Gosh! So much news! First of all I had a fab interview with Jill Pasternak for her WRTI radio show, ‘Crossover’, which will air this Saturday morning at 11.30am to 12.30pm. It streams on Saturday morning at 11:30 and will be repeated the following Friday night at 7:00 p.m — on radio and streaming I think.
Thank you so much those of you who made it to the Blue Note last week – pics below for those of you who missed it (for very good reasons I am sure: Stern Mum Voice). I was blessed with an incredible band – Kenny Werner, Joel Frahm, Sean Smith, Billy Drummond, Will Holshouser – who were all … well, … incredible). And we were a sextet. I like saying “sextet” because I am a 12-year-old boy in a woman’s body! You can watch a You Tube video of us performing the title track of my Beyond the Blue (Motema, 2012) album by clicking on this link here.
My friend Simon, visiting from Canada (who I’ve known since he was 16! and was actually ‘best man’ at his wedding) took some nice pix, as did Richard Conde (husband of Usha’s of ‘Usha’s Wedding Song’).
And speaking of Usha’s Wedding Song, I also went to the beautiful wedding of my friends Kimberly and Amy (so proud of you New York State, can we please make it Federal now!), and sang ‘Usha’s Wedding’ just before the vows, which I thought of in my head as ‘Kimberly and Amy’s Wedding’ for that three minutes, and Our Beloved Dana (who is playing with me at the 55 on July 13) accompanied me on cello. I won’t pretend that having Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald (now also a jazz singer) in the crowd wasn’t entirely intimidating. But … well it was! Meanwhile, Simon went out on his own that night and came back at 5am, which I know because I accidentally locked him out and he had to ring the doorbell to get in! Guests! (although he’d probably say: “Hosts!”)
Only bad thing is I ate too much and drank too much. So I am hoping to slim back into this dress again by June 22 when I am returning to the ROCHESTER JAZZ FESTIVAL I can’t wait! Please tell all and sundry. I must have all of SIX Rochesterarians on my Rochester mailing list, so if you have anyone to send … well, send them! Please!
New Yorkers, I will be at the 55 Bar with Our beloved Dana Leong and a brand new guitarist, John Shannon, on Friday, July 13. But first …. Rochester Jazz Festival! Not sure when I am coming to UK but I will be in Los Angeles and the Bay Area in December and in various Mid West places between now and then.
Russia. Oh! My! God! It was FREEZING. I don’t know how they cope! We traveled all over the place (see map up top — although 11 & 12 should be 10 & 11) and everywhere we went … it was relentless! At one point it was 38 degrees below zero. Cold like you couldn’t actually breathe IN cold! They’re so used to it there, they refer to these temperatures without even bothering with the zero bit.
It was super pretty, though. Everything was silver – silver birch trees, snow as far as the eye could see, frosted trees. If we walked outside, even Daniel’s moustache turned silver. And every morning the dawn cast pink shadows on the endless snowscapes as we rolled through the actual tundra. Meanwhile, we were praying that the train didn’t break down, because if it did you were dead. And when Dana and I went shopping for a hat for him in Vologda, I honestly think my eyeballs actually froze.
But, weather aside, I had a wonderful time. I especially enjoyed being with Dana Leong, who I have been playing with for eight years but who I now realize I didn’t really know before. Billy (who, BTW, went to Russia almost as soon as I returned) told me that you really get to know who people are on the road, which (I realize from past experience) is so true. In Dana’s case, I found out that not only is he a fantastic and simpatico musician, but a beautiful, deep, soulful person. And John Stowell joined us all the way from Portland, Oregon. I also really enjoyed being with Даниил Крамер, the wonderful pianist who invited me. I think this is my fourth tour with him and probably the most FUN.
Even the train rides were less awful than I remembered – especially in comparison to the few times we drove for upwards of seven hours on icy bumpy roads in a tour bus (forget sleeping!) with bathroom stops that when you saw the actual bathroom killed any desire and need to use them. After a few of those road trips we were yearning for the relative “luxury” (and stainless steel but at least clean bathrooms) of the sleeper trains.
But the views are better on the roads because you go through towns and villages of teeny houses with pointy roofs and chimneys with smoke coming out of them. We did wonder what people were doing living in villages of teeny houses with pointy roofs and chimneys with smoke coming out of them, in the wilds of Siberia, buried by snow half the year. But we didn’t meet anyone we could ask. It is entirely possible that they were literally snowed into their homes.
The audiences were amazing. The very first concert at the Omsk Philharmonic (all the venues were Philharmonic Halls) ended with a huge standing ovation from the entire place – even the seats behind the stage. We got lots of those as the tour progressed (ovations not seats!) This (below) is the one we got in Kazan).
And all the concerts were either sold out (including the Ekaterinburg Philharmonic which was sold out six weeks in advance) or nearly sold out. As for CDs, I sold 64 on my first gig, and then eked them out over the next two gigs, which was silly of me, because I wouldn’t have had to carry them if I’d just put them all out at once.
It was wonderful to go back to places I’d played before. I saw my young singer friend Katerina in Ekaterinburg – who advised me to change to my silver sequin dress for my second set, which turned out to be excellent advice (and which I followed for the rest of the tour).
And people remembered me and brought presents. I got so many flowers, a beautiful lilac evening scarf, chocolates, a genuine Soviet era women’s army hat, a water-soaked apple (apparently a great delicacy). Dana was given … er … a dried fish. Another delicacy, we were told. And sometimes audience members would lie in wait for your best song and rush up and present you with a flower or a bunch of them mid-set. A lot of women do this. I love this tradition. Feel free to copy. No fish, though, please. Oh, and no chocolates (ate too many on this trip).
Traveling between cities and gigging most nights was very hectic and exhausting. We were taking 15-hour train rides sometimes. And at the same time I was having to proof the liner notes for the US Motema release of my new CD, Beyond the Blue (release date, May 8th). I hope you like it! By the way, Motema label-mate Gregory Porter’s new CD Be Good just dropped and is getting even better reviews than last year’s (Grammy-nominated!) Water. He is absolutely amazing, if you haven’t already discovered him. I am crazy about his voice, his song writing, his authenticity, his singing, his lyrics! Check him out. Meanwhile, I was so wiped out when I got back. I felt like a stone! Perhaps weighed down by eating too much chocolate too.
And, speaking of food, one day, Dana and I woke up super early and starving and walked the length of the train to get to the restaurant car where we were faced with a Cyrillic menu and non-English speaking waitress. Super sweet but how to order? Recalling many hours of Pictionary played with my son as a little boy, I drew what we wanted – bread, butter, eggs. Then the waitress drew a frying pan to find out if we wanted them fried or what.
I admit there are a couple of interpretations possible with this illustration.
First of all, for the New Yorkers out there, I have a nice gig in Harlem this Sunday, which will be my last gig of 2011.
This is not quite the same as being able to say that I was singing at the White House last weekend. Which I wasn’t, by the way. I wish! But I did have an amazing two days in DC, courtesy of the Kennedy Center and White House, starting off at the Mandarin Oriental, where I rolled up at the same time as Jessye Norman. I was practically dashed to the ground by the stampede of doormen who rushed to greet her. But I dusted myself off enough to tell her I’m a giant fan.
Hey, I love it when people do that to me. Oh, okay, if you insist, that one time it happened to me on the street. I loved that one time. Actually, if you must know, it happened to me two times, once up by Columbia University and once downtown. Yes, yes, it was the same guy! But that’s extraordinary in itself, right?
We were there because Billy (who played with Sonny Rollins for three years) was in the band put together by Christian McBride to celebrate Sonny being awarded the Medal of the Arts. This involved two days and nights of partying, with Champagne up the wazoo, commencing on the Saturday night with a reception hosted by Hillary Clinton, who greeted us all individually.
She is, by the way, actually very attractive in real life. We arrived on literally a busload of celebs — a bit like the school bus, except, instead of sitting behind school crush Stuart Goodrich (phoar!), I sat behind Lionel Ritche (that’s him to the left of Judi in the pic below) just across from Alan Alda. And when some oaf was holding up the line of people trying to get to the seats on the bus, John Lithglow offered me his seat.
There’s something rather surreal about seeing Robert De Niro have to produce ID to get in. Okay, totally surreal. In fact, it was all a bit like an actual dream, one of those ones where you’re in a roomful of famous people, glugging champagne and picking snackettes off passing trays. We were even photographed as we walked in (on what I noticed on the way out was red carpet) by paparazzi calling out: “Mr. Drummond! Over here!” And Kevin Kline actually remembering me from being introduced ten years ago (which impressed me no end) was kind of like someone in a movie turning mid-scene to ask after your mum or something. And speaking of Mum, I wore her coat that I had spent the previous week re-lining with lilac silk (Mum, explain how you get ink on the inside of a coat with no pockets!) which felt a little bit like taking her with me.
I guess, because it wasn’t out on the streets, everyone was super friendly– especially the politicians who couldn’t pass by without shaking your hand and saying “So nice to see you!” – which is pol-speak for “nice to meet you” — which they daren’t say in case you’re someone they’re supposed to remember meeting before (like an ex-wife or something). Standing in the line for brunch on Sunday, John Kerry took that a step further when he was talking to us and kept touching the elbow of my BFFDL (Best Friend For the Duration of the Line), except it wasn’t her elbow, it was her rib cage, which is rather more intimate — perhaps he thought they’d been married once. Then a few minutes later she noticed he’d worked his way up the line and was now about eight people ahead, instead of in his rightful place actually behind us. This is how politicians jump lines. Very charmingly.
And speaking of charming, Bill Clinton was obviously totally star struck by Sonny Rollins. He even sat at his table at the dinner on the Saturday, choosing him above any of the other nominees – Meryl Streep (at the next table to our right), Barbara Cook (at the table to our left), Yo Yo Ma, and Neil Diamond. And he gave the toast for Sonny, which was the best, most thrilling toast of the evening. Actually all the toasts were amazing (Nora Ephron did Meryl Streep’s) but Bill’s was our favorite, because it was about “our” man and he knew SO MUCH about jazz. Plus he tapped Billy on the shoulder as he passed our table so he could shake hands and say: “How are you doing, man.” (I don’t think he thought they’d ever been married).
And the next day… after brunch (more Champagne), there was another reception (this time at the White House) in the afternoon (with even more Champagne .. hic!). And food, including a White House made entirely of white chocolate (see left) – although the staff told me it wasn’t to be eaten. See, it has little rooms in it, with lights on! And then the President introduced the honorees in a separate room, which was televised in our room, the room with all the food and — hicshh! – Champagne. And then . . . (drum roll) . . .
. . . suitably liquored up, we were taken to meet the Obamas. President Obama looked a bit tired, poor thing. But she. She is ohmygoodnessagoddess! And whereas he was … well, looking a bit tired, poor thing, she … she was acting like it was her absolute most favorite thing in the world to stand and shake hands with 200+ people — especially YOU.
And when I said “ohmygoodnessyouareagoddess”, she took both my hands and spread my arms apart and said “Look at YOU!” And then, I think, she actually hugged me. I say, “I think” because, strangely and unexpectedly, actually meeting them was an experience that puts you so totally in the moment that you almost aren’t there at all. Or washz that the SHChampagne – hic! oops! Or both.
The next day I turned to Billy and said: “Hang on a minute… Did I hug Mrs. Obama?” And he said not only did I, but he was expecting me to be arrested when he turned, horrified (he’s from the South), to see me coming out of the hug. But obviously it wasn’t me that initiated the hug. I mean, come on, everyone knows that Mrs. Obama is the hugger. She hugged the Queen of England. In fact, maybe this was an autopilot reaction to my accent. Whatever it was, it felt like a blessing – like when a baby smiles at you on the subway. And of course I will now never have that dress cleaned.
This is the life to which I wish to become accustomed (especially the Champagne part) – not to be confused with the Life, which is Harlem-speak for gone to the dogs. I’m not even going to mention the enormous basket of scrumptious treats that the Kennedy Center had left in our room. Or the absurdly enormous double bath and marble tiled double shower. Or how sleeping on a cloud makes you wake up looking ten years younger (Must. Buy. New. Pillows. Without lumps in them!). Or how I felt like a proud mum (albeit, I hope, a M.I.L.F.) in my gown (as opposed to mere “dress”) sitting in the audience (along with — though not next to — the Obamas) watching my boyfriend play with Herbie Hancock, Joe Lovano, Christian McBride, Jimmy Heath, Benny Golson, Ravi Coltrane, Jim Hall, and Jack DeJohnette – who joined in for one of the songs – who was playing Billy’s ride cymbal (which, for reasons perhaps only another drummer could understand, was apparently terribly exciting).
And speaking of excited… the GOWN. Even before being imprinted with Mrs Obama DNA it was already special since Billy bought it for me because I needed something “special”. He not only bought it, he dragged me around several shops to find it and then he picked it out (it’s the grey silk strapless in the pictures) and sat there like a proud D.I.L.F. while various women fussed around me pulling and tugging and adjusting undergarments to see how it looked. And when it needed altering at vast expense and I was quite ready to go off to H&M to save the money he said: “Of course!” Every now and then I fondle it in my wardrobe (it rustles because of the tulle underskirt) and remember that weekend. And remember to say thank you.
But now here I am back in the C-Town of neighborhoods, where a girl has to line up for two hours in the local post office to get stamps because every time someone asks for stamps, the staff (behind the bullet-proofed — or perhaps merely irate customer-proofed — windows) go off to ferret around in the back for half an hour looking for them in the SAFE! People! This is a post office. Someone might ask for … Hello? … stamps. By the way, what the hell are they doing in the safe in the first place? And I am so missing “my” double bath and double marble shower, not to mention the downy pillows. But as, one hopes, more-than-once-in-a-lifetime experiences go, that was a grrrrrrreat weekend! As Ravi Coltrane so perfectly put it when we came out from being presented to the Obamas: “Man! That was a ride! Can we go again!”
…. Or, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, “Never give in! Never give in! Never, never never!” A few months ago, for no earthly reason that I can think of, I was inspired to look at the website of my friend, artist Susannah Bettag. I say “for no earthly reason” because we aren’t in constant touch. She lives in San Francisco. I live in New York. And we are both busy. So we see only each other about once a year. What I saw when I went to the website were the most amazing paintings I’ve seen in years, by anyone. They seemed to me to represent some kind of culmination of all her previous work. Here are some of them, so you can judge for yourself. Click here to see many more. And this isn’t a “hobby”. She’s actually represented by a highly respected gallery.So I was absolutely shocked when, in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago, she announced, over a cup of tea (the British cure-all equivalent of chicken soup), that she was “taking a break”. Possibly even a one-year break. She’s keeping her studio, and she’s going to keep going in from time to time but she is taking the focus off painting for a while so she can hang out with her children and work on doing up a house. It turns out that she, far from seeing these recent paintings as a culmination, sees them as a new direction that she’s not sure she wants to take. Hmmm.
Now, if you want my pennyworth, I’d say, by all means see them as the beginning of something new, but for crying out loud don’t stop now! Meanwhile, it’s a very apropos illustration of the blog that’s been building up inside me over the past few months about the importance of the fallow field versus (not that anyone around here is dreaming of doing this — of course!) giving up. One of the few Geography lessons I remember, in case you’ve forgotten it, a farmer rotates his crops so that one field (a different one each year) gets the opportunity to lie fallow. If it doesn’t lie fallow it becomes infertile and can’t produce good crops (which, come to think of it, might explain what’s happened to the taste of food, of late).
It is so easy as an artist not to take a break, and I have found that during those periods where I FORCE myself to have Sundays off, I am actually more creative the rest of the week. So I am all for lying fallow. Some of our greatest talents took LONG breaks — Sonny Rollins took off years (although he practiced every day). Miles Davis also took off years (and didn’t practice, and had to catch up when he came back to it). However …. the trick is to know when you need to lie fallow — and whether a year is possibly a bit much (unless you are a field of course) — and when you need to keep going.
The other day, in Half Moon Bay to perform at the wonderful Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, I took a walk in the morning along the cliffs. There were two little surfers in the distance and I thought I’d watch them and maybe take a photo. It was fascinating to watch their progress out to sea. As the first surfer went out he kept getting pushed back by the waves. But each time he was pushed back, he was a little further out to sea than the time before. By the way, for no reason at all that I could see, the progression of the second surfer was much faster. Just sayin’.
However, if the waves had been harder to get past (which I am sure they are when you’re talking about Hawaii or somewhere), it would have taken a lot longer to get out to where the ride-able waves are. In that case, maybe a break to rest and gather your strength would make sense, right? Or maybe you just keep doing it and eventually build the muscles required to get strong enough to finally (one miraculous day!) get far enough out to catch a big one.
But here’s another analogy (which brings me to the title of today’s blog): When I gave birth to my son I remember thinking (after eleven hours in labor), my goodness, this baby is never going to come OUT! But I had three nurses on either side of me shouting “Push! Push! Push!” What must it be like to give birth alone without that encouragement? I can’t imagine! And, at this point, half the nurse’s job is to remind you that it’s not just agony for no reasons, there’s actually a baby in there! And it needs to be born! It reminds me of that period in your creative development when you are getting ready to move to the next level. Where you wonder what the hell are you doing. Where the hell you are going? What the PH you were THINKING when you started this whole thing? Where you have to have utter blind faith that there’s something in there TO come out. This is the time, second only to starting out, when you are most likely to give up.
And actually I think there is a point when you SHOULD give up and just do what you have to do at the final stages of labor, stop pushing and start panting. Oh my goodness! The panting. Yikes! I can’t remember why, but I remember them telling me to do it. And then at the very end, one final PUSH, followed by the blissful bumpity bump of legs and arms. And … Boom! Actual baby! If only we could love our creative productions as unconditionally and instantly. But, then again, perhaps creating a work of art is more like surrogacy than having your own baby. It’s not for YOU. It’s for other people.
So, I’m just saying … By all means lie fallow for a bit. Pant. Keep swimming to build those muscles, even if it’s only in the local swimming pool. But don’t stop! And, most of all, give yourself a break in that other sense.
Because wherever you are, be it near or far from your dreamed-of destination, the endeavor is so difficult, so fraught with doubts, so peppered with failures along the way, at times it feels it would be easier to give up. To keep going requires constant effort, confidence, self belief, preparation, a road map, assistance and encouragement from people around you. A plan. … As Julia Cameron points out in The Artist’s Way, “All too often it is audacity and not talent that moves an artist to center stage.” And just as often, maybe more often, it is lack of audacity, not lack of talent, which makes others give up. [From page 55 of my book]
To quote Andre Gide, “Art begins with resistance — at the point where resistance is overcome. No human masterpiece has ever been created without great labor.” Or as Po Bronson says in his ‘What Should I Do With My Life’ (and yes, I am the tea-making Tessa referred to in the chapter on community): “The hardest thing was not learning to write. The hardest thing was to never give up.”
“Magic is believing in yourself. If you can do that, you can do anything.” Goethe
I am so excited to be coming out to California again. Here is me in my kitchen in San Francisco reading one of the mags I used to write for. We could see Golden Gate Bridge from our window — behind me!
I leave tomorrow and have t gigs, one of which (in Sebastopol) was sold out two weeks in advance! To let you know, they are at Ruth Price’s wonderful Jazz Bakery, Ernie Shelton’s House Concert in beautiful Sebastopol, and the swanky new Yoshi’s in San Francisco.
San Francisco still feels kind of like “home” to me, even though I left there over ten years ago. Maybe that’s partly because it is where I first started on this madness of being a jazz singer, after I sat in at the Mint Karaoke Bar on Market Street down the road from the first Writer’s Grotto — when I was a writer and one of the “original six” Grotto members, along with Po Bronson, Ethan Watters, Ethan Canin, David Munro and Josh Kornbluth.
So I’ve been thinking lately about Chapter Four of my book: The Long and Winding Road: Keeping The Faith. As I say there, “It’s easy to keep going when things feel good. The challenge is to keep going when it stops feeling good. Chapter Four is about how to get unstuck, as well as how to keep going when you lose faith, when you feel as if you reached rock bottom a long time ago but keep finding – no! – there’s still a ravine or two to go.” And for this I throw in a perfectly good career as a features journalist to become a jazz singer?
So when I say “thinking”… I mean specifically … “OhMyGodWhatWasIThinking?” Which makes me realize that doing this (and probably any creative endeavor) requires not only commitment but constant re-commitment. To quote Po Bronson in his book What Should I Do With My Life: “The hardest thing was not learning to write; the hardest thing was to never give up.”
And the answer to the above question is I wasn’t thinking. It just kind of happened after I sat in at the Mint Karaoke Bar in SF one night and one thing led to another and …. well, here I am, coming back to San Francisco to SING. Which is all well and good. But when I DO think about it my path gets all cluttered up with doubts and questions (mainly the ohmygodwhatwasithinking question).
So I was talking to my brother, Simon, on the phone yesterday and telling him I had reached the Frida Kahlo point (viz: when she said “I am still doing it but I don’t know why” — I paraphrase, of course). And he said: “Well because you enjoy it and one day you are going to be very successful at it.” I said, “Do you really believe that, though?” And he said: “Of course! But right now the main thing is that you enjoy it!”
Which is very wise, isn’t it. I mean, I can see why you might give up trying to “get somewhere” or win a Grammy, but why would you give up something you enjoy?
It was so fantastic to have a totally sold out gig at Joe’s Pub last weekend, when I had been utterly convinced that there would be no one there! Because It was freezing cold. It was the Saturday after New Year’s. And I am the worrying type! But — hooray! — it was so sold out people had to sit on the floor, stand at the bar and were actually turned away at the door (not hooray for that bit!). And we were really lucky to have a lovely crowd — not just big, but nice! Here are some pix taken by my friends Fatima, Philine VanLidth DeJeude and Sirin Samman on the night.
We were helped by a fantastic review for Obsession which appeared in the January issue of AllAboutJazz-New York (read it here), and by being picked by TIME OUT NEW YORK as one of only two must-sees of the New Year weekend. The other one was Mighty Sparrow – fellow Trini!
Tonight (Friday) we will be at the 55 Bar, in a smaller configuration, and then I am getting ready to travel — to California (Southern AND “home” to Northern California, my first destination when I got to America) and Russia and Belarus. Meanwhile, here is a lovely review of the Joe’s Pub gig and at the end of this post is a video of us doing Vera Cruz on the night.
“Everyone has talent. What is rare is the courage to follow that talent to the dark place where it leads.” Erica Jong
So today I want to talk about how HARD is this thing we do — this creative pursuit. This thing, incidentally, that we both don’t have to do and have to do at the same time. As Frida Kahlo once said: “I am working, but even that, I don’t know how or why.” Here is a picture of Frida who, by the way, was (sorry to be a typical mum, but …) much prettier than she saw herself
[book excerpt] “There’s a reason so many great artists commit suicide. It isn’t only that they are ‘sensitive souls’ — although that doesn’t help. … No matter how brilliant you are, you are going to lose confidence, you are going to face rejection. As many people will want to pull you down as lift you up. It takes supreme faith — in your ability, in the universe, in God, in whatever it takes — to keep you going.” [end of book excerpt]
Which brings me to the hardest thing of all … the feeling that we are crap and why on earth are we bothering to visit upon ourselves, let alone others, our crapness.
I, at various times, run the gamut of emotions from “in the moment” (which, in my opinion and more on which later, is the thing to aspire to) to utter crap. After recording one of my (now) favorite CDs I left a message on my boyfriend’s voicemail, sobbing about not only how CRAP I was (note those capital letters), but how “ugly” too — you know, just for good measure. He, having just emailed me (I hadn’t read my email yet) about how great I’d sounded and how excited he was to hear the finished thing, was absolutely bewildered. And my dear friend Sue, responded to my emergency call by tearing over, superheroine-black cloak-like coat flying behind her, pen and notebook in hand, to listen to “the horror” and, perhaps, whiz around the world backwards a few times to reverse time so I could do it again properly.
“Oh thank God you’re here,” I said, when she arrived, plonking her on the sofa with a cup of tea and the CD controller, while I busied myself in the bathroom, generally removing fistfuls of hair, scratching at my face and howling, kind of like Jane Eyre’s Mrs Rochester in the attic — but without the laughing or the matches.
So … drawing a discreet veil over the utter self absorbed bollocksness (er … speaking of self-flagellatory) of my initial reaction (I mean, like there aren’t people in the world with real problems, for crying out loud), I’d like to address the “problem” of being so down on yourself that you don’t even take up opportunities that are offered to you, let alone pursue any — either because you are so sure of your own crapness, or because you self-sabotage.
I spent my entire childhood feeling like a gangly orangutang next to my platinum blond brother with the adorable smile (don’t get me started on my wonky teeth!) … Here is a gratuitous picture of me in my gangly orangutan days just to give you some perspective. Given that I feel like I was born feeling inadequate, it sometimes strikes me as just plain weird that I have chosen to pursue not one but two careers one after another (journalism, then music) that depend on outside approval for their success. Actually, maybe that makes profound psychological sense, after all. But, whatever, being dependent on outside approval for success can make for a bit of a roller coaster existence, with fabulous periods of elation (a standing ovation from 1500 people in Moscow … that was fan-TAS-tic!) followed by just as long, or longer, periods of despair, for no reason whatsoever.
I have come to the conclusion that the necessary dredging up of the innermost depths of your being that goes with the territory of being creative hurts. Especially when it brings forth emotions that you didn’t even know were buried deep down in there. For me, increasingly, being a singer is less and less about getting approval and more and more about making a connection.
It’s not about delivering a perfect performance. Mark Murphy said to me once that audiences aren’t there with their arms and legs crossed (I paraphrase, but this is the gist) thinking, “Show me!” They are there to have a good time. And they aren’t there to hear how long we can hold a note, or how many million notes we can fit in to a phrase — unless that is an expression of who we are. Because our job, whether writing, singing, painting, playing, is to give them that good time. And to connect/express/be understood/understand/teach/learn from the innermost depth of who we are.
The idea is to be “in the moment” to the extent that it ceases to be about ego and You. In fact, You (as little Billy Elliot puts it in the movie when they ask him why he loves to dance) miraculously and absolutely “disappear.” I saw that movie before I became a performer and that remark slipped right by me. When I revisited it recently, hearing it again felt like pocketing all the snooker balls in one go with one hit. Because that is exactly what happens when you are “on”. You no longer exist as a separate entity. You are just part of one big “it” — whatever “it” is.
We are a work in progress. Not perfect, finished short stories/poems/songs/paintings. It’s more ongoing and “human” than that. Some gigs are amazing. Some are … well, some are not. Sometimes a sound system can let you down. Or you are distracted. Or under-rehearsed or you are in self-hating Orangutang mode where no matter that you have adorable little legs with knee socks and cute, badly cut bangs (Mum!), you are going to use that icecream cone to hide those wonky (or perhaps at this age, missing) teeth.
Which brings me to perfectionism – which is both our best friend and our deadliest enemy. Perfectionism is what inspires us to keep growing as artists. But letting perfectionism take over is always counter productive. You are there for the people in the gallery, not just for yourself. If you are giving them pleasure and they are loving it, that’s perfect enough. I know an amazing, amazing musician who whenever he got compliments from the crowd used to bat them away if he didn’t feel he had played well — forgetting that most of us aren’t looking for perfection, let alone that most people aren’t even hearing the mistakes.
We have to learn to receive that Love, for want of a better word. The correct answer when someone says they love you isn’t “No, you don’t!” Or “You don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m crap!” Or “What are you? Deaf and blind?” The correct answer is “Thank you!”
So here are my ten things to do when you are down on yourself:
1. Practice. Not to be perfect but to be better able to express yourself unbound by technique issues
2. When a self-flagellating thought enters your head just say “Stop!” and focus your attention on something in the moment. Last night I noticed that my sorrel or cabbage or whatever it was I was cooking was the most amazing green with dark red veins. Almost too beautiful to eat!
3. Don’t beat yourself up about feeling bad/envious/crap/hopeless/unworthy/fill in your own unhelpful emotion (and please don’t put on your music when you’re feeling like that!)
4. Rent a cathartic video. I love Billy Elliot. I cry. I laugh. I look like Alice Cooper by the time it’s finished, but I feel absolutely spent
5. Remind yourself that sometimes you might be down on where you are now because you are about to move to the next level
6. Rest/have a hot bath/massage/morning in bed
7. Call a kind friend. Not one of those “other” kind. You know exactly who they are – and the urge to call that other kind is simply more self flagellation!
8. Take a break. Go for a walk (actually exercise is great if you can face it — just don’t use your inability to go to the gym as an excuse to hate yourself even more!)
9. Do something self-esteem raising (er … how about going to the gym? If you want. Be self-kind)
10. Take yourself on what Julia Cameron, in her essential The Artist’s Way, calls an “artist date” — e.g., to a museum/show/gig. Not reading a book but going actually out somewhere and getting dressed up as if you are going on a date.
But most of all, get over yourself! Yes, darling, I’m talking to you! Okay … and me.
Well, my best friend Neil just found out that his new book, The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You A Happy Birthday, was named one of the TOP TEN books of the year on BarnesandNoble.com. Check it out here. He’s in great company. I’d definitely call that a success. I also made a blogger’s Best Jazz of 2009 list. Also in great company.
And right now, I am feeling like a wildly successful songwriter, since I discovered a California-based singer named Kara Stewart, who heard about me from someone I don’t even know, has actually covered – beautifully – my original tune, ‘You Don’t Have to Believe’. But does one singer singing my song mean I am a “successful” composer? Well, it does to me. But to Cole Porter? Prolly not. And it doesn’t really fall under the umbrella of the Oxford Dictionary definition of success as: 1. The accomplishment of an aim or purpose (since it never entered my head that someone else would want to sing it); 2. The attainment of fame, wealth, or social status (er… about that…).
One of my favorite novelists, Alaa el-Aswany, has his own definition of success: “The reward I seek is from my writing only. I write because it makes me feel better. To express myself. To understand things. I had opportunities to make money. I was offered a job movie writing, but I refused. I like writing novels. I don’t want to do something I wouldn’t like. If you want to be a writer you must forget about fame and money.”
But it seems you aren’t really allowed to call yourself a painter/songwriter/singer if you are not successfully earning a living – especially a good living – doing it. Imagine meeting Van Gogh at a party today. ‘An artist? Really? Are you selling? Do you have a gallery? Oh, you’re planning to share a studio with an accountant-turned painter named Paul? Uh, your brother has bought some of your work, you say?’ He sold only ONE painting in his life – for 400 francs at an auction.
Irises, however, sold (the last time it was sold) for a cool $111 million. Dollars.
When I first became a journalist in San Francisco, I’d rather sheepishly tell people who asked what I did, that I was a journalist – feeling like a big liar because I actually earned my living from cleaning houses, and my ‘journalism’ was basically a volunteer job (i.e., unpaid) eliciting rejection letters.
Of course, once I became a successful, (i.e., making enough money to live on it) journalist I realized, from the stand point of my “before and after’” perspective, that the fact I hadn’t earned money from it before hadn’t made me any less a writer. After all, how many poets make a living from writing poetry? And Alaa (who is also a dentist … in fact, my dentist when I was in Cairo) was talking from the double perspective of having written his book , the amazing and beautiful The Yacobian Building in obscurity for years and then achieving mega success with it. It is even a movie.
And speaking of brothers, and success and doing things just for love with no idea of “getting anywhere” with it, my brother Simon and his wife, Fiona, like to make videos of themselves miming to songs, sort of ABBA style. The one they made of themselves miming to a Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren song has had over 164,000 hits on YouTube. (To give you some idea of how huge that is, Carmen McRae singing ‘I’m Glad There is You’ hasn’t even hit 20,000). To me that would be success beyond my wildest dreams. To them, since they only put it up for friends and family, “success” doesn’t even figure into it.
As for fame? Well, no one wants to be “too” famous. As Meg Ryan once said: “Sometimes I’m like, ‘Oh God! I just want to buy some tampons!’”
So, I’m thinking now that “success” is entirely relative and individual. Meanwhile, here are three fantastic quotes on the subject for all us strugglers and strivers to ponder on, that seem to me to capture the essence of true success.
“An artist cannot fail; it is a success just to be one.” Charles Horton Cooley
“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; to leave the world a little better; whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is the meaning of success.” Bessie Stanley
And, this is my favorite — from an eleven year old I asked ( mid blog) to define success: “Being happy in life?” Got to love that question mark
I have been feeling so guilty about not blogging here for nearly two weeks. I was in London, which was fantastic in some ways. One of my very best friends turned 50 and I had to give a speech at her dinner party for 50 (in their back garden. In a tent. In a Force 10 rainstorm). And sing a song written by her ten year old. A marvelous song. But my rendition … well, … (as the Birthday Girl herself pointed out) … think, Phoebe on Friends singing ‘Smelly Cat’. I also saw Sheila Jordan perform three times — each time more fantastic than the last (to see my review of her Royal Opera House gig, click here)– and got to chat with one of my all-time heroines, who I ran into in the audience — Norma Winstone. And I saw Billy perform at Queen Elizabeth Hall with Carla Bley (he is a Lost Chord) and they got a standing ovation. Here is a review in the Daily Telegraph of the performance. And here is a picture of them all. They do look rather lost.
My own gig at Pizza on the Park was … well, the first set was pretty good, I think. It’s always hard to know. Certainly it had its moments. But we were under-rehearsed, so the second set was a bit shambolic. In my opinion. But … see … you can’t always be on. However, it was sold out (always gratifying) and the audience was wonderfully appreciative. And overall, I had a wonderful time in London. It was incredible to see my own boyfriend perform in my own home town and get to stay in swanky hotel with him for two nights. And, as an added bonus, I was recognized quite randomly in three different places by three strangers as “Tessa Souter” (when this happens, as it has — gasp! — four times in the past few months, it always feels like this Tessa Souter is someone else who I am impersonating).
Here is a gratuitous video of my UK drummer, the amazing Winston Clifford, singing my song Usha’s Wedding with me. This is a couple of years old (our version on November 12 was miles better) and the sound isn’t ideal. But it gives an impression. Winston, by the way, can sing better than anyone! Note perfect John Coltrane solos! Need I say more? I love his vocal tone. I can’t remember how I discovered he could sing but I am so glad I did. He sings this with me every time I play in London.
Bud Powell, Charlie Parker and … Me! You ask…?
So the title of this blog … Well, this weekend I had severe chest pains for the third time this week, so I called my best friend Neil and he insisted I call his best friend, doctor turned novelist Ethan Canin (who introduced us in San Francisco 15 years ago when I was a writer and I was the first woman member of the Writer’s Grotto), and he insisted I go to ER at Bellevue Hospital where I was put to the front of the line at once by a nurse. I didn’t see that it even was a line until she left and guiltily repositioned myself at the back and got shouted at when she returned to find me there. “Did anyone tell you to move?” Er, no. “So why are you standing there instead of here?” Well, I saw there was a line and … “You’ve got chest pains, right?” Yes. “So get back to the front!” And she shouted at the line like it was their fault for looking at me wrong. Sort of Nurse Ratchet, but in a good way.
Next I was whisked off on a stretcher-cum-bed thingie and X-rayed and EKG’d and hooked up to heart monitor (two baths later I am still scraping off the gunk they use to stick them on with) and blood pressure machine for what turned out to be the entire weekend in ER because they had no beds in the heart section (where I would have been put had they had any beds there).
Now, People, the Emergency Room of a public hospital is no place to get actual SLEEP. The rotating cast of characters was loud. The man in the bed to my left, thankfully hidden behind a curtain, was shouting incoherently for about half an hour, until the doctor arrived and then he very lucidly asked for: “Ah yes, two Percoset, please. 300 milligrams!” The doctor wanted to know why he wanted it. “It takes away everything, Nurse. EVERYTHING! All of Vietnam, all of the pain, the pus, … all gone!” Actually I’m a doctor, she said and we don’t just give people Percoset when they ask for it. “I need it, doc. For the pus!” Pus? “Yes, pus! That’s another word for pain. I read it in the medical dictionary. You’re a doctor and you don’t even know that!” He was sent off with Ibuprofin. But see, he probably shouldn’t have started out calling her “Nurse.”
As a germ phobe, I can think of better places to spend the night. The bed next to mine had must have been the designated bed for cough-ers — one of whom thought she might have H1N1 (she was sent home, so I think she was fine). Another woman, in with exactly the same symptoms as mine got dispatched home — after she’d eaten dinner. Ethan thought perhaps because she was in every week. I couldn’t eat the food (ham and cheese sandwiches and green jello) so Neil turned up with an enormous bag of food, but every time I reached for it someone behind another curtain would make awful, long, heart-wrenching, choking noises. He was also loudly questioned about how often he pooed and whether he wanted to use a bed pan or have a diaper put on. He chose the latter. As I quietly returned my plastic bag of food to the shelf under my stretcher-cum-bed thingie.
Dozing was the only thing possible. I got woken up at various intervals by people shouting (“Im going to get my attorney on to those cops for bringing me here. He’s a scary man. He’s going to sue your asses!”). Or putting in their drug orders (one man recited a huge list — none of which were available, but he must have had something serious because they gave him Morphine). Or to the sight of a man with his hands cuffed behind his back being marched past the end of my bed by a cop (there are almost as many cops as nurses in Bellevue ER), and even a group of itinerent types, awkwardly handcuffed together, shuffling through the ward. And lots of bright young people in red polo shirts, who turned out to be volunteers. I mean ALL NIGHT! Never again let me hear anyone complain about “young people today.”
I can’t even tell you how many times I was woken up to have my temperature taken or to be jacked up to a drip because my blood pressure was … well, I say “dangerously low” (like 54 over 40) but is there any such thing as that when it comes to blood pressure. Even the daytime doctor agreed with me when I pointed that out. It’s usually 90/60 — the blood pressure of a five year old child. When I told him that I had once been told by a doctor that I had a “beautiful small heart”, he said that would explain my low blood pressure and then ran off excitedly to see the X-ray for himself.
No, we don’t know why I am getting chest pains. I suspect stress, which makes it a relevant blog on this mad life I (and maybe you) have chosen to live. Here is MY diagnosis: I collect feelings in my chest. If I see an injury it always gives me a sharp pain there. If I relax, that is where I get a tickly feeling. When I am moved by music, my chest is where I feel it. Beautiful music vibrates like a pain in my breastbone. So my theory (the doctors are still working on theirs) is that I am getting all stressed up in the night while I sleep and waking up with chest pains. Bud Powell and Charlie Parker (finally, the blog title explained!) also made visits to Bellevue, so I am in good jazz company.
Meanwhile, I can’t wait for Billy to get back on Saturday from the European tour. Poor thing was super worried when he got the message that I was in ER — not helped by the fact that my phone died while I was there and he couldn’t get in touch with me. Well, I say “poor thing” but he is ending his tour in Monaco, and will have the day off in Nice (poor darling!) over Thanksgiving. His soothing presence will have to suffice in lieu of my coming up with a fabulous money-making idea which will keep me in the manner to which I wish to become accustomed while I focus on my MUSIC alone, instead of all the trillions of things that go along with living day to day at the same time as feeding the constantly Hungry Baby of this “career” of mine.
Meanwhile, lucky me that I got so well taken care of this weekend, even though I didn’t really have the time to spare, and (in my rush to leave) had left my pot of paint open with the brush on top of it so it was all dried out when I got home. And I got to witness some very gentle, sweet people who are in the world looking out for all of us. Nurses and doctors are really not just in it for the money. They are — inspiringly — patient and kind, even (perhaps even particularly) when refusing to hand out Percoset like Hallowe’en candy.
Okay, so … I won a competition to perform in a Gap store — one of 800 stores throughout Canada and the US having a mass gig in celebration of the new Born to Fit range of jeans and 40 years of the Gap. This seemed terribly exciting. But about two days before the actual performance I suddenly got a strong instinct that perhaps it wasn’t going to be very productive. I mean, … a Gap store. In a deserted suburb of Philadelphia. A week before college starts back. On a Thursday evening. After hours. In August. During a 90 degree heatwave. But you can’t just not turn up!
So I guess I wasn’t terribly surprised when we finally located the store, in an outdoor mall, and noted a distinct lack of “throngs”. In fact, there was no one in the shop when we burst through the doors, thinking thoughts along the lines of “shorely shome mishstake!” and “Wot? No poster?” At one point, one of the staff actually went outside to drum up business, calling out: “Two-for-one specials!” to no one in particular — or do I mean no one at all, since I didn’t actually see anyone in the desert-like parking lot.
It wasn’t a total bust. There was a TV … well “crew” wouldn’t be an accurate description of the lone camera man that was there. But he did film us, and, apparently, we did make the local news at 6PM, 11PM and 6AM the next day. And I sold four CDs, which is fab in terms of percentage (maybe ten people came through) but not so fab in terms of recouping expenses. Then again, Jason and I got vouchers for two pairs of jeans EACH! And the staff were all fabulous. Lovely. Helpful. Fun. And there were snacks! And Gap has some great two-for-one specials going on! And, may I say my bottom looks very fetching in my new “sexy boot cut” jeans.
Otherwise …. well, as a competition. I mean… let’s just say, well, I’m not entirely sure what I won, exactly — aside from my “sexy boot cut” jeans, which I do like very much. Somehow, it reminded me of the time Mum saw a marvelous offer for cheap monogrammed toothbrushes in a posh London department store. She ordered four and then watched, incredulously, as the young woman behind the counter took a black marker pen and scrawled our names in bad handwriting on four cheap looking toothbrushes and then handed them back to Mum, who obediently paid in a sort of dazed disbelief.
Thank goodness I was with Jason, who is an angel (or perhaps a saint), and joined in my laughing about it on the way home (though weakly, I admit) and who only said ONCE of my navigating skills (which had kind of caused us to take the alternative route — Oh, okay, take several wrong turns, leading to the snarl up which caused us not to get home until 3am) that I had “the concentration span of a flea!”
Then again, he did ignore my express warning that I’m a directional dyslexic and that, unlike those blind people you hear about all the time that make crash landings in the Brazilian rain forest and miraculously burst out of the jungle six weeks later — a little slimmer perhaps, but alive! — I couldn’t machette my way out of the proverbial paper bag, and if I were dropped in the middle of a Devon field of long grass would be found six weeks later lying on a small, circular patch of trodden-down leaves having starved to death (without losing a single POUND, by the way!), wondering how those blind people DID it. Although, thinking about it, I could’ve eaten the grass (yet another example of wise after the fact).
All of which proves that it is easy to be fooled by the word “winner” into doing some very silly things, like drive for seven hours (round trip, via the snarled-up route) to an unpaid gig in a small deserted suburb. But I do love my “sexy boot cut” jeans. And Billy (the official saint that my parents have been praying for all these years) will love his sweater (Jason and all the staff agreed he looked great in it when I held it up against the photograph of him in my wallet). And I am sure Natalya will love the top Jason got her. And Jason looked great in his new duds.
So all’s well that ends well. Just like when Bill Evans played at a Chinese restaurant in Edmonton (say, … what?) and, that very night, met the last love of his life. Read a fascinating five-part interview with her (Laurie, of the Bill Evans song) currently up at www.jazzwax.com. As an amazing, unrelated, coincidence, Jason and I played with Bill Evan’s last drummer, Joe La Barbera, in the summer at the Catalina.
P.S. Does anyone want to enter a competition to win my latest CD for $5 MORE than it would cost them normally!