The License To Be Pretty

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It occurs to me that in all these years of writing my blog I’ve rarely written about songwriting, despite it being such an important part of my life. I started writing songs from the moment I first laid hands on a piano. It always felt instinctual for me to improvise, and to use musical instruments for discovery, giving voice to whatever melodies might be floating around at any given time. I say “floating around” as it’s hard to say where those melodies come from. I don’t walk around with them buzzing in my head, pressure building for them to be released as if they were some kind of flying insects, butterflies preferably. Nope. Instead it’s as if these melodies are fluttering in the air, up above and around my head, waiting to be caught and played. Tom Waits likens songwriting to fishing, and says that you have to be real quiet to catch the big ones. I’ve come to think that we’re talking about the same experience.

A song that I recently finished writing has prompted me to look at the songwriting process in a different way. Namely, the process in which you decide whether to keep or discard an idea. For one reason or another this particular song had ended up in my reject pile a couple of years ago, after I’d first started working on it. Since then it had existed in some sort of Inception-type limbo-world for discarded songs, until a week or so ago I finally reached back into the abyss and decided to salvage it. At the urging of my two trusty artist-friends, I might add. I did some CPR on the song by moving it from guitar to piano, and lo and behold, it came alive! I’ve since been told by one of those artist friends that this is the best song that I’ve ever written, and at the moment, I find myself agreeing. How close it came to never being heard by anyone at all!

What horrified me about the mindless way I’d discarded the song in the first place, was the fact that at the time I’d deemed it “too pretty.” As if that’s a bad thing. If one is attempting to create beauty in this world, can something really be too pretty? Maybe, maybe not. All I know is that I no longer feel that it is. I hereby bestow upon the song “the license to be pretty.” And when my friend read this quote by Martha Graham at his concert this week, I felt a powerful feeling of validation:

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. … No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.” 
― Martha Graham

Yes, that’s right! That’s spot on, Martha Graham, thank you! It is not my business to determine how good this song is nor how valuable nor how it compares to other expressions. Fuck that. It is my business to keep the channel open, and to not stand in my own way. And it just so happens that by the finishing of this song, the songwriting phase for my next album will be complete. How’s that for getting out of my own way.

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Practice, Practice, Practice…. But Why? 

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This has been a life-altering summer for me in a quiet way. No big shakes, no big blow-ups, just a lot of rewiring and tinkering and tweaking. And now, as Labor Day approaches and the fall season begins, I’m having a distinctly poignant feeling. I’m sure I’m not alone in wishing that I’d had a couple more weeks to just rest and relax. In my case to balance out all that fiddling I’ve been doing. But life doesn’t tend to wait for me to be ready for the next thing to appear on the radar. It’s got a rhythm of its own, and it doesn’t care whether I keep up with it or not. But I do care. I care a lot.

So the “school year” begins once again. I feel like the consummate school-girl, always in the process of learning something that I absolutely need to master, or else I can’t proceed to the next level. Kind of like a video-game, but one with no hidden shortcuts programmed into it. You just have to keep trying to do it over––again and again––until you nail it, or get lucky. Preferably nail it of course. 

Speaking of school, I think that there are a number of things in life that the powers that be simply assume we know how to do. Things that aren’t taught in school, but in my opinion should be. Like, what it means to be a responsible, grown-up human being in this world, and how do you become one. How the hell do you handle your finances. How you’re supposed to figure out who you are. And, why it’s important to do so. How to form one’s own opinion, and why it’s important not to follow anyone blindly.

I could come up with millions of examples of things that should be part of any self-respecting school’s curriculum, but all that aside, there’s one lesson that I’ve been particularly keen on this summer. How to practice doing something––anything. I don’t recall that any school I went to ever taught me, first of all, that practicing one’s craft is incredibly valuable; or second of all, how one is supposed to go about it. I can’t recall that any teacher ever explained to me why I should practice something, they simply got angry with me when I didn’t. Which was a lot. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that anger is a particularly effective method for teaching. Tell me why the practicing matters and what’s the point of what you’re teaching me to do. Inspire me! Motivation is key. Motivate me, and I’ll do whatever it takes to excel! Don’t motivate me and I’ll simply go through the motions. 

Getting back to where I started from, this summer has changed me. It’s changed the way I think about practicing, and my relationship to working on my craft. I now take a much more deliberate approach to working on my weaknesses through repetition and focus, rather than just playing through songs. Scalpel not an ax. Having toured extensively this past year, I came to understand in a visceral way the difference that repetition and muscle memory had on my performances. I’ve become highly motivated to keep working on my punches and kicks, so to speak. I view preparation as respect for the audience, and I think of every audience now as the most important one ever. It’s not about how many people I reach on any given night, it’s about the depth of that reach. I’m not fucking around. Not me. Do or do not, there is no fucking try. That’s some motivation right there. 

And for those of you, who are interested in more info on practicing, here’s an article that has been valuable to me recently. 

http://ideas.time.com/2012/01/25/the-myth-of-practice-makes-perfect/

The Best Revenge Is Not To Be Like That

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“The best revenge is not to be like that.” – Marcus Aurelius

In the face of the despicable, disgusting current events in the country that I live in, it’s hard for me to write about anything else. There can no longer be any ambiguity about the fact that we have a Nazi-sympathizer as our president, and he’s not alone. He’s appointed plenty of like-minded advisors in his cabinet, even if Steve Bannon is no longer among them. And while many Republican representatives and senators have come out to condemn the violence in Charlottesville, I’m nauseated at how few of them are willing to call the President out directly for his unfathomably irresponsible actions and rhetoric. What the hell are they waiting for?

It’s a disturbing time we’re living in. And yet, despite all the madness that’s going on in the government, daily life in NYC is not noticeably different. When you walk down the street you wouldn’t yet know that the leader of our country is a total lunatic. But it is starting to be felt elsewhere in the country, as evidenced by the events in Charlottesville. I’m pretty confident in saying that what happened there wouldn’t have happened if Trump hadn’t been elected president. White supremacists have been noticeably emboldened by Trump being in power, and I doubt that they would’ve dared to show up in such numbers, brandishing Nazi-symbols, tiki torches, and heavy weaponry were it not for the governing regime being what it is. This sort of display of hatred and bigotry would simply not be tolerated by any other administration. And it’s clear that more of this mayhem is to come in the days and weeks ahead. 

While all of this is going on I’m determined to continue living my life as normally as possible, working towards the goals that are important to me. My emotions fluctuate as I watch what’s going on in the world, but I do understand that it’s important that I don’t get dragged down by fear and anger myself. I refuse to be bullied that way. Yes, Trump is the ultimate bully––with his bully-cronies in tow––but I have faith that this country will in the end be stronger than their hatred. What we’re seeing is the pus that’s being squeezed out from an old wound at the center of a nation. The ugliness was lodged in there all this time anyway––there’s no way to clean it until it’s out in the open. Perhaps a simplistic view of things, and I’m not trying to ignore the painful nature of the process. Nope. Not at all. It’s probably going to get worse before it gets better. But I do trust that it will get better. 

I’m watching these events as an immigrant who didn’t know what the hell I was getting into when I became a citizen of the United States. I now have a much expanded understanding of it. The outsider part of me sometimes wants to throw in the towel and tell everyone to go fuck themselves. “This ain’t my frickin’ problem. This ain’t my frickin’ mess.”  But I’m also now an American citizen and therefore feel compelled to fight against this deeply rooted ignorance, oppression and injustice, well…because it is my frickin’ problem. This is my home now, and has been for quite a while. We the people are all responsible for our own parts in all of this, and I accept that I’m responsible for mine. The pus is out, and we all have to help clean it up. Like my man Marcus Aurelius said: the best revenge is not to be like that. 

Thank You, Georgia O’Keeffe!

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Last Sunday, on the very last day of the run I finally went to see the Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. I’d been wanting to go see it for a while but the days just kept passing me by, one after another. Even though I got there at the very last minute, I can say that this was one exhibition I’m grateful I didn’t miss. It may very well have changed my life! 

The reason why the O’Keeffe exhibition was so powerful for me was that for once we were not simply viewing the paintings of a painter––nor the sculptures of a sculptor––we were also viewing the way the artist lived. The audience was allowed to see the clothing, shoes, and accessories O’Keeffe had worn (and largely made herself) in addition to looking at photographs of her by various photographers (including Alfred Stieglitz, the man she married). We also saw photography and video footage of her beautiful rustic home and garden in New Mexico and its mountainous surroundings. And perhaps most inspiringly, alongside each item on exhibit were little insights into her life and her view of the world via quotes from herself and others close to her. 

I can’t express how galvanizing it was for me to have the opportunity to see how all-encompassing O’Keeffe’s vision was. She did not simply paint canvases––she painted her life––just as deliberately as any piece of art. In fact, in her case it was impossible to separate the artist from her art. Down to the minutest detail, her life was a celebration of that which she deemed beautiful. The way she lived must have required extraordinary mindfulness in her everyday endeavors and chores. That’s what I find most moving about her. Being that intensely present in her daily life is what enabled her to stay true to her singular vision in every aspect of her life, and therefore achieve all that she did. 

I know that none of us on this earth are perfect, and idolizing any human being would be naive. But having role models, wherever I can find them, has been invaluable for me. Georgia O’Keeffe is certainly now an important one. The most powerful sentiment I absorbed from the exhibit was a concept that had transformed O’Keeffe’s own life early on in her career. She credited a teacher of hers, painter and printmaker Arthur Wesley Dow, for giving her a one-sentence theory of art by which to paint and live. Ready? Here it is. The quest is about seeking to “fill space in a beautiful way.” That simple line hit me like a ton of bricks on Sunday. Could it be that one concept could apply to everything I do, whether it’s making a meal for myself, the way I walk down the street, the words that I say to a friend? Now, the idea of what is beautiful is, of course, personal to each and everyone. But by filling the space with what I consider beautiful––in my life and in my art––I’m bound to create something meaningful, personal, and true. I marvel at the thought, and have been practicing using it every day since discovering it. And for that, I express my gratitude to Georgia O’Keeffe. It’s not a small gift that she’s given me by showing me the way. Not a small gift at all. 

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To Dance Or Not To Dance

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It’s Wednesday night as I’m writing this entry. I sit alone at the barge on the Hudson river, listening to what sounds like an old Argentinian tango, watching a group of strangers dancing under a white canopy as the sun gradually descends behind the skyline of New Jersey. It’s like a wedding party, although this is clearly open to the public. I avoid a stranger’s gaze, in case he might get it into his head that I might want to join in this dancing extravaganza. I’m just a voyeur tonight. What the hell is this? Always something going on in this city…so many potential things to do every day.

And so I contemplate this. As a new Manhattanite, what is it that I want my Manhattan to look like? What are my favorite haunts, my favorite cafes, my favorite pastimes, my favorite grocery store? I have temporary answers for each of these questions, having lived on this island for three months now. But I decided tonight that I haven’t settled into any permanent grooves yet.

I had a strong foundation for my life in Brooklyn: a community of acquaintances and friends built through years of living there; my trusty stores, my gym, my coffee spots. People knew me at my local post office and dry cleaners, and it was a big deal to say goodbye to everyone, even as I may find myself visiting my old neighborhood quite regularly. One forgets how long it takes to create a home for oneself out of a neighborhood; how long it takes to make acquaintances and friends. Especially in a city like New York, where everything is in constant flux and people float in and out of each other’s lives regularly. In this city, Brooklyn feels far away, even though my old home is just 45 minutes away by subway from my new one. But in the energy of NYC, that’s a long way to go. My life is changing drastically now. It’s inevitable.

I think about the deliberate choices that I’m making in my life, and how the way I forge my daily life in this city should be no less thought out. I want to have a community here, just as I had in my beloved Brooklyn. For that’s how a place becomes beloved in the first place. Through the shared experience, through connection. On this gorgeous sunlit pier, I think about how it’s my responsibility to curate my day, just as I curate my art, my music, my wardrobe. Everything in life can be an active choice, albeit perhaps some options aren’t available at any given moment in one’s life. But I like the thought of being decisive. And if Argentinian tango on the pier is something that I want in my life as a regular event, goddammit, I’ll make it so. As I just discovered, this opportunity is here for the seizing. Along with all the rest of them.

Wonder Woman, I Am

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I went to see the new Wonder Woman film at a theater in NYC last Saturday with two dear friends of mine, and I was so compelled by the experience that I’m writing about it now. I’ve always been fond of superhero-movies––Christopher Reeves’ Superman, and Toby McGuire’s Spiderman being two of my favorites. And I was even more enamored with director Christopher Nolan’s dark and intense Batman trilogy. I still find myself referring to certain quotes in the Dark Knight movies, and marvel at the amount of depth and vision in them. A quote like: “Some men just want to watch the world burn rings eerily true to me today. But I digress. I was quite excited to go see this new superhero-movie, particularly as the protagonist was––for the first time in my experience––a woman.

Now, the Wonder Woman movie is fun and entertaining, and a nice break from reality, but the quality of the movie is not why I feel compelled to write about it. I’ve been watching a string of old classic movies lately in fact (a slew of old Hitchcocks and a number of Paul Newman’s best turns on screen), so I’m on a decidedly different kind of movie kick right now. So perhaps Wonder Woman won’t be going on my list of all-time best movies ever––it’s a fine movie––but it isn’t about to compete with Spartacus in the “fuck me in the heart” category.

But. Wonder Woman is extraordinary for a whole other reason. Never have I left a movie theater feeling so empowered (I know…but it’s true). Never have I left a movie theater so ready to kick anybody’s ass who might threaten me. After all, didn’t I just see a woman besting everyone else on screen by a huge margin? Didn’t she just save the whole fucking world in front of my eyes?? It was at that moment that I realized that this is the first time we’ve seen a woman do this, in this way, and I was surprised at how powerful that felt to me personally, as a woman. I hadn’t understood it before on that deep a level, that while men have plenty of heroes and super-hero role models to choose from, we women have had only one. (Please. Catwoman and Batgirl don’t count.) And while Wonder Woman has been around since the 40’s, this is the first time she’s come into my orbit in a real way. And the orbit of many others as well, I suspect.

One more observation about Wonder Woman that makes her especially empowering for me is the fact that she grew up on an island inhabited only by powerful women. (!!!) These women––fierce, female Amazon warriors––brought Wonder Woman up to adulthood without her knowing anything about the patriarchal society that the rest of the world lives in. She has never experienced inequality between men and women and is therefore oblivious to it. THAT is what makes her such a role model for me. Though we’ve seen some female protagonists in movies in the past who’ve overcome all kinds of obstacles to come into their power at last, we’ve never seen a female hero before who is innately powerful, not the product of any kind of suppression or oppression. However progressive or liberal a culture or country we may think we live in, the truth is that there is not one country in the world in which women and men are treated equally. Trust me. Even I, who originally hail from uber-progressive Scandinavia, have plenty of personal stories about inequality and misogyny to tell.

Wonder Woman’s fearless vision of the world is what blew my mind, and showed me, for the first time, what might one day be possible for women. Here is a woman who will never have to fear getting raped or beaten or bullied. Never. She can look as sexy (or not) as she wants, and smile the warmest smile to anyone she encounters, but she need not be scared. No one’s going to harm her. Because if they try, she’s going to kick their asses so hard that they land on Neptune. Now that’s an example to live by.

Seeing is believing. I hope we’ll be witnessing many more powerful women in movies in the future. It’s not hyperbole: these visions have the capacity to change the minds and the lives of women and girls forever.

The Facepalm President

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What a peculiar time we’re living in. Yes, it’s true: I’m currently living in my own “Camelot,” as I wrote in my previous blog-entry. But having a mentally ill man as the President of the United States casts quite the shadow on anyone’s own personal Camelot. We don’t exist independently of what’s going on in the world. And as I write this, I’m feeling pissed off and frustrated. But, vindicated too, in the wake of former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony yesterday.

I shudder at the thought that I’m getting used to this continuous turmoil in our current political climate. That I’m numbing to the deplorably low level of discourse of the president, whenever he opens his mouth on TV. That I’m shocked by almost nothing I hear him say anymore. *Of course he did that.* *Of course he said that.* *Awesome…* 

I’ve learned that I can expect insanity from an insane person. I think that’s a fair and sensible attitude to have. But it is tiresome. I live in a country where the Executive Branch of government has been destabilized––and quite suddenly. It’s unnerving to see the foundations of our democracy being rattled so on a daily basis. The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) has now declared that the United States is no longer a “full democracy,” for the first time in its history. The US is now labeled a “flawed democracy” instead. I for one don’t like how that sounds. I don’t like it at all. 

Big changes are going on, and it’s hard to imagine where all of this is going. But numb as I may have gotten, I still find myself with my face in my palm on the subway, as I receive another news-alert on my phone. *Of course that happened…but facepalm.* I’ve already watched All The President’s Men twice over the last couple of months, and yup, I watched Spotlight too. They give me hope. The concept of a “relentless pursuit for truth” gives me lots of hope. In addition to all the bullshit that us human beings are capable of, we’re capable of great things too. I’m truly grateful for how seriously journalists are taking their work these days, in a political atmosphere in which the leader of the country calls them “Enemies of the State.” The way I see it, journalists are making sure that we aren’t in the dark and powerless, and that those people that represent us in the government can’t just get away with “it.” So THANK YOU, courageous journalists, for your important work! 

For years, my blog has been a snapshot of where I’ve been at in any given moment in time, and this is where I’m at right now. I’ve followed US politics very closely the last few years (not least because I’m a newly minted US citizen), and I feel a personal responsibility to be an informed voter. I know I’m not the only one who’s exhausted at having to witness––daily––a man who is clearly not fit to hold the office of President. A man making a mess of our institutions, and viewing the rule of law as if it was merely a suggestion. I may be exhausted, but I’m awake, and I’m watching. Just as, indeed, the People are watching, Mr. President. You can gaslight all the people some of the time, you can gaslight some of the people all the time, but you can’t gaslight all the people all the time.  

This Is Camelot

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My life has never been better, and it isn’t going unnoticed by me.

It’s been a little while since I last wrote a new blog-post, but here I am––on the page again. My life has changed so much these past couple of months that I’ve barely had a chance to process it, much less write about it. But now, with each day I find myself settling down, and finally getting a chance to reflect on it all. 

Moving to Manhattan from Brooklyn was no small thing. I’ve now lived in my new place for almost two months, and though two weeks of that time were spent on tour in the UK, I’ve been gradually getting to know my new neighborhood, and making my new house a home. I’m loving the energy of Manhattan even more than I was expecting to, and truly enjoy feeling like I’m in the middle of everything. The pace of my days has already accelerated noticeably. Living in a ground floor apartment in this city means that I’m psychologically always on the ready to come and go, and to get things out the door. This––in contrast with living in my fourth-floor-walkup in Brooklyn with a 45-minute subway commute to Manhattan––makes for quite a different existence! I’m on the front lines now, and goddammit, I like it this way!

I’ve been working hard these past two years––and non-stop––expanding my career beyond anything I’ve experienced before. After returning from an exciting and successful tour in the UK a few weeks ago, I’m ready to breathe deep and ‘take a minute’ for myself. There’s a wonderful and palpable feeling of momentum I’ve been experiencing––a tailwind so to speak, as opposed to a headwind (which I’m also familiar with). Ferociously believing in my music and promoting my album, Didn’t You, My Dear?, for this extensive period of time has gotten me here, and I’m so grateful. Now is a moment for me to recharge, to create new music, and to consolidate all that I’ve experienced so I can hit the ground running again in the fall. I’ll be sharing those experiences and thoughts more regularly in my blog throughout this next period, so I hope you’ll join me for it all.

I’m in such a great place right now. A friend of mine referred to this moment in my life as Camelot, and dammit, that’s right: 

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noun

1. the legendary site of King Arthur’s palace and court, possibly near Exeter, England.

2. any idyllic place or period, especially one of great happiness.

Yup, it’s true: my life has never been better. I may look wistfully at this moment some day in the future, but I’m also looking at it with clear eyes in the present. Lest I ever wonder whether I enjoyed it to the fullest: Yes I did. And I am. 

It’s Up To You, New York…!

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New York, New York!

I’ve just moved from Brooklyn, and I’m officially settling into my new home in Manhattan. My “artist-in-residence” concert series at The Bowery Electric in now truly and aptly named…!

This Thursday will be a special chapter in my ongoing run of concerts there––I’ll be debuting a new song, “Dead On,” and we’ll be performing one of my favorite songs by Guster that I’m hoping we’ll all be able to sing together––so please join me, my new guitar pedal, and my soulful special guest Abby Ahmad for a music-rich night.

If I can make it here, I can make it anywhere…so start spreading the news: it’s up to you, New York…!

Xo
J

Tickets HERE.

 

The Difference Between the Lightning Bug and the Lightning

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I’m back from two weeks of touring the West Coast…a truly inspiring experience! I’ve come so far in just a year––this time last year I was on a month-long tour in Germany which was my first foray into being on the road for an extended period of time. I’ve been on tour a number of times since then, and it’s remarkable to realize what a difference it has all made to my musicianship. There are many artistic nuts and bolts one figures out on tour, and having some semblance of a routine about it all makes all the difference for me. Little things and little tweaks, in fact, have big consequences. Mark Twain once wrote, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” The same holds true for music, not only the art of it, but the practice of it. The difference between the almost right approach, and the right approach can be everything and I’ve now learned that in touring, above all else, experience is key. Until I had a solid foundation of knowing how I work best, I was always reeling to some extent. This time I was much more relaxed and more confident than ever before. And as the result of it, I was able to concentrate on the things that matter the most: my music, my performance, and my connection with the audience. 

Here’s a special tour anecdote, from my concert at The White Eagle Saloon in Portland. It turned out to be one of my most memorable concert experiences to date. The day before the show I’d been celebrating an important date in my life: the 7th anniversary of my sobriety. I had a celebratory indulgence at what I was told was the best donut-joint in all of Portland: Blue Star Donuts, and savored a delicious ooey gooey chocolate-y sin of a donut––heavenly to the last bite. A nice guy who worked there named Simon offered that if we got him in to the show, he’d bring a box of donuts. We struck the deal, and although I initially took his promise with a grain of salt, lo and behold! He showed up, donuts and all!

Now for the next part of the story: It just so happened that a fan of mine––and now a new friend named Kale––showed up at the gig with unique party favors for me and Blake Morgan, who I was co-headlining with. Kale brought a selection of high-end hunting knives (great for all kinds of survival I’m sure), and urged us each to take our pick. Knives? Really?? At a concert??? Yes, knives. And I did take my pick. It later occurred to me, while on stage, that my new knife could immediately be put to good use. We had donuts, and we had knives. A match made in donut heaven.

We cut the donuts up and passed them through the audience! We all ended up having donuts that night: the whole audience, Blake, and me. Music was played, jokes were shared, and this woman’s sobriety was celebrated among strangers. And those strangers, by the end of the night, felt like old  and dear friends to me. If it weren’t for my sobriety, I wouldn’t be here writing this blog right now, or doing any of the other things that I’m doing in my life. This story would never have happened. My sobriety is the foundation that everything in my life is built on. That’s something to celebrate indeed.

Some nights on a tour can be magical, and I had a number of those kind of nights on this tour. In my most recent blog-post––the one I wrote just before going on this trip––I used these words to describe touring: “Illogical. Stressful. Unrealistic. Not normal. Sometimes even crazy.” Sure, those things may all be true, but those are not the words I would use to describe the tour I was just on. These are some of the words that I did use in this post: “Inspiring. Remarkable. Solid. Relaxed. Memorable and even magical.” The difference between the lightning and the lightning bug indeed!