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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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The “Pay What You Please” Manifesto

In 2008, I helped start a business called “Quidplayer”, which built a nifty little widget for artists to post on their websites. The Quidplayer is a music player that allows fans to pick their own price for the music they download from artists. It was a fairly revolutionary idea at the time (I had only heard of Radiohead taking that approach, never a smaller-time artist). These days, because of the success of Bandcamp and similar businesses, I’m happy to say it’s becoming more commonplace.

I’ve now adopted Bandcamp on my website, allowing fans to download tracks from the Buoy album for any price they choose. I’m planning to release the new record, Idiot Heart, in the same way. Additionally, for the past year, I’ve been inviting fans to choose their own price for my physical CDs at my shows.

This approach has gotten mixed reviews from fans. Some people are instantly in favor of it, others are downright incredulous. I’d like to let you in on where the idea came from, and why I’m now 100% sold on it.

The fan experience

Before I was a musician, I was a music fan. I still am! Music that moves me is worth more to me than almost anything else in the world. I would eat gruel every day for the rest of my life, or live in a tin hut, before I would give up good music. Music that doesn’t move me, on the other hand, is worth nothing to me. So how can two songs, one totally inspiring and one completely boring, both be worth $.99?

My answer is, they aren’t.

Not everybody has the same taste, but I will wager that everybody who loves music has a similar experience. If you really love an artist, if their music gets inside you and wreaks glorious havoc, destroying and rebuilding your interpretation of the world, making you laugh and cry and reconsider things, their art is worth an infinite amount of money to you.

The industry

Something big happened in the music world about a hundred years ago. Vinyl records were invented. Suddenly, record labels could record musicians, and distribute their music to jukeboxes, and later, directly to music fans and radio stations.

Imagine the enormity of this! Before 1910, a musician was a working person who traveled from town to town, performing their music live, in the same room with their fans. A fan was a person who saw that artist, enjoyed their performance, and planned to see them again the next time they came through town.

Recording changed the face of music in countless ways. The most shocking and new and important way, I submit, what that it turned a song – previously an experience, unsellable and unquantifiable - into an object which could be bought and sold.

With that one little idea, the recording industry was born. You can’t have an industry without a product, and you can’t make a product out of a musical performance unless you stamp it onto a piece of plastic. Now, a hundred years later, the music-buying public seems to think that a song is more or less the same as a pen, or an iPod, or an ice cream cone: it’s a thing, and it’s worth a fixed amount of money.

This, my friends, is lunacy. Songs are magic. Money is just money.

In Conclusion

It seems to me that the big mistake – the very biggest mistake in the history of the music industry – was not highly paid record executives, or unfair royalty distribution, or Napster, or iTunes. It was the faulty premise on which the whole empire was built: pretending, in the first place, that a song could be bought or sold.

So, here in the 21st century, as I make my songs and sing them into microphones, as so many others did before me, I’m challenging that premise. If you hear my music, and you like it, and you want to take it home with you, don’t ask me what it’s worth.

To me, it’s worth everything. It’s worth every failed love affair I wrote about. It’s worth the debts, and the late nights, and the incessant station wagon traveling. It’s worth every ounce of heartache that went into conceiving, writing, singing, and recording it. It’s worth all the money I’ve ever made, and ever spent, and ever will.

The question is: what’s it worth to you?


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Three Myths About Art and Success

My five-year anniversary of professional musicianship passed in August, and I was too busy making a record, touring, and driving back and forth to New Orleans to notice until now. I guess that’s as it should be.

Five years of doing this thing - and I mean REALLY DOING IT, pouring in all of my time and energy and passion and night-and-daydreams - has given me a whole lot of thoughts, feelings, and surprises. Below are some of my favorites, and the myths that begot them.

Myth #1: Being Good will Make You Successful.

The reality: being good and being successful: no correlation.

This has been the number one biggest shock to me over the past five years, and even though I “get it” now, I still wake up every week or two in a panic/depression/rebellion against this idea. I spent literally ten years of my life, ages 13 to 23, focused on only one musical goal: becoming a great songwriter. On the tail-end of that ten years, just as I started to think I might be reaching my goal, I got a wicked-bad feeling that it might not matter. It reminded me of Joseph Campbell’s description of a midlife crisis: you spend half your life climbing a ladder, you finally get to the top, and you realize it’s up against the wrong wall.

I woke up one day and had this chilling thought: I could be the best songwriter alive, and it wouldn’t guarantee any sort of external success. Not fame, not fortune, not even rent money.

I think the greatness = success myth grew out of a combination of bio-pic mania and the rags-to-riches fairy tales that Americans are particularly fond of. The myth goes something like this: if you’re really good at what you do, someone will come along and “discover” you, make a few phone calls, and before long, you’ll be a star.

I am not saying this to be bitchy, but here’s the stone-cold fact: the people who are most successful in the music business are not always the people who are best at music. Conversely, the people who are best at music are not always successful in the music business.

This principle, unfortunately, trickles down from platinum-selling mega-stars to the street musicians of Manhattan, and seems to be equally prevalent in the other arts, sciences, and even business. Contrary to popular belief, I think it’s been more or less this way for the last hundred years. Yes, Louis Armstrong was incredibly great, and incredibly successful. But have you ever heard of Cleo Brown? How about James Booker? And I won’t go into the less-than-talented artists who have been extremely successful, that would be rude… *COUGH* Rebecca Black *cough, cough*. Excuse me.

The first follow-up question, which I have yet to find a satisfactory answer to, is this: if being good doesn’t make you successful, what does? Some common suggestions are: 1) money 2) good looks 3) dumb luck. A less common but equally probable suggestion: 4) persistence.

The next follow-up question is a doozie. If being good doesn’t make you successful… why be good?

Myth #2: If You’re Not Successful, You Should Probably Stop.

The reality: your success is none of your business.

Before I got out from under this myth, I had to spend many months crying into my cereal about the fact that I had probably wasted ten years of my life honing a skill that the rest of the world considers about as important and interesting as making sculptures out of pencil shavings. So why be good? Why make music at all?

Finally, it dawned on me: success is not the point. Furthermore, it’s none of my business. My business is, in fact, being good.

Little-known fact: the most important and satisfying rewards one gets from being good at something are not external rewards. They don’t always include money or fame or gold stars. For example: nobody ever got a trophy for being in a happy marriage. At best, your spouse will buy you flowers, or do the dishes, occasionally. Does that mean it’s not worth the effort?

Obviously not. My goal of being a great songwriter is partly selfish and partly altruistic: I want to write great songs because doing so makes me happy. And how do I know I’ve written a great song? Because hearing that song makes somebody else happy.

I have to assume, somewhere deep in my heart, that the world will take care of me if I keep on doing what I love, and throwing my pleasure and joy and enthusiasm for it all around me like birdseed at a wedding. I have to assume that, put my head down, and write more songs.

Myth #3: Making Art will Drive You Crazy

The reality: success, or lack thereof, will drive you crazy. Making art may be the only thing that will keep you sane.

I blogged in detail about this a few months back, and here’s a follow-up. People (including me, until recently) seem to think that being an artist is a little like being a paranoid schizophrenic. You’re born that way and there’s nothing you can do about it, but with lots of meds and a decent institution, there’s still hope of an okay life. More likely, you’ll end up ODing at 27 in a basement green room, having spent your twelve illegitimate kids’ inheritance money on hookers and blow.

I’ll be 27 next July, so it seems like the time to take a long, hard look at this one.

I can’t say this will always be the case, but here’s what I’ve found so far: my relationship with my “muse”, that creature/spirit/part of my brain that brings me songs and melody and great performances, is the most satisfying relationship in my life. Creating art is a beautiful, magical, endlessly-gratifying experience.

My relationship with my ego, however, that creature/spirit/part of my brain that brings me fear, bitterness, and endless late-night monologues about my failures as an artist, is by far the most destructive and abusive one in my life. If I ever end up ODing in a basement green room (still looking pretty unlikely, from here): blame my ego, not my muse.

And yes, I blame Robert Johnson’s, Janis Joplin’s, Kurt Cobain’s and Amy Winehouse’s egos, too. Their muses were brilliant and kind and good to them. They didn’t have to die to make those records. Let’s all stop talking that way, for the good of the artists who are still with us.

In Conclusion…

I always hope that my little essays will be interesting to other artists, as well as to computer programmers and doctors and stay-at-home-dads. In case this one is a little too artist-centric, here’s a big-picture summary.

We humans, these days, put way too much emphasis on the kinds of success we can quantify, measure and compare (why? Probably a lot of reasons. I mostly blame the school system. And American Idol). Unfortunately for us, that kind of success has no inherent personal or spiritual value.

The kind of success that we need, that we ought to be concentrating on, cultivating, and encouraging from our kids, is the kind that brings us joy and satisfaction. It’s success that we need to work hard for, but the work makes us feel strong and smart and a little bit giddy. Chances are good that this kind of success brings the people around us joy and satisfaction, too; but how much, and whether they pay/thank/praise us for it, is none of our business.

I think Howard Thurman said it best, when he said…

“Do not ask yourself what the world needs. As yourself what makes you come alive, and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

PS. Actually, all kids already know this.


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