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“Everyone has talent. What is rare is the courage to follow that talent to the dark place where it leads.” Erica Jong

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Frida – much prettier than SHE thought.

So today I want to talk about how HARD is this thing we do — this creative pursuit. This thing, incidentally, that we both don’t have to do and have to do at the same time. As Frida Kahlo once said: “I am working, but even that, I don’t know how or why.” Here is a picture of Frida who, by the way, was (sorry to be a typical mum, but …) much prettier than she saw herself

[book excerpt] “There’s a reason so many great artists commit suicide. It isn’t only that they are ‘sensitive souls’ — although that doesn’t help. … No matter how brilliant you are, you are going to lose confidence, you are going to face rejection. As many people will want to pull you down as lift you up. It takes supreme faith — in your ability, in the universe, in God, in whatever it takes — to keep you going.”  [end of book excerpt]

Which brings me to the hardest thing of all … the feeling that we are crap and why on earth are we bothering to visit upon ourselves, let alone others, our crapness.

I, at various times, run the gamut of emotions from “in the moment” (which, in my opinion and more on which later, is the thing to aspire to) to utter crap. After recording one of my (now) favorite CDs I left a message on my boyfriend’s voicemail, sobbing about not only how CRAP I was (note those capital letters), but how “ugly” too — you know, just for good measure. He, having just emailed me (I hadn’t read my email yet) about how great I’d sounded and how excited he was to hear the finished thing, was absolutely bewildered. And my dear friend Sue, responded to my emergency call by tearing over, superheroine-black cloak-like coat flying behind her, pen and notebook in hand, to listen to “the horror” and, perhaps, whiz around the world backwards a few times to reverse time so I could do it again properly.
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Sue-perman turning back time
“Oh thank God you’re here,” I said, when she arrived, plonking her on the sofa with a cup of tea and the CD controller, while I busied myself in the bathroom, generally removing fistfuls of hair, scratching at my face and howling, kind of like Jane Eyre’s Mrs Rochester in the attic — but without the laughing or the matches.
So … drawing a discreet veil over the utter self absorbed bollocksness (er … speaking of self-flagellatory) of my initial reaction (I mean, like there aren’t people in the world with real problems, for crying out loud), I’d like to address the “problem” of being so down on yourself that you don’t even take up opportunities that are offered to you, let alone pursue any — either because you are so sure of your own crapness, or because you self-sabotage.
84dd7-tessaasachildof5or6I spent my entire childhood feeling like a gangly orangutang next to my platinum blond brother with the adorable smile (don’t get me started on my wonky teeth!) … Here is a gratuitous picture of me in my gangly orangutan days just to give you some perspective. Given that I feel like I was born feeling inadequate, it sometimes strikes me as just plain weird that I have chosen to pursue not one but two careers one after another (journalism, then music) that depend on outside approval for their success. Actually, maybe that makes profound psychological sense, after all. But, whatever, being dependent on outside approval for success can make for a bit of a roller coaster existence, with fabulous periods of elation (a standing ovation from 1500 people in Moscow … that was fan-TAS-tic!) followed by just as long, or longer, periods of despair, for no reason whatsoever.
I have come to the conclusion that the necessary dredging up of the innermost depths of your being that goes with the territory of being creative hurts. Especially when it brings forth emotions that you didn’t even know were buried deep down in there. For me, increasingly, being a singer is less and less about getting approval and more and more about making a connection.
It’s not about delivering a perfect performance. Mark Murphy said to me once that audiences aren’t there with their arms and legs crossed (I paraphrase, but this is the gist) thinking, “Show me!” They are there to have a good time. And they aren’t there to hear how long we can hold a note, or how many million notes we can fit in to a phrase — unless that is an expression of who we are. Because our job, whether writing, singing, painting, playing, is to give them that good time. And to connect/express/be understood/understand/teach/learn from the innermost depth of who we are.

The idea is to be “in the moment” to the extent that it ceases to be about ego and You. In fact, You (as little Billy Elliot puts it in the movie when they ask him why he loves to dance) miraculously and absolutely “disappear.” I saw that movie before I became a performer and that remark slipped right by me. When I revisited it recently, hearing it again felt like pocketing all the snooker balls in one go with one hit. Because that is exactly what happens when you are “on”. You no longer exist as a separate entity. You are just part of one big “it” — whatever “it” is.

We are a work in progress. Not perfect, finished short stories/poems/songs/paintings. It’s more ongoing and “human” than that. Some gigs are amazing. Some are … well, some are not. Sometimes a sound system can let you down. Or you are distracted. Or under-rehearsed or you are in self-hating Orangutang mode where no matter that you have adorable little legs with knee socks and cute, badly cut bangs (Mum!), you are going to use that icecream cone to hide those wonky (or perhaps at this age, missing) teeth.

Which brings me to perfectionism – which is both our best friend and our deadliest enemy. Perfectionism is what inspires us to keep growing as artists. But letting perfectionism take over is always counter productive. You are there for the people in the gallery, not just for yourself. If you are giving them pleasure and they are loving it, that’s perfect enough. I know an amazing, amazing musician who whenever he got compliments from the crowd used to bat them away if he didn’t feel he had played well — forgetting that most of us aren’t looking for perfection, let alone that most people aren’t even hearing the mistakes.

We have to learn to receive that Love, for want of a better word. The correct answer when someone says they love you isn’t “No, you don’t!” Or “You don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m crap!” Or “What are you? Deaf and blind?” The correct answer is “Thank you!”
So here are my ten things to do when you are down on yourself:
1. Practice. Not to be perfect but to be better able to express yourself unbound by technique issues
2. When a self-flagellating thought enters your head just say “Stop!” and focus your attention on something in the moment. Last night I noticed that my sorrel or cabbage or whatever it was I was cooking was the most amazing green with dark red veins. Almost too beautiful to eat!
3. Don’t beat yourself up about feeling bad/envious/crap/hopeless/unworthy/fill in your own unhelpful emotion (and please don’t put on your music when you’re feeling like that!)
4. Rent a cathartic video. I love Billy Elliot. I cry. I laugh. I look like Alice Cooper by the time it’s finished, but I feel absolutely spent
Me after watching Billy Elliot
Me after watching Billy Elliot
5. Remind yourself that sometimes you might be down on where you are now because you are about to move to the next level
6. Rest/have a hot bath/massage/morning in bed
7. Call a kind friend. Not one of those “other” kind. You know exactly who they are – and the urge to call that other kind is simply more self flagellation!
8. Take a break. Go for a walk (actually exercise is great if you can face it — just don’t use your inability to go to the gym as an excuse to hate yourself even more!)
9. Do something self-esteem raising (er … how about going to the gym? If you want. Be self-kind)
10. Take yourself on what Julia Cameron, in her essential The Artist’s Way, calls an “artist date” — e.g., to a museum/show/gig. Not reading a book but going actually out somewhere and getting dressed up as if you are going on a date.
But most of all, get over yourself! Yes, darling, I’m talking to you! Okay … and me.

My singer friend Kate Geller suggested I write a blog for other singers on how to take care of your voice on the road. So … here are my travel tips for singers, for voice/health AND general tips – which actually apply to all frequent fliers. Feel free to add tips and comments.

PACKING
1. I never go anywhere without my ‘travel scarf’. This is a huge wool scarf which doubles as an extra blanket on the plane, since the doll-sized plane-issue ones generally don’t cut it. Or sometimes I roll it up and use it as a back support or a second-rate but better-than-nothing neck pillow (see item 11).

SCARF/BLANKET/NECK PILLOW/GLAMOROUS SHAWL, BACKSTAGE WITH TESSA AND DANIEL KRAMER

2. Unless you are appearing in the same place more than twice, don’t take more than two — okay, three — outfits. And no more than two pairs of shoes and earrings/accessories. You think you will but you won’t use more than this, and the more you take, the more time you have to faff about in the hotel room in front of the mirror. Not to mention carrying it all… which brings me to ….
3. I take in my HAND BAGGAGE (more on hand baggage in a min) one of those felt covered freezable cold packs because carrying heavy bags has been known to throw out my back — though not since my new suitcase (see item 7). I find the cold pack works for me. Some of you may prefer hot ones. Find out which is best for you and pack one — or both. Also pack in your hand baggage good painkillers — just in case.
4. Okay, so hand baggage. Always pack at least one copy of all the music you will need and take at least one box of CDs in your carry-on. That way, when you’re waiting around for your bags at the airport and they DON’T COME (see Letter From Tokyo 1 in February folder of this blog), you will be covered. Naturally, since you have taken this precaution, your bags will arrive. But don’t chance it! The two (packing what you need in your carry-on bag and the checked luggage arriving on time) are definitely related, This is known in England as “sod’s law” — though I am not sure what a sod is in this context.
5. Pack a pen with your passport to answer all the landing forms questions, like “Are you bringing any guns/bombs/plutonium?” “Did you pack any livestock?” “Have you petted any rabied animals while you were away?” “Are you carrying more than $10,000 in cash?” (Hah!) “
6. Take small toiletries items in a separate quart sized ziploc bag and put it in your carry-on case near the top so you can whip it out when you need to.
7. My four-wheeled suitcase has changed my life. CHANGED MY LIFE! It practically pushes itself, spins in every direction and I would marry it, if I weren’t already taken — by the very man who (perhaps realizing I would develop “feelings” for my wonder-case) advised me not to buy it. Now I want a four-wheeled carry-on because my tiny carry-on bag (with only TWO wheels) feels like it weighs twice as much as the giant one. I bought it at Marshalls, or Filene’s Basement or Daffy’s, for $79 – reduced from $300-something. I have had many cheap suitcases over the years and they are not worth the savings. Trust me.
8. I have a packing checklist on my computer which I update before and after every journey. When I am going out of town to perform, I print it and check off everything as I get to it. It has on it things to pack, things to do (like charge cell phone or empty trash, or freeze/throw out perishables). I have two checklists — one for domestic and one for international travel.
9. Take a hairbrush, minimal makeup (i.e., lipstick) and sunglasses in your hand baggage. I was once met at the airport at 4am (after 20 hours traveling) WITH TV CAMERAS! Thankfully I had my hooded coat to cover up as much as possible of my face and hair but …. Let’s just say that now I know why movie stars don’t go anywhere without their movie star glasses. And, since that experience, neither do I!
10. I take an atomizer filled with water to spritz my face throughout the flight. It helps to counteract the dehydration far more (and less messily) than moisturizer.
11. My other best friend when I travel is my bead-filled neck pillow. I sewed a sort of tie on it so I can actually WEAR it. This also means that I don’t absent-mindedly drop it on the bathroom floor because I forgot to remove it. It allows me to sleep sitting up on a plane. Without it, I can NOT sleep. During a six-hour layover at Moscow airport recently, I tied it into a ball so it remained firm, put it on my 4-wheeled suitcase, leaned forward and … I slept! Just little 20-minute cat naps at a time, but it helped. I won’t pretend I arrived “rested”, but without that little pillow there is NO WAY I would have been able to sleep at all and I would have been completely fried on arrival.

NECK PILLOW/WARMER WITH NATTY TRIM

12. FOOD GLORIOUS FOOD! What’s this doing under “packing”, right? Or have you been to Siberia? (see Siberia blog). Or, indeed, Japan (see Letter from Tokyo 1), when I woke up with jet lag at 2am and, after counting the hours until breakfast discovered that it was soup and rice. Or maybe your alarm didn’t wake you after your 25-hour journey to get somewhere and you missed breakfast. Or you have a ten hour layover at an aiport like Palermo, Scicily (I know, Italy, right? What happened?) or Moscow SVO. Last time I went to Russia, I took four protein bars (giant kind) and five balance bars. Even though I stayed at two nice hotels, I needed them. In fact, I ran out. So pack food – breakfast bars, protein bars, whatever you need for sustenance. And if you find yourself in Siberia, fake a dizzy spell near a supermarket! The one I went to was better stocked than any supermarket I have ever seen in the world – though of course telling the difference between sour cream and yogurt in Cyrillic is a bit of a challenge.

EXTRA PLANE STUFF
1. Last time I went to London, it was snowing there and here, so my boyfriend told me to call ahead and check for cancellations. The flight was canceled and rescheduled. So I got to spend an extra day with him, instead of sleeping on my suitcase at the airport or — worse! — doing what singer Sheila Jordan did recently, shelling out another $60 to get a cab back home to wait for the next flight. Yikes! If the weather looks the slightest bit dodgy, call ahead.
2. Plane background noise is deceptively loud. This is one of all sorts of things I never noticed before I was a singer, but after an 8-hour flight during which you didn’t let your seat-mate get a word in edgeways, a girl/boy can actually lose her/his voice!

TAKING CARE OF YOURSELF
It is fabulous to be your own instrument — which is what singers are. BUT … the downside is, if you fall ill … you can sound like … well, imagine a saxophone that’s been left out in the rain for a week. Sadly, people won’t realize that NORMALLY (of course!) you sing like Sarah Vaughan at her peak!

SARAH VAUGHAN AT HER ‘CRAZY AND MIXED UP’ PEAK

Your frog in the throat off notes — assuming you can even get a note OUT — will be their first impression and, you know what they say about first impressions. I read recently about a Broadway actress-singer who was disparaged by a reviewer for not being able to hit the high notes. People! She had a cold!!! Warning: I once sang with a horrible cold. Not only did I sound like shite on the nite, I then couldn’t SPEAK for six weeks afterwards. You really don’t realize how amazingly useful speaking is until you lose your voice. Writing notes to the people in the supermarket when you can’t find something in the aisles is surprisingly laborious – especially when they can’t read your hurried handwriting. And the phone … fuggedaboutit! One of the most frustrating and emotionally trying six weeks of my life. So you should do everything you can to head off ANYTHING respiratory at the pass. Here are some of my health tips:

1. STAY WARM
Okay… remember that scarf? This wonderful invention was actually created to keep your neck warm. Opera singers wear their scarves everywhere and that is because they are effective! Staying warm is one of the best ways to stay healthy. Or is it that getting cold can make you ill? Whichever, a scarf is your best friend! If I have been in the cold and am not wrapped up enough or (horrors!) went out without my scarf, I ALWAYS have a boiling hot bath when I get in. This also works. Raising your temperature is the secret, apparently. If a boiling hot bath or shower is not an option (See Letter from Siberia post in 2008 folder to read about traveling 16 hours between gigs in Siberia on a train. No bath. No windows.) Get out your travel scarf and roll yourself up in it.
2. VICK’S FIRST DEFENCE
My friend Adrian Hedley told me about this. It works! That Siberian train journey I mentioned … the musical director got a horrible cold and actually lost his voice. He also had this habit of getting right up on you to talk. But First Defense, a nasal spray, kept me healthy. No, I didn’t squirt it on him when he got too close! (Only do this in a medical emergency!) I squirted it on me! Maybe it was the placebo effect, but I don’t think so. I think First Defense is a UK product. If so, the American equivalent is probably ZICAM. I personally like the candy version. I also really like the swabs — but it is absurdly expensive because you are supposed to throw away the swab after each swabbing.
3. SPEAK UP
If anyone gets too close to you, don’t be afraid to put a hanky over your mouth and say, “I’m sorry. I am a singer and I can’t afford to get ill.” People understand. But, even if they don’t, you have to do it. I haven’t had to do this yet, but if I sat next to someone on the plane who was ill I would ask to switch seats. It might feel a bit rude, but you can do it nicely. At least you’re not squirting them with First Defense.
4. VITAMIN C
Someone once told me that taking 1,000 mg doses of Vitamin C every hour or so, gets rid of a cold quickly. I have found this very effective. I don’t think you need to spend a bomb on Airbourne. My very favorites are Rite Aid chewable Vitamin C tablets with acerola. They are kind of tart, which seems to work on breaking down the — ahem — phlegm right away. I use Vitamin C like this as a preventive and as a cure.
5. REST
If you arrive somewhere and you get ill, go to bed. Even a few hours of BED-rest — i.e., actually lying down — really helps. When I was in Beirut I got flu on the first day and, canceling the gig not being an option, spent every day in bed and dragged myself out of bed every night to sing. Okay, I wasn’t my best for the first few days, but I got through it. This was before I knew about the wonder-drugs, First Defense and Zicam.
6. KEEP YOUR HANDS CLEAN
Most germs are communicated via the hands. That means whenever you touch a doorknob, or hold a railing, whoever held it before you, if they had a cold, will have left those germs. It is a singer’s lot to be a germ-phobe. My friend Sue, who is not a singer, but knows far too many than is probably good for her mental health, carries sachets of hand-sanitizing wipes with her everywhere she goes. The seriousness with which she once handed me one when we were out somewhere reminded me of the time my mum told me she was VERY worried about me being in America: “I hope you are wearing at least SPF 30!” (It is my duty to look young for my age, so that no one wonders how old she is). I keep one of those mini hand sanitizing sprays in the same zipper pencil case where I keep my passport – and SPF 30 dabber.
7. GET THE FLU JAB
Since I lost my health insurance (don’t get me started!) I haven’t yet discovered where to get these done, but in my opinion, better to be safe than sorry. I used to get one every year. However, there are health warnings so you should weigh the risks. And, it goes without saying, if you are ill just don’t have injections of any kind.
8. STAY HYRDATED
Drink plenty of water during a flight to stay hydrated. In fact, it kind of ‘oils’ the vocal chords to be hydrated at all times, flying or not. So you should be drinking at least eight glasses a day. Call me a baby, but I find it easier to drink more water if I use a straw.

These tips are not in my book Anything I Can Do You Can Do Better (Random House-Vemilion). But it has many others on navigating your way around the freelance artist’s life, and you might know some of the people in it (including me). www.amazon.co.uk