The Dream Job and a Well Lived Life

I was reading an article last week about The Lone Bellow, one of my favorite bands of the last year or so, that gave a little bit of history on the band. It talked about the years before they hit it big, when they were all just living in Brooklyn working multiple jobs at diners and restaurants. It got me thinking about what we consider success and how long it takes to hit it. Zach Williams, the lead singer, was 31 when their first album came out, an ancient by college standards and pretty darn close to my age.

I started to look up other “stars” who got a late start in life. Julia Child didn’t learn to cook until she was over 40. Andrea Bocelli didn’t sing opera until 34. Colonel Sanders started KFC at 65. Laura Ingalls Wilder (of Little House on the Prarie fame) didn’t start writing until she was 40 and her Little House books weren’t written until her 60’s. Alan Rickman (Professor Snape in Harry Potter) got his first movie role at 46. And speaking of Harry Potter, JK Rowling was 32 when the first book was published. Vincent Van Gogh has his first exhibition at age 32. Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn at age 49.

This isn’t a “chase your dreams no matter how long it takes” rant. It isn’t a “follow your heart, even if you initially get rejected” article. I can only speak from personal experience, but my time in college gave me some sort of idealistic “change the world” attitude that implied if I hadn’t really done something meaningful with my life by the time I graduated, then I was wasting it. I mean, I grew up in a Facebook world where Mark Zuckerberg was an overnight billionaire as essentially a college kid. Follow your dreams, chase your passion, make a difference and for the love of God, don’t settle for a corporate job at a bank or something like that.

Enter 4.5 years at US Bank, a mere two years after graduation. Currently, I work for another financial firm, a great company, but a job none the less that I never imagined I would have. And no (sorry employers), it is not my dream job.

My generation grew up being told to follow our dreams, to chase the dream job. There is a great quote by Howard Thurman that says “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” I grew up wanting to be a professional football player and well, I didn’t exactly chase that dream. I have friends who are artists and designers and entrepreneurs and I know their job makes them feel alive and if I look at it romantically, I think, “Man, they have arrived! What am I doing with my life?” I am 29 and still wondering what I want to be when I grow up. My dream of owning a coffee shop concert venue may never be a reality. Does that mean I am a failure, because I didn’t follow my dream?

I don’t think so, but my self-doubt and insecurities sure bubble up and say yes. I know it’s never too late, that I could still be the next Colonel Sanders, Mark Twain or JK Rowling. But for every success story like those, there are a lot of failures or those who never actually tried and despite what I feel pressured to say by some invisible inspiring force, I don’t think that not trying equates to failure. Maybe I am trying to justify myself, but I don’t think so. Perhaps there is honor in working the job that you don’t like because it is where God placed you. Perhaps there is honor in working a job just to pay your bills and support a family instead of risking it all for the dream. Perhaps there is deeper meaning in living life with a purpose that is more than entrepreneurial.

Dreams change and rightly so. What was a dream as a kid may be my life passion… or it may not. I was listening to a This American Life episode a while ago and Nancy Updike said, “Not every death is the end of a well-lived life.” I think there lie the seeds to chasing your dreams and success and failure. It is about a well-lived life and what makes up a well lived life. And that isn’t defined by the dream job.

 

Don’t Drift Away

“Your mother used to say that I was afraid, but apathy is not the same as escape, and I was never running. It’s just that I was never fighting. Indifference sneaks in subtly, and subtleties can kill a man.” Ch 8 White Wales Like Black Plagues – Levi The Poet: Correspondence

This album was released in November but I first heard it at the beginning of January and I haven’t been able to shake it. I don’t think I want to shake it. It is, as a friend of mine said, “not a passive listening experience,” but one where if given the opportunity, it sinks in slowly. Thankfully, I have had a few hours of data entry at work that I have been able to just sit an absorb the album again and again. I have literally listened to it straight through six times in the past week. It is a story of “A whaler’s daughter, out at sea. An orphaned son, building a treehouse for her return. The letters they write back and forth to one another, carried by the waves via the ship-captain’s liquor bottles.” But it is more than a story.

I think the reason I love story is because of the deeper truth that can come across. It is those moments in a movie where you get choked up because you identify. It is the times when you jump out of your seat at a movie because the good guy wins and something in your heart says, “Yes, that is the way the world is supposed to be, before our brokenness ripped it to the pieces that it is now.” We LONG for a story where the wrong will fail, the right prevail, the showdown at high noon where John Wayne walks away the victor. And yet in those moments where failure happens, often, we identify with that as well.

So when Levi drops the line, spoken from the perspective of the girls alcoholic ship-captain father when he says, “I was never running. It’s just that I was never fighting. Indifference sneaks in subtly, and subtleties can kill a man.” Well, in those moments, I identify. Indifference sneaks in subtly, never running just never fighting? That is a sad reality that is often true of my life. It is the moments that you wake up and wonder how you got lost off the path that you were intended to be on.

I remember hearing someone say, of someone who committed adultery, “No one wakes up one day and decides, ‘Today I am going to ruin my life and the life of my children.'” No, those decisions are the slippery slope of compromise, the decision to not fight, the decision to be apathetic, the move towards ease. It isn’t just the game changers like adultery. It is the moments that we lose sight of True North. It can be the moment that compromise is made at work. I remember a time when I lied at my previous job. It was a lie in the interest of my client, a white lie, something that wasn’t cheating the bank out of money, just trying to help my customer. That decision was a decision, a moment, a time when I chose to put my integrity aside in such a way that I could justify it. It scared me, ate at me, and I confessed to my boss the next day, terrified I would be fired, as he very well could have. Thankfully he talked to me about how nothing is worth trading for integrity, made me change the incorrect information and let me off the hook. It was a moment that could have been a turning point in my life, where I began to choose compromise over honesty, justifications over integrity. I thank God it wasn’t.

I hope you haven’t been in that place. But have you been in the place where you took the job for money? I am not talking about taking a job because you have to feed yourself or your family. There is honor in doing a crappy job to provide for those we love. I am talking about taking the job where you traded your family for status. Heck, it is probably even justifiable under the umbrella that “I am making all these sacrifices so that my kids can have what I never had, the best of everything, a college education without having to pay for it.” But I am going to argue that presence is worth more than money, than the things you can provide. In the same song, “I know that drifting is a deeper threat than betrayal. No one has to convince you to abandon anything, you just inevitably end up downstream, maintain your pride and wonder why the world keeps on shifting, convinced you’re still standing in the same place. You never mean to drift away.”

You see, there are some things in this world that are worth fighting for but you have to at least know who you are in order to choose those fights. Otherwise you will end up throwing punches in the dark, eventually giving up because you lose sight of the prize, of the reason you started swinging in the first place. It is the professional athlete that becomes focused on the money, not the game he grew up loving. It is the lawyer who focuses on the paycheck, not the justice that drew them to the profession. It is the artist that focuses on the critics review, not the joy of creation, of making something out of nothing. It is the husband who slips into apathy instead of romancing the woman he fell in love with. Don’t be that. Don’t slowly drift away.

Lose the Excuse

When I began writing for this blog, I had two goals. The first was to publish an interview that I did of a friend or aquantince who is an artist every Friday. I have already dropped the ball on that one, resorting to an older article I published with another magazine. The second was to post something every Monday, calling it Monday’s Musing, that was thoughts on music or art or purpose or something of the like. And yesterday, I dropped the ball on that one too.

Now, I have great excuses for this apathy towards dropping the ball. Yesterday, for example, I had started two different blog posts (one on the Super Bowl and one called “If No One Was Watching”) but I didn’t like the direction they were taking, the way they were turning out. I didn’t want to write some crap and lose whatever equity I have with the few people who read this. I don’t write during the day because I am at work or I want to spend time with my wife and son. As for the interview, it takes time to get good interviews and I don’t want to publish just interviews of my family (more of those to come, though, they are an artistic bunch). So like I said, I have lots of excuses.

But that is crap. I need to lose the excuse. Read reason for not posting like my goal? Lack of planning and execution. Laziness in the morning and getting caught up in reading articles about the best Bourbon Ale or shopping for a hotel for a NYC trip. Lack of follow through on calling friends who are artists and arranging interviews. And lastly, just probably plain old apathy and thinking, “No one will really care if I follow through on this goal or not.” If you are anything like me, you are probably just as skilled at justification and excusing actions that really boil down to laziness and characted flaws. But I don’t want to admit that.

Yesterday night, I was playing basketball with some guys and the guy I was guarding was playing a little rough, to say the least. To top it off, whenever I wouldn’t back down and let him bowl me over, he would call a foul.  I was pretty tired of it by the end and in the second to last game, we got a little tied up and there was a little bit of shoving that happened. Now, what I wanted to do was take a swing, or at least hit him with the same elbow he kept drilling me with. And talking to everyone else after they game, they all concurred that he was playing a little dirty and that he was calling crap fouls. You see, I managed to justify my loss of temper and then get other people at the game to justify it as well. I am good at coming up with excuses.

I need to lose the excuse. Chances are, so do you. You haven’t pursued the passion that you once had because work got in the way? Lose the excuse, get up earlier, sacrafice TV time to make it happen.

 

Storytelling with Eric Peters

I am cheating this week and reaching back into the archives and an article I wrote when I was interning for Relevant Magazine. Now I am not entirely sure if I am supposed to do this, but hey, here goes. Here is a link to the original article (fun fact, on Relevant right now, it says David Barrett wrote this article…he did not, I did). Now this article is a little dated, seeing as I wrote it in 2009. Since then, crowd-funding music has become normal, Kanye isn’t so crazy, DWebb isn’t so controversial. But Eric Peters, who has since produced another fantastic album called Birds of Relocation, is still making challenging, beautiful music. You can get a sample of his music and the story behind one of his songs called Voices at The Rabbit Room.

Storytelling with Eric Peters:

Trying to nail a square peg in a round hole works about as well as describing Kanye West as humble. The Square Peg Alliance, an artist collective featuring such notables as the ever-controversial Derek Webb and Caedmon’s Call alum Andy Osenga, defiantly claims that label. A band of misfits who don’t squarely fit in the CCM market or the secular market, they have found an artistic home together.

The community banded together recently to support the release of Eric Peters sixth studio album, Chrome. If you are asking the question, “Eric who?” chances are you are not alone. Yet Peters’ open-hearted honesty and nuanced production, thanks to fellow “Pegger” Ben Shive, rarely leave the listener disappointed.

Peters is a standout among the overcrowded scene of singer/songwriter folk-pop. But unlike Webb, who recent Stockholm Syndrome was released by INO Records, Peters is completely independent. Which means financing, producing and releasing the entire album on his own. So what is a guy with a wife, two kids and mortgage to do?

Peters took the “easy” way out: he had fans pay for it. Though Chrome was still made on a shoestring budget, Peters solicited the patronage of his fan base to fund it. While only $8,000 of the $15,000 ideal budget was raised, Peters says that without it, Chrome would have never been minted.

“Now that I have actually got the record out and knowing my family’s financial situation, I don’t know if I could have paid for it out of pocket,” said Peters. “I definitely think it was providential to have the fans involved. It was easily the smallest budget I have had to make a record.”

Learning from other independent artists like Jill Sobule, whose $80,000 budget far exceeded Peters, fans were challenged to donate upfront in return for two copies and their name in the liner notes. Though not calling for the end of record labels, Peters imagines that other artists could follow the same path.

“I don’t think I’m the only one who can do it,” he said. “I don’t profess it’s the wave of the future, but I think it can be done if they have good relationships with their fans, especially the rabid fans that will follow them through thick and thin.”

Risk management is not something known to be any artist’s forte, yet this unique financing is a way for independents to belay some of the cash investment and focus on the project at hand.

“I sometimes wonder if people understand the investment,” he commented. “I won’t put indie artists on a pedestal and say ‘Woe is us,’ but the sacrifice and risk involved is tremendous. If you look at it purely from a financial standpoint, there is no guarantee on any of it. It typically takes me well over a year, two years even, to fully recoup.”

Beauty is often born out of difficulty and Chrome is no exception. Under the watchful eye of Shive, darker lyrical content was infused with musical light. The upbeat music often belies an honest recognition that life is hard and things don’t always work out the way we dream.

“I kept apologizing to Ben early on because [the songs] were so sad,” Peters laughed. “Which they are, but he also heard melody in there. And that’s one of the beautiful things about art, because a person like Ben can take these melodies and make it work. The first time people hear an album, they are not going to remember lyrics; they are going to be drawn in or drawn out by the music.”

“When you’re listening to Chrome in your car, with the windows down and wind whistling in your ear, the album isn’t going to do what it can do for you,” Peters said. “But if you can carve out 45 minutes and put on some headphones, the subtleties will come alive. The way I write is not overt in any way; I am not prophetic and I am not the next big thing but I hope that people are willing to invest some time in my music. Perhaps they’ll find about themselves or their faith or all the crap that life brings.”

Peters took Frederich Buechner’s words as Chrome’s theme: “The story of any one of us is in some measure the story of us all.” The stories told in Chrome are personal but with themes that are larger than an individual. In the end, it is the story that matters to him, not who is telling it.

“I’m just trying to tell my story the best way I know how and hope people can relate to it,” said Peters, speaking of the personal nature of the record. “For example, my buddy went through a bankruptcy and told God to go to hell in the middle of all of it. I don’t know what that is like but I sure know what it means to deal with bitterness, to deal with disappointment and grave moments of doubt. Sometimes a tiny grain of hope is all I’ve got. Hope peeks its head out in the midst of an awful story and God shows up to redeem, to bring back to life.”

That theme even extends to the album art. “David van Buskirk (the artist) came up with this idea of an umbrella, hanging there with these keys falling, with a lock underneath and the lock is locked,” Peters described. “Our stories are useless if we keep them to ourselves. I guess the idea is that in the sharing and the telling and the hearing of people’s stories, we inevitably find something of ourselves in those stories.”

A Place for Childlike Wonder

Yesterday, as the night wound down, I was sitting in the bathroom giving my son his bath. My son is only a little older than 8 months and has recently discovered new tricks that he loves to bust out. He can clap on demand, never failing to bring a one-tooth-coming-in smile to his chubby cheeks; I think he understands “high-five” and “kiss” (though he always goes for the scandalous open mouth kiss) and perhaps my favorite, when my wife says “Can Luca dance?”, he begins to flap his arms and rock his body with a big grin. One of the tricks we didn’t have to teach him was the ability to splash. Man, the boy would win most water fights, only he is typically having a water fight with himself and the bathtub. Usually half of the water ends spilling out. But he takes such joy in the splashing, that I think he is the definite winner.

As I was sitting there last night, watching his pure glee as he splashed water all over, I was struck by the thought; “When do we stop taking joy in the splashing?” I don’t know about you, but I don’t spend too much time splashing these days. But I did as a kid. I remember pool fights, where, when you think rationally, they made no sense at all. Think about it. You are all in the pool, already wet head to toe, by somehow it is a thing to see who can get more wet by splashing? I remember water balloon fights where all you needed was some water balloons, buckets full of water and a garden hose. No super soakers, no water cannons, no giant water-balloon sling shots (though those are crazy fun). Have we lost something in the growing up that we should fight to hang onto?

Perhaps it is that everything is new for a child. When my son stares at his hands, rolling his wrists and and bending each finger, I wish I knew what was going on in his little head. I wish I could distill the magic that is happening and take a drink myself. I think it is this everyday magic that we too easily ignore or dismiss. I read a brilliant essay by Rebecca Reynolds called Miracle on Demand that challenged me to think on this. She states that “I think that’s because the same God who bends physics created it in the first place, and he could just have easily made water so that it always turned to wine, or bread so that it multiplies every time upon being broken. Natural laws are simply the way the miracle of creation is sustained over time.” Did you ever see the YouTube video of the lady who had surgery so that she could hear for the first time? Heck, search YouTube for “hearing for the first time” and you will see video after video of people who are experiencing sound for the first time. Tell me that is not an everyday miracle.

Now I know that calling everything a miracle or everyday magic might diminish to some the “big miracles.” But for a little kid, that sense of wonder is there in everything because everything is new and interesting. Reynolds states “Nothing exists that didn’t begin with a miracle. Was the first bird created in Eden by the voice of God a miracle? Was the one billionth bird created by the voice of God creating a bird that could create other birds a miracle? I say yes on both counts.” How do we recapture that wonder? I don’t know if we can. I don’t know if I can go back to taking pure joy in clapping my hands, hearing music, dancing to the music. Levi the Poet, in the song “Orphan Theism” from his album Correspondence (a fiction) says, “Where does the beauty inside of a tree reside, made up of atoms, identical and colorless, where the light of the sun merely vibrates in waves toward our eyes, striking tissues and moving along nerves like a telephone wire, to their endings, like telephones? I do not know. There is no actual color in the atoms of which the tree is composed, or in those vibrations. Shape, size, color, touch and the like are simply the names we call our sensations, and no amount of study can ever bring the notion of beauty to the tree… When I don’t know how, help me embrace the mystery.”

I think that might be the trick, to embrace the mystery. In this day and age, we read the paper to become cynics, google any answer, have science to answer everything and we lost sight that mystery, that wonder, hides in plain sight. We seek uniformity and perfection and lose sight of the beauty of imperfection, of uniqueness. When we live in an auto-tuned, lip-synced world, we miss the beauty of a live performance and life is giving us a live performance, day by day, minute by minute. Don’t miss it. Don’t wait for the big things, the birth of your first child, the epic concert, the romantic date to see the wonder in the way your brain communicates to the rest of your body to move, the way your radio takes music out of mid-air and makes it something your ears can hear, or the wonder of creation around you. We can’t explain it all and that’s good. It makes us better artists, better people to live with a little bit of wonder in our lives.

G.K. Chesterton wrote in his classic Orthodoxy, “It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

So grow younger as you keep splashing.

Taelor Gray – “hip-hop with soul”

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Hip hop and I have had an on and off again relationship for the past 20 years. It started with the early days of “Christian hip-hop”, when Cross Movement and Grits drew me in. I never committed like a couple of my brothers. I guess I thought it had to be all or nothing, and I wasn’t in to everything I heard. Recently, I have been drawn back and it is in large part thanks to Taelor Gray. I knew Taelor for about a year before I really knew he was an artist. Even then, I heard snippets of his early stuff and honestly, I wasn’t hooked. Then I saw him live and as the saying goes, I saw the light. Seriously, if you can, catch a Taelor Gray live show. I don’t care if you like hip-hop or not. His lyrics are both challenging and inspiring, his delivery solid. He is growing in his craft, experimenting, and it’s exciting to watch. I got to sit down at the too early hour of 7:00 AM and chat with my brother about his craft. Check it out and check out and support his music at http://www.taelorgray.com/.

In your own words, describe your craft? It’s hip hop with soul. It’s in some ways explicitly worshipful, it’s has maybe a little bit of an edge in regards to an opinion standpoint. I am a very opinionated person, so what I say represents what I really believe, whether or not I contextualize the conversation to include an another perspective or not.

What inspired you to create music? My relationship with the Lord. More recently the birth of my son.  It has given me a brand new fresh outlook on life, a perspective on fatherhood and possibilities and things like that. I don’t know how that happened…

Well Taelor, when a Daddy loves a Mommy…. (laughing) Yea, I am going to leave that part out. I just came into this writing binge. But the whole family dynamic, the artist doesn’t typically go there but that is a lot for me. That and the social environment that we are in, being tied specifically to what I am going to be doing with my life for the next 5-10-15 years. I would say that becoming more plugged in to the social realities of our country, historically and in recent times and thinking how they are going to impact me and my family. So the socio-economic realities, ethnicity, race, culture…how they directly impact me and my family the church we are serving in.

So how did becoming a Dad change your heart? Watching a human being enter into the world and you are directly a part of that reality. For me, artistically, this was something you read in a science book turning into real life. You know the science part, you have seen the PBS TV show, read the science books, but when you actually see the reality of a child coming into the world and now I watch him learn and grow and comprehend things. The reality starts to kick in and its miraculous, its amazing, its inspiring. And my wife has been a huge inspiration, how incredibly strong she is, how much she has changed into a mother and being in tune with that has been amazing to watch and experience.

It’s obviously a challenge with a family time wise. What are some other challenges in making music? I work a full-time job so it is easy to feel like work gets in the way some times. But creatively, I am just so random that I will think of something in a moment and I just have to get it down. So unfortunately that fleshes out during work hours, so sometimes it is just putting down a quick note in my phone or sending myself a quick email from my work computer. Or if the work day is too crazy, I will have to find myself in a dark room at the end of the day where I am probably destroying my eyes staring into a phone and trying to get everything down. Some of my best ideas I have forgotten about on the way home from work. The time is a challenge, I envy artists that have all day to think and create.

Do you ever censor yourself in your music? Censor? Absolutely I do. I am kind of scared of what I would say if I didn’t have a censor. I want to be honest, to be authentic, but in some warped way I want my honesty to serve the people who are listening, not just myself. I can speak honestly, get it off my chest and feel good about what I wanted to say but the reason I censor myself is because I don’t think that me uncensored is going to help everybody. It’s the same reason I would censor myself in a social media platform. I am going to keep it real or whatever you want to call it but to what extent, what good is revealing this thought that I have?

What is a track that you are proud of? There is a song where I rapped over a Coldplay song and it received mixed reviews. But because of the content of the song, it is probably one of my favorite songs. [spoiler: I (Chris) was one who critiqued it…it just didnt work for me, so I felt like a terrible person when he said this and said as much.] It’s ok, art exists to be criticized. I have seen that happen to the greatest artists of our time. I am not exempt. I love criticism. Someone told me yesterday that they hated something that I did, that it did nothing for them, and I had to take that to the chest. My wife is probably the toughest critic that I know…she strategically clouds how she feels or doesn’t get invested over all. And it helps that she doesn’t really like rap, she just listens to humor me.

Christian rapper; how do you feel about the term? I have come to the realization that I am not a title nazi. You listen to the music and that is the conclusion you come to, I am not going to wrestle you to the ground and make you change your terminology. We use words for a reason to define what we think we are experiencing. If you want to make a big philosophical discussion, I go with “rapper who is a Christian,” but again, not going to wrestle you to the ground. If you listen to my music and say “Christian rapper…because you make a lot of religious references,” then ok, I am not going to argue with that. Drawing more attention to it by trying to decode everything is too much work.

What is your dream tour? [this caused a lot of thinking] The tour that I would want to be a part of, I would want to be in the audience for. I would do my thing and just want to enjoy it. I have never seen Josh Garrels live and would love to do that. I would love to go on the road with Shad, to see how he engages his audience and builds the intimate feel that his music seems to have, just to see what his live show would be like and I feel like we would match in some ways. And as a final, my brother [Christon Gray], from a comfort standpoint, we have the most chemistry.

Who inspires you? There is a guy James Blake, really only one song that I know of his. He made a song called Retrograde that I just repeated for five days straight. Just one song. Kendrick Lamar, creatively, is just one of the most talented artists overall. The way he takes concepts and applies them to a sonic landscape. I am really inspired by Drake, he is a mainstream guy but just knows what works musically. There is a guy John Mark McMillan, that man, the dude is a beast. Jon Foreman, the lead singer of Switchfoot, when he breaks off he gets to another creative realm. The writing for his solo stuff, I love. I don’t know where they are going creatively or content wise, but I really love Gungor. I Am Mountain was a challenging album to digest; the writing is just like, “Dude, did you just sit down in a room and smoke some hookah and come up with it?”[laughing] I don’t know, whatever the creative juices.

What is the cost of doing music? The cost is what you want it to be, depending on how much you want to invest in this dream. For me, I think in percents. It is about 30-35% in the full context of my life, of my financial resources. 70-80% of my creative resources. It is an outlet because in my job I am not required to be creative.

Tell me about falling off a stage? Oh man, that was horrible. It had been a long night, the curtain call song, Swoope wanted to do an encore. We were all tired, he knew he was wrong for it. We were a little off our game because we were tired. It was a two level stage, I was jumping around on the lower level, slapping fives and I went to jump to the higher level and I wasnt looking. I knew where I was and where the stage is. I went to land where the stage was and it wasnt there. I completely lose it, bust my side, fall off, glasses flying. The DJ is right there watching me struggle and a group of fans is like “Oh, are you ok?” I am the performer, I dont want to engage with them that way. The culmination is that we are all at IHOP and I am just hoping that I got by because no one on stage saw it. But someone caught it on video, posted it on instagram and everyone got to relive that, laugh at it. I didn’t feel too bad because I think Iggy Azalea fell off a stage, Andy Mineo too.

If no one would listen to your music, would you still make it? I think if I am honest, the answer is no. Some people want to be purist and say they just make it for themselves. But it costs money to invest in your craft. You want to make it sound the best you can, so you go to the studio, the production, the hours. If after all that, nobody cares, you have to evaluate if its worth it. For me personally, no, I would probably stop and get into the critique side of things. A huge part of inspiration is hearing what fans think of what you do.

Whats next for Taelor Gray? An album! I have done a series of projects but one of my bucket list artist desires is to do a full length album. The Straw Man and the other projects were just a serious of songs with no cohesion. If they were an album, they would have got whittled down. So an album is on the top priority list, along with a couple other collaborations.

Art is Thievery – MLK Jr. Day

“I think we are all thieves a little bit, in a healthy way.” Craig Caruso of Playback Performance

I have been chewing on that quote since Craig told me that a couple weeks ago and in honor of Martin Luther King Jr Day today, I wanted to touch on how I see this lived out in the words of Dr. King. Dr. King’s last speech, the one he gave the night before he was murdered, was the famous, prophetic even, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. In his own words, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”


I dare you to watch that speech and not be inspired. But it’s not original. I don’t say that to critique it, but Dr. King, being a reverend, had a deep theological background that frequently borrowed Biblical imagery. The inspiring ending of his speech was using the imagery of the Israelite’s finally being freed from captivity and slavery in Egypt and reaching the Promised Land. Moses, their leader, did not get to enter the Promised Land but God allowed him to go to the top of Mount Nebo and look out over the land He had promised to the Israelites (you can read the account here). Dr. King led a movement that fought to bring African-American’s out of the slavery of inequality and because of the brokenness of man, he did not live to see the fulfillment of his dream. But he got a glimpse.

So Dr. King borrowed from biblical imagery. He took his idea to turn the other cheek from the Sermon on the Mount. He was strengthened in his fight for non-violent resistance by the example of Mahatma Ghandi.  Ever been to a southern baptist church? Even his passionate delivery echoes sermon style of those who had gone before him. His art and rhetoric was influenced by imitation, theft in a small way, honoring that which was before him. And that’s not a bad thing. The greatest artists all had people who influenced them and even if they claim originality, I would contend they are all taking inspiration and imitating to some degree the only Original Artist. We, in whatever art we pursue, are thieves, in a healthy way, stealing inspiration without paying (even if you cite your source, you still didn’t pay), needing to acknowledge our lack of originality in our artistic output even as we strive to be unique. I would contend that with this humble posture, we will have the freedom to actually create, because it will free us from the pressure of originality and simply be the joy in the journey to something new…new-ish at least.

So take what you have seen, draw inspiration from that, and in freedom, create.

Playback Performance – Craig Caruso

Video Production is becoming a crowded field these days. Computer editing software and cheap tech are making HD video possible for really anyone with a little time on their hands. It doesn’t necessarily mean a quality product but it does mean that there is a proliferation of YouTube one hit wonders who are looking for the next viral sensation or “wedding videographer’s” who just might cause you to regret that cost cutting decision when it is too late to change. Enter Playback Performance. Now disclaimer here, I am a little biased. Craig Caruso, the owner/videographer extraordinaire is my brother-in-law and did my wedding video. But he is also one of the most humble, genuine guys I know, has a fantastic eye for unique angles, and has exquisite taste in music. So you are bound to get a good soundtrack. And most of all (professionally at least), he is a storyteller at heart. His aim (which he achieves) is not just to document the story, but to tell the story, to capture the emotion of the moment and put it on-screen for you to remember. So without further ado, I give you Craig Caruso of http://www.playbackperformance.com .

Tell me about what you do? The way I describe it on my website is special event video production. It didn’t start that way but lately there are so many different kinds of projects that I have done that to try to encapsulate it, a narrow description isn’t enough…Some corporate stuff but mostly personal interest or personal commemorative moments.

Do you consider yourself an artist? This is one of the tougher questions. Some days I do, some days I feel like I am being creative in the way I am looking at things or the way it is coming out on the screen. More often than not, I feel like I look at what else is out there relative to what I am trying to do visually and feel like I am so far from being what I consider an instinctive artist. It is good for me too, because I look at other people’s stuff to get inspired. I think all artists do that at some level, whether they recognize it or not, expounding on something someone else has done. I think we are all thieves a little bit, in a healthy way, not in a burglary way. I feel like I do a lot of trial and error in video making. I have some visions for how something is going to go and I put it in and see if it conjures an emotion and honors that moment, then I know it right away and if it doesn’t I have to try something else.

Isn’t that what all artists do? Yea probably but I watch people draw or paint and feel like it just flows [for them]. They aren’t trying something and erasing it. Maybe in their mind they are but all their expressions have a flair to it and I don’t think I do that. If you took my raw attempts at art, they would just look really bad until I worked with it. I am a perfectionist which is why I can get there, I have a lot of patience with that stuff.

So how do you make a “normal”, more information, video artistic? Like how to do you take a wedding video and make it more than capturing what happened? When you look back at your wedding, there is so much that had meaning for you. When you think of the wedding, you almost never simply try to remember what happened. You try to remember how you felt, what made it so meaningful.

So how do you capture that? There is so much internal, whats going on in your heart, whats going on in your makeup. So that’s where I wouldn’t try to just capture everything and represent it to you. I would consider that an offense. If I just had a tripod with rolling footage and wide-angle, just trying to record everything I could, it would be so disappointing because it does nothing to help you remember that moment. I think as someone who has been asked to film and represent a moment, it is my duty to try to figure out what does this mean to the person who wants to relive it. I mean, a wedding day, it doesn’t get much more meaningful. So there better be an element of art to give you a chance to get that back. You don’t want to just remember it, you want to relive it. That’s what makes it fun too, there’s  a challenge there, but it also pushes the limits of my own makeup, to think “How can I get that right?” Because you can screw that up bad. Choose a song that makes someone think “That does not make me think of my moment.” Somewhere in there, there is a line that you can cross that completely belies what you are trying to capture. Whether a song feels tired or used. For someone like you, that is important, to have the right soundtrack.

Talk a little bit about the challenges of being a small business owner? I think we have talked about it in way. Laboring over stuff to get things to look right is time-consuming, so if I am not careful, I can be product minded and not business minded. I can try to get my product out there at whatever cost, so I have spent days, weeks, trying to get something right and I can’t put that into my price. I can’t charge for that time, people would never pay. But I love athletic events, I love high school sports and I will probably always have a diet of those in my production list.

What differentiates you from the average joker with an iPhone that considers themselves to be a videographer? What I want to say, which is stupid… is nothing. There are so many people out there that is how they discover their talents. If someone is out there with an iPhone, they may in fact be really talented, more talented than I will ever be, but they have no refined it, they aren’t focusing on it, it isn’t their profession. They may not have the lighting, the angles. It’s the little stuff that they might not have down yet. Being able to forecast those little thing that make videos really good may not be there. But in terms of having an eye for how to shoot something, that might already be there.

Do you see yourself as more of a storyteller than an artist? I  think that is what an artists does, to figure out how does this becomes a story again. It already is a story but how do I retell it through this medium, whether writing or video or visually telling it in such a way that brings back the emotion of that story.

Tell me about one of your works that you are most proud of (aside from my wedding video, of course)? Depends on when you ask me. I just did a project I really enjoyed this summer because of the people in it. They were telling a story that needed to be told and I had the privilege of filming and telling the story. It was a couple that escaped the perils of war-torn Hungary in WWII and then lived through the Hungarian Revolution and escaped. They were very eloquent, very thorough, they did it together and filled in the gaps. Their relationship came out, the way they told it, I did very little but I was honored to be a part of it. I was proud because if we hadn’t done that, it would have been hard for them to share that historically. They have a personal perspective on what happened in WWII and you are not going to get that 10 years from now. Having that attachment to history was really cool, and I loved the couple and the chance to get to meet them.

Give me another example. When I get to look in the window of someone’s relationship with people, the whole coach-student-player relationship is really compelling. It sticks with so many people for so long. My friends talk about their coach and what an impact on people’s life that has. Not just sport. A lot of my projects are like that. To be on the sidelines and try to capture that relationship, to get a moment. It isn’t just about the great catch, the great hit, it is about the elements of the game that the kids will truly remember, the relationship with each other and with the coaching staff, that’s the stuff that sticks. It’s tough to capture but I try to.

If you could do a film/video with no time constraints, no cost constraints, what would you do? I would do a title sequence for a TV show. I think I watched too much TV when I was younger so a good title sequence totally resonates with me, and when I see it now, like when I see the Million Dollar Man sequence, I get so pumped up for like 10 seconds. The show was alright but the title sequence…

They become iconic, like the Friends title sequence… Doing that well, it has such an impact, I think that is why it has staying power. I imagine a good title sequence, figuring out how to present the essence of something… If you can do that, capture the essence of a show, or someones life, or an event in a 30 second montage, then you get it. If you can do something that concisely and that effectively, that is the heart of video production and editing.

What does the future look like for Playback Performance? The future is bleak, I am selling the business. (pause). Sorry, trying to be dramatic. The question about the challenges of being a small business owner, it is just challenging to figure out how to make those good decisions. It was a lot easier when I was single. I could work on something forever and not worry about the payment, it didn’t bother me, I wasn’t supporting a family. I was working enough for two jobs so by sheer volume I was generating decent income. But now I can’t work on something forever, I have to make sure I make good decisions for my family, be a little selfish with my job decisions. Not just make good decisions for my business but for everyone in my life. That reality is real. Doing a steady diet of high school sports isn’t realistic, but that doesn’t mean I am going to quit doing stuff I like to do, I just need to be more selective. I need to expand my wedding productions, not just have seasonal school video. I need to continue to diversify my portfolio of jobs and I need help too… to add videographers and editors under the Playback Performance umbrella.

It’s Better When You Know the Maker

In any industry, technology has had an enormous effect on lowering the barrier to entry. The internet has allowed any joker (like me) with an opinion the opportunity to start a blog like this and add to the noise. GarageBand and MySpace (are those both completely out of date?) allowed any musician to record and put out music. YouTube has turned the internet into a stage. You have musicians who have never played a live show completely blow up. E-books and online publishing has flooded the market with some gems and a lot of bad writing.

There is so much noise out there right now that it is hard to sift, prospect and find gold in our media selections. Heck, listen to the radio, which is a filter in itself, and there is still a boatload of crap that you have to tune-out to find the artists that are actually worth your time. You can read the New York Times bestseller list and get a mixed bag of worthwhile reads and worthless time-wastes. Magazines, websites, news organizations all seek to be tastemakers, to be the ones to discover the next big thing. So how do you sift through and decide who to trust?

When I was in high school, I joined the StreetTeam of a band that I liked. Honestly, I didn’t do much, but I did bring about a dozen friends to their show when they were in town. Afterward, I got to meet the band (they knew my name!) and got a autographed poster. Such was the beginnings of my habit of geeking out over musicians I listened to. Artists like Andrew Osenga, Micah Dalton, Over the Rhine (Karen ordered a drink next to me and my brother when we went to their show), Eric Peters, Matthew Perryman Jones, Christon Gray, PW Gopal… the list could go on of people that I have had the chance to have something close to a personal interaction. Their music is great, but it became so much better when I had the chance to talk to them, to enter their world somehow.

I would love to say that I have grown out of geeking out over musicians. But that last two concerts I went to, I stayed after to talk to the musicians, to thank them. The point I am trying to make here is that it is always better when you know the maker of the music. It turns a spectator concert into a personal event, one where I can humbly brag and insert into conversation “When I was talking to the drummer after the show, he told me…” But it isn’t about the bragging rights, it is about the idea that I now have a connection with this person.  It’s not just music. Every gone to an art show where you got to talk to the artist? So much better to hear their heart, to feel their passion. For me, I look at the art in a whole new way.

There seems to be a gravitation back towards craft beer and small batch bourbon, local farmers and locally sourced restaurants, Etsy shops and Kickstarter campaigns. People want that connection to what they own. If the consumer can know that a artist/craftsman/Maker put effort into making sure that the product is not a mass produced, soulless thing to be consumed, they are more likely to want to be a part of that. Think of indie music, the rights to say “I knew that band before they were huge.” It is about having a connection. I guess my point is that it is always better when you know the maker. There are lots of makers worth your time and its my hope that I can introduce you to some of them.

The Drawing on the Fridge

Everyone wants to contribute, to be a part of the human experience in a way that is meaningful.. We don’t want to simply add to the noise of life. That is the point of this blog/website, whatever it may become.  There is so much in our lives that competes for our attention and we so easily give our attention to that which screams the loudest, is the most persistent, or flashes the brightest. And so we get lost in a Times Square of life, lots of noises and distractions but little substance. It is my desire for the ideas presented in Monday’s Musing to be something that makes you think, for the artists you are exposed to on”Featured Artist Friday” to be artists that make you appreciate the beauty of life or challenge you to dig deeper, do a little modern excavation. And lets be honest, they are all artists that I either know/respect/like and think that others should know them too. I’m a fan above a journalist.

There are a lot of other websites like this and mine certainly won’t be the best. But I once heard an artist talk about why he wrote songs for the church, when there were so many deep classics to already sing that had more profound meaning than he was likely to contribute. He said that it is like a little kid who wants to make a drawing for his parents; it isn’t going to be the best drawing, it won’t be worth a whole lot to anyone but his parents, but there is a desire inside of every kid to make his masterpiece, to contribute a drawing to be hung on the kitchen fridge. So here is my kitchen fridge drawing.