Drawing Comparisons

I grew up around music but I did not grow up in the music industry. I grew up on the coast of Maine. In fact, my first time in LA was last year when I got signed to Blue Elan Records (read more about that here).

I wanted to be a musician when I was very young. Because I loved to sing. Because I loved the sounds of music. Because I loved how it felt when a song traveled through me. But then I stepped away. I wanted to find myself. And I did. I found myself. And I realized that I’m a writer, a songwriter, a singer. Biology is strong.

I am working my way through a musical landscape that is unique. It’s crowded, it’s saturated. In some ways there are many roads. In some ways there are no roads. In some ways it’s a no-mans land. In some ways it favors the very young. In some ways it doesn’t. I’m learning more about it every day. It’s equalized, in the sense that the main requirement for entry is something that most people can gain access to: a computer with some sort of audio recording/editing capability and the internet.

I’m a woman. I produce most of my music with my partner, Shawn. I started writing songs in my 20’s. I made my first album, Indigo, at 27 on a shoestring budget (more on that here). I write a lot about my own experiences in the world. I am in my late 20’s now. I’m turning 29 next week.

I have never wanted to be compared to anyone else. When someone looks at me, I want them to see me for who I am. To everyone who knows me, it’s clear that I am doing my own thing. I’m compared to other artists occasionally: Regina Spektor, Sylvan Esso, Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell, Sara Bareilles. Those are all flattering comparisons that I feel good about. For the most part, other people don’t compare me to anybody else.

But I do.

I compare myself to other people all the time. In fact, I obsessively research other artists. I look at what they’ve done. Where they are. I try to understand how they got there. I have a near-encyclopedic knowledge of record labels, distributors, venues, agencies, agents, producers, studios, and more garnered from years of competitively-fueled ‘research’ (stalking?). This knowledge comes in handy sometimes. It’s given me a sense of the lay of the land. It’s allowed me to better understand the topography of the road I travel, and of the roads I aim to find.

Sometimes comparing my journey to another artist’s trajectory makes me feel anxious, frustrated, defeated. I obsess over how they were able to get a certain agent, a certain manager, to book a certain venue, to achieve a certain reach. Sometimes it makes me feel like I am far behind.

But, more often, especially as I notice my own progress, these comparisons bring me some measure of comfort. They show me that what is above me can be reached. They assure me that there is a pathway to the place I want to be, only waiting to be found. And they clarify what it is I want to find.

These comparisons are landmarks, too. Landmarks that I am beginning to double back on. I am starting to accomplish the things I was once jealous of other people for doing. And that is immensely gratifying and motivating.

At the beginning, when a music career seemed like a lost dream, my ‘research’ into other peoples’ histories caused me intense pain. But I kept doing it anyway. And it helped me to reach the next level. It truly did. It forced me to confront the reality of where I was. To confront the separation between where I was and where I wanted to be. I had to make out a path to bridge the two. That was hard, psychically. It seemed almost impossible then.

But, as I’ve continued to reach and grope and stalk, I’ve found a foothold. And other people around me are now also seeing the path that I saw for myself way back when, when it was no more than a mirage.

The reality is that I am really only just starting out as a musician, although I’ve been focused on it for many years. My first album, ‘Indigo‘, came out just 4 months ago. I still have feelings of inadequacy and frustration sometimes. But I have people around me who believe in me. I can look back at past accomplishments and gain confidence in myself, moving forward.

We are often told not to compare ourselves to others. There is wisdom in that. We are each unique, after all. And no trajectory or creative process can really be replicated. But, for me, making comparisons between myself and other artists, provides me with valuable insight that I wouldn’t ever trade: it shows me where I want to be. It shows me who I admire. It shows me what my goals really are.

I have realized that I want to be in charge of my own music, sound, videos, and process the way that Grimes is. I have realized that I want to be indifferent to convention a la Florence from Florence+The Machine. I want to wear what I want to wear, regardless of expectation, like St. Vincent does. I want to flaunt my body like Donna Missal. I want to play a million shows a year like Sunflower Bean. I want to wear no makeup if I feel like it like Party Nails. I want to experiment with my voice like Angel Olsen. I want to write without shame like Phoebe Bridgers. I want to play for 5,000 people like Taylor Swift. I’ve realized these things in concrete terms because of comparisons. It’s led me to guides who crystallized, who embody, my own desires and goals.

The harder I work, the more these goals feel like they are within reach. The more I do, the more I see other artists, my role-models, as contemporaries. Instead of shining stars above me, they are, more and more, my mentors. They provide me with confirmation of what I can do. They symbolize proof of what is possible. They offer a blueprint. They light my way. So I continue to compare myself to others, in order to learn who I am. And to envision who I can, and will, become.