New Jersey’s Musical Journeys
all I wanted to do was sing the songs I wanted to sing, the way I wanted to sing them. Who would have thought that would lead me here?
Ok; let me give you some context.
A little over a year ago, I was in the dark. I just had my son, then daughter not soon after. I was turning into a new person; rethinking everything that I believed and thought I should believe. For that matter, questioning everything I had come to know as truth. I not only forgot who I was, I turned into someone I would have never recognized.
Then I “jumped out the window” and walked into a nice apartment complex and walked out with an expensive lease. What’s this? Uh oh, ghost behavior of my former self; not the new “practical”, “predictable”, “people-pleaser” I’d become. So, we’re now in a nicer neighborhood with better schools. And a quaint little Italian restaurant close by. After the move, I mustered up the courage (or nerve) to ask the Manager of this little Italian restaurant about live entertainment. “I’m a singer. How I could perform here with a band?” Uh oh, more ghost behavior.
See, my former self is a woman who would walk away from a house, a car, a friend, a job, hell, a country if it wasn’t worthy enough to stick with; which is how I got into music in the first place.
Time for more context.
I was in Tokyo, Japan. I was blessed to meet a few people, who led me to a few agents, who were all too happy to book a fresh singer, new blood. Understand, I didn’t take any vocal lessons, talent shows, or comments on my voice seriously; therefore, I didn’t take this seriously. I was planning to be a Marketing major, for goodness sakes. My thoughts of singing Mariah Carey and Mary J. Blige songs were,well silly … at first. Realistically, I had been running from this all my life. It’s funny how God catches you when you least expect it, hugh?
My first real gig was in a club called “SoulTrain”. For those familiar with the classic show, yes, that “Soul Train”. It was designed complete with the Soul Train logo on the wall above the stage, in full neon colors. The owners had nothing to do with anyone involved in the actual show, but they didn’t care and were brag-a-docious about it too! They spent millions on this place, even booked well-known R&B and Soul acts from time to time. It was awesome! It had 2 floors, a sunken dance floor, a balcony with a full bar, a raised stage with 3 platforms for dancers above it and a backstage area. It also had a full kitchen and a diverse staff of young adults from all over the world, consisting of waiters, bartenders, musicians, dancers and security. It was a true hot spot, minutes from Tokyo Tower. And I worked there every evening but Sundays, making $200 – $220 a night. Sweet!
After the Soul Train gig ended, I played in piano bars, wedding receptions, restaurants and even the featured act at a military ball. Music became my center, with a life of its own and it gave me a meaning. It was all I wanted and doing good became my focus. Life was nice, but rough.
As you can expect, I was pretty bad in the beginning. Remember, I was still some young girl fresh from NJ, just realizing I had really talent – raw talent. The gigs I got weren’t the best available and my pay was on the lower end of the scale. I had some supportive friends and was fortunate enough to work with some extremely talented and accomplished musicians. I was doing my best to gain their respect, which wasn’t easy. After all, how would you feel in your 30+ years of expertise, if some girl just walked off a plane and onto your stage, with no experience but making just about the same amount of money as you? Yeah, me too. I went through it. A lot of people liked me … but respect – well, that would be another matter.
Right at the point where I was exclusively paying bills from my gigs, I lost my single recurring gig to an older, more experienced and charismatic friend who just happened to fill-in for me while I worked with a new agent at a better paying, one – time gig. I did a $450 gig for a guy who turned out to be a dope-head, telling me when the gig ended “You gotta chuck this one off as a loss.” via cell … just in time for rent. BTW – have you ever lived in a foreign, non-English speaking country, and couldn’t pay rent? Not awesome. I befriended a troubled singer, but brilliant networker who started out the same time. We fell out pretty badly and I found out later she went around spreading a lot of non-truths about me – which coincidently frightened agents from hiring me. I was also fired from another nightly gig because the keyboardist “didn’t want to play with somebody new”.
Finally, I landed a 3- month gig in a family owned restaurant/ club on a small island in Japan, somewhere around Nagoya. The people were extremely friendly and welcoming. It was home to a volcano, which hadn’t erupted for hundreds of years, but every now and then spewed ash all over town, causing everyone to wear sunglasses, hats and surgical masks. A little annoying but kind of cool. After all, we have nothing like that in NJ.
This was a crazy nice gig though! I had a 3 – month agreement, where I was given an apartment and a personalized, chef-made dinner every night. My name and picture were on the marquee as THE entertainment! I was so happy and honored. But honestly, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Then came the holiday of the summer. The entire town had been celebrating all-day and wanted to check out the new star from the US! I swear, it seemed like everyone came out that night. It was packed and I was excited. The announcer welcomed me to the stage and I greeted the crowd and sang my songs over my best pre-recorded tracks the only way I knew how and people were feeling it … so I thought. Then, they started murmuring and talking, then leaving. At the end of the night, the owner sat backstage with his head in his hands. I asked him if everything was ok and if I could help in some way. He looked at me and with his limited English said “Do better.”. Can’t get anymore obvious than that. I was crushed. This little man and his adorable wife put everything they had into this place and by extension, me. They invested in me and I was failing them. My poor performance caused money to literally walk out the door and with word – of – mouth in any small town, it was unlikely to walk back in again … at least not while I was there.
This was my turning point. Either I’m going to take this seriously right now or I was going to do something else. So, I went to the local music store and bought 4 – 5 random CDs from artists I didn’t know, took them back to the apartment and studied. I followed how they framed their songs and phrased their messages. A few of them were jazz albums, so I played around with scatting; writing down the phonetics to touch on that sounded best to me. I practiced and practiced and drank water, burned incensed, slept, ate and practiced some more. I had a pair of cheap, cosmetic contacts that dulled my vision due to the coloring that I wore on stage so I could look at the audience without seeing their expressions. I even took short breaks by watching really good movies between practicing; studying how the actors relayed the characters they played so I could emulate more emotion in my performances. I re-arranged the songs I’d sing, especially those out of my range. I stopped trying to BE Mariah and Celine and Whitney and just sang the damn songs I needed to sing. I stopped calling everyone to see how things were in Tokyo without me. And I stopped doing what people said I should do and did what I knew I should do. And slowly, I got better – a lot better and eventually gained confidence. Days after “Walk Out Night”, the owner made arrangements to cut my contract in half and get another performer. I wasn’t pleased, but I understood. Business is business and he needed to stop the bleeding as early as possible. The funny thing is, by the time I left, the owner and his wife wanted me to stay. It wasn’t possible though; arrangements were already in place, with deposits made. But they asked me to return for a short stay as soon as the replacement entertainer had left.
I arrived back in Tokyo a new person. I no longer sought the respect of the peers I so eagerly admired and revered. I cared less about how people saw me and even less of how much they liked me. I stopped taking every gig, just to establish new relationships with agents and musicians. I had no need to prove anything to anyone. I just needed to sing the damn songs I had to sing and let everything else take care of itself. And like clockwork, they all noticed. Word spread fast and I was getting gig offers that I never got before; making more money and getting calls from agents I never heard of. The path had been laid, the rosy glasses shattered – and now I was facing the question: “What am I doing? What am I doing here? Where is this going?”
The musicians who made Japan their home were amazing but many found themselves caught in a mental time loop – 70’s to early 90’s. They completely lost touch with any sense of current cultural relevance. And though they were gifted, their growth was limited and crippled by comfort and hubris. Not wanting to follow suit, I decided it was time to come back home and left a few weeks later.
Part II – Clueless at Home
Coming back home was a whole other thing. Even though I’m back home now, I know nothing about the musical landscape in the US. I only heard stories and saw movies. Again, I never entertained thoughts of a serious music career. But now, I was throwing myself in the most vibrant and competitive music scene in the world. Hey, I may not have had a vocal coach or manager or producer or agent or whatever but I did have a little money saved up and some experiences others would kill for.
Gigs or not – life still moves on and you gotta pay rent! So, I got a job at corporate law firm as a receptionist. Not much, but I wanted something that didn’t require a lot of focus and dedication; so it was perfect for me. However, the first day I got paid, I didn’t know if I should quit or cry!! I worked for like 40 hours and I only get $360?! Are you serious?! And who the hell was FICA and why do they take so much of my money?! I mean, in Japan I was getting at least $1,000 a week for weekly gigs! This was some true BS right here! I knew I was treated well in Japan compared but didn’t realize just how well until I left. At home, musicians work much harder, with the same skill level or better for about 1/5th the pay. NOT AWESOME!
Anyway, I was here for a reason so it’s time to get started. I began writing from studying so many of other people’s songs and wanted to record and sing my own songs. Turns out, I was a good writer and I had some pretty songs I was working on and getting more and more inspiration and from everywhere. It was in the air. Melodies in breezes; rhythms in streets; harmonies in the trees. I was becoming an artist.
I knew no one to get my music made, heard or distributed. I knew that music business was a business but not how it clicked, nor the people that kept it wound up. I didn’t know a whole lot, but I did know that if I was going to do this thing for real I had to “be a part of it in Old New York”, like Sinatra said. I had no intentions to perform in NJ; why would I? Everything I needed to do, could be done in NYC.
So I met a producer from Village Voice.