The life of a musical artist, by Janis Ian

Janis Ian reposted this on Facebook today, and it’s too important to miss.


My Evil Twin

Originally published in Performing Songwriter Magazine

Issue #22, January 1997
Picture this: you wake at four in the morning, mind racing, stuffed full of all the problems of the day with no solutions in sight. Your brain seems caught in a never-ending spiral of doubt, fear, and mistrust that just won’t go away. You question everything and everyone – your talent, your management, your career, your very worth. You resolve to take a day job but eventually realize you’re completely untrained and unfit for anything but what you already do.
You just want to shoot yourself and put yourself out of your misery, don’t you!
Well, welcome to the wonderful world of being an artist. A world where “Maybe” means “No”, and “Yes” means “Probably not”; a world where doors are slammed shut so close to your face that very few of us have noses left. They say we are a fragile lot, but I think that if “they” had to deal with the amount of rejection and chaos we live through daily, “they” would crumble like month-old cookies.
Four in the morning brings out the worst in me. Sometimes my anxiety has good reason: this year I had songs cut by both Trisha Yearwood and Mary Chapin Carpenter, but neither made the final album. (4 am thought: I’m never going to get a cut again. I’m actually talentless; once they really listened to the song, they knew it too).
Then I got socked with an enormous tax bill from New York State, caused by my infamously negligent former accountant back in 1979 (4:11 am thought: The house and instruments will have to be sold, I’ll be turned out into the street and they don’t even have sidewalks here).
Then I had the Week From Hell – with all the funding for my next album in place, I’d hired a producer, booked a studio, started artwork, put players on hold. Six weeks away from our start date, one company called to say they’d suddenly run out of cash, and another with the same problem ask me to take a 50% budget cut (4:12 am: I’ll sue for breach & spend the next five years trying to get blood from a stone, and that will be the end of my recording career).
Certainly, these are all things worthy of the blues, but my grey days aren’t normally that traceable. Or justifiable.
Most of the time, my four am thoughts are prompted by events that would be incomprehensible to a lay person, and are often embarrassingly trivial even to me. To make matters worse, they’re inevitably accompanied by the sudden appearance of my Evil Twin.
You probably have one of your own – she’s the person who looks just like you, but has none of your equilibrium – or common decency. She provides a running commentary on the worst possible aspects of whatever’s going on in your life, complicating it by forcing you to fight with yourself at the same time you’re battling the world outside. Everyone has an Evil Twin. At least, I hope everyone has one; I’d hate to be the only one!
Oh, occasionally my Evil Twin makes a good point, and goads me into thinking about something that wouldn’t have otherwise occurred to me… but usually she’s just a jealous, mean-spirited, petty portion of my soul I’d rather do without.
Arrival of the Evil Twin sets into motion a chain reaction that’s almost impossible to stop. I’ve tried and tried, and about the best I’ve come up with is a détente. She goes her way during the daylight hours; she gets in my way during the 4 am blues. When I suddenly wake, abruptly conscious way after midnight with a jackhammer in place of my heart, worrying about things I can’t change, it means my Evil Twin is busy plotting. When I finally fall back asleep, I’ve come to some sort of resolution.
The events that disturbed me range from the profound to the sublimely ridiculous, but I believe they are common to us all. Here are a few, along with my Evil Twin’s thoughts and my own way of coping….
1. “Why don’t I have that?”
This is probably my most mortifying, ignoble emotion. It doesn’t matter what it is – a bigger ad, a better concert review, a larger recording budget (or sometimes even just a recording budget – if someone else has it, I want it for myself, too.
For instance, I see a full page ad for Joan Baez’s new record and upcoming concert in a local magazine. Now, I love Joan Baez. Words cannot express what she’s meant to me in my life. I learned guitar by slowing down her records and copying every lick. When I was a terrified 15-year-old standing in the dining room at the Newport Folk Festival, shunned by every folk-Nazi there because I’d risen too high too fast, Joan ran over and steered me to her own table. We’ve known each other a long, long time; in some ways I value her intuition and common sense more than my own. Yet there I am, painfully jealous of her advertising budget, and even more painfully conscious of how petty my concern is.
My Evil Twin starts the conversation by whining “Why don’t I have that?” As I’m busy explaining that Joan is much more famous than I’ll ever be, was working steadily as a performer all that time I insisted on going off to write, and deserves everything she can possibly get including my undying devotion, the Evil Twin is busy saying “Her agency wouldn’t sign you. Her manager’s better than yours. Her record company loves her – I bet no one asked her to take a budget cut!” I hate this mindset because countering it is so difficult – how do I explain to the Evil Twin that management isn’t measured in advertising space; nor is it visible proof that the record company adores her. It wouldn’t matter anyway, I’d still be jealous.
There are many ways to deal with this, but I usually just rely on my ability to be childish. “I’m a better writer than she is, nyah nyah nyah,” or “Yeah, but I sell more in Japan (or Taiwan, or the Bering Straits, whatever I can dig up)”. My manager deals with it by saying with great assurance “Yeah, but it won’t last.” This stance is difficult to maintain when someone’s in the prime of a 30 or 40 year career.
I am mollified and doubly humiliated a few weeks later when someone tells me Joan spent a full five minutes of her show telling the audience what a great writer I am. I resolve to keep this example in mind the next time jealousy strikes. However, as the months pass, my real way of dealing with it is to ignore any and all advertising unless it mentions my name. In large type.
2. “Why can’t I do that?”
This is almost as embarrassing because it covers every area of my life – writing, performing, recording…. Wouldn’t you think the mere ability to earn a living doing those things would satisfy me? Not at all. Come on – do they satisfy you?
I was mid-tour in Amsterdam when I heard Ani Difranco’s Not A Pretty Girl for the first time. Never mind that I’d been holed up in a small, dark hotel for six weeks during the gloomiest part of fall. Or that I’d been touring continuously for eight months with only one two week break. I knew all too well that the writer in me was starving for something more than the occasional stolen 20 minutes, but I’d made a conscious decision to devote the year to touring as a way of rebuilding territories after ten years off the road. Seen by daylight, it all looked perfectly reasonable.
Reason flew out the window when I heard her record. The guitar playing was everything mine was not; the production was everything I wanted mine to be; the songs spat and provoked in a way that forced me into listening, like them or not. For months people had been saying “You’ve got to hear Ani, she’s a Janis Ian for the ’90’s.” I know they meant it as a compliment, but the shock of reality didn’t lessen the blow. Worse yet, I absolutely loved the record.
Of course, my Evil Twin had plenty to say – “She’s half your age with twice your energy; she doesn’t have thirty years of baggage to haul around. Her manager loves her. Her record company loves her – in fact, she is her record company. Why aren’t you a record company? You’re not skinny enough/hungry enough/angry enough to fill those shoes. You should probably just hang it up and go do something meaningful with your life.”
I countered with “I am doing something meaningful with my life”, then spent all night desperately trying to figure out what that something was.
A very successful session guitarist once said to me: “The scary thing is that there you are, developing your style, creating your signature licks, building a whole little world of producers and artists who rely on you to give them a distinctive sound…and one day you turn around to find some kid ten years younger than you dogging your heels. He started out with your entire library in his fingers, and continued on from there.” In other words, you can’t be the new kid on the block forever. And if you’ve made any kind of mark on our music or culture, there will be people behind you who grew up listening to your work. They’ll take it for granted that what your fans and society once considered “the cutting edge” is now commonplace. They’ll begin where you left off and take it further than you imagined it could ever reach.
And while that all sounds wonderfully rational, the only real way out of this miasma is time – time to practice, time to write, time to steal everything possible from the record you’re envying.
3. “Why is everyone else’s management better than mine?”
This usually starts when I meet or speak with another performer whose career (in my eyes, at least) is doing better than mine, especially if they’re the new kid on the block and their rise has been spectacular. It comes to a head at the next crisis. For instance, my manager calls to say the record company (who’d asked us to extend their option period but assured us everything was fine) is “having a cash flow problem”. My reaction to this news is extremely logical – complete panic. The studio is booked, musicians on hold, producer about to sign contracts, recording begins in six weeks. On top of all that, I’ve predicated the next eighteen months on this schedule; my U.S. and European tours are booked with the understanding that there’ll be a new album to tie in, I’ve turned down other projects to make my deadlines, why didn’t they tell me sooner?
My ever-helpful Evil Twin stakes her claim: “Your manager’s probably lying, they told him months ago, he just didn’t want to tell you. Why didn’t he demand a decision at the first option, so you could start looking for another record company before you booked all these people? He’s got too many other clients, he probably just wasn’t paying attention. You don’t see this happening to (Star Of the Moment), do you?”
I scramble for cover, remembering what a waitress said to me just that morning at breakfast: “Honey, I don’t have problems – I have opportunities”. I hated this record company anyway, I’m going to call the one I wanted to call two years ago.
“Right”, says the E.T., “they’ll take your call and lead you on, it’ll be at least a month before you know, two before contracts are done, and meantime your next year is down the drain along with your career. Besides, why do you have to come up with these ideas? Isn’t that management’s job? Now you have to cancel the producer/studio/musicians/art designer/photographer, and while you’re at it why don’t you get on the phone to your various agencies and explain this to them, see what that does to your precious credibility. Maybe after that you should meet with the bank and try to get another mortgage – oh, that makes three, pretty doubtful. It’s a shame you don’t have a manager like (Star Of the Moment), who actually seems to be getting somewhere.”
All this is exacerbated by the fact that it’s terrible form for a manager to court an artist who’s being managed by someone else – would you want to work with someone who did that? Yet if other managers don’t come up and say “I’d love to work with you if the opportunity presents”, we artists don’t even know whether someone else would be interested. So in some ways the entire question is moot, because there are 500 performers to every manager out there, and most of the managers stink.
I don’t know how to deal with this but I can tell you what not to do: Do not go around asking your friends if your manager’s any good. Do not ask your boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse to manage you because “they’re trustworthy”. Don’t slag your manager to everyone else you know – first, because, it makes you look cheap. Second, because it will get back to your manager, who has a lot more experience at ruining careers than you ever will. You have enough problems with the Evil Twin already; don’t give her/him ammunition. The last time someone told me their manager of ten years was perfect, the conversation was shortly followed by a newspaper article detailing her suit for the millions he’d “borrowed” from her and stashed in off-shore banks.
It is always humiliating for me to realize how easily appeased I am. When my manager calls to say there are several companies interested, with one firm offer on the table already, and he’s confident everything will work out for the best, I go back to thinking he’s the best manager in the world. Odd how just a phone call can take those night terrors away, isn’t it?
4. “Why do I get so confused? Everyone else seems to know what they’re doing.”
And to think I actually sound like I know what I’m doing when I lecture….
Confusion is the bane of the artist’s existence. Our lives are spent in a search for clarity, and our days are spent sorting through the murky reality of everyday life. Like most of us, I’m a full-time songwriter, performer, and recording artist. I’m also a part-time accountant, typist, lighting designer, wardrobe mistress (or perhaps laundress), travel agent, and boss. That means I wear a lot of hats all the time, and they’re bound to collide occasionally, causing massive confusion and uncertainty. This is particularly true during the 4 am blues.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not terribly lucid early in the morning. I’ve spent a lifetime learning to be at my best between the hours of 8 pm and 11 pm, when I’ll need every bit of grey matter I possess to get through a show. During a career crisis, any clarity I might be able to haul myself toward is blocked by my worries and fears, not to mention the running monologue of my Evil Twin, filled with helpful phrases like “Confusion is just another word for contemplation” or “Love means never having to say you’re sorry”. In my book, confusion is chaos, and love means I get to hold the remote.
Since I never seem to hear about anyone else going through this, I can only assume it’s just me who’s baffled by a simple question like “We can do the album now if you’ll take out a personal loan for the entire budget; I’m pretty sure I can get it all back for you eventually. Or you can tour without a new album, which means you won’t get much press and which might destroy your career overseas. Then again it might not make any difference. On the other hand, you can stay home and write until we get another deal, though you probably can’t afford to do that without getting a day job, the producer you want won’t be available anymore, and we may not ever get another deal. We really have to make some fast decisions – what do you want to do?”
What I really want to do is dig a big hole somewhere and hide until all of this changes. What I’d really like to have is a crystal ball that lets me live my life through hindsight, rather than the short-sighted way I currently seem to live it. My only consolation is that everyone else doesn’t know what they’re doing either; it only looks that way.
One of my continuing sources of confusion is why anyone should be any more successful than I am at any given moment. Even I find this realization appalling. Sometimes I wonder whether monks and other enlightened beings go through this. Does the Dalai Lama ever think “Boy, that Buddha – why can’t I have insights like that once in a while?”
5. “Why don’t I get the opportunities (Star Of the Moment) gets?”
Well, duh. Even I think this is a stupid question. I published my first song when I was twelve, had a hit record at fourteen, found out what failure and obscurity were like by eighteen, and got lucky enough to have another hit at twenty-five, followed rapidly by huge hits overseas. Self-congratulatory? You bet! I rode that crest almost ten years – how many chances can one person get?
Unfortunately, my Evil Twin knows no such logic. “You have the wrong manager. You have the wrong agent. You have the wrong publisher.” Maybe I’m just the wrong artist. Maybe it’s the wrong decade. I read a Bob Dylan interview once where he was asked why he didn’t make many records in the ’80’s; he replied that the ’80’s “weren’t a god time for Bob Dylan music. No one wanted to play it, so why put it out?” This makes a lot of sense to me.
The problem with sense is that the heart knows none. The older I get the more I realize that each golden opportunity may be my last, which makes everything even more terrifying. Missed opportunities (present or past) dig a deeper hole than they used to in my psyche . My way of dealing with this is to look for other opportunities – it never occurred to me, for instance, that I could be a columnist. Now I write for two major magazines, so maybe I can write a book.
And check out the Evil Twin’s assertion that it’s everyone’s fault but mine. That might be true, but it’s not likely.
I am genuinely happy when people I admire get the opportunity to write a Broadway show, play Madison Square Garden, or hang out with Bruce Springsteen. I just know I could do it better.
6. “Why doesn’t anyone in this business tell the truth?”
My crises are often punctuated by the Evil Twin’s version of the truth, gleaned from every negative thing I’ve ever heard, read, or wondered about my life. We start out with “You’re on the wrong side of thirty, you’re short, you color your hair, you’ll never be nineteen again – you’ll never look nineteen again – you’re openly gay in a business where even your own union doesn’t recognize domestic partnerships, and that long career you’re so proud of looks a lot longer to some baby-faced A&R guy who’d rather sign a kid they can get fifteen years and ten records out of than you.” Boy is that discouraging – sorry I asked!
My friend Tiffany is a long-legged blonde on the other side of twenty who says her Evil Twin’s dialogue goes like this: “You’re too pretty to be smart, no one who looks like you could possibly write good songs, you’re too young to have any road experience, why should I invest so much money and time in someone with no studio background?” Guess you can’t win.
For a business person, the truth seems to depend on who’s listening at that moment – I don’t know what they do when there are more than a few people in the room at once. Try to cover every base, I guess.
Keep in mind that businessmen and politicians lie – it’s the nature of the beast. Well, maybe they don’t lie; maybe they just manipulate the information. But they’re certainly going to do everything in their power to avoid telling you the real truth, which could be anything from “Hey, I screwed up, I trusted the guy I was dealing with and cut him some slack, and now you’re going to be the one who pays for it” to “Oops, I was so involved with my other projects that I let yours slide”. I mean, who wants to hear that?
Artists have a talent for the truth; business people make their living off the exploitation of that talent. And the truth always has two sides, no matter what your therapist says. Remember that a half-empty glass is also half-full; just don’t misplace the glass.
7. “Nobody but me ever gets this scared.”
In my heart of hearts I honestly believe this is true, but I try to avoid thinking about it.
8. “Why doesn’t anyone understand me?”
This is really a lot of fun when you’re an adolescent; that feeling of being completely misunderstood adds to the general angst of your horrible life, and may actually improve your work for a while. With the onset of your first Great Passion, you will think you were wrong – for one shining moment, there’ll be someone else in the world who (you’re convinced) understands everything about you.
Eventually you’ll do something artistic like singing your Magnum Opus to that person, and they will say “Gee, what a pretty song” or something equally incomprehensible, and it’ll all crash.
I am perfectly capable of answering “What time is it?” with a one-sided discussion ranging from the origins of the universe in space/time to how a watch is made. My partner’s exasperated comment is usually “Why does everything have to be so f!@#ing profound for you?” Maybe it’s that I’ve retained a childlike ability to see the world with new eyes. Maybe I need to process things verbally before they’re clear to me. Maybe I just like to hear myself talk. I know that as badly as I want to be understood, I want just as badly to understand.
By the time you reach my age, you’ll have come full circle, and you’ll accept that no one really understands anyone else in this world. Most of us have to be satisfied with verbal communication and e-mail.
9. “Why aren’t I ever satisfied?”
It is not in the nature of artists to be satisfied. Say this again: it is not in the nature of artists to be satisfied. That’s why.
I tried explaining this to a therapist who asked me what being a writer was “really” like. I told her that being an artist means living with a monkey on your back; an addiction to creation so deep that whenever you aren’t involved in the act of creation, you feel absolutely awful.
And like any addict, the last fix only holds us so long. That great show I did flies right out of my head next time I walk on stage. The record comes to a gig, and I hear every missed opportunity as it goes past. Writing a song I consider great is enjoyable for a while, but it also means every new song from that moment on has to measure up to my best.
On top of it, there’s always someone somewhere doing something I do, but doing it better. As an artist, I try to look to the best for inspiration; that means when I play piano, I’m comparing it to Chick Corea or Oscar Peterson. My guitar work sits next to Chet Atkins and Eric Clapton – I don’t say I reach it, but I spend my time striving toward it. None of us compare ourselves to those beneath us so we can gloat; we all look to those above so we can learn.
Worse yet, due to the nature of our business, an addiction to creation can quickly become an addiction to “Bigger Is Better”, more commonly known as The Search For The Brass Ring. Major label contracts, stadium tours, big bucks from fawning publishers, the luxury of infinite budgets – these would all be very satisfying. And we all deserve them.
The sad truth is that satisfaction is a rarity, usually reserved for dogs at the end of a big meal. This mindset can make you very bitter very fast, so watch out! Even though it makes me feel stupid, when dissatisfaction starts gnawing a big hole in my stomach I make a list of everything I have to be grateful about. It’s a little Pollyannaish, but it makes me feel better. There was a time not so long ago when my list was “Rent, food, utility money for three months. Winter coat. Friends. Talent.” In that moment, I was content.
Or as my buddy Albert Einstein once said, “All science requires faith in the inner harmony of the world. Our longing for understanding is eternal.” ‘Nuff said.
If you want to see this on line, go to: https://janisian.com/reading/myeviltwin.php 

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