I did not anticipate I’d feel the amount of pain I’ve experienced the past couple of weeks while only marginally exposing myself to the escalated conflict in Israel and its fallout. After all, my Jewish identity is something I was born into; it was neither something I chose nor a culture I’ve ever heavily pursued. I’ve been to a synagogue a handful of times in my life… a wedding here, a high holiday there, and, ultimately I find any kind of tradition or ritual rooted in far-fetched mythologies unnecessary at best.
However, the reality is that I am a Russian Jewish immigrant, and I always will be. And although I may choose to focus my daily experiences and thoughts around what it means to be a useful and contributing American citizen, who I am as an artist, or what kind of person I am to the people in my personal and professional life, the inextricable connection I have to this one identity is not something I can detach myself from. I have no personal memories of Russia or of the anti-Semitism my family experienced there. I don’t have firsthand experience of the Holocaust. Yet still, all the horrific stories, all the loss, all the collective pain (and strength) of a people lost in a nebulous existential disconnect from each other and striving to carve out meaningful lives as an amalgam of circumstance, geography, and culture shaped me in ways I probably will never fully fathom.
Growing up in the Christian South with a last name like Madorsky generated inquiries into my Russian-ness first, and Jewishness second. As bleak as communist Russian life was, I could get away with speaking to the Russian identity less morbidly: I’m bilingual and can think in Russian, I was born in Leningrad, we emigrated to the States when I was very young, the upright piano I played as a kid we brought with us from Russia was named “Red October” (I shit you not…engraved in gold Russian lettering and everything).
But despite Americans’ apprehension of “Commies”, the Jewish identity was the one that was unfathomably more unsettling to talk about. The cloud of the Holocaust and the War hangs perpetually over all the countless explanations of why my family is so small, of why we are the way we are. I remember vividly the pain in my grandmother’s face when she would recall those events from the first half of the twentieth century living in Belarus, short for Bela Russia, meaning literally, White Russia. She lived in a tiny town called Tolochin, about halfway between St. Petersburg and Kiev, Ukraine. I remember how grateful she was to live out her twilight years in America. There’s nothing quite like watching a four foot ten Russian Jewish woman belting out “God Bless America” in broken English during a family dinner toast while drunk and woozy off of two shots of Manischewitz wine. While I was yearning to get out of Texas, she was grateful to have made it past Ellis Island.
To be tolerated and not persecuted for who you are is one step in the right direction. But to be somewhere where you are actively embraced is another experience altogether.
I hope our human species can one day move beyond the petty tribalism that engulfs so many parts of our world. Because as much as I feel in my stomach the intensity of what is happening in an 8000 square mile plot of land that is the last bastion of hope for a Jewish people’s home for many Jews much more Jewish than I am, I feel an even stronger intensity towards the desire for individuals to redefine themselves according to the simple realities at hand; that we are a species who possess the intellect and self-awareness to recognize that life is very finite, that human experience is very fragile, and that we are obligated to embrace an appropriate and balanced amount of stewardship for each other and the pale blue dot that sustains us.
(visual courtesy of the Monty Python lads)
As I’ve started playing live streaming shows regularly, a fan asked me to write a blog about what performing is like. I’m two lines in and already I want to use the quote comparing talking about music with dancing about architecture. But I’ll give it a go.
Songs make sense to me. They are a little balanced ecosystem of ideas, patterns, and abstractions unsoiled by any outside agenda. I lose all track of space and time when I’m absorbed in the laws of physics that govern them. However, the insulated world of music collides with the world and events around me in weird, unpredictable ways. So to commit myself to serving as an instrument for their performance is going to be inevitably fraught with possibilities of danger and embarrassment. Which I’m fine with, really.
I can liken it to the popular thought experiment involving what might happen if a spaceship approaches the event horizon of a black hole. Time and space become warped, all normal properties of physics morph into a surreal vortex of no one really knows what. But if you ARE that black hole, you’re swirling in a beautifully logical pattern with arms splayed open, and bringing everything within your radius a little bit closer to infinity.
And sometimes, it’s not nearly that elegant. An hour before my first show ever with a band, a car hit me while I was waiting to turn left to pick up a bandmate.
“I’m fine!” I said, “It’s just a flesh wound!”
The miracle of adrenaline got me through that performance…singing, playing, carrying amps, guitars, loading and unloading the car….without a hitch. It wasn’t until I woke up screaming in pain at 3 am that night that I even realized how hurt I was. Nothing a couple of months of consistent physical therapy couldn’t mostly alleviate.
During yet another show, I learned the real value of knowing two different instruments when my guitar broke in half in the middle of a set. I picked up the rest of the show on the keyboard. It all worked out in the end, and these and all the other mishaps have become good stories to share.
As someone whose childhood was rife with priceless moments like smacking myself in the face by stepping on a rake or falling off a fence to avoid a swarm of wasps, I was well-prepared for these kinds of trials in adulthood. But what I was not prepared for was the actual experience of what happens when you step outside (or is it inside?) yourself, and disappear (or appear?) inside the splendor of sound, rhythm, tone, words, mental pictures, and stories for other people. Songs are majestic little creatures, and I feel as equally privileged to access the world of music as I do to draw in the audience within my radius a little bit closer to that infinity. If you find me cracking a joke, fiddling with a piece of gear, or looking perplexed between songs, it’s simply because I’ve had the momentary realization that a tangible universe exists outside of the one I am about to dive back into headfirst. And it touches me every time I look up after the last moments of a sound wave’s decay into silence and realize the audience is still with me on our little shared adventure.
As a songwriter and writer, I’m deeply engrossed in stories: how we’re shaped by them, how we use them as touchstones, how we wrap our psyches around these metaphorical bits so that we can make sense of the complexities of our own lives as we allow imaginary universes to ignite our purpose and fuel our trajectory.
As an artist within the shifting landscape of the music industry, studying and observing its narrative from the 20th century to the present is a lot like watching a giant, lumbering, alien alpha beast attempting to survive on a planet that likely can’t support its infrastructure or feeding habits; at least not for very long and without a whole lot of casualties.
For the past several years, the industry has been dismantling into a new sort of organism: one that’s been brought to its knees by natural evolution and must adapt to survive. Hierarchies are flattening, gatekeepers are becoming increasingly obsolete, and music technology has become unshackled from obscene costs. Both business folks and artists have been scrambling to adapt to new roles, new sorts of relationships, and new self-perceptions. These massive shifts force us to reexamine our purpose and trajectory.
Frankly, I’m glad for the reinvented plot.
The new playing field for artists and musicians is one where we are all required to think mindfully and purposefully about business. In its essence, is it not the same kind of process we go through to create our art? We make decisions as to the kind of ethics (or lack thereof) we are inspired to see reflected in our stories and lyrics, and what kind of value system governs the characters. And in the same way, we have the creative power to spearhead the economics of art with our day-to-day choices, how we treat people, and with whom we build alliances.
When I was about ten, I asked my older brother, “Why are most songs on the radio about romantic love when there are so many other topics to think about, sing about, and discuss?”
His answer was “that’s just what people spend most of their time thinking about.”
But I don’t, I thought, and found myself constantly wondering:
If I exist, aren’t there others like me?
For me, the shift in the music industry is best expressed as the liberation of the Idea. Without radio formats, I can defy genres. With easy access to technology, I can stretch my skills as a producer and arranger. Without strictly controlled channels in a male-dominated industry, I have the option of what kind of woman I want to be. With the disarray of the music business, I can push myself out of my comfort zone to become a better and more passionate entrepreneur.
It serves no one to sever the roles of artist and businessperson, or to think of them as ideological opposites. Rigid definitions of ourselves are something we do when we are threatened, and enlightenment does not happen without painful and uncomfortable growth. Downstream from this expansion, it is the listener who benefits from having access to music and artists as idiosyncratic and unique as they are, and it is the listener who will reward the artist for giving them access to stories and storytellers who have the power to open them up to parts of themselves that they may have forgotten about or didn’t even know existed. Belief systems, familial structures, gender, sexuality, the unspoken ambivalences within relationships, and sociopolitical ideas: these are the stomping grounds of art, not of an archaic business framework too afraid to take risks, too mired in tightly controlled messages, too vested in the dogma of a power structure it does not want to upset.
I cannot remember a time when I didn’t ask the difficult and uncomfortable questions that seem to be constantly rolling off my tongue. And although I’ve never really questioned if this ferociously inquisitive streak in me would ever subside, I have frequently doubted that I might ever find a good home for it.
If I exist, are there others like me?
To hold to the principle that you are viable and vital because of your uniqueness rather than despite it… Now that is something indeed. Every artist has a specific outpouring of essence that can create a magnificently enriching ripple effect to her or his particular audience.
The music industry of old and those who endorse it may be formidably ruthless, but not nearly as formidable as the kinetic energy that is commanded when the creative and fiery spirit of art converges and collaborates with the warmth of mindful, resourceful, and creative business. When ideas are liberated, we are all freed.
As the world seems to continue to implode, I decided to make a list of things that are totally awesome of living in the here and now.
So today, I rejoice in all the bittersweet awesomeness of human civilization. If it’s all going to hell in a handbasket, at least the ride is climate-controlled.