Posted in response to a dilemma faced by a fellow traveler:
Okay, hopefully it won’t be too forward of me to add to this discussion. I think (nay, I know) I’ve been where you’re at, Joe, so maybe I can help.
Egomaniac that I am, I’m going to start by talking about myself, but bear with me, as there’s a larger point I’m trying to make. Check it out: if you had told me, six years ago or so, that I would be doing what I am doing now (i.e., leading the IJG), I would never have believed you. I would probably have thought you were nuts. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always loved “jazz,” and instrumental music, but from the start I had always been convinced that “my thing” was writing songs and working primarily with vocalists, period. That had been the focus of my creative output for my entire musical career up until 1999.
What changed? Simply put, in that same year (99) I found myself more frustrated artistically than I had ever been. For one thing, I was writing a lot of songs that had no real outlet. Jill had by then moved far away (or else she was in the process of doing same, I don't remember the exact sequence of events), and all the LA singers I got to know were difficult to work with for various reasons. More importantly, I was not feeling particularly excited about the stuff I was writing. I felt like I had exhausted all of my possibilities as a musician (perhaps unfairly to myself, I didn’t see the point in continuing to churn out more of the kinds of songs I already knew I could write--how many Job Songs does the world really need, for fuck's sake?). The fact that LA is overflowing with mediocre songwriters just made the situation worse. I found I had very little tolerance for the stuff I heard from my peers, but I was even more afraid of my own potential for mediocrity.
And then I read this book called Dianetics. (Kidding!--I hate that crap.) No, what happened I think was that I got to this very Zen place where, for whatever reason, I stopped trying so hard and opened myself up to whatever possibilities happened to come my way. I joined bands for the hell of it, just to see what happened. I met a lot of musicians. I put myself into aesthetically uncomfortable situations. I played a lot of bad music (much of it mine), and some good music too. I did a lot of listening, a lot of transcribing, a lot of reading, a lot of learning. I followed my gut, but I also ignored my gut because I wanted to find out for sure what kind of things it could reliably help me with. And somehow out of that messy period the IJG emerged.
I use the word “emerged” very deliberately, because in retrospect I realize that the IJG is basically an accident that I allowed to happen. I didn’t go into it intentionally. I never sat down and said: “Hmmm, you know what? I should really create a jazz group.” I just sort of fell in with a certain community of musicians, started writing music for them, almost as a joke, not having any expectations whatsoever, and before I knew it the project had taken on a life of its own. And, just as with the Evelyn Situation all those years ago, I felt an unidentifiable “something” click somewhere, and I knew I was in the right place at that moment. I sat up and basically said, “Wow. So I guess I’m going to be a jazz composer for a little while. Who knew?”
Out of more than twenty years as an aspiring professional composer, Evelyn and the IJG are the only two bands of mine that I’ve been deeply proud of--that’s a total of, maybe, seven years of “getting it right” (aesthetically, if not commercially) and thirteen years of drifting. (Other projects, like Jay’s Booming Hat, have been fun, but never really clicked in the same way.) In other words, I was in the ballpark less than half of the time. I have no idea how long the IJG will last, and if it does last, how long it will resemble the band it is now (which is markedly different from the band it was even two years ago). All I know--and I know this better now than ever before--is that I will always want to write music that challenges me, makes me laugh, makes me happy to be alive. And it's actually easier for me to write now that I’ve realized that the specifics of how the music will get made (i.e., what band will play it) don’t matter too much, because I know I’ll figure them out when I get there.
I’m not trying to make the process of getting out of an artistic funk sound easy, because it’s not. My point is that it’s a question of mindset as much as anything else. As far as I can tell, you don’t have to worry about the talent part of the equation--of course, I don’t know you or your music too well, but Jill has all kinds of great things to say about both, and I have a lot of respect for her judgment. In my opinion, it’s not really a matter of what music you do or don’t like, or what you call yourself (rocker? jazzer? singer-songwriter?), because those things are so temporal, and will probably change and grow over time, and anyway are partly determined by forces beyond your control: the moment you’re living in, the world around you, the people you’re with, the language you speak, your background, and so on.
The key to finding your musical identity, I think, is to be and remain open. You may already be aware of this, and in fact you may already be doing it, at least to some extent. But let me stress the point. Be open to changing your mind--or to not changing your mind. Be open to failure as much as you're open to success. Be open to boredom (ironically, that can be one of the greatest motivators toward excellence). Recognize that sometimes your inner ear just needs to coast for a while--it’s a way of clearing aside the detritus and nonsense that dances on the surface of your consciousness (we're all affected by this--the Zen monks call it “roof chatter”) and getting to what really matters for you as a musician. As with love, you’ll just know when something clicks. There’s no point in rushing it before it happens, or analyzing it after. Just let it be.