Saturday, November 23, 2013
Below is a Q &A with Robyn Day from WBUR's The Artery. Her piece is here. But we thought you'd like to see Nerissa's answers to her questions.
Robyn: You mention the double shift in your writing, and the delicate balance that women must maintain between their professional and home lives-- I wonder how feminism has influenced you or how it informs your music?
Nerissa: Katryna and I were raised by a woman who just missed coming of age during the heyday of feminism, but she is a very strong women who raised us to believe we could do anything we wanted. AND there was never any doubt with either Katryna or me that we wanted to be mothers. I was very conscious in my teens and college years that I would have a career that had flexibility to include kids. We both hoped we'd make it big enough to continue tour full time touring and somehow have nannies and fancy music tutors and a tour bus equipped with a small trampoline, and side trips to the great wonders of the world, all with our kids and husbands in tow, but it didn't work out like that. And now, of course, we wouldn't have it any other way.
Both of us consider ourselves feminists. We're a little too old to be "third wave," but we're both in that camp. And we are fortunate to be married to fantastic men who are equal partners in child-rearing and (more or less) housework.
Robyn: You write about the difficulty of making time to work on your music (especially with this new album that took years to complete), and yet you embrace all of your commitments fully--family, home, art, work--and your life is richer for doing so. Much of your new CD is about these commitments. Would it be fair to say that they provide your inspiration and much of the fodder for your music?
Nerissa: Yes, absolutely! I think that's evident from all the songs. There are a couple of great websites by artist/moms who have made their children their subjects.
"Lenka Clayton, conceptual artist and full-time mother created Artist Residency in Motherhood as both a personal and political statement. Artist residencies are not usually intended for artists who have families. Mostly, they are designed as a way to let artists escape from the routines and responsibilities of their everyday life. Artist Residency in Motherhood is different. Set firmly inside the traditionally “inhospitable” environment of a family home, it subverts the art-world’s romanticisation of the unattached (often male) artist, and frames motherhood as a valuable site, rather than an invisible labor, for exploration and artistic production."
And this incredible Creative Mom.
Robyn: Would it be more difficult, in a way, to write music without your other commitments (despite having more time to work without other obligations)?
Nerissa: I don't know. I honestly don't think so. My writing needs time and space, and the more I work and give my time to my family, the less time I have for writing. My output did diminished recently. But it's picking up since my youngest has gone to Kindergarten! I plan on doing February Album Writing Month in 2014. I did it every year from 2009-2011. Knew I would never be able to handle it in 2012. Tried in 2013 and could only write about 5 songs (you're supposed to write 14...) That being said, my other obligations certainly inspire me! But there is that law of physics thing. My fantasy, certainly, is to have way more time to write.
Robyn: Who and what has influenced your music? Which other artists, genres, traditions, or unexpected sources of inspiration? Have you had mentors along the way? What inspires you these days?
Nerissa: The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell are my Top Three, and always will be from a seminal sense. Pete Seeger in terms of vision and career arc. Dan Zanes for the Family Music model. Anne Lamott for her courage and honesty. What inspires me these days are the writers who come to my weekly writing groups and seasonal retreats. I am constantly blown away by what they come up with, and how important it is to be dedicated to the craft. You do that by showing up. I guess I am most inspired and impressed with longevity; the daily showing up. That's what's needed above all.
Robyn: How was the process of making this CD different from your previous work? Did slowing down the process of creating new music change that music in some (expected or unexpected) way? Did it feel like a struggle to make time to write music, or were there unexpected benefits?
Nerissa: It didn't feel like a struggle to write the music. I wrote most of the songs in 2009, during a period of time where I had just had my second child (born in Aug. 2008). After foolishly believing I didn't need much of a maternity leave, I got wise and took most of that year to blog about the intersection of motherhood and being an artist (you can see these posts on nerissanields.blogspot.com and look at the 2009 posts --this one is about making the CD). I gave myself a lot of time for writing, and also for listening to new (to me) bands, like the Decemberists and Neutral Milk Hotel. We started recording in December 2009, with the idea we'd work every Friday. But it didn't go nearly as quickly as we'd expected! I wrote a piece about the process for my book How to Be an Adult and that excerpt is here.
Robyn: How has your sound developed? After twenty years writing music and performing, are you still learning new things and developing as artists? What are you excited about doing now or next?
Nerissa: This is such a great question! And would take another book to answer! I guess we started out as a folk trio, not even knowing what a "sound" was. On our third album, Bob on the Ceiling, we began to claim an identity, though it's hard to use words to describe what we were going for. I think the journey has been from an overly cerebral wordy, busy sound to a more spacious one, but maybe that's only my hope! I tend to write really wordy songs, but Katryna's beautiful voice does best with fewer words, more opportunity for her to hold notes. Our producer, Dave Chalfant, is scrupulous about sound, and his mixes always blow me away. We are so lucky to work with him!
When we did our 20th anniversary show at the Iron Horse in Northampton in 2011, so many people said to us, "You've all grown as musicians! You're even better than you used to be!" The best thing about being a musician is that as long as you keep playing, you ARE going to get better, no matter how old you get. Even singers, whose voices can show the wear and tear of years, if they take care of those voices, they will get better and better. I feel very confident that this is the case with Katryna and me, and it's certainly the case with Dave Chalfant, our guitarist, and Dave Hower our drummer.
Robyn: What do you hope those who hear The Full Catastrophe will take from it? What motivates you to keep making music and performing?
Nerissa: I hope they will hear self-forgiveness! That was my main purpose in writing all the songs. We're all doing the best we can. Life is HARD. So we don't need to pile on and be hard on ourselves, especially in the realm of parenthood. Paying attention--that's the holy grail. But we can't always be present, especially in this internet-focused, iphone-obsessed culture. So we do the best we can, pick ourselves up when we fall, recommit ourselves to love and attention, love and attention.
Robyn: Do you believe it is more challenging or difficult for women to maintain their artistic lives when more is demanded of them at home? How do you work this out for yourself?
Nerissa: Yes! It's a painful struggle. Mostly I accept that my house is messier than I'd like it to be, and that I live in a state of disorganization. I work at organization, because it does make everything easier and go faster, so I am not giving up on filing and housecleaning entirely. But I do get help. I have babysitters at times so I can get work done. This makes me sad, too, because I'd love to be there all the time for my kids. But we do have to make choices. I am an artist AND a mother. I try to honor both roles every day. And accept that I am always doing B minus work (based on my own standards of grading). And I've learned that that's good enough. At least for now.
Robyn: How long have you been playing at Club Passim? How have they supported you and your music? How would you describe your relationship with them?
Nerissa: I think we first played Passim in 1995, but I am not totally sure about that. I know it was when we were a 5-piece band with a huge drum kit, so fitting on the stage was hilarious! And I think our guitarist electricuted himself on the mic because of some non-rock-friendly wiring. But once we became a duo in 2001, the room was perfect for us. We've been playing there at least yearly since. Passim shows are among our favorites. And our last record The Full Catastrophe won an Iguana grant, so Passim has very directly supported us! It feels like home. We love that room.
I love my job. It is, after all, my dream job. I have wanted to be a singer since I was seven. I am one of the lucky ones who got to do what she wanted. I love singing for a living, love writing songs, love traveling around the country with my sister. But at the height of my career, I found myself clandestinely purchasing Martha Stewart Living and reading it in secret in the back of the van, hiding its cover behind Rolling Stone. (I referred to Martha Stewart Living as my “porn.”) And sometime around the time I met Tom and we got married, I began having fantasies about having health insurance and weekends off. I began to wish that I didn’t have to rely on my wits so much. If I were someone with an honest trade, like a plumber or a nurse, I thought, I’d always have work to do. If I run out of ideas, I have nothing. This can make a person anxious, or at the least, give them Stiff Neck Virus. Stiff Neck Virus is my father’s term for what happens when suddenly your shoulders creep up to your ears and you have to turn your whole body in order to converse with the person sitting next to you in the car. I always seemed to get Stiff Neck Virus after a long weekend on the road or a plane trip where I had to lug my six-thousand-pound guitar.
In 2004, Katryna took her second maternity leave, and I did a solo tour with Lisa Loeb and Carrie Newcomer called “Folk The Vote.” (It was fun, but apparently we didn’t Folk enough because George W. Bush won a second term.) On that trip, my friend Jill Stratton suggested that I become a life coach. “A what?” I said. But I was intrigued. I’d heard of Martha Beck; I’d even read one of her books. I went home, did some research, made some applications, flew out to Arizona, and within a few months was fully certified in her program. I had a full client roster, and I discovered an entire continent of myself. Day after day, week after week, I sat in my sunny office at home, talking on the phone to men and women about their lives, their careers, their struggles. I listened, challenged, questioned, probed, got excited about their successes and grieved with them about their setbacks. I loved coaching. And I began to think I could do it for the rest of my life. It was fun and creative work, after all. It was especially fun to help them with time management (er, consciousness) and forgiveness work. Most interesting of all for me was exploring the mind-body nexus—getting clients (and myself) to feel feelings in our bodies and using a tool called “wordlessness” to make sense of them; to stay with feelings and not run. As this is not my strong suit—I am the proverbial helium balloon, constantly floating up above as a thought takes me away from the present moment—it was great practice to work with others.
But something nagged at me. There were many times when clients came to me with issues that were frankly above my head. There were many times when I wished I’d had more training. Should I go to grad school for social work? Divinity school? Become a “Master Coach”? But how could I get more training when I still had a music career, a writing career and a family to hang out with?
After the birth of my second child, the director of my favorite yoga studio started coming to the children’s music classes Katryna and I run. “Oh,” I said to her one day. “I have always wanted to do a yoga teacher training. But who has the time?”
“I will teach you privately!” she said.
Yes! I thought. Not only is yoga teacher training on my Bucket List, this is just what my coaching practice needs! I will become even better at being present, being embodied. I will help my clients so much—not to mention fulfill a lifelong dream to create a daily yoga practice. This was IT! The next breadcrumb.
And so for a year and a half, I met with her privately, went to several classes a week, practiced on my own in the mornings, read books on anatomy and medieval yogic philosophy. I learned to do a handstand, twisted my body till I saw things from an entirely different point of view, lost my baby fat, felt a new centeredness and groundedness. The training was half over. I looked ahead to an even more intense period of study and practice. Meanwhile, Katryna and I were writing a book for families, to teach them to make music with their young children; and we were also attempting to record our 16th CD The Full Catastrophe. Friday was our only day to work in the studio. Friday was also a yoga day. Every Friday, I found myself torn between my commitments. Usually I did both.
My teacher assigned The Bhagavad Gita, an ancient text that tells the story of Arjuna, a warrior who is about to enter the battlefield but has suddenly panicked. The poem is a conversation between himself and his charioteer who turns out secretly to be the god Krishna. At one point, Arjuna begs Krishna to reveal himself—to get out of his disguise as charioteer. So Krishna does. But the vision is overwhelming—full of monsters and blood and gore and so much raw beauty and horror that Arjuna is overwhelmed. He wants Krishna to put his Halloween costume back on to finish the conversation. He simply can’t bear to see God in all His glory. It’s like staring into the sun: for us humans, this is a recipe for going blind. And so Krishna takes pity on his poor human charge, and resumes his disguise as charioteer.
Towards the end of the poem, Krishna tells Arjuna, “One’s own dharma, performed imperfectly, is better than another’s dharma well performed. Destruction in one’s own dharma is better, for to perform another’s dharma leads to danger.”
Something profound shifted in me as I read this. My dharma, for better or for worse, is my career as an artist: musician and writer. And, as I understand it, we don’t choose our dharma––which means vocation, among other things. It chooses us. All these months of studying yoga felt very much to me, in that moment, like my dharma. But teaching yoga––that belonged to someone else. Like Arjuna, I was avoiding the "battle" involved in the business of living by one’s wits, by one’s muse––in short, as an artist––by turning to alternative ideas about how to make a living. When I read the Gita, I related to Arjuna throughout; as wanting to get out of the battle, not go forward into my fate––of appearing to others (if not myself) as an aging musician who never had a hit, or of laboring to write a book that might not even make a splash.
Looking backwards at my career, I alighted at my 23-year-old self. If could talk to that 23-year-old, who was safely working in a boarding school as an administrator, just married, with just a dream to be a folk singer, and I, Krishna-like, revealed to her what would be in store for her/me for the next twenty years if I chose this path, that 23-year-old would not have chosen it. That 23-year-old’s idea was to try this music thing, succeed at the level of the Beatles, with the plan that, if she failed, she’d go to Divinity school in her forties. Given a reasonable back-up plan, who would choose to stay in a “failed” career? Who would choose to strive so hard and so long for a goal (world famous singer/songwriter) and not achieve it?
The problem was, I didn’t fail. We weren’t the next Beatles, but we have a very successful music career, landing in the gray area between world famous and sub-karaoke. Moreover, looking back, I would not change a single thing. I can’t say I have a single regret. I am so glad to have exactly the amount of fame and success I do have. Even the disappointments have made me who I am today. Every year, I am so glad I continue to make music, continue to perform. What a life I have had! Music chose me, wooed me, won me, in the end.
And I am glad I didn’t know how it would turn out. I am so glad I had those big dreams as a young person. Young people need to have big dreams, and their work is to mine those dreams, work hard to reach for the big brass ring. It’s none of our business whether or not we succeed in wrestling it down, but it is our business to reach.
We can't ever stand to know what our future will hold. It is too much, just as the vision of Krishna in the Gita is too much for Arjuna. We think we can’t possibly live through what we end up living through. But we do live through it, and if we are awake and kind—to others and ourselves—we come out the better for it.
Yoga is a process of making one’s inner intentions match one’s actions. To make my inner intention match my actions, I needed to admit that as hard as it was to go forward as an artist, I had to because it was my dharma. Also, as hard as it is to keep showing up on stages around the country, I do love it. I do believe I still have much to give. And if I am awake, I notice that after shows, over and over, people say things along the lines of “Thank you for sharing your gift. Thank you for bringing your message to North Carolina/St. Louis/Winnipeg/Seattle––thank you for traveling so far to sing to us.” In other words, I got, post-Gita, that we are actually doing a service by sharing our music. I still often feel just so grateful that anyone pays any attention to us at all. It feels like a gift to get to make this music. I feel as amazed as Willie Mays when he found out that he could be paid to play baseball. Most days, I would pay to play. Good thing our manager won't let me.
Only by single-minded devotion
can I be known
as I truly am, Arjuna––
can I be seen and entered.
I went back to the studio. I needed to take a leap of faith in my music career: devote more time to it, even though it might not be remunerative. Rather than get a degree or a certification, I needed to take a hiatus from my life coaching practice. I needed to continue to give myself, my artist––my Willful Child if you will––margins to play in and explore. I needed to write for the sake of writing again. And I needed my IAP to cultivate single-minded devotion. (Not to just one thing; that's not possible for me. But whatever it is I am doing, being, whomever I am loving, I must do this with devotion, focus and attention.) Our book, All Together Singing in the Kitchen: Creative Ways to Make and Listen to Music as a Family came out in September, 2011. The Full Catastrophe came out in April 2012. Neither shot to number one. No matter. We are so happy with both projects, so delighted when people let us know that they read and use the book, listen to the CDs. And of course, making The Full Catastrophe proved to us that we still love making CDs, layering our harmonies in the studio, working with guest musicians. And our long-time fans repeatedly let us know that they love it; that they play it; that they are learning the songs and singing them with their families. We have a book that stands as a teaching tool and memoir, rolled into one. And we have another CD to represent a phase of our lives, of our career. Process, not product. This, to me, is success.
And finally, since my yoga training, the first thing I do every day is a single humble sun salutation. I can officially say that I have a yoga practice.
Excerpted from How to Be an Adult. To read more, buy the book!
Monday, November 04, 2013
1. An ability to know who you are, so you know what you like, so you know what you want, so you know what you need, so you know what you must do.
2. An ability to work with the currency of Time
3. An ability to deal with the related issue of inner resistance, otherwise known as DPI (Desire to Procrastinate Indefinitely)
Now, some of you soon-to-be-adults will have no need for the chapters that follow, and if that be the case, skip ahead to the practical sections on exercise, food and sleep, and knock yourselves out. Your problems (if you have any) may have more to do with sitting back and relaxing rather than kicking your own butt, which may be sore from all the lunges and squats you’ve done over the years. There’s a section just for you a little later on. It’s called “Eight Cheap Forms of Therapy.” For the rest of us who know a little something about sitting in front of the TV for five days straight eating nothing but microwave popcorn and diet Shasta, read on.
Be yourself; no base imitator of another, but your best self. There is something which you can do better than another. Listen to the inward voice and bravely obey that.
––Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance”
Everyone seems to know that Shakespeare said, “To thine own self be true.” Very well. What most people ignore is that the character who says this oft-quoted line is the big blowhard and hypocrite and oh, by the way, spy, Polonius. In the context of the scene within the play Hamlet, what he really means by this bit of wisdom adopted by the New Age, is, “Make sure whatever you do, you look appropriate and protect your interests.” Still, there’s a reason the New Agers (and many Hallmarky-type cards and refrigerator magnets) have sold this quote. It’s valuable advice. Even so, because as a teenager I really hated Polonius, I prefer Socrates’s “Know Thyself,” which is more succinct.
How do you know who you are, anyway? Until you do, you can’t really do much. You just kind of whirl around in circles, following whatever is the most sparkly (or safe) person, situation, trend, idea, diatribe, religion. You get your idea of self (usually) from your family of origin, or perhaps from your social group at school or elsewhere. But what if they are all saying things that don’t ring true to you?
Get out of the house, and get out of town. Or at least, begin to question: what feels unharmonious to you about the messages you’re getting from these people? Are they walking their talk? More importantly, are you? When you listen to that core set of values deep inside yourself, does it match how you are behaving on the outside? When your inside matches your outside, we call this “integrity.” Look for others with this quality. Get to know them. These people are the real deal. As Gandhi says, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”
Figuring out who you are and what you like and what you want and what you need is a lifelong pursuit. Some get clarity earlier than others; you might already have a very good idea of who you are and what you do best and what you like and what you want and (sometimes hardest of all) what you need. If you know these things about yourself already, use your knowledge to be—to paraphrase Dr. Seuss–– the Youest You you can possibly be. If you don’t, take some time to find out. It does take that most valuable resource: time. I first took this kind of time the summer I turned fourteen and was leaving the school I’d attended for seven years to move on to high school. I lay in my bed every morning, thinking, “who am I really?” And by the end of the summer I’d made some important discoveries. First, that (like my heroes, John Lennon and Bob Dylan) I was an artist, and therefore (necessarily) different from everyone else. And second, that therefore I didn’t need to worry about “fitting in” anymore. Eventually everyone would catch on that I was hip, but for now, I could march to the proverbial beat of a different drummer. With these empowering discoveries, I had a huge surge of energy and creativity. I began writing songs; I spoke out about what I believed; I started to wear a lot of red and purple, and also strange hippie garb from the Salvation Army. “I have found myself!” I announced audaciously to anyone who cared to listen. (I really impressed my mom, but my sisters told me later that they were horribly embarrassed for me.)
And indeed, I had found myself. But then “myself” changed, and I realized I looked terrible in red and that I wasn’t really a hippie. We discover ourselves like the layers of the onion. It’s an ever-evolving process. We have to keep asking ourselves what we really love, and make sure we are not swayed by the opinions of others. If all our friends were suddenly abducted on a spaceship and we were left with a totally different crowd, would we adopt the new crowd’s preferences and predilections? Would we stay true to what we loved now that we are a part of the (now Martian) crowd? Or are we secretly glad our old buddies have moved onward and upward? In fact, you might want to listen carefully to those outside your strongest spheres of influence. If you are a diehard Christian, read the Koran. If you are a lifelong Democrat, read Atlas Shrugged. If you grew up listening only to classical music, try some hip-hop. Don’t let others define you. Make up your own mind. See for yourself.
Play a game of “What Do You Like Better?” Oatmeal or chocolate chip? Red or blue? Liberty or Justice? Urban or Rural? When in the day is your energy strongest? What makes you lose your temper? Which is harder for you: anger or sadness? Which is harder for you: your own feelings or the feelings of others? Do you really like jazz? Big drooly dogs? Ernest Hemingway? Short hair? Sci-Fi? Downhill skiing? Or do you just wish you were that kind of person?
To some of you who have strong, healthy egos these questions might seem ridiculous. But I must confess that when I was in my teens I “put on” a lot of likes, dislikes and opinions that were not quite true to who I really was—and I certainly believed I had a healthy ego, and I came across to my friends as a leader. Looking back, here are some of my “should likes.”
• Rush (the band)
• Charles Dickens’ novels
• Lord of the Rings
And some “should not likes.”
• Tiny cuddly dogs
• Peter Paul & Mary
• Woody Allen (I know I’m supposed to hate him, but…)
Some of these are things I realized as a young girl. I should definitely not like:
• To play with dolls
• To like fairy tales
• To wear pink
• To watch The Brady Bunch
• To re-read the Little House books when I was in 7th grade
And so I did these things in secret. I “put on” being a tomboy instead.
Even as I write this, I am cringing. I don’t want anyone to know some of my true likes and dislikes. But one of my favorite parts of Gretchen Rubin’s wonderful Happiness Project is her First Commandment (to “Be Gretchen.”) This reminds me of the Hindu observation that God dwells within us as us. Those quirks we can’t stand about ourselves––they are divinely wrought. And our work is not to eradicate them but to learn to love them.
The older I get, the more permission I give myself to love what I really love. Our twenties are a time when we start to put down the masks and stop trying on different personae. By the time you hit thirty, you should be well on your way in a lifelong game of Hot/Cold (“Warmer….warmer…hot! Hot! Hot! You’ve found it!”).
“Why try to be a Pekingese if you are a Greyhound?” Listen to the still small voice within. Get to know it. Take it out on dates. Write to it. Talk to it, but also listen. See if it has any better ideas. Some people have an Inner Child. (More on this coming up.) In addition to my Inner Child, I seem to have been gifted with an Inner Sneering Older Brother, whom I probably acquired from reading too much Creem Magazine when I was a teen. Some of my work today involves standing up to that Inner Sneering Older Brother (ISOB) and singing, “I decided long ago never to walk in anyone’s shadow!” or some similar drippy 80s ballad. (ISOBs hate 80s ballads, 100% of the time.)
Now is the time to do something wild and crazy. Join the Peace Corps, Teach for America, or teach English abroad. Move to New York City or Los Angeles and live the life of a starving artist. Move to Bhutan and become a monk or nun. Go to Europe and be the founder of a political movement. Start a rock band like I did and travel around the country. Or, if you know you are going to end up being an artist, take a few years to do something totally different. (One of my friends from college became a cop. He’s now a writer. What amazing material he got during those years!) You will never be this unencumbered and free again! And your back will never enjoy sleeping on other people’s floors as much as it does now! Seize your moment!
This of course assumes you have your college loan situation under control. Mindful of paying off the bills, do so—in the most adventurous way possible within your comfort zone. And use your weekends for exploration. Take a weekend to be alone. Go on a Vision Quest. In Native American tradition, youths are sent away with no food (usually) to spend a period of time communing with their spirit guide. At the end of this period, they come back to the tribe clear on what direction their future will take.
Can you find a way to do something similar? I am only asking because, adult though (I think) I am, I wish I could say that I have done a Vision Quest. Everything about it terrifies me: the wilderness, the fasting, the insects, the boredom. That’s why I think it might be necessary. Next edition, I hope to report back.
One more thing about my crazy vision quest idea: it is worth noting that in every ancient tradition on every continent the young males went through some kind of initiation rite (the young females did not because they were usually impregnated at that point and/or breastfeeding, and believe me, motherhood is a pretty thorough initiation rite in and of itself). The point is, people have known for millennia the necessity of taking time apart to know oneself so that one can find one’s place in the community, make choices that are true and right and not end up like Zelig, the famous Woody Allen character who, chameleon-like, became whoever the people he encountered wanted him to be. Too many of us fail to buck peer pressure even when we’re well beyond Junior High. “Know thyself” is an ongoing project; the work of a lifetime.
To buy the book, go here! Sale this week: ebook=$2.99!
Also, which cover do you like most? This?