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The Path of the Outsider
What if some of the best music only comes from musicians that are horrible at self promotion?
It's a messy business trying to write things that strike that balance between personal detail and universal appeal.
So here I am for the first time in a long time with a few hours to put together my final thoughts on this piece.
I just wanted to take a moment to really appreciate what a difference just six months can make. It was not very long ago that I had plenty of free time to start new projects and to spend a few hours every day writing for CHILLFILTR and curating tracks for the radio. Now my timeline is so very much more compressed and looking back, I just can't imagine what I was doing with all that free time. I know people talk about that, that somehow when you get busier, you somehow have more free time. And I suppose I agree with that to an extent. But having the downtime, even if it isn't productive, can be so meaningful and so nourishing. So maybe that's what's happening is that I'm transitioning into a situation where I am accomplishing a lot more but somehow maybe I am drawing down my overall reserve of emotional resiliency. I guess only time will tell how that works out over the long run.
I am grateful for my wife and children who are very happy right now where we are. Part of why I have so little time left over is that we have just started driving to Ottawa every Sunday so that my kids can join in a soccer group. And that has been a really wonderful experience even if I lose a full day out of the time I was using to push some of these projects forward. So that's my confession to you, dear reader, which is that I wish very much to be more prolific than I am. But as we will learn, I think my life can very much be defined as a series of aspirations that serve more as guideposts than they do as destinations. I have discussed in the past this difference between what I call gardeners and architects. So I won't get into that here. But I think this situation of having more projects than can reasonably be accomplished in any kind of manageable time frame is less the exception and more the rule for creatives like me. It's a messy business trying to write things that strike that balance between personal detail and universal appeal. I apologize in advance if much of this doesn't resonate or otherwise feels inappropriate.
I think my main goal has always been to offer a voice for those that maybe often don't speak up for themselves in both music and other ways, other walks of life. Not because they cannot speak or even choose not to, but simply because the filters of the world often don't let those kinds of messages through. So I am leveraging whatever reputation and notoriety I have built for myself to offer an alternate reality for those who wonder what else is going on in the world beyond the polarized voices that seem to grab all the attention. Many of us are living in the middle of this world and don't feel represented.
So I guess the first question is really, what do I mean by being an outsider and how does that happen? I would say that for the most part, the self reflection that I've done and the way that I have finally come to terms with who I am now in my late forties, really only got started barely ten years ago. I spent the better part of my teenage years and twenties with a lack of focus, which I suppose can be easily forgiven. And I spent most of my 30s in a pretty deep depression because I was still holding myself accountable to the dreams I'd had as a pre teenager. So that process of connecting with myself can really be basically summed up as a simple idea, which is to accept myself as I am and not as I dreamed I might be. Having done that, I've been able to let go of a lot of self criticisms, not because I don't deserve them, but because I think they have now served their purpose and can be dismissed. I drank a lot in my twenties and I did a lot of drugs, different ones, at different times, for the better part of two and even three decades—starting very young in my early teens and really only finishing in my late thirties.
As a very young pre teenager, my first drug was hashish. Interestingly enough, living in Europe, as I was at the time in Paris with my family, something as ubiquitous as marijuana was just not available at that time, which was the early 90s, or frankly actually the late 80s. How time flies. So yeah, it was about hashish. And even in my late grade school years, I mean before I even got to high school, I was primarily eating hash, little balls of hash, and that played into a lot of my social interactions. And that was probably the beginning of being an outsider in the sense that I was choosing at the age of twelve and 13 to take risks and basically adopt a lifestyle that most of my peers were either not inclined towards or afraid to embrace. So early on, that's how I defined myself, as someone who zigs when others zag, you might say. And I still define myself that way, that has not changed.
But moving back to college; or, I'm sorry, moving back to New York to finish my last few years of high school, I took that same drug-friendly disposition and connected with sort of a hippie identity; which is not at all uncommon for the Northeast even now. But certainly in the late eighties and very early 90s, we were in the midst—at least in New York—we were in the midst of a Grateful Dead revival. There was just a lot of energy in that folk and roots and certainly drug-friendly atmosphere.
And I connected with some friends that, we really dug in with music as music fans: Crosby Stills and Nash, but of course very much the Grateful Dead. And previously in Paris I had been a little bit more into New Wave bands like The Cure and even Duran Duran, so that was my first big shift in terms of musical preferences. But in those years, in high school, the drug of choice for me was actually acid. That really went hand in hand with the Grateful Dead scene. And I did a lot of acid in those years, so much so that I really got that out of my system. Years later, when I was in college, I dabbled in that a little bit, but really didn't feel the need to go back there and perhaps tried mushrooms a few times. But in college I sort of retreated back into pot; because when you do drugs in High School and you're still living with your parents, you have these sort of natural stopping points. You really have to design your lifestyle in a way that isn't fully in an addict's state. But when I got to college I was able to just completely, just be stoned all the time, and that really dictated my entire 20s, frankly. Even after finishing college in Wisconsin and moving to the West Coast and living in LA and beginning my musical career, but still working in tech and developing my skill sets as a software developer: I hate to admit this, but I was still bringing pot to work and smoking a little bit during my lunch break and even going out for smoke breaks sometimes. I mean, it was an absolutely ubiquitous thing that I handled well and perhaps didn't give off the classic Brad Pitt in True Romance kind of stonerism. But it was still there and it still dictated my entire life basically from mid teens to mid thirties.
And that's probably more background than anybody really needed to know about how I grew up, and how much drug culture was a part of my upbringing. But the point is that aside from music and becoming a musician and a songwriter and connecting with musicians in that regard, it was drug culture that sort of brought me together with people and that's no way to build a social skill set. And as I really struggled with a sense of self hatred for being addicted to marijuana and having perhaps a mild alcohol addiction as well, and of course cigarettes, I mean, I smoked a lot of cigarettes until I was able to finally quit in my early thirties—I struggled with that as a sense of self identity. As many, I think, addicts end up, I hated myself in a lot of ways for having made those decisions and for sort of letting that be my life.
And of course, as a singer and a songwriter, you're sort of pulled in different directions. Because as a songwriter you feel like, oh well, drugs kind of help me extend my brain. That's kind of the Jim Morrison way of looking at these things and perhaps not completely wrong, frankly. Hunter S. Thompson is another good example. I mean, drugs can, in some limited situations, actually help you achieve something artistically. But certainly as a singer, smoking is a horrible decision to make and I was always sort of paralyzed by that reality and perhaps over-obsessed with the idea that if I could only just quit smoking, maybe I would have a stronger career as a singer or maybe I'd be more recognized. And of course it's never that simple. And once I did quit smoking, I realized that I actually still had some of the same issues with pitch or with breath control or whatever it is; that I did before. And it didn't actually help nearly as much as I thought it would to have quit smoking. But of course by then it was almost too late. I was sort of obsessed with this idea of, oh, I'm not good enough, because I'm not doing it right and I need to go in this direction, but somehow I'm not allowing myself to.
So anyway, the whole point about all of that is that fast forward to my mid and late thirties and I'm really depressed. I'm very upset about the fact that as much as I felt like I had started out with a bunch of skill sets and talent as a musician and perhaps even as a songwriter as well; and a decent, memorable voice and a lot of accolades from peers in both music and beyond; in terms of friends in college and even the music scene in Los Angeles—the fact that I couldn't connect with what I felt was a sense of success that felt worthy: I really struggled with that. Now, I've accepted that and I feel much better about it, but man, that took me a long time. Anyway, that's where CHILLFILTR came from.
To finally fast forward to why I'm bringing this up, I basically had a huge epiphany in, God, I guess the 44th year of my life, where it just all really started connecting. I didn't start CHILLFILTR because of the catharsis, the catharsis sort of helped me build CHILLFILTR, in the sense that I was still trying to succeed as musician and I was still making music and creating recordings and trying my best to promote them. And I just realized finally that it's easier to be on the other side. Rather than promoting your own music, it's actually better to be the person that's getting these promotional pitches. And that's where CHILLFILTR came from, is that I wanted to be on that side. The way I thought about it, I had a very strong sense of what my personal taste was, and what I thought was good music. And the vision I had, the visual even, was you plant your stake somewhere and things gather around. It almost like sticking a tree trunk in a river. You kind of create this whirlpool around yourself and it attracts things to you. So that was really the vision I had for CHILLFILTR, and I started doing a Spotify playlist around that. The really funny thing about Spotify was that for whatever reason I built a playlist. I actually started out with just a full playlist of all the people that had played at Room 5, which was this club in LA that was really important to me. And I called my friend Joel Eckels, who had been booking for that club, and I said, hey, do you have a list of all the people that played here? And of course he did. I guess he's really good at keeping that stuff together. And he just very quickly replied with a list of artists, and I found those and put them on Spotify. And I had maybe 40 or 50 songs on Spotify. I went to bed that night and I woke up the next day and I had 1000 followers on Spotify just from this one playlist. And I just was beside myself with happiness, like, oh, I found my thing. I'm going to be a curator on Spotify. What's funny is that much later I found out after doing some research that that's actually not uncommon. That there's so much pay to play on Spotify that a lot of these services that will allow you to buy, essentially followers, often give people followers that didn't actually buy them just as a ruse for the algorithms that are looking for them as a way of sort of dodging scrutiny, I guess. They sometimes just find a playlist and add a bunch of followers using their bots, and whatever, for no other reason than because they can and because it might sort of obfuscate the people that are paying. But at the time, I didn't know that. And I just felt like really in one evening, 1000 people found the playlist and liked it and followed it. And that really gave me this impetus to continue to build the blog and do a bunch of other stuff.
But even in that first year, I was still very much in my feelings, in my head, very emotional. I had just finished this ten year contract that I had as a software developer, and that just ended badly. That was not a good employer. They weren't kind people, you can say. And it was a hard ending. It was difficult, and I was struggling with that. And when I decided to create CHILLFILTR and build this blog and start opening myself up to other submissions, it was really a beautiful moment for me to really dig in with other people's music. I had a number of moments where I was just absolutely bawling as I'm listening to these songs and really connecting with them. And I wrote some of my best work, frankly. If you go through them now—I have thousands of blog posts that I've written for CHILLFILTR; but if you look through the first few hundred there's a lot of emotion there.
And I think a big part of what gave me that feeling of power in that moment was this idea that I'd been outside the system for so long and I could see what was not being included. And then at the same time also understanding just the issue of volume, which is just not something—when you're just a musician and you're trying to kind of get your stuff going and pull people into your little world—a lot of times you miss that message of scale. I know I did. Throughout my entire thirties I just kept on obsessing like why is nobody really understanding or—maybe not nobody, but very few people—understanding how much time and effort I put into this music which I still think is really good. But that's the thing about the music business and really, frankly the world writ large: it's not just about having talent or maybe that's not even a primary factor. It's about connections and hustle and the unwillingness to quit and all these things that hustle culture will have you believe kind of come naturally to everybody. But there was a time when that wasn't even part of the equation and that's kind of the main worldview for CHILLFILTR in general, that great music can come from artists that perhaps are just horrible at self promotion.
We don't all have to be Tom fucking Petty.
Maybe there's an even more direct relationship there. Maybe some of the best music only comes from musicians that are horrible at self promotion. And then what's more, some great music comes from musicians that only are going to put out a few songs, right? I've seen that story happen a bunch of times where this great song ends up on my desk and I'm really excited about it and then I hear a little bit from those musicians subsequently and they just fizzle out very quickly and there's nothing wrong with that. That's one thing that I struggled with early on, but I really have come to terms with, is that success is going to look different for every single person. And it's okay to have different kinds of success, right? For one musician, for one songwriter, having a single amazing song that gets put out there and is available on Spotify or SoundCloud or whatever, maybe that's enough. Maybe that's success to that person. Maybe somebody else wants to have a good album or two albums or maybe do a tour for a summer or get a gig in a certain place and then they get to wash their hands and move on with their life and feel like they did the thing. We don't all have to be Tom fucking Petty, right? I mean, as much as I adore him, he earned that career through decades of being on the road. And maybe not everyone wants that. Maybe not everyone is even capable of that. Not just in terms of talent, but in terms of time commitment and hardship and just simple navigation.
So anyway, that's what I've been talking about in terms of being an outsider and how that sort of contributed to my world view now and my sort of self-assigned role as a curator of things that are getting missed otherwise. I feel like I have lived that story. And to the extent that I can, I want to keep other people from having to have that experience because it's painful. It's fucking painful. When you spend 15, 20 years, making albums and writing music and becoming a better singer and making connections in the music scene to then really do nothing, almost nothing. I maybe have a few hundred listeners in a given month on Spotify. I've got a handful of songs that have hit the 10 or 20,000 spins mark. It's a fraction of a fraction of even a mildly successful indie artist in this landscape. And I don't make any illusions about that. I don't lie to myself about that at all. By any objective metric, my career has been—I hesitate to use the word failure, but it is that, in some ways. I don't see it that way because I'm living this life and I feel good about where I am. But objectively speaking, in terms of a success rating for my music and for my career, it's very low. It's just really low. And that's okay. That is totally cool.
And maybe that'll change in the future. I mean, that's the whole thing about making art that you love and that you are proud of is it doesn't have to be successful. You can still be proud of it and you have the right to be proud of it. And then maybe over time the market will come to you. Who knows, right? It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter anymore. My music is out there, I have six albums that I love and that's it. It's okay to move on with your life. So that's how I feel like being an outsider sort of contributes to the periphery of art in this sense, that it's brought me to this place where instead of being a musician, I'm trying to help musicians. And I'm proud of that. I think that was the right thing to do with the world experience and the career that I've had.
Why did I start out talking about all that drug use? I guess part of me was just wanting to get that off my chest. But one thing I learned later on in life is that I personally have a bit of an issue with episodic memory. I tend to lose memories. And as much as I'd like to just chalk that up to drug use; I'm sure that was a factor, but I don't think it was really the main factor. I did spend some time talking to a therapist years ago that really helped me sort of figure out where the soft spots were in terms of my worldview and the way I was sort of piecing together the memories of my life, and what I came up with, and what I realized, was that I'm just a very empathetic person, right?
I tend to be able to read a room very quickly in terms of emotion, certainly in terms of conflict, right. So I can sense when sort of two people are not resonating with each other, and perhaps when they are. A lot of that, I think, is more present to me than perhaps other people. I think I basically earned that power—and paid the price for it, probably more appropriately—through a childhood where I had two parents that were struggling with their relationship and that did eventually get divorced. And as the youngest of my siblings, I was at probably the most sensitive age when really the arguments were going down. And as much as I don't have a lot of episodic memory throughout my childhood, I do have memories of the arguments. Of my mother raising her voice, of my father raising his voice. And to this day, as an adult, I am absolutely conflict averse. I cannot handle conflict. That's a big part. I mean, I do now, and I'm okay with it, but I don't like it. It's not natural to me. Handling conflict and being present to conflict is perhaps one of my least favorite things in the world. I've handled a lot of hardship, and I'm pretty well suited for that, for difficult projects, for pushing myself past certain points of fatigue or whatever. But in terms of conflict, it's very hard for me to stay in that space. I tend to want to run, very, very quickly. It triggers a fight or flight, and I always want to just go.
So I think that more than anything has triggered, or has contributed, to this sense as an outsider. That, along with this sense of guilt that I had as a drug user, created a sense of very strong, just introversion, just massive introversion. I don't get bored. I've never gotten bored. I'm 48 years old. I've never been bored for a second in my life. And it's because—my theory is that—it's because I was forced at a young age to really go inwards so often and so completely that I just have a world. I've got an entire world in my mind. And any downtime I have I can just tap it and be dreaming about something; in terms of something I'd like to build, or something I want to write, or almost having a discussion with myself about how I feel about something or about current events or about philosophy. I mean, that was something that helped me be, I think, a decent songwriter as well: is that I always have a feeling for where something wants to go. According to me. Right?
One of my favorite quotes about songwriting is from Bob Marley, who some interviewer was asking him where his songs came from or what he used to inspire the songs that he wrote about. And he said, 'it's Jah that writes all them songs anyway.' And I'm not a deeply religious person, but I do think that God is an important concept for all of us. We get to embrace God in whatever way feels right for us. And the way he said that is really the way I feel about songs, too, which is just that it's not a conscious thing. Songs aren't written by the frontal lobes of your brain. Songs sort of come into being and we assist in that process. We basically get out of the way once they become present. You have the idea and then you get out of the way and you let the idea form in your brain and sort of display itself. And when you write that way; I mean, that's not the only way to write songs. It's sort of like the difference between method acting and classical. It's like, I'm a method writer. I let that song sort of become itself and live inside me, and be almost like an alter ego. And when you write that way, you don't really have much control, right? It just ends up shifting according to how it wants to be. And I think having that skill as a songwriter is to be able to say, maybe I want this for this song, but instead of caring about what my needs are, what does this song want to be? I don't know. Maybe that's a little fuzzy for anyone to get their arms around, but it makes sense to me. But anyway. The larger point is that as a combination of this more or less complete social paralyzation and this lack of episodic memory that sort of forces me to think of things in more of an emotional context. That is what led me to be a songwriter and a creator and now to be sort of a champion for just under-appreciated talent wherever it is. And I think that story is more common than anyone would like to believe. I submit that there is a lot of talent out there that is sort of nonconformist in the face of what is becoming a more and more rigid professional structure. And if we don't find ways to encourage alternate creation strategies and alternate marketing strategies and widen the net, you might say, for art in general, I think we will all lose something. So that's what I've dedicated myself to do.