So Ferocious (2016)
Hot Night
Vim & Vigor
So Ferocious
Lovin is Easy
Ravenous
Fat & Happy
Scoundrel
To Be Known
The Animal I Am
Fever Dream
Azalea
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
Backbone
Smoke Alarm
Together Too Long
Backseat
Little Death
Lonely No More
Backbone
Idiot Heart
Chicken
All We Got
Honest Truth
Buoy
Itches and Tugs
Please
O, Gabriella
Money in the Bank
Two at a Time
Every Punch You Throw
Baby Can Dance
Crazy for Love
Promise
Anything At All
Ain't So Green
Don't Wanna Know
Everybody's All Alone
Take Me Along
Lovesick
Temporary Lapse
Time
Wedding Song
Willing To Fall
Redemption Blues
thoughts on love, sex, music and ferocity
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How to Do Creativity

I was in the studio for fourteen days in January, and I think it changed my life. I haven’t known quite what to share about my album-making experience, but the short version is that it was extremely fun. The details are harder to explain; it feels as though those two weeks cracked open a deep well of insight and awe and “oh, DUH” feelings within me.

The well of DUH has to do with creativity: what it is, how it works, and what it’s good for. I felt truly creative in the studio for the first time, and I think all five of us (the band who worked on the record) managed to get pretty dang creatively engaged, together. In other words, the spirit was with us in that little basement studio; and when I listen back to what we made, I can hear her.

Which reminds me, again, why it’s a good and important endeavor to invest my every last ounce of grit and gumption into the creative process, for the remaining moments of my little life.

Because when you manage to DO creativity, it’s a kind of healing magic. And when you SHARE it, the magic works on every witness. Any shmuck can hear and feel it, via microphone or printed page, even over long distances of space and time. It gives you the grinning goosebumps, and fills your heart with comfort, and brings you something holy in this weird and wicked world.

That’s why I read “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” ten times as a girl. That’s why I spin Ray Charles when I’m happy and Billie Holiday when I’m sad. It’s why I can stare at a Chagall for hours without getting bored. I’m not looking at paint, I’m looking at the creative spirit, and it fills me up with wonder.

SO, WHAT IS CREATIVITY?

Creativity is a process by which our tiny, confused, self-obsessed shit-talking mean little minds become conduits for unicorns and rainbows and Jesus and Beyonce.

It’s what’s happening when we fall in love and become raw-hearted and open, when we get stoned or otherwise silly and yuk it up at the hilarity of the human endeavor, when we lose ourselves and become one with the music we’re making or the dance we’re doing or the face we’re kissing.

HOW DOES CREATIVITY HAPPEN?

You can’t really force it to happen, because it is a profoundly unserious process, highly allergic to plans and strategies of all kinds. Seriousness and planning are the territory of the ego, and it’s a scientific fact that your ego is the least creative bone in your body.

Creativity happens when we are present and playful.

To be present means to be connected to what’s happening NOW, in the actual world you’re in, and unconcerned with what’s happening in the past, the future, or the imaginary alternate universe in your head.

That means you aren’t, for the moment, tripping on any of the following:

  1. Whether the thing you’re doing is stupid, brilliant, wonderful, terrible, or better or worse than some other thing somebody did or might do.
  2. What you might think about the thing you’re doing later on.
  3. What your mother/father/sister/friend/pope/idol/enemy might think about the thing you’re doing.

To be playful means that you’re invested in the PLAY: that is, the actual moment-to-moment ACT of making the thing you’re making. As opposed to the usual, which is being invested in your ego: your identity as the maker of that thing, how your identity will fare once the thing is made.

Playful and present are really two words for the same way of being. Other words include unserious, lighthearted, curious, twitterpated, soulful, feeling the spirit, in the groove, in the pocket, in the zone, open to surprise.

In other words, we must become like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven.


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(Yes, that’s the only bible verse I’ve ever quoted in my life)

HOW DO WE DO IT?

Although you can’t do it on purpose, there are lots of ways to encourage it to occur. I tend to think in terms of spirits and angels, because they are an elegant metaphor for how creativity feels; which is as though you were walking along minding your business, and suddenly a magic being from another world swooped down and whispered in your ear.

So, to DO creativity, you have to make yourself available to the angels. Here are a few tricks.

1)  Practice.

Practice is not just for getting better at your instrument. If you ask me, it’s for making your self-consciousness about playing/drawing/dancing slowly recede into the background, so that you can become engaged by the actual activity.

When we’re new at something, we are at least 90% self-conscious and only about 10% engaged. As you practice, the ratio gets better. You get less self-conscious, more engaged, and thus more present and playful (and thus more available to angels).

2)  Surround yourself with angel bait.

Your angel bait depends entirely on the preferences of the angels you are courting. Mine prefer: clean spaces; bright colors; images of animals and children; small trinkets from faraway places; beautiful instruments; good books and records; feathers, bones, candles, and yarn. My writing studio (The Watermelon) is chock-full of this stuff, and while making this album, I finally had the presence of mind to import some angel bait into the recording studio.

My theory about why angel bait works is that creativity is the realm of the unconscious, and so if you want to be creative, you’ll need to speak the language of the unconscious (the language of symbols, myths, and dreams), not regular everyday language. 

For example, hanging up a sign that says “BE CREATIVE AT 10AM” probably won’t work, because it’s written in the wrong language. You’ll be better off hanging up a picture of a seahorse, or a poem that you like. 

Know your audience! If your audience is an angel, don’t be talking deadlines and spreadsheets.


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(Studio alter: prayer candles, kazoo, motter, Japanese anime figurines) 

3)  No more bullies

In addition to deadlines and spreadsheets, angels seem to have an aversion to bullies and egomaniacs. That has at least two connotations for creativity:

  1. If YOU have a tendency towards bullying or egoizing*, now it the time to start taming it. If you’re bullying yourself or anybody else, or if you’re acting with the intention of stroking your own or anybody else’s ego (even subtly and covertly), the angel will know and she will not deign to inspire you with a ten-foot-pole.
  2. If you have a bully or an egomaniac in your life, ESPECIALLY if they are in your creative space, or collaborating with you on your creative work, you’d better get them out of there PRONTO.

Take a moment to look deep inside your soul, and answer honestly: do you have an ego-crazed bully hanging around? Will you miss them more than you’re missing the angels they’re scaring off?

This was another major and recent revelation for me. It forced me to be very choosy about who was involved in the making of this album, especially considering the close quarters and emotional demands of the studio. The people I hired to play on and produce this record are incredibly thoughtful, sweet, emotionally perceptive goofballs. And also wickedly, outlandishly talented (turns out the two are not mutually exclusive).  


(These people are not assholes)

4)  Take care of your body, house, and heart

AS A GENERAL RULE, to be open-hearted, you have to be well-slept, well-fed, recently showered, and somewhat emotionally intact. 

I know this may come as a shock to those who have been operating the Van Gogh/Bukowski model of creativity. I try to follow some combination of Flaubert’s dictum: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work”, and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s:

Oh, think not I am faithful to a vow!
Faithless am I save to love’s self alone.
Were you not lovely I would leave you now.
After the feet of beauty fly my own.

I find that the angels visit when I’ve slept and eaten, put my house in order, and followed beauty with ardent and steadfast commitment. Neglect of one’s body, abject poverty, and the tortured drama of dysfunctional relationships are all highly overrated methods of courting inspiration.  

In terms of album-making, this means that I rented a house near the studio, did my best to provide comfy beds and good coffee, food, and liquor, paid the band the absolute maximum I could afford, and kept regular hours most days.

WHEN IS A BAD TIME TO BE CREATIVE?

Here’s my last and final knock-down drag-out take-home heart-expanding ass-kicker of a thought:

As far as I can tell, there is no time when creativity is a bad idea. When I am creative, I am smarter, faster, more in tune, sexier, funnier, more perceptive, more compassionate, and a better contributor to those around me.

I used to think that writing was creative, and sometimes performing, but the rest of my life was not. Now I’ve realized that recording is part of the creative process, if I’m willing to open myself to the angels of the studio.

And cooking is part of the creative process, if I’m willing to open myself to the angels of the kitchen.

And doing dishes, and reading, and talking, and walking the dogs, and sitting quietly, and making love, and dreaming, and driving, and waiting in line at the post office, if (and only if) I open my heart to those particular angels. And getting dressed in the morning could be, too, and parenting, and maybe even paying bills (although that is some ninja-level creative magic that I’ve yet to unleash).

When we are creative, we are present and playful. Is there anything worth doing that isn’t improved by those qualities?

And that means, my friends, is that it’s time to put out your angel bait, kick out your bullies, and get your house in order. Because all the world’s a stage, and a canvas, and a guitar. 

And I feel an angel coming on.

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- *As far as I know, ”Egoizing” is a word coined by Ursula K. Le Guin in her book The Dispossessed, a fucking excellent book that you should read.

- My new record will be released in summer 2016.

- This post was inspired by at least two books: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, and Finite & Infinite Games by James P. Carse. 



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Art Is Freedom

A Secular Sunday Sermon

The thing is, art is freedom. It’s freedom from the status quo: from the ridiculous, arbitrary trends and expectations of whatever cultural morass we happen to be sunk in at the moment (our family, our school, our 2000 facebook friends). Art is communion with the divine – the divine spirit of yourself in deepest you-ness, the spirit of laughter and beauty, the spirit who arises in you when you hear or see or feel anything, purely and undistractedly, who looks up for a moment to say (as Anne Lamott would put it), WOW. 

We need art, and all other forms of spiritual communion (dance, sex, chocolate lava cake, and swimming in cold water - to name a few), so that we don’t spiral miserably into the pit of our own minds. Art is a sacred lunch break. It’s an invitation to come out from the hole, and look upon ourselves with compassion, and most importantly a sense of humor. Left to our own devices, we will put on our hard hats, descend into the coal pit of our daily worries, and never return. We will pack our spirits away in tupperware and forget them, so that we might pay the bills, and clean the house, and lose a few pounds. We will toil in that pit until we’re dead, just to make ourselves presentable. 

Art is freedom, so our job as artists is to make ourselves free. That’s it, that’s the whole job description. There are no other bullet points. 

So I seek freedom from the coal pit of my mind, from the dumb demands of the cultural morass, and from the highly contagious madness of the so-called free market. I seek it for my own amusement, and because it is my calling, and so that I can share it with you. 

I only have this privilege because of the alms you give me. All this crowdfunding nonsense – Kickstarter and Patreon and the big red tip bucket – is just that: I’m coming to you with an open hand, looking for alms. I am seeking charity to continue my silly, ephemeral, monkish work, so that we all might be a little freer. And by god and the spirit and chocolate lava cake, I sure do thank you. 

Happy Sunday, my friends.


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Crowdfunding, Panhandling, and the Business of Creativity

I’m running another Kickstarter, and it’s been a rousing success. Yesterday, we met our first goal, in just one week! 

But I don’t want to lie to you, my friends. It’s also been annoying. It’s annoying to my fans (who I’ve been badgering every day for the past week), it’s annoying to my friends and family (who’ve gotten nothing from me but anxiety and terror for the past month), and I’ll admit it: it’s annoying to me, too.

It’s annoying because I really only care about music, not money. And it’s uncomfortable to ask people for money, over and over again! But I know that if I don’t find a way to care about money, and to get comfortable, at least for a few short weeks, I don’t get to make the music that I want to make. 

So, I find the parts that I care about. I care about my fans, for instance: I find them delightful, and kind, and funny. I am constantly moved to find that there are people out there, besides my immediate family, who want to hear (and pay for) my music. This seems impossible and hilarious to me; like learning that your pet rat has become famous on the internet. 

But when my focus begins to drift, I find it heartening to remember that I come from a noble lineage of beggars and thieves. In the broad arc of human history, music has rarely been an esteemed or profitable way of life.

It’s a wonderful way of life, though, if you happen to care only about music.

The History of the Music Industry 

Let’s have a brief recap.

Two hundred years ago, copyright was invented. A hundred years later, jukeboxes arrived. The copyright/jukebox combo made it possible for non-classical musicians and songwriters (henceforth known as “pop musicians”) to collect royalties, and for the first time ever, to be paid beyond one-time fees for their compositions and performances. After that, we got widespread radio, singles, and eventually long-play records (LPs).

So, some time in the late forties/early fifties, we found ourselves in a perfect storm. The war was over, the country was flush, and new technology made it possible for a great number of people to purchase new, original, pop music to listen to in their homes. At the same time, jazz was becoming marketable to white audiences, and rock and roll was a little fledgeling thing, trying out its legs. Suddenly, a pop musician could sell a million records, many of them to people who had no access to a live music venue. The recording industry, as we know it, was born.

Because this is America, a huge and sprawling economy quickly exploded around this new phenomenon, eating everything in its wake. Managers, producers, sound engineers, music promoters, and of course record labels, with their attendant CEOs, A&R men, publicists and secretaries, sprang into existence and proliferated, filling important roles that had never existed before.

Musicians got famous, and famous in an unprecedented way. They required bodyguards, they rode around in cars with tinted windows, they appeared in movies. For the first time in human history, pop musicians (albeit a tiny fraction of them) could be rich, powerful, and well-respected.

At its peak, in 1999, the recording industry created almost twenty billion dollars of revenue in the US alone.

Then, the internet happened, and caused this whole reel-to-reel to reverse itself. The recording industry began to shrink. The long-play record receded back into the mud, replaced once again by the single. Musicians began to lose sales, royalties, and even copyright protections.

In conclusion, the music industry as we know it has existed for less than 100 years, and seems to have peaked about fifteen years ago. Like tulips in Holland, popular music was a fevered craze, which begat an extremely volatile and short-lived industry.


The History of Music

But before that – before the internet, and the industry, and the long-play record, and the jukebox, and the copyright - was there music? Yes.

There has always been music.

The earliest known musical instrument, a bone flute found in Southwestern Germany, is dated at 35,000 years (that’s your entire estimated life span, times 500). And we can assume that the human voice was the first musical instrument, and thus, that music began much earlier. That means that music (and art) existed before agriculture, written language, and of course, money. 

Music predates money by, oh, roughly 25,000 years. If you ask me, conflating the two has been a grave mistake, from which I wish us all a speedy recovery.


The History of Musicians

From what I can tell, musicians have rarely been esteemed by society, and have largely had to beg for food, shelter and money, since the dawn of the modern age. At best, we have been thought of as a kind of monk, whose vocation requires us to eschew worldly concerns (and thus subsist on charity). Mostly, we’ve been thought of as charming accessories to be kept by the nobility, like exotic birds; or more often, as panhandlers and degenerates.

The only historical period for which this has not been the rule was a brief era of fewer than a hundred years, in a relatively small part of the world. If you’re reading this, you were probably born in that part of the world, during the latter part of that era. 

Congratulations!

But I implore you, fellow musicians: let us not be so short-sighted as to chalk up the tiny blip of our own lifetime to “the way things have always been”. We are the creative class - we exist outside the economy. It’s our job (more than anyone else’s) to remember our humanity, above and in spite of the economic imperative. 

When even our artists become obsessed by money, humanity has lost its soul.

Musicians today, just like Shakespeare, Mozart, and Robert Johnson, must play at the pleasure of the gentry, play for tips, and do our best to eat free and evade our taxes.

Perhaps this sounds insane to you; it does to many people. If I had ten dollars for every time someone on an airplane, or at a family gathering, has asked me how I plan to make money as a musician, or why I haven’t chosen a more practical line of work (or why I use Kickstarter instead of “getting a record deal” (quotes mine), or why I don’t play corporate events/weddings/covers/lindy hop exchanges), I could stop this Kickstarter campaign right now. 

What we have here, folks, is a failure of imagination. Capitalism is such a powerful psychological concept that people in a capitalist society often fail to recognize the value of anything other than money.

And to me, that sounds insane. So I guess we’ll agree to disagree. 


Making Peace with Panhandling

Kickstarter (and Patreon), in my view, are 21st century tip buckets. I’m here on the street corner of the internet, passing you my hat. If you like what you hear, drop a dollar. If you don’t, move on. I won’t get rich off it, but it will give me another few months of making beautiful things, here on the outskirts of society, for no good reason.

If you look at the amounts I’ve raised on Kickstarter and think that I’m a liar or a hypocrite, let me take a moment to gently correct you. I have been in debt, because of music, for 100% of my adult life. And I didn’t even go to college! 

Since I made my first record at nineteen, whatever money I’ve made from touring, CD sales, royalties, licensing, tips and Kickstarter, I’ve spent feeding myself, fixing my car, and making records. Add to that whatever money I’ve made at my succession of glamorous day jobs (dog grooming, burger flipping, latte-making), or borrowed from my family, or my fans, or credit cards, or banks. Never underestimate the amount of money an obsessive person can spend on the thing they are obsessed with.

My point here is not to have a pity party. On the contrary, I feel that I’ve been incredibly fortunate, in a whole myriad of ways. I love my life, and I love my work. What I want to say is this: I’ve gotten comfortable with debt, and with begging. It hasn’t been hard to do, because I don’t care about money. I also don’t care overly much about pride, or being cool, or maintaining my so-called “artistic mystery”.

I care about music. 

I think e.e. cummings said it best, when he said: “If a poet is anybody, he is somebody to whom things made matter very little- somebody who is obsessed by Making. Like all obsessions, the Making obsession has disadvantages; for instance, my only interest in making money would be to make it. Fortunately, however, I should prefer to make almost anything else, including locomotives and roses.”

As for me, I should prefer to make albums, and songs, and mischief, and merriment. If you want to hear the things I make, send me some money. If you don’t, go on your merry way. 

Regardless, I’ll be here on the corner: the wild-eyed monk, with the tin cup, singing.



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This post was inspired by the work of Amanda Palmer, Elizabeth Gilbert, Milton, and many others. 



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