Open letter to the universe (or one musician who shall remain nameless)

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Album art from the 1980 album Waves by singer-songwriter Mike Batt

I started writing this a couple of weeks ago, not necessarily intending to send it (because fan mail is inherently creepy, isn’t it?), but just to get the thoughts on paper. It was literal paper, too. I started with a ballpoint pen and a notebook.

But in the last few days I’ve found myself saying similar words to other people in different contexts — most recently while talking to students at a career mixer at my alma mater. (Sorry, kids, but adulting is strange business.)

I’ll add that it has long been my belief that all love songs are ultimately written to god (I say this as an agnostic who likes the concision of the word “god”); that romantic longings are the pathways to our highest selves.

It might be trite or cliche to tell a musician that their songs meant something to you. I probably should feel at least bit silly about how deeply I’ve gone into your songs lately. How I’ve lived in [insert album title]. But the whole point of creative work is to make connections. Songs, poems, stories, books — they’re all missives loosed into the world in hopes of finding kindred spirits.

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How to Talk to Rockstars turns 1!

Time flies. This time just a year ago How to Talk to Rockstars was making its debut.

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Celebratory cookies were eaten, wine was imbibed, books were signed, and a tour was launched. I’m so glad that I got to share the journey with all of you and, since we can’t get together for an anniversary cupcake, I’ve decided to hold a giveaway.

All you need to do to win a copy of How to Talk to Rockstars is name your favorite rockstar, either in the comments field of this blogpost or on my Facebook page.

Two winners will be selected at random on Monday, May 30.

“How to Talk to Rockstars” ebook release and giveaway

“How to Talk to Rockstars” ebook release and giveaway

BIG ANNOUNCEMENT: The ebook version of How to Talk to Rockstars is finally available.

Find it on Amazon, check it out, download it, carry it around on your Kindle (or out-dated iPad, if you roll like I do).

To celebrate, I’m giving away TWO copies. To win, share your favorite concert memory in the comments field. The winner will be selected at random and announced here on Friday, Nov. 13, at noon. [Please note: If you win, you will need to provide your email address so I can send you the download code.]

Good luck!

How to Talk to Rockstars first chapter:

At the edge of the stage, in the limbo between darkness and spotlights, between anonymity and fame, Jude Archer knows two things: That he is a rare genius. And that he is a complete fraud.

Sometimes he turns these dual realizations over and over like a penny in his fingers. Sometimes he lets them alternately punish and soothe his soul, these words. One a barb and one a balm. The devil and the angel on his shoulders, but which is which?

Sometimes he lets the needles of knowing fill him with doubt, with hope. With fear, with excitement. And sometimes he just turns away from the knowing, tucks the coin away into a pocket for later.
Or for never.

Just off stage, Jude Archer is no one. It’s the moment of the day he hates most, those few seconds of not being. And then he hears his name.

For one night only —

And he’s already in the light, bathed in it, blinded by it. Soaking it in and becoming. Not just someone, but the one.

All eyes are on him, and he’s reflected back in their fevered glow. The one he’s become. But which one? The genius or the fraud?

Fame, fame. Remember my name.

Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 5.24.34 PM    The terrible truth, thinks Bryn, is that I can close my eyes and feel you in the air around me. Heat of your skin, scratch of your beard, even though I’ve never been in the same room as you.

She blinks back into the present moment, pushes her glasses up on her forehead and massages her eyelids. For the hundred and tenth time she reminds herself that these details of Jude Archer that come so easily to mind are simply the work of an active imagination. Hers. He’s no different from any other musician she’s interviewed. She knows his bio and his latest album, Fly By Night. She knows a few details — his friends call him Jim, he wears skull beads wrapped around his wrist, he has tattoos of his own design snaking up his arms and covering his chest.

Bryn does like to go into an interview with an arsenal of minutia. The tiny details make the person on the other end of the telephone seem more real, more whole. She needs a whole picture in order to move forward. In order to ask the questions.

Deep breath. Chase away the jitters, focus, find an inner calm. Then dial. The numbers click under her fingertips.

Sometimes the musicians call her. Or, if they’re famous, their publicists call.
This is Amanda from Public Record. Hold while I get Marianne Faithful on the line. That sort of thing.

It’s rare but not unheard of that Bryn calls in. Sometimes she’s given the number and pass code to a conference call service where the voices of the different band members blur together until Bryn’s ear learns who is who. What makes each voice unique.

But Jude Archer’s number is just that. His number. She has it. Ever since it was sent to her, she’s been careful not to look at it too closely. Sometimes the most benign things can burn. Now she opens the email, writes the number in black ink at the top of her notebook. Dials.

Not that anyone dials anymore. How long since she used a rotary phone, crossed time and space in the resounding clatter of the dial spinning back to zero?

Let it go. Focus.

The phone rings. Bryn breathes. Must be calm, otherwise there’s a chance of squeaking out a greeting. She doesn’t want to sound like a child. Relax, take time, speak slowly. This is Bryn Thompson with Mic Stand Magazine. Voice low and smooth, easy, warm.

He answers on the third ring, says, this is Jude. Sounds like he just woke up.
She says her name too quickly, adjusts her speed, asks if this is a convenient time for him to talk.

Yeah, it’s fine.

Bryn cradles the receiver against her ear, watching the recorder measure the highs and lows of his voice. On the bottom end, the recorder barely registers. The skin on the back of her arms goose pimples. How’s your day so far? she asks. What city are you in this morning? The throwaway questions. Usually she tries to breeze through those. Makes sure the equipment is working and gets to the interview. Small talk only prolongs the awkwardness.

But his voice. Hoarse at the bottom and airy at the top. For just a minute she lets herself sink into it. Like when she was fifteen, stretching the phone cord to the basement stairs so she could talk in urgent whispers in the chilly dark.
Back when the dial clattered back to zero.

Bryn’s coworkers are all at their desks, typing their own stories. She knows that they’re at least halfway listening. She always halfway listens to their interviews. Knowing this is what pulls her back into the muscle memory of professionalism. The questions are in front of her on a scrap of paper, jotted down and scratched out, numbered in order of importance. She does what she’s supposed to do.

Let’s start with the name of the album, she says. And so it begins.

Top tips for being a rockstar

This essay was originally posted at Booker Like a Hooker.

Stage setup

Stage setup

I probably can’t (or at least shouldn’t) advise anyone on being a rockstar. I realize this might come as a surprise since I just published the novel How to Talk to Rockstars, thus asserting my own expertise on the subject. That, and the book is based in part on my own experience as an arts and entertainment writer and editor. This August will mark 12 years officially interviewing touring musicians in a full-time-employment-with-official business-cards capacity.

If you subscribe to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule (that’s the number of hours of “deliberate practice” it takes to become an expert in any field), then I’ve got more than twice that under my belt — even after you subtract lunch breaks and watching back episodes of “Castle” at my desk. (For the record, I do not watch back episodes of “Castle” at my desk. Who would do that? Not this girl.)

But a 2014 Princeton study supposedly debunked Gladwell’s theory. I’m no expert on rockstars with or without Princeton (or Gladwell) — not on being one, not on talking to one. How to talk to rockstars (the idea, not my novel … well, maybe my novel, too) is actually an enduring mystery in my life. And I’m OK with that.

Birdhouse

Birdhouse

In fact, one of the things that keeps me excited about my day job, more than a decade in, is that the creative process in its many genres remains mysterious, elusive, wondrous and inspiring. It’s the wilderness in this world of instant accessibility, constant contact and utter disconnect. Art is the one place where we’re way off the map and, at the same time, completely connected to our source. It’s the antithesis of social media without being antisocial. It’s where we’re most vulnerable, most human, most true.

So maybe that’s what I would say to any would-be rockstars out there. Be more human. Be more of a conduit to that wilderness. Be more authentic; be a beacon to those of us seeking authenticity.

Diali Cissokho & Kaira Ba performing at LEAF

Diali Cissokho & Kaira Ba performing at LEAF

I would also say I know that’s terrifying. Creativity is a scary prospect. Writing a book sure is. To be alone with the blank page is to stare into the abyss. That’s actually thing I’ve said dozens of times for dramatic effect. And I’m probably not the first person to have said it — it sounds suspiciously like something I probably heard from one of my MFA professors and managed to co-opt by virtue of a foggy memory. But lately looking into the abyss is less dramatic and more … something. Not quite comforting but, like, what’s so terrible about an abyss? It’s not necessarily a black hole or dark matter or one of those “Star Trek” anomalies. It’s just the unknown. And life experience, 20,000-plus hours in, has taught me that most unknowns, once addressed, are completely navigable.

Music, however, refuses to be completely navigable. It remains — at its best, at its richest — unexpected, emotional, surprising and overwhelming. It’s a shot to the heart, a jolt to the psyche. It’s a time machine back to who we once were, a post card from past selves and a missive to future versions of ourself. It has the power to render us, in the moment, undone. It contains the ability to recast us, for the length of a song, cooler than we really are.

Sculpture park at Punta Sur, Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Sculpture park at Punta Sur, Isla Mujeres, Mexico

I would say to future rockstars, go there. Go farther. Dare into the abyss, into the wilderness, into the world beyond the world. Lead the mission; strike out on a hero’s journey; lean out over the precipice and don’t fear the fall.

The world needs rockstars. Not big egos. That’s not what I’m talking about. But seekers, seers, those who walk on stage, larger than life, and remind us of our own inner starpower. And, for that matter, I’d say that anyone who accepts this mission — to be more true, more human, more creative and more of a light into the dark heart of our collective artistic source — is already a rockstar. No tour bus, logo t-shirts or fan base required.