Monday, June 20, 2016

Sometimes, it doesn't work out the way you think it will...

                          Sometimes, it doesn’t work out the way you think it will…
I sometimes think that I should have gone into the business of collecting nickels. It’s a favorite phrase of mine, “Man, if I had a nickel for however many times I_______, I’d be a millionaire.” It’s a less narcissistic way of expressing that you’re essentially “ahead of the game”, with regard to perception…but that’s neither here nor there. More pertinently: if I had a nickel for however many times someone told me to “quit everything and go follow your dreams”, I would probably have enough nickels to sustain me financially through such an endeavor.

I’ve hit an interesting milestone in my musical career in the last few weeks, in that, at least with regard to the non-stop touring and endless performances, it has pretty much come to a cadence. Starting July 1st, I will officially be a securities planning representative in the field of comprehensive personal finance. It doesn’t really all fit on a business card…but then, who still uses those? The interview process took close to two months, and required a lot of testing and evaluation. More importantly, it gave me a sort of grace period…one allowing me to clearly discern whether or not this was right for me.

In truth, I have always been plagued by the notion that I would be inadequate when, eventually, I’d have to support a family on a musician’s salary. Even in my success as a single man with few liabilities and a 30k per year income, I always wrestled with the horror that I could potentially have no answer for my future wife when she looks to me in times of financial stress. Some days are better than others, and on those days I wake up realizing that ever since I submitted myself to a vocation of beauty and music, I have never gone without. God is faithful. He keeps His promises. He has qualified me, and I’ve merely made myself available. A vocation requires such a gift of self by definition, and it is in that giving that I have come to find my identity and call to serve.

My message is not a statement of disclosure, but instead a plea for change of heart. You see, in my years as a full-time musician and composer, I have experienced a multitude of dichotomies. One such is that there seems to be some idea that to “give it all up, and chase your dreams” is somehow more admirable that devoting one’s life to an ulterior mission of work to provide for yourself and for your family. For example, why is it that a man or woman who devotes his or her life entirely to music or art is more celebrated and courageous than the one who has invested the same time in a more pragmatic field to ensure that his family has a secure and palatable future? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that pursuing music and art full time is “invaliant”, I’m also not trying to take providence out of the equation, that which often suggests a call or a mission to invest such talents. I remember how people would react when I told them that I was a composer and musician when they would ask me what I did for a living. They would look at me as if I were a superhero. I loved it. Sure it’s exotic, but hindsight and experience highlight the parallels that exist across music and such jobs as teaching, construction, or even law enforcement.

I don’t want to diminish the role of the full-time working musician in our culture. Surely, without these individuals, where could we find beauty in sound? The fulfillment that I experienced day-to-day was exhilarating and addictive, such that even as I rest and rejoice in the prospect of this new ministry, I still grapple with the loss of some of the liberties I took in music. My solace and solution to the new void is this: focus more locally. What I have found recently is that when I began to volunteer my music and offer it back to the place I came from, I became more fulfilled than I ever was in front of crowds of 10,000 or more. Further, might I suggest to the full-time musician that if you are not giving back to the communities that helped you create your gifts, then you are simply doing it wrong.  

“But James, isn’t this all too convenient for you to proclaim? You’ve decided to make a transition, and you all of a sudden have this epiphany. It sounds like you’re trying to justify this decision to the rest of us.” Fair. The timing is a little too perfect, I’ll give you that. On the other hand, what if I was to tell you that if I could narrow down one single solitary burden that I, and hundreds of musicians like me, had in common. Real talk, most musicians can’t support a family on a musician’s salary alone. Most of those who are able are no more talented than the rest of us, but have found a niche or even just plain got lucky. Others do indeed work very hard and profit well from sweat equity, I don’t want to discredit that. However, a vocation to be a husband and father is far more important than that of a musician, and it should come first. I’ve known this the entire time I have been active, and now it’s time for a change. So I tell you, you musicians who know how I have felt, it’s ok that it didn’t turn out the way you thought it would. It’s scary to think about what comes next, but if you approach it with the same heart and consistency by which you became successful and expressive musicians, then you will be happy.

Finally, let’s talk about this past Sunday’s. Jesus says to his disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Never underestimate the variety of sacrifices people make in this world, and be mindful of those who work not on the stage, but instead in the factory or field. Who’s to say that God hasn’t qualified these available to be the silent heroes of this culture? As for me, I haven’t stopped playing music, but I’ve slowed down the touring. Instead, I’m composing every day in my room after work for TV and film, and for my own purposes. Perhaps I’ll go the way of Charles Ives, known at the end of my life not just for music, but also for the fact that it continued to thrive despite an eight to five.

God Bless,

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Catholic Celebrity Is A Problem

          When I arrived in Nashville in the fall of 2013, I did so with all of the bare essentials necessary to becoming a successful rock star: my thirteen instruments, two pairs of skinny jeans (one medium, and one that could also double as compression tights in most hospitals), and finally an inflated ideology based on connection-making, due-paying, and image-faking. I’m originally from south Louisiana, a place known for its authenticity among other things, so it didn’t take long for me to shake off the fa├žade and begin making myself comfortable in my new home. Over time, I found myself having trouble doing just that, getting comfortable. Now, before I go on, I should clarify two things: first, I genuinely love Nashville and all of the people who made it home for me, and second, I was pursuing a career specifically in Catholic music (in contrast to country, pop, etc.). This piece isn’t a slight on the place or the art, but instead on a deeply infectious lifestyle I encountered there within the industry: celebrity.

            Ok James, you self-righteous know-it-all, what’s so bad about becoming a celebrity? What’s wrong with pursuing my dreams and seeing them through to fame and influence?

I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with pursuing one’s dreams. I don’t believe that it’s wrong to be recognized for being influential and really great at what you do. However, I’ve been in this industry long enough to recognize that there are those in the Catholic ministry and music industry, as well as those pursuing careers within the industry, who are preoccupied and enamored with the goal of becoming well-renowned and celebrated. It’s a pitfall, one that I fell into myself. I was ultra concerned at the time with how I was presented on social media, and also with marketing myself based on “perception-making”. I wanted the whole world to know whom I was playing for, which artist I was opening for, who I “casually” ran into backstage, or even how many people were about to see me play. The issue with this lifestyle is that I wasn’t involved with the secular music industry at the time, but instead, the sacred music industry. At what point in that time was I giving glory to God in action and word? Why was I so focused on how people saw me, and not how I was seeing people?

I’ve had so many conversations with aspiring worship leaders who are utterly distracted by what the key players in the industry are currently doing and saying. They rehearse for interviews instead of performances, and study trends instead of sounds. It’s as if the only way these artists could possibly hope to enter the market is by imitation and uniformity. For example, I can recall accompanying a particular artist on the road for a short time. This artist's career was young, but so was mine, and in our defense…we both had a lot to learn. When we would play festivals opening up for the premier Catholic worship leaders and song-writers (I wont name them here, but you can figure it out…there are only like 5 or 6), I can remember how this artist's disposition and interpersonal skills would change. For example, when we were featured to lead worship for small parish events, this artist’s focus would be on the people and relating to the congregation. We would be free to pray, and by doing so, would lead others in prayer. In contrast, at the festivals and large events, we would only focus on relating to the headlining artist. We would make sure that we were “seen and heard”. We would anoint these headliners with questions regarding industry personal and marketing strategies… “Who does your screen printing?”, “How can I get in touch with your manager and producer?”,  “How can I set up a co-write with you?” These headliners are regular people; don’t you think they want to talk more about faith, family, and life? Presumption over perception, superficial relationships verses dignity, and commotion versus peace. All this, and when did we find time to pray before the set?

Celebrity hardens and entitles self-giving hearts, and blinds those eagerly searching for truth. If God wanted all the artists and speakers in the Christian music industry to look and sound the same, wouldn’t he have given us all the same exact talent? For every different person who has the gift to glorify God for the masses in word and song, there is a different and particular gift God has given for us to do so. Celebrity is the culture of sameness and comparison, not individuality and freedom. Who are we as Catholic artists to act as though our every inspiration does not come from the Holy Spirit?

Saint John Paul the Great wrote in his Letter to Artists, “I appeal especially to you, Christian artists: I wish to remind each of you that, beyond functional considerations, the close alliance that has always existed between the Gospel and art means that you are invited to use your creative intuition to enter into the heart of the mystery of the Incarnate God and at the same time into the mystery of man.”

              The great saint reminds us that the function of art is to glorify God by connecting the truth of the gospel to the heart of man in a way which he can understand as an individual created in God’s likeness. Finally, to quote Twentieth Century Fox’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, “Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.”

Friday, January 29, 2016

An Artist's Vocation

     Being 26 years old is peculiar; at least it is for me. It’s a seemingly less enchanting time for me than was my time in college, of which I am three years removed, but nonetheless exciting still because I would say that I am on the cusp of being a true adult...in age anyways (I still buy fruit roll-ups when I grocery shop). Much of my formation as a Christian up to this point has consisted primarily of theology and church teaching, with an emphases on the all-emphatic term, “vocation”. What is a vocation, and why is it more relevant to me now at 26 than it ever was in my youth?

     A vocation is a “call from God to a distinct state of life, through which a person can reach holiness.” (Lumen Gentium, 39). For us, this refers to our individual call to marriage, priesthood, religious life, or even the call to live a consecrated life as a single person. It’s so simple, and yet so complex at the same time. “Who shall I spend the rest of my life with in marriage?” “Am I called to become a priest?” “Are Franciscans part Jedi?”. I say my age is peculiar, because for the first time ever I am confronting these big questions in a real way.

     I am an artist. I compose and perform original and accompanied music all over the world, and for those of you in a similar state (or even those artists who are perfectly content)...I have found a solution: your vocation right now, and always, is to Beauty. Let’s see what Pope Pius Xll has to say about it in his encyclical “The Function of Art”:

      “Composers, filled with the Christian spirit, should feel that their vocation is to cultivate sacred music and to increase its store of treasures. Let them produce compositions, which have the qualities proper to genuine sacred music, not confining themselves to works, which can be sung only by large choirs, but providing also for the needs of small choirs and for the active participation of the entire assembly of the faithful.”

     A wise Franciscan (possible Jedi...) once told me that there are “Capital V” vocations, and “Lower- case v” vocations. For example, not everyone is called to live the religious life, but all Christians are called to live a life devoted to holiness. Holiness is a “lower-case v” vocation. I move that all artists, not just Christian artists, are called to live out a vocation to the discovery, conception, and example of Beauty for all people to witness. Just as a husband devotes himself to his bride in self-giving love, or a priest sacrifices for his bride, the Church, so you as a musician, composer, painter, dancer, writer, actor, singer, sculptor, and expressionist should give all of your self to your craft. Let your exhibit be one of complete exposition and vulnerability, just as the greatest example of Beauty, Jesus Christ, gave of himself on the cross for all to see.

     It’s hard. Sometimes you don’t know where your next check is gonna come from, or perhaps even how you might support a family one day. There are days where I let this get to me, and I run to the classifieds online looking for the quickest way to make $50,000 a year. At some point thereafter, though, I always come back to this: God is faithful, and I’ve never been at a want for anything. He desires for you to give the gift he’s given by His grace and for His glory. You are His work of art too.