Ups & Downs

photo by Brown Eyed Photography

Putting energy into art has one guarantee – that there will be ups and downs. This is what I have discovered in the 10 years I’ve spent wishing I was doing more music and the 5 years I’ve spent putting all of my energy into it.

Before I had any of the infrastructure that I’ve built, before I had done any recordings or even written any songs, I lived for many years with a nagging sense of grief, disappointment, and frustration. I lived with the feeling that I wasn’t doing what I most wanted to do. Music had become a source of pain. I couldn’t even listen to music on the radio because it reminded me of what I wasn’t doing. It made me feel bitter and sad. I would hear songs and think ‘I could write that’ or even ‘I could write a better song than that’ and it would fill me with sorrow. Because I wasn’t.

I was in that sad, bitter place for what felt like a very long time. I watched artists grow and flourish. I saw other people doing things that I wanted to do. I felt like I was doing absolutely nothing. I felt like I was squandering my time. But I didn’t know where to start. It felt like I was already too far behind. I didn’t know how to play any instruments. I had never written a song. It seemed impossible to begin. I felt this way until I was about 25. When I was 24, Shawn got me a keyboard. And I taught myself how to play it. Soon after, I started writing songs.

When I wrote ‘Drinkin,’ my first song, it felt like the culmination of years and years of wanting and yearning and wishing. It was such a thrill to realize that I could write songs. It came naturally. I had just needed some rudimentary piano skills to draw the songs out of me. I can’t describe the sense of relief, pride, and ecstacy I felt when I realized that I could write a song. For me it was a very powerful moment. It made me feel like I had a talent. Like there was a path forward for me to create music without needing to rely on anyone else. It was thrilling and empowering in every way.

That was an ‘up.’ And then came the realization that, if this was something I wanted to dedicate serious energy to, I had to improve. I had to be better at piano. That was a ‘down.’ It took me years to get to the point where I am now – I don’t consider myself to be a very good piano player, but I am comfortable around the keys. I can play my own songs without looking and (usually) without making a mistake, and I can figure out melodies and song structures of other songs quickly. I am familiar with the instrument, even if I am not an expert. I can’t, for instance, read music or play two things at the same time with different hands. Nevertheless, getting to the point of being comfortable with the piano took a long time.

Once I got to the point where I could play piano comfortably enough to accompany myself (something that had been a huge life goal of mine), it was a definite ‘up.’ But that was just the beginning. Because if I wanted this to be a career, there was an entirely other side of things that I had to develop – getting my music to people’s ears. Playing shows, developing an ‘online presence’ (which is complicated because I have a complicated relationship to technology), getting a record label, and… growing.

Each time I accomplished a goal, it was an ‘up.’ Making a facebook page, playing my first show, getting signed. These were all moments of ‘up.’ But the thing about ‘ups’ is that with every level you reach, another one, a higher one, comes into sight. And trying to get to the next level involves a lot of rejection. Each rejection is a ‘down’.

For instance, a lot of emails go unanswered. It used to be that I would get one email response for every 50 emails to booking agents, venues, other artists, etc. Now I would say I get about 20 emails back for every 50 I send. It’s a mixture of ‘up’s and ‘down’s. But, overall, it’s progress. The radio has improved. And that overall progress is an ‘up.’

Sometimes it’s hard to see that the trend is upwards because there is so much rejection built into the progress. I am trying lately to figure out what I need to achieve concretely to feel like I have reached a level of success. The idea of success is a nebulous thing. It’s so relative.

At this point, I feel like I have gotten myself solidly to the bottom of the professional musician ladder. It’s a ladder I am happy to be on. It’s a ladder I’ve worked hard to reach.

With all of the ups and all of the downs, there is one thing I know for sure. And that is that I am grateful. I am so grateful that I get the opportunity to experience ‘downs.’ It means that I’m trying. It means that I’m in the game. It means that I’m building something. It means that I can listen to music in my car without feeling bitter and depressed. It means that if I hear a song on the radio and think ‘I could do better than that,’ it’s inspiring instead of depressing. It means that I have something I can put my energy into. The infrastructure is already in place. It means that there will always be another opportunity for an ‘up.’ It means that I am on my way.

Going from nothing to something was the hardest push. Moving the inert boulder – creating motion from stagnancy- that was the hardest part. I’m past that now. Relative to that, every move forward is an ‘up.’

Jackie is the frontwoman of Roan Yellowthorn. Listen to Indigo here