How Creativity Happens….

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Photo: Austin Green Belt, responsible for most of my songs

For me its like this: I’ll have a little nugget of an idea, and hopefully as soon as possible after that happens, I’ll sit with it until I’ve chased it as far as i can, til my heart and brain don’t have any more.  Then usually starting the next day the romance wears off and there’s the awkward in between phase when reality sets in: I need real lyrics and a form, not just vague emotional ideas.  Its a lot like moving from the honeymoon stage of a relationship to a real day to day intimacy & commitment.  So then i do the actual “work”, the “95% perspiration” – tinker with words for days/weeks/months waiting for it to really feel complete.  Then all in a rush of emotion the right phrase comes out.  The irony of it is without the hard, sometimes boring/frustrating/uninspired work I wouldn’t get the payoff of a finished song worth performing and going back to over and over.  That’s like a relationship too.

I need to be in a quiet space to write.  Being in nature almost automatically opens up my mind.  I walk in the Green Belt here in Austin.  Any chance to be surrounded by trees & dirt is like a signal to my mind & my emotions – “Ok!  Open up now!”  At the very least, I need to be looking at something a new way, even if it’s the same four walls.  It blows my mind how some people can write while the tv is on, or even other music.  Mike June can do this to great effect.  I can’t.  I’m a focus on one thing at a time kind of gal.  Unless it’s driving alone; that’s another time I can let my ideas run free with no one and nothing interjecting.

If I don’t write for a while, I get anxious that I will have forgotten how or that I have nothing useful left to say.  But maybe I should know by now that just living life can lead to creativity.  If you are alive and aware of being alive you probably have something to say.  That’s what I’ve noticed from talking to other people about their lives.  No one is living some kind of perfect existence.  Everyone has highs and lows, struggles, dreams.  No matter how they look on the outside.

Writing is probably the time I feel most alive and real.  I often have a lot of brain noise but when I write it all quiets down because it has a purpose.  That’s probably why I started writing in the first place, to quiet my mind and give the noise some kind of focus.

Recently I started working on a song where at the end I’m dead and just have this feeling of total peace, no struggle, no demons, just total quiet.  Actually I guess that’s how the song ‘Learning Faith’ ends too “I will simply be asleep with nowhere left to go”.  This one ends with “Only one soul rising from me”. I think that’s really my dream in life, to be totally calm.  I feel like I’m getting there slowly, but there’s a part of me that still loves the drama of writing a story.   I feel “heard” by people around me and I am generally happy.  But my friend Havilah says that she believes artists need to suffer.  In a way I think she’s right.  I’m not really sure yet how to resolve the feeling of suffering with the feeling of happiness.  Maybe it’s just that life is suffering but that doesn’t mean we can’t be happy to be here, even if the happiness comes from writing about the suffering!

-jk

Commitment

Someone recently forwarded me Andy Langer’s Esquire article ‘Music Fans Manifesto’.  Reading it reminded me how grateful I am to have you all as fans – everything Langer describes is exactly what you have been doing for me for years.I love this quote: “A music fan is always asking, “What’s next?” But he [/she] also knows what came before.”Last fall I toured the Midwest – some places for the first time in 5 years.  I looked at the tour schedule and assumed it would be a pretty lonely haul.  Why was I going to these cold, distant places?  Who out there would remember me?

But almost everywhere I went, a group of you showed up and told me things like, ‘“Strawberry Lover” was one of my favorite albums – when I heard you were playing in Burlington, Iowa, I had to come!’.

I was like, “Whoa – that album came out 10 years ago!!”

You people are committed.

I love this quote of Langer’s too “Hitting “Like” on a Facebook fan page isn’t commitment.”

I really don’t know how many people have liked my Facebook page.  What I do know is that you share my Facebook events and invite your friends, bring them to my shows, post videos of the shows, let me crash on your couches, drive me to train stations, give me your cars (yes, 5 years ago one of you actually GAVE ME YOUR EXTRA CAR so I could tour).  You fund the recording of my albums. There was even a stretch back in 2006-7 when I had no booking agent and several of you in different countries stepped up to help me get gigs – more/better-paying gigs then I had been getting with the agent!  I know several people who are so committed to music that they made the ultimate leap and started hosting house concerts, or even built actual venues with stages, sound systems and lights in their houses!

It can be a brutal world out there for an independent touring artist.  There are a lot of nights with 5 people in the audience.  Sometimes the sound sucks or the 5 people talk so loud you can’t hear yourself play.  A lot of nights you lose money.  Some places won’t even give you a free meal. Many clubs now take money for the sound person and door person out of the artist’s pay, despite the fact that the artist showed up to work too, and probably drove about 5 hours to do it.  Pay to play – it’s horrendous.

But somehow people like me are still alive and the reason is clearly people like you. (If you are reading this, you are probably one of these people.)  At Club Passim in Boston, or Music Star in Nordestedt, or The Red Room in Abenraa, or Amazing Grace in Duluth, or my friend’s friend’s living room in Wycombe, or Threadgill’s in Austin, for 4-5 hours I am reminded of our humanity. I’m treated like a person with an important job to do.  I give everything I have and I receive much more.

I’m a committed music fan too, so in theory I get it.  Last week I went to see Radney Foster.  I’ve sung on an album with Radney (Drew Womack’s “Sunshine to Rain”) and have sung with him live.  But I got to just listen this time, and I appreciated every minute of it. Then I bought the album and haven’t stopped listening to it since.  (Listening to artists who inspire me, I am like a 12 year old music nerd all over again – I have to learn the whole album, note for note, word for word, so I can absorb it, so whatever I do next as an artist is a little smarter, better-crafted, deeper.)

Even though I am so blown away that anyone would be committed to listening to my music, maybe I should wonder instead about people who don’t seek out new music: what is life like for people who aren’t committed to finding inspiration?  Isn’t inspiration what makes us human and keeps us believing that things can get better?

This where I believe it gets real – this isn’t just about marketing or some fame-seeking egotist trying to charm people into helping them get ahead.  This is about something that moved you and you want the people you care about to be moved too.  That’s why I do this and I think that’s why you do this.  That desire to share what is real is so beautiful and human.  This world is undeniably nuts.  But so is the tenaciousness of the human heart.  The impulse to love and to invite people in is a powerful force.

Thank you, all of you who go the distance.  It keeps me (and a lot of other artists) alive and kicking.  I’m grateful for the opportunity to sing for you and be part of your world.  I hope Langer’s piece can open more peoples’ eyes to this kind of perfect symbiosis.

-jk

Learning Faith – Behind the Songs

Behind the Songs on Learning Faith

A little bit about the inspiration and process for the songs on this album…

Learning Faith

So much in life is uncertain and yet I feel the most alive when I make a conscious choice to move toward what scares me.  Often, my gut instinct is to take a risk.  I’ve come to see any choice to act on that instinct – artistically or otherwise – as an act of faith.  This song was the first I wrote for the album and also laid out the concept for the whole album.

So Fucking Cool

This song was just something I felt like I had to say.  I developed a hell of a foot cramp stomping my porch board so fast through this track but I think it worked.

If There’s a God

In summer 2013 over 6,000 Texans who oppose Governor Perry’s policies gathered at the Capitol Building in Austin to protest.  Being there was the most moving thing I have experienced in my adult life.  Natalie Maines came with her acoustic guitar and sang “Not Ready to Make Nice”.  I’ve been all over the world and have met some inspiring individuals, but to see this huge crowd of people speaking up for their rights was beyond.  It gave me faith in democracy despite the fact that Perry’s legislation was ultimately (amid much legal controversy about the voting process) passed.  I thought about Bob Dylan’s Masters of War and how his unabashed anger makes that song so powerful.   For me, tapping into one’s righteous anger is part of connecting to God.

Surrender

When I first started writing the album, I was just at the beginning of falling in love with someone.  All my fears about relationships were screaming in my head all the time, “don’t let him in!”.  But then whenever I’d just meditate, I’d just hear the word “Surrender” and feel a sense of peace.  There’s that faith thing again – listening to my intuition.  I brought the song into Feathers and we demo’d it, just me and the guitar.  When I got home later that night he had sent me an mp3 of this super 80’s/Eurythmics sounding track and I was like “oh hell yeah!”  (I loved the Eurythmics).  Also,

I once had a past life regression specialist tell me that in multiple past lives I’d been killed for speaking up for myself or my people.  She said she spent our session removing a karmic plate from over my heart and sword from my throat.  I was thinking about that when I wrote the lyrics for Surrender.

Loving You

A rumination on the stubborn optimism of the heart…it’s really easy to get cynical when you look at the news today.  But then it’s like, I still feel inspired all the time.  There’s so much beauty to find in this world when we look for it.

Wish

This was the one song which had to be totally stripped down: just my vocal and guitar – anything else would have distracted from the story: an adult looking back on their childhood with a parent whose behavior was scary and unpredictable.  So many people with alcoholism or other family problems are afraid to talk about it and that’s where the dysfunction and pain get passed along.  This song is about healing by telling the truth.

Dear God

This is my understanding of what a world without access to women’s healthcare looks like.

Only the Blues

I love the completely basic beat and swampiness of this track.  It’s just a heartbeat and a cry, put through a vocal mic, a couple amps and a porch board.  I am so grateful to Feathers for hearing the sparse simplicity of this tune.  Any time in my life I’ve been at a loss as to where to go for musical inspiration, I’ve turned to the blues; it always works.

Open Road

I have been on the road on and off for 20 years; it can be a dangerous lifestyle for anyone who hasn’t faced their own demons.  So much time alone, away from friends and family and in constant motion is what leads people to rely on drinking/drugs, etc. to get them through.  The road has almost taken me down a few times.  This is the story of a good friend whose demons got the better of her.

Long Way Down

I was part of a weekly songwriting challenge run by my friend Matt the Electrician.  Every Thursday morning he’d email us a phrase and we’d each have to turn in a recording of a song including that phrase by the next Wednesday.  The phrase that sparked this song was “under the northern” which as you can see is not a full thought which leads me to believe that Matt might have been really stoned when he came up with it.  At any rate I’m very grateful to Matt for the inspiration.   The phrase ‘long way down’ – I just feel like whatever drives me to create, to survive, to put myself out there for the sake of my art is some really deep seated thing I’ll probably never fully understand. I’ve just learned to listen to it because it’s gotten me this far.

-jk