Caveman the Wise "Harold of the Moon"

Back in 2009 Vic French connected with Jota Ese in Macomb, Illinois, where the two musicians eventually hooked up for a jazz project with French on sax and Ese on bass. From there a relationship with Ese’s Day Old Records was born, which is where French (now recording as Caveman the Wise) released his first album as a producer, dropping Android Blues in 2011. In addition to Ese, he’s since worked with the likes of Nashville’s Truth Clipsy, recently releasing “Birthday Cake” with the MC, but is now focused largely on his production-work as he looks ahead to his second full-length album, Wax Eclectic.

The first track from the release, “Harold of the Moon,” is magnetic, casually reflecting the producer’s laid back jazz roots, revealing itself slowly while wrapping a firm bounce around a wide range of audio samples running the spectrum from Nietzsche to Mad Men to Cowboy Bebop. “The rest of the album will certainly have similar stylistic roots as ‘Harold of the Moon’,” explains French. “But as the name of the album suggest[s], there are a lot of different genres that I tackle and infuse with my own character.”

Aside from splitting his time and performances between Nashville, Carbondale (where he’s attending school at Southern Illinois University), and his native Chicago, the producer intends on releasing the full-length Wax Eclectic November 3, which he ultimately expects to bear some 15-20 tracks. Until then, you’d also do well to check out the equally tranquil “Malice,” which revolves comfortably around a sexy vocal loop and piano sample.

[This article first appeared on Break on a Cloud.]

Alcoholic Musings

“Alcoholics Anonymous” has played a comedic role in my life for ages; the brunt of a joke between friends who, by no stretch of the imagination, are all variants of the term’s textbook definition. For instance, in college we got drunk (drunk!) before putting on our workout gear and hitting the gym for an intramural basketball tournament. Game One was us against a team of football players (our team had those too, but there was a size and speed advantage on the other team which unfortunately was only made that much worse by our largely inept lack of skills and, of course, the jags we all had going). The last thing I remember is jogging around the court prior to tip-off, mocking the other team. In my blackout state I hard-fouled one of their biggest players, and he sent me flying. I broke my collar bone, and a small “skirmish” ensued. I ended up sitting out the rest of the tournament (though, in a just world, I shouldn’t have played at all… I’m the worst basketball player I know), only to shine again during the last game of the season.

Some weeks later I dawned my finest thrift store sport coat and assembled a pre-game speech, trumpeting the triumphs of alcoholics from yesteryear to rally the team before the season’s final game. It remains the best speech I’ve ever given, sober or stoned… which probably doesn’t say much for my public speaking abilities. I’m pretty sure a salute to Buzz Aldrin was in there somewhere, but the point of the thing was to simply make light of life and have some fun. That game we were pinned against the team from the sober dorm. We won. Actually, it was the only game of the entire tournament that we won. I was carried out of the arena on the shoulders of a couple of friends as if we’d won the championship, my arms still rigidly hooked into a sling to help straighten out my fractured clavicle. Our team name: the Alcoholics Anonymous. We play in a fantasy football league now, and have been doing so for years, under the same name. The past two seasons I was either passed out or I drunkenly forgot about the pre-season draft and ended up with ridiculously poor teams. (This season I drafted my own team. Yay me.) Point is, the name is a joke to us.

And I think the term “alcoholic,” itself, is kind of silly, too. It’s not a medical definition, and its meaning is myriad, completely relative to the person using it. One of my favorite quotes comes from the Welsh poet and writer Dylan Thomas, who once said “An alcoholic is someone you don’t like who drinks as much as you do.” That about sums it up for me.

During the first few meetings I sat in on last month, in situations where I’d be introducing myself to the group, I’d simply say “Hi, my name is Chris.” But I thought about it some… it’s just a word, “alcoholic,” and what the word means is up to me. In the process of going out of my way to distinguish myself from others, by refusing the distinction I was sort of disrespecting where they’re coming from, regardless of how I feel about the term. So, amid all of this personal struggle and a search for self, I’ve begrudgingly dawned “alcoholic” myself. I still don’t like saying it, as if it’s some sort of slur that passes only because of the company I’m in when I say it, but I do so out of a place of compassion for what we all have in common. Together, we are alcoholics.

Yesterday I sat down for coffee and breakfast with my “sponsor” and we talked about life and “The Program.” He knows I’m coming from a place of skepticism, bearing ill will toward the religious rhetoric that powers the 12 Steps since having first read The Big Book cover to cover about four years ago. I revealed that earlier this month I made a promise to myself that I was going to “put myself in a position where I can help other young people who are struggling with this same shit that I’ve been going through.” Two and a half weeks ago I didn’t know what that meant, but it soon dawned on me that I would transform this vague memoir-slash-research-project I’d been working on into a book, written to myself four years ago, to the version of me who unabashedly mocked treatment because of personal preconceptions; the version of me who ultimately gave up on life. And over french toast and coffee I continued to explain this to someone firmly embedded in “The Program” — that I was writing something (I’m still not sure what to call it) based around a model of acceptance, an introduction to treatment for those who balk at recovery, written by someone who’s been struggling with the very thought of “treatment” for the better part of a decade. It was sort of liberating.

Sure, I mean, essentially I’m my own research tool here, letting my guard down and going with the flow to see if I’ve been wrong about A.A. this whole time. And maybe that’s not the optimal way to start out, but it’s the only way I could start out. I showed up because I had no where else to go, and no one else to talk to, and my life’s been better this month than it was two months ago. Do I think this is the doing of a “higher power”? Nope. But I can’t discredit the positivity that’s developed from simply attending meetings and talking to other people who struggle with issues similar to my own. Yesterday I attended two such meetings.

What flowed through the first was a theme of how to deal with pain, both physical and emotional, while the second was aimless, rambling, and largely worthless for me. But what both helped me remember is that life exists outside of my own head, and the problems I’m facing are hardly the worst that mankind has ever witnessed. And all-in-all, if that’s what I take away from the day… holy crap, that’s powerful. And that’s what I’m trying to build on. About three years after going through the treatment process myself, I began researching the fundamentals behind numerous recovery methods and relevant psychology branches to better understand the addiction and recovery process on a larger scale. And right now I’m back to where I began four years ago: With a blue book in my hands, trying to figure out just how the hell “a Power greater than [myself] can restore [me] to sanity.” But I’m not just reading The Big Book, I’m reading that and Jack Trimpey’s Rational Recovery; that and numerous websites and forums dedicated to the eradication of A.A., sussing out the truth that it’s a “cult”; that and resources championing A.A. as the foundation from which a better life can be built.

There’s the aim: compassion, tolerance, and understanding. You know, shit like that…

Yesterday I was talking to someone prior to my second meeting and discussion somehow landed on how I was sitting at the bar at a T.G.I. Friday’s a few days back waiting for a friend to show up for dinner, and how the smell of the stale bar-back was a little nauseating. This person — and bless her heart — gave me the stink-eye and demanded to know if my “sponsor” was aware that I was going to bars. I said no. This person’s stink-eye turned into a stink-face. I asked what response they were looking for from me. I was told that “The Program” dictates that we shouldn’t go to bars or be around alcohol for a year, which was followed by a couple anecdotal stories of how the struggle of temptation is simply too great to bear in such scenarios, so we best not put ourselves, as alcoholics, in such a position.

However deaf the ears might have been, I argued that the blanket advice is helpful, but it doesn’t speak to individual triggers, histories, and habits. I was at “the bar” because I showed up way too early and didn’t want to sit in a booth in a restaurant, bored and alone for an hour in the middle of the day while the close-captioned versions of a couple of my favorite sports talk shows were readily available on big screens but a dozen yards away. Sitting there I was no closer to losing my mind than I was an hour earlier simply because of my proximity to a substance. By sheer defiance, I’m pretty sure I lost that debate, but I feel victorious in trying to stand up for what makes sense to me without backing away out of politeness. She might be in her 50s (late-40s?) but nothing she was saying was coming from her heart, just from a place of indoctrination (see: A.A. as a “cult”). I like talking about this stuff because I like growing as a person, and right now I really feel like I’m doing that. I keep showing up to meetings not because I hit rock-bottom and lost everything, but because of all I have to gain, personally, by setting my life on a healthier course. Hopefully this “book” becomes the manifestation of my effort.

Last night I texted one of my fantasy football buddies (one of my best friends, and also a teammate on that basketball squad) and mentioned this sobriety twist in my story. He responded, “Nice man. I like that.” To be honest, I’m not hating it, myself.

D. Watusi "Brother & Sister"

New music from Nashville’s D. Watusi has been circulating for a minute, but among the ten new songs on Dark Party is the standout you best not overlook: “Brother & Sister.” Side one, track two kicks off with waves of slicing repetition, shrieking howls, and bluesy breakdowns before ripping into a spurt of majestic shredding (which is really just a fancy way of saying there’s a cool little solo near the end). What the song’s actually about? No idea. But it sounds pretty tight to me.

If you were at Nashville’s Dead’s birthday bash last week you had your shot at scoring a limited release of Dark Party (complete with “hand-screened” cover). If you weren’t, the blog-slash-label promises “the actual record will be released a little later.” (One can only assume they mean that it’ll drop sometime between now and the pending global Apocalypse in December. So with that in mind, buy two… as if your money will do you any good when the sky is raining fire, anyways.) In the meantime, the whole thing is streaming on Soundcloud.

[This article originally appeared on Break on a Cloud.]

Mr. Ahmad Rashad & Squikee "Play ‘Em Off" Video

A boomin’ granny rocking a gift-shop visor and a camera around her neck while keeping up with the locals down in Printer’s Alley: If for no other reason, that should be enough to encourage you to check out the new King Thai-directed video for Mr. Ahmad Rashad & Squikee’s “Play ‘Em Off.”

The single, produced by Johnny Mo and the Crazy 88′s, was originally released this past summer on Rashad’s Speak My Mind, but is also featured on Squikee’s DIESEL Volume One: Don’t Let the SQUIKEE Voice Fool Ya which just dropped last night.

Not to be outdone, Rashad says he has plenty of new material on the way himself, with a new project Please Say The Mister!!! and “a few mixtapes” in the works. “I also do a weekly showcase TNT talent showcase at The Limit it Printer’s Alley that is good positive vibes with great entertainment.”

So, throw on your finest Steve McNair jersey and head down there some time. Maybe you’ll find a granny of your own to get down with.

[This article first appeared on Break on a Cloud.]

B-Hoody "Gwopaneese" Video

The video for B-Hoody’s “Gwopaneese” isn’t necessarily formulaic, but bathing in smoke with a room full of pseudo-punk white girls isn’t exactly groundbreaking art either. That said, the black and white visuals do complement the laid back feel of the Bandplay-produced track (from this year’s Properly Preserved mixtape), and have since come to represent something more to the young MC, having now released the video in memorial of a friend.

“The day we shot the video was lots of fun, however one of my young homies by the name of Demarcus Jordan Ellis (aka Rock) who came out to the video shoot on September 12 was shot and killed just one week later inside of his home. He was only 17 years old and had dreams just like we all do. He was the life of the party! He was loyal and supported me, and anyone else that he believed in. He was one of the coolest young cats around with potential to be whatever he wanted to be. Rock had a good heart and plenty of grind [and] determination. It really changed my life when I got the phone call. It made me realize so many things, the biggest being tomorrow is not promise.”

And that’s the truth: Life isn’t guaranteed. So why not summon your voice and wave your flag today? Tomorrow might be too late.

[This article first appeared on Break on a Cloud.]

Rashad tha Poet "H.O.P.E."

“H.O.P.E.,” the first single from Rashad tha Poet’s forthcoming Hope Lives Here EP, finds its pace while relaxing on a calm flow as the Nashville MC seeks relief in what he calls “a brighter side.”

Borrowing the beat from Oddisee‘s “Beach Dr.” (from the Brooklyn-based MC and producer’s Rock Creek Park release), the song represents immense positivity for the MC, “Each verse talks about different types of things to have [or] keep hope in.”

“Hip-hop seems so one-sided nowadays. If you’re not balling or talking about how many women you have then you must be miserable, right? [I] just wanted to have fun and bring some different energy to the canvas.”

When released next month on the Hope Lives Here EP, the track will sit among five others which will all tell different stories, each speaking to the necessity to keep pushing ahead while deflecting whatever negativity life throws at you. “It’s like a mantra, wake up saying Hope Lives Here. If you don’t have hope what do you have?”

The EP is set to drop mid-October and a video for “H.O.P.E.” is also presently in the works.

[This article first appeared on Break on a Cloud.]

You Gotta Go Away to Come Back

The first of three parts in Louie‘s “Late Show” arc left off with Louie deciding whether or not he would risk becoming a success, and accept a tentative opportunity to stand as an option in the search for a replacement host of The Late Show. The second part opens with Louie and his ex-wife Janet sharing drinks while Louie explains the situation, and ultimately why he can’t possibly make an attempt to pursue it, citing their children’s welfare as the prime reason.

Louie, you came here so that I would tell you that you can’t do this, didn’t you? Because I need you to do your share with the kids, that’s why you’re here? You don’t have the gall to take this thing on and you want me to blame? Here’s the bad news, buddy: You can totally get this show and the girls will be fine. I mean, the standup thing, where’s that going? Huh? It was going to this! If you don’t do this, I mean, what was it all for? What did you put twenty years into this for? What did I put my nine in for? Listen, you’ve been a fine father, but nobody needs a father that much. The girls need a role model, they need to see you live and succeed.

Janet was right to set Louie straight, but Jack Dall (who’s given incredible form in the second and third episodes by the enigmatic David Lynch) is who turns the switch. Jack, and “the suit.” Inviting him into his office, Jack challenges Louie on his appearance following their introduction. It’s not Jack’s comments about the needed weight-loss or Louie’s hair and beard that slice his ego though, but his demand that Louie dawn a suit that lands foul. Louie’s unwillingness to change his appearance goes deeper than looks, and he argues that in the face of the widespread changes to the rest of his foundation it’s simply a concession he’s not willing to make — his clothes remaining as the last bastion of self. Jumping along in the timeline of events, Jack later sits Louie down again and challenges this stubbornness. “Tell the truth, you’re just scared, like a rookie. You’re like some kid at a talent show with a number pinned to your shirt.” This is a conflicting emotional battle that Louie faces throughout the three episodes, but one that he slowly begins to figure out: How much of himself can he let go of while still retaining his identity? Numerous scenes show Louie jogging, slowly evolving in their depiction of him as desperate-fat-man-running to fat-daddy-running-with-children to slightly-less-fat-man-running-with-neighborhood-kids, a la Rocky. When he’s with his girls though, he explains to them why he’s trying to lose weight, unintentionally breaking the whole thing down for himself in an effort to dumb down the situation. “It’s not really about skinny or fat, it’s just, if you want to get a big thing in life you gotta make a big effort. You gotta try hard, you gotta do things you’re not used to doing.” Taking a step back he adds, “You know girls, I may not get this job,” before Lilly quickly strikes back, “Yeah, but you want this job, right?” Bingo. He’s changing. Moments before Louie’s test-show, Jack returns to present him with a custom made suit and a few parting words of advice.

"Well, I did my part. This will be the last time we see each other. If you get the show they’ll bring in some young producer. If you don’t, well that’ll be that. At any case I told you what I know and the rest is up to you. It’s just… if you can do it. That’s it. Listen, you’re a good guy. I’m not going to say you can do it ’cause I really have no idea. But I hope you do. 
And now I’m going to tell you what I know to be the three rules of show business. Number one: Look’em in the eye and speak from the heart. Number two: You gotta go away to come back. Number three: If someone asks you to keep a secret, their secret is a lie. You got that?"

Considering Jay Leno’s superficially intimate phone call with Louie, Chris Rock’s “don’t listen to nobody, and nobody meaning Jay Leno in particular” speech, and Jerry Seinfeld’s backstabbing play at sabotaging him, the conclusion that Louie’s left with is that, yes, he wants the job, even if only to spite those who don’t want it for him. The A.V. Club’s Todd VanDerWerff breaks things down wonderfully in addressing the show’s triumph,

The episode’s greatest success comes from how it gives Louie a moral victory, even if the universe saw fit to yet again kick him in the face. The best thing about these episodes is that they got Louie to care. In a way, this whole third season has been about the series trying to shock Louie out of his complacency, to see if there’s any way to get him to make the changes that might bring him happiness. Is there a way he could escape from the rut his life seems to be stuck in? He’s tried dating, and he’s tried a vacation, and now he’s tried throwing himself into a new project. But at every turn, he seems to be the same self-conscious, frustrated guy, living out his life and painting by the numbers.

Louie crushes it. Later, basking in momentary glory with his friends, Louie finds out that David Letterman has signed a contract extension and would be remaining as host of The Late Show for the next decade. The moment confirms that the network wasn’t holding Louie as an option for Jerry Seinfeld, but merely using him as a bargaining chip to lower Letterman’s asking price. “You took $20 million out of that asshole’s pocket,” adds Nick DiPaolo as Louie leaves the bar. “That’s how good you are.” Louie walks to the Ed Sullivan theater, gives Letterman’s marquee a vulgar (and thoroughly rewarding) salute, and walks away a champ (which, as Jack reminds us earlier, stands for champion). The show fades away with Louie back in the gym, training on his own accord.

In that first scene where Janet’s challenging Louie, she threw out a line that subtly helped change the entire story’s direction: “I’d hate to see what the future will be if you don’t make this happen.” Despite his efforts, Louie stood defeated, having played the role of a pawn in a game he was oblivious to. But the process is what counts. He might have lost a job (that never really existed), but at the very same time no one stood as victorious as he did in the end. His family remained strong and rallied around his willingness to risk his personal comfort, and he was left emotionally renewed because he hadn’t let himself down. He entered a man fixed in his ways, but he came out the other side a different person. And that’s where it comes back to us, you and me. Clearly this show wasn’t just about Louis C.K., right?

I’ve been feeling awfully selfish lately, but it still stands to reason that this program exists only to lend us reflection on our own lives. How could it not? In my life I feel like there’s something off in the distance that’s becoming decreasingly vague, a goal (a dream?) that is coming into focus, my Late Show standing on the horizon if only to urge me out of my own apathetic complacency. For the first time in a long time I want really (!) want something. The challenge is a difficult one, and the outcome isn’t guaranteed, but it’s not beyond me either. To say I haven’t always cared about what happens in life is an understatement, but I’ve hurdled “starting to care” and have somehow landed myself firmly in a place where I really do give a shit.

It’s not that the excuses I once manipulated to my own benefit now fail to cut it, but that their possibility is slowly stopping to even exist. I say all that to say this: I feel like I’m at the point of fat-daddy-running-with-children, where I’m actually actually able to understand how to get that “big thing in life.” On the surface there might not even be a noticeable difference between Louie at the end of the story and Louie at the start of the story, but there is a world of change that’s gone on inside of him. Not only that, but he found it in himself to challenge the pending mediocrity that Janet was so worried of. I feel like I have numerous Janets in my life, internally and externally, reminding me of what I really need to be doing.

And in my case, they’re reminding me that it really is a life-or-death thing (and there isn’t an ounce of hyperbole in that statement). Sometimes you have to stand firm and hold onto your t-shirt and jeans, but if your emotional uniform has left you on the brink of physical collapse, you might have to dawn the suit, even if only for the sake of momentary survival. Sometimes you have to strip the layers of self away in order to appraise the true state of the core. Sometimes you will fall flat on your face, sometimes you will move forward as a more complete You. Like Jack said though, sometimes you gotta go away to come back. And it’s hard to come back without first recognizing that you’re not where you need to be.

Dee Goodz "Look What I Came From"

With a first look at the forthcoming Donny Ca$h project dropping about a week back in the form of the Grady-produced “What’s On Your Mind,” Nashville’s Dee Goodz is keeping the momentum going with another “inspirational anthem” in the form of “Look What I Came From.” Sampling Lana Del Rey’s “Off to the Races,” the Grady & OdizzyBeatz-produced song finds the MC reflecting on his past, his raspy vocals playing to a theme of gratitude and triumph while remembering early battles. “Real shit, homie, we ain’t livin’ like a cartoon / Made it out the trenches do you want to see the war wounds?” With the sound of the track being as dense as it is, it’s easy to let the message take a backseat, but when absorbing the words and production as a complete unit, the combination is powerful, “Never let a mother fucker tell you that you ain’t none.”

Bluntly put, there’s bound to be a lot of dick-riding when Dee’s new album drops; there definitely was when he came through with Floetic Justice II last year (note: few were guiltier than I was). One of the things to be cautious of though is writing the man’s work off because of it: History calls that contempt prior to investigation. And if you put the effort in to discover what Dee Goodz is about, you’re going to find an MC still developing his skills, who refuses to be defined or confined by local barriers in his journey. The man tours — which is so very unfortunately rare in the Nashville community — and has been working hard for as long as he says he has. The results speak for themselves in the music.

“Yeah, look what I came from.”

[This article first appeared on Break on a Cloud.]

Strangers on a Bus

Last week a friend and I boarded a bus together. I swiped my pass while she followed, riding out to the next stop as she worked her way through the tedious process of depositing a handful of change to pay the fare. When she sat down next to me another passenger called from a few seats over, expressing something to the effect that “money’s money.” From there conversation began. We learned that not only does the transit system accept pennies, but that he once stood at the mechanism at the front of the bus, painstakingly unloading a few hundred of them at once to pay for a day-pass. Money is money.

As the bus continued we rode by a car dealership (two, actually) which provoked discussion of how The System has been put in place to encourage car lots without ensuring that there’s anyone left able to afford the cars; a rather obvious metaphor for the country’s current financial woes, we concluded. He then told us about how he’d lost somewhere between enough-to-pay-for-his-daughter’s-college-tuition and a half million dollars (the exact amount changed over the course of a few sentences) because of the economic collapse. This led to an aside about regrets, how living in the moment is all we really have, and the utterly fascinating actualization that comes with really understanding that the moment IS all we have.

Then he asked me if I had a Facebook page.

Riding public transit nearly every day I’m used to talking to strangers. In the South, actually, I’ve become comfortable with an openness about creating dialog as a sort of necessity to pass time. Elsewhere it’s an intrusion of privacy, but here it’s generally accepted. Sometimes people are just building momentum to ask you for a spare dollar, sometimes they’re just waiting for their destination to arrive. Either way, most people are fairly innocent in this regard.

When Thomas (I can’t quite remember if that was his name, but for the sake of discussion “Thomas” will work) asked me if I had a Facebook page, though, that triggered a defensive reaction within me. I told him no. He said a few more words, then repeated it as though I’d misheard him. I again shot back, assuring him that I did not have a Facebook page. The walls were erected and on my side, at least, and while communication continued, the conversation was over.

He knew my name, and at the time I knew his. I’d learned of his financial situation, that he was actively working through some sort of therapy, that he had at least one child of age to go to college, and that he probably wasn’t as crazy as his glazed-over eyes and speech impediment immediately made him out to appear. But I refused to cross some imaginary line of intimacy in my mind. As we were exiting the bus I shook hands with Thomas and wished him well — joking again that if I found “The Answer” to it all, I’d be sure to pass it on his way — and he replied with equal passing kindness. My friend then asked me why I told him that I didn’t have a Facebook page, since we’d just met, and we’d just connected on the social platform only a few days earlier. It took me a moment to conjure an answer, but all I could muster was that I actually intended on being friends with her. The same can’t be said for many connections on Facebook though; the excuse remains bullshit.

When I was walking home from the bus station the thought continued to plague me, if only because I’d been called out on my nonsense. I texted my friend a follow-up, about how maybe I’m just used to keeping my guard up. At least that’s closer to the truth. But the reality is that I don’t know exactly why I balked at a stranger on the bus like I did. Had he asked me for a dollar at the end of our interaction, I’d have given it to him — he earned it. But he didn’t. All he did was imply that he’d like to talk further. And I lied. Twice. What’s the worst that could happen? I don’t like him and cut him off? I don’t know, maybe he really is crazy and somehow tracks me down in person and finally asks me for that dollar? There really isn’t much “bad” that could have immediately come from it, but I was quick in putting up that wall. Had he been a gorgeous 25 year old with blonde hair and skin to die for, maybe (and by maybe I mean absolutely) I’d have reacted differently. But he wasn’t and I didn’t.

The point is that I felt bad. Not for Thomas — something tells me Thomas will be fine without me — but for myself, and my own stupid barriers that continue to prevent me from simply being as honest as I claim to be. If he was crazy, so what… he’s no crazier than the people I interact with on a daily basis, it’s just that he’d be a card carrying member of the lunatic society rather than an onlooker who denies their insanity’s existence while continuing to act on it in their own life. The good that could have come from Facebook-ing with Thomas easily outweighs the negative what-ifs, because maybe, even if only for a moment, it was clear that we weren’t all that unalike, Thomas and I. And despite the interconnectedness of us all it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find people who you can say that about.

Finding Success in Less

Saying that something has a “cult following” is as vague as saying that something is “successful.” Both exist on a sliding scale, and while neither means much on their own, both are desirable. At times the difference between the two is non-existent, at others it’s worlds apart.

Neither Office Space and Idiocracy “succeeded” at the box office, yet the Mike Judge films both found “success” through “cult followings” when made available for at-home consumption. While a success is a success is a success, Judge has made the statement that just once it’d be nice to not have to rely on finding a cult following to find success in the medium. Both are great results, but still: one is seemingly less great. (“I would rather have a huge number one blockbuster, but hey, I’ll take it.“)

Shifting gears, in a recent blog post Seth Godin writes,
"If you want to get paid for your freelance work… then you ought to find and lead a tribe, build a base of people who want you, and only you, and are willing to pay for it."
And in his recap of Dan Provost & Tom Gerhardt’s presentation at this weekend’s XOXO Festival, Anil Dash adds,
"Louis C.K.’s success narrative was ‘actually quite refreshing’ – but what about the rest of us? What if we’re not known and established? Kevin Kelly’s long argued that you should have 1,000 true fans in order to sustain your work. There’s a sweet spot between blockbuster and obscurity, and it lets you have a much smaller audience than you might imagine."
To “succeed” is to meet a goal, but first you have to address what that goal is. And in addressing goals, why not open yourself up to the idea that you might be able to do well without capturing the lone objective that you feel is vital to your success. In his recent interview on Marc Maron’s WTF Podcast, the classically-trained hard rocker (and party enthusiast) Andrew W.K. took a moment to describe why he doesn’t like to see creators limit their definition of success,
"I don’t understand that. This is not [meant as] a disrespect. I admit that my lack of understanding comes from: one, being very fortunate, but two, maybe some kind of ignorance. When I learned music is was because a joy in music. People say ‘How do you become a successful musician?’ I say, ‘Well, do you play your instrument?’ They say, ‘Yeah.’ I say, ‘Do you enjoy it?’ They say, ‘Yeah.’ I say, ‘Then you’re a successful musician.’ [Maron lunges forward in full-on hippie tone, 'No man, I mean, like, on a record'...] Oh, then you’re going to be a businessman, then you’re going to be an entertainer, you’re gonna work in show business: Those are all very different things."
All of this is to say a couple things. First off, you don’t have to be the passionate creator AND the business-savy marketer to be “successful,” as personal satisfaction and financial reward are wildly different measures. Second, those finding “success” outside of self are often the same people positioning themselves to emphasize their differences. And third, if you’re going to try to make a living from your work, it might be that tribes (or small, like-minded groups) are where it’s at: It’s been ages since you’ve needed to fill an arena to be a financially successful musician or rally for a New York Times Best Seller to be a financially successful writer. As Kickstarter (and the like) has shown, more and more a compact group of fiercely dedicated supporters is what will separate a creator from the green light and the gutter.

Step One: Honestly define “success.” Step Two: Play to your strengths. Step Three: Don’t underestimate the power of less. Simple in statement, yet daunting in practice.

On Fiona Apple’s "Idler Wheel"

Fiona Apple. For years the singer’s name alone has summoned a myriad of images and memories in the minds of music fans and pop culture enthusiasts alike. Her youth, bolstered by her musical and lyrical strength, made for an easy introduction to the mainstream in the ’90s, landing her deep in the midst of a landscape populated by Puffys, Missys, and Verves. ” I’ve been a bad, bad girl / I’ve been careless with a delicate man,” she moaned in “Criminal,” the third single from her debut album Tidal. The track remains her most commercially successful, and is actually the only single of Fiona’s to hit the Billboard 200 (and her only song to chart in the States aside from “Fast As You Can” which landed on the Alternative Songs chart in 1999). The Mark Romanek-directed video incited criticisms for overly-sexualizing the then 20 year old, leading The New Yorker to famously describe her as “looking like an underfed Calvin Klein model.” Since her start there’s been a constant marketing tug, playing her beauty to offset her eccentricities. She was never goth. She was never coffee-shop. She was young. She was tough to market. She was Fiona Apple.

Just as “Criminal” remains tied to the singer (made that much more humorous when learning that it was written in under an hour at the encouragement of her label), so too are numerous other factoids and historical landmarks that continue to litter profiles, reviews, and articles long after they first seemed relevant. She’s pretty, yes, but also damaged. She’s peculiar, and was once romantically tied to the similarly misunderstood illusionist David Blaine. She’s smart, but her 1997 MTV VMA “This world is bullshit … And you shouldn’t model your life about what you think that we think is cool and what we’re wearing and what we’re saying and everything. Go with yourself” speech continues to outshine her. There was the (retrospectively misguided) “Free Fiona” bid in 2004 that found fans campaigning to encourage Epic Records to release her third album, Extraordinary Machine, “which the label deemed not sufficiently commercial enough to justify the expense of putting it out.” And what story of Fiona Apple would be complete without mentioning the “several instances of her leaving the stage mid-performance.” “These moments,” writes Sasha Friere-Jones, “have become to Apple as bat-biting has been to Ozzy Osbourne — dramatic anecdotes that play well.”

Even now, her “eccentricities” are blown out of proportion (a slew of articles emphasize her technological reservations, recycling the same “this whole Google thing” quote), and her OCD is given heavy attention (on Marc Maron’s WTF Podcast they discussed how her eating disorder — see: “underfed Calvin Klein model” — has more to do with foods not being the right color for the moment, or coordinating with a shape that’s dictated in her mind prior to being hungry, leaving her physically unable to eat). Even with the release of her new album, label drama continues to find its place in the singer’s mythos: Sony Records was between presidents when it was being completed, leaving it on the shelf as “her manager felt it would be dangerous to submit an album when the label was in such flux.” This history, it seems, is tied to the singer as much as the songs are that were written by a different person, drawing from a different perspective, representing someone who no longer exists. All of this is to underscore the detrimental angle of the process: repeating someone’s personal history to them so frequently makes it hard for them to escape it and carve out a new direction or path for as new person they’ve become. “At the moment she seems… hyper-alive,” reflected Nitsuh Abebe in March, reacting to Fiona Apple’s public rebirth at this year’s SXSW festival. “Working at a level of intensity that is rare and generally so temporary that you just have to be glad you got a look at it.” Following this public reemergence was the release of her fourth album in June, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do.

Pitchfork immediately put its mammoth weight behind the release, slapping it with a rarely seen 9.0 rating (and, of course, the Best New Music distinction), adding “Unguarded honesty doesn’t go out of style.” The album has been called “Something like the wind, howling through a canyon that, over time, has been opened a mile wide by our fury and our fury’s neglect,” with Fiona’s voice bearing “rough edges [that] she refuses to sand down — and in fact, on this album, often accentuates.” It’s not just that the album merely exhibits a certain raw vocal quality or takes on monumental abstract feelings, but that The Idler Wheel confronts Fiona’s ongoing mental health struggles, her battles with depression, and her self-destructive safe-zone, presenting them all under the larger banner of a well-crafted set of songs. Love and relationships are in there, too, but the album finds the singer going beyond “textbook teenage girl stuff,” with the singer reflecting on a longing for humanity in her life, not merely companionship. Not bad for an eccentric.

The balance has always seemed delicate. One misplaced step to the right or left of the mark and Fiona might crumble into an existence of self-imposed isolation, alienating herself from family and friends as the days turn into years of seclusion. Or at least that’s how it appeared when she was younger, when we were younger. Whether that version of her existed or not is history, but now the singer seems slightly more impenetrable to the chaos, if only because of her complete lack of attention to what’s not inside her bubble. Marc Maron continued on the podcast interview, speaking to her maturity as the overcoming of a vulnerability that she has: one that people continue to poke at despite it being at the crux of her creation. This, I feel, is like continually bringing up that she was raped when she was 13 (I’m sorry for bringing that up) in order to somehow make sense of the music she’s creating in her mid-thirties. “I thought I was a total victim trying to look strong,” she confessed to Black Book Magazine. “Always the victim of self, seeking sympathy for the craziness that I can’t control.” “It’s not a mistake that the one word Apple repeats and distorts and plays with is ‘brain’,” adds Sasha Frere-Jones. “That’s where she lives, and she’s finally decided to call it home.” Yes, emotions still exist… how can they not?! But now she’s caddying those emotions for a different version of herself, someone swinging with a more confident stroke, exhibiting a craftiness to pull from the past only when it’s really necessary to do so.

Which isn’t to say that depression has passed — as if it even could — it’s just changed. “I’m a tulip in a cup / I stand no chance of growing up,” she sings in “Valentine,” recognizing the resiliency of her foe. Moments into the album’s first track, “Every Single Night,” Fiona addresses the struggle as it continues to burden her, speaking to its pending capacity to snowball out of control. “These ideas of mine / Percolate the mind / Trickle down the spine / Swarm the belly, swelling to a blaze.” At times she sounds like her mind is becoming too much for her to bear (“The ants weigh more than the elephants / Nothing, nothing is manageable” in “Left Alone”) while at others she seems on the cusp of enlightenment (“I just want to feel everything” in “Every Single Night”). But while all of this is going on there isn’t an overwhelming sense of struggle. Instead she does appear that she’s becoming more comfortable with the realities her mind presents. And even more, as songs like “Periphery” suggest, that she hardly feels like she’s the eccentric and abnormal crazy person that she’s reminded of at every media turn. Even with 7500 word profiles outlining her as a pothead insomniac with a penchant for the drink, it’s hard to conclude that she’s really the person she’s been made out to be. Which is comforting, because are any of us the people that we’re made out to be?

There is a perverted sense of normalcy that develops in the mind of a depressive, and as someone who can empathize with the words that detail Fiona’s struggle in “Every Single Night” I can attest to their validity. “Every single night’s alright / Every single night’s a fight / And every single fight’s alright with my brain.” There’s a constant push and pull here, but even in songs like “Daredevil” where she warns “I don’t feel anything until I smash it up,” there remains a sense of control.

The eternal attachment between singer/songwriters and lyrics about love and romance has been so thoroughly milked dry that the thought alone leaves me yearning an eardrum shattering shot to the brain from Slayer. Fortunately, that’s never really been Fiona’s thing, and in the case of The Idler Wheel, the notion of love isn’t exclusive to romantic ideals, or even romance at all. Love here is about understanding people, who they are, what they need, and consequently what they don’t need. Therein lies what might be the most heartbreaking aspect of her lyrics on the album.

When it comes down to it, all I think I know about Fiona Apple comes from her music, interviews, and video clips. Which is to say that I really don’t know a goddamn thing. Still, I take away a sense that she is the sort of person who becomes oblivious to their own issues in a friend’s time of need. She seems like the type of person who would kick you in the ass when you need it, telling you to get your shit in order even though her own shit might be hanging together by its last thread. All at once, the one-sidedness of “Regret” seems to preach the validity of my imagined Fiona Apple, speaking to the cruelness of an ex’s manipulative dysfunction. And as other songs reveal, what most catches the ear isn’t the betrayal of her feelings, by others or even by herself, but her concessions that she’s not the Perfect Person for whoever He is.

“Fiona Apple has always been in the process of breaking up,” adds Frere-Jones. “Usually preemptively — before you can ask, she will provide a list of reasons not to love her.” Not unlike the subject of depression, relationships have a strange duality within The Idler Wheel, with Fiona longing yet leaving, seeking yet shedding. “How can I ask anyone to love me / When all I do is beg to be left alone?” she cries out in “Left Alone.” She relents that He might be better off without her in “Jonathan” (“Jonathan, anything and anyone that you have done / Has got to be alright with me / If she’s part of the reason you are how you are / She’s alright with me”) but stands confident in “Hot Knife” (“If I get a chance, I’m gonna show him that / He’s never gonna need another, never need another”). She removes herself from fairy tale in “Werewolf” (“But we can still support each other / All we gotta do’s avoid each other”) but tragically bleeds sadness in “Valentine” (“I made it to a dinner date / My teardrops seasoned every plate”). If there’s a line that might best represent what she seems to crave though, it might be in “Daredevil” when she sings “And all I want’s a confidante / To help me laugh it off.” This goes beyond “LiveJournal stuff.”

Not only does intimacy not sooth her (“And I can love the same man, in the same bed, in the same city / But not in the same room, it’s a pity” in “Left Alone”) but in life outside of song she seems overtaken by the need for simple companionship. This, again, is something I can identify with. When away from her home, and her dog, she found a touring friend in a goldfish to keep her company, for example, but still there’s a deeper longing here that stems from year after year of admitted loneliness. “She believed that sharing her story — all of her story — would also make herself feel better,” explains Dan Lee. “It did not.” “I genuinely, na├»vely thought that I was going to put out a record and that was going to make me have friends,” continued Fiona in her Black Book interview. “I expected to give it to people and they would understand me.” They did not. But there’s a connection that weaves between everything, the depression, the love, the romance, and the loneliness: the music. “Now, at my lowest moments, I think of people who come to shows,” said the singer in an interview with Pitchfork. “I still get very sad and sometimes I feel like I have no friends, but when that happens now, I’ll think of people whose names or faces I don’t know — they’re my friends and they love me. I’ve got them. It really does save me. I still feel awkward, but that’s the one thing I can grab onto at my lowest points.”

With the understanding then that it’s the music that helps Fiona maintain a balance in her life, it’s no surprise that the actual music on The Idler Wheel speaks with such boldness. “It’s a meal beyond gourmet,” adds David Williams, a commentor on NPR’s First Listen. “These songs aren’t catchy — but after a few listens, they can become something more permanently listenable than ‘catchy’ ever could be.” Fiona’s alluded to it in the past, saying that even when she’d feel ridiculed that it was never actually for her music, but on a critical level it’s tough to find much of anything on The Idler Wheel to bicker about, musically-speaking. That being said, Enio Chiola was able to do so in his Pop Matters review of the album. Referring to “Jonathan” and “Left Alone,” he writes “Both tracks sound like they’re super artistic, reminiscent of jazz trios, and they should totally be loved for their creative conjuncture of jazz and pop — but really, they’re both far too indulgent to penetrate.” Continuing, “This is what ultimately plagues the album from achieving the brilliance that it purports.” Strong words made that much more flaccid as the arbiter of taste would later hang his own argument in the comments by calling the album “simply inaccessible — which makes it disappointing.” As Fiona sings in “Periphery,” “I don’t appreciate people who don’t appreciate.”

Jokes aside, all throughout the album the sound has been masterfully crafted, and without having been a past fanatic The Idler Wheel moves me in a way that her other albums could not. Be it the field recording approach to “Jonathan,” picking up sounds of a bottle-making factory to use for the song, the sounds of children playing on “Werewolf,” or the multi-tracked vocals of her and her sister weaving between each another on “Hot Knife” (which Sasha Frere-Jones hits on the nose, calling them “the least commercial barbershop quartet ever“), each track boasts something unique and special. There’s the swaying pounce of “Every Single Night,” the raw wailing of “Daredevil” and “Regret,” the downhill, near-out of control sound of “Left Alone,” and the rumbling bounce of “Periphery.” When I first listened to the album months back I immediately jumped to Facebook to post a reaction, telling friends that “I recognize now that I’m not going to be able to listen to that too often for fear that its richness spoils my appetite for other music.” As hyperbolic as that might sound, it’s still true. Not that my list of favorite piano players is a deep one, but Fiona might be my favorite piano player based on The Idler Wheel alone. Her ability to combine such a nimble and unique mind for sound helps create an atmosphere perfectly ripe for the lyrics which accompany each track. And I’ve already gone on long enough, adding personal context to those lyrics to help wring my own meaning from the album, so it’s probably best to move on there.

“I don’t think I’ll ever have an idea of what I look like to the rest of the world,” continued Fiona in her Black Book interview. Self-perception aside, none of us can really understand exactly what we look like to the rest of the world. Who I am in your eyes is going to be different than who I am in my own mind, and who Fiona Apple is to you will be a different person than who Fiona Apple is to me. But in paying more attention this past year, a lot has changed in building this creation of personality in my mind.

Fiona Apple is not a delicate flower of instability. Playfully relating a story to Marc Maron, she told him how her family gets frustrated at her because she closes jars and bottles too tight. She’s constantly unaware of how intense she actually is. She’s the kind of person whose “resting face isn’t a smile” she joked. And when she appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon this past June her presence was exactly that: intense. Sure, “awkward” or “eccentric” might cover the gamut here, but speaking closer to what I saw was someone who couldn’t humanly stop emotion from gushing. She was excited to be there. Happy. And maybe a sense of social awkwardness got in the way of that translating as suave or sexy, leaving her unable to fluently tie stories into the context of conversation. Hell, I’ve been there, sitting backstage in life only to nervously forget the witty presentation I’d prepared in my mind, left stumbling through words and mumbling my way through a now-unrecognizable idea. I was never wearing a long black dress and matching black boots when I was doing it, but then again, who I am in your eyes is going to be different than who I am in my own mind.

Her performance later in the show carried with it a violent cadence which helped corral the uncertain movements that she carried during the interview. “Apple’s voice is an implausibly virtuosic instrument,” relates Helena Fitzgerald. “But the degree to which she demonstrates that virtuosity is also somehow childish, a kid who doesn’t know to use her inside voice in public.” I don’t know that it’s childish, maybe just child-like. Fitzgerald’s observation goes back to depression for me personally — the attitude, of why aren’t you beyond this yet? Why haven’t you, Fiona, learned to tame yourself, mold your passion and talent into something less “inaccessible”? Why are you still singing about this stuff? “This album feels current because it’s an album from ten years ago,” Fitzgerald later added, only for the imaginary bubble to burst: holy shit, look at just how much I have changed! Can’t you see inside of my mind? It’s all there. I’m different now!

A few years ago I wrote a meaningless review of Taylor Swift’s Speak Now, and quickly it was swarmed on by young fans, striking back as if I’d written the most vitriolic collection of words the Internet has ever seen. Taylor Swift is not, nor will she ever be, Fiona Apple, but in reading the media wave that followed The Idler Wheel‘s release I can at least see where her fans were coming from. I wasn’t making fun of how “white-bread” Swift was, in their eyes I was attacking them personally because she feels what they feel, her voice merely acting as an amplifier for their own teenage angst. Anyone misunderstanding Taylor Swift’s words are misunderstanding who I am! I feel like that here, like Fiona is somehow gathering words I’d never think to amass, placing them in such an order that makes me feel as though they are coming from my own soul rather than the speakers across the room.

You don’t want to live through this, per se, but there is something liberating about bearing witness to someone so unrepentantly fucked-up; she is the martyr-saint, crucifying herself so that we might live dramz-free.” That’s what separates us. When I was in high school I was really into the idea of having a “broken” girlfriend. Not because I’d be able to save her, or any other such silly delusion, but maybe because her outer representation might speak to something inside of me. Over the years that has changed almost wholly (now I want to be with someone who can level out the madness that boils inside me!), but somewhere in the middle is the Fiona Apple of today. After years of consuming a media diet that bullied me into pornographic fantasies of objectifying her as just a pretty singer that I’d like to have sex with, it feels like I can finally let go of digging her simply as one of the Top 5 Hottest Indie Rock Chicks (her not being “indie” or “rock” aside here), or appreciating her music because she’s this frail and vulnerable person that she’s made to be. Instead, the album broke a wall, leaving me appreciative of her music because it touches something of the frail and vulnerable person that I am. That brokenness that used to attract me now scares me off because I see it in myself now. I totes wish I could chillax and live a dramz-free life, but my mind doesn’t work that way.

On Late Night Fiona performed my favorite song on the album, “Anything We Want,” and as I watched and listened I started to cry, stopping only for a moment to take a note reading “and I started crying” (notes are a godsend for forgetful people). There’s something here that’s helping me work things out in my mind, and when she continues in the song adding “We started out sipping the water / And now we try to swallow the wave,” the words take on a different meaning every time I hear them, each time empathizing with me, telling me that I’m not as far out there as I think I am. Instead, The Idler Wheel leaves me feeling like I’m not out on the fringes of life looking in, but that I’m on the inside with Fiona looking out onto all the madness, both of us now content that all we have to deal with are our own minds. And even if we’re wrong, and we’re the ones on the outside, so be it, because as she sings in the song, “Oh, the periphery / They throw good parties there.”

Uncrossing My Wires

An enduring idea that’s been crippling me recently is that I should be acting to serve some vague goal I have in my mind, assessing everything I do in order to figure out if it’s truly helping me achieve some larger purpose. You know, convoluted adult stuff. The problem is that I’m constantly getting my thoughts mixed up in the process: There are separate goals that might not have anything to do with each other, and I try to connect them, leading to confusion; and there are separate goals that actually do have something to do with each other, and I fail to make any connection, which also becomes confusing. Somewhere in the middle of it I found myself in a nowhere land of being “conflicted about being conflicted.” Basically, I’ve had a lot of wires crossed and haven’t been able to make much sense of anything because of it.

I’ve been having a hard time living in the moment, and because of it there’s been a lot of anxiety building up inside of me. It’s not that I struggle with living for right now, not concerning myself with a future that hasn’t happened or a past that doesn’t exist, but that I live too deeply in the moment and forget what the hell it is that I’m trying to do — that “larger purpose.” Waking up in the morning with a blank slate is one thing, but constantly forgetting both yesterday’s triumphs and yesterday’s failures when trying to fill it is a tough way to go through life. This week I unexpectedly found some new readers for my little blog here (a great thing!), but with that I was again swayed from my focus.

I wrote about this confusion and lack of direction, and one of my friends sent a nice message, encouraging me to keep going and “stay schemin’!” They were inspiring words, but in reality that’s the kind of thing that has left me conflicted before, and really confused this past week. I grew up with the entrepreneurial spirit firmly embedded in my make-up, nurtured through my adolescence until I eventually sought a degree in the field. Then with a higher understanding of textbook principles I shot off into the “business world,” rising from the ashes from a couple of failed “straight jobs” with a surprising opportunity in the form of an “income generating small business.” Finding new ways to stay schemin’ has long been a default.

There are a lot of crossed wires here that go back a long way, but this year I’ve become increasingly sensitive when it comes to my writing and the conflict between the hustler and creator that live inside of me.

In 2005 I started a music blog because I liked music, not because I liked writing about music. English class in school was always tricky for me, and moving from Canada to the U.S., and having to then adopt a variety of new spelling and grammar rules, didn’t make things easier. Early into my first college English course the professor called me into her office, sitting me down to ask about my near-complete lack of fundamentals. It wasn’t too hard for me to learn new rules because I only had a tentative grasp on them to begin with, but I still continue to struggle with grammar, structure, and instances like whether it’s grey or gray and practice or practise. But when my blog got a link from a wildly popular website, readership blew up and I reacted by trying to write better (or at least more!). I didn’t do this because I loved writing, I did it because I felt it’d help legitimize whatever it was that I was doing. Default took over.

I was listening to a band the other night that brought back memories, reminding me of when I would listen to them in my bedroom in junior high, playing pretend disc jockey and making mixes for myself. Even then that entrepreneurial default was well-established though — I’d buy music from pawn shops or used record stores, copy what I wanted, and either re-sell the albums to kids at school or back to the stores… leaving me with an absurd amount of music for any pre-Napster era listener — but over time that default somehow led me from having fun with music to bearing a harsh resentment over not having a “career” as a legitimate music journalist as that blog continued to grow. But not only was that profession never my dream, it was never even something I really wanted to do in the first place. There have always been signs of this, but in playing Clark Griswold with my mind, trying to unravel and make sense of 250 some-odd strands of emotions, feelings, and desires, it wasn’t too hard to cross a few wires and miss the obvious.

In order to make a living you have to build on past achievements, and rarely does success in one field translate to another. Not a single editor I had asked me about my grade point average, and likewise, I got nothing but awkward smirks in the few occasions that I interviewed for a “straight job” as a “professional music blogger.” Over time I forgot about never wanting to really do the music writing in the first place though, and in starting with that blank slate each day it just sort of worked out that it became my personal occupational qualifier: Yeah, I was a Customer Sales Representative, or whatever, but I was also a “music journalist”! Riiight. There have been some seriously crossed wires for quite a long time here, but because I was making some money from it, everything seemed to be okay. But I grew tired of it, found a job late last year, and moved on from the blog.

Another friend shot me a message last week opening discussion about how artistic expression is perceived as a commodity by the general public. Regardless of his intention, I was reminded of how confusing that can be and how I sometimes forget what it means. When I was a kid cultivating my music collection I was pretty idealistic in my view of musicians. (David Lee Roth-era Van Halen was an early favorite — that should say it all, really.) Now, factors like time, age, and maturity have done a lot to change that perspective, but I’ve also developed a strong cynicism for musicians after interacting with so many of them under the lens of business. That’s very much a two-way street though: Sure, I’m tired of bullshit attitudes and artistic entitlement, but my own motives also played a huge part in my changing views. If I didn’t get a good interview or an exclusive bit of content to premiere, then I wouldn’t get the pageviews and the advertising revenue that I needed to keep the wheels in motion, leading to more of that harsh resentment. Quickly the evolution went from blogging about music I liked, to focusing on gaining new readers, to actively seeking “content” to further monetize an opportunity. I’ve become a little numb to what it means to have one side create something, and the other enjoy it simply because they like it. I needed to hear those words from my friend not to remind me that I should relax my aggressive stance on creative-types though, but that maybe I should relax my aggressive stance on myself as someone who’s creative.

In a blog post the other day Seth Godin set the challenge, “Are you going to invest your heart and soul into something that’s important or waste it selling something you’re not proud of?” In my mind Godin’s message rang not entirely dissimilar to my friend’s, but more piercing was a second question that followed: What happens when art becomes commodity to its creator? If I write only to make money, chances are good that I’m not only writing about subjects that fail to move me, but that I won’t be doing good work because I’m creating for reasons that don’t inspire me. This writing, as I’m doing here, might not be “art,” but sometimes it’s the only form of expression I have — sometimes it’s the only way I can even begin make sense of what’s inside of me. But if I start at the bottom of the “music journalist” ladder again, writing on subjects that bore me for outlets I don’t care about, it’s going to read like I’m writing about subjects that bore me for outlets I don’t care about. And that’s going to impact how I write here: “art” or not, the results will suffer.

In an interview with Fiona Apple earlier this summer, she was asked about what the catalyst for her new album was.
"No one was urging me. Other people might be angry that their record company didn’t give a shit about whether they had a record out, but I am very happy Epic didn’t because that would have just made me go away and not want to do any of it. If people were like, ‘You gotta come out with something,’ it’d be like telling me to take a shit. Even if you tell me to, I can’t."
In the exchange that followed, the interviewer joked, “So what you’re saying is that your music is shit?” “That’s my metaphor for the day,” Fiona said in return. “This is the stuff that I really needed to get out, this is the excrement of my life, the excrement I was trying to exorcise out of me.” When I write here I’m exorcising some shit from out inside of me. When I’ve been paid to write though, it’s mostly only just been shit. Sometimes there are separate ideas that might not have anything to do with each other, but sometimes there are separate ideas that have a lot to do with each other.

When I quit my job this past spring I was given some really great advice. I was confused about what I was doing and had hit an obvious emotional low, feeling like I’d just given up the last real career opportunity I might ever see. During a visit one day a family friend took me aside and told me that despite what I was feeling, I was lucky. I wasn’t lucky because of my confusion, obviously, but I was lucky because at least I’d quit now rather than 20 years down the line, only to then realize that I’d dedicated my life to something I didn’t care about. That hit me, but I didn’t really consider how broad a stroke the message carried until last week’s breakdown.

Ever since I started making money from blogging there’s been this monkey on my back, like if I was working a straight job I was giving up on my “dream,” and if I was doing the music blogging, I was negating my “future.” (I mean, I went to school to become my own boss for chrissake — that alone is sort of a paradox.) But just because I got to be my own boss, through combining that entrepreneurial default with a longstanding interest in music, didn’t mean that I was any better off than sitting in an office doing something else I didn’t really care about. I had simply sold myself on the idea that it was what I needed to be doing. (And, truth be told, if I didn’t go through that, I wouldn’t have fallen in love with writing.) Now, it’s not like I don’t like writing about music — there are days I really enjoy it, so long as I stay about a mile away from the business-driven drama that can come with it — but to continue on that course is only going to give me the same feeling that’s inspired me to walk away from every job I’ve ever had. It finally hit me that I can’t do it.

In another article about Fiona Apple’s new album the author explained how her view of the commercialization of her music had changed. “Let’s not be too precious,” she said, responding to a question about a song she’d licensed for the movie Bridesmaids. “Give me money,” she chuckled. Artistic expression isn’t only perceived as a commodity by the public, but if you head down to Music Row, you’re going to find that it’s perceived as a commodity by many in “the industry” as well. Combine that with a self-realization that you, the creator, have unintentionally allowed your work to become a commodity, and it’s enough to make anyone go off on a rant about how the world is bullshit. That’s hardly what Fiona was talking about years and years ago in her notorious VMA speech, but regardless, that’s sort of how I felt the other day. I just couldn’t put my finger on why.
"If you’re this successful doing work you don’t love, what could you do with work you do love?" Tama Kieves
While Fiona’s had the luxury of being successful enough to drift in and out of seclusion to make the music that she wants (rather than, say, hitting an office to ghost-write for disposable pop singers), she’s adored because she refused to let the commodification of her music get in the way of making art that breathes both her passion and her personality. I’m sitting here, typing away, thinking about all of this and still the default weighs me down: If I don’t want to do a sales job, have my soul crushed by another customer service position, or start at the bottom of the ladder again writing about music, how can I make a living off of doing anything?! Maybe it’s “precious” to think that anything’s above commerce, but in putting that first I know I’m doing myself a disservice. Even if it drives me to becoming flat broke, I think I have stop believing that the paycheck matters so much.

“Many people have read your expressions of ideas, thoughts, opinions, experiences,” another friend told me. “And they’ll keep reading to see what DeLine is up to now. That makes you happy — it has to!” “Many” being a very loosely defined term here, that friend is right. In the span of two days I brought together a bunch of feelings that had been building up inside of me, driving me nuts, and I presented them as best I could from my soapbox to whoever would listen to me. And then something unexpected happened: a number of friends reached back out to me offering input, lending thought, and sharing in discussion. Not to sound like a vaguely nauseating Hallmark Movie of the Week here, and I don’t know if I’ve found what I’m legitimately trying to accomplish in life in a mere matter of days, but I think I’ve found the door that I need to step through do get there. This answer speaks to what that last friend said, and it speaks to being ready to actually admit to myself that I have another default that needs to change.

“In reality, I have the first draft of a short book written, but I haven’t been able to knock it out because I’m tired of reading it… In reality I don’t know what the next step is.” Well, in reality I spent quite a lot of time this past year researching and writing a first draft of a project that now online as a series of blog posts. In reality I’ve been putting this together a memoir written about my struggles with depression, drinking, and a search for happiness, but I stopped pushing ahead because it wasn’t as good as I knew it could be. Rather than trying harder though, I shot the idea down and told myself that I’d just worry about me for a while.

In reality I absolutely hate the basics of A.A. (see: “memoir”), but I started going to meetings about a month ago because I just needed safe people to talk to. In reality all of this was bubbling up inside of me and I had no where else to go. In reality I’ve been trying to deal with all of this while continually blanking my own slate ever since I was in rehab four year ago, and even after everything I’ve been through I still couldn’t figure out whether I really wanted to stop drinking. In reality, I told a close friend that partying isn’t what I came back to Nashville to do, and in reality, it was only a matter of time before I pulled a Memento and re-positioned myself into a spot where I again cleared the slate, allowing another blackout in the name of socializing. In reality I’m more scared to put this out there than I was to write and release all my stories months ago because now I have some friends who I’ve had drinks with who don’t know this side of me, and others who think I’m “better.” But to move forward and let a lot of it go, I have to capital-O Own It rather than merely concede that an issue exists and that I’m trying to figure things out.

Having sat on this idea for a few days I can see how putting all of this out there might be seen as some sort of grand self-indulgence — or maybe just more talk. In reality I do talk a lot about wanting, about doing, about vague passions, and about larger pictures. But my plan is to finish this motherfucker and put myself in a position where I can help other young people who are struggling with this same shit that I’ve been going through. If you’ve read this far, I REALLY appreciate you caring enough to do so because right now I haven’t been able to think of another way to better position myself to start uncrossing all these wires and start Owning honest change in my life.

Now all I have to do is remember all of this when I wake up tomorrow.

Web as Foie Gras

In “The Amazon Doctrine” Michael Heilemann compares how easy it is to trust a brand relative to how profit-focused, or “driven by business reasoning,” they are when dealing with customers. “When did Amazon last make a move that screwed you over as a customer in the name of profit,” he asks, before shooting down Twitter for having “gone insane” in killing their desktop client (the most recent initiative to safeguard where and how the service can be used).
“Never mind that I don’t give a flying intercourse about ‘Who to Follow’ and ‘Trending Topics’ nonsense that is continually shoved down my throat. #foiegrasjokehere”
I’ve thought about this plenty in the past, especially as I made my own attempt at pursuing a living online. More and more though, even despite Heilemann’s assertion that such narrowly focused companies will have a hard time succeeding, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to believe that many would actually try to move on from their force feeding ways.

For those unfamiliar, foie gras is duck or goose liver that’s been fattened by force feeding the animal. Some denounce the process as being cruel to the animal, while others take an opposing view. Comedian Joe Rogan falls in the second group,
“You ever see them force feed a duck? They take the duck, they stick its stupid head under this faucet, they pour some grain down its throat, and they pull it out. It takes five seconds. And you think that it’s terrible? That’s terrible to an animal that you’re going to kill and eat, really?”
The actual foie gras debate aside, take a step back and reconsider Heilemann’s bit about how the pending death of Twitter might be by the hand of the company’s own aggressive attempts to monetize the service. I can’t help but look at sites like Buzzfeed, which I actually enjoy, without a similar thought coming to mind: Even if Twitter or Buzzfeed succeed financially, are they “screwing over customers in the name of profit” to do so? It all depends on how you look at it.

“I get the attempt to control the stream in an effort to monetize it,” adds Heilemann. And likewise, I get the trend of packing sidebars, headers, post footers, RSS feeds, and every other remaining inch of white-space (or whatever you’d rather call non-monetized real-estate) in an effort to drive income to your business. Businesses have to make money, and there are very few ways for online content-producing companies to do so aside from milking a few extra pageviews (or browser refreshes, reloading ads, and inflating marketable metrics) to make things work. Is this force feeding? Maybe, maybe not. I will say this though: The line between force feeding and content presentation is downright nonexistent when websites use slideshows, something which not even Buzzfeed utilizes. As Rogan continues his rant, things begin to sound familiar,
“I’ve watched them do it. It’s ridiculous. They take the thing, grab them buy the neck, stick its mouth on it. And they get sort of used to it after a while. They just kind of [sit] there, they pump grain down their throat, then they let them go. Then they’re done for the rest of the day, they wander around…”
A couple months back I was talking to a friend about this — I named Complex as one of the biggest abusers of the process, burdening readers with 100-page click-through slideshows ad nauseum — and he broke things down from his perspective as a publisher, telling me that he too didn’t care for them but has learned to accept them because point blank: they work. “I stopped trying to fight it,” he told me. And believe me, I get it. There doesn’t seem much use in arguing them because they work. They work, but they can always be done better (meta alert: a good slideshow about how foie gras is made). And when they suck, there’s always an alternative.

If you head over to one of my favorite hip hop blogs today you’ll see that the Passion of the Weiss crew has released a great post counting down “The 25 Greatest Outdated Rap Slang Words.” By Complex standards this should be nothing but a weighty 27 page click-through extravaganza, including an introduction page and a concluding “Related Articles” slug. But Weiss kept things simple, with everything on one page, all there for you to digest as you please. That, and it’s a good read. (I suggest you checking it out.)

Now, is one method better than the other? Again, it all depends on who you ask. Not unlike foie gras, some will denounce the click-forcing process as being cruel to the reader while others encourage it.

If your only method of generating income is capitalizing on pageviews, then I get it. Having users (don’t lie, they’re not readers anymore) clicking away until a glossy haze forms in their eyes, the whole experience becoming a blur regardless of how used to it they become: all of that serves a purpose, and good on you for capitalizing on it. But if your goal as a publisher is to deliver something in a manner that gives your readers as little trouble as possible, a slideshow is absolutely unnecessary. Both might work, but it’s up to you as a reader and a publisher to choose which method you want to see survive. As Michael Heilemann adds, “It may take years, but if it really is Twitter’s intent to kill the desktop client, it will definitively mark the end of my use of the service.” And as for myself: You’ve lost my trust with slideshows, and I’m tired of clicking.

Squikee feat. Bill Breeze "I’m Really Hot"

As far as blends go “femcee” is an odd one, if only that it remotely suggests that females can’t simply be emcees, but that they need to be relegated to a category of their own. But more than a catchy label, Gerrick D. Kennedy of the L.A. Times calls the femcee branding a movement of emerging female artists “that could prove as robust as that of the 1990s, when Missy Elliott, Lauryn Hill and Lil Kim topped the charts.” A movement or not, standing up for Nashville is the Mississippi transplant and femcee Squikee.

Rapping since the age of 12, Squikee’s early musical inspiration came from her love of writing, but her interest in pursuing the genre as a performer was born in the days of rapping with friends. “I quickly realized I could rap better than I could sing,” she says. “[So] I naturally gravitated to writing raps of my own.”

“I think Squikee has a very aggressive delivery and potent lyrics,” adds Bill Breeze, who jumps on the back-side of “I’m Really Hot.” Bill lends a solid complement to the femcee‘s flow and the very smooth snap of the Johnny Mo and the Crazy 88′s beat, but there’s no doubt here that this is Squikee’s track.

“So many imitators tryna be an incubator / For the heat that I release, tryna feast up off my vapors / But I shake ‘em, see me, nall, I don’t fornicate ‘em / Meaning I don’t fuck wit’ ‘em, I guess I’m masturbating / Cause I’m feelin’ myself, and um, it feels right / When I’m, on the mic I come so polite…” it just goes on and on. And that’s one of the keys that I take away from the track, it’s not only that the MC (you can keep that femcee stuff) can consistently deliver witty and fluent lyrics, but that she can do so with a cadence all her own. Squikee has a unique lyrical style and she plays to — I wish there were a movement focused on rappers who followed a similar aim, rather than this one, simply bundling artists based on gender. “It ain’t that I’m stuck on myself, I’m really hot.”

Squikee’s new mixtape (and it’s a mouthful) DIESEL Volume One: Don’t Let the SQUIKEE Voice Fool Ya will be released at the end of the month, but for the time being you can also check out “Play ‘em Off,” which features a solid guest spot from Mr. Ahmad Rashad & production from Bill Breeze. A video for that track is also set to drop soon.

[This article first appeared on Break on a Cloud.]