Late Night Music Lessons
Fear, Jealousy, and Envy.
I once heard an interview with John Lennon, at a time when he wasn't recording music, where he said that he couldn't listen to the radio anymore. He said that he either hated what he heard because it was bad and he could do it better, or that he hated what he heard because it was great and he wished that he was still doing it. That statement resonated with me a lot. Maybe it resonates with a lot of people who make music part of their identity. I work at a bar that has a venue with live music 4 nights a week. I can honestly say that I'm kind of relieved when the band is terrible, because when the band is really good, they have a great crowd, and they're up their having the time of their lives, I'm jealous. Here's how I fight it. I remember all the amazing times I've had in the past with music, and I remember the amazing time I'm having right now producing The Fremonts. I know that it's not easy (or even possible) to rationalize yourself out of habitual negative thoughts and emotions that challenge your core identity, but I also know that I can chip away at those habits by thinking and expressing gratitude for what I have had, what I do have, and what the future holds. The harder my struggle is, the better the story will be when I come out on top, so I'm going to enjoy the process.
We drive through the most intense rainstorm that I have ever seen in a small go-kart of a rental car that could practically drown in the menacing puddles that encroach upon the beautifully haunted hills of The Berkshires. The rain stops and the clouds clear just as we pull up to a small building at the top of a mountain. We've arrived at The Dreamaway Lodge, a beautiful restaurant & music venue that was once rumored to be a brothel and speakeasy during the great depression. After a tasty dinner with good friends and a lovely set of originals and sing-alongs from The Crazy Neighbors (both the band's name and their social & physical proximity to the venue), we take the stage for our set.
In a room full of dark wood, tuffets and an eager audience, we play our first of two shows on the east coast. It's been a while since our few friends in the audience have heard us and the rest of these folks have no idea who we are. It's a damn great time. Steph is killing it at an upright piano that has some history in it, I'm spinning around on a wooden footstool and we are letting go into these songs that we have been fine tuning now for months.
After the show, we close out the bar with two dear old friends of Steph's (who also happen to make up 2/3 of the The Crazy Neighbors). While a bald & bearded local pounds away at the piano like a mad-man born in a music shop we talk about music, Shakespeare, accidentally eating frogs and driving expensive cars that we don't own. The night closes out with us making a promise to play the same show in a year. I am really hoping that it happens again, 'cause that's the stuff.
We now find ourselves on the lower east side of NYC about to play a show at The Rockwood Music Hall. I've been wanting to play here since I saw Steph play cello and then accidentally asked Nora Jones if "[she] had any music online that I could check out." (In my defense, she had just finished playing a set with a three piece band called Puss N Boots and I had no idea it was her). I digress. So we're about to play for a crowd of friends who haven't heard us play in a year and half or so. I'm trying to stay relaxed & play a good show because we've been working our asses off and I want to show some improvement to these good folks.
First song starts and I can't hear anything. Second song comes around and I realize that I can't make eye contact with Steph because of the size the stage. Third song and I completely botch a new section that I've been working on. It is at this point that my doors close. Anybody who has worked with me creatively knows what this looks like. I clam up. Steph takes the lead and engages the crowd while I just try to get through it all. Face down, no eye contact, insides crumpling together like wadded tin foil. An abyss. Fast forward to the end of the set and it turns out we played a great show. The sound was good and our harmonies were on point. My doors may have shut, but it seems as if the hours of drilling have built up my autopilot skills. Great thing to know, but it brings up a new challenge: how do I avoid the meltdown?
In my brain there is a cliff. If I'm standing on the cliff looking around and the sky is blue, the mountain ranges are purple and the grain is all amber 'n shit. It's great. Step off the cliff and an abyss lies waiting to swallow me up as the doors close.
Steph always tells me that my spacial awareness is terrible because I never look behind me before I step take a step back.
Rather than step back and fall off the cliff when shit gets real, I'm going to start looking behind me for some perspective. It's much better to take things in and have a little faith. Stay up on the cliff. Don't disappear.
I think his name is Bernsie. He has a big thick beard and is humming loudly to himself as he slams his fingers onto the piano keys. He takes a big gulp of beer and says, "Let's play something." I decline because, truly, there is no way I could even begin to keep up with this fella. But I wish I could so bad I wish I could. I feel as frustrated as I felt at three years old, looking at the piano music in the church basement and not knowing which dot meant which piano key. He launches into a new tune and some of it sounds really familiar. I ask, "That's Dr. John, right?" With a laugh, he says, "No, that's everybody's."
It's 2am and we're on top of a mountain in Massachusetts, sitting around a table with some faces that I have known for a very long while; Paula, who played a wonderful Beatrice in my very first professional Shakespeare production, and her husband Kenny. Paula was my very first big sister in theatre. Before each show, we put on makeup next to each other and she told old theatre stories into the mirror. We sang around fires and stayed up late. She encouraged me, even when I was so green at speaking Shakespeare on stage. Sitting next to her in this old haunt feels known and inevitable.
Bernsie says, "It'll take you some time, but you'll get it." He plays me a few variations of scales and tells me to practice those every day. "I've been playing for fifty years," he says "and I just love it." He finally convinces me to play something for him, so I launch into the Texas Boogie, in the key of C, of course. He nods his head and hums along and says, "There ya go!" I know he is just being nice, but I feel encouraged.
Since I gave up Shakespeare as a job, I've been artistically directionless. I've been crabby because all of this creative energy hasn't found a new place to live. But something about sitting up there on the mountain eased my anxiety and made me trust this musical path a whole lot more. It was as if I'd been lost in the woods for a long time and suddenly came upon an arrow painted on a tree. There's the trail! Go that way!
So, now we're back in Boulder, honing in on actually recording this album. We have a studio all set. Not in Wolf's barn as I dreamed, but in a more practical, probably safer, definitely more productive locale in Boulder. We've almost come to a consensus about which songs to record. One of the top contenders is a piece I just wrote last week. Another contender, I wrote right around the time I met Paula. We're mixing up the old and the new. Looking back to go forward. It feels just about right.
Currently on heavy rotation: Sturgill Simpson - A Sailor's Guide to Earth, Courtney Barnett -Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit, Angel Olsen- Half Way Home, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats - Self Titled. Badger also can't get over the new Radiohead.