Changing Gears

  • 01/6/2016
  • JamPlay, LLC

We’re musicians – creative types. This much we’ve figured out. Most of us have also discovered that there’s no boilerplate roadmap for making sense of our craft. Processing lofty philosophical questions seems to be part of the deal, but implementing our discoveries can be tough. One thing’s for sure: change is inevitable.

Maybe change is even fundamental to who we are as artists. People drop bills in our tip jars and take our CDs home with them because they appreciate how we make them feel. They hear our music and it moves them. But first our music has to move us. We’re emotional people – we feel a large palate of emotions, and those emotions cause us to think, feel, and act differently. So we change.

Recently, I talked to acoustic icon Carrie Newcomer about how she embraces the process of changing gears.

“There’s a lot of fear walking into transition,” she said. “Change is hard for most grown-ups: it just is. When the universe speaks to us, we hear it first as a whisper which gradually gets louder – until everything seems to shout. If we’re still not listening, we get hit on the head by the cosmic 2x4.”

We laughed together at the all-too-familiar thought of resisting change until circumstances force us into it. But looking back on decades of a successful career from her comfortable living room with a cup of tea in hand belied the hard work it took to get there. I asked her about the early years as a full-time musician and single mother.

“Deep down,” she explained, “I knew that if I was true to what I loved, then everything would be okay. It may not be what I had planned, but it would be right because it’s who I am. The hardest part,” she said, “is trusting your own sense of wisdom. Even the mistakes you make are the ones you’re supposed to make.”

“Sometimes a door opens – we need to pay attention to what it is. My prayer is to close any door that I’m not supposed to go through. If something in me is so happy, I need to pay attention to that.”

In my own case, paying attention to what makes me happy has seemed incongruous to a successful music career. A few years ago, I left my full-time touring schedule to move into a sailboat. Odder still was my subsequent relocation to North Africa for six months – at the time it seemed like a backwards step for my music, but talking with Carrie that day helped me make sense of it.

“The whole of who we are informs our art,” she said. “I’m a different writer because of my relationships, because of my activism, and because I’m a single mother. Sometimes, you think you’re spinning your wheels, but you’re not.”

Her words landed home. Long hours alone at sea and weeks traveling through the Sahara are experiences that I’ve drawn on heavily in my songwriting – not just the stories, but the quiet and depth of feeling that I experienced have fed me in more subtle ways that I continually rediscover. Maybe that solo time was so effective because it gave me space to process the big changes that had recently happened in my life.

Among others, Leonard Cohen and Sara McLaughlin have both sequestered themselves for extended periods and found the silence helpful to their songwriting. We’re all changing – that’s who we are as human beings. An artist is someone who has the strength to feel, and the courage to express it. We need to take the time to explore the changes we’re going through so that they can inform our art. This is what sustains us, and this depth of expression is what touches others.

Today I’m writing this article from a little cabin in northern Wisconsin where I’ve come for ten days of respite from full-time touring. There’s a thick layer of snow outside, no Internet, and no cell phone reception. There’s a wood fire going, and I’ve just made myself a cup of hot tea. Soul food, to be sure: I’m taking the space to feel, and allowing it to change me.