• those troubled teens…

    (i just wanted to start by noting that i am determined to post at least monthly. eventually, i’d like to post every other week…maybe more. but let’s not get too crazy with expectation just yet…)

    i’d say that music in my life didn’t really do anything new (you know, beyond soaking up what my dad and brother were playing) until i started sinking into my teen years. that i was a troubled teen in some ways won’t surprise you. to be fair, i was rather well-behaved for the most part and got good grades. but i didn’t look like the other kids, which caused issues. and that’s when those behavioural issues from childhood went from being a manic merry-go-round to being a rampant rollercoaster. but we aren’t here to talk about that. maybe in the future. right now, this blog is about music, right?

    i think i really started exploring music on my own when i was about 10 or 11. that’s when i got my first radio. it was actually a boombox, with a radio and a cassette player. i thought that was pretty bloody cool. i spent hours going up and down the dial, just listening to my options.

    what i quickly learned was that my options were not great. maybe it was because we lived just too far from cities to get the good stations. i recall through my teens the frustration that i could hear the ghost of live 105 in san francisco but could never really tune it in. that said, with my own supply of cassettes being quite small, i would just let the radio play on whichever station was least soft rock. which is how i learned a few too many top 40 songs for my own good. and why i loved when my brother bought new music. when he left on a church mission and left his music in my care, i quickly wore out and had to replace a few of his cassettes. i think i still have 3 squealing copies of a particular bowie album…

    fortunately, the teen years also brought dances and new friends. yes, i went to dances. because, as i will surely go on about in a post of its own, i love to dance. madly. so i went and mostly heard rubbish. but every now and again something else snuck in that was quite alright. and when i started going to clubs (hurrah for clubs that don’t care about id as long as you’re a pretty girl!), the “quite alright” to crap ratio improved. i sucked it all up. though, by this point, it was becoming quite clear i was not a top 40 girl, not once new wave songs stopped hitting top 40 regularly.

    and new friends…in my teens, the people around me were suddenly as interested in talking music as i was. as a bonus, having pen pals was all the rage with the underground kids. i had a handful of pen pals during those years and loved the little booklets we sent around in letters that were like mini personal ads for us to find even more pen pals. (as a side note, there are pen pals i’d love to find again–one of whom literally saved my life a time or two. and there’s one that i bumped into on facebook recently. crazy!)

    one fab thing about the pen pals and the local friends was that we were all a bit mad for mix tapes. i got so much good music that way. i still have all those tapes, too.

    it was in my teens that i really started to internalise the way that music and lifestyle roll together. i’m not a fan of letting your musical tastes dictate how you dress, act, or live. nor am i a fan of letting your taste in clothes narrow your musical tastes. i’m surprisingly eclectic and often listen to things people wouldn’t guess if they looked at me. but it is undeniable that music and the rest of my life started to become one coherent whole at this point. any memory i have of my teen years will include how i looked, what my emotional state was, and what song fit it or was playing.

    this was when i desperately started to want to make music my life. it turned from a childhood imagining into a craving. sadly, 11 was the age at which “the great fiasco” happened and smacked that dream into a sort of shameful and impossible fantasy status. so, what was the great fiasco?

    well, it turned out that my family was asked to be responsible for the programme at church one sunday. with little warning, i was pushed out in front of everyone, along with my 3 younger siblings, to sing a hymn. now, as you’ll recall, childhood deafness has really messed up my singing situation. and nothing had been done to remedy that. so there i was, entering that awkward and self-conscious age, and i was seriously failing to sing that hymn well. at the point, i vowed i would never sing in front of people again. no joke. which meant that all those years i was acting i never tried out for musicals (thus, i learned to do some lighting instead). and when i was in the touring children’s theatre group, i was mortified at the one bit where i had to ad lib a melody for a very short song. torture!

    when i was 14 or 15, i tried again to revive the dream. i gave some of the lyrics i had written to a friend, and was promptly informed that i broke too many rules and this would never work. my complete lack of self-esteem and i took that hard and shut up. buried the dream. it only came out where nobody else could see…

    so instead i spent hours and hours just lying on my bed, listening to music. eyes closed and mind full of other places. if i left the house, my walkman came with me. if i heard something new i liked, i made every effort to play it cool but was secretly scribbling notes so that i could go find it once i had money. i hung out at the music shops at the mall, even when i had no money, just hoping to hear things. fortunately, i made friends with boys there, so it wasn’t conspicuous.

    and that all just rolled over into the rest of my life. as new ways to listen to music showed up, i had to find ways to acquire that technology. i still crave new music. and i savour those rare times i can just lie and listen to music. mix tapes are long gone, replaced by mix cds and emailed playlists. but i’m still that teen me when it comes to music. ravenous for it. listening to it as much as i can. desperately wanting it to be my life. dancing when i can. framing most my moments, even if just mentally, in the songs that fit them. rescuing myself with just the right song…

    i think this is likely a jumbled and chaotic entry…but that’s probably appropriate, given the way those teen years and early 20s felt. given the way that, starting in my teens, music became a force that was practically sentient, practically its own creature. like a spontaneous and moody lover. and we all know what that will do to your life…


  • and then i was deaf…

    we aren’t sure when it happened, because i was one of those precocious kids who was able to read body language and fake my way through hearing tests. i didn’t do it on purpose, mind. i just wanted to pass the test. so at first the signs of my hearing loss blended in with my behavioural issues. (you aren’t surprised that i had behavioural issues as a child, are you?) in fact, i’m not even sure how they caught it. i’m just glad they did.

    what i do know is that, at the tender age of 5 (maybe 6), i was legally deaf. not completely deaf. but to watch tv, for instance, they had to plug headphones in and turn the tv to maximum volume. and if i was in the back of the car and my parents wanted my attention, they had to yell as loudly as possible to have even a slight chance. fortunately, this was solved by putting tubes in my ears. (though it started to go bad once the tubes fell out, at which point some nice naturopath gave me some little white pills…and the hearing loss and constant earaches disappeared for good.)

    clearly, as a music lover and musician, hearing loss is a big deal in general. in my case, it also affected my path through music. you see, the church i belong to is all about the singing. and it seems like everyone is working from day one to sing well. this is great and means we have loads of good singers. but my hearing issues meant that, for a while, i was the only person in my family who just plain sucked. all i knew how to do, really, was sing really loudly (so i could hear myself). and it was probably more shouting than singing, as i didn’t exactly know about using my diaphragm at that age.

    like most people, i eventually came to take my hearing for granted again. and because all signs were that i just wasn’t a singer, i didn’t figure it mattered too much what happened with my ears. as long as i could hear music and hear well enough to do theatre, no worries.

    now, however, i’ve got a very different attitude. one might say a touch of paranoia. because now that i know i’m a singer, now that making music is my future…i don’t dare lose my hearing. which means i ought to do better at wearing earplugs to noisy events, even friends’ gigs. even my own gigs and loud practices. that i don’t allows me to say it’s just a touch of paranoia instead of a load. but i still carry my earplugs in my purse. and i still make myself wear them at most shows, even if i feel like i don’t quite get the whole experience. i may be inclined toward some reckless behaviours these days, but i can’t afford to damage the tools of my trade.

    the moral of this story is that kids are sometimes too clever for their own good and are lucky to get caught. and also that earplugs are your friend.


  • thanks, amanda palmer

    there are loads of people who have influenced or inspired me, but the first one i’m going to talk about is miss amanda palmer. because she has had the most recent impact and really changed my attitude about some things.

    for those unfamiliar with afp, she’s one half of the dresden dolls and has also put out a really outstanding solo album, complete with tour. i have considered her a genius for years now, but only started following her blogs and such this year. not sure why it took me so long to get around to doing that. and the woman is an inspiration.

    she’s clearly hard working. not just living the easy life. when her foot was broken toward the start of her european tour, she did all she could not to let that change her stage show or interrupt any of the dates or signings. from what i can tell, no one got a lesser experience due to this. if someone runs over my foot with a car, i can’t say i’ll do so well…

    also, her current record company are not being supportive. they don’t understand why she isn’t toeing the line for maximum fame, they don’t think people will get her odd album and they don’t want to promote it, and they can’t imagine why she won’t let them cut out parts of one video where you can see that she has an adorable and normal-girl belly instead of starvation abs. she is keeping things honest, even when it won’t get her pop stardom. she is promoting the tour and album herself online and in person. she is busting her bum.

    part of how she does this, i believe, is that she clearly loves and appreciates her fans. she totally gets that the reason she gets to live off music is that her fans support her. and she is overwhelmed with gratitude. seriously. the woman tears up when talking about this.

    the other thing you get from her blogs is a lot of openness. a lot of us artistic types are torn between our desire for privacy and protecting our internal and personal lives and the desire to put it all out there in our art and show it to you. i never feel like afp is giving us everything, but she isn’t hiding either. if she has had an emotionally rough day, she tells us. when she gets hurt or happy, we often know. and that, i think, fosters a connection with us and gives us a better glimpse into the place from whence the songs we love are coming.

    ah, the songs we love…i waited around after the afp show in seattle because i wanted to give her a note about a song of hers that is saving me right now. i knew she was planning a signing, so i figured i’d hand it over and move on. what really happened was that she stood in front of the table, instead of sitting behind. and things were physically arranged such that each person could have a moment of quiet near-privacy with her. and she gave each person a few minutes if they wanted. so that i was telling her what the song meant to me and thanking her for being such an inspiration to me as she held my hand and hugged and kissed me. no joke. and i saw tears in her eyes as we talked about some things…

    so, thank you, amanda, for teaching me about being gracious and grateful with fans, about the value of being open, and about working hard and having joy even when the world seems against your art. if i turn into one of those nasty diva types, i hope you’ll pull me aside, rockstar to rockstar, and smack me. and not in a sexy way.


  • first gig

    taking a break from pre-history to share some tidbits about modern history. about the first varnish gig, which was my first gig ever.

    i went into my first gig with a modest set of goals:

    1. don’t leave the stage to pee during the set. (i had been fending off illness and drinking even more than my usual loads of water….this was a very challenging goal to meet.)
    2. don’t let down my best friend. he had gotten us the gig and i didn’t want him to regret it. secretly, i wanted to do more than not embarrass him; i wanted to make him proud and make him like me more and want to get us more gigs.
    3. oh, and it would be nice if i weren’t totally mortified with our performance. (i am really self-critical, so that isn’t a joke.)

    i also went into that gig knowing:

    1. we had some great songs.
    2. i was a good lyricist.
    3. i was a good performer.

    and here is how this all came together:

    1. all goals achieved! i am pretty sure i grinned like a complete idiot when the best friend told me we’d done really well. good thing there were no cameras.
    2. the monitors were really good, so i could hear myself really clearly. and people who were not drunk, were not there for varnish, and were not hitting on me told me i had an amazing voice. which means i could finally add to my list of things i knew that i was a good singer.

    my friend celeste, who ran the video camera (i told you i’d mention you by name, missy) and has always felt free to give loads of feedback on the efforts i make at music, told me that she saw when i started to believe. and that everything got better then.

    so the most important thing i got from that, aside from popping my gig cherry, was belief in myself as a singer. leaving me with a burning need to make sure that the boys in the band believed in themselves and that my friends in other bands believed in themselves. because as awesome as their performances were, i had now learned that believing in yourself (and i don’t mean having some cocky ego trip, because that’s usually rooted in insecurity) lets you do a better job and enjoy what you’re doing more.

    and maybe that seems like a very obvious thing to you, but i gotta take my enlightenment where i can get it. even if it sounds like a cheesy greeting card.


  • yes, i have a mum

    before things go too far, i thought i should mention where my mum fits into all this. if i just talk about my dad, you may think he was a single parent. which isn’t the case. it’s just that, to be honest, i’m not sure that mum’s contribution of neil diamond had much of an influence.

    now, i won’t pretend i can’t sing along with a song or two, especially songs from the jazz singer soundtrack. i am not here to start some sort of “amber hates neil diamond” drama. i mean, wearing a black neil diamond t-shirt at college caused great confusion and glee. (the most visible thing on the shirt, from a distance, was “diamond,” which caused many people to believe it must be a king diamond shirt.) but, really, i’ll be interested in hearing if anyone can locate the influence of mr. diamond or his peers in our music.

    mum’s interaction with the music i like has been pretty limited as well. whilst i was learning to drive and she was in the car, she did get a carefully selected exposure to things i liked. but it became clear that she wasn’t really engaged when she noted, not using names but saying things like “that last band” and “this band,” that the smiths were much happier music than the cocteau twins. i guess that means i need not have been so worried about what she might think of the lyrics…

    as far as her response to my music…well, let’s just say she isn’t a fan and leave it at that. and let’s also say that i wasn’t surprised and not really hurt by that. so it’s okay.

    and that is why you are unlikely to hear much about mum here. not that i plan to talk much about the other members of my family either. but i thought i should at least acknowledge that i have a mum and she was very present in my life but doesn’t really have much to do with my music.


  • how it all started

    not to be overly conventional, but let’s start this at the obvious place.

    my dad loves music in a crazy way. and my older brother is much the same. so i can probably put part of the blame for my “condition” on genetics. and, of course, growing up in a house where there was so much loved of music meant that there was always music being played. both nature and nurture conspired to turn me into what i am. fortunately, the music they were listening to was pretty good.

    dad teethed me on bowie, hendrix, joplin, the velvet underground, and all those other things your classic rock station plays or your adult contemporary station mixes in with the newer stuff. i wasn’t allowed to touch the reel-to-reel, so i had to wait for him if i wanted something other than a record or cassette. but he once had these pulsing lights plugged into the stereo so that we could lay on the floor in the living room and watch the lights pulse with the music. he was the person who introduced me to the concept of underground music and who would happily turn up “walk on the wild side” when it was just the two of us in the car. i’m fairly certain he was the one who gave me the “rise and fall of ziggy stardust and the spiders from mars” record. he is certainly the person who made sure i always had some device of my own for listening to music until i was into my 20s. which is really good of him when you consider that he didn’t really approve of all my music as i got older.

    my brother was a little more cutting edge. i am pretty sure that i learned to dance in his bedroom whilst “safety dance” was on the radio. and i wore out his bowie “tonight” cassette multiple times. and feared breaking his cure records. and, honestly, loved this one quiet riot poster he had…i clearly recall, when i was quite young, realising that his musical tastes were part of what caused me to feel free to listen to and explore any music i wanted. he might not love to hear it, but that time we were driving through the streets of anchorage in the early 80s and i saw a boy with a mohican and wanted that hair for myself…it was my older brother’s influence that inclined me to feel pretty okay about that.

    those are the early years. i’ll get to the pre-teen and older years later. though i think we’ll have to pass through a story about hearing loss first. but now you know why it was inevitable that i end up in love with music, and with rock music in particular. just in case you were curious…