Music Is In My Blood.
Going back to my great grandmother (or great great grandmother? I’m not sure). She played the piano in silent movie theaters. She was said to have great comedic timing, knowing when to play wrong notes or trills that fit with physical accidents. Theater patrons would make it a point to go when she was playing. My grandfather was a multi-instrumentalist. My other grandfather, an immigrant from Hungary, played the violin and trombone in a nightclub band. My father (a drummer and singer) and uncle (a guitar player and singer/songwriter) were respected musicians, playing alongside Carlos Santana, Tony Bennet, George Benson and more.
I was born into this cauldron of musical gifts, where I was expected to have some type of music ability. From a young age, I followed my father to gigs, helping him set up his tedious drum set. I grew up in studios and backstage. When I started singing solos, it was met with expectation:
Of course she sings, look at what went into creating her!
Although I had more than enough foundation for my own journey, I struggled with where I fit into the music industry. Growing up in studios, it was expected that I worked there. I didn’t need to know how to use the recording equipment or music gear; my cousins and uncles could do that. I didn’t need to write my own songs; there were plenty of songwriters wanting a singer.
Where did my family’s legacy end and my own, individual path begin?
Starting Out Alone
My first attempts at “doing it all myself” were awkward and frustrating. Since I saw my uncles write sheet music, I thought you *had* to write all of the notes out. At the age of 8, I wasn’t good at this yet. I also didn’t appear to have the instrumental talents my cousins had. I couldn’t play a guitar to save my life, and my piano skills were intermediate at the very best. Watching my younger cousins pick up instruments and master them weeks later further cemented my role: I was a singer. Only a singer, perhaps a songwriter, but not yet. I liked the life experience to write good music yet. My melodies were perhaps promising, but my lyrics were empty.
How does one write a song about a romantic relationship ending when one’s entire romantic history was a boy who shoved them into the gravel at recess?
I wanted to be just as talented as my family, but I also wanted to be different. I felt trapped in the glittery tar of my family talent pool. What was most frustrating was that not only could I not find my own path, I had no idea how or where to even start. Many nights I would tearfully shred my lyric sheets and vow to never try again.
AS FRUSTRATED AS I WAS, I COULDN’T PUT AWAY MY DESIRE TO GROW INTO MY OWN MUSIC CAREER.
Fortunately, the internet was coming of age, right as I was a preteen. While my uncles preferred the old-fashioned music gear (and still do), I opened Garageband the day it came out and was determined to master it.
Of course, my first songs were not good. I used the free loops to create a cacophony of unfinished ideas. My lyrics repeatedly said, “I can’t believe you lied to me,” over and over (probably due to my recent discovery that Santa wasn’t real). Still, it was a start.
That’s my first tip for you: Just start. Wherever you are, just start creating and exploring. You can never become a Grammy award winner without starting somewhere.
What no one told me is that even my incredibly talented family had to start somewhere. My grandfather wasn’t born knowing how to sight-read sheet music. My dad showed incredible promise on the drums at age two, but it was many years before he opened for Tony Bennet.
Working For Free
In the years that followed, I worked hard. Constantly improving my singing and songwriting skills. Along the way, I’d session sing and perform at my grandparents’ church. But I always worked for free…back then I thought it gave me an edge. Today, I realized it hurt not only me, but it hurts the entire industry. No one should EVER work for free. See my post on that here.
I built up a reel of songs and started emailing them to local studios. The early days of the internet were my friend. No one knew I was a gap-toothed, gawky pre-teen with bad skin. Instead, all they heard was my pre-teen angst and the years of pain and hard work I had put in. I started getting gigs.
Unpaid gigs, but gigs nevertheless. Until my grandparents, who had been driving me all over Detroit for these unpaid and uncredited opportunities, demanded I start asking for at least gas money.
My hands shook as I asked a producer for gas money the first time. I was sure my career was over. Imagine my shock when not only did he give me gas money, he also gave me $50 just for showing up! I felt like Whitney Houston (my absolute favorite artist; I’m a total fangirl).
When I started driving myself, I stopped asking for money.
Like so many musicians, I struggled to see my own value and was grateful for a foot in the door.
I worked part time at a bakery to put gas in my car. I drove all over Detroit and further, putting hundreds of miles on my beater car and working on projects that were not my own. Finally, I started to feel a level of frustration and resentment.
My own songwriting skills were improving, but I rarely had time to work on them. When I did, I had to rely on co-writers who played instruments, and they often didn’t agree with my vision. I didn’t feel talented enough to protest, so I wound up with a lot of songs that I wasn’t proud to show anyone. I became resentful of “clients” who made me drive 60 miles one way to work 7 hours on a song for no money, then refuse to work on any of my ideas or even listen to them.
Driving home in tears, I would question my self-worth and wonder if this was all a huge waste of time. If I wasn’t talented enough to get paid, why was I even doing it? Between school, work and music, I was exhausted. Ultimately, I decided that session singing and songwriting should be fun, so I made it a strict hobby. I would only take jobs I wanted to do, and I would focus on school and work.
My Breaking Point
Fast forward to 2016. I had a corporate job (boring and tedious, but tolerable and paid the bills), and I did session singing on the weekends. One weekend after hanging out with friends, I went to bed and woke up to 15 paramedics in my room. I’m a Type 1 Diabetic, and I had gone into a coma while I was sleeping. Two days had gone by. I was taken to the hospital and eventually released, with strict instructions to be more careful. During this time, I had left my cell phone at home. I came back to an ominous voicemail from my boss, asking me to call them tomorrow.
I was let go.
My world had collapsed in a weekend, and I didn’t know how to rebuild. I was still having a hard time seeing straight, and now I needed a new job. After all, how could I fund my singing hobby if I had no money?
Moving My “Side Hustle” to Full Time
At this point, I decided to take a leap of faith. What if I just dove into music as a career? What if I just tried it to see what happened? At worst, I could always keep it as a hobby. At best, maybe this thing actually works out. Who knows?
That brings us here, dear reader, and thank you for making it this far. I now “do music” full time. I’ve learned how to use my own gear. I’ve built my own vocal booth, and I pay all of my own bills doing what I love. The internet has vastly improved, so 99% of all my gigs are done online. I work from home, with my two dogs and two rabbits always nearby to let me know when I’ve hit a bad note.
I’ve also written about my journey along the way, and I love sharing what I’ve learned with you. If I can save you even one night where you’re exhausted, frustrated and on the verge of giving up, I’ll be happy.
THE TRUTH IS, NOT EVERYONE CAN BE A BIG FAMOUS CELEBRITY IN THE MUSIC INDUSTRY, BUT ABSOLUTELY ANYONE CAN MAKE MUSIC, HAVE A CREATIVE OUTLET, AND MAKE MONEY TOO. I’M HAPPY TO HELP YOU GET THERE.