Confession is Good for the Ex-Catholic Soul

I’m pretty vague about my religious persuasions because, generally, I don’t see why it’s anyone’s business.  But for the sake of what I’m writing about today, I’ll give you a quick rundown: I was baptized Catholic, raised vaguely Unitarian Universalist by a man who runs a Buddhist mediation center and a woman with strong but private religious beliefs, practiced Wicca from about age 11-17, was generally agnostic through college (so unique, I know), started re-exploring Paganism and Druidry after graduation, and finally began attending UU services here in Nashville in conjunction with a couple Pagan circles I consistently join for holidays and full moons.  I don’t consider myself a Christian – nor do I have any interest in being converted, so please don’t waste any precious time you might spend with loved ones or passion projects attempting to help me find Jesus.  I found him, we met, nice guy, not my type.

This past Sunday morning when I arrived bleary-eyed to sing with the choir, I didn’t notice our music minister was wearing a collar.  In general, UU minsters don’t wear uniforms, and they definitely don’t wear the classic black button-down and white collar combo.  It wasn’t until after we had finished rehearsing that I realized he wasn’t in his normal suit.  I was instantly overwhelmed by flashbacks of excruciatingly long Easter masses and the even more awkward Easter brunches that always followed them.  (If you want to really ruin my life, I’m absolutely terrified of people in those mascot-style costumes; point being, the Easter Bunny was no friend of mine.)  His uniform made me feel so odd, I couldn’t bring myself to ask him about the sudden wardrobe update.  Somehow the question felt like it would be as clumsy as asking a woman if she’s pregnant.

I don’t have any negative feelings about Catholic priests.  If anything, Catholicism is such a part of my culture and my family that I deeply respect them.  One of the reasons I’ve enjoyed my exploration into Druidry, is the structural similarities between ritual and mass.  The flow and curvature of a Catholic service – even as the Christmas and Easter church-goers that we were when I was a kid – is familiar and comforting.  There is a sense that billions before me said the same words, raised the same prayers, and shared the same sorrows.  2000 years of the human search for connection with something greater lives, virtually unchanged, in the mass.  At the same time, the actual spirituality does nothing for me.  So I’m torn between having a pretty solid grasp and respect for the ritual but no emotional response to the content

.With all of that in mind, I was uncomfortable; but once the service started, the outfit made more sense.  The music minister (a former Franciscan brother) gave the sermon and the theme was confession.  Confession is pretty foreign concept in Unitarian Universalism; as the reverend mentioned in his sermon, we often think we’re a faith that is already forgiven.  I understand many struggle with Catholicism’s use of shame and guilt as motivators, and I think the definition of confessable sins is a bit broad.  But there have been moments where I wished I could sit in a booth, confess my faults, and be given a simple way to atone for them.  And I do think that there are some benefits to having a little bit of shame.  While I don’t believe in anything like original sin, I do think that we as humans can only briefly pause to be proud of our accomplishments before quickly resuming our journey towards a better, kinder way of being.

The content of the homily spoke to me deeply.  There’s immense power in acknowledging our wrongdoings and seeking to make amends.  But what rang truer to me was the sense that someone was finally speaking to my experience.  It was like hearing my native tongue for the first time in years.

When the closing hymn began, something felt strangely familiar about it, although I’d never heard the words before.  The notes at the bottom of the page explained why: it was poem set to a traditional Irish melody, a melody that I’ve played countless times before.

This is the point that I stated to cry.

I made a confession to myself in that moment: I left my community behind when I moved to Tennessee, and there is part of me that deeply regrets it.  Shadows of the smiling faces and rowdy Monday nights at the Green Briar full of the deafening, meditative hum of pipes and fiddles and whistles, the steady pounding of drums, flashed into my blurry vision.

I don’t think I will ever be Catholic again, but it is part of my culture.  Until I moved to Nashville, I had never heard anyone use the term “papist” outside of history book, nor had I heard anyone earnestly accuse said “papists” of not being Christians (which – seeing as they’re down with the whole Jesus thing – they definitely are).  I’ve found a wonderful Irish session here, but it’s less frequent and – for me – lacks the unbridled joy that poured out in that Boston pub.  The people who know me, who speak my truths, are 1200 miles away and – even three years into this journey – it tears at my heart.

Last year, I stood around an open grave with a few close family members in the freezing wind of New York, listening to priest none of us had met before speak about a man whose face he had never seen.  He said the same words he said over anyone he interred, the same words 1.2 billion other people will have said over their graves in countless languages.  In that moment, huddled together and struggling to cry through the cold, I felt the shades of my ancestors and the billion others before me that stood around the final, inglorious hole in the ground we all end in and found comfort in the same prayers.  It was the same feeling I had the first time I stood in a circle around a bonfire with the Druids and called out to the stars and the gods of my ancestors.  All around me, within me, above me were the echoes of all those human beings that came before, staring up at the sky and searching for the tiniest glimpse of divinity.

In those moments, when the weight of a billion souls pressed in on me, I felt stronger and more certain of myself than at any other point in my life.  I am the sum of all of them and one day I will be one of those echoes, standing at the elbow of my descendants, urging them forward.  Sitting around a long pub table every week and losing myself in ecstatic music making, smelling the sea air, watching people move to the rhythm of the seasons and tides – the sense of those who came before me was ever-present, not just limited to brief glimpses during one sermon or a lone ritual.

There’s also a deep sense of unwelcomeness here that I can’t quite shake.  During my childhood, a little more than half of my classmates would arrive to school with the telltale smudges on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday.  My Jewish friends would complain about not being able to have bread around Passover.  And now I live in a place where accusing people I hold dear – who hold their faith dear – of not being Christian isn’t a recipe for instant social repercussions.  I had never heard anyone seriously use the term “towel-heads” to refer someone who practices Islam before, while at the same time I’ve met more lovely, funny, warm Muslims in Nashville than anywhere I’ve ever lived.

I’m not saying that everyone in Nashville is bigoted, by any means.  The vast majority of people are friendly and accepting.  But the culture here doesn’t outright reject those kinds of judgements – particularly the religious based ones – the way it seemed to, at least in my community, back home.  That makes be incredibly uncomfortable.  My family emigrated to this country to leave behind a history of religious persecution, and now I’m paying taxes in a place that doesn’t seem nearly as horrified by terms like “papist” and “towel-head” as it should.  I’m paying taxes in a state that’s trying to pass anti-LGBTQ legislation and bills that change the state constitution to read that power comes from God (capital G included) not the state.

So what’s the point of all this rambling, all inspired by one man’s fashion statement?  I need to get back to my people.  One could argue that I should stay here and fight to make a more equitable society in Tennessee.  But, at the risk of sounding selfish, I’d like to live somewhere that feeds my spirit, and – even if Nashville suddenly became a totally welcoming liberal utopia – it’s not where my culture is.  All that said, I’m working on a two year plan to get back in some way, shape, or form to Massachusetts.  I feel lighter just knowing that I’m going home someday.

Confession really is good for the soul.

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Bare Bones: The Sound of One Heart

A few days ago I posted a video of my original song, “The Sound of One Heart,” on Youtube.  The video once again features Pete Jacobs on guitar and was recorded live in one take; no clever editing, lip syncing, or pitch correction (hence my audible struggles to sing and shaker at the same time).  I’m very proud of this performance and the composition – it’s one of my favorite pieces I’ve ever written.  If you haven’t seen it yet, you can watch below:

When I preform this live, I always tell the story behind it because it’s SO ridiculous.  Most of what I write doesn’t have nearly so interesting a tale, but this song…  If you haven’t been to one of my shows or seen a round I played in, I’ll share it with you now.  (If you’ve had to hear this story before, tough.)  The following is entirely true:

When I was a senior in college back in Boston I had a huge crush on a friend of mine.  I had a half-hearted relationship with an on-again-off-again boyfriend, but I was really into this other guy.  When the friend invited me to a concert he was playing a couple days before Thanksgiving, for some reason my brain interpreted that as “he totally has the hots for you,” so I dumped the poor guy I had been stringing along (don’t judge me; I was younger and I understand now that this was a selfish, douche-y thing to do) and took two buses to the concert which was being hosted in the unfinished basement of a really poorly maintained Elks Club in Cambridge.

My roommate was supposed to come with me, but she flaked.  This was fine, however, because I was about to find True Love.  I got there and bought a rusted can of PBR from a cooler carefully hidden under a box so the cops wouldn’t know they were selling alcohol out of their basement with no license, should any walk by.  I was politely asked to say I brought it myself if any police showed up; the Elks Club guy was very concerned about the cops which led me to believe he may have had a previous run-in with the law regarding rusted PBR cans.  I found my friend and watched a couple of the opening bands with him, heart all a-flutter.  Then he waved over a pretty brunette and introduced me to his new girlfriend.

I bought another rusted PBR.  Tetanus be damned.

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This looks safe.

That wonderful stroke of instant karma was probably well deserved, as devastating as it was.  I was suddenly a lot less cool with my roommate ditching.  My internal dialogue went from “no problem” to a string of cartoonish expletives.  It was fine, everything was fine.  I drank my tetanus beer and took some calming breaths and tried to keep the color out of my face while not being awkward hanging out with my crush’s new girlfriend (who’s roommates had, coincidentally, not ditched her).  I watched his band play while trying not to make direct eye contact with his date.  I was fine, it was fine, I was going to make it through.

Then I got a text from the friend who was supposed to drive me home the next day for Thanksgiving.  “Can you take a phone call?” she asked.  I stepped into the quiet[er] bathroom and gave her a call.  Her mother had had an accident, breaking her neck, and she was already driving to Connecticut to be with her in the hospital, so she couldn’t drive me home tomorrow.  This was my best friend who’s family I know well, so I completely understood and told her to drive safely and take care of her mom for me.  I was, however, suddenly faced with buying a $120 train ticket.  More slow deep breaths.  The night officially sucked but at least now I had a good excuse to leave.

I told my friend (and his new goddamn girlfriend – the only two people I knew at the event) that I needed to head home and buy a train ticket.  Home for me was about 2 miles away and it was late November in Boston, but I set out on foot, figuring that I would wait at a bus stop in a less shady area.  Part way to my bus stop of choice my phone rang again.  This time it was my little cousin, who was a freshman at the same school as me and he was very upset.  His roommate had been busted for dealing weed out of their dorm room and my straight-edge cousin was now on housing probation for not narking on his older, drug-dealer dorm-mate (although he had asked him to do his business elsewhere a couple times previously).  Apparently, our college was unfamiliar with the old folk-saying “snitches get stitches” and were penalizing him for not receiving the aforementioned stitches.

“What do I do?” he asked.

It was officially the worst night ever.  At that point, I decided to stomp the rest of the way home through the freezing, autumn night instead of waiting for the bus.  I pledged to my cousin that I would be at the housing hearing if he wanted me there and offered to either vouch for his honor or physically fight the RD, whatever seemed more effective at the time (surprisingly, he didn’t ask me to come).  By the time he was calm enough to get off the phone I was nearly home.  My pure, unbridled rage had managed to stave off the cold.  In fact, I was nearly in a furious sweat when I reached my neighborhood package store and bought a six pack.  I finished the entire thing (if you ever been drinking with me, you know two beers is usually my limit before I’m drunk), fell asleep to some angry dreams, and started writing this song the next day.

It took over a year to finish.  I brought it to every writing teacher I could think of, reworked it from bottom to top a couple dozen times, and left it alone for months just to pick it up for a couple days here and there.  It wasn’t until I started working it on guitar instead of piano and had truly fallen in love with someone else (obviously, that fateful night was worth it, because I have someone AMAZING now) that I had enough distance to finish the song.  I added the fictional narrative of two people who had already dated meeting again; their same-but-opposite experience felt very powerful to me, something that could touch a lot of listeners.  But those first two lines were drawn directly from my experience that night: “She averts her eyes / ’cause seeing them together is like staring at the sun.”  It took a little more reworking to get the same-but-opposite thing really happening in the pre-choruses, but it was worth the effort.  Here’s the lyric back-to-back:

Her hearts a bruise / And their laughter is a ringing in her ear / Nightmare come true / The radio’s blasting, but the only thing she hears…

He’s smiling too / With a pretty girl whispering in his ear / A dream come true / The radio’s blasting but the only thing he hears…

It wound up being a fun lyric to work on and helped make me see the whole experience in a better light.  Sometimes, adding that layer of distance and fiction to a real-life situation I’m writing about helps me process what I’ve gone through.  It’s one of the reasons I’m so lucky I can write – it’s truly a gift to have that added vehicle for understanding the world and my experiences in it.  Plus, retelling the events that led up to creation of the song helped me realize what a crazy, sit-com situation it was and has really helped me laugh at it.

Friends

I covered like a season’s worth of Friends plot material in one night.

As for the recording, it started with me throwing guitar picks around the room in frustration.  Going into it, I was determined to play all the instruments myself and film it at the same time.  This did not go well.  Take after take after take failed to live up to my expectations and, as I began to realize that I would not be able to do it myself, I got really angsty.  I’ve been working on my guitar skills like it’s my job (because it is) but I still struggle, and it can be very disheartening to have it thrown into stark relief the way trying to play to a click does.  Luckily Pete – who was filling the role of cameraman, engineer, and producer – saved the day by offering to jump in and play.

And it wound up being as simple as that.  One take with the camera running all the way through.  No overdubs or fussing.  Yeah ,there’s a shadow over my face but it was such a great, natural take.  We just played – no headphones, just the sound of the room – and it sounded just like I had envisioned but couldn’t bring to life on my own.  I live for those moments where I have a musical experience with another person like that.  It’s one of the reasons I keep doing it.

I hope you enjoyed listening, watching, and reading the inside scoop on the entire thing as much as I enjoyed creating it all!  Look forward to more inside scoops like this and general content coming soon.

Peace and love.

Bare Bones: “Like That”

Last night, after days and days of delay, I posted a guitar/vocal demo of my song “Like That.”  I’ve been playing it out for a couple months now and it’s quickly become one of my favorite originals to perform.  If you haven’t seen the video (and would like to), you can check it out below.

First, let’s talk about the song itself.  It is not about my relationship, although I have been in relationships where I was the one under and over invested.  The first couple times I played this for friends, they politely asked how my relationship with Attractive Young Man was going, faces creased with with concern.  Things are great, guys; all’s quiet on the home front.

Singer-songwriters sometimes document their own lives through their writing and we often expect that the content someone is performing is drawn directly from their experiences.  A lot of what I write and perform does come from this place.  This song, however, comes from a conversation I overheard another couple having.  I didn’t choose the second person to distance the singer from what she’s saying, I chose it because the vocalist has a purely voyeuristic role in the situation.

I was hanging out with a group of people I didn’t know terribly well and we were cutting up a bit.  The woman in this couple tells the man, giggling, that she doesn’t love him, clearly intending it to be a joke.  Of course, this was not funny and he got pretty understandably pissed off.  But beyond just being mad that there are chairs with a better sense of humor than his significant other, it was clear that this struck a nerve with him because he worried it might be true.

I didn’t know these people very well and – after that awkward moment – didn’t seek them out again.  But that little vignette struck me.  I’ve been with someone who didn’t love me as much as I loved them and I’ve been the one who couldn’t give their heart away.  The pain in that guy’s face, the insecurity and the heartache; it was difficult not to empathize.  And she didn’t seem to get it, which is what inspired the bridge.  We all have our own way of loving and showing love; and the level of importance we assign to others, their feelings, and our relationships with them differs as well.  From that interaction, I got the distinct sense that she may not feel as strongly about anything as he did; their value systems might be intrinsically different.

Again, I didn’t know these folks and haven’t seen them since.  For all I know, she may have grown to “love him like that” or they may have broken up or the may be living miserably-ever-after.  One of the coolest things about songwriting, is that I got to take this one snapshot and extrapolate a whole story from it.  My assessment of their relationship might have been completely off (maybe they have some weird, kinky thing where they hurt each others feelings and then have crazy sex), but it’s my prerogative as a writer to fictionalize the situation.  I’ve never been in their bedroom and hope to gods I never will be, but I can make up a scene where he wakes up beside her and realizes she doesn’t love him.  Plus, I think it’s something we’ve all needed to hear before: “She (or he) doesn’t love you the way you love her (or him) and you may want to move on before it kills you.”  Or maybe it’s something we’ve needed to say but can’t work up the nerve to spit out (which might be why people worried this was me trying to dump by boyfriend via musical number): “I can’t love you like you need; please leave me so I don’t break your heart.”

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“If you could just dump yourself, that’d be great.”

So now you know where the song came from.  As far as the recording goes, it was series of errors.  I’ve only been playing guitar for about two and a half years and, although I’ll begrudgingly self-accompany live, I haven’t committed my instrumental mediocrity to film before.  I’m still learning and it frustrates me to be so much less competent on guitar than I am with my singing and songwriting.  So actually getting a take that I was happy with was a huge headache.  On top of this, I was serving as audio engineer and film director in addition to my role as artist.

After an hour or two I finally had a take that I liked and quickly mixed the audio before going to sync it with the video that I had simultaneously recorded.  Apparently there was a warp in space-time, because the video was a few fractions of a second slower than the audio even though they were captured at the same time and remained in the same key.  This was, unfortunately, an unfixable issue so I cursed the wasted hours and recorded it again the next day.

The next day, I tried to dress and do my makeup the same as I had the day before since I had posted a teaser photo.  I borrowed a nicer camera to hopefully avoid the whole wormhole conundrum and took a couple takes, including some different angles to hopefully cut into a more exciting video than just one continuous shot of me sitting with a guitar.  Thinking I had gotten what I needed, I downloaded the videos and cut together a new version of the demo.

And then I noticed there was lipstick.  All.  Over.  My. Teeth.  In every shot.

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Like this, but worse.

The day after that, I employed Pete (Attractive Young Man’s secret identity) to operate the camera, gave up on recreating the same outfit a third day in a row, and completely opted out of lipstick.  Third time was the charm and that’s the version that ultimately went on the web – three days after I said it would.  I may have ruined the song for myself and my next-door neighbor definitely never wants to hear it again.  But it’s up!  And you get a couple great shots of my office.  I have a fun blue wall, life’s great, I never want to record this song again…

But seriously, I’m happy with how this came out and I hope you all enjoy it as well, along with the little sneak peek into the writing and recording process.  Every song has it’s own unique, weird journey and this one has a better story behind it than some.

Peace and love, guys!  See with you some more content after the holidays!

The Rise of the Bard: Part 1

If you’ve read some of my other posts about the music industry, you’ll know I have some strong – and mildly fatalistic – views on where the business is headed.  For the most part, I’ve spoken about why we’re all doomed because the same too-close-for-comfort perspective that let’s me speak to the current state of the business means that my views are pretty emotionally driven.  It’s my day-to-day life, my career, and – as much as I’d like to be academic in my views – it is deeply personal to me.  When it feels like your industry is collapsing around, it can be hard to visualize what comes next or what will survive the massive paradigm shift.

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Basically, I’ve been channelling my inner Chicken Little and shouting about the sky falling.

It’s a bit like watching an avalanche come down a mountain towards your town.  Will your house survive the impact?  What will be left of it?  Will you make it?  Why did you build a house on this stupid mountain anyway?  But mostly you’re probably filled with the wordless, pants-shitting fear that all creatures share when facing impending doom.  You don’t worry what your property taxes are going to be next year or how you’ll rebuild in that moment; you’re too busy doing the mental math on your chances of survival.

But recently I’ve seen some incredible musicians getting out there and doing it and some of my avalanche-induced terror is subsiding.  Let’s face it, even if there’s still a couple snowballs rolling down the hill, the town’s already buried.  The music industry is a gaunt shadow of it’s former glory.  We’re seeing the last, desperate throws of a dying beast.  Labels are manufacturing pretty-but-unartistic “artists” with songs and careers that aren’t meant to have longevity.  Material gets pumped out as quickly as possible because they need to make as much money off of it as they can before the well finally dries up.  I’ve heard plenty of people of all ages complain about the quality of material that’s currently dominating radio.  Is it so surprising that folks aren’t spending their money on music any more?

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For example, Fifth Harmony’s song “Worth It'” has a second verse that’s so poorly written, English professors across the nation clutched their chests in pain when it hit the radio.  Seriously, Google the lyrics.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the problem with the music industry isn’t the music, it’s the industry.  Labels and radio used to serve as a sort of filter.  They were the gate-keepers and taste-makers that found the best of the best and brought them to the populous so that consumers didn’t have to do the sorting themselves.  This isn’t to say that there haven’t always been shallow, nepotistic practices within these systems.  Just look at the disgusting practice in the 50’s and 60’s of having white artists cover black music to make it “suitable” for white audiences.  But I would argue that things have skewed even farther towards the shallow end of the pool, if – hopefully – for less racially motivated reasons.

One of the biggest issues facing both consumers and artists is that the filtration systems of radio and record label are broken.  It may be the single biggest issue in the business today.  The distribution and renumeration systems are dated in a way that will not ironically come back into fashion in twenty years.  Rather than fixing this problem, our filters have chosen to lower product quality.  We have some incredibly talented artists like Adele or Hozier breaking through, but we have a lot more that are developed not because of a talent or creativity that brings something special to the scene, but because their physical appearance and/or backstory are marketable.  It’s no longer about music, it’s about pure profit.

As much I would like it to happen tomorrow, I suspect it will take a few more years before this system finally breaths its last, and it may never completely die but rather reinvent itself.  Even though we’ve seem mediums (i.e.: vinyl, tape, CD, mp3) evolve over the decades, this is a young industry and it has yet to be faced with a paradigm shift of this magnitude: it’s product (i.e.: recorded music) losing the majority of its value.  Perhaps we’ll see companies like LiveNation that handle ticketing and touring take more of a “filter” role as profits shift from record sales to live shows.

But at the end of the day, we’re still faced with the issue of the broken filter.  There are a lot of catch 22’s to overcome as you start in the music business and one of the biggest is getting past the gate-keepers of the industry to actually get heard.  Many of these large corporations can feel inaccessible and insurmountable to the DIY solo artist.  If these companies are mostly beneficial to that top tier of artists – largely associated with a label of some sort – it doesn’t really help new, genuinely different music get heard any more than record labels or radio do.

So what do we do?  We work outside of these systems.  More and more – at least in Nashville – I’m seeing solo singer-songwriters or duos touring, just them and their guitar.  This isn’t a new thing; artists have followed this model for the last several decades, if not the last several centuries.  To put it through a romantic lens, we’re seeing the rise of the modern day bard.  And there are some incredibly talented musicians making a living doing this.

Broken filters and out-dated business models might kill the industry, but they won’t kill the music.  These modern bards are picking up a mantle that has existed for ages.  Musicians have historically been tradespeople, middle-class artisans that weren’t rolling in money but were sustaining themselves.  Although we’ve had celebrity musicians for centuries (Liztomanio isn’t just a word the band Phoenix made up as a cool song title), it has by-and-large been a middle class profession.  In the past few decades, we’ve seen the musical middle class shrink dramatically and in the last century recording artists have gained a level of celebrity to rival – and, in some cases, surpass – that of political and social figureheads.  This hasn’t elevated the industry as a whole any more than Walmart has helped local, family-owned businesses.

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In case you forgot, this is what Walmart did to locally-owned chains.

Those of us who choose to reject the Walmarts of music will walk a hard road, but it’s one that’s been traveled by thousands of years of kindred spirits.  And the more that choose to walk this path, the better the music that survives the journey and makes it to the public will be.  You can build a career on crap when you have a multi-million dollar marketing team behind you; but when you’re relying on your own talent and business savvy to engage people, you need to have a genuinely great product.  There are artists that have become mainstream that did just that and I think this number will increase as the major players in the industry either catch-wise or fail.

As far as I can tell, I have the best job security in the business.  I’m working towards creating a product that won’t require clever marketing to engage people; I can stand in any venue and tell stories that will touch a soul or a play a groove that makes people tap their feet and I don’t need someone to auto-tune it into listenability; heck, I don’t even need to rely on someone else to write content for me.

Towards the end of my college career, I began to get the first inklings of the avalanche-fear and it only grew as I sat in at internships in the business side of the industry.  But roles like managers, publishers, and distributors are relatively new and rely on a system that may or may not be part of history by the time my future children are entering the work force.  I’m picking up the mantle of the musician, the story-teller, the bard that millennia of artists have worn before me and will wear after I’m gone.  I am both the creator and deliverer of content and it’s that content that will survive any cataclysm.

You can kill the business but you can’t kill the music.  Long live the bard.

Check back soon for part two, where I talk about why solo artists are on the rise and delve more into the new Age of the Bard.

Hometown Tourism

I’m one of the many twenty-somethings that have ventured far afield from the nest.  My condo is precisely 1,138 miles from my parents’ house and I’m acutely aware of the distance as the season changes and the holidays approach.  It’s not as far as my friends who headed off to Los Angeles or the many Aussie ex-pats I’ve met here in Nash Vegas (I’ve met a lot of Australians since moving here), but it’s a different time zone, a different climate, and a pretty different culture than where I grew up.

In college, Boston seemed far enough.  At the time, my family still lived in Connecticut, right on the New York border and – as a Yankees fan – I was suddenly living in the heart of enemy territory.  The accent was dramatically different to my tender Tri-State ears and it was my first time living in a city.  At eight-teen, it felt like a paradigm shift, like a different world.

Nashville, on the other hand, is in an entirely different region of the country.  This is a dramatically different accent.  At a party the other day, a guy was telling me how he’d ditched his West Tennessee accent for an East Tennessee accent when he moved in an effort to sound more local.  I nodded knowingly, but I seriously can’t tell the difference.  To me, you either sound less Southern or more Southern, but I couldn’t tell you where you were actually from.  I imagine this is how the rest of the country feels about Boston, New York, and New Jersey accents.  My mother can tell you what Borough someone is from with just one conversation.  I’d joke about the painfully slow Maine drawls I would hear at my telemarketing job in Boston.  Attractive Young Man is very particular about how far Up- or Downstate other New Yorkers sound.  Here, no one cares.  I’m that guy at the party.  To everyone here, I just sound Northern.

Returning home last week, I was more aware than I have ever been of everyone’s speech.  Growing up, I had always considered my town to have a neutral accent.  Now, with the longview of distance and maturity, I can confidently say holy shit we have an accent.  And it is not neutral.  I can’t imagine how jarring it must seem to someone who’s unaccustomed to it.  I can’t imagine how foreign actual New Yorker’s must sound to natives of literally anywhere else.  Well, I can, because – after a year and a half in the South – it’s fairly jarring, even to me.

A large portion of the residents of my corner of Southwest Connecticut (which is basically just New-York-Lite) are NYC and Long Island ex-pats.  We’re only an hour-and-a-half to two hours out of the city, which is considered close enough for a daily commute to many people who want the luxury of semi-rural, suburban living without giving up their urban job.  Many never completely lose their accent nor stop identifying as New Yorkers.  The accent, the dialect, and the culture are a stark contrast to Nashville’s subtle twang and southern demureness.

But I expect that contrast when I go home now, and I’m dissappointed when I don’t get it – the way someone visiting Hawaii from Minnesota would be disappointed if it snowed on Oahu.  I want to hear the accent, I expect it to be bracingly cold in November, and I’ll be damned if I don’t get some good Jewish deli food.  Last winter, the North East had a fairly warm holiday season and I was majorly pissed off.  I think the bitterness radiating off me was so intense it caused the Snowpocalypse that hit New England later in the season.  I created my own El Nino effect through the power of crushed dreams.

It’s a kind of hometown tourism.  I want my town to be so extremely my town that it’s practically a caricature of itself when I visit, just as visitors to Nashville expect cowboy boots, honky-tonks, and a Country star on every corner.  The streets should be dripping with New England charm.  The trees should either be exploding with vibrant autumnal color or blanketed in snow – nothing in between.  It should looked unchanged and yet more distinctly itself than it has ever looked.  The same faces should be in the windows of the same houses, wearing an expression that says “Welcome to scenic Ridgefield!”  Everything should be obtusely and picturesquely “Ridgefield.”

Since Ridgefield is fairly obtuse and very picturesque, this isn’t hard to accomplish.  From time to time, I find it less than up to my ridiculous standards (usually due to weather or foliage), but mostly going back is a nice break from reality for me.

And that’s the root of it: my reality isn’t my home-town anymore.  Is it still really my home even?  I approach it the same way any tourist would.  I want the highlight reel, the condensed soup version of it all, the manicured and curated edition.  It’s still an essential part of who I am; attending my high school reunion made me realize that I saw the same kids in my classes from the first day of kindergarten until I graduated high school.  The people and places and culture of the place shaped me.  But it’s like visiting a memory or walking through my past.  It’s vivid, but I can’t quite touch it and it grows a little more distant with every year that passes.

With that bitter-sweet thought, I pass the mic to my fellow young people. Do you feel this way if you’ve moved away from your hometown?  Do you feel this way if you still live in your hometown?  Do you get that same eerie feeling of standing in the past when you head home?  Let me know in the comments or on Facebook.

Peace and love.

 

My Dirty Secret

You guys should sit down; I have some potentially shocking information to share with you.  I know it’s hard to tell just by looking at me, but I’m a nerd.  It’s difficult to believe, I know, what with my Game of Thrones cookbook and beer collection and my replica of the One Ring (which is usually reserved only for cool kids) and the way I cancel social events to play video games, but it’s true.  I’m a bonafide geek.

This is my spirit animal. [Image courtesy of RetroPlanet.com]

This is my spirit animal. [Image courtesy of RetroPlanet.com]

I used to be really insecure about it.  Apparently, popularity in high school is inversely proportional to how many Douglas Adams books you own minus the number of times you’ve read the Lord of the Rings preface through appendixes.  Then divide by how many limited edition box sets you have in your collection.  But now I accept it as just another part of who I am.  When I left that weird little bubble that was going to a high school in the town that inspired Stepford Wives, I realized that there’s a whole wide world out there that’s totally okay with who I am.

The J.Crew logo was a popular tattoo option at my high school.

The J.Crew logo was a popular tattoo option at my high school.

More importantly, what I’ve learned as I’ve matured and grown into my own skin is that my being okay with who I am is more important than other people’s opinion of it.  Interestingly, the more okay I am with the fan-fiction I write and the hours I spend watching Let’s Plays on Youtube [if you don’t know what a Let’s Play is, you need to get on my level], the more others seem to accept it.  Even when I tell people that I did a LARP (or Live Action Role Playing event, for the uninitiated), people were curious and enthusiastic when I spoke about it openly and matter-of-factly.  I guess you could call it “confidence.”  Growing up, I never imagined I would be able to call myself “confident” since I’ve always been painfully shy (which is a post in itself) and a bit uncomfortable in my own body.

I suppose I’m really more of a geek than a nerd (although my Youtube subscriptions do include science channels in addition to makeup how-to’s and video games – and nothing else).  I’m a fan of a lot of things, and a fairly passionate one.  I started knitting chain into jewelry to channel my love for all things medieval-fantasy.  The Sims (which admittedly lessens my overall nerd-cred) has gotten almost as much money from me as my music career.

The Sims….  That’s a bit of an addiction actually.  I’ve been trying to write a post specifically about the Sims and my crippling need for it for months now, but then I just wind up playing the game for hours instead.  I lose whole days to it.  Last night, I sat eating chips while my Sim went jogging.  I’m working on broke, but my Sim is making $67 an hour!  As a rock star.  Who also owns a bakery.  She’s super cool.  She never goes out in sweatpants like I do.

These little lines of code live more than I do.

These little lines of code live more than I do.

I suppose to fully integrate my geek-doms I should make my LARP character on the Sims and have her live with the entire cast of Game of Thrones while Doctor Who plays in the background and I struggle my way through The Silmarillion.  But unfortunately my HDMI cable isn’t long enough to reach the TV from the couch so I can either play computer games or watch TV, and never the twain at once.  What a tragedy.

But at the end of the day, the takeaway from all of this is be who you are and own it.  That made all the difference for me and it’s why I’m coming out of the nerd closet where I keep all my game discs and that one table-top game I own.  Don’t be embarrassed about your fandom or passion.  If you write poetry then be proud that you write poetry!  If you can name every kind of dinosaur known to man, good on you!  If you’re into Furries, that’s… great?  But if it’s what makes you happy and it isn’t harming anyone else, why should you be anything but enthusiastic about it?

Trust me – geek is the new chic.

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.