I played my first gig in 2009 at a dive bar in Jamaica Plain, MA. I didn’t have enough songs for a full set, so I filled the time with several variations of “The Office” theme song as I imagined it covered by different artists, like Ben Folds, Death Cab For Cutie, etc. The manager was so coked out that he got bored during a slow ballad I sang about my dad and clapped along to hasten the tempo and yelled out “play it faster.” To this day, I still rush when I sing and play because somewhere in the back of my mind, I’m self-conscious that everyone really just wants the song to be over already. A large part of me is still incredulous that anyone would ever voluntarily, actively enjoy listening to my music. But a larger part of me is just so damn confident that I was born to do this. There’s a never-ending tug-of-war in my head between my insecurity and my arrogance and I think the fact that they’re constantly competing with each other is what keeps me going.
I am lucky that from day one, I’ve had people around me who supported and believed in me. I think that’s so important for every creative person. Early on in your career, you need someone who’s already achieved what you’ve achieved, or someone who has the power to help you, to say, “you’re not quite there yet, but keep sending me stuff and I’ll give you feedback and let you know when you’re ready.” This is a huge part of the journey from amateur to pro, and you need to be able to set your ego aside and be receptive to the advice that you get. You also need to be discerning and have a sense of what sounds right versus what sounds like bullshit. But too many of us are too insecure to look within ourselves - and at what the universe is telling us - and admit that our work isn’t good enough yet. We come up with excuses, like “I just need more exposure,” “I need more money,” “this whole industry is based on luck.” If you’re hiding behind these excuses, you will never close the gap between your taste and your abilities, and you will never succeed creatively.
It’s great to have fans. But they are a blessing and a curse because they can accidentally be enablers. They make you feel comfortable, they provide the illusion of security. They validate the mistakes that you might be making without realizing it. It’s equally important not only to have fans, but supporters (whose opinions you respect) who believe in you so much that they take the time and effort to give you feedback so you can be even better. If you can find these people - more importantly, if you are magnetic enough to attract them - you are doing something right.
Last night, John Ridley won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for “12 Years A Slave.” In his speech, he acknowledged that there was someone early on who told him that his work wasn’t good enough yet, but that he should keep sending her scripts and she would give him feedback until he was ready for the big leagues. Look where he is today.
I am still learning, still growing, still improving. There are days when I’m convinced that I’m the best songwriter in the world and days when success seems totally unattainable. In those dark moments, it’s my supporters who keep me going. I realize that if I didn’t have talent, they wouldn’t be taking the time to help me get better. If I ever win a Grammy, my acceptance speech will sound a lot like John Ridley’s.