stephaniesĭd was asked by Terpsicorps Theatre of Dance to improvise some songs as part of a fundraiser for their summer series. Their dancers improvised with us. Bowling ensued. This “song”, tentatively titled “Maybe Foxes”, happened.
When we become aware of terrible things in the world, we get scared.
But we might not know we’re scared, because our adult minds have worked very hard to replace scared feelings with angry feelings, which feel more manageable. And when we take our anger a step further and band together with other angry people, we end up talking a lot about what we don’t want, and less about what we do.
So then you have a lot of really scared people together, wearing anger suits, and so no one can fully reach each other to help take care of each other’s spirits, to help each other tune into our true voices and grow in our abilities to transform scared feelings to brave ones…because we’re too busy talking about how to get rid of the thing that we’re scared about.
We must take care of ourselves. We can be honest. We can take the time to listen to our own inner voices–and allow them to amplify. We can believe that our friends and family are resilient and adamantly creative, and rather than don an anger suit on their behalf when they are scared, we can direct them to their own inner selves, which at that moment are speaking to them with more clarity than we can ever possibly give them.
People will continue to do terrible things. Some folks are so stitched in to their anger suits that they can scarcely recognize their own voices. And it would seem that they could crush us.
But they cannot.
They are, simply…scared.
It’s an emotional day. I can’t talk about details–it’s too much. I assure you all persons in my life (including me) are healthy and whatnot. But I had to say that to give you a context for why this BBC podcast about the song “Hallelujah” packs so much power for me in this moment:
(If you can’t play the audio from here, go to this link.)
The whole episode is wonderful and well worth a full listen (about 30 min), but the synopsis is that Leonard Cohen’s heartbreaking song, which he put on a record in 1984, was not only rejected by his record company, but was ignored for 7 years until John Cale recorded it, and still didn’t fully burrow into souls until Jeff Buckley heard that cover and covered it, in 1991.
The song, even played in snippets in the background, slayed me today. And may also be saving me. Like the man says in the episode, “…to really love some one is a true test of one’s deepest self….what love does is… it just shatters you… it just breaks you apart. And that’s not a bad thing.” From my state of excruciating emotional pain, “Hallelujah” has taken me to a larger place, with a view I couldn’t imagine in the minutes before listening. The pain is not gone. I’m just aware that it’s understood now, by something bigger than me, by every atom in the universe. That’s what’s saving me. And if not for Jeff Buckley’s cover of a cover, I would never have had this moment.
A person who has an impulse to cover a song does so from a different perspective than the original songwriter. The covering artist first has an emotional experience with the song as a whole creation, connecting on such a level that they are impelled to bring it to life through their own body and voice. And in this way, there is no second-guessing. The episode explains how Leonard Cohen was tortured by the song for years – how he kept writing verses (80 of them) to try to get it right, even after he released “Hallelujah” on his album in 1984. I know this feeling. I’ve made attempts to put “Lonely in Manhattan” on, maybe, 4 albums. I’ve rewritten parts. I can’t get it right. I overthink it. Is this the right word? Does that say what I mean? Does going minor on that part of the bridge undermine the whole thing? Am I a fraud? What does a song matter in the world, anyway? Sometimes we songwriters put a tortured song on an album anyway, perhaps with the same weak hope of people in a troubled relationship who decide to have a baby. Maybe that’s what Leonard did. And luckily, someone else (John Cale) heard the faint call that Leonard’s version was emitting, and amplified it. And even luckier, young Jeff Buckley heard the amplified call amidst the early 90’s radio din, and tag-teamed for the finish. The cover artist knows the song is powerful. So that person is free of the headbanging in hotel rooms, wadded up napkins, failed recordings. The cover artist can let the song penetrate them, and sing it back to the world, with only celebration in mind. And in that way, the cover artist can make the song better. I’m pretty sure that’s what Jeff Buckley did.
I released my first album in 2003. I’ve made 5 of them since. There are sleeper songs on all of my records. Songs I love, but that have not been embraced. Maybe I pulled a Leonard and didn’t frame those in the right light, so they could really be experienced. Dunno. But to anyone who feels a spark with one of my songs, current or past, and is hesitant about making it their own: do it. Most of our stuff you can license through Creative Commons anyway (and for the material that’s not, your cover will kick my ass to get organized on that front).
Every time I write a song, I want it to be heard. Any songwriter who disagrees with that statement is probably lying. And I’m less attached than ever to the notion that my performances of my songs are the best that can be done. So bring it. Thank you for listening, and thank you to BBC, Leonard C, John C, and Jeff B for exalting my experience today to something that borders on … beauty.
Every parent must face the day when a child, of her own volition, chooses a path; when innocence is replaced with a knowing-of-the-world, when wide-eyedness squints into salacious desire to explore the underbelly of existence. Today is that day.
“Hey Hey Hey”, born in 2007 (yes, now age 8–don’t judge–song lives can be roughly measured in dog years, SO HA), makes yet another onscreen appearance… this time in horror video game Until Dawn, for Sony Playstation 4 (PS4, for those in the know).
Benefits to the family: 1) the Sony people paid us some money. 2) there are voracious gamers all over the globe who are now googling “Hey Hey Hey.” Some of them are buying Grus americanus. 3) Until Dawn is being called a “game-changer” by Paste Magazine, Forbes, Huffington Post and some other bigwigs for allowing players more control of the game’s outcome than previous offerings in its genre. That’s cool.
So go, dear one – be the levity amidst the murderous gore. Be the flirty soundscape for a snowball fight between attractive characters. Use what you got, girl.
We…got…somethin’…. there’s somethin’… there’s somethin’ here.
I was raised to look at all sides. From as far back as I can remember, I’ve been eager to entertain every possible style of life, emotion, and perspective. When I was small and asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I had a list that grew with every telling, as I learned of new occupations: ballerina, truck driver, doctor, teacher, court reporter, optometrist, psychiatrist, circus trainer, bride (that last one’s for real–and I would later appreciate the accuracy of including wifing in a job list). I was an early actor: I could picture myself–and regularly practiced picturing myself–in every emotional scenario: crying at my own wedding, ordering employees around, sighing to the heavens while hang gliding, storming down a neighborhood street after being scoffed by some idiot at school (rendering me, to the slightly younger boys on my street, a hot and unapproachable older chick with complex problems). When I was 6 or so, living in Colorado Springs and having learned about The Diary of Anne Frank, I placed myself inside the godawful vision of a house being invaded by Nazis. I knew, clearly, that I would say to one of the nicer-looking ones, “I just want to be your friend,” and he would know that someone cared about him, and then he would soften and leave my house, kind of reluctantly, like in The Sound of Music.
Early empathy. A lot of perspective-taking. A lot of objectivity. This served me well, I think, for a long time. My mom, for all her practicality and busyness with the task of keeping us out of poverty, liked to dream with me. As I write, I’m struck with the thought that she might have doubted her ability to put nuts and bolts to these dreams, and/or was simply more interested in the dreaming as an activity in itself than in seeing a vision actualize. But we tended to dream generally and broadly, asking, “…wouldn’t it be neat to…?” be wealthy, live in Europe, ride around in space cars of the future. I spent a lot of my teenage years in Abilene, TX, dreaming with friends on their waterbeds while listening to The Smiths, or on the hood of a car by some abandoned railroad tracks we’d trespassed to.
There were classes at my public school that were ostensibly designed to lend some grip to these visions of the future, but despite my high marks, I didn’t really grip back. I kept knowledge abstract. I don’t think I really saw the act of dreaming as the beginning of something. It was an end in itself… a really fun escape. A method of testing out intellectual theories. Content for flirting. Now, I know a bunch of 16-year-olds who are really making stuff happen. And I think there were kids around me who were doing that at my school. In fact, I know they were, because the second a lot of my friends graduated, they went on (from a school system ranked 49th in the nation) to become their dreams (fyi, there are 50 states in the nation). But for me, the jump from theory to manifestation remained kind of… intimidating, maybe? Yes, I think so. But also, I didn’t really want to make the jump. I loved Possibilityland–I was good at living there. As I was with ex-boyfriends, I didn’t want to leave behind anything. Everything is valuable, beautiful. And to set about dream-manifesting is to choose, to focus, to show partiality. Aiee.
Going to college was presumably the time one started to do something about all this dreaming. I went to school twice–once in San Antonio (B.S. in Psychology), once in Chapel Hill, NC (Master of Social Work). These are the most general degrees I can possibly think of. My brain must have been going, “Yeah, you don’t have to choose anything. Just think more about how to think!” I wouldn’t trade my work in that field for anything–I am a meta-thinker and I love the hell out of knowing more about who I am by studying who everyone is. But it is that very drive–to know who I am–that has recently, perhaps belatedly, led me to desire to specialize.
stephaniesĭd has been my vehicle for understanding what is me, apart from what is everyone else. Every time put myself in a highly focused situation, like practicing a difficult vocal passage, or confronting a songwriting dilemma, or performing for a pin-drop room vs. a chatty one, or summoning the bravery to contact a certain producer, I get to observe my own behavior in that situation. It’s only when I’m that focused, over the semi-long term, such that one specific necessary task leads to another, that I can notice and be surprised by my own fears, turn-ons, skills, and weaknesses. That’s the absolute best. It’s like this addictive elixir that propels me forward, at the rate I choose to focus. And I have to be partial–subjective, not objective–to do this. This often means treating my own opinions as cold hard facts, at least as far as my own pathmaking goes. For instance (be warned), on this last tour, I stopped singing during the show in 2 different cities, because a few people were talking loudly. I get that people like to be social. That’s the objective thing. But I also want to sing my words and melody for people. That’s the subjective thing. I decided that “music is meant to be heard” was going to be my fact. This is a game-changer. If I stay in Possibilityland, objective and abstract and inclusive, I spout a lot of love and “peace” but miss opportunities for real understanding. When you choose something, you choose away from something else. That’s just the way it is. But the rewards of taking a comb though a focused path are enormous, and actually make Possibilityland a more vivid place to visit when you return.
P-land is my hometown. I return there often. But now, in my travels, each time I reach a crossroad, I declare a major.
This morning I read my favorite blogger Maria Popova’s brilliant post in honor of Oliver Sacks’ birthday, wherein she quotes and interprets Sacks’ account of a harrowing and defining life-death struggle he once had on a Norwegian fjord. He recalls his workaround for ambulating with a newly mangled leg, using his three good limbs. After some time, he finds a rhythm, aided by a song he sang to keep pace. He says, “I no longer had to think about going too fast or too slow. I got into the music, got into the swing, and this ensured that my tempo was right. I found myself perfectly co-ordinated by the rhythm – or perhaps subordinated would be a better term: the musical beat was generated within me, and all my muscles responded obediently.”
Maria reminds us of Nietsche’s concurring observation: we “listen with our muscles.” I’ll third that. Especially this morning.
I have a delicious morning walk ritual. It’s a simple walk, not even very long, and always along the same path, but my usual boredom around sameness is somehow transmuted on these walks by their sheer… not sameness. Every single day is different. I follow the slow change of the seasons, smell the unique smell of each day, act as city-monitor, pulse-feeler, humidity-interpreter, animal whisperer, birdwatcher, dog-conjurer. And this same-but-different daily structure allows me to grok my own pulse. How I feel in response to a wave from a stranger, how I respond to a squirrel’s frozen pose 6 feet away–how I’m vibrating internally–becomes clear over the course of the journey: “I’m kind of sad.” or “I can’t believe how all this is here for me!… these birds, this air to breathe…” or “I’m sore from weeding yesterday.” or “I don’t want to be around people right now.” or “People are amazing!… every face is like biological art!”
Usually I turn on music when I begin the walk. I pick what I want to hear before I start. Or sometimes I put the player on shuffle, if I’m feeling open (I have so many thoughts on the mysteries of iTunes shuffle. But that’s for another post). But today my mind must have been racing, because I forgot to turn the music on, and when I remembered and Tears for Fears’ “Shout” began its percussive intro, my body responded. My muscles processed that song. My gait changed, my arms swung with authenticity, my neurons chilled out, and a sort of syrupy rhythm conducted me through that block. I’m aware this isn’t a rocket-science discovery, and this cause-and-effect relationship was top of my brain, having just read Maria’s post… but definitively, pre-song vs. post song was night-and-day, and this shift had the effect of crystallizing my understanding of my role as a musician.
One big block of thought came to me, and I’m now interpreting it: that I am a crafter and interpreter of vibration, that I am myself a ball of vibration, that all humans and all things are vibration, that I must feel internally what I wish to express externally in order for there to be any genuineness (alignment) to my work, that what is aligned is strong, that what is misaligned is ok too because its identification can lead to alignment, and that if I am a crafter and interpreter of vibration, being myself made of vibration, I cannot for one second pretend that my inner vibrations cannot be felt by the muscles and guts of others. I cannot effectively sing about one thing and be feeling another. It won’t carry. We are always singing about what we’re feeling… there’s no way not to. We’re always being just what we are.
Wearing a song like a costume is never a convincing effort. The listener will, in the end, understand more about the performer (on a level that Robert Heinlein might call grokking), but the misalignment between the performer’s inner world and the outward “message” muddles things, and leaves the listener feeling deceived. So the listener isn’t moved by the performance. The listener may like it, but only to the extent that our brains can tell a good story about why we should like it (“All my friends dig this; this is what cool people are listening to”; or “This is complex. Not everybody gets it. I feel clever when I hear this and tell other people about it”). That liking might be very strong, but it’s a brain-liking, not a whole-body liking. It doesn’t have the capacity to affect a worldview, usher an emotion through its full course, compel a person to dance alone. But if the performer is truly aligned with the song, as if the song were a porous skin that allowed all inner vibration to join it and all combined vibration to escape, you hear all of that person, in their imperfection and humanity and idiosyncracy, which unlocks all of that in the listener.
There are days when I want to hide parts of myself. Thankfully, though, I have a job that encourages showing up fully. So when I get an “Arrr… I don’t wanna go to work” feeling, it comes not from being in a place of relaxation and resisting labor, but from being in a place of labored resistance and fearing true relaxation. And my job at that point is not to “suck it up”, but to open, allow, breathe, slow down. Only then can I interpret the full spectrum of my vibration, and render a complimentary one to sing.
Why I Used to Do Everything
I guess it’s because, from my vantage point, it’s the way things have always been done. Indie bands are DIY people — we play mini-CEO’s as well as every employee: poster-hanger, tshirt designer, merchandise hocker, accountant, booker, negotiator, and when we decide we’ve hit critical mass and must hand off some of these jobs to other people, we turn into business-to-business salespeople. Oh, and we’re songwriters and performers. And actors in videos. And interviewees. And public speakers. We have jobs. I’ve been like the female version of Steve Jobs. Stephanie Jobs.
We do all these jobs because we think we are the best at doing these jobs. By “we”, I mean me, my band members, most indie bands, most people working on a tiny and unreliable budget. Only we truly know what we’re trying to say, what layout on a poster really conveys our soul’s mission to the populace, what deal we’re willing to give a fan who comes to the merch table with $4.32 in change.
Why it Didn’t Work
I didn’t get to write enough songs. I was bad at a lot of my jobs. I burned out.
What I Did About It
I came off the road. I went to acting school.
What That Taught Me
The hiatus was a killer zoom-out (you can read about my then-perception of it here and here, but time has a way of crystallizing things). I got to look at my Life as opposed to my life situation. I went to acting school. I learned how to be vulnerable, to really see and be seen. I learned to acknowledge my weaknesses and get help from other people. And in the process, it became clear that I had been hiding behind all my DIY-ness… always busy, always ready with an excuse not to get involved in some questionable social situation, fortified with the slightly overconfident air of the industrious. The biggest thing I got to hide, though, was that I wasn’t very good at a lot of the things I was doing. This sort of came as a relief, because hiding that kind of stuff takes work, if you think about it… all that defending against the help other people are offering… plus, once I said “I don’t know shit about how to make a meaningful Excel spreadsheet” out loud, the sheer truth of it was like a sweet bath in warm whiskey. Maybe I didn’t have to ever do one. Maybe someone else would do it for me. Maybe I can write a bunch more songs instead of plugging in numbers or worrying if I’ve remembered to plug in numbers or feeling like a dummy who should know more about plugging in numbers.
2.0 (Bear With Me While I Work This Out in Real Time)
So I’ve been slowly changing my mind about what I do myself vs. what I farm out to someone else to do. Then I read this blog post the other day, which kind of sped up my thinking on this. A brief synopsis: the author, Brian Hood, a music producer for metal bands, was DIY-ing it and growing annoyed knowing that his income and success were directly tied to the number of hours he was working. He felt what I felt just before the hiatus: that I will always be the bottleneck in my own career… and Brian slapped the kicker on me when I read, “This may come as no surprise to you, but anyone who owns a scalable business looks down on people like us with a bit of smug pity.”
Mmmmmmkay…. so I have something to learn from big, scalable businesses. They do things differently. According to Brian, their CEO’s don’t work in their businesses… they work on them. Right. But whaaaa….? I started googling “work on your business…” and got auto-completed with “and not in your business”. OK, people are already onto this. Clearly I am not a pioneer. A NY Times blog gave me 10 steps to becoming the new scalable-business me.
After I read that, I reread the part of Brian’s post about the 80/20 rule (a principle dating back to the 1800’s and Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto). According to the Pareto principle, 80% of effects come from 20% of causes.
[I should tell you that, at this point in my post, I really am writing in real time. None of the following was worked out in my head before writing it.]
So Brian seems to interpret the 80/20 rule as an onus to determine the things that are producing most of the good effects, and focus on those…. or something. Maybe this is where Brian strays a little bit from the actual application of the Pareto principle, but regardless, the google/blog rabbit hole lead me to think about the subset of things I do on a regular basis that are satisfying, connective, artful, and mind-expanding for me, as I know that those things are the most critical supporters of my “mission” in music and life, which is [Let me think about this.] to produce the most authentic (true to me) work possible and to effectively offer it to the souls of any other beings who might be moved by it. Here’s what I come up with as I brainstorm, right now:
Dohhhhhh! No surprise that businessy things did not make this list (thank gods that Chuckie is our booker and I just hired an assistant to do the numbers and show advancing), but what is enlightening is what did make the list that I haven’t been thinking of as part of my business. My morning ritual (8-11am) includes a bunch of these things. And they’re totally critical to getting me in the space to do everything that my mission requires.
OK, so now I have to name the things I don’t like doing but I still think are necessary:
[Let me interject here that I have a really awesome life. In actuality, I spend a lot of time doing the things in batch 1, and not a ridiculous amount of time doing the things in batch 2. Since the hiatus, I’ve done about a 3-year shift that has included hiring an assistant (recently) and getting Chuck and Tim to do some of the batch 2 stuff that I was able to bully them into thinking works for them. So, the fact is, I’m now working on my business more than in it in a lot of ways. I think this whole post is really about how to make more and better progress on my mission–how to scale this thing–by pinpointing the juiciest stuff I do. I can tell I’m going to write more posts about this, as I work it all out. Sometimes I don’t know the main point of what I’m saying until I’ve said it all. I’m that way in songwriting and in conversations. Now is that point in the writing of this particular post. And now I will change it’s title from “Why I Am in Total Violation of the 80/20 Rule” to “Steph’s Music Career 2.0”.
What I’ve Learned From Writing This Post
1. Writing for other people forces me to be somewhat eloquent–which requires thinking and re-thinking what I’m going to say, which requires me to understand what I want to say. All of this is good.
2. From this point forward, I’m going to think of my dreamy, awesome morning ritual as part of my honest-to-god workday (i.e., even though I was born in Des Moines. I can still call meditation productive work).
3. My day-to-day life is awesome. The only reason I feel the need to change anything is because I don’t yet make enough money playing music and I feel that I haven’t yet reached enough people (this puts me in a circular argument with this song of mine).
4. (I learned this just now, after writing #3) With that attitude, I’m never going to make more money or reach more people playing music.
5. (I learned this just now, after writing #4) I love singing, writing, and performing, and I get to do all of them. This is enough. Now go write some songs.
6. All this being said, I would love to be doing more stephaniesĭd. If you feel moved to support my work or the band’s in a really tangible way, here’s a way to do it.
Arrrrrrrrrr….. hey, fascinating people that I have the honor to speak with thru this music — friends, family, “idiots” (you know I mean this with the most love possible) — today Excavator is released to the world… like, to everybody with access to the internet: CD buyers, iTunes downloaders, Spotify listeners (we’re bound to make at least $1.75 this year over there), and radio spinners all over the US and into Canada (international fans, if you have a way to spin us publicly, contact us). I’m sooooo excited. But I had this sobering realization this morning. Since today is the big day, I wanted to get all celebratory, and I listened to the album on my walk, in the headphones. I haven’t listened all the way through since Chuck, Tim, and I sat in the living room at Easter and listened to a newly minted CD. Today, for the first couple of minutes, I was super self-critical (not unusual). But about 2 minutes in, I just heard it and danced to it and let it move me, like it was someone else’s music altogether. It was like this other version of myself was talking to me, from some kind of bookmarked place I said I wanted to remember later, framed by the lilt of these awesome friend musician-ghosts. I was surprised at my lyrical insights about my own life, some of which I’d forgotten I wanted to keep being insightful about, and some of which I didn’t even fully understand then, and which I understand better now. That was weird. I write and sing in a sort of stream-of-consciousness way when I’m putting songs together, and try not to interpret too too much. I know some bigger part of me knows what it’s trying to say, so I try to stay a little bit out of the way… and it turns out some of the meaning is coming into focus for me, a year after the writing. Which brings me to a view I didn’t bargain for: that there is stuff on this record that is too confessional. If I were going to set about writing “I Will Not Be Famous” today, I would not write “they will know my name………… all this lust for fame” —- it’s friggin’ embarrassing! When I was writing that, I had a sense the words were about someone else, or the culture of indie rock, or whatever. That I was being clever, from this omnicient perspective. But now I hear it as its stark note to self. And other people seem to hear it that way, too — one friend wrote to me: “I love that song, but I believe you WILL be famous!” and another told me about parallels to the former guitarist from Red Hot Chili Peppers, who got out of commercial music altogether after long bouts with heroin addiction, deciding music itself is more important than the battle of being known for making music. Alli Marshall wrote: “Stand out tracks include “I Will Not Be Famous,” a waltzing, uplifting meditation on the idea of doing great work in obscurity…..This is a band that has long flown under the radar — a blessing as it’s afforded them long-term creative control…” — arrrrr, hold up, everybody! I want to tell you that this isn’t about me — that I didn’t have giddy aspirations of being humongous which sometimes clouded a more dedicated approach to the pure joy of making music. But damn you all– you’re right. I did. Luckily (yay) I’m super re-oriented now, and getting mores0 by the minute, given that when you make something and beacon it out into the world, you’re held accountable for it –it’s what you meant now, then, and in 50 years when someone hears it again– so now I’m behooved to uphold the integrity with which I supposedly wrote the song. Straight-up musical tough-love. And we’re still left with all those other confessions out on the table (“Love is the New Black” — so self-incriminating! Am I not a loving person?). But now it’s out there. And if there weren’t a release date, I’d be scared to ever pull the trigger (that’s what Chuck calls the moment you label something finished — it drives him crazy when I hedge in the final days of a project). So here it is. I’m bracing for the actual life lessons that will surely ensue as I dutifully push this baby out into the world for ears to hear and minds to filter and feed back. It’s hard not to be transparent. People get what’s going on with you, if you let any light shine on yourself at all. Alright, then…. Cheers to the light. And by the way, I’m not at all opposed to being famous! I just don’t want to DO famous. I want to NOT DO famous in front of eight hundred thousand people a night… feel me?