My Heart Is A Drum

Anna Singing, by Crista Rock

Singing with my last band.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my passions lately. It’s gradually been dawning on me that I never do any of the things I love most, and I’m trying to figure out why that is. First and foremost on my list is making music, followed closely by writing, with watercolor painting and paper crafting following immediately behind. Dancing and running fall in there somewhere, though I can’t figure out if I like either more or less than origami. The hitch is that I do none of these on a regular basis. Why? My fear of failure, which at this point is appearing to be near-crippling, if I’m forcing myself to look at all of the things I avoid doing just because I don’t think I’ll excel at them.

I’ve taken lessons in piano, guitar, conga and basic percussion, as well as many years of voice. Not much ended up sticking with me; in fact, the only music I still make on a fairly frequent basis is a karaoke night. I love to sing. I want to do it professionally – always have. But I can’t read music (after multiple music theory classes – the terminology has never made enough sense to get stuck in my brain in a way that I can regurgitate it at will) and that makes it almost impossible to create music with other musicians who “get” the terminology required. I only know what sounds good, and can generally learn/remember an entire tune and cadence within a couple of attempts, then move on to harmony, so working in a band has been easy-ish, but not easy enough. I’m also scared of being on stage, so that doesn’t help. It’s not stage fright, exactly – once I’m up there, it’s generally OK. It’s just that I don’t know what to do with myself when all eyes are on me, and if I start thinking about it too much, it’s like when you’re driving and suddenly think about what your feet are doing. If you’ve never done that, try not to – at least once each road trip, I think about which pedal does what and almost kill myself in the process.

The other musical thing I love, and have always wanted to do, is play percussion. I used to have a djembe that I adored, but couldn’t ever find a suitable place to practice without annoying the neighbors. I’ve taken hand drumming lessons, but only one session – just enough to learn to love it but not get good. I’ve always wanted a set of congas, but sometimes I think that I’m getting too old to start something that takes so many years to master. But maybe one day I’ll get rich and have time, and I’ll hire a conga instructor to teach me. I’d also be excited to learn the bodhran (a traditional Irish hand drum), or maybe the tabla (small Indian drums that make this wonderfully deep water-dropping “wub-wub” sound). My favorite instrument, though? The clave, a set of two sticks that you beat together for Latin music in 3/2 or 2/3 time. Simple, yet effective. Plus, I love 3/2 time. It’s what my feet would sing if they could 🙂

It’s time to start trying. I don’t know how just yet, but I do know that I’ve always had a deep interest in making magick when I sing, or with singing. So maybe I’ll tackle this from that angle. I can never be “wrong” if I’m doing it for the right reason – even if it’s just for myself at first (as all things must be, were I to be thinking about this logically). And of course, percussion is central to shamanic tradition, something that has long felt like my natural path. I’m starting to cry, a sure sign that I’m vibrating close to the right frequency right now. I’ve found my answer. Thanks for listening, constant readers. Much love.

 

Sing or Swim

Today’s Daily Post prompt asks us about a time we were left to fend for ourselves in an overwhelmingly difficult position. This post isn’t about survival at its most heightened sense, but it is about the survival of my voice, and how naysayers almost silenced the most important facet of my being. It’s no secret – I love to sing. Singing is how I relax and de-stress. It’s also how I ground, get connected, and make space in my mind to contemplate larger matters. A life without singing is black and white. A life with singing looks like this:

The Milky Way, as seen from West Virginia (Wikimedia Commons)

The Milky Way, as seen from West Virginia (Wikimedia Commons)

This is the story of how I almost never found my voice.

My first memory of singing is when I was probably four or five. I used to love Dolly Parton songs, and one in particular (don’t remember which) got a lot of airplay at my dad’s upholstery shop. I would sit next to his workbench after daycare and sing along to the radio, and I was convinced that that I was amazing at that song in particular…until the day I sang it for my mom and she said I was doing it wrong. I kept trying it out, singing along, and each time she insisted I couldn’t sing, that I couldn’t do it right. The frustration was intense, soul-deep. I was so sure that I was doing it right, but moms know best. So if she said I couldn’t sing, I couldn’t. (I know now that she’s basically tone deaf – oops.)

I didn’t try again until seventh grade, when I tried out for the part of Belle in the school production of Beauty and the Beast. I was pretty competent at the vocals, but I didn’t look the part. The girl who was eventually picked to play the lead didn’t even sing her lines – she lip synced along to a recording. But she was beautiful, and I was not. At the time I didn’t really understand that picking a star of a musical would entail both looks and talent. I assumed it was because I was a terrible songstress.

After that, I didn’t sing in front of anyone if I could help it. Instead, I went home and sang along to Disney Sing Along Songs videos almost every afternoon. I loved that hour or so of every day that I could just sing and feel connected and confident. But at some point during high school, I let this confidence get the better of me. I started singing to myself during class and a fellow classmate (someone I thought highly of) groaned and asked me to stop killing her ears. Of course I shut up immediately.

Not long after, I was goofing off during gym class with a few other “outsider” girls. I was the only white girl in the group, and was feeling particularly amazed that I’d been let into the clique, if only for the day. The Fugees were big on the radio, and everyone was chiming in on singing parts of “Killing Me Softly.” I loved the song so much, and had been practicing in my room, so when my time came to add in some vocals, I jumped at the chance. And I killed it (in the good way). Instead of being told “no” or “shut up” or “you’re doing it wrong,” one girl clapped, another made a low whistle of appreciation, and then everybody just jumped in and harmonized. It was a moment in the sun for me, and the thing I kept going back to for years after, every time I felt ashamed to raise my voice in public.

It’s still the moment I return to when I’m feeling like I’m less of a person, or not as talented as my peers. It took me years, but I finally realized that I’m a little different than many people I meet. My gut instinct in all situations is to wish others well, to hope that they succeed, to even actively try to bolster that success, no matter my connection to the individual in question. But many people feel threatened by the success of others, and instinctively go for the throat. They do as much as they can to make others feel small. If you’re surrounded by people who tell you that your dream is no good, it’s not possible, that you’ll fail, just keep plugging along. Sure, you might not be great – hell, I’m not an award-winning vocalist or anything – but you’ll have done what your soul commands of you. That’s paramount.

Exhaustion

Exhaustion

I’ve been running myself ragged, and I’m not really sure how to fix it. Maybe it’s the holiday season, and the amount of money I feel forced to spend to make my loved ones happy with me (obviously, I know this isn’t true, but sometimes it does feel that way). Maybe it’s the fact that Murphy the linebacker cat keeps climbing the Christmas tree and knocking off my favorite ornaments. Maybe it’s that I’m not even Christian, so the fact that we even HAVE a Christmas tree is off-putting to me this season. Of course, a Christmas tree is just a Yule log in disguise, and I do love glitter and glass decorations, so it’s not that big of a deal. It just feels like I’m being smooshed by the holidays, you know?

There’s a lot going on at work. Everyone’s working long hours, and I just don’t have the time to work 12 hour days without getting paid for it, but I can’t tell my boss that, so I just keep trying to fit everything in somehow. I’m trying to start my own little freelancing business so I can make a little more money, and hopefully that can happen soon. I already have a couple of people who have asked for proposals on small jobs, so crossing my fingers, though I know that will then have me never sleeping again. But I really need the dollars, especially now.

School is also taking its toll. The class I’m in right now in grad school is kicking my butt. I don’t understand it, and the readings aren’t helpful, and it’s really freaking me out because it’s all about budgeting for a marketing campaign – stuff I REALLY need to get a handle on.  In addition, though I love the non-credit pagan classes I’ve been taking, I think I’ll have to only do one a semester from now on to avoid burning out. I’m not giving it as much of my time as I’d like, and that’s not fair to my spirit.

As for music, the band is going well; I love singing, and my voice is returning to full strength, even though I dislike a couple of the songs we do, and I sometimes feel a little lame doing the few covers we do. But people love covers, so it’s really just my own perception of the problem. One of the covers is “Baby It’s You” as sung by Smith, and it’s awesome. I can totally pull off about 90% and sound just like her, but then there are some parts that I crack on so bad that it makes me ashamed to be on stage. Weirdly enough, other people love it, and think I do a great job. Sometimes I have a hard time reconciling my reality with everyone else’s.

I guess that’s what makes it easier for me to live these many lives, though. I know I can be doing more. I’m just so tired. A break is desperately needed. Maybe soon.

Until then – coffee.

I’m naming my new business The Marketing Witch. I’ll have my new website put together soon. The domain is mine, and I’ve set up a FB page, even though there’s nothing on either of them. Working at it, though. Hopefully I’ll be able to share it by the end of the week.

Kisses, luvs. Tell me how YOU’RE doing. I’d really love to know – I’m serious. I’m genuinely interested in all of you. If you’ve written something you really care about lately and I haven’t commented, feel free to post a link here in the comments, to make sure I see what you’ve said. I cherish all of you, even if I’m caught up in offline life at the moment.

A Short Life In Music

Don’t know if I’ve said much about this here, but I recently started singing with a band again after years of hiatus. I started singing in public in college, when I joined an a cappella group at Tulane University named THEM. It’s a great group, you should check them out if you’re into vocal harmonies of newer rock and pop music (no dusty old standards for THEM). They’ve gotten a lot better since I was a member, but that’s typically how it goes in maturing music clubs. Back in my day, we were still cool, though. We actually raised money to produce THEM’s first ever CD, and a cover of The Dixie Chicks’ “Wide Open Spaces” was included, with little ol’ me singing lead. I loved singing. I still do.

THEM in Concert 2002

Here I am singing "Wide Open Spaces" with THEM in 2002.

THEM Recording 1st CD

The sopranos (including me in the red jacket) recording THEM's first ever CD.

After college, with a cappella no longer a viable option, I started searching out opportunities to sing in a real band. As (dubious) luck would have it, I was participating in a fashion show with a couple of friends of mine (one of whom later became famous for his line of Defend New Orleans t-shirts and gear), and the guy who owned the gallery where we were showing also led a band. We were hanging out with this guy and his girlfriend, playing some music, singing along, and I got asked to join the band. Just like that, I was in! The band was called Spencer Livingston and the Little Sisters of the Protecting Veil, and we sang covers of old dirty blues songs, as well as some originals. When I say dirty, I mean it. We did Bessie Smith’s “Need a Little Sugar In My Bowl,” which includes memorable and very obvious lyrics, as well others like “It Ain’t the Meat (It’s the Motion)” and “Bow-legged Woman”. There were some more serious songs, but with one crusty old man and four beautiful young girls singing old timey songs about questionable deeds, the band was an oddity through and through. I liked it, mostly. I was unnerved by Spencer, a blues guitarist and artist with a house full of collected bits and pieces, a great record selection, and an intense vibe. As barely 20-something girls, the four of us Little Sisters all had our own drama and issues going on, including feuds with each other and significant others, large aspirations, and shitty day jobs. In the end, it was a combination of the oddity of the situation and a petty squabble that ended our group. Such is the way of things. According to YouTube, Spencer’s still playing out on his own, which I’m sure is a lot less hassle than dealing with a gaggle of girls. While singing with the band, I got to perform at Tipitina’s Uptown, where I met one of the great romances of my life, and also fell in love with not one but two fantastic bands as a result. It was one of the last times I played with Spencer Livingston and the Little Sisters of the Protecting Veil, but it was a good trade-off to find more music to inspire what was to become of my life from that point on. I went from being a singer to being a groupie for the popular and now-defunct New Orleans reggae/funk/jam band Saraaba, and a fan of still existing The Soul Project.

Hanging out with Saraaba and Soul Project put me in a great space to meet musicians, something I should have taken much greater advantage of. I was young then, just 22, painfully shy and awkward still, and very uneducated in the beauty of networking. When the romance ended, I still went to some of the shows, but lost touch with people who would have been great for me if I would have just tried harder and thought a bit deeper. Oh well. As it was, I was still invited to sing with The Soul Project once on stage – I performed “God Bless the Child”. That was a good feeling.

New Orleans' Banks Street Bar

The Banks Street Bar, a great place to get a beer and hear new musicians get their start.

I’m not sure how I got into my next band. I know who got me in, but for the life of me can’t remember exactly how it happened. I believe that I was hanging out at Banks Street Bar, watching The Soul Project play. That was really the only reason for me to go there. It was 2004 by this time, and I had just clawed my way out of a pretty tough spot in life. There was a guy named James, a graffiti artist and bartender who made paper roses, and I’d often sit with him at the bar and listen to my old flame playing music on stage, too wrapped up in my own grief to understand just how creepy it was that it was months since the breakup and I was still haunting his concerts. I’m an odd child, but love is also odd. One night, sitting and listening, I looked up and saw a guy I recognized from college – the old roommate of my first serious college boyfriend. This guy, Travis, and I started talking about what he was still doing in New Orleans (cooking and making djembes), and we made plans to hang out at some later date.

The next thing I remember is Travis arriving at my door one day with a beautiful girl in tow. He introduced her to me as his ‘friend’ Theo. She’s still my friend, but not his. That was short lived. We hung out (I think he was loaning me a book?) together and when he left, he mentioned that he knew a band that was looking for a singer.

A band. Sounded good.

The band was Forever Flood, which we would all find rather ironic, given famous events not even a year into our short-lived future together. The music was reggae and a little pop rock. The band mates were amazing. Travis played drums. Matt played Saxophone. Kick-ass Helen was on bass and vocals, with a little percussion too. I sang and played some percussion. The leader of our merry band was Evan, on guitar and vocals. We practiced at Travis’ house, in his little living room, but only until 8pm so his neighbors wouldn’t get too pissed. We ranged in age from Matt, just in college, to our later bassist Danny, a Brit who, as a member of the Queen fan club, actually GOT TO BE IN ONE OF THEIR VIDEOS as a kid. If you’re reading this Danny, I’m still so damn jealous. Danny came onto the scene when Helen went to Greece for a month or two, and when she came back we kept them both – him on bass, her on vocals. Then they started seeing each other, so everything worked out just fine, really. It’s funny how when you’re playing in a band, you get to be as close as brothers and sisters, then eventually someone crosses the boundaries, relationships happen, and before you know it the band is breaking up because somebody called somebody else a fat-ass. Of course that’s not at all what happened to Forever Flood. Helen and Danny are still friends. Travis moved away. Matt plays a variety of instruments now for a great band called the Dirty Bourbon River Show. Evan and I are once again playing music together.

Forever Flood's First Concert

Forever Flood's first concert at The Red Eye, with Evan on guitar, me on vocals and tambourine, Helen on bass, Matt on sax, and Travis on drums. We made pretty good tips that night. I think it might have been the skirt's fault.

No, it wasn’t the band that broke itself up. It was a hurricane.

On August 28, 2005, I woke up to the pulsing of my cell phone. I was sleeping on it, and blearily dragged it out from under me to answer. It was around eight in the morning. On the other line was Danny, the bassist. He was a cab driver at the time, and had just gotten off of his shift. He told me to be ready outside my house in 10 minutes, to pack up everything I needed with me, and to be ready to leave immediately. I hadn’t planned to evacuate New Orleans in the face of Hurricane Katrina. I’m originally from the coast of North Carolina, and there was a major hurricane (or two) every summer of my high school days. My childhood home flooded multiple times, so many that eventually FEMA paid us to move and demolished the house. I knew that evacuating to a shelter would be dangerous, and I couldn’t bring my cat. As far as I was concerned, flooding and wind was nothing when faced with the possibility of leaving my cat behind. I’d weather it. But that morning, waking up to Danny telling me that I was leaving whether I wanted to or else, I was unusually compliant. I packed the cat, my laptop, my photo albums, and a change of clothes for two days. We wouldn’t be gone longer than that, I thought.

Danny, Helen, Evan and I evacuated west with my cat, Matthew. We drove to Arkansas and bedded down for the night, thinking that we’d be able to go back in a day or two. But on Monday morning when we turned on the news, it was much worse. It was obvious that we wouldn’t be going home anytime soon. We were stuck with each other, and all of us were running out of money. We moved on to Hot Springs, Arkansas, and found a B&B that gave us rooms for far below what they’d normally go for. We stayed for a few days. I lost about 10 lbs over the first week, for worry and lack of money to eat. I remember having to buy a belt at K-Mart to keep my jeans up. We went to the only real bar in town, a karaoke joint, and met up with other New Orleans evacuees there. We sang there, and went back home and played music together. I cried. We made plans. What would we do? Emails piled in, checked from an internet cafe because smartphones and free wireless were still things of the future. A friend in Chicago offered to take me in. My parents threatened to disown me if I didn’t come back to NC. So many hard decisions happening all at the same time. What about my belongings? What about my beloved musician ex? What about my bandmates? Who was I without them?

An amazing friend met up with us on the Tennessee border and took me back to her house in Memphis. Evan went back to his home in New York. Danny and Helen started a road trip in the same United Cab we had evacuated in. Eventually, with my father’s help, I scraped together enough cash to get to Chicago. By then my grandparents were able to help me out a little, too. I never got the FEMA check so many were promised, nor did I receive housing help when I finally returned to New Orleans in early 2006. By then I was deep in debt because none of my credit card companies had accepted the hurricane as a viable hardship. It’s funny, but for such a shit time, I had a lot of fun checking out a new city, going to music shows by displaced New Orleans musicians, meeting artists and forming new friendships with old acquaintances. It was a magical break from my old New Orleans life, and though life upon my return wasn’t nearly as rich or as fun, it became much more emotionally stable as a result of my growth during this period.

When I got back to New Orleans in January of ’06, I tried to get back together with the band. By that time, however, they were breaking up due to artistic differences. I was also in grad school, and having a hard time balancing work, life, and the band. So even though Evan and I tried to make new music, it didn’t work out. I didn’t talk to him again, which seems odd in retrospect, but I was ashamed at giving up on him.

Fast forward five years. I’ve just moved back to New Orleans after a three year stint in Chicago, which did not end up being as magical as I remembered, but was still a great town to call home. One of the biggest issues with my Chicago self was that music was tough to find, and even tougher to participate in. I tried out for multiple bands, but nothing seemed right. So very many hipsters with notions of grandeur, so very few working musicians with strong goals and good plans for getting there. Next to the people I was meeting, I felt like a boring old lady. No, I don’t listen to Death Cab for Cutie. No, I don’t think your ironic moustache is amazingly awesome. No, I definitely do not think skinny boys look smashing in skinny jeans. I was just looking for a regular group of guys to jam with and maybe make some original songs to fall in love with (and by). Why is that so damn difficult?

So I’m looking through Craigslist and see an ad, written by a no-nonsense guy, looking for a no-nonsense female vocalist who doesn’t have commitment issues and can handle harmonies. Without reading much further, I knew that it was Evan. I didn’t reply. I didn’t know how, or what I’d say. The old shame was still there. Luckily, the Universe does look out for those who stumble about blindly. About a week later I get a Facebook message: “I heard you’re back in town. Feel like being in a band?” It turns out that Evan had run into the old romantic interest from my groupie days, and through idle conversation had been informed that I had moved back to New Orleans. And so life moves full circle.

About a month ago I started practicing with my new band, Drive West. I pick up harmonies pretty fast, and Evan and I have always sung well together. We also fell back into the old routines pretty easily – sarcastic comments, friendly beers, the occasional attempt at sage advice, laughter. It’s nice being a real musician again, and even though I’m still not too great at meeting new people, the drummer Matt and bassist Mike are turning out to be pretty cool with my awkward attempts at friendship. We’ll make it. Our first gig was on Saturday, at, of all places, the same Bank Street Bar where I used to go to cry and drown my sorrows, and where I first made the connection that would introduce me to Forever Flood back in 2004. It’s a small world, for being a place of infinite possibilities.

Drive West Logo

We plan to.