Embracing My Inner Outsider

Awkward&Alone copy

 

I’ve spent the last 30 years as part of an industry that I have never loved.  And, frankly, it has never loved me, though I take pause even with that assertion.  Does it really love anyone?  Or is it merely more tolerable and pliant and giving (and forgiving) to the ones who have the gift for manipulating it?  I don’t.  Have the gift, that is.  I never did.

Now, let me preface everything that follows with the pronouncement that I have had a fortunate career (writer and musician are my vocations).  It’s never been large.  Never global.   But the shelves are always stocked.  There’s always content.  And I am blessed.

Here, however, is the crux of my quagmire.  I have always resisted working the system.  And I’ve had people in my life literally shake my shoulders with, “what’s wrong with you!”   Especially when they know me well, and know that as equal as is my great skill of ignoring the system, is also, paradoxically, my great desire to thrive within it.

There’s the time I had a foreign record deal.  I was in a state of ridiculous elation over having scored this.  And when I was overseas promoting it, I was asked in an interview what I thought of my hit song. (Yes, I had a hit song in this particular country many moons ago.)  The truth was, I hated it.  I thought it was poorly composed, and I was angry at the phenomenon that merely based on this particular writer/producer’s reputation and popularity in the community that his song (ostensibly my song) was an instant hit. Did anyone out there ever actually stop to consider if the song was good? …. had been my perplexed self-questions.

I reflect now back to the day we recorded the song, at the legendary Capitol Records, which gave me a total thrill independent of the dreck I was about to record, and the knot in my gut over said dreck.  And I remember having a hard time connecting with the song, and therefore failing to deliver any semblance of an authentic take.  I sounded terrible to myself.  So I asked the man producing the track, the songwriter, to please tell me what the song meant.  I didn’t understand the seemingly disconnected lyrics, but felt it was only fair to give him the benefit of the doubt, and assume first that I just didn’t get something, that it was over my head, rather than to assume it was simply lazy writing.  When he, very frustratingly, said to me, and clearly done with me wasting his time, “What do you mean, what does it mean? Just sing the damn song!” I knew in that instant that we’d all sold our souls to the devil.

Now back (or  forward, as it were) to being interviewed about it.  Why would anyone even ask me IF I liked the song?   I’d recorded it.  I’d been complicit in the crime.  I was here promoting it.  Why wouldn’t they just assume I liked it?  Instead, as if I were wearing my guilt and shame on my forehead, they would ask me, in their barely conjugated English, if I liked my big, giant hit.   And I suddenly felt like that old commercial about E.F. Hutton, where everyone turns their head in my direction, and shuts up.  If there was any part of my soul that hadn’t yet become the Devil’s bitch, I owed it to said part.

And so I said, so sheepishly that if I’d had testicles they’d’ve been sucked right up inside of me:  “No.”

The room went bedlam.  Seriously.  And bedlam in a foreign language is just white noise, but the gist was pretty clear.

I was properly schooled and ripped a new one, later on that day by a label rep, on the obligation that is mine to play the game, and oh, I don’t know, maybe think about being a little bit gracious for this opportunity you’ve been given in the first place, Miss Brown.   There wasn’t a single thing that was said to me in this rant that wasn’t absolutely correct, and what I deserved.  I’d signed on for this ride.  It had been responsible for a lot of money in my pocket (fleeting though that was), my first jaunt abroad, and the potential for who-knew-how-many doors to be opened for me.  And now it was time to help sell this thing, to help make its investors their money back, to help us all get somewhere in this business.  I was obedient for the rest of the trip.

Needless to say, they were not interested in renewing my contract for a second album.  It was “good riddance to that arrogant chick.”  I cannot blame them.  I’d been their liability with that one little powerful word.  And yet once I got back to the States, and resumed my life, I was beyond frustrated with my failed efforts to parlay that experience into something more, bigger, better, a roll, a continuing relationship with that record company.  And I genuinely did not understand how that closed door might’ve had anything to do with my unwillingness to be a company man.

Okay, here’s just one more example of my industry and me being at odds, and then I’ll leave it alone, because truth be told I’ve got examples by the droves, but I’m sure you have my dynamic by now.

My second literary agent (I’ve been through two, with no book deal between them) seriously believed in my writing.  The way she praised me, she could not have been any better for my ego.  She’d read two of my manuscripts (one of which is now The Assassination of Gabriel Champion, which came out last year, published under my own imprint, because I’ve never managed to get that book deal), and she thought I was someone very special.  She also stated quite frankly to me, in agreeing to take me on, that her specialty was selling romance writers, but that she so believed in me that she would try this area that was not even her expertise, which is the general fiction/literary fiction genre.

When all efforts were exhausted to get me a deal, she took a meeting with me, and urged me to consider writing romance novels.  I told her that I’d never read them, but had a good impression of what we were talking here, and that it was of no interest to me.  She gave me a handful of books by some of her authors, encouraged me to learn what the genre was about, and to at least consider it.  Her spiel was that she didn’t have a clue how to sell a literary novel (not the most popular in this age’s quick-read-bathroom-reading-airport-reading-breezy-formula culture), but that romance she knew, and she knew it well, and she could make us both a lot of money.

I took the books home, read a couple of them, and my stomach churned at how much I disliked them.   And not the specific books themselves, or the writing, per se, but the formula.  Which includes:  That the conflict in the story always be external, never internal.  It needs to be about someone or some thing/institution getting in your protagonist’s way from her (almost always a her) intended pursuit (romance, of course).  It is never about internal conflicts and psychological dynamics being the barriers to a protagonist’s road.  It is never intended to be an exploration of soul or the human condition.   And the result must always be that she gets her man.  Not my kind of book.  I want my guts turned inside out by a book.  So, as a reader, I knew what kind of writer I wanted to be … what kind of writer I was.

I prayed so hard on this, because I knew that I was just a “yes” away from possibly making my name as a writer (my agent was confident that she could do right by me).   And that was damned enticing.  Yet, in the end, I chose not to go that path.   My conversation with self and God was that life was too short, and my creative voice too precious to exert any amount of energy writing something that I did not love.  Self-important?  Well, yes.  I believe there should be no shame in believing that what we are put on this earth to do is important.

So, there you go.   This is what I do.   I derail.

In all of my frustrations over the years with continuing to be what many would call “small time” with my artistic pursuits, it almost never dawns on me my own culpability in the deed, and my seeming penchant for self-sabotage.  And so I’ve remained, for better and for worse, a loiterer in this business.  Someone who doesn’t really belong here, but who has hovered around the fringes long enough to actually be somewhat of a tiny institution, a familiarity (even loved by some, which always humbles me), but almost never invited to come inside and sit at the grownup table.  That’s the “worse” part; that because of my own stubborn, self-important machinations, I may never be lauded on that scale of which I’ve always dreamed.

But then there’s the “better” part.  I have carved for myself a voice, a brand.   It is unique.  Some love it, others not so much.  That’s okay.  It has perseverance.  It has legs.  Even in spite of the many closed doors.  And it is here that my penchant for stubbornness and hardheadedness actually works FOR me.

Doing it on my terms is the surest way to sleep soundly at night.  To keep my soul clean, and my legacy one I’ll never, ever have to disclaim.  It is who I am.  It not only nourishes my spirit, but keeps me firmly grounded in integrity.

Opportunities may have passed me by.  Many never offered. But my voice, as an artist, writer, songsmith, singer, is strong and immovable. It is oak.  And I am learning to let go of regrets.  It’s a rancid lesson sometimes, full of painful dawnings.  Because what I do know about myself is that I always seem to take 4 steps when 2 would do the job.  There is just a make-it-happen! gene that I seem to be missing.  But I also can’t help believing that if I had managed to master the chops of working the system, that I simply would be a different artist.   And, frankly, I’m kinda partial to the one I’ve cultivated.

Is this about reclaiming my better self?  Fostering grace?   After more than a decade lingering in and out of minor depression?  Self-doubt?  Bitterness at my industry?  Bitterness at having to age while still holding onto that rung of my youth-worshipping business?  I think it may well be.  It also could be a mass of rationalizations.   But then again, what is that?   Just a way of accepting, really.  That the here and now is all that matters.  That our efforts and our contributions, and even our sometime inability to make things happen, will render whatever it renders.  And whatever that is….is a part of our story.   And is okay.

That’s a far more peaceful way to live.  I’m opting for that.   Non-attachment to outcome.  Just do.  Because truth be told, I have ridiculous stretches of creative productivity, and they are always accompanied by joy.  Is there a better way to live than that?

Life has unfolded for me exactly as it was meant to.  The rocks that have been thrown in my way (or that I’ve tossed in my own way) have built a certain muscle on me.  Some walk between the raindrops, and get everything easily.  I know many of that type.  I have a good life, a blessed life.  But I am not that person.  And if I were, frankly I’m fairly certain that I would be unmanageable.  So, I do believe I am a better person because of the path that has been selected for me.

And yes, that means I was destined to be the difficult one.   The one you just can’t reason with, when an opportunity is being offered.  Stubborn to a fault.

Oy.   There are worse mantles, I guess.

 

 

 

Angela Carole Brown is the author of three published books, The Assassination of Gabriel Champion, The Kidney Journals: Memoirs of a Desperate Lifesaver, and Trading Fours, and has produced several albums of music and a yoga/mindfulness CD.   Bindi Girl Chronicles is her writing blog.   Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram & YouTube.

 

The Big Purr : CD Review

 

Pasheen

I confess I have a particular weakness for female vocalists with low voices. It’s as if they are saying to a world that is enamored with high notes and prepubescent timbers, “tough shit.” And with a shrug of the shoulder and a gleam in the eye, they pull and tug at your groin with those low notes, rumble the rafters, and take you to places that only seem to exist in acid-washed film noir and lurid pulp novels. Pasheen is such a creature on her most recent jazz CD The Big Purr (it is tempting to suggest that the CD’s title is all about those low notes, but that’s awfully easy), and one suspects that she is clearly aware of the inevitable comparisons to sultry contraltos like Julie London, and so puts it right out there, as she does on the opening cut, So High, as if to say, “well, there’s Julie…and then there’s me.” Pasheen makes it clear that she won’t stand in anyone’s shadow, and then proceeds to blast the genre altogether with lyrics that are as playful and mischievous as they are seductive and alluring.

From the first sound one hears (the crackling of an old LP – remember those?) we are placed frankly and unapologetically in a world that could never be inhabited by the teeny-boppers who command the world’s current stage. There is wicked in every fiber of Pasheen’s voice. She is creating her world, song after song, layer after layer, paint stroke upon paint stroke, and welcoming us in, but with a “beware” sign. It’s an underground world. A world that moves at a stroll’s pace. A world of shadows and seduction. A world that almost doesn’t belong in today, but somehow equally in an era bygone and a tomorrow that waits patiently (read timelessly) until the bubble-gummers burn themselves out.

And then there’s that voice! It is textured and haunting, a lesson in the mastery of phrasing, a history rich with tales and battle scars and luscious liquored flavorings, always in impeccable control, if at moments purposely letting loose grace notes both feral and unrestrained, and with the fattest, sexiest vibrato I think I’ve ever heard. Most importantly, at least to this listener, the voice is rife with poignancy and pathos. And every bit of it works.

Pasheen seems happiest (in a lyric) when letting us know that she knows her environment, her fellow jazz players, the luminaries in the genre; and that while she most definitely celebrates them, she also takes her rightful place in the pantheon. Oh believe me, she belongs.

She has fun on cuts like Busy Man (“being a type-A over-achiever myself, I realize that I could end up in a 24-step program”). It’s a lyric that makes one chuckle, while all the time knowing full well that this Big Purr of a singer moves at a Type-A pace for NO ONE, but vamps by, daring you to come along. And so she creates contradictions that serve to remind us just how complex we human beings really are.

There is an underlying sadness in Vanity, a song about cosmetic surgery. What’s most compelling about this cut is Pasheen’s unwillingness to pick a side on the subject, but instead giving us a startling portrait of modern life’s arguably most pathological preoccupation, and that she even dares to broach such an internal-conflict topic within the jazz environment, a neighborhood, from a lyrical standpoint, that has usually been relegated to weepy love songs, clever Porter-esque turns of phrase, and comedic sexual innuendo. She dares to complicate the idiom.

If I seem to be harping a whole lot on lyric, it’s probably because I’m a vocalist too, and lyric means everything to us. But never for a minute think that the rest of the package is an afterthought. Strong melodic writing and a sophisticated harmonic environment puts these songs (more than half of which Pasheen composed or co-composed) squarely in a league with the most timeless of them.

Trumpeter Carl Saunders’ scatting, on his composition You’re So Cute, had me laughing in the jolliest way from pure joy at the fun he is obviously having, a trick that belongs exclusively and exuberantly to the jazz genre, and yet few do it well. I get the feeling this may be signature for Mr. Saunders, as he is given complete carte blanche on this cut, with Pasheen respectfully giving her colleague the floor. Takes balls to give the floor in that way, when it’s your album. But then Pasheen has a pair on her that, I dare say, rivals any of her male counterparts.

As evidenced in her tome to Billy Tipton. Her heart is practically breaking on the wonderfully odd and iconic song Cross Dress, leading us to consider a world so intolerant that it demands the Big Lie. It is equal parts shame-on-us reprimand and loving tribute to the many whose lives were relegated to the fringes. It is melancholic without ever moving into the territory of dirge-y sadness.

My favorite cut has to be the finale track, The Truth, composed by the Diva, herself, which paints a landscape of the Seek, the Search, the Path, and which suggests that this radiant singer has depth to spare, yet she keeps it light and fun: “Maybe god is a goddess in a strapless dress.” Frankly, I’m envisioning that goddess with shocking platinum hair.

She has the best of the best as her production and performance team: Co-producer Barry Coffing and engineer Talley Sherwood to start with, and a parade of some of the business’s top session players from L.A. and Houston, including celebrated woodwind player Bob Sheppard, who offers gorgeous warm-toned tenor solos on most of the tracks, and who, all, help to make every track strong and tight. Straight-ahead swing, crisp bossas, and ECM-esque rhythms create the bed for this body of work to lie on.

Pasheen straddles playfulness and pathos with equal aplomb on this recording of twelve stellar cuts, and celebrates the genre of jazz in such a unique Pasheen-only way, that one gets the feeling she loves rocking the boat of the comfortable, and shaking up folks’ worlds, all for the sake of a powerful musical moment.

Her liner notes include thank-you’s to animal rescuers and to our soldiers, which gives a clue into the passion and compassion at work in this beautiful songstress’ heart. But you won’t have had to read about it in the liner notes to feel it with every note sung.

You’ll find you need to hear The Big Purr again and again just to catch every finely layered nuance. It was a joy for this listener. Congratulations Diva!

And as always:
Create – even if you’re not an artist
Support artists – especially the independents
Live well – doesn’t take money to do it
And be whole

Pasheen:  http://www.reverbnation.com/pasheen

 

 

Angela Carole Brown is the author of three published books, The Assassination of Gabriel Champion, The Kidney Journals: Memoirs of a Desperate Lifesaver, and Trading Fours, and has produced several albums of music and a yoga/mindfulness CD.   Bindi Girl Chronicles is her writing blog.   Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram & YouTube.