Friday, January 28, 2011

Joan Baez: How Sweet the Sound

Due to my active imagination and obsession with reading deep thoughts way too late at night, I was faced with another night of insomnia. I've come to terms with this. I just use the time to learn more stuff! I took advantage of living in the future, and used my Apple TV Netflix Watch Instantly contraption to view a wonderful documentary about one of my heroes: Joan Baez.


The thing I love about Joan Baez is she is brave... most likely the result of being someone who had an unconventional upbringing. She was raised by an intellectual college Professor, whose job moved them all over the country. He parents were very liberal, and cared very much about the world. This made a huge impact on Joan. She saw many parts of the country, and witnessed many different lifestyles. She saw poverty, riches, ignorance, joy. Music was always a part of her life. She felt a connection to folk music that had been long forgotten. She brought new life to old sounds.  


When the the Civil Rights Movement started, she was already a star. She didn't think twice about traveling to the marches in the south to show her support for De-Segregation. Her talent and passion won the attention of Martin Luther King, Jr, and her voice became a musical sound that symbolized unity and equality in the same way the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia symbolizes the idea of ringing in freedom.


Young Joan Baez was an upper-middle-class Mexican-American brown skinned girl, with European features and quick wit that got her access into places most minorities never get a chance to experience. Her spirit was, and still is, magnetic. Her charismatic ability to hypnotize a crowd with her beautiful voice and true passion was enough to make a gigantic impact on the American public. 


Who is this woman? Why does she care so much? These are most likely thoughts newcomers to her music thought. She indulged her fans a little, but the documentary I watched last night featured a woman in her 60's, who has dealt with the traumas of youth, giving her the confidence and wisdom to share what she knows. 


I can't recommend this documentary enough. Even if you don't relate to her sound, the spirit of Joan Baez is not only inspiring, but important for these times. 

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Iron & Wine

Tonight, I went to an "Iron and Wine" concert at the Wiltern Theatre in Korea Town. Magical. I stand at 5'1"  and standing/General Admission concerts usually suck for me, but this one was beautiful. I didn't see the band at all, but I stood in the back and closed my eyes and felt the music the whole time. There were at least 9 people on stage playing horns, keyboard, percussion, guitars, and 2 back-up singers. The singer sounded as beautiful as John Denver or Don Henley, and I got the sense that all of these 30-somethings grew up in the same early-80's American Apparel wonderland I did. The Southern accent when he spoke gave it all away... his hippy spirit most likely inherited from the Southern music culture I also remember being absorbed in. The male/female harmonies and calm approach to singing reminded me a bit of Gram Parsons and Emmy Lou, but with the soft quality of Nick Drake.

 The feeling and passion in the music was all Southern. I felt transformed back to Jacksonville, FL, a place where people respect music as the therapy it is. When you go to a  concert in any music-loving Southern town, you will find passionate musicians and passionate listeners.

Being in the same room as Iron and Wine tonight reminded me of what it feels like to get lost in music. When people talk through concerts, I find it very hard to empathize. When people get older and stop caring about music the way we did as teenagers, I get a little sad. Remember what it was like when you bought a new album and you would listen to it through headphones and read the lyrics, interpreting them as if the song was written specifically with you in mind? Your first concert? Do you remember how magical it was to be only 100 feet away from your favorite band, feel their presence and feel the power of their singing as it went straight into your ears, totally avoiding any filters like that of a CD or a Record?

Iron and Wine played 2 sold out concerts here in Los Angeles. Their music is slow, heartfelt, sincere, passionate, emotional. The world is changing.  The world is ready to slow down and feel again. We seem ready for honesty, too. No more facades. The music of Iron and Wine reflects a community of people who value honest emotion, art, poetry, skill, and empathy.
Two Sold Out Concerts.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Facing My Fears In Utah

I'm back home in L.A., and I am spending the morning nursing a headache (not too big, remember, the alcohol was sold to me in UTAH) and reflecting on my amazing experience at the Sundance Film Festival. It was amazing to see the Holllywood machine at work in a city far from Southern California. I was surprised to see friends from L.A. in Park City, performing and walking around. Saw a few random celebrities like Blake Lewis, and the guy who plays Ethan on "Lost" as well as the actress who played Ben's Daughter...) Got to go to a few private parties like the Fender party which featured the actresses from the film "The Manson Girls." They are all very talented singers!


The experience that was the best for me was cultivating courage. I was raised for most of my life in Tropical-Flat-Florida, and until about 6 years ago, one of my 3 biggest fears was driving on  mountain roads, so when my husband asked me to go skiing, I looked at him and said,
"You want me to strap 2 long sticks to my feet and slide down a steep, snow-covered mountain, with only 2 poles to help me along?" Then I remembered all those times I've told my students that performers must always face their fears. Fear is our true enemy, because it takes calm focus and courage to get on a stage and expose your soul to the world. Well, one of the things I can't stand is hypocrisy, so I told Chad I would try it.

I think I can! I think I can!
I almost had a panic attack just getting off the ski lift, but after my 3rd time down the mountain. I started breathing with more intention, and my mind began to calm the fear away. By the 5th time, I was actually beginning to look up and observe the town below as I breezed down the bunny slope. It was an incredible feeling! There is nothing more empowering than facing a fear, and creating accomplishment! It reminded me of performing. The same process took place within me:

This is a very big mountain.

At first there is fear in the mind, and soon it takes over my body. The chest becomes tight, and breathing becomes shallow. Heartbeat speeds up as panic tries to set in. What helped me was remembering my yoga practice. When a yoga pose becomes difficult, we are instructed to breathe slowly in and out of the nose, and to silently chant "sat" on the inhale, "nam" on the exhale. It only took a few seconds before my chest relaxed, the heartbeat slowed down, and my mind relaxed. Once that happened, I could actually feel the muscles in my legs that where in charge of the activity, and therefore, control them.  I started to enjoy the process! I can't believe how patient Chad was with me. He was even able to record it:

video

What I just described could also describe the kind of anxiety that comes over me when I perform on stage. Surely you can all relate to this. Everyone has had to give a speech at some point, and we all know how scary that can be. Skiing gave me another way to look at fear, and how much of an enemy it truly is in the face of any challenge.

The view from the Joseph Smith Memorial Building.

After Skiing, I was feeling very confident, so I decided to face another fear: My Mormon past. As I wrote those words, I cringed, and presently am fighting the urge to hit "delete." I don't talk about this part of my life with anyone but close friends. It's a part of my past that is filled with embarrassment and shame. However, the embarrassment is and has been keeping me from reaching my full potential. A good songwriter must be willing to bare her soul unapologetically. Vulnerability makes the best songwriting material, and embarrassment only gets in the way. You have to face your fears and own your past. "Non, Je ne Regrette Rein!," as Edith Piaf declared. So, I decided to go to Salt Lake City for the first time ever in my life, and face the past.

Drinking not 1, but 2 cups of coffee. Such a rebel.
I was only Mormon for a small part of my life, and I was very different from most Mormons. After my non-religious father became very sick, my Catholic mom had to work a lot to support us. Our Mormon neighbors took me to church so that we would have a place to go. They were very, very good to me, and I still think a lot of fond thoughts about the Mormon people who took care of me and helped me learn about important values like service and compassion. I credit them with a large part of who I am.

Offering Joseph Smith some coffee.  What?
But the dogma of the religion is very contradictory to the way I see the world. I don't feel like this is the proper place for me to discuss *why* I disagree so strongly with the religion, as this is a blog about peace and compassion, and I do not wish to offend any Mormon readers. An online stroll on Google will give you plenty of information on what other "Ex-Mormons" think of the faith. My feelings are very much the same as theirs.

Joseph Smith Memorial Building. Still drinking coffee.
After I strolled through the Temple Square Visitor center, and peacefully warded off the nice missionaries who tried to talk to us, I remembered that they are just doing their best with what they have. I felt compassion for the Mormon people, and I let the negative feelings about the dogma melt away from my psyche. I felt like I could let it go. Now, I don't feel embarrassed to tell you or anyone else that I was raised a Mormon. It served it's purpose, I grew up and developed a thinking mind of my own, and I left the church when I was legally old enough to begin making my own decisions. And that is that. No biggie.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Time For Peace


As usual, I watched Jon Stewart's opening monologue from Monday's episode last night (I don't have cable, so I'm always behind...) and once again he came through for me. Jon Stewart is part of the philosophy that we shouldn't blame anyone. Yes, I agree that anger doesn't get us anywhere. However, if I agreed with him 100%, then this whole blog would be pointless. 

My whole philosophy here is that music changes the world, because music changes the way we feel. We as individuals make up this society, and if we all feel peaceful, our society is peaceful. It is simple sociology. Music has always been at the center of transitioning society into the next wave of emotional evolution. 


Throughout European Music History, you see this. Beethoven ushered in the Romantic Era, a time when feelings, vulnerability, and raw emotions were not only acceptable, but welcome.  Before that... well, you better keep those emotions in check! Nobody wanted to hear that. Before Beethoven, it was more impressive and respected to show off your music theory skills.  Beethoven was a tortured man who used music as a therapeutic form of expression. And his raw honesty has helped millions of listeners since then. 


Pete Seeger, a white man in the 50's and 60's traveled around the country teaching black and white audiences the song "We Shall Overcome," which became so well known to civil rights workers, and one cannot hear that song without feeling the struggle of millions of oppressed and displaced Africans in the South. 

In the 80's, we learned about child abuse from "Luka" by Suzanne Vega. Her haunting tune about  living next to a violent family gave the culture a vehicle to begin discussing this problem. 


In the 90's, I can't forget the Beastie Boys "Free Tibet" concert that brought awareness to the human rights abuses happening in South Asia. 


Tori Amos brought us "Me and a Gun" which FINALLY opened up a dialogue about rape and other acts of violence against women. 

I don't buy it. Our "society" is responsible. Brushing this tragedy off as some crazy person's act is just another way of making ourselves feel better, and ignoring the real problem. If I really believed that our culture has no responsibility, then this blog would be pointless. 

The only way to change society, is to change ourselves. That was the way Gandhi taught his followers in India, and the result was liberation of their country. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught his followers to become emotionally strong enough to "turn the other cheek" as Jesus taught in the New Testament. The individual actions of Civil Rights activists convinced a nation that segregation was wrong. Nelson Mandela, after being a political prisoner for 25 years, created the "Truth and Reconciliation Commission" which was a national South African movement to unite victims and perpetrators of Apartheid. Through dialogue between murderers and their victims' families, healing was able to begin within individuals, and therefore, with their society.

Nelcon Mandela & Desmond Tutu Chose to Teach Forgiveness Over Violence
Great leaders like this help to change society by changing our minds and giving us ideas. The ideas turn into actions, and before you know it, slavery is over. Segregation is over. Apartheid is over. The general public begins to change the way they view women and their roles. Interracial couples can go out in public. Same sex couples eventually get equal status. You get my point.

I adore Jon Stewart for taking the diplomatic approach, and it will most likely help. However, I stand by the idea that our society is responsible for these actions. We can't just pretend like we're perfect. What is it that sports teams say... you're only as strong as your weakest player? That's how a society functions too. 

This is a violent society.  It has always been a violent society since day one. To pretend otherwise is to ignore history. The only way to change this problem is to begin taking responsibility. There is nothing that can be done in one simple action to change the world. It takes a lot of time. It's truly Social Darwinism. The idea that evolution takes place on a societal scale.  

Sociology Students Learn About Social Evolution Through Herbert Spencer
Alright. As my Buddhist friend Kusala say, "It's time to spring into action." No more dwelling on the sadness. I will leave you with a reminder that music plays an important role in how society evolves. This is a song by Simple Minds about Nelson Mandela and his release from prison. Peace and Music to You All!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

I Get Sad

Dear Readers,

I promised you an update on my singing adventures. This past holiday season was busy for me. I had the month off from singing in the Buddhist Temples, and I spent most of the time singing Christmas Carols. On New Years Eve, I was at a British couple's house in Hollywood at 3:00, ready to ring in the British New Year. At 4:00, when the chimes on the Big Ben tower in England rang, I played "Auld Lang Syne" to sing in the new year with everyone. Later on, at another party, I did the same at midnight. Many people thanked me, saying that it was nice to sing right at the stroke of a new decade.

So the title of this post...

Over the course of the past few weeks, I have not sung many peace songs. I can really feel the negative effects, too. Yesterday's shooting of the Congresswoman (has anyone called this an assasination yet?), put me in a very frustrated, sad, helpless mood. I was crying, and it was hard to stop. The other day, I read an article on the Huffington Post about the unemployment numbers. They are so high. So unbelievably high. There is so much sadness in my country, and every time I read the news I feel so much of it.

My husband told me I need to stop reading the news for at least one week. I think he's right. I mourned for a bit over the idea of "closing my eyes" to the world. It feels irresponsible. But as my partner told me, it is irresponsible and unhealthy to read so many unpleasant, awful things.

When I asked him what he suggested I do instead, he told me what I already know, but needed reminding: You take that passion and you put it toward your skill.  

So, today is my first day back at the temples, and my set list includes:

"Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream" which is an anti-war song from 1950.
"Imagine" which needs no introduction.
"We Shall Overcome" the famous Civil Rights anthem.

I always worry about offending people, so I usually stick with songs about inner peace, but I am just so sad by the recent events, I just feel like I have to sing these songs that really spell it out: our culture is in trouble. I'm in that place where you feel so bothered by something, that the concern of offending people has temporarily left my brain and it's been replaced with the question, "Who on Earth is offended by an Anti-War song?" Who?

My father is a Vietnam Vet. My grandfather was a WWII vet. My brother in law is currently serving in Iraq. I grew up in a military town, but I hate war, and I hate violence. And I hate small-minded thinking. I am very sad today, and I know many of you are too.

When I think about driving to Orange County later, and seeing those Buddhist kids, my heart gets a little lighter. These children are learning about peace every single day. They learn mindfulness, and self-awareness. They love PEACE SONGS. There is no chance of offending anyone with an anti-war song today, but I am really hoping that they feel what I am feeling when I sing

"Last night I had the strangest dream, I've ever had before. I dreamed the world had all agreed to put an end to war."

I want them to feel, and remember, how much I mean it, the way my African-American 5th grade teacher R E A L L Y felt it when she taught us about Jim Crowe Segregation in our Social Studies lessons. If I hadn't felt such a strong connection to her, I'd probably still be just another priveleged white girl from the South. This current generation of kids has never known of a time in America when adults weren't acting like spoiled children on live television (I'm referring to politicians AND reality TV).

I hope they feel how much I mean it. I am sad, and tired of seeing so much stupidity. All I can do is sing, though. My husband is right. I hope it makes some difference, and if it doesn't, at least I will feel a little better...........right?

Peace and Music,
Michelle

Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Year, New Decade, New Attitude

Dear Readers,

I am so happy this holiday season is OVER. As wonderful and as busy as it was, the fact is that the holidays are challenging for me. That's why I fizzled out a bit after my Xmas post....

In all of my relationships, I have a tendency to be really present for awhile, and then to disappear and hide out when life gets too busy. This is true in my blog relationship as well ;) Now that the busy season is over, I will soon be writing a new post catching all of you up on my music and service activities. It was a busy season, and I have so many positive and optimistic visions for the new decade.

We made it through the first decade of the 21st century, and what a challenging decade it was. Bush's stolen election, 9-11, Hurricane Katrina, Tsunamis, Wars..... the list goes on and on. What a sad decade this was. Exactly why I am THRILLED for 2011. This is our chance to make a difference.

Generations X and Y: we are now old enough to be taken seriously. On 9-11-01, I was only 21!
Too young to feel brave enough to speak out against what was going on. Yes, I am embarrassed to write that. I always had a dream that when injustice was happening, I would be brave enough to speak out. At the time, I did a little...I performed Bob Dylan's anti-war anthem, "With God on Our Side" at a Michael Moore Rally.... but mostly I just watched the news in horror as I saw all of the established adults in my life going along with what was happening in my country.  I couldn't believe it, and I felt totally helpless. Now that I am 30, I guess I feel like I have the "right" to be outspoken, but the truth is that we all have the "right" to disagree. I hope that we can be a good example to our younger Milennial Generation brothers and sisters. I hang out with these kids every single day, and they are smart, cool, AND brave. We must show them that this country that they were born into, is actually full of peaceful, open-minded, intelligent, and courageous individuals. WE must be those courageous individuals.

When America invaded Iraq, Hollywood blacklisted any actor who spoke out against the war. The Dixie Chicks' public shaming was enough to scare any musician out of writing an anti-war song. The FCC even issued a list of 166 songs that Clear Channel owned radio stations across the country (um... all of them) were told to censor. It was completely Un-American the way dissenters were persecuted. NOW is a different time. It's time to let go of the past and begin doing what we should have done before. It's time to speak up and educate ourselves!  Do not cover your eyes to what is happening in this world. Become the smartest, most talented, most beautiful, and bravest person you can be.

My favorite quote os all time is "Be the change you wish to see in the world" by Gandhi. The first time I heard that, I was still for a few minutes as I let that sink in. As a very young activist at the time, I thought that activism involved changing OTHER people. No. Real change happens when we all take responsibility for ourselves. When we can all find peace within ourselves, that is when peace will take over the Earth. One step at a time...

This is a new era we are stepping into, and I can't think of a better song to share with you than The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again." I think most thinking Americans will be able to see that it is up to us to stop getting suckered into believing what these lousy politicians and cable "news" networks keep telling us.

Don't get fooled again.



We'll be fighting in the streets
With our children at our feet
And the morals that they worship will be gone
And the men who spurred us on
Sit in judgment of all wrong
They decide and the shotgun sings the song

I'll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around me
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
And I'll get on my knees and pray
We don't get fooled again
Don't get fooled again

Change it had to come
We knew it all along
We were liberated from the fall that's all
But the world looks just the same
And history ain't changed
'Cause the banners, they all flown in the last war

I'll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around me
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
And I'll get on my knees and pray
We don't get fooled again
Don't get fooled again
No, no! 

I'll move myself and my family aside
If we happen to be left half alive
I'll get all my papers and smile at the sky
For I know that the hypnotized never lie

Do ya?


There's nothing in the street
Looks any different to me
And the slogans are replaced, by-the-bye
And the parting on the left
Is now the parting on the right
And the beards have all grown longer overnight

I'll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around me
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I'll get on my knees and pray
We don't get fooled again
Don't get fooled again
No, no!

YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!

Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss