"Making it," expectations, etc
Hi, my darling.
Shocker of the century - gray rainy day here in Amsterdam. This past Shabbat I baked an absolutely bonkers Ottolenghi tarte and Ben and Tete brought tulips. Their brilliant Dutch color is lighting up the drab of our bay window today, at least.
This week the mix process stalled a bit, so we’re not nearly at the album being “done” per my initial projection last Sunday. This doesn’t need to be a tragedy but it is a tough reality, one that throws a large wrench into the schedule.
The good news is that the mixes still sound absolutely stunnersauce.
The bad news is it is very weird to have a weekly benchmark to check ones’ self against.
And the constant news is that it is a rough experience, as always, to be both the label head and the artist.
(Man, “label head.” I still chuckle every time I type it, but it’s the truth.)
Being both the label head and the artist means I have unprecedented freedom, and being both the label head and the artist means I have unprecedented (and harrowing) amounts of information about the business, including myself as a business.
As such, at various points in a year I have to sit myself down and give myself a frank talking to about expectations.
(My least favorite subject.)
God, expectations. Woof. A topic that seems to stick with every artist I know the hardest.
More than finances, more than interpersonal relations, more so even than artistic quality. Expectations throw us all off our axis, a goldilocks hellscape of never quite right.
In our defense we start off wrong by nature, because if we had the ability to manage our expectations, we’d never get into this in the first place. You simply can’t make it as an artist unless you’re slightly deluded. You need at least a little bit of unbelievable arrogance, enough to believe that your art is worth listening to next to anything else.
And so you end up in a constant state of false alarm “I’ve made it”s.
The first time I thought I’d “made it” was when I got into the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. A near miss, by the way: My 2007 judging committee consisted of Reggie Workman (all around legend/bassist for John Coltrane, Art Blakey, etc), a horrendous / famously cruel New School admissions officer who doesn’t deserve one word to her name, and Bernard Purdie (all around legend/drummer for Aretha Franklin, Rolling Stones, etc/creator of the Purdie Shuffle).
I didn’t know one thing about jazz when I walked into that audition. I was a kid in the village attending Eugene Lang. I honestly had no business applying, but my dad’s friends helped me cobble together some charts and I got to it. I sang musical theater tunes, straight with no improvisation, because I legitimately didn’t know that I was supposed to improvise.
That’s how little I knew about jazz. But that straight singing, along with my natural ear for music, actually got me into school.
The horrendous / famously cruel admissions officer made sure I knew she thought I was an abject failure from jump.
Reggie Workman deduced within 5 minutes that I couldn’t read music, but was kind and realized my ear was good enough to sing him back all the complex things he was playing me on piano.
And, hilariously, Bernard Purdie thought that my pin straight singing of the standards was a “choice.” He thought it was the hippest thing he had ever fucking heard.
So I got into The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music.
John Coltrane’s bassist and Aretha Franklin’s drummer.
(Surely, then, I’d made it.)
But I really, really, hadn’t. School was incredibly difficult. I was a small fish in an enormous ocean, among true stars. People whose talent knocked me over and brought tears to my eyes.
I could barely read music, I was nowhere near their level. Teachers were disgusting and creepy, the male students were worse. To cope, I created a blustery persona, picked up some really destructive habits and learned how to strike before I was struck. I stopped playing piano outright, convinced by my fellow students that I was terrible at it.
At some point I reached out to Brenda Barlow, patron saint of the New School. I explained that I wanted to start working in the music business, as someone had mentioned for the trillionth time to me that I might not be cut out to make music, after all.
Brenda put me up for an internship that I desperately wanted, at a label that has since disappeared. I begged and begged that label to hire me, I did not manage my expectations, and I got rejected.
I was crushed. And then the below email came in.
Over 100 people from the New School applied. I mean it, all of the school’s stars.
I had no place here, among the same people making fun of my weird voice and my bad piano abilities. But for some who knows what reason, I showed up to the interview.
Blue Note had just fired a huge portion of its staff (yay music business!) so Erica, the queen hiring, knew whoever got the internship would have a lot of work to do. More importantly, whoever got the internship would be working closely with her, and therefore would have to be someone she liked.
So, mid interview, queen Erica asked everyone to do an interpretive dance.
But as number 66 in the line up, I was the first one to stand up.
I didn’t have to do the dance, just standing up got me the job immediately.
(Surely, then, I’d made it.)
It seemed, for a bit, I had. My life made sense for a second there. At some point Bruce Lundvall, president of Blue Note Records and true living legend, heard me doing a hilarious impression of one of my Savta’s elderly Jewish book club members. He loved it so much he made me change his voicemail to the impression.
(That’s right. The head of Blue Note Records had me, impersonating an elderly Jewish New York bubbe, as his voicemail for a while.)
When Erica left, Bruce hired me to work 30 hours a week as his assistant while I was still in school.
From then on Bruce and I were inseparable. I’ll write about him more sometime. To be honest, even years after leaving Blue Note and years after his death I still have a lot unprocessed.
But it was beautiful. We worked well together, and he and Don Was taught me every single thing I know. A year into working full time, Bruce brought me to a documentary filming, discussing how he had brought Willie Nelson to Columbia Records.
We got to the tour bus with the documentary crew and Willie and I smoked a joint. Then he sat Bruce and I literally on the stage while he played to that New Jersey venue.
That’s what life was like then, my love. I began studying with Becca Stevens and Sasha Dobson, I learned how to start writing my own songs.
Through it all, Bruce was incredibly supportive. I put together a first album. I got a band together. We did a Kickstarter, we made the damn thing. The day the album came out, I came into a $150 bottle of champagne on my desk, with a note attached, “a star is born!”
(Surely, then, I’d made it.)
But I really, really, hadn’t. Even with all the hours banked at one of the largest parent labels in the business, I had learned almost nothing. I had no plan, barely any work ethic, and had accrued considerable trauma from the toxic and misogynistic process of making the album. I toured a bit, then momentarily quit when it didn’t immediately take off.
I stopped making music, more or less.
The blustery exterior and the bad habits came back.
And then things got difficult at work.
Bruce became extremely sick. With a staff of individuals who didn’t respect me and a corporate culture that relegated female assistants to the cubicles outside of male executives, there was no recourse for me.
(I’ll tell you more in 2033 when my NDA runs out, but suffice it to say things got ugly.)
Stuck in a feedback loop on the Lower East Side.
Stuck in a space that had once been my dream job.
Stuck in a toxic romantic entanglement with a narcissistic sociopath.
Just… stuck, all around. I had zero tools. So I did my best and got out.
A settlement came alongside this departure, along with the aforementioned doorstop sized NDA to not discuss what created the circumstances to necessitate it.
(Surely, then, I had failed spectacularly.)
Wanna know what happened six months later? José James’ first choice to sing background for the While You Were Sleeping tour couldn’t do it, and Talia Billig got the call.
I mean, come on.
(Surely, then, I had made it.)
We went around the world. Midway through the tour it turned out we were in love. And, arguably more importantly, I had found my calling.
Background singing made sense.
Songwriting made sense.
Tour made sense.
After the trauma and the pain that led to it, I felt I could finally breathe again.
(God, that picture.)
(A baby in a necklace that Becca had brought me back from a vacation.)
(My mom’s engagement ring on my pinky.)
(Sometimes I look at her and wonder why I didn’t know how pretty i was back then.)
Eh, nostalgia. Not worth discussing. The point is, I got home and the world, let alone New York City, did not give a fuck about where I had been.
Once again, with all my “knowledge” I had no plan and not enough stamina. I quickly ran out of both my settlement and tour money and that was that.
And so began five years straight of doing every job imaginable. There were no moments in there where I thought I had made it. Just different permutations of smashing my face into the pavement.
I blew out my voice, got a surgery paid for by Medicaid on my vocal cords.
I befriended narcissists, I de-friended narcissists.
I cleaned hoarder houses, worked at a cat cafe, temped as office manager and executive assistant. I took my 160 wpm typing skills and got tendonitis from transcribing for rev.com.
And then, with all of it somewhat behind me, I accidentally moved to LA and met Josiah Kosier. Since that first difficult album session, a few male engineers had been kind enough to me to help overcome the trauma before them. But only Josiah put in the real time with me to get me out of my shell. We co-wrote and co-produced a full scale album.
I decided I could be more than just a songwriter. That I could be a singer, all the way in the front of it all.
Talia Billig became Taali.
José and I founded a record label to house the work.
And there it was, I Am Here.
The first video premiered in Billboard Magazine. I headlined my first tour in Japan. I married José, I moved back to New York.
(Surely, then, I had made it.)
But as you and I both know, there have been three years since 2019 and 2022. And you and I have been talking for over a year of those three, so you don’t need any photos or catching up.
(I did get a Grammy nomination, though, while living in my parents’ house and sure I had deeply failed forever.)
(Probably worth mentioning, in this accounting of dramas.)
These days I have no fracking idea what “making it” even means. Yet I’m often still woefully beholden to externals. Still sure that some magical person or circumstance or something is going to be the magic ticket.
Still clutching to a mythical album release date.
The date gets pushed every few months for the past three years, and every time I have a mini panic attack.
The mixes are late, according to my imaginary timeline. And it is fine.
The album will come when it comes. And it is also fine.
I hope this time it will be different, that I won’t be scanning the horizon constantly for a sign that could never materialize because it doesn’t exist. But at the very least, I know the art will reflect something deeper: I’ve finally arrived at a point where my words and my music reflect a lifetime of experience that can maybe be of value to someone else.
All that joy and all that face pavement banging.
2022, at some point, one hopes.
(Surely, then ….)
My first class starts this Tuesday, teaching 15 bobis at the CVA how to write lyrics. The first thing I plan on telling them is a distillation of what you’ve just read: That to write lyrics, there are no shortcuts.
They need to live life and write lyrics.
And oh god, there will be so much life for them to live.
Till next week.
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