to make sure they actually appreciate it as well.  A label makes their entire catalogue available free on streaming services – including smaller artists who can’t rely on an invested fanbase to cover the loss – because peer pressure, am I right, guys?

If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you?

Stole that joke from my mom.

Stole that joke from my mom.

I’m not saying that no music should be free.  Sometimes, giving it away is the best way to get your foot in the door.  But we’re not doing it intelligently anymore.  Everything is free.  We went from just trying to get Joey’s attention to doing the whole damn football team and it’s not very becoming.  We need revenue streams and we need to say what our art is worth and stick to our damn guns.  Remember, you’ve invested thousands of hours and dollars into your craft.  It’s worth something.

People are consuming more than ever.  Clearly music has importance to them.  We have a certain amount of power to say that that importance has a monetary parallel.

But that’s not an easy path to tread.  That V-Card is nonrefundable.  We may have put too much out there already.  The free nature of music and the ease of access has become this unwieldy Frankenstein’s monster that now seems to be controlling us rather than the other way around.

Take back the power, Becky!  You’re better than this!

Part of the issue is that we out-slut each other.  Case in point: Almost all of the bands on Broadway in downtown Nashville (and at plenty of venues around the country) are playing for tips and nothing else.  This isn’t always a bad thing; they have the potential to make hundreds a night in tips at certain spots on certain days.  But even waitstaff know that they’re at least getting a few bucks an hour, even if it’s a slow day or there’s a raging asshole convention in town that night and no one leaves a gratuity.  If those musicians don’t get any tips, they lose money at the end of the night.  But if one of these bands demands to get paid an hourly fee by the venue, the venue will just call up another band from the seemingly endless pool of desperate acts looking for a coveted spot on LoBro.

We’ve given into the every whim of the consumers, which in some ways is awesome and in other ways is fucking stupid.  Mostly stupid.  When everything is free, nothing has value.  It’s hard to manage the toddler-level temper tantrum that is digital piracy, but now the kid’s smearing shit on the walls and we’re complimenting him on his creativity.

Even the cheapest prostitute isn’t free.  Hookers don’t give away freebies to get “exposure.”  Guys, hookers have a better understanding of their value than many young (and not-so-young) musicians.

These ladies have better business acumen than many musicians.

These ladies have better business acumen than many musicians.

Music is incredible.  If you have a musical gift, you have one of the closest things to a super-power most of us will ever see.  You possess a special kind of magic.  It’s freaking amazing!  Remind people of that.  Maybe throw in that great fact I found for the last post about how you’ve spent more time on your craft than someone who’s just receiving their commercial pilot’s license has spent in an airplane (enjoy your friends’ and families’ sudden fear of flying).  When someone asks if you charge to play say “yes,” loudly and clearly and know what you charge.  Give some things away for free but make sure you’re getting something in exchange for every interaction – whether it’s money through a tip or a merch sale or an email address for a mailing list (a vague promise that they’ll like you on Facebook does not count; dignity, Becky, dignity).

This industry, unlike almost any other industry, has the most unforgiving “entry level” you can imagine.  “Entry level” in the music industry means either working in another industry while you attempt to launch your career or bleeding money, and it can take years to get past this point.  This has become the accepted norm, but we have the potential to change this.  For a true sea-change we’ll likely need a change in how our culture treats musicians, but we can be part of that process.

Let’s start by having business practices at least as good as those of your average hooker and move forward from there.