Interview with Marketplace Co-Host Molly Wood Part II

TV on the Radio

TV on the Radio

Molly Wood is a recognized technology expert who appears on national media regularly. She has has built a strong brand with humor and sarcasm mixed with genuine and often outraged consumer advocacy. With more than 100,000 Twitter followers and more than 500,000 followers on Google Plus, Molly has a loyal and engaged fan base, and communicates with them regularly.

Molly is a host and senior tech correspondent at Marketplace, the public radio show produced and distributed by American Public Media.

Previously, she was a personal technology columnist for the New York Times, where she wrote in print and online about the trends and technologies that are changing the daily lives of real people, and produced a video series to drive the point home.

Prior to the Times, Molly was an executive editor at CNET, where she created, hosted and served as executive producer of Always On with Molly Wood, a broadcast-quality technology reviews and news show. She also authored the always controversial Molly Rants column at CNET News, for which she was a 2012 National Magazine Award finalist for commentary.

Molly is an online media pioneer: she co-created and hosted CNET’s flagship podcast, Buzz Out Loud, which was one of the first well-known tech podcasts on the web. She also created and hosted the Buzz Report, a tech news show that debuted in 2005 and was, for a time, the web’s longest-running weekly video series. Molly has done almost all forms of media, from print to books to magazines to wire services to video, TV and radio.

In the second installment of my interview with Molly, we follow her through her move to the New York Times and land with her in her current position at Marketplace.

Molly Wood Correspondent

Molly Wood: Tech Correspondent and Co-Host of Marketplace

EZ: During my stalking I mean research, I remember looking at your blog and noting that the second to last post is “I’M GOING TO THE NEW YORK TIMES!”  and then the very next post is “I’M GOING TO MARKETPLACE!”

MW: (Laughing) I don’t blog very often.

EZ: I was so curious about what you had done in the time that you were there that I took a look at your NYT webpage and saw that you had done a considerable number of videos.  Was your presence with The Times mainly on line or were you contributing to other forms of media within that company?

MW: My main work was to write a weekly tech column for The Times and it had a video series that went along with it.   It was a weekly series for most of my time there and then it moved to every other week just because…I don’t think The Times had any idea how hard that was.  It was technically a 1200 word column that had to be reported to New York Times standards every week….(she breathes out audibly) That was a really hard job.

EZ: How did you end up getting to Marketplace?

MW: That was a wonderful series of happy events.  I had been doing a weekly appearance on Marketplace Tech Report for…ever, like 6 years or something and the host of that show sent me a job listing that was for a Back Up Host and Correspondent. And I thought, “Well that sounds lovely but it’s in LA and there’s no way they’re going to pay me as much as I want”…and the host went back and acted as a bit of an advocate for me.   I also wanted to leave the New York Times but I wasn’t going to jump to just any old thing.  I mean….It’s the Times!  Every second that you’re there is better for your career even though it was not the right job for me or the right culture.   The move took a really long time and when I met the VP of Marketplace we just had such a great rapport and….it’s such a great show and it matches the personality that I think I have!  It’s just irreverent and clever and they prize being smart above everything else.  It was just such a great fit.  It was also just an AMAZING opportunity for me because after doing tech for 15 years…after doing any specific niche thing for a long time, it’s really hard to pivot out of that at your same level. This was a unique opportunity for me to stay in tech but on TOP of that, and for an equal amount of time, to be the back up host.   So, when I’m hosting the show, whether it’s the Morning Report or the Weekend Show, I’m doing economics and finance and global politics and that is such a rare, phenomenal opportunity that will just make me so much more well-rounded….Plus I love radio.

EZ: I love radio too.  I have to admit, NPR is the only station I listen to.

MW: Really?  What do you do doing pledge week?!

EZ: (Sheepishly)…..I pledge?

MW: (Laughing)  Good answer!

EZ: In fact, I think I have to re-up my membership….Going back to the blog that you maintain, I was digging around and came across a post that I found fascinating.  It was entitled “Mad Molly and Adam Curry.”

MW: Oh right….maintain is a strong word.  That post was intended to be the announcement of what I was going to do after abruptly quitting CNET to do…nothing at all.  It was basically “I’m going to do this show with Adam! NOPE I’m going to the New York Times!  OOHHH I’m going to Marketplace!”

EZ: What struck me about the Mad Molly post was that it was so vulnerable and raw in that you and Adam got into a fairly heated argument about a comment that he made that you found to be sexist.  You chose to call him out on it in a public forum.  However, you did it in a way that wasn’t mean or aggressive, you presented it as “these are our differences and I don’t agree with your position and we’re going to bring it up.”  You said something really great along the lines of “It’s honoring our differences which helps us become better at doing better work.”  I’m paraphrasing of course, but I found it amazing that you decided to post about it and I wondered how often you had to deal with those moments in span of your career. I imagine that in the field of journalism, as with any other field of work, one may run up against things like gender stereotyping and discrimination.  How often did you run into situations like that and how did that particular interaction change the way you handled those conflicts afterwards?

MW: That incident was terrifying to me because that was the first time I’d ever thrown down as a feminist in public.  That was always a conversation that I just kind of avoided because…..it just seemed like a loser.  The internet is not really a place for discourse, it is not a place for nuance, or subtlety or understanding.  It is a place for black and white, for abuse and for absolutism when it comes to the “rightness” of the people in question.  Also, tech tends to lend itself to a certain personality that has to be right all the time.  I’m trying not to generalize too much, but there are a bunch of guys in tech who tend to think they are right about everything.   It really is, sort of an engineer’s perspective.   Engineers are fact driven people who come up with roads and plumbing systems and the standards for science that keep us all from crashing into each other.  It’s important stuff that engineers have done throughout history.  It doesn’t mean they are right about everything, but a lot of them tend to believe that they are.   I also believe that tech can be the great equalizer.  I mean, I know that there are fans of mine out there with whom I would agree about nothing else but tech….

…..NOTHING! (We both chuckle)

EZ: ZERO THINGS!

MW: ZERO THINGS!  But there they are, and we can have an open and respectful conversation about technology as long as we don’t talk about anything else.  And that’s great! That’s actually great because we are all humans who are entitled to our own opinions and we are all using the same technology.

So, that was a big moment for me because I engaged in this social issue in that forum and it was on the cusp of me doing a show with Adam where it felt like I HAD to have that conversation with him.   It ended up being a big part of the reason I didn’t do the show with him.   I had known the guy a while and it was a pattern I had seen before.  I just was not comfortable with that.

In terms of my career, I think when you are young, unless you are out and out harassed which….arguably happened..for sure…there is a point where your young enough that you don’t even realize that it’s happened until somebody calls you and asks “Uhm…this person has been fired and I wanted to know if they ever did anything inappropriate…”and you think…”Oh, he did give me that weird back rub that one time and I told him to “back off,” which turns out was not ok!” There’s that stuff, right?  But when you’re young and new, you’re all low level and you don’t realize until you start hitting a wall when you start to go “Oh, Huh!  I’m hitting a wall!  Oh!  This is what institutionalize discrimination looks like!  I see it now!” I think every woman gets to a point where she sees that happen.  It’s empirically true.  The evidence is all around us and journalism is CERTAINLY not immune and the tech world obviously has the worst track record ever.  I would certainly be lying if I said I hadn’t encountered it.

EZ:  I’ve found it to be true as well, when one is young, you don’t necessarily see it.  It may be happening all around you but you are so dead set on your goals that you don’t notice it until, by no reasonable means, can you move forward.

MW: It’s just perspective. Age is just a series of experiences, right?  I can’t tell you how many times that I would go to a conference and I’m with a man whose role is..who knows what his role is..but another man comes up and ignores me and starts a conversation with him, and then realizes that I’m a tech columnist for the New York Times or I have my own show on CNET, but they have treated me as though I’m the PR person or the handler for the guy.  THAT happens over and over and over and over.  At first, I characterized my struggle as “being taken seriously”  because I did a funny show and that despite having been cited in amicus briefs by the Electronic Frontier Foundation in lawsuits about net neutrality against the federal government, people just saw me as a girl who breaks stuff.  Even though I created, executive produced and wrote the whole show.  That was ultimately why I wanted to go back to writing and why I left the New York Times because I didn’t just want to do video.  I don’t want to be talent.  There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be talent, but it became more about perception.  If you’re blond and you put on makeup and you make jokes about stuff, you must not be that smart.  Don’t get me wrong!  I’m in an awesome place!  But everybody runs into it in one way or another.

EZ: It just underscores the weird, insidious, systematic nature of discrimination in the whole thing.   That we don’t really even notice it at first…

MW:  I’ve done it!  I have done it! I have done the thing and I can give you an example.  I did a presentation in Madrid for the global marketing agency for Samsung.  They told me that it was really exciting because the head of marketing for Samsung Americas is going to be there.  So I’m giving this presentation and I’m looking at these people, and see this row of four Korean people in front of me and I start looking at these two guys while I’m presenting and I’m thinking “Ok, this is the person I need to impress.”  It turned out the head of marketing is the woman sitting next to them.  I did it.  I had assumed. I had made that ingrained social assumption that it wasn’t the woman.

EZ: That must have been such a weird feeling when you understood what had just happened.

MW: Yep!  It was…yeah… no.  Wow.  I also know that I’m not a victim!  It’s a systematic societal entity.  It’s an unconscious bias and we all have it, even against each other.

EZ: I’ve found myself in similar situations where I’ve subconsciously made an assumption or behaved in a way that was incongruent to my beliefs.  It’s a horrific feeling when you realize what’s happening.  It’s ultimately that empathy that strikes out and makes you think “Who are you!?  Why are you doing this?  You would never want to be treated in this manner, so why are you doing this?”

MW: In that moment, I probably made her feel exactly the same way that some guy had made me feel at a conference when he addressed the man that I was with instead of me.  I felt like a total A-hole.

EZ: That’s rough.

MW: But I feel like it’s really important to acknowledge.

EZ: It’s self awareness! We have to understand how we are behaving and how we are perceiving and what assumptions we are making before we can actually see what needs to be changed.

MW: Yeah, in that way I’m glad that it happened and I’m glad I was aware of it so that I could use it as a teaching moment.

EZ: I’m curious to know, I know you really enjoy working at Marketplace, if there was a job that would make you say “I could do this job for the rest of my life until I die,” what would that be?

MW: In a way that’s how I feel about radio, so I hope that I don’t suck at it.   I hope to have other careers.  I’m excited to branch out of tech and try economics and finance.  When I was taking a journalism class in high school I wanted to be a foreign correspondent.  I thought that that would be the shit!  I also took french because, for a time, I wanted to be a translator for the UN.  In high school we had to write an obituary for ourselves in our journalism class, which is a REALLY intense exercise and I wrote this obituary that says that I was killed during a demonstration as a foreign correspondent in some faraway land.

EZ: That’s so intense!

MW: I know!  I look at that now and I’m like, “What the…?” and at the time it just came out.  I was like “There I was at the Arab Spring and I was tragically shot on the steps of the capitol building.”

But really, how cool would that be, if when my son goes away to college, I become a foreign correspondent at the age of 60?  I couldn’t do it for the rest of my life, but I think there is so much more.  I just love news  in all its forms and I love the change that comes along with it.  I think, and this is very much informed by being a single mom, but also believing that one has to own one’s own life. Your company doesn’t love you back. They will fire you eventually if they feel the need to.  It has to be a partnership and not a sacrifice.   So, my goal ultimately is to own my own time.

EZ: That’s an amazing goal.

MW:  It’s a pretty simple one.

EZ:  It’s simple but not easy.

MW: Especially because I’m not that entrepreneurial. Aside from enjoying setting up my own little empire within a structure. I do like to hack my companies, that’s for sure.

Be sure to catch Molly in the morning or afternoon on Marketplace at American Public Media and NPR.  She’s one of my personal heroines and hope she makes your list too.

Interview with Marketplace Host and Tech Correspondent Molly Wood

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Molly Wood is a host and senior tech correspondent at Marketplace, the public radio show produced and distributed by American Public Media.

Previously, she was a personal technology columnist for the New York Times, where she wrote in print and online about the trends and technologies that are changing the daily lives of real people, and produced a video series to drive the point home.

Prior to the Times, Molly was an executive editor at CNET, where she created, hosted and served as executive producer of Always On with Molly Wood, a broadcast-quality technology reviews and news show. She also authored the always controversial Molly Rants column at CNET News, for which she was a 2012 National Magazine Award finalist for commentary.

Molly is an online media pioneer: she co-created and hosted CNET’s flagship podcast, Buzz Out Loud, which was one of the first well-known tech podcasts on the web. She also created and hosted the Buzz Report, a tech news show that debuted in 2005 and was, for a time, the web’s longest-running weekly video series. Molly has done almost all forms of media, from print to books to magazines to wire services to video, TV and radio.

I was thrilled to bits when Molly agreed to chat with me.  I’ve known her for a couple of years and have been seeking an excuse to pick her brain about her experience in journalism, especially in the tech sector for just about as long.  This post is the first in a two-part interview project.   There was so much good stuff, I convinced my internal, adolescent editor to grab a beer and chill on the back patio for this one.   Molly would be proud.  Or horrified.

EZ: You’ve covered a myriad of subjects during your career from general news to sports.  How did you end up in tech?

MW: I moved to the Bay Area in 1999. There was, sort of no way NOT to end up in tech, even if you were a journalist.  I quit my job at the AP and moved here, did some temp work and a friend of mine got me a position at a magazine that covered Apple.  It was a MAC Magazine called MAC Home Journal. It was the baby competitor to MAC World.  It’s no longer.  It was a random, “Here’s a journalism job for you!” because I didn’t want to keep working for AP.

EZ: Had you felt like you found your niche at that point? Did you love it?  Or was it more an understanding that this was where all of the stories are?

MW: I’d like to think that there was any sort of conscious decision making going on but it was more like I was living in Omaha working for AP and a friend called and said “I live in Oakland and I need a roommate!  What are YOU doing?”  And I said “I’ll be there in a month!”  The whole thing was just a series of serendipitous events.  I was considering the temp job for the time being and then the magazine job came along.  I took the job because it was writing and I was just lucky enough to like what I was doing.  I don’t remember being super conscious of ever thinking “I like this tech stuff!” Although it did happen when I wrote a review of the iMac DV…..(I blink in stupor at her).. cause this was SO long ago, right?  I don’t even remember what the difference was.  I think it had a DVD drive or something like that.  I remember looking up all these specs and thinking….because it isn’t that dissimilar from sports because it’s specs and  numbers and…it’s all dudes…

EZ:  I never thought of it that way!
MW: It was kind of similar and when I wrote that particular piece I thought “Oh, I LIKE this. That was really fun.”

EZ: How did you take that experience and make more of that work for you?

MW: Again, I don’t think it was as conscious of a decision as it may seem in hindsight.  I didn’t want to stay at the magazine forever.  I mean it was great training.  It got to the point where I was almost writing the entire magazine.  There was a small staff and I…..like to work (she laughs). I played dumb little video games and wrote stories about them.  But I did want to move on eventually and was lucky enough to fall into the world of the internet.  I applied for a copy editing job at Salon.com back in the day which I did not get.  But before I was hired at CNET I remember looking at them and thinking “Okay, well I’ve been doing this tech thing so I can probably get a job there.”  I will say that it didn’t ever occur to me to go back to hard news.  I knew I didn’t like that.  It’s a lot of bad hours, it’s really depressing (she laughs sardonically into her drink) you have to work on Christmas and sometimes your covering a murder on Christmas!  That just was not the kind of life that I thought I wanted.  Also, CNET had good grammar.  It wasn’t totally janky like so many of the things that I encountered on the internet.

EZ: LOLS!  Srsly.

MW: We didn’t have that then.  We had the turkish guy that was in love with you.. . The “I kiss you!” (again, I betray myself with my blank stare)…  It was SUPER early days on the internet. I can’t say that I said to myself “I’m going to embrace this tech thing as a career.”  It was more like, “okay, now I’ve been doing this for a year, so I know what I’m talking about and it seems like that’s what everyone’s doing here.

EZ:  You ended up at CNET for quite a while after that.

MW: I got to CNET as an associate editor covering ISPs and 13 years later I had done just about every other editorial job that they had.  Two great things happened to me while I was at CNET.  One is that I left CNET.  I wasn’t happy with my job at the time and I ended up leaving to do tech book editing at O’Reilly for nine or ten months for the shortest period of time ever.  The second great thing was that I went back to CNET for a better job where I started doing podcasting and video editing and I was a columnist.  So I had a platform!  By the time that I left, I was definitely among their primary talent.

EZ:  After you came back to CNET and established your platform, you developed some super creative ways of challenging the latest and greatest tech innovations that were either JUST about to hit the market or even just in the conceptual stages.  How did you come up with your ideas and continue to create compelling material for your audience?

MW: I think that my approach to journalism was always a little bit 7-On-Your-Side.  I was always the consumer advocate.  It started because I was really into policy and I was forever ranting about net neutrality and digital rights management and even the refusal of studios to digitally distribute music and movies.  It was always from the perspective of the consumer.  From that, my specialty became that experiential approach where I wasn’t trying to me more of an expert, I wasn’t trying to be a tastemaker, I was being a real user.  My approach to technology was always about how it would integrate with my actual life.   I think people just responded to that because it’s practical.  People would tell me that it was just honest.  It wasn’t overly focused on what a particular company was trying to achieve.  It was more like “Well, how does this work for me?”  It made a ton of sense especially coming from CNET.

EZ:  I also feel a large part of your audience and the market, let’s face it, are like me.  I’m a single woman watching your approach to tech as a single mom with a BUSY life.

MW:(gently interjecting)…Also, this part of the market, while big, is not such a huge part of the reviewer base.

EZ: Right!

MW: Which I always felt was guys with nothing but time to figure this stuff out.

EZ: And your approach is so refreshingly unpretentious.   Above all, it looked like so much fun.  In fact, I feel like I almost want to answer this question for you because I think I know what it is, but I’ll ask anyway:  What was the craziest thing you’ve done in the name of testing technology?

MW: (Laughs, knowing exactly to what I am alluding)….I mean, the helicopter jump…. is obviously.. the one.  What was happening at CNET at this time was that I was kind of at the end of the line.  At this point, I had not traditionally done gadget stuff.  I was really more about trends and policy and then CNET was moving in a direction of wanting everything to be much more core to it’s central mission which was reviewing products.  So I decided to create this show.  I was thinking “THIS is it.  This is my moonshot to try to do something that I feel great about that’s going to move my career and my ambition and my interest forward.”  ….cause I like a lot of variety.  So I launched this show that was like a baby startup within CNET. I made a budget for it and basically pitched it and asked for money.  I said “I’m going to need this much money and these are the staff I want to hire, I want to hire totally external people and were going to shoot out in the world!” …and this had not been done before.  I guess I had been there for so long and had done pretty much every job and had built up enough capital that they ended up approving my “moonshot’ budget.  Remember, this was me going for broke.  It was amazing!  So I hired seven people and we just started coming up with crazy cool ways to present tech interactions.   So one of the first ideas we had was to re-create this commercial we’d seen for this HTC phone where some guy jumped out of a helicopter and did a photo shoot, trying to capture this model in mid-air.   And of course we were like “That’s not….that can’t happen.”  At this point I was just trading ideas with a friend who happened to know someone really high-up at Go-Pro.  So we ended up with the Go-Pro stunt team to work with us.

EZ: (agog) ….no way…

MW: The Go-Pro Bomb Squad.  It was amazing…..I mean…IT WAS AMAZING!!!  I mean, here we are with the Go-Pro Bomb Squad and we’ve set up this jump which is out of a helicopter and not a plane which is SUPER unusual for consumer skydiving.  And these guys come in and they are all super tanned and ripped and they’re like (doing her best Keanu Reeves impression) “You’re gonna love jumpin’ out of a helicopter because the sensation of free fall is just SO much more intense!”  Which basically means you’re jumping from a standstill and it’s just (mimes vomiting into her mouth)…it was all I could do not to vomit in mid-air much less take these pictures.  One of the guys dressed up in a unitard and a feather boa and a helmet that my producer made that had feathers all over it, and it’s me and him in a silver unitard and a boa…. and I got the shot!!  And all the Go-Pro guys were like “Dude, that was sweet.”  They were like “We didn’t think you were going to get that shot at all!”  And I was like “Dude, I thought I was gonna barf.”  But that was the first in a series of amazing shows.  For example, I rode on the back of an America’s Cup catamaran, which was one of the COOLEST experiences of my life, followed up shortly by taking a ride on the world’s fastest sailboat, I did a mud-run in Vail at eight thousand feet, where I thought I would die.  I broke an iPad on the streets of Paris (she romanticizes this as if it were a wine and food pairing in a french bistro).

fly

EZ: Tell me about the mind controlled skateboard. Of all the mind-blowing things you’ve done, that kind of took it to another level. By the way, you REALLY need to keep a catalogue.

MW: I really do!  Just all of this amazing stuff that has happened in my life!

EZ: You have done a LOT of stuff in such a relatively short period of time.

MW: I have!  Do you know that Kanye quote? I want to make this my Tinder profile: “My life is dope and I do dope shit.” That’s how I feel about my life.

EZ: Seconded.

MW: So, they had this mind-controlled skateboard, and it’s not a stunt.  It’s actually a mind-controlled skateboard and they had this helmet with a bunch of electrodes which attach all over your skull and it’s this slimy, yucky thing.  But you put on this weird electrode thing and you stand on the skateboard and the electrodes are hooked up to a Window’s tablet that powered the motor and you had to THINK the commands to drive the skateboard.  It was the weirdest thing cause they would say “You can’t think ‘GO.’” If you just think “Go” you aren’t going to go.  You actually have to think about going.  You have to imagine yourself going.  Which is even harder when you want to stop. Because you can’t just think “stop.”  You have to actually imagine yourself stopping and so the focus that it takes for you to imagine yourself stopping for you to stop when you’re headed right into a wall is a whole other level.

EZ: That…..(Not..nope …not any words coming to me).

MW: (Mercifully interjecting) WE LIVE IN THE FUTURE!  THAT THING ACTUALLY EXISTS!!!

EZ: Are they manufacturing this now for the general public?

MW: I don’t think so.  They may be licensing the technology but they aren’t making the skateboard. It’s a company called Chaotic Labs and they are a lab.  But THEY have a cool job.  I mean I have a cool job…but they have a COOL job.

Molly is a recognized technology expert who appears on national media regularly. She has has built a strong brand with humor and sarcasm mixed with genuine and often outraged consumer advocacy. With more than 95,000 Twitter followers and more than 500,000 followers on Google Plus, Molly has a loyal and engaged fan base, and communicates with them regularly.

Tune in next time when we dive further in to Molly’s adventures in public media!

A Songwriter’s Manifesto: OR Poop Theory of Creativity

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In order to be a writer, you need to write.  Just as you would make art if you are an artist or take photos if you are photographer. You don’t need to be brilliant about it all the time. You just need to DO it all the time. The equation is basically as I heard Ellen Burstyn put it in an episode of the podcast Death, Sex & Money: “In order to become the noun, you must do the verb.”

I’ve read or watched interviews with songwriters, poets and journalist who have all said different versions of the same thing: “Write, Write, Write. And when you aren’t writing, write.”

Jack Hardy, who ran one of the longest running songwriting workshops in New York City put it bluntly in his Songwriting Manifesto: “Everything about writing is a process. It is a process that one must immerse oneself in to be good. We have to stop thinking of the song as a commodity. We have to stop getting hung up on the song itself, as an end in itself, and pursue the process. Young writers (or middle-aged writers) who come to our workshop for the first time are always looking for recognition of what they have already written. They are looking for validation. The first thing we do is humor them. Let them get it out of their system. “Play your greatest hit,” “play your latest song.” If we had the time we would say “play every song you’ve ever written.” Then we say, “Throw them all out. Start over.””

The writing process is different for everyone and a lot of times, an individual’s process can vary depending on how and when the inspiration strikes, what materials you have available to record said inspiration and so on. We develop our writing habits over time and tend to gravitate towards a method which gives us a high ratio of work/satisfaction and feelings of accomplishment.

For example, my songs are heavily rooted in story and metaphor. Lyrics are an important feature in my work and for that reason, I generally start my songs with words or phrases that strike me.

That isn’t to say that I haven’t written songs leading with the melody line or chord progression. That also happens. Especially when I’m practicing new fingering patterns or learning a new batch of chords. That being said, because my strengths lie in storytelling and lyrical work, I will most likely start with that.

The process of developing a piece can vary greatly and some songs take a little more work than others. Sometimes a song will come into the world struggling and will require a significant amount of time and attention. Other times, a song seems to write itself. Neither version is bad or wrong. Neither version makes any one writer better than another. There are some epic examples of writers who have written some beautiful pieces who come from each end of that room. I say “room” because I believe the process, as with anything else, lies on a spectrum and isn’t delineated. A room implies space to move in and out of a given process. I personally have experienced many versions of the process in my time as a songwriter. Which brings me to my personal theory of creativity.

Lately I have been comparing the creative process to (for lack of a better term) taking a poop. I’ve done this for a few reasons:

  1. It simply must be done. You can’t not do it.
  2. There are many ways it CAN be done.
  3. Once we’ve made a “move”. We move on. “Throw them all out. Start over.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                       It Simply MUST be done: Creativity isn’t always something that you DO. Sometimes creativity happens TO you. You could be having a conversation and something strikes you as SO meaningful and SO poignant that you simply MUST locate a record making implement in order to not lose the creative thing that happened to you! This feeling is not unlike the feeling of needing to locate the facilities STAT!!                                                                                                                                                                                                              There are many ways it CAN be done: Other times you may feel a song coming on, but it’s more of a distant, low rumbling. You know it’s almost here, but you have time to find just the right place and time to give it your full attention.

Sometimes (if you’re really lucky) a song will basically fall out of you in one piece. No muss, no fuss. You may not even need to wipe. But you do anyway because you weren’t raised in a barn. And because process. And because gross.

With the more collicky songs, they require time, agonizing over thesauri, MANY used sheets of paper and exhaustion.

Like I said before, none of these variations are better than another. One of them may feel better than the other, but they both can be equally as rewarding. Be kind to yourself and your process. Give your pieces the proper time and attention they require to come into this world in whatever state they must. Besides, they HAVE to come out anyway. Because just as there is no “not pooping” if you’re a human. There is no “not writing” if you’re a writer.

Once we’ve made a “move”. We move on. Throw them all out. Start over.” – Jack Hardy”  Sometimes it’s hard not to take a moment and “look” at what we’ve just done. It’s also a part of the process to say “I just made that! That came out of ME!” What we sometimes struggle with is the decision to flush and move on. Get to the next project. Especially if we’ve just had an epic battle or if we are particularly proud of a certain piece. It can be daunting because it’s never certain which shape the next process will take and there is a very real possibility that it will be exhausting.  Or terrible.

But as writers, we must write. And flush and write. And write and flush. Because no matter how many times you repeat this process and finish or don’t finish a piece, the awesome thing is: There will always be another one on deck.

An Interview With San Francisco Jazz Phenom Kim Nalley

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Photo Credit: Gulnara Kamatova

This month, I was fortunate to sit down with local jazz songstress, Kim Nalley at Revival Bar in Downtown Berkeley. When I arrived, the place hadn’t filled up yet. But it wouldn’t be long before the dinner crowd filled in. Kim caught up with me on her way from UC Berkeley where she is a doctoral student in the history department. She walked into the restaurant looking decidedly studious in a long breezy dress, pulling a small speaker behind her. I gave her a quick once-over and said, “You really are going for your PhD!” She laughed graciously and we decided where to set for the evening. We settled in a quiet-ish spot by one of the gaping windows looking out onto Shattuck Avenue.

EZ:

In September of last year, you wrote a piece for your blog that really stuck with me. The subject was concerning the importance of female mentorship in jazz. In a profession that can easily be thought of as a sort of “Good-Ol’-Boys” club and often linked to competitiveness and managing egos, a community seems the least likely and yet most powerful tool for success. Having basically come-of-age and developed your artistic presence in the jazz world, what is one revelation that you had that you’d like to impart on female vocalists trying to make it in jazz today?

KN:

“You will never be a side-man or a side-woman or a side-person if you are a singer. I think that is one of the most important things. Singers are categorically different from the instrumentalists in a fundamental way, — no matter what, you will always have to front the band. Nowadays, singers don’t have Big Bands to cut our teeth on as canaries. Nowadays we have to come right out of the gate being both a bandleader and having a finished product. If you’re very young that sometimes means directing men who are ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty years older than you AND coming up with a product that is uniquely you even though they have way more experience than you do. That is something that I didn’t quite understand at first. I just wanted to be one of the guys. After a while I figured out, ‘No. You are the bandleader. You have to lead the band.’ At any given point, even if it is not your gig you’re leading the band.”

“If you’re talking about female instrumentalists, then I think that’s a whole other ball of wax altogether. Many jazz purists don’t like singers for certain reasons or that only instrumental jazz is true jazz. But if you don’t like female instrumentalists, then it’s just flat out sexist,” laughing heartily. “You know?” she says conspiratorially. “They’ll say things like, ‘Wow, you don’t play like a woman.’”

EZ:

Have you heard that being said?

KN:

“Yeah, that’s been said to Tammy Hall. Somebody insisted that she was male. ‘That this was a male piano player judging from the way that she played.’ He meant it as a compliment, you know? ‘Do you play like a girl?’ ‘Do you play bass like a girl or do you dig in?’ You know, things like that. Just the whole concept of jazz and the way that it’s organized and the aesthetics that it admires are very male oriented. Once there is a vocalist involved then it sometimes becomes a little softer. But a lot of jazz is basically horn players, and think of them as antelopes locking horns on the Serengeti Plain and they’re, you know.” Kim balls up her fists and pound her knuckles together making crashing sounds as if two bucks were fighting.”

EZ: (Can’t help myself, I giggle)

KN:

“‘My solo!’ Crash! ‘Grr, MY Solo!’ You’re just searching for your little bit of space where you can make your statement. It can be very aggressive. And I say this as somebody who was raised on a jam session. Obviously somebody who is not a musician who is just sitting back listening to Miles Davis records is saying ‘Well, Kind Of Blue wasn’t like that!’ That’s completely different. I’m talking about the experience of being a jazz musician in a club and what that atmosphere is like. I’ve definitely seen situations where they have dismissed a woman just because she was a woman. They said, ‘Send her home and get me another bass player,’ or ‘another trumpet player,’ or whatever. With vocalists at jam sessions, they’ll let us sit in for one tune, maybe two tunes as opposed to horn players who, if they’re good, they could maybe sit in for the whole jam session. Nobody lets a female vocalist sit in the entire time except for Vince Wallace. Vince Wallace let me sit in at his jam session as much as I wanted. He said the only caveat was that I had to sing lyrics; I had to know the lyrics. I couldn’t just scat the whole time. That was such a rare opportunity for a vocalist to be given. I would go to that jam session at Schooners on 24th and Valencia, a little Irish dive bar, and they would play all kinds of tunes and I would have some Fake Books with me and once I figured out what tune it was I would flip to it and listen to it and follow along with the chords until I had it. I would motion to Vince that I wanted a piece of the tune and then I would sing. I didn’t sing the head in or head out on any tune, but he would always give me some blowin’ room. These were the types of rare mentorship opportunities I was given. As females, we need to think about giving them back to other females. Especially when there are two singers, you might be worried about your rank or somebody might be coming up ad taking your thunder but you have to let that go. You have to share these opportunities, because a lot of guys don’t want to give those opportunities. They don’t want girls up in the jazz club. Not all of them but enough so that it’s a problem. I can assure you that it goes from the very small dive all the way up to the highest levels of jazz. It’s a boy’s club. It really is.”

EZ:

What is the one piece of advice that you would give to any female musician trying to find a voice in the jazz scenes nowadays?

KN:

“Make sure that you have your shit together. Make sure that you are beyond reproach. One of the reasons why I was accepted was because I had musical training. I had training in classical music and they really respected that. The fact that I read music meant that, to them, I was a serious musician. So, even if you can’t play, teach yourself to play. If you can’t play with both hands, play with one hand. If you can’t play with one hand, play with one finger. Look at the chord changes and at least pick out the bass notes! At the absolute minimum, know what keys you sing in and, better yet, know where the tune is situated. Does it start on the 1, does is start on the 3? Something so that, when they give you shit, because they WILL give you shit, that you can throw it back in their face and they can know ‘Oh! She’s not to be trifled with.'”

EZ:

I’d like to quote a section of your blog, which really struck me: “The jazz world tends to be biased against females in general, so being a female vocalist is a double strike. Often I see high school all-star jazz bands who are all male with no vocalist or even a female instrumentalist in the band and I think to myself, here is another opportunity lost both for singers and for women, and more importantly for the band to learn how to play behind singers and work with females. The divide simply becomes vaster. Short of quotas, the best way to combat this pattern is for us female vocalists to mentor and support young female vocalists, because they are unlikely to be given a chance by others. Especially a chance that has no sexual strings attached.”

You drop an evocative statement of “finding mentorship without sexual strings attached.” Did you find this was something you came across often? How did you navigate the advances of people who you ultimately respected and from whom you wanted to learn?

KN:

“We had some situations where a much older gentleman, who will remain unnamed,” she pauses dramatically and whispers “I’m going to save that for my memoirs.” Then she resumes more loudly, “Took me around to a bunch of places, gigs to sit in on and things like that. Then at the end of the evening he attacked me in the car! This guy is old enough to be my grand-FA-ther and I am eight-TEEN years old! Somebody 30 is old to you when you are 18, you know? Much less somebody who is old enough to be your grandfather. Literally! His tongue was like….” Kim makes a squished grossed-out face as she gestures the act of trying to push someone off of her. “I physically had to beat him off. I had bad dreams about his little slimy tongue on my face. He was a total creep! Oh my god!

So I was on my guard after that.”

EZ:

After that incident, how did you temper your expectations? How did you navigate the scene especially since you still wanted experience, knowledge and mentorship?

KN:

“I was very wary about people especially if we were going to spend one on one time with each other. I didn’t really let my guard down. I’m not talking about somebody propositioning you, or letting you play in the band if you sleep with him, which happens all the time. It’s not about someone feigning interest in your music in order to get you into bed. I’m talking about somebody physically assaulting me and having to physically kick and beat and try to get somebody who is much heavier, much taller than me, off of me. So, I would try not to be alone with guys, which is hard because the industry is ALL guys. At some point, you’re going to be left alone with them. How are you going to navigate that? So you find a couple of “safe guys.” In the old days, singers talked about making sure you had a “boyfriend” otherwise you might get passed around which…kinda sounds like rape to me!”

(We both nod at our plates)

EZ:

A little bit….

KN:

“You just learn to find someone who’s going to protect you. Guys are SURPRISINGLY mellower when you say that you have a boyfriend, especially one who they know. Recently that’s come up as a feminist “cop out” or something. But as long as you are at risk of being raped and the guy might not rape you because you’re the girlfriend of somebody that he knows, I’m sorry, that’s not a cop out, it’s called…”

EZ:

Self-preservation?!!

KN:

“Yeah. Self-fucking preservation! It doesn’t have to be a boyfriend. It can be a male friend or just a buddy that you trust who you don’t get separated from. I was very young, I was starting off in the scene at sixteen, seventeen, eighteen years old and I was going to clubs where there was alcohol and drugs and all kinds of stuff. Once you get older and have kids, you realize that a seventeen, eighteen-year-old female is very much a girl who doesn’t know very much about navigating her way around the big boys inside of the dens of iniquity, which is where jazz takes place. Jazz doesn’t take place on albums or in auditoriums. I mean it does…But the bulk of the history of jazz has taken place in bars where there are drugs and pimps and prostitutes. It’s not a genteel profession. We think of jazz as some kind of ‘Art’ form. “It’s AH-t!” Maybe intellectually it is. But in reality I spend my life in bars with drunk people and most likely a lot of other unsavory elements of life.”

EZ:

Who were your main influences and mentors? When you were finally able to find the knowledgeable and reliable members of your community that you were seeking, who did they turn out to be?

KN:

“I was lucky that I found a several of people very early on that were very big supporters of me. One of them was Vince Wallace who sadly just passed. I’ve been meaning to write a piece about him for my blog about him. He was really great. Denise Perrier was the first female vocalist who didn’t cat me up “meow meow!” She would say things like “Oh Honey, you so great!” She would help me out and she would take my flyers and give them to people at HER GIGS! There was such a generosity of spirit. It was unbelievable and I love her to this day and you don’t really find that a lot. But she was really great and she really helped me find an audience and gigs. Lavay Smith is an amazing businesswoman and she and Chris Siebert have been so generous with knowledge, contacts and even charts. BJ Papa was definitely my main mentor. I did write about him on my blog for those who are curious. I was SO surprised that he never hit on me. He was never even remotely suggestive with me. He was really like Papa. He would always have a new crop of kids and he would say ‘It’s okay! I know one day you gonna fly away from the nest, and that’s okay. Just don’t forget Papa! Just don’t forget Papa!'”

EZ:

What would you say is one of the big differences between when you were starting out in the San Francisco scene and what it is today?

KN:

“When I first came to San Francisco, it was very gritty. One time a guy I know got mugged right outside of the club he was working as he was on the payphone talking to me and we got paid in cash back then. People expected you to look like royalty with full length gowns and heels and pantyhose and done all up like you’re some star and then, at the end of the night, I have to go back to my flat on Haight and Masonic which was really sketchy and right next to a halfway house. I had to double park my car, get out of the car, leave everything in the car so I can get myself into the house immediately to drop off my money. Then I change into grey sweats and sneakers, go back to my car, unload my PA system, cause you don’t want to ruin your dress or break a heel carrying that PA around. Then I have to get back in the car to circle the block five or six times trying to find a parking spot and then maybe walk five or six blocks at 3am in the morning. And I would do that because I didn’t want to get mugged and have my money taken from me. I also needed to make sure I was dressed appropriately in case I needed to fight which definitely has happened a couple of times. One time I was mugged, fighting for my life and because I’m black nobody fucking helps me. They’re just sitting there looking at me and I’m yelling, ‘Help! Help! Help!’ And everyone’s walking right pass me…you wouldn’t believe! It was crazy. They just saw two black people in a fight and I’m yelling, “Help! Help! He’s robbing me!” And nobody would do anything. Now it’s more gentrified, there are more businesses, there are more people generally. So it’s not quite the same, there aren’t as many clubs playing until two o’clock anymore. But definitely when I first came here it was really really gritty and very unsafe. That’s the flip side to gentrification that people don’t really want to think about. It was very dirty,” she laughs, “And nothin’ worked right. It’s pretty swank-o-matic now. There are many more neighborhoods that are a lot safer. I only paid $200 a month back then for a room in a big flat. The whole flat was 600 bucks for two bedrooms…”

EZ:

That’s gold nowadays.

KN:

“Yeah. It was two bedroom with a formal dining room, big kitchen and if we wanted to we would rent out the living room and we’d get down to $200 each. BUT! It was very dangerous; there was never any rest. There was always somebody doing something or yelling something like “HORSE HORSE HORSE!” Or “Doses! Doses! Doses!” Just constantly. If I wanted to walk less than a block down the street to my coffee shop, I would have to be so careful because if you weren’t, next thing you know, you’ve been pick-pocketed! San Francisco reminded me of New York in the 80s. It was for real! It was UR-ban!”

With an international reputation as one of world’s best jazz & blues vocalists, Kim Nalley has graced concert halls from Moscow to Lincoln Center. A true Renaissance woman, Kim Nalley has also been a featured writer for JazzWest and SF Chronicle’s City Brights, shortlisted for a Grammy nomination, a produced playwright, a former jazz club owner, an accomplished stage actress and an avid lindy hop & blues dancer. Her many philanthropic endeavors include founding the Kim Nalley Black Youth Jazz Scholarship. Kim Nalley is on faculty at the Jazzschool’s Bachelors of Music program. She is also a history student in UC Berkeley’s PhD program with plans to write her dissertation on the Globalization of Jazz and Black Cultural Politics. To learn more about Kim and her adventures as a new momma, PhD defending Jazz singer, visit her online at www.kimnalley.com

Blues Woman ~ An Interview With Bay Area Blues Singer Tia Carroll

TiaI submit to you, for this Silicon Valley Tales edition, the first of what will hopefully be a series of interviews of Bay Area working musicians. I’ll speak with singers, songwriters, band leaders and music professionals in the hopes of bringing a greater sense of familiarity to the vibrant and inspiring musical community that is always hard at work right here in our own back yard.

I recently had the good fortune to sit down with local blues singer, Tia Carroll. Tia Carroll is one of the Bay Area’s most sought-after blues vocalists world-wide. She has traveled and performed extensively in Italy, Mexico, Lucerne Switzerland, Brazil, Estonia and Chile. She has been awarded West Coast Female Blues vocalist of the year 2007 and recipient of the Jus Blues Music Foundation’s Traditional Blues Woman Of The Year 2008 and Band Leader of the Year in 2009.

Q: You were born and raised here in the Bay Area. What was it like growing up in the East Bay?

Tia: “For me, probably not quite as typical for a lot of families growing up in the East Bay. Our family was pretty all encompassing with friends and family, so I grew up eating all kinds of food. Not just your regular American food but, you know, Chinese food, Mexican food, Jamaican food. In such a small place that we were, we grew up kinda worldly. We had a very diverse neighborhood.”

Q: When did you discover that you had a talent for singing?

Tia: “Well, it wasn’t discovered by me. I used to sing all the time when I was really little. When the doorbell rang, I felt like that was the curtain call for me to come running to the door and start singing and dancing. But I didn’t really know or care if anybody liked it or not so I just did it all the time. I’d be in high school, walking down the halls, singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. But it wasn’t until my first husband told me, this was back in the late 70’s, “Hey, you have a nice voice. You should be singing or something.” And I’m like, “Really? YOU liked it?!” So, history was written right then. I spoke to a guy I was working with at the time at Granny Goose, he had aband called Yakety Yak, and I said “Hey! Can I come and audition for your band?” He said “Yeah, well…Can you sing?” I said “Well, I really don’t know. But somebody said I could, so can I try?” And he said “Yeah, sure. Come on out and try.” So I went to the audition and everyone in the band was like “Oh my god! Can we keep her?!” So that was the beginning!”

Q: Going back to when you were little, did you notice how people reacted when you started to sing? Do you remember what people would do when they heard you?”

Tia: “(Giggles) Well, I was just a little kid and all I knew at the time was that my parents were mortified most of the time and the folks that were on the receiving end of the show were all smiles. I don’t know if the smiles came from the fact that they knew my parents were mortified or if I was just a really, really cute little kid…or both. I never really recognized at the time that people were just enjoying the heck out of it. I would just see their faces and, depending on what I was doing, people would have that look on their face of “Oh my god!” or maybe a tear would come out or they would just be like “Wow!” and their mouth would just be open. I never really saw that. I would look and I would think “Oh, Gosh! I wonder what’s wrong with her…Surely it couldn’t have anything to do with me!” But as my career has evolved, I began to see that I can actually evoke emotion from people with some of the songs I do or some of the things I say.”

Q: What was it that made you want to sing when you were little, what was it that was bringing all of that out of you?

Tia:“ That, I don’t know. I think that was just a God given, just a gift that I didn’t know what to do with. Neither did my parents (laughs)!”

Q: When was it that you decided to make a go of singing as a profession?

Tia: “I would say it was probably after my very first show withYakety Yak. It was at a backyard BBQ in Richmond. I was like “Oh wow! This is easy! People like it! I love it! Let’s do it!!”

Q: What were your biggest challenges when you were starting out? Were there some things that you expected? Were there some surprises?

Tia: “Probably one of the biggest challenges was choosing a genre. What do I pick? Where do I fit in in this business. What do I do? Back in the day, you could do a track show with just a karaoke machine and a tape player with a microphone. I’ve done that plenty of times. There are SO many different genres to do and I love them all. So, that was one of the biggest challenges. How do I get this machine rolling in the right direction? I started out with 18 wheels and not all of them were headed forward. Some of them were headed to the side and some were going backwards on this big ol’ machine that’s just rumbling and bumbling and stumbling down the road.

Q: How did you end up singing the Blues? Was it because you found you enjoyed that particular genre the most?

Tia: “Well…I think Blues kinda came along and chose me. I mean, I did play in some Blues bands with some other Blues people. But it wasn’t necessarily something that I loved. My first love, I think, really was rock. I really enjoyed listening to and singing some hard rock. But I think Blues kinda chose me as far as the music that was being presented to me and the music that was available for me to sing backgrounds for seemed to always be the Blues. Then, one time, I heard how Koko Taylor delivered a Blues song and I thought “Ooohhooww……right! That’s the one, right there!” So, then I kind of gravitated in that direction. Although, I still, in all of my shows, throw some kind of rock song in there just to satisfy my own…you know it’s supposed to be about the people, but SOMETIMES, it’s about me (giggles)!”

Q: Being a band leader is another entirely specific skill set. How did you develop your ability to lead a band and what were some of the more striking challenges that, perhaps, took you by surprise? What were some issues that you didn’t ever expect having to address as a performer, after becoming a band leader?

Tia: “Well! (chuckles) You’re right, being a band leader is a specific skill set. I don’t necessarily believe that I have that particular skill set. But what surprised me the most was how…..I’m just going to put it out there…How many men don’t want to listen to you. They just…they get a little disrespectful and they start acting like it’s not your show and you can’t tell them what to do. And it’s like “Dude! I’M paying YOU. I’m going to tell you what to do.” And they kind of get it twisted. Like…you know…like I’m trying to…slap their manhood into the next…millennium… or something, when it’s really…..it’s just music. Everybody, just do your job. Don’t tell him how to do his job. Don’t tell me how to do my job. I won’t tell you how to do your job. I’m going to present you with some music…If you choose to accept this mission (chuckles) then listen to the music and play it how it’s supposed to be played, and everybody will be happy! But, you know, there’s always a challenge in there somewhere, somebody’s got some ego where it’s like “Well…this is how I used to play it with So And So” …”Well…you’re not playing with So And So right now, you’re playing with me, could you do it the way I want to do it, please?” It’s a delicate balance. Sometimes you have to fake it and pretend that it’s all great when you’re thinking to yourself “……You are SO fired as soon as we finish this show.” That is a challenge. It’s a big challenge. And sometimes, as a female band leader, I believe we need to take management classes and separate manager from employees and not be all chummy with them because as soon as you get chummy with them they start to believe that they can start telling you what to do. (Makes car braking noise) “EEERRRT!” No! So, I would recommend that for women band leaders, go take a management class. Learn to separate those two. Because you ARE separate as a female vocalist or a front person. Whether you play an instrument or not, you kinda have to be the manager of that and everyone else has to fall in line. Whether they like it or not.”

Q: On the heels of that question, you happen to be married to another local, prolific blues performer, Big Cat Tolefree. Is your household as musical as it sounds? Do you ever collaborate on anything?

Tia: (Laughs) “We collaborate pretty well on arguments! (Sings) Didn’t I teeeeeeeeell you? (giggles) To take out the garbage! (laughs and continues singing) Why don’t you go home and cook?! (Laughs) So….yeah…we’re pretty musical at home. That’s one of the great things that we have in common. That we can sit down and listen to music together and…we may not agree on everything that we hear or I might like one aspect of a song and he might like another aspect of it,but over all, we’re pretty much on the same page as far as what we like to hear. For instance tone in voices or intonations or the way people phrase things or how they change things up or something. We like to be able to go out and listen to a live band without being called up on stage. We just want to listen and see. And yes, we are competitive and comparative with each other as well as with other bands. I think that’s kind of just a natural thing. But we do definitely enjoy our music at home as well as individually.”

Q:You’ve watched your husband manage a band of his own as well. You both manage bands out of your home for your own gigs. What similarities or differences do you see in the way either of you manage your projects?

Tia: “The fact that 95 percent of the time, his band is all male, he just doesn’t have a problem. The fact the 95 percent of the time, my band is all male, I do have a problem. And that’s just an age old problem that is…..just an age old problem. It’s always going to be that way. I know you’ve heard it before: when women take charge and start leading a band like a man does, they get called names. (Chuckles) Now, not that I care about what name they call me, as long as they are playing my music, I don’t care (Laughs). But, you know, I just don’t see him having that problem. We will both operate the same way, for instance, he’ll fire someone at the end of a set too and have somebody in the audience ready, with their instrument to come right up on stage.”

At this point, I interject: “Really?! A backup?”

Tia:“ Yes!”

Me: “Wow.”

Tia: “MMM Hm. I will fire somebody and NOT have a backup. But I don’t care. I’m just going to finish the show, the best way I can and move on to the next one. So, there are some similarities and some differences but it really all boils down to the fact that this is a male dominated profession. Especially in the blues…. Well.. shoot. I can’t even say that. It’s pretty much all over the place.”

Q: You’ve performed all over the world from Italy to Lucerne Switzerland, Brazil, Mexico and here in your own backyard. How do you feel the Bay Area fares compared to when you perform abroad?

Tia: “…..(Sighs)… That is a sad question. (Laughs)”

Me: “I was hoping it wouldn’t be.”

Tia: “I know.  Unless you are a huge name that can fill the Paramount or theColiseum… If your name isn’t “Brunetta Mars” (we both laugh) or something.. It is a hard..HARD thing trying to get people to come to your shows. I’ll put it to you this way: Once people her you, they’ll say “Oh! That was cool! We’ll come see her again!” But if they haven’t heard you already… or if there is ONE drop of rain that comes down people are like…”Op! Nope. I can’t go. It’s raining….Nope.. Not.. nope.” If you have two shows, one in Vallejo, one in San Francisco, you aren’t going to be able to get everyone to come to either one of those shows. The support is just not there. However! Abroad, people who are living 6 hours away will drive or take a plane to come to a particular show and you don’t have to have some huge name. I don’t have a huge name in Brazil. But people actually take flights and plan their vacation around a particular show because I’m going to be there. It’s so….fulfilling! You know… I just love to sing. Whether I make it big, or I don’t make it big, it doesn’t matter. I’m going to be singing until I just can’t sing anymore. So, for something like that to happen? For there to be billboards and there you are, on the highway, there are trucks with car wraps of your name and your face on them, they make flyers and posters of you and post them all over the town, they post them all over the internet, the houses are full, there are sold-out crowds…it’s just amazing. It’s amazing. I go there once a year and people are like “When is she coming back!?” And they PLAN… They PLAN to be there. Here… It’s kind of like..”Meh….whatever.” It’s sad.”

Q: Your Mama named you Demetria. How did you end up with your current stage name, Tia Caroll?

Tia: “Tia is actually short for Demetria. Because I know, after having brought up my daughter and looking at my granddaughter, I already knew that my mother was going to be like “Tia! You put that down! You stand up! You sit down! Stop it! Git over here! Go over there! You, mind your own business!” She wasn’t going to be able to get “Demetria” out of her mouth every time. So she gave me a nice, short nickname, Tia. “Tia, sit down! Tia, get away from that door! Tia, go over there, Tia, Mind your own business!” So, that’s how I got Tia.  The name Carroll was the only good thing I kept from my ex husband. The last name “Carroll” had a nice ring to go with Tia and it was perfect. So, I kept it.”

Tia Carroll performs regularly all over the San Francisco, Bay Area. To check out her music and to see where she will be performing next, visit her website at www.tiacarroll.com

I Don’t Think “Global” Knows What The Word “Community” Means

“We should remain grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides. The sum of all our evolution, our thinking and our accomplishments is love.”

-Carl Sagan

My grandparents used to live on a cul-de-sac in the outskirts of London known as Lawrence Drive. Roughly 5 years after my grandfather’s passing and 7 years after my grandmother’s, we still keep in contact with three of the couples in the neighborhood whom we, as kids, learned to refer to as “Auntie” and “Uncle” due to sheer proximity and the fact that everyone looked out for each other. These people and my grandparents acknowledged a kind of accountability for one another’s well-being.

Their relationships ebbed and flowed. There were conflicts and a couple of major falling outs. But these neighborly ties were always mended and the general forward momentum of a local group of people living together continued to instill familiarity, forgiveness, trust and an overarching sense of security and belonging.

The first time I visited my grandparents’ house on Lawrence Drive after my grandmother’s passing, there was a note left on my grandfather’s easy chair with instructions describing how to manage the heat and electricity accompanied by a second note expressing words of comfort and an open door in case I needed to see a familiar face.

These interactions were comforting and distinctly human. So the question bears asking: Is this something that can be replicated in the available online mediums that are comprising many our day-to-day communications? My thoughts are “Totally.”  However, our technology is still a loooooooong way away from replicating these kinds of interactions over distances. I have sincere reservations about enabling our current technological resources as a way to establish “community.”  My fear is that, until technology can support the nuance of human interaction, there will be an entire generation of people who have had an excuse to refrain from interacting with one another and therefor, lost some of that vital interpersonal development.

Granted I don’t work in tech, but many of my conversations and communication have increasingly taken place online or via chat/messaging as opposed to IRL(in real life), as the kids say. Much of what I experience with communication via electronics is choppy, cryptic and often just a means to an end. “What time show start?” “Address again?” “Where ARE you?” I have had a few meaningful moments of challenging discourse as a result of posting an interesting article or two online, but the timing is always stunted and there is a certain flow that is lacking.  I hope that the genius minds behind the development of this realm of interaction have the general public in mind when they develop these programs for use by the elderly, the disabled and the otherwise disadvantaged.

To illustrate my point and in order for me to maintain my footing in this ever-shifting landscape of human communication, I have developed a basic equation to help me support my personal belief that sustaining local communities is vital to our survival as a compassionate and loving species.

Proximity + Mutual Accountability = Quality of Life

1) Proximity: From Chapter 3 in the Book Distributed Work: ”Once people are no longer collocated, then a lack of observation and face-to-face conversation are difficult or impossible…..People tend to feel more comfortable in private than in public spaces.”

Comfortable, yes, but deep and meaningful?  Ho-Hum. Thinking back on my grandparents’ relationships with their neighbors, the “falling out” times were not insignificant. But they were challenged to grow past whatever it was that was angering them to either forgive and forget, or hash it out and move forward. I feel that in the “global” or on-line version of type of progress, it is much easier to ignore or even “defriend” someone with whom one is in a disagreement. Close proximity lends an urgency to situations, which requires us to act in real-time. Without proximity, there is rarely an opportunity for challenging discourse and deepening of connectivity, for less inward reflection or growth, and for less of an impetus for personal evolution.

And because of the “numbers game” of non-verbal communication, during online exchanges, we are losing a large part of conversational context and the nuanced character of human connectivity. What kind of text does one choose when intending to type sarcastically?

If we interacted with each other face-to-face the same way we interact with each other online, it would be utter idiocy as the following esurance commercial hilariously illustrates.

Clear and honest communication is necessary for the perpetuation of any relationship.  Part of being honest is “showing” in conjunction with “saying.”  Showing someone you are angry by scowling and speaking with a heightened sense of urgency is a form of sincerity if communicated in the moment and can give a clear indication of what is at stake. This requires a certain vulnerability and can be scary at times. This type of exchange cannot happen when one can leave the conversation simply by powering down a device.  Vulnerability, while terrifying, can also be a powerful tool for personal growth and connectivity with others.

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2) Mutual Accountability: “It takes a village!” How many times can you remember being shuttled to work or soccer (dance, fencing, chess, Mathletics) practice in a car load of other kids from your neighborhood by a brave and (most-likely) exhausted parent from another kid’s family? How many times were you forced to get along with or tolerate one of the other kids in that carpool? How hard was THAT? But this is where we start to develop personal accountability for our feelings and actions. We start to understand that we don’t exist in an emotional vacuum. Louis CK makes a great case for holding off on giving cell phones to kids.

Then there is the development from personal accountability to mutual accountability. Do you remember just taking a walk to the corner store as a kid? Feeding your neighbor’s cat while they are away in Mexico? These relatively simple activities require a certain level of trust and accountability for other people in your local community. They take time and practice to develop and can be exceedingly comforting in times of great need (e.g. The Lawrence Drive neighbors’ letter to me on my grandfather’s chair). We get to evolve from sharing a space for a limited amount of time in a car with a bunch of other tweeny, self-centered, immaturity machines, to cohabitating in dormitories, walking each other home from bars/music venues/late night parties, shuttling each other’s kids around to soccer (dance, fencing, chess, Mathletics) practice. Accountability for oneself takes practice. Mutual Accountability takes practicing with others.

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3) Quality of Life: In the limited amount of time that we have as physical beings on this tiny planet, why not make it easier for ourselves and learn to live together in the real world? Our ancestors have been doing it for centuries. Granted, they didn’t always get along, but in the instances when they did, they probably had THE most interesting lives, loves and stories to share. The stories become legacies and the joy of the previous generations perpetuate through to the following generations. Personally, I want my stories to be full of the love, joy and hilarity that can only be experienced in the presence of other human beings. Each time I go to see a band perform live, the musicians absolutely alter the atmosphere of a space with the intensity of their performance. Or that time when I was 14 and we were playing pool in France and I sunk the 8 ball by giving it air over one of my sister’s striped balls. Those weekends when all of the neighborhood kids would escape into the forest behind our houses and build forts out of discarded lumber as the cows looked on. Or the only time I ever saw my dad cry was when he put his head in my lap as we learned of my uncle’s passing. These life-changing events shaped who I am today and instilled in me a level of understanding and compassion for humanity that I needed to be physically present for. Not one of them happened online.

I sometimes think that our humanity is all that we have to share in our lifetimes. We are fallible and impressionable and we need each other to understand our own nature. The better examples we are of each other, for each other, the more joyful and meaningful and loving our time on this planet can be.

Community in the Digital Age

On the day that I am writing this entry, it is the first Saturday of the month of December. I LOVE first Saturdays. I love them for a few reasons.

1) It’s Saturday
2) It’s flipping SATURDAY!
3) On the evenings of First Saturdays, the Americano Social Club gathers on San Francisco’s Haight Street to entertain the locals and anyone who decides to duck into Club Deluxe after a day on the town.

The Americano Social Club is a few things:
1) It is a band of revelers, merry makers, musicians, dancers, local drunks, pot-smokers, ruffians, hooligans and activists.

2) It is a Social Club.
Something like this one that you might already know Buena Vista Social Club

3) It is community.
I am indigenous to the Bay Area. I grew up in Hercules, just north of Richmond California. I attended the local schools, I ran around with the neighborhood kids and their families with whom we were close. We house sat for each other, we shared Thanksgiving meals, and we invited our most beloved goyim over to our house to share a Passover Seder. These people we lived beside came from all walks of life. They were from the Philippines, Columbia, Eastern Europe, Anaheim.

We grew up together, went on field trips, had tremendous falling outs and reconciliations and we still gather on occasion to eat food, celebrate milestones and meet the newest additions to the families. These people were (and still are) our community.

Merriam-Webster defines “community” surprisingly broadly, but my personal definition is fairly simple: “A group of individuals who choose to show up, hang out, and make the most of their time together.”

The key word is “choose.”

The people in our little corner of Hercules didn’t have to hang out due to mere proximity. We could have chosen to stay inside, never say “hello” to our fellow block-dwellers, never open our homes during the colder months and share home-cooked meals or house-sit for each other. To be perfectly honest, it might have simplified things exponentially. Significantly smaller meals to prepare, no complicated home-alarm systems to decode, no messy-falling outs over missing house pets (all of whom were returned safely back home thank you very much).

But it was unavoidable. There seemed to be a visceral and mutual need for what we had built. We felt closer, safer, and that we weren’t a collection of individuals living in solitude together.

As I grew older I experience other types of communities and after a 5-year educational tour in New York City, I moved back and started dating in the Bay Area. This very simple and completely natural social activity unleashed a level of cognitive dissonance for me that invariably shook the foundations of my understanding of human interaction. It forced me to re-examine my previously developed understanding of what “community” has been to me, what it means now and where the concept is potentially headed.

Given that I have a penchant for dating brilliant yet incredibly emotionally unavailable men, I quite frequently found myself dipping into the tech, engineer, programmer, gamer pool. Not that men from other professional fields aren’t equally as brilliant or unavailable, it just seems that men from the former professional fields were more…. abundant. After spending 6-8 months meeting these gentlemen online and at parties, what I found was nothing short of an existential crisis.

I began to take note that most of these individuals are transplants from outside of the Bay Area. These people are building their community from scratch, relying on co-workers to fulfill that niche or virtually nurturing relationships from outside of the state as an extension of a greater (global) community at large.

This is amazing in a way as it appears to be bringing this world in closer and the idea of a global community where people share ideas and catalyze change for larger issues on a grand scale becomes more of a foreseeable reality. Progress!

HOWEVER: This requires an individual to spend more time in virtual space and less time in the physical world around other humans. Humans who express moods with the tracking of their eyes and a subtle weight shift. Humans who smell like musk and lemon oil. Humans that touch and laugh and dance and make sounds. Humans who have intuition. Humans who get emotional and say things they regret the next morning. Humans who vibrate and hum. With life.

It also seemed to me that most of the people I encountered were suffering from a severe and virulent strain of FOMO (for those of us who have yet to meet this lovely anagram: Fear Of Missing Out). I mean, there have been evenings where I’ve had to choose one activity over another, but this was on a scale that I had never previously experienced. Subsequently, the choice to “show up” on the part of any particular romantic prospect was very rarely ever made (until the last moment). And by “showing up” I mean “choosing to hang out, and make the most of our time together.” The majority of the interactions I had took place from behind the scrim of backlit glass screens of smartphones or computer monitors. Even these interactions would take days to complete as a text might not be returned until a day or three later. Conversations about the weather could span an entire week. To me, this is when the term “Real Time” started to become a “thing.” In fact, a whole new language seemed to be unfolding in front of me in the context of this new virtual, interactive world. LMAO, LOL, PWNd, STFU.

Thich Nhat  Hanh, author of The Art of Communicating, opens the second chapter with “Loneliness is the suffering of our time.  Even if we’re surrounded by others we can feel very alone. We are lonely together…..Technology supplies us with many devices to help us stay connected.  But even when we’re connected, we continue to feel lonely.

The pace at which this virtual universe is altering the way we humans interact, do business, realize our dreams, fall in love and save the world is staggering. And it’s only gaining speed. I myself have found my day-to-day interactions with people taking place more often through my iPhone touchpad than with my body and vocal chords. While it is efficient and instantaneous, it is also why I find First Saturdays with the Americano Social Club to be so rewarding and energizing. It is a place where people choose to show up regularly, to interact, to laugh, dance, drink, eat, sing, hug, smile and listen to one another. In “real time.” The same bodies choose to appear, their stories unfold and we become accountable for each other, in much the same way that my Herculean community did.

Herein lies the risk, I suppose: becoming accountable for each other.  Whether we like it or not, we start to care about one another. It’s a pretty big responsibility and can be fairly intimidating.

I believe (and have an earnest hope) that this type of emotional accountability, this sense of community can be transposed into the virtual world. But it’s going to take a bunch of people choosing to show up and make the most of the time they have together, even if it isn’t comfortable. Even if the objective isn’t notoriety, prestige or networking but the mere feeling that we aren’t collection of individuals living in solitude together.