Songs for the Struggling Artist

To Sing Is to Survive

I thought I was going to die. I was clinging to the side of the boat, absolutely sure that this was it. We were on a ferry from Naples to Capri, in what could reasonably be called a tempest, because my friends and I had thought it would be romantic to spend Christmas on the island of Capri. And as I gripped the rail, as sea water washed over me, I sang. The storm was loud so I sang, loud, until we reached the shore.

When the sea gets rough, I sing. When times are at their toughest, I sing. I do lots of other creative things but it’s singing I turn to when it feels impossibly turbulent. And so, this past year, I found myself singing a lot. I had to. The waters have seemed so high, as if they would rise up over our boat and wash me and all my loved ones overboard.

I had not played my guitar much in recent years. There was dust on it when I pulled it out of its case. There’s no dust on it now. There hasn’t been any dust there for months. I’ve leaned on songs I loved decades ago and been comforted by songs I only learned this year.

I recorded them for the handful of people who listen to my podcast, just in case these songs might help them through these turbulent waters, too. I gave them to my patrons on Patreon, as a thank you for being a railing to which I’ve been clinging. And now, if you could use them, I offer them to you. I recorded them in my living room. They are not perfect recordings but they are the sound of an artist singing through a tempest.

This is the first batch, in honor of the Women’s March this weekend. They are songs of Resistance. Click here to hear them on Spotify.  Or if you’d like to help me recoup the cost, you can buy it directly from me via my website. You can download them from iTunes or listen on Apple Music. (And something called Deezer?!)

In any case, I’m singing. And surviving.

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You can help me through the turbulence

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Art as a Gift
July 31, 2011, 11:31 pm
Filed under: art, business, Entries with songs attached, music, theatre | Tags: , , , , ,

My dear friend Robyn sent me a Thank You Note for something I sent her. Robyn is a beautiful writer so the note is a bit of art and moved me deeply. What I had sent her was a CD of lullabies I recorded for her son. This was not my idea (or at least not entirely.) Robyn had expressed a wish, something to the effect of “I wish I had a recording of you singing lullabies.”
I had been trying to think of what I could give her in honor of her son’s birth and simultaneously, I’d been searching for a creative project I could do on my own – one that wouldn’t require a team and fundraising and such – so this was perfect. Robyn’s wish was a pretty offhand one. I think when she said it, I’m pretty sure she had no expectation that such a thing was actually possible. I made the thing, yes, as a gift for her and her family but also for me, to keep my creative juices flowing. I feel Robyn’s suggestion of the project was a gift. I made a gift of that gift. Then she returned it to me with this Thank You Note. Art from Art from Art and I think the circle of Art will continue in the context of a friendship that has always featured the sharing of art. It’s a wonderful thing to be given the gift of inspiration. It’s a wonderful thing to give a gift in return with a piece of art and then to have that gift answered with more art and more inspiration. It makes me want to keep giving and giving.
Essentially, this is why I’ve found so much of my artistic life a struggle in recent years – because it has moved from this GIVING sense to becoming all about GETTNG. How to Get grants. How to Get audiences. How to Get donations. How to Get publicity. How to Get materials. Hot to Get space for rehearsal and for performance. How to Get somewhere. How to Get ahead.
I want to turn this around. I want to figure out how to Give in the context of my art. How to Give audiences hope and pleasure and fun and something to think about. How to Give artists opportunities. How to Give the form some dignity and delight.
I get frustrated when so much of what I have to give is ungiveable. It feels like I have a box full of pedigree puppies with fancy ribbons that I want to give away but no one has space for a puppy and they’re all allergic. So the puppies remain with me, tearing up the house and making trouble. A teacher once told me about Border Collies. Apparently, you have to give them something to do or they’ll tear the place up. That’s what my Art’s been doing for some time, tearing the place up – that is until I found this opportunity to give. Giving puts the Border Collies of my Art right to work and it makes them feel great, too.
For more on Art and the Gift Economy, you can read The Gift by Lewis Hyde (my review of it on Goodreads) or Linchpin by Seth Godin.

This is the song I wrote for Robyn’s son. Sacha’s Song

Wanted: Partner in Crime

In recent months I’ve been feeling pretty blocked creatively. This is new for me. I’ve never really had trouble generating projects or completing them. If there’s one thing I thought I’d always have, it’s my creative flow. But lately, instead of the river of creativity, I’ve been seeing little faucet drips. Drip! (idea – oops, there it goes, down the drain!)
I couldn’t figure out what was going on. Then I saw my Rubenfeld Synergist (my version of therapy. Check it out. It’s awesome stuff. Rubenfeld Synergy) and discovered a fundamental truth about myself that ought to have been obvious.
I’m a collaborative artist. (duh.) I thrive when ideas are bouncing back and forth. But with most of my chief collaborators scattered like dandelion seeds across the world, I’ve been attempting this new thing of creating all on my own. And that just don’t work!
I also realized that my best friends are my best collaborators and vice versa. There are people who work best with strangers and never get close to the people they work with. I am not one of those people. I am happiest with blurry lines in love and art. I love when they feed each other.
For a while now, I’ve been exploring the more “professional” world – which can mean doing things more impersonally – and I just don’t dig it. I started my company with my friends. I started my band with my friends. And the people that became friends through working together remained so and returned to work and be friends together again.
I want my art to feel like one of those conversations that seems like it could go on all night and all my night conversations to lead to art.
That’s a tall order, of course.
So meanwhile, I’m just looking for someone to get into artistic trouble with me. Someone who wants to knock over the bank of creativity with me and see what spills out.

This song was the first I ever wrote all by myself and a kind of mourning for the collaboration that began my songwriting life. It eerily feels pretty appropriate for these days, too. Earthbound

Cowboys, lumberjacks and dancers
November 24, 2008, 6:34 am
Filed under: art, business, dreams, Entries with songs attached, theatre

In the interest of making the struggle a little less struggl-y, I’ve been going to the Actors Work Program for some career guidance. At the Job Search session, the head of the program talked about this survey that some big work agency did. They asked people what was desirable in a job and what was undesirable. Based on their findings, the best jobs were accountant, hospital administrator and some other job that sounded so boring to me, I couldn’t even keep it in my brain. The worst jobs, again based on what most people wanted, were cowboy, lumberjack and dancer.

And almost every single one of us at the table (actors, designers, writers, directors, etc.) dropped our jaws at this news. We all were WAY more interested in being cowboys, lumberjacks or dancers than hospital administrators. There wasn’t even a question of which jobs we’d choose. The facilitator of the session told us that she’d told us this story to illustrate that artists think much  differently than most people. The implications of this are still reverberating with me. Is it really true that most people would choose to be hospital administrators or accountants when they could be a cowboy? Really?!? It’s like I can’t even believe it. My whole world looks different. I thought I was metaphorically roping steer with my brothers, home, home on the range or felling towering trees or at least, circling the dance floor with my fellow dancers, but it turns out I’m roping steer in the accounting office. Stapling steer? Filing trees?

It’s a brave new boring world.

A song about what it’s like to keep believing in cowboys when everyone’s administrating hospitals:


Day Jobs
October 12, 2008, 3:45 am
Filed under: business, Entries with songs attached | Tags: , , ,

A Day Job.

I need a new one. For most of the time I’ve lived in New York, I’ve worked as a teaching artist. When I first got started, it was the best day job in the world. It was in my field. It helped me clarify my art. It felt like I was doing something for the greater good. And even though the work was inconsistent, it paid pretty well. I got to the top of the food chain pretty quickly.

Then I got burned out – too many restrictions, too much unpredictability and a sense of frustration about the state of public education all added up. So I left New York, went to graduate school and got an MFA. When I came back to New York in February, I was a bit refreshed and picked up a few of my old gigs just where I left off. I had some good residencies and some lousy ones. When I taught my last last class of the school year in June, perhaps the best residency/class I’ve ever taught, I thought, “That was it. That was my last class.”

Then, all my schemes and dreams to make my life overseas work sort of fell apart (see my earlier post, “The Tyranny of a Dream” for more) so I came back to New York, fully prepared to dive back into teaching. But life seems to have other plans for me. Despite the lovely feedback I got last semester for my work, no one has ANY work for me this fall. Not one class. I don’t know whether this is because of the recession or because I fell to the bottom of the totem pole when I left New York in 2005 or because I was out of the country for most of September, but whatever the reason, I’ve got nothing. Not one stitch of work. Problem is, I can’t think of anything else I’m fit for, besides the stuff that I can actually do that I need the day job to support. And the only breaks I’ve gotten since I’ve gotten back are in ACTING of all things.

In the amazing book, Creating a Life Worth Living, Carol Lloyd offers a really fantastic practice for finding the right day job for your artistic soul. I spent a long time with that chapter and now have long lists of ideas for qualities I’d like in a day job and a long list of skills. Yet, when I look at the two together, I can not for the life of me figure out where they meet. When I talked this all over with my career counselor a few months ago and sent her the lists, she couldn’t come up with anything either. In fact, the first thing she said was , “Have you considered Arts in Education?”

I’m trying to live my life with more FLOW these days, trying to break my pattern of swimming upstream but I can’t even figure out where the river is with these issues. Every line I cast into the water just hangs there, so I keep casting lines with not even the vaguest idea of whether it makes sense to do so.

I’m looking for flow. I’m looking for the path of least resistance, I guess they call it, but I’m mostly just running in circles at the moment. Or to fling yet another metaphor around, treading water, wondering which direction I should swim in.

Any suggestions? I’m considering everything.

Here’s a song about how I’m trying to live my life these days. Listen to: water river stone

Promoting. Selling. Getting Hits.

Art as commerce has been on my mind a lot these days. I took a show to Edinburgh this August and was amazed at what a marketplace it was. Theatre there wasn’t so much about theatre as about promoting theatre. Every day most artists spent an hour a day doing their show and two to eight hours promoting it. The festivals main drag (The Royal Mile) was full to bursting of artists handing out flyers to passersby. By simply walking two blocks, one could collect hundred of flyers in a few minutes. Gimmicks were legion. Pot Noodle the Musical handed out free Pot Noodles (cup-a-soup like things.)  Hamlet Experience gave out fans. Some valentine show gave out heart shaped candies. All of us were there scrambling to get people in to see our shows.

Now, I’m not opposed to marketing. I understand that people need help finding out about things they might like. My producer and I even took a marketing class a few years ago, which I actually enjoyed. I liked thinking about who would want to see our work and figuring out how to get in touch with them. But that felt very different to me than the practice just trying to get numbers in.  Sometimes making art can turn into a game of getting butts in seats, hits on a blog, plays on music sites, downloads or views.

What I’m wrestling with is the necessity of promotion and wondering if it actually works and if so, how. I learned a long time ago that if I wanted to “get somewhere” with something, I’d have to worry about promoting in some way or another. From sending out headshots, to handing out postcards, to sending out emails, I’ve done all of it. And cross-promoted some of that, too. Sometimes it’s even fun.

But, we were such unsuccessful promoters in Edinburgh that there were shows where no audience turned up at all. I’ve posted my music all over the web and there are still songs that have never been played by anyone but me. This puzzles me. I have friends. I even have friends who like my music. If I played a gig next week, I’m pretty sure I could bring in a decent audience. And yet hardly anyone listens to a thing I post. No one reads these posts on this blog when it comes to that. (This I understand, however, since I’ve only told a couple of people about it.) I try not to take personally people not showing up or not listening or not reading or whatever and for the most part, I manage that. I just find it endlessly curious. What tips something over from un-listened, unwatched, unexamined to hundreds or thousands people becoming interested in it?

The web feels a bit like Edinburgh, there are so many things competing for our attention on it, that it’s easy for the songs of our friends or their blogs or their essays or their You Tube clips to get lost in the shuffle. I guess I’m just wondering how much of my soul do I sacrifice when I get all promote-y and pushy about getting my work forward, and is it worth it? I’m happier when I can just make shows and not give a damn who shows up and who doesn’t. When I can write something and not care who reads it or compose something and not care who hears it. I guess that’s the answer for now – no more promoting until I’m in the mood for it again. At the moment, the thought of promoting even one more thing makes my stomach turn. Publicize this blog? Nope,  not yet.

This is a song that never gets any hits at all. Maybe putting it here will up its numbers. Not Your Type

Shakespeare Wrote Porn
October 6, 2008, 4:10 am
Filed under: art, business, Entries with songs attached, theatre | Tags: , ,

I’m not kidding. I’m reading Germaine Greer’s Shakespeare’s Wife right now and it’s her assessment that Shakespeare’s best-selling poem, “Venus and Adonis” was Renaissance porn. It’s not EXPLICIT porn and it’s couched in a beautiful metaphoric form but yeah, I can see how it could be interpreted as porn. I’d put it more in the lyric erotica category myself but it was the 1590s after all, so who can say?

It seems that during the plague when all of the theatres were closed and Shakespeare had no income coming in, he composed these erotic verses to bring in some much needed cash. Greer points out that “Venus and Adonis” was widely read, had at least eleven reprintings in Shakespeare’s lifetime and that most of the copies remaining had been handled so much that they were in tatters. Greer makes a lot of fascinating arguments around this idea (about Ann Hathaway, older women, sexuality and patronage) but what I’m most interested in at the moment is that this, our most treasured playwright, turned to this form in times of economic hardship. He wrote a best selling erotic poem when he couldn’t pursue his work in the theatre.

I too am short on cash and while no plague has closed down the theatres (gratefully!) they may as well be closed to me given the level of my current access to working in them. SO, I’m thinking about going the way of Shakespeare and Anais Nin and who knows who else and selling my art in a new form. Of course, if I’m going to do it their way, I’ll need a patron first, I guess. And I don’t really relish the idea of writing porn, per se. Maybe I’ll write some good feminist erotica instead.

On a podcast of Radio Lab (my current favorite radio show) they talked about this archeological dig in Egypt at the start of the century, which is essentially an ancient garbage dump. Among the fragments of gnostic texts and gospels of Jesus, they found lots and lots of the same scraps of paper. Something that had been sort of mass produced, and clearly very popular. Guess what it was. That’s right. Porn. (Here’s the show if you want to hear the story: egyptian trash )

I suppose all this makes me wonder what else I could do that might be in this neighborhood. I mean, I’m not going to make a porno, clearly but how can I sell out just a little bit just like those that have come before me and my hero, Shakespeare?

Here’s a pretty “Venus and Adonis”-y type song although instead of horse metaphors, I’m using something a LITTLE more contemporary. It also has pretty silly instrumentation. Listen here: Laptop

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