I'm Noticing...

...I have a preconception about every city I visit on this tour—an inaccurate, stylized idea of what it’s like even if I’ve been there before. I think I arrived at this conclusion as a passing thought the last time I lived on the road. But this time I’m reminded again of the importance of noticing. If you look long enough at something, you get the sense that language doesn’t capture the thing you’re looking at. All we know about the world is understood through language and symbols. True, some things we know only through experience, but to put them into words minimizes that experience. So the artist tries to share the experience by evoking it through poetry, painting, drama, cinema, etc. But even art relies on symbols, metaphor. It’s not the experience itself.

I’m saying all this to express that I can’t express what I’ve been feeling as I travel. I tend to be a pessimist when it comes to Western culture because I tend to associate it with American pop culture. I’m a recovering cynic in regards to what I find familiar, redundant, and contrived. But even I have to admit the beauty that surprises me from city to city. American culture changes as frequently as the county lines; and that’s what makes traveling so interesting. 

As someone whom the psychologist Jerome Kagan would almost certainly classify as “high-reactive”, my tendency to become overwhelmed by unwanted distractions from my surroundings leaves me with a desire to avoid overstimulating my brain, especially from potential stressors like taking big risks. So quitting my job and throwing all my cards on the table for the second time in my life in attempt to “make it” as a musician isn’t conducive to the peaceful state of mind my personality type so much desires. 

When I begin to reach my brain’s threshold of overstimulation, I maintain my sanity by noticing. Usually it’s something small like the wood grain on the table or the callouses on the tips of my fingers. Noticing slows my brain down. I’ve had to notice frequently during this tour, and I’m only two weeks in. The logistics, the constant driving, the whatever takes me out of the moment. And the moment is exactly what life is about. The moment is reality itself. It is the common thread of space and time that we share, and it’s always right in front of our faces. Unfortunately, we are usually not present in it. 

I think noticing is important to any personality type, not just as a way to cope with stress (in fact noticing doesn’t eject you out of stress, or chaos, or pain; it allows you to engage it properly); for the artist whose job it is to make connections between the seemingly insignificant, the first thing he/she must do is notice the very fabric of reality, the stuff of metaphor, the scaffolding of songs and poetry. Noticing is a type of marveling; and when we marvel at the world, the most fallow ground in us can be tilled; the cynic becomes a dreamer; the grip loosens on ourself.

We don’t notice enough because we’re afraid of what we’ll discover in the silence of noticing. I think sometimes the words silence and noticing can be interchangeable. I’ll leave you with this quote from David Whyte’s interview with Krista Tippett on why silence is so daunting:

“I’ve often felt the deeper discipline of poetry is overhearing yourself say things you didn’t want to know about the world. And something that actually emancipates you from this smaller self out into this larger dispensation that you actually didn’t think you deserved. And so one of the things we’re most afraid of in silence is this death of the periphery, the outside concerns, the place where you’ve been building your personality, and where you think you’ve been building who you are starts to atomize and fall apart. And it’s one of the basic reasons we find it difficult even just to turn the radio off, or the television, or not look at our gadget — is that giving over to something that’s going to actually seem as if it’s undermining you to begin with, and lead to your demise. And the intuition, unfortunately, is correct. You are heading toward your demise, but it’s leading towards this richer, deeper place that doesn’t get corroborated very much in our everyday outer world.”
 

*This entry was written in May, 2017 but was not posted until September, 2017

Pike's Peak, That Glorious Bitch Of A Mountain.

After a radiator malfunction yesterday at the base of Pike’s Peak, and the resulting damage to my pride, I decided I was going to conquer that mountain today. But earlier this morning I was kicking myself over the fact that I incurred the cost of a new radiator. Setbacks like these are the ones that make me second-guess my profession as a musician. Despite the effort, the time, the driving, the shows, the writing, sometimes it doesn’t feel like I’m getting anywhere. But, after a fourteen mile drive up the winding road to the peak, watching the clouds get closer and closer, the trees fewer and fewer, I arrived at the summit. I was overwhelmed by how big the world seemed up there compared to my damn radiator. When you look at such a view, the world seems so profound. I felt like I knew so little about anything. This may be an unusual way to put it, but I felt like I wanted to somehow consume the world and its secrets as thought that would somehow enlighten me. I wanted to be nourished by and participate in whatever it’s up to. Wow, trippy.

Grace is both the fall and the getting up. It is grace that allows me to do what I do. When I experience moments like this, I feel I have no choice but to give in and participate in this larger beauty. Playing life safe in order to avoid the trials that come with doing the work of creating a better world is an attempt to live a life other than the one given to us.

The view from my existential crisis: Pike's Peak.

The view from my existential crisis: Pike's Peak.

Collaborators: Tomorrow

I'm so excited! Tomorrow will be the release of the first episode of my new video podcast, Collaborators! This episode will feature the iconic Eddie Owen and singer/songwriter Emmy Lawalin. Still waiting on confirmation from iTunes before it's posted in the podcast app. But until then, you'll be able to watch it on YouTube once it's posted. Once it's in iTunes, you'll be able to watch the episode OR simply listen to the audio (for those commuting podcast listeners) directly from the iTunes podcast app. Be sure to subscribe!

"And the universe is always looking for collaborators. When you stop creating, you stop working in alignment with creation." - Elizabeth Gilbert

For those who missed the trailer, you can check it out here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ESmtrLTl4Yo

Catch with a Stranger: Letting Go of the Familiar

Most would assume I’m pretty adventurous considering my current lifestyle—traveling cross-country to perform and write music. But I also enjoy my time in familiar places with familiar people. It helps me let my guard down. Despite my tendency to avoid unfamiliar experiences, I’m learning that I just need to give in to what opportunities are thrown at me as I travel. And I’m a better person for it. 

I played at The Empty Glass in Charleston, WV on May 17th with the talented blues artist, Tony Harrah. While I was sitting at a table, drinking a beer, and waiting to set up, an older man named Ken, easily in his sixties, wearing black athletic braces on both knees, kaki shorts and a Hawaiian shirt, and holding a white plastic trash bag, asked me, “Do you play baseball?” “Not since little league when I was 7,” I replied. “Well, you can throw a ball, right?” asked Ken. “Yeah, sure,” I said, unsure of why he was asking. 

“I’ve got a ball and two gloves in this bag—everything we need. Will you play catch with me?” he proposed.

“Um, sure. I should finish this beer first, though.”

“That’s the great thing about West Virginia—it’s not like this everywhere else. If you leave your beer at the table, no one will touch it or sit in your seat. It’ll stay just the way you left it.”

I laughed—assuming we were mutually aware of how off-the-wall his request was, and of the tenuous logic behind his persuasion—only to be met with a straight and eager face. So, with a little hesitation, I must admit, I gave in. “Sure,” I said, “why not?”

I left my beer, shook his hand, and introduced myself. We walked across the street to a parking lot where Ken pulled out two fairly new baseball gloves and a ball. Three or four tosses in, back and forth, he said, “See? Isn’t that satisfying? There’s something very pleasing about the simultaneous sensation of the ball landing in your glove and the sound it makes. There’s nothing like it.” 

I realized then that this was something more profound than a game of catch. I was learning something about myself and about this white-haired stranger. We were two lives, two sums of different experiences exchanging our biographies, stories, passions, and a ball. We were taking communion from each other. It was cathartic and unexpected. I could have been sitting at a table alone, scrolling through my emails or Instagram feed, pretending to be important. But I was just a stranger to another stranger, and yet, we were two ends of a moment, incomplete without the other, offering a bit our own life—completely reliant on the other to return the favor.

PS: I almost titled this post "Catch Me Outside, How 'Bout That."
 

On The Road Again

I often joke at my shows, regarding my first attempt at touring, about how stupid of a decision it was to quit my job, move out of my house, sell my car, and move into a mini van in order to tour. But sometimes the life we want to live and the person we want to be requires us to make risky decisions--decisions that don't make much sense to everyone else. Boldness and foolishness often come with the same results. But the decisions make sense to us because we feel that we can only be ourselves by following through with those prompts and yearnings. 

Well, regardless of the sentiment of making risky decisions, I'm doing it again. The last tour left me burnt out and exhausted. But I'm encouraged by those who have shared what my music has done for them and the support of those who won't give up on me. It's because of you I'm doing it again. Only the future will tell if I have you to thank or to blame. 

You can follow my travels on Instagram and Twitter @jakedeckermusic, and here of course at jakedeckermusic.com/blog. Also, take a look at my tour dates by clicking the "TOUR" link above, and see if I'm playing near you. I'll continue updating the schedule as we go.

Thanks for your support and encouragement! I hope to see you on the road!

Jake

"If the pain of your story is not transformed, it will be transmitted." Richard Rohr

Writing a song about pain is a big responsibility because the artist is tasked to turn that experience into something beneficial to the listener. I don’t mean painful songs have to end with an uplifting message. Some of the best songs I know are downers. They’re good songs, though, because they challenge, form a new perspective, or give opportunities to reflect. Otherwise, when songs are written about pain but lack any substance, the artist is simply treating the listener as his/her punching bag—venting the author’s bitterness and transforming it into noise. This is dangerous because the bitterness can potentially manifest into a negative energy or outlook in the listener. The fundamental process of creating art is to turn the mundane (clay, colors, vibrations) into something significant (pottery, paintings, music). Otherwise, you’re just making a mess, not just on the canvas, but on everyone else. 

Thanks and Apple Pie

I sat in a kitchen Sunday night playing some new song ideas for a few friends. The room was illuminated with fluorescent light; the smell of baking apple pie coaxed our appetite. I quietly sang a few verses so I wouldn’t wake their kids upstairs. I felt vulnerable because these songs are new and the wounds that inspired them are still fresh. But I wanted to know what my most honest of friends thought. I ended the verses, relaxed my strumming hand on top of my guitar and fastened it there with my chin on the back of my palm. Looking up I asked, “What do you think?” They commented on the movement of the music, the thrust of the words—all was positive. We migrated to the living room, caught up on some Jimmy Fallon episodes, and stuffed our faces with apple pie. 

It came time to leave. Walking out the door, I turned around and asked, “So what did you really think?” as though expecting them to confess they actually hated the songs. But instead,  I walked away feeling the most encouraged I’ve felt in several months because of the words of one particular friend. She said, “Your songs made we want to paint.”

Compliments like that are the most affirming to my music. It’s a reminder to me that maybe I’m doing something right. So thank you. Thank you to everyone who has encouraged me. Your words are what keep an artist hopeful. 

PS: Stay tuned for some new videos!

New York City

A couple weeks ago I stayed in New York City. I tried to write a blog about it immediately after I left, but there was too much to process. So after chewing on it a while, here’s a bit about my time in NY with my good friend, Jason, and his wife, Katie:

There is no way to ease yourself into New York City. Immediately after crossing the Washington Bridge I found myself in a swiftly flowing river of cars.  It’s also like this when walking on the sidewalks. If you ever visit New York, by the way, bring some good walking shoes; you’re going to walk a lot!

While on the subway, headed to Times Square, Jason was describing to me the sort of community he feels in NY. He said, “We’re all in this together—one big community of eight million people trying to survive together on this island.” He spoke of the absurd rush hour situations on the train when people are so packed in, their faces are close enough to kiss.  He described how friendly people are, contrary to the stigma of the angry New Yorker.  His testaments and what I would experience the following days would change my image of New York.

There have been a lot of moments on this tour when I’ve found that things are different from the images in my head.  New York is the perfect example of this; it was radiant, the streets well maintained; people were friendly. That’s not exactly the image I had of The Big Apple. My idea of New York was stylized the way movies, books, magazines do so well.

But somewhere between walking through Central Park as the leaves were changing (and thinking of all the movie clips I had seen there), trying to realize the enormous gravity of the Harlem Renaissance while strolling down Lennox Ave., and starring in the face of an Egyptian sarcophagus at the Metropolitan Museum, a consciousness awakened in me that these things and what they represented were actually real. They weren’t just ideas in my head. Ancient Egypt wasn’t just a story in my middle school History book; and Langston Hughes actually moved the souls of those who heard his mournful poems. 

Moments like those are ones in which the specters of history seem less like ghosts and more like the person next to you. These moments offer such clarity that the rest of life feels as distant as the memory of a childhood dream.  

I was reminded of a college lecture in my Postmodern Marxism class; it was about society’s lack of “historicity”; the theory was that we can’t fully understand the past because society and culture have associated certain images and ideas with them. We learn history second-hand, after it’s been tainted with the opinions of those before us, unless we were eye-witnesses. 

I think today that the haze preventing us from fully understanding the past also keeps us from effectively engaging the present. The noise of the TV screen, the business of work, the torrent of useless information (buzzfeed much?) all distort what is actually going on in front of our faces. We’re asleep, in a way, until a moment of clarity, of making a connection wakes us up to see reality as it is: beautiful, meaningful, intriguing...like New York. 

Musicians, What Happens When The Power Goes Out?

Musicians, what happens when the power goes out? Are you stuck? Can you still create your art? I don’t mean this as a practical question to prompt you to have a backup plan; I’m not telling you to buy a generator in case of a storm. I’m asking this question to prompt you to own your craft. 

There is an inherent respect for art made by hand. “Hand-made” is a novelty word. If something is hand-made, we automatically associate with it a higher degree of value. Music created independent of computer chips is art that everyone appreciates a bit more because it has the ability to move the soul to a greater degree. It’s the difference between synthesized pads in a recording studio and an organ in a cathedral—the latter being the more natural and more beautiful. I’m finding that “natural” and “beautiful” often go hand-in-hand when it comes to music. 

If used improperly, technology has the potential to make lazy musicians, especially when it is used to cover up shortcomings. Technology should be used by the artist only to accentuate a skill that already exists within them. It should never be used as a shortcut or cover up to compensate for what the artist lacks.  

Take guitarist James Duke for example. He’s a great musician without all the equipment; but he uses a variety of guitar pedals to enhance certain sounds he wants to create. He’s developed his skill and uses technology on top of that to enhance certain aspects of what he’s playing. He’s not covering up a lack of skill; he’s accentuating his skill (not to mention, there are also, simply, certain sounds that humans can’t create without certain aid). The key here is that Duke is, before anything, a great artist. He owns his craft.

Do you own your craft enough to make the same quality music when the power is off? 

If your answer is “no” because you’re not putting time and effort into becoming a better musician, and you still can't figure out why, even though you've tuned your guitar three times, it still sounds pretty terrible, I have little sympathy for you. 

Or maybe you’re an artist with a shortcoming or disability who’s fingers have bled from practicing so much, but you’re not getting any better. You can’t help but feel discouraged. Artist Phil Hansen gave an insightful TED Talk about embracing limitations. You should watch it here. Embracing limitations is different than covering them up. Limitations can bring forth new types of art when they are embraced. 

Use as little technology as possible when making your music. The more technology that is involved, the more degrees away from the artist the music becomes, making the music a less accurate reflection of the artist’s soul. What I mean by this is for every unit of technology used to make the music, that’s one aspect of the music that is not coming directly from the artist. 

Quick Update

Sorry it’s been so long since my last post. I’m finding that life on tour is not as relaxing as I was hoping. It is this way when you are your own booking agent, manager, webmaster, and road crew.

Most of my time is spent in front of the computer trying to book shows. But when you’ve never toured before, and most people have never heard of you, it’s difficult to produce the draw that most venues are looking for. So far I’ve been getting about 1 show for every 10 venues I contact, which I’ve been told by other touring musicians is actually a pretty good ratio. 

I’m learning a lot about marketing. I’m also learning that no one picks up phones anymore because it’s easier to screen emails. That makes business easier for venues, and I completely understand the strategy. I even outsourced some of the booking to my good friend Brad. After a week, we talked and he said, “Why don’t people ever call back?” To which I replied, “Welcome to my life.” 

So the more I learn, the more the strategy changes to adapt. But even though I’m learning, my brain is still not wired like that of a marketer, business manager, or booking agent. So I’m quickly tiring myself out. 

Fortunately, though, this has not affected my sense of “slowing down” as was the topic of my last post. It is possible to be busy without living in the mindset of haste. This concept is directly discussed in John Ortberg’s Book, Soul Keeping. He uses the term “hurry” to refer to this mindset. 

Even though I’m busy, I still have the capacity to appreciate my surroundings without feeling rushed. 

All that to say, even though things are busy, all is still good with me on the road. Oh, and I promise to write soon!

 

Cheers!

I walk slower now...

...I’ve noticed. 

During the past few weeks, the speed of everything around me seems to be gradually increasing. Now they are whizzing by. But the apparent change in speed of my surroundings hasn’t occurred. Rather, I’ve been slowing down.  

For so long, I’ve been wrapped up in getting things done, my “to do” list became scripture to me. “Oh, crap. I need to get batteries. Siri, where’s the closest convenient store?” I arrive, walk quickly to the batteries, check out, get back in my car, on the road again. Life is good. 

The other day however, I suddenly woke up. Maybe that’s figurative for something deeper, but I literally woke up in a grocery store to the realization that I had been standing in the same spot for two minutes studying the patterns of some succulents on sale. 

“What the hell am I doing?”

“I have places to go, things to do!” Then it hit me in the face, equivalent to the force of a four-year-old with a foam baseball bat…. “No I don’t. I have time!” 

I don’t feel so rushed anymore. The responsibilities of a regular job tend to take up more mental space than their actual size. I’ve made secondary tasks priorities in my daily schedule which have caused me to suffer from a deadly disease which kills more Americans than any other ailment today (that’s a total fabrication, I think). I’m recovering from haste, the energy-draining, character-depleting, passive aggressive-fueling, insecurity-building mindset synonymous with businessmen who don’t have time for their families and put work before their wives. 

I’m only 26 years old. Why do I think that way already? I’m happy to see the first signs of recovery. If I was going to use a cliché to sum up my point I would say, “Stop and smell the roses.” I guess that’s a familiar sentiment.  But the issue is deeper than that.  Just walk slower and you might get a taste of what I’m talking about.  Appreciate the little things. 

Slow down. That doesn’t mean that things will take longer to get done, it just means that you’ll notice and appreciate the little things along the way. Those are often the most important things to notice, especially as artists. It’s immensely important for the artist to slow down. We have to notice the details because the little details are what paint the masterpiece. I’m done with the clichés; I promise.  

Pretense (My first attempt at blogging)

It’s been just over a week since I hit the road to play music up the East Coast. I recently quit my job and moved out of my house and into my car. Fortunately I haven’t had to sleep in it yet due to the kindness of friends along the way. 

I’ve never toured before. I’ve also never written a blog before. Both are teaching me something about fear. The most obvious fears regarding touring are the unknowns: How will I make money? What if this doesn’t work out the way I want it to? What if I lose my phone? What if I lose myself?

Blogging has invoked a different kind of fear: the fear of sounding pretentious. We all know that person who speaks casually when recounting his day; but when the discussion becomes about art, history, spirituality, his voice becomes more eloquent, more articulate, more fake. It’s as though he is trying to make his words sound more important because he himself isn’t confident in them. 

I don’t know why I have the fear of sounding pretentious. Maybe it’s because when studying for my BA in English Lit, these people seemed to be just as numerous as the gum under the desks. Most I assume were making up for the lack of affirmation in other aspects of their lives. That’s what pretense communicates. It yells, “I don’t think I’m worth much, but that won’t stop me from trying to convince you that I am.” 

I’m so afraid of sounding pretentious that I almost made this whole blog about the fear of pretense. The motive in the back of my mind was to convince you that I am not a pretentious person (which would have been a pretentious thing to do).  

Instead, I will share the type of reverie that inspires much of my songwriting—reveries that I usually don’t share for this very fear. These are thoughts, day dreams, that often prompt in me questions about life and spiritual things. I turn these thoughts into songs because that’s the best way I know to communicate them—the best way I know to ask them. 

This is the type of thought in which I often lose myself in the company of others. Sometimes I appear disengaged. But rather, I’m looking for connections.  Connections between earth and Heaven, between what is real and what I hope is real, between who I am and who I’m supposed to be.

I wrote this particular reflection after sitting around the bonfire with an old friend and several new-found friends with whom I stayed in Nashville this past week.  We shared songs and laughter; yet I found a certain irony in the moment. Here it is:

Something interesting happens to a group of people when they are sitting around a bonfire, their faces with an orange glow, eyes mesmerized by flame; their spirits become lighter and carefree as though the dim light on their faces provides only enough to reveal the bit of themselves they feel comfortable exhibiting to others. 

The flame is comforting; it’s just enough light to create the illusion that we aren’t imperfect and broken beings. The less favorable parts of us can hide in the shadows. 

But it’s not just the shadows that make one feel comfortable; the fire’s beauty and warm atmosphere is one that allows us to see ourselves in a more beautiful light. I don’t think we hide in the darkness as much as we do appreciate how we look in the light. After all, man is vain. Everyone looks more attractive in the light of a fire. That’s why candles are so romantic.

Everyone seems a bit more confident around the fire, more poised, well-composed. That environment produces camaraderie with a spirit of self-assurance.  It’s more likely for someone to casually pull out a guitar and sing around the campfire than they would in a bright, florescent-lit kitchen. 

And so we pass the guitar around, ironically, and often unknowingly, singing of the brokenness that hides in the shadows.