I graduated from Berklee College of Music in Boston. Berklee is an anomaly among music schools for a handful of reasons.
First, it is, as far as I know, the only music college focused entirely on contemporary music. It began as a jazz school, and has evolved with time and tastes to focus not only on jazz, but also on pop, rock, and experimental music. You must declare a principal instrument to enter Berklee. One of the many choices is Turntables.
Berklee is replete with talented young musicians, hungry to make a splash in the world of contemporary music. There is the unmistakable scent of ego in the hallway. People drop names like guitar picks and carry business cards tucked under the cellophane of their Marlboro Red packs. As such, Berklee is one of the only colleges from which actually graduating may be seen as a kind of failure. After all, if you were talented enough you’d be swooped up by a major label during your first semester – discovered in Harmony I, and carted away to a life of fame and fortune. I’m not sure this ever actually happened, but we all lived with the anxiety that it was not happening fast enough to us.
I attended Berklee, and eventually graduated, because it was the only way I could see to both appease my parents (at 23, after dropping out of two universities, my non-degree was becoming a bit of a disgrace to my family), and continue doing what I wanted to be doing: writing songs. I have always been a gold star girl, trying to rack up stickers on life’s report card; desperately seeking affirmation that I am doing the right thing. A degree in Songwriting from a prestigious, if overly expensive college, seemed like a tidy solution to what had become a very sticky problem: living by my own lights while still enjoying the approval of all those around me.
It was a rough transition. I entered as a guitar principal, one of six girls in a group of 1100 guitarists. I chose guitar because, as a performing singer-songwriter, I figured improving my rather mediocre guitar skills was the thing most worth spending that kind of money on. I had no idea that I’d be in class, much less in competition, with 18 year olds who had been nursed on Steve Vai and Eddie Van Halen. I didn’t realize music was a competition.
In my first semester I went to an instructor’s office hours to seek advice about what kind of song to bring into Guitar Lab for the group to work on. My background was Americana and urban folk music. I was in the middle of a hot and heavy affair with alternate tunings; I had no clue what these boys would enjoy playing. The instructor, a woman who offered me my choice of 36 varieties of tea, suggested that if I didn’t know what to select, perhaps I should try a different school. I was too humiliated to be angry.
The guitar classes left me sweaty and twitchy, but at least I found a home in the Songwriting Department. I’d always been more of a lyricist than a musician. That didn’t change much during my time at Berklee. I still struggled to bring my melodic and instrumental skills up to par, but I began to be recognized for my language, and I attracted the attention of some of the wordier instructors, who became, over time, my mentors. I was living on Duncan Donuts coffee and Camel Lights, quite literally starving for approval. I hung on every word these men said. Their advice became my gospel.
One of these mentors encouraged me to move to Nashville and so, of course, I did. We kept in touch regularly after I moved and met for coffee during one of his trips to town. I sat with my infant daughter in a car seat at my feet and bemoaned a recent meeting on Music Row. The meeting itself had gone well. Better than well. I had come in for a fifteen minute appointment and left two hours later, after playing nearly everything in my catalogue. Even so, the publisher’s suggestion that I “dumb it down a little, write a little more on the surface of the thing and you’ll have a hit,” had left me feeling bereft. I looked to my mentor expecting him to commiserate, but instead he said,
“You have to decide whether you want to spend your life eating tuna fish, or eating steak.”
It would take four years for me to make that decision.
It would take another five years for me to realize what a shitty piece of advice it was.
Today I have five children. I live in a house that I shouldn’t be able to afford. We were able to buy this house because eleven years ago we decided to buy another house in a crappy neighborhood simply because it spoke to us. It whispered that we belonged and we listened. That crappy neighborhood is now one of the hottest in Nashville. We sold out, we traded up, and now I sit typing in my favorite chair, nestled into the corner of my library.
Every morning I wake up and come downstairs to this chair. I sit and I write. I get interrupted by demands for snacks, pleas for help or refereeing, I dream of having a nanny, and then I come back, sit down, write some more. Some days what I write is good. Some days what I write is garbage. But either way, I NEVER NEVER have to dumb it down, or write on the surface of the thing. That is the gift of living by your own lights.
The old sticky problem never goes away, though.
I don’t always garner the approval of all the people around me. I’d like to say I don’t care anymore, but it wouldn’t be true. I think I can say that I’ve learned to care less.
Sometimes people I love wonder what I am doing with my life. Sometimes I wonder what I am doing with my life. Why build a life on art, especially when there’s no guarantee that it will even be good art? After all, I’m a smart girl. There are so many other things, much more lucrative things, I could do. On bad days I fantasize about dentistry or paralegal work. I remember my mother’s elation when she opened the letter declaring my National Merit Scholarship, and wonder what happened to the young woman with all that promise. Where is her high-powered job? Where are her nice cars and pictures from Disney World? What went wrong?
But she didn’t choose tuna over steak. That was never the choice.
She chose HER tuna over SOMEONE ELSE’S steak. It always tastes better if you make it yourself.