I’ve been playing piano since I was about four years old. My grandparents, who lived in Nebraska, had an upright piano in their den. I used to climb up onto the piano bench and make up music. I had no formal training and no idea what I was doing, because, to me, I wasn’t making music, I was storytelling.
I looked at the black keys on the piano as the “bad guys” and the white keys were the “good guys”. I played with them like they were action figures. In place of evil villains and courageous heroes, I had middle-C and B-flat doing battle with each other, and I used all of those 88 keys to tell elaborate stories.
My grandpa heard me playing and thought that I had been taking lessons. When he found out I wasn’t, my family must have conferred, and soon after, my mom asked me, “Would you like a piano for your next birthday?”
I confidently said, “Yes,” thinking this would be something else to play with and an addition to my toys and books.
For my fifth birthday, a pack of my parent’s hippie friends moved an old, upright bar piano into our farmhouse. The previous owner had removed all the ivory keys and replaced them with plastic ones. His justification was that he was a vegetarian and animal lover. Shortly after the piano arrived, I began to take lessons.
I didn’t grow up in a musical family, though both of my grandmothers played piano and sang. My grandfather was an excellent swing dancer and I was told that my great grandfather played fiddle at barn dances on weekends. There was music in my gene pool, but no one did it professionally.
As lessons began so did the need to practice. Nearly every day, my mom would wind up a kitchen timer and set it on top of the piano, which was covered in a jungle of aloe vera and other plants that tumbled over the sides. I was supposed to practice every day after school at 5:00 in the afternoon, then I was allowed to watch Spiderman, Tom and Jerry, and Scooby-Doo or do homework. I never enjoyed the lessons. They were weekly torture, but I soon began to win statewide contests and became known for being a talented, young, classical pianist.
For years I sat at that piano, the plastic keys falling off as I played. It sat against the wall of the farmhouse where we lived in the Minnesota country. The temperatures would drop to minus 50º F in the winter and grow very hot and humid in the summer, sometimes up to 100º F or more. The piano was never tuned, so as I grew older the sound of the piano became more obtuse and disharmonic.
When I was 16 years old, I asked to get the piano tuned. When the tuner arrived, he said it was so badly discordant that it would require 18 months of wire cranking to keep the soundboard from cracking. My piano stayed out-of-tune for the rest of its life as an instrument. My understanding of music was shaped by this, by finding the right notes and making things sound good on a piano that was warped and distorted.
By this time, I was two years deep into my discovery of punk rock, New Wave, girls, and drugs, and I had found my way into my first band. We called it The Eviction Committee because our first gig was at our farmhouse, and my family was evicted that night by our strange, hunchbacked landlord. He appeared unannounced and discovered a couple of hundred punk kids dancing to our music on a makeshift stage, was freaked out and ordered my family to leave.
I was the lead singer in our band for about a year, playing college parties and bars; a young, long-haired, pretentious Jim Morrison and Michael Stipe wannabe. The band and my friends in it meant everything to me, but it ended quickly when someone broke into our rehearsal studio and stole all the guitars and basses. We never learned who it was but I was blamed, having been the last one in the studio.
I spent the last turbulent year of 1990 in the sub-arctic Minnesota town I grew up in constantly dreaming of my escape. When I did that August, I drove straight to the Northwest, where the Seattle music scene was bubbling and ready to explode. I falsified my birth certificate, got an ID that said I was four years older than I really was, and at the age of 19, I was working and playing in the same clubs as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice In Chains.
As that scene ended, I went to Prague and became a club DJ during the mid-90s when Trip Hop and electronica bands like Massive Attack, Prodigy, and The Chemical Brothers were becoming huge. It allowed me to travel to Germany, Austria, Turkey, and Holland, always gathering musical and artistic experiences where I went.
Music was my arrowhead as I traveled throughout the U.S. and Europe. I played piano in jazz bands, sang in rock bands, performed in Avante Garde groups, did spoken word in front of punk bands, and was a studio musician. I was always looking to create and perform.
I moved to San Francisco, graduated from college, and needed a job, so I found work at a start-up and joined the burgeoning late 90’s dot-com industry, a different but equally creative world. These were the few years when I put music in the closet. It didn’t seem pragmatic to me as a career any longer. I wanted something new along with a way to pay the rent. Cubicle life was not a great joy, but in that digital world, I learned a very valuable skill: how to produce.
Life in front of computers producing websites and managing Y2K projects didn’t keep my interest for very long. By 2000, I was writing songs again and winning awards for my songwriting. I formed a band called the Night Watchmen, which was an infusion of my roots as a goth rocker, along with my love for theatrical, poetic musicians like Tom Waits, Nick Cave, and Peter Gabriel. The band did okay and generated a cult following, but my bassist committed suicide after our second album. I went solo shortly afterward.
By the age of 35, I had written, produced, and released seven albums in six years with the Night Watchmen and as a soloist. I was driving and performing across the US, booking and performing shows, hiring and leading bands, and touring Europe. A wave of piano-influenced artists like Coldplay, David Gray, and Muse were popular at the time and they were helping to propel my successes.
I was confident but knew that being in my mid-30s meant that I was an old man in the music world. My days attempting to be a barefoot piano rock star were limited. I was even more limited and weighed down by constant dark, villainous companions: chronic pain, anxiety, and depression. And my fuel was the usual rock ’n’ roll ingredients: booze, sex, and drugs.
There were grand moments when I found myself singing acapella at Oakland Coliseum and then next awash in applause in The Netherlands. But also locked in jail cells and forced to clean under military tanks for work release in California. I found myself disappearing to Mexico along the way, staying at my family’s palapa house there, but nearly always broke.
Money and music do not go hand in hand. Artists are rarely valued. When I needed to move into a $500 a month room in Petaluma, California with two “dirty hoarder druids” while I taught music to students scattered throughout Northern California, and was barely making ends meet, that’s when the deepest, darkest plunge began.
I was recording my eleventh album and paying for it with funds raised by a successful Kickstarter campaign, but I learned quickly that you can’t make a near double album with only $10,000 and expect to sound like Peter Gabriel. I had reached 40 years old. Making records and making no money. Trying to find love in all the wrong places and driving 2,000 miles a month to teach students and catch an occasional wave with one of my few possessions: a surfboard.
Insomnia raging. Completely depressed and falling out of love with music.
I played a seventh European tour and turned into Shane MacGowan from The Pogues throughout it. I had an affair with a married woman in Mexico whose husband threatened to cut off my hands and feet and leave me in the jungle. I moved back to Minnesota and started dating a policewoman, an echo of the same cops who had arrested me many times when I was a teenager. I was a mess.
Somehow, I wanted music above all else, to save me. But music is not a savior. Music is an avenue. Being a musician is just a label. And when music has become a soul-sucking chore, it is far from salvation.
After having a fairly successful music career, I decided to retire from performing, songwriting, recording and leading the life of a professional musician in 2015. It was excruciatingly difficult because music had been one of my foundations since I was a young child, but I knew that I had to stop. If I didn’t, music was going to kill me.
It is not easy to explain what it feels like to be told how good you are at something for most of your life, and yet not be able to make a living doing it. It is a weight to have written and recorded over 100 songs and when you get on stage to perform them, you feel as though your soul has drained out of your body.
I felt an immensity of emptiness on stage. My soul’s fuel tank was so empty that I didn’t even have fumes to burn. I was surviving on the actual fuel tank itself, cannibalizing myself. I had very little in the bank to show for my work. I had no solid romantic partner, no children, no home, and felt a complete sense of desolation. I believe I came very close to death giving nearly all of myself away and I felt totally empty.
When I realized I had nothing left to lose and nothing left to attain is when I reached a marvelous place. There was no complete me as a musician. It was a mirage, a label. I was partially a musician but it was not everything I was. I needed to remove my label and begin again.
I began to sit and meditate and I heard the world. I heard the trees and the wind. The sounds of traffic and children on the air. The sounds of waves and rain. I heard silence and I heard the symphony of life.
Each day, I read Buddhism, I sat, and I meditated. I began to travel in my mind more than travel to new cities and countries. The vastness of my memories was enough to keep me having mental journeys for days and weeks. This stretched into years.
I reinvented, rebranded, and rebirthed myself. It was not an epiphany, it was more of an inevitability. The inevitable was that I needed to let go of who I was and become someone new. I created a media and creative agency and began to help other musicians, writers, creatives, producers, and entrepreneurs, along with innovators and change-makers.
Now, living in New Orleans and in the eighth year of running my agency, I’ve helped authors, filmmakers, public speakers, musical artists, visual artists, lifestyle brands, skincare specialists, restaurateurs, international child advocates, shamans, therapists, poets, photographers, MCs, choreographers, and actual circuses. Each day, I use everything I learned and used as an artist myself to help others. I continue to learn about new industries and creative professions every day.
I’m still very much a musician. That can never go away. I recorded an album just three years ago called Environments. It’s an instrumental piano album of nouveau classical compositions I wrote after moving to New Orleans. With that album, I returned to my roots, just a piano and me, making up stories with the white and black keys having adventures together.
I will never leave music behind because music is everywhere, but it’s not just in the studio or on the stage. It’s in the sounds of morning birds and trains whistling. It’s in the calm of the beach and the hum of a city. It’s streetcars, trash trucks, dogs barking, and airplanes flying overhead. It’s the dancing, beautiful sounds of everything.
It’s the typing sounds my keyboard makes. And the sounds of all our memories and the music inside them.
The music of the world is the most wonderful orchestra there is.