So Ferocious (2016)
Hot Night
Vim & Vigor
So Ferocious
Lovin is Easy
Fat & Happy
To Be Known
The Animal I Am
Fever Dream
Laziest Gal in Town
Heavenly Thing
Two Sleepy People
You Don't Know What Love Is
What Is This Thing Called Love?
Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?
Sweet Lorraine
Don't Come Too Soon
I'll Be Seeing You
Not Old, Not New
Under Your Thumb
Trigger Finger
Smoke Alarm
Together Too Long
Little Death
Lonely No More
Idiot Heart
All We Got
Honest Truth
Itches and Tugs
O, Gabriella
Money in the Bank
Two at a Time
Every Punch You Throw
Baby Can Dance
Crazy for Love
Anything At All
Ain't So Green
Don't Wanna Know
Everybody's All Alone
Take Me Along
Temporary Lapse
Wedding Song
Willing To Fall
Redemption Blues
thoughts on love, sex, music and ferocity
tagged: creativity
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In Praise of Doing Scary Things.

Well, my new record is out.

I first conceived of this record about three years ago, right after I finished Idiot Heart. The thought was, “Those are the best songs I know how to make. Maybe next time I’ll record the best songs I can find, whether I made them or not.”

The best songs I could find, according (of course) to me, happen to have been written in the 1930s-50s. This venture could easily have resulted in a tribute to Joni Mitchell, or Tom Waits, or Sam Cooke; but instead it resulted in a record of classic jazz. To me, the record is not about jazz; it’s about great songs. Great songs are my passion, my purpose, and my thrill; this album is just another way of exploring and sharing that joy.

Have you ever made something really big and complicated? Say, a house, or a book, or a large event, or probably a kid (not sure, haven’t tried)? It’s strange, and powerful, and wonderful, and terrible. Mostly overwhelming. You wake up every day for a year or two with one goal in mind, and you run the whole gamut of human emotions about meeting that goal. One day, you wake up thinking “I’m a GENIUS! Everyone will LOVE IT!”, and the next day, “I’m a LOSER! Everyone will LAUGH AT ME!”

You quit, about two hundred times. You get re-inspired and take up the cause with aplomb. Some days, you blame other people for whatever tough bit you’re currently trying to chew, and spend the whole day in bed watching Netflix. Some days, you wake up early, drink your coffee, and tackle a few of the scary parts before noon.

At this point, I’ve made enough big, scary, complicated things to at least understand what I’m getting myself into. The demons are just as strong and stupid as they ever were, but now I have the advantage of occasionally looking up from the wrestling match and thinking, “Oh yeah; THIS little fucker. I’ve beat him before, and I’ll do it again.”

Here is a partial list of the demons I battled in the making of this record:


There are various and sundry others, but most of them are children of the big poppa demons listed above. I am listing them so that you might recognize your own demons, and notice that they aren’t as unique and smart and special as they seem to think they are. It’s surprisingly empowering just to look at your demon and say, “I see you, demon.”

And when you do name your demons, and take a good swipe at them, you might get just a tiny little break from their incessant shouting. When you get that break, you look around and think, “Oh yeah, I’m singing these songs. And I LOVE these songs. I want nothing more than to share these songs with anybody who will listen.”

Or, maybe you’re writing this story, or building this house. Whatever your passion is, it will shine through the haze of your boring, run-of-the-mill insecurities just for a minute; and lo and behold, it’s just BEAUTIFUL.

The creative impulse is a sacred thing. It drives us to fill the world with beauty, and to connect with other people. It is one of our most precious capacities as humans. The advantage of doing scary things is that you are faced with all your demons, all at once, in an ugly, stupid parade. Occasionally, you’ll get a bite out of one, and he’ll scurry off under a rock for a minute. In the brief silence that follows, the truer, bigger, brighter joy that drives you fills the whole sky.

And if you’re lucky, there’s a bonus: you might have made something good.

I think this record is a good one. You can listen and buy it here: 


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On Jazz, My Record, and Kickstarter

So, I just ran this Kickstarter campaign. It went well. I asked for $29k to make a jazz record, and I raised over $60k. I had nearly 1300 backers, many of whom were brand new listeners, who discovered me via the campaign. A huge number of these backers were international (holla, Aussies!). After hitting my “true goal” of $34k (that’s how much I was looking for to fully fund the record), I added “stretch goals” to fund a PR campaign, a national full-band tour, and a solo tour in Australia.

In short, it was nuts. The likelihood of somebody in my position raising that amount of money on Kickstarter is quite slim. Thus, people have been asking me how I think it happened. Here are my thoughts.

1) I found an audience for my record, and I spoke to them directly.

Part I, The Record: This is a record I’ve been wanting to make for most of my life. I’m extremely passionate about jazz music, and relatedly, about the plight of jazz in contemporary America. Although it’s hard to pin down accurate and up-to-date numbers (you can’t believe everything you read on the internet), jazz currently holds around 3-5% of the American music market share. At the same time jazz has been losing listeners, its listeners are aging. The average age of a jazz fan in the US is around 50.

In short, jazz is going the way of classical music. It’s becoming a genre for well-educated, high-class, mostly old, mostly white people to listen to in concert halls.

Now, obviously there are exceptions to this rule. Two of them are notable, considering the crowd that is probably reading this post: if you’re a swing dancer, you probably love jazz. If you live in New Orleans, you probably listen to live jazz regularly. But let me gently burst the tiny bubble that we’re all living in: if you took every swing dancer in the US, and put them in a room with every single man, woman and child in New Orleans, you’d have maybe 400,000 people. That’s less than .2% of the US population. Add in every working jazz musician in the rest of the US, and you’d have - maybe - the population of Omaha, Nebraska.

So, regardless of your personal feelings about jazz, the amount of passion you have for it, or the amount of time you spend listening to it, dancing to it or playing it, you have to admit that it’s got a problem.

As a songwriter and song-geek, I have a big fear that the art of songwriting is going the way of, say, basket-weaving. Like, within a generation or two, it will be a quaint craftsy thing that kids do at summer camp; and popular music will be written exclusively by machines and committees. The folks who are currently lauded as the “great songwriters of my generation” do not move me even 1/100th as much as a Gershwin, or a Dylan, or even a Costello. I think songs are getting worse, and I think the waning of jazz in contemporary culture is partly to blame. In other words, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Dylan and Costello have both listened to plenty of Gershwin.

Every time I meet a young songwriter who’s never heard of Billie Holiday (this happens more than you think), or who compliments me at a show on “that great new song of yours”, and means “Sweet Lorraine”, the fear grows.

So, the kind of jazz revival that I’m most interested in is not of the Esparanza Spalding variety (although I think she’s great), nor is it of the swing danceable trad jazz variety (although I am a dancer myself, and I love a lot of the dance bands who are currently out there). Neither is it of the Norah Jones variety (which is accessible, clearly, but is not quite up to the Gershwin bar in terms of songwriting).

The jazz revival I want to see is of the tasteful pop variety (side note: I firmly believe that those two words are not mutually exclusive). I want to hear more jazz that meets a high standard in terms of songwriting, performance and production quality, BUT that anybody, from any background, can appreciate, enjoy, and get stuck in their head. The kind of record that your average thirteen-year-old girl might pick up, put on, and feel moved by. That way, when that girl starts writing songs, she’ll have some Gershwin knocking around in her brain, along with Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift.

Whew. It feels good to get that off my chest.

Part II, The Audience: So, the way this all relates to the Kickstarter campaign is this: there’s a demand for what I’m doing. Many of the backers I heard from said things like, “I’ve always thought that jazz was too complicated for me.” or, “My Grandparents listened to this music, I haven’t listened to it since I was a kid.”

When I put my campaign together, I made a conscious decision to speak directly to the people who I am making this record for. I wasn’t speaking to jazz musicians, or dancers, or anyone who’s already part of the “jazz scene”. I wasn’t even speaking to the fans I already had - at least, not primarily.

I was speaking to non-jazz-geeks, who want an entry into the world of jazz. As it turns out, a lot of those people were listening.

2) I kept people involved.

I sent updates to my backers every single day. I made them videos, I recorded songs for them, and I wrote epic essays about each song I’ll be including on the record (I plan to post some of those on this blog). I also answered every comment and email that I got over the course of the 30-day campaign. Thus, the people who backed my project felt like I was talking to them, and I was.  At the same time, I posted on Facebook and twitter every day, and did my best to provide new content and/or information every time I posted. I had my friends make cute support videos. I tweeted at people with large fan bases who were also involved in Kickstarter (like Amanda Palmer (who tweeted the project) and Spike Lee (who backed it)). I ran silly contests on Facebook like “if we hit 1000 backers by 12pm I will make a video of myself rolling around like a kitten in a yarn factory.”  

 The risk of all this involvement was wearing people out, and I think some people did get worn out (sorry if you were one of them!). I was willing to take that risk because the advantage was huge: the people who did support what I was doing got really invested in the project. They became super-fans, shared my project with their friends, and made important suggestions about how I could better manage the campaign.  In other words, I was working to make fans, not just money. 

3) I prepared. A lot.

Before launching my campaign, I spent about two weeks reading everything I could find about running a Kickstarter campaign. I also stalked other people’s campaigns relentlessly and stole their ideas. Here are the best resources I found:

Launch and Release - This is a brilliant blog written by two musicians who also happen to smart, down-to-earth, mathy-type guys. They introduce a novel concept to the world of crowdfunding: statistics. In addition to a bunch of really helpful “case studies”, this site offers a “fundability calculator”, which tells you how much you can reasonably expect to raise on Kickstarter (as determined by the number of fans/friends/family you currently have access to.) Do yourself a favor and read this post. *Full disclosure: after reading their blog, I actually hired these guys to help me with my campaign.*

This TED Talk from Amanda Palmer - If you have any feelings of guilt, shame, or hesitancy about asking people for money in exchange for your art, watch this video. OR if you have any inner conflict about asking for gigs, or help, or places to stay. OR if it makes you mad that people steal music and other digital content. Amanda has a revolutionary and brilliant grasp on what it means to be an artist in the 21st century. What she says in this video is absolutely profound.

Here are my favorite Kickstarter campaigns:

4) I am really, really lucky.

That’s just a fact. I can’t explain it, but I am extremely grateful for it. I’m extremely grateful to have friends like Vienna Teng (see below). I’m extremely grateful to have so many outstandingly caring, enthusiastic, and generous fans. Thanks for your support, with this project and all the others.

Post by Vienna Teng.


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Why I’m Not Done Writing About Sex

(or, If You Thought That Last Video Was Too Risque You Better Brace Yourself)

I wrote my first blog about sex back in August. I made the decision, with that post, not to be private or coy about my sexuality, my interest in sex, or the sexual content of my work. I made the decision to “come out” as a woman who likes sex. The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. I got a bunch of fan mail in response to that post (only a very small percentage of it inappropriate or creepy). I got to have dinner with Dan Savage and Chris Ryan. I had women of all ages come up to me in person and thank me for writing about female sexuality. I got hit on a lot more often at my shows, and more directly (which is fine with me.) 

 Occasionally, I get a different reaction. A few people have told me that they’re “bored” of this topic, that I ought to write about something else. A friend told me that I should show less cleavage in my promotional pictures, or people might “get the wrong idea”. People have said that they “fear for my safety”, that I should probably “tone down the sex stuff”. Well, I’m about to release an EP. It includes one song about sex, one song about sex and murder, and one song about sex and bravery. That last one is accompanied by a music video which features two burlesque dancers in their underwear, two very tall men in suits, and yours truly, dancing lasciviously and looking like I’m about to make some mischief. NPR just told me they wouldn’t post it to their website because it’s “too risque”. So, for clarification purposes, I’d like to tell you why I won’t tone down the sex stuff.  

Just Exactly What I Stand For

It’s not my job to sing pretty songs. It’s not my job to be cute, or to make people feel comfortable, or nice, or happy. My job, as I’ve chosen to define it, is to live vibrantly, and tell everyone about it. 

I stand for aliveness. I stand for joy and pleasure and inspiration. I stand for human beings having a vibrant experience of their own lives. I stand for sex and desire and passion and lust because those things make me, and most other people, feel alive. For the same reason, I also stand for music, love, honesty, silliness, poetry, bravery, chocolate, parades, and painting things pink. I will stop writing about sex, and music and love and honesty, when those things stop making people feel alive. So don’t hold your breath.

“I Fear for Your Safety”

Aliveness is inefficient, messy, and hard to control. It’s difficult to monetize, difficult to quantify, difficult to compete at. Aliveness does not increase GDP. What’s worse: everybody wants it more than money. In a society like ours, aliveness is automatically threatening to the status quo.

Sexual pleasure, being one of the most potent bearers of aliveness, is surrounded by a sort of gloppy, tarry, whiny puritan shame. That shame is society’s way of protecting itself – think of it like porcupine quills, or the fake blood that some lizards cry. Shame, and its attendant propaganda, floats around in the ether and pours out of other people’s mouths before they realize what they’re saying. 

If you dedicate your life to aliveness, or anything that inspires it; be it sex or music or humor or painting-things-pink; people will tell you to get a job. They will ask you about your fallback plan. They will say, “I could never do that”. They will tell you they fear for your safety. They will tell you to show less cleavage and write about something else and focus and get serious and grow up and tone it down. 

 In essence, they will tell you that there are better things to do than run around feeling alive. I’m here to tell you that there aren’t.


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