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Okay, so … what is success?

Well, my best friend Neil just found out that his new book, The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You A Happy Birthday, was named one of the TOP TEN books of the year on Check it out here. He’s in great company. I’d definitely call that a success. I also made a blogger’s Best Jazz of 2009 list. Also in great company.

And right now, I am feeling like a wildly successful songwriter, since I discovered a California-based singer named Kara Stewart, who heard about me from someone I don’t even know, has actually covered – beautifully – my original tune, ‘You Don’t Have to Believe’. But does one singer singing my song mean I am a “successful” composer? Well, it does to me. But to Cole Porter? Prolly not. And it doesn’t really fall under the umbrella of the Oxford Dictionary definition of success as: 1. The accomplishment of an aim or purpose (since it never entered my head that someone else would want to sing it); 2. The attainment of fame, wealth, or social status (er… about that…).

One of my favorite novelists, Alaa el-Aswany, has his own definition of success: “The reward I seek is from my writing only. I write because it makes me feel better. To express myself. To understand things. I had opportunities to make money. I was offered a job movie writing, but I refused. I like writing novels. I don’t want to do something I wouldn’t like. If you want to be a writer you must forget about fame and money.”

The Red Vineyard which was sold a few months before his death for 400 francs

But it seems you aren’t really allowed to call yourself a painter/songwriter/singer if you are not successfully earning a living – especially a good living – doing it. Imagine meeting Van Gogh at a party today. ‘An artist? Really? Are you selling? Do you have a gallery? Oh, you’re planning to share a studio with an accountant-turned painter named Paul? Uh, your brother has bought some of your work, you say?’ He sold only ONE painting in his life – for 400 francs at an auction.

Irises, however, sold (the last time it was sold) for a cool $111 million. Dollars. PR86_1024x1024




When I first became a journalist in San Francisco, I’d rather sheepishly tell people who asked what I did, that I was a journalist – feeling like a big liar because I actually earned my living from cleaning houses, and my ‘journalism’ was basically a volunteer job (i.e., unpaid) eliciting rejection letters.

Of course, once I became a successful, (i.e., making enough money to live on it) journalist I realized, from the stand point of my “before and after’” perspective, that the fact I hadn’t earned money from it before hadn’t made me any less a writer. After all, how many poets make a living from writing poetry? And Alaa (who is also a dentist … in fact, my dentist when I was in Cairo) was talking from the double perspective of having written his book , the amazing and beautiful The Yacobian Building in obscurity for years and then achieving mega success with it. It is even a movie.

And speaking of brothers, and success and doing things just for love with no idea of “getting anywhere” with it, my brother Simon and his wife, Fiona, like to make videos of themselves miming to songs, sort of ABBA style. The one they made of themselves miming to a Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren song has had over 164,000 hits on YouTube. (To give you some idea of how huge that is, Carmen McRae singing ‘I’m Glad There is You’ hasn’t even hit 20,000). To me that would be success beyond my wildest dreams. To them, since they only put it up for friends and family, “success” doesn’t even figure into it.

As for fame? Well, no one wants to be “too” famous. As Meg Ryan once said: “Sometimes I’m like, ‘Oh God! I just want to buy some tampons!’”

So, I’m thinking now that “success” is entirely relative and individual. Meanwhile, here are three fantastic quotes on the subject for all us strugglers and strivers to ponder on, that seem to me to capture the essence of true success.

  1. “An artist cannot fail; it is a success just to be one.” Charles Horton Cooley
  1. “To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; to leave the world a little better; whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is the meaning of success.” Bessie Stanley
  1. And, this is my favorite — from an eleven year old I asked ( mid blog) to define success: “Being happy in life?” Got to love that question mark


I have been feeling so guilty about not blogging here for nearly two weeks. I was in London, which was fantastic in some ways. One of my very best friends turned 50 and I had to give a speech at  her dinner party for 50 (in their back garden. In a tent. In a Force 10 rainstorm). And sing a song written by her ten year old. A marvelous song. But my rendition … well, … (as the Birthday Girl herself pointed out) … think, Phoebe on Friends singing ‘Smelly Cat’. I also saw Sheila Jordan perform three times — each time more fantastic than the last (to see my review of her Royal Opera House gig, click here)– and got to chat with one of my all-time heroines, who I ran into in the audience — Norma Winstone. And I saw Billy perform at Queen Elizabeth Hall with Carla Bley (he is a Lost Chord) and they got a standing ovation. Here is a review in the Daily Telegraph of the performance. And here is a picture of them all. They do look rather lost. lost chords

My own gig at Pizza on the Park was … well, the first set was pretty good, I think. It’s always hard to know. Certainly it had its moments. But we were under-rehearsed, so the second set was a bit shambolic. In my opinion. But … see … you can’t always be on. However, it was sold out (always gratifying) and the audience was wonderfully appreciative. And overall, I had a wonderful time in London. It was incredible to see my own boyfriend perform in my own home town and get to stay in swanky hotel with him for two nights. And, as an added bonus, I was recognized quite randomly in three different places by three strangers as “Tessa Souter” (when this happens, as it has — gasp! — four times in the past few months, it always feels like this Tessa Souter is someone else who I am impersonating).

usha's wedding song
Me with the wond’rous Winston Clifford

Here is a gratuitous video of my UK drummer, the amazing Winston Clifford, singing my song Usha’s Wedding with me. This is a couple of years old (our version on November 12 was miles better) and the sound isn’t ideal. But it gives an impression. Winston, by the way, can sing better than anyone! Note perfect John Coltrane solos! Need I say more? I love his vocal tone. I can’t remember how I discovered he could sing but I am so glad I did. He sings this with me every time I play in London.

Bud Powell, Charlie Parker and … Me! You ask…?

thSo the title of this blog … Well, this weekend I had severe chest pains for the third time this week, so I called my best friend Neil and he insisted I call his best friend, doctor turned novelist Ethan Canin (who introduced us in San Francisco 15 years ago when I was a writer and  I was the first woman member of the  Writer’s Grotto), and he insisted I go to ER at Bellevue Hospital where I was put to the front of the line at once by a nurse. I didn’t see that it even was a line until she left and guiltily repositioned myself at the back and got shouted at when she returned to find me there. “Did anyone tell you to move?” Er, no. “So why are you standing there instead of here?” Well, I saw there was a line and … “You’ve got chest pains, right?” Yes. “So get back to the front!” And she shouted at the line like it was their fault for looking at me wrong. Sort of Nurse Ratchet, but in a good way.

Next I was whisked off on a stretcher-cum-bed thingie and X-rayed and EKG’d and hooked up to heart monitor (two baths later I am still scraping off the gunk they use to stick them on with) and blood pressure machine for what turned out to be the entire weekend in ER because they had no beds in the heart section (where I would have been put had they had any beds there).

Now, People, the Emergency Room of a public hospital is no place to get actual SLEEP. The rotating cast of characters was loud. The man in the bed to my left, thankfully hidden behind a curtain, was shouting incoherently for about half an hour, until the doctor arrived and then he very lucidly asked for: “Ah yes, two Percoset, please. 300 milligrams!” The doctor wanted to know why he wanted it. “It takes away everything, Nurse. EVERYTHING! All of Vietnam, all of the pain, the pus, … all gone!” Actually I’m a doctor, she said and we don’t just give people Percoset when they ask for it. “I need it, doc. For the pus!” Pus? “Yes, pus! That’s another word for pain. I read it in the medical dictionary. You’re a doctor and you don’t even know that!” He was sent off with Ibuprofin. But see, he probably shouldn’t have started out calling her “Nurse.”

As a germ phobe, I can think of better places to spend the night. The bed next to mine had must have been the designated bed for cough-ers — one of whom thought she might have H1N1 (she was sent home, so I think she was fine). Another woman, in with exactly the same symptoms as mine got dispatched home — after she’d eaten dinner. Ethan thought perhaps because she was in every week. I couldn’t eat the food (ham and cheese sandwiches and green jello) so Neil turned up with an enormous bag of food, but every time I reached for it someone behind another curtain would make awful, long, heart-wrenching, choking noises. He was also loudly questioned about how often he pooed and whether he wanted to use a bed pan or have a diaper put on. He chose the latter. As I quietly returned my plastic bag of food to the shelf under my stretcher-cum-bed thingie.

Dozing was the only thing possible. I got woken up at various intervals by people shouting (“Im going to get my attorney on to those cops for bringing me here. He’s a scary man. He’s going to sue your asses!”). Or putting in their drug orders (one man recited a huge list — none of which were available, but he must have had something serious because they gave him Morphine). Or to the sight of a man with his hands cuffed behind his back being marched past the end of my bed by a cop (there are almost as many cops as nurses in Bellevue ER), and even a group of itinerent types, awkwardly handcuffed together, shuffling through the ward. And lots of bright young people in red polo shirts, who turned out to be volunteers. I mean ALL NIGHT! Never again let me hear anyone complain about “young people today.”

I can’t even tell you how many times I was woken up to have my temperature taken or to be jacked up to a drip because my blood pressure was … well, I say “dangerously low” (like 54 over 40) but is there any such thing as that when it comes to blood pressure. Even the daytime doctor agreed with me when I pointed that out. It’s usually 90/60 — the blood pressure of a five year old child. When I told him that I had once been told by a doctor that I had a “beautiful small heart”, he said that would explain my low blood pressure and then ran off excitedly to see the X-ray for himself.

No, we don’t know why I am getting chest pains. I suspect stress, which makes it a relevant blog on this mad life I (and maybe you)  have chosen to live. Here is MY diagnosis: I collect feelings in my chest. If I see an injury it always gives me a sharp pain there. If I relax, that is where I get a tickly feeling. When I am moved by music, my chest is where I feel it. Beautiful music vibrates like a pain in my breastbone. So my theory (the doctors are still working on theirs) is that I am getting all stressed up in the night while I sleep and waking up with chest pains. Bud Powell and Charlie Parker (finally, the blog title explained!) also made visits to Bellevue, so I am in good jazz company.

Meanwhile, I can’t wait for Billy to get back on Saturday from the European tour. Poor thing was super worried when he got the message that I was in ER — not helped by the fact that my phone died while I was there and he couldn’t get in touch with me. Well, I say “poor thing” but he is ending his tour in Monaco, and will have the day off in Nice (poor darling!) over Thanksgiving. His soothing presence will have to suffice in lieu of my coming up with a fabulous money-making idea which will keep me in the manner to which I wish to become accustomed while I focus on my MUSIC alone, instead of all the trillions of things that go along with living day to day at the same time as feeding the constantly Hungry Baby of this “career” of mine.

Meanwhile, lucky me that I got so well taken care of this weekend, even though I didn’t really have the time to spare, and (in my rush to leave) had left my pot of paint open with the brush on top of it so it was all dried out when I got home. And I got to witness some very gentle, sweet people who are in the world looking out for all of us. Nurses and doctors are really not just in it for the money.  They are — inspiringly — patient and kind, even (perhaps even particularly) when refusing to hand out Percoset like Hallowe’en candy.






Okay, so … I won a competition to perform in a Gap store — one of 800 stores throughout Canada and the US having a mass gig in celebration of the new Born to Fit range of jeans and 40 years of the Gap. This seemed terribly exciting. But about two days before the actual performance I suddenly got a strong instinct that perhaps it wasn’t going to be very productive. I mean, … a Gap store. In a deserted suburb of Philadelphia. A week before college starts back. On a Thursday evening. After hours. In August. During a 90 degree heatwave. But you can’t just not turn up!

cn5926091So I guess I wasn’t terribly surprised when we finally located the store, in an outdoor mall, and noted a distinct lack of “throngs”. In fact, there was no one in the shop when we burst through the doors, thinking thoughts along the lines of “shorely shome mishstake!” and “Wot? No poster?” At one point, one of the staff actually went outside to drum up business, calling out: “Two-for-one specials!” to no one in particular — or do I mean no one at all, since I didn’t actually see anyone in the desert-like parking lot.

It wasn’t a total bust. There was a TV … well “crew” wouldn’t be an accurate description of the lone camera man that was there. But he did film us, and, apparently, we did make the local news at 6PM, 11PM and 6AM the next day. And I sold four CDs, which is fab in terms of percentage (maybe ten people came through) but not so fab in terms of recouping expenses. Then again, Jason and I got vouchers for two pairs of jeans EACH! And the staff were all fabulous. Lovely. Helpful. Fun. And there were snacks! And Gap has some great two-for-one specials going on! And, may I say my bottom looks very fetching in my new “sexy boot cut” jeans.

Otherwise …. well, as a competition. I mean… let’s just say, well, I’m not entirely sure what I won, exactly — aside from my “sexy boot cut” jeans, which I do like very much. Somehow, it reminded me of the time Mum saw a marvelous offer for cheap monogrammed toothbrushes in a posh London department store. She ordered four and then watched, incredulously, as the young woman behind the counter took a black marker pen and scrawled our names in bad handwriting on four cheap looking toothbrushes and then handed them back to Mum, who obediently paid in a sort of dazed disbelief.

… which isn’t to say that fleas aren’t very intelligent indeed! These ones in a flea circus perform all sorts of tricks

Thank goodness I was with Jason, who is an angel (or perhaps a saint), and joined in my laughing about it on the way home (though weakly, I admit) and who only said ONCE of my navigating skills (which had kind of caused us to take the alternative route — Oh, okay, take several wrong turns, leading to the snarl up which caused us not to get home until 3am) that I had “the concentration span of a flea!”

Some downtrodden grass

Then again, he did ignore my express warning that I’m a directional dyslexic and that, unlike those blind people you hear about all the time that make crash landings in the Brazilian rain forest and miraculously burst out of the jungle six weeks later — a little slimmer perhaps, but alive! — I couldn’t machette my way out of the proverbial paper bag, and if I were dropped in the middle of a Devon field of long grass would be found six weeks later lying on a small, circular patch of trodden-down leaves having starved to death (without losing a single POUND, by the way!), wondering how those blind people DID it. Although, thinking about it, I could’ve eaten the grass (yet another example of wise after the fact).

All of which proves that it is easy to be fooled by the word “winner” into doing some very silly things, like drive for seven hours (round trip, via the snarled-up route) to an unpaid gig in a small deserted suburb. But I do love my “sexy boot cut” jeans. And Billy (the official saint that my parents have been praying for all these years) will love his sweater (Jason and all the staff agreed he looked great in it when I held it up against the photograph of him in my wallet). And I am sure Natalya will love the top Jason got her. And Jason looked great in his new duds.

So all’s well that ends well. Just like when Bill Evans played at a Chinese restaurant in Edmonton (say, … what?) and, that very night, met the last love of his life. Read a fascinating five-part interview with her (Laurie, of the Bill Evans song) currently up at As an amazing, unrelated, coincidence, Jason and I played with Bill Evan’s last drummer, Joe La Barbera, in the summer at the Catalina.

P.S. Does anyone want to enter a competition to win my latest CD for $5 MORE than it would cost them normally!

So … Muszewell718’s question about artistic friends’ lack of reciprocity… I sense in the question that M is looking for some kind of extra meaning in that lack of reciprocity, i.e., if one doesn’t get recognition from one’s peers, one must not be “good”.
But actually, there could be any number of reasons that a person isn’t going to give you reciprocity.Let’s start with the Mum-type answer: “They’re just jealous, darling!” It could be that. Or maybe they just haven’t heard you sing/read your writing/seen your paintings. Or maybe they have heard/read/seen and it’s not their cup of tea. When I was 22 I was standing at a bar in Devon when two young women, about my age, arrived and stood a bit further along the bar, about five feet away from me. Girl Number 1. looking right at me, turned to the other and said: “Oh! Isn’t that girl beautiful!” And Girl Number 2, also looking right at me, said: “God, no! I don’t think so at ALL!” I didn’t actually care, because I wasn’t even my own cup of tea back then — stupidly, I now realize (stern Mum-voice, if there are any young women reading this!).

And some people are just plain withholding. I have no idea why! Perfectly nice people. And then there are the pushmepullyou people, who bolster you up one minute but when they think you’ve got a bit too big for your boots, make it their business to karate chop you down, for no other reason than that some people like to tear the petals off flowers. I have observed all kinds in my life. But I have learned who to go to for encouragement. And I don’t ask Girl Number 2: “How do I look?” when I am feeling insecure (or actually ever!)

Are you, M, deliberately self-sabotaging by asking for approval from the very people that you KNOW won’t give it to you? Or using other people to beat yourself up with? Or looking for permission to give yourself something you want? Or, even, using them as an excuse to just NOT DO it? If you recognize yourself in any of the above, don’t bother trying to analyze why — another wonderous procrastination tool! — Just STOP. I hope today’s excerpt helps.
[book excerpt]
Being an artist is a little like having a terminal illness. You have to guard against any kind of negativity. When you’re struggling for your very life, you don’t focus on your eighty per cent chance of not surviving. You focus on the other twenty per cent. You stay away from naysayers and doubters and the people with stories about how Uncle George had the same thing and was gone in six weeks. You surround yourself with cheerleaders who also believe you can make it. You go out of your way to be around other survivors, who inspire you to realise you can do it too. You pray. The important thing is you stay positive by any means necessary and realize (as my friend Mansur likes to say) that the only person who can stop what’s coming to you, is you.

As a fledgling journalist I would send off my articles with no idea at all if a piece was any good. In fact, I’d invariably think it was bad. It wasn’t until the editor called and said they loved it that I would allow myself to think it had any merit, and even then I wouldn’t quite believe it until I saw it in print, unedited and exactly as I wrote it. This isn’t entirely a bad thing. As author and scriptwriter Veronica Henry [that’s Ronnie and me in the picture] puts it, “The minute you think you are good, then quit. It’s the fear that keeps you going, the gut wrenching anxiety and insecurity that drives you forward to write your best.”

When I first started composing music and lyrics I was so unsure of their worth that I used to sing them without announcing to the crowd they were mine. After enough people had come and asked me if those songs were on the CD, or they wanted to know who wrote something because they liked it so much, I felt braver about announcing they were mine at the outset. [If you are curious, Usha’s Wedding and You Don’t Have to Believe are here] I also have “music friends” who I run things by. Mark Murphy … when he really liked something I knew it must be good. And my friend, singer Mansur Scott, who hears all my arrangements and compositions over the phone, is a constant inspiration. The fact that I respect them both as honest people and great singers is huge.
[Particularly at a nascent stage, it is vital to have people around you who encourage you. If I hadn’t been pushed into it at the start by my then boyfriend I would definitely not have become a professional singer. And I am lucky now to have a man who believes in me, encourages me and whose opinion I totally respect. I am also signed to a label that believes in me. And I am surrounded by many amazing, encouraging friends, most of whom are in the arts in one way or another, so they understand].

Think about the words ‘encourage’ and ‘discourage’ for a moment. To en-courage somebody means to inspire them with courage: to put courage inside them. To dis-courage them is to take away their courage. Deciding to devote your life to painting/photography/music/poetry/writing takes every ounce of courage you’ve got. As author Alison Owingssays: ‘You have enough trouble convincing yourself (let alone the rest of the world) you can do it, you shouldn’t have to convince your partner too!’When I was interviewed on The Russell Davies Show on the UK’s BBC Radio 2, he played the boxer’s song ‘Stand Up and Fight’ from one of my favorite movies, Carmen Jones, which I’d told him my mother and I had loved when I was a child. I thought it was a bit of a strange choice but afterwards my mother pointed out that it was perfect because the stamina required of a singer (or writer/painter/musician) is the same as that required of a fighter. ‘. . . until you hear that bell, that final bell, stand up and fight like hell.’ In the arts, where your success is dependent on other people’s tastes, you get knocked down, and have to get back up – again and again.

So when you sink back into your corner you need someone there to rub your shoulders and pour water on you; someone who, because they have made you the object of their utter undivided attention for the duration of the fight, can give you tips about your opponent’s weak points, advise you when to jab with your left or right, tell you what you’re doing right, inspire you to ‘get back in the ring’ for another round. This is not the time or place for a demoralising critique about how you’re never going to make it and you might as well give up now.

In other words, ditch Girl Number 2 and stick with Girl Number 1


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Today I have a question to answer, which  MP left today on Day 1 of the blog.

Question: “I have started on my 5 year plan, resolved to leave “realistic” out of it, and come up with something inspiring and fantastic. A few days into this assignment, however, and I am finding that I am having trouble dreaming and visualizing. Have I become resolved to settling? I don’t think so, because I am not comfortable here, either. Tips, pointers, encouragement??? Any insight would be most appreciated.”

Answer: [book excerpt]

By now we’ve all heard that hackneyed Goethe quote: “Whatever you think you can do or believe you can, begin it. Action has magic, grace and power in it.” If only it were that simple. But it’s not. Because, although starting is important (duh!), at no point are you more vulnerable to stopping dead in your tracks than at the beginning. As Martha Graham once said: “The ordeal of isolation, the ordeal of loneliness, the ordeal of doubt, the ordeal of vulnerability which it takes to compose in any medium is hard to face.” 

It’s no wonder so many of us give up before we even begin.

Have you heard of Charlotte Bronte’s novel Emma? No? Ah.That will be because when she showed the first few pages to her new husband (she married late, thank goodness) he said: “Hmm. Not up to your usual standard, dearest….” And she never wrote another word, of that, or any other novel, ever again.

So, MP, are you being your own “Mr Bronte”? Is the problem with your dreaming and visualizing coming from your inability to really believe in the outcome. Are you being too hard on yourself, thinking who the hell do you think you are? Are you stumbling over visualizing all the steps it will take to get there?

For any or all of the above, my advice is to go one small step at a time. “You don’t have to take the whole staircase,” to quote Dr. Martin Luther King. “Just take the first step.”

For example, keep visualizing yourself collecting your Oscar or Grammy or Whitbread or Nobel or other relevant prize. But then visualize only the NEXT step towards it. Not all the steps.

When I started singing, all I had to do was trundle along to the next open mic. The idea of having a CD, let alone three CDs as I do now, was miles away in my mind. It was a dream, perhaps, but absolutely not something I considered a real possibility. The same with being a journalist. When I got my first job as an editorial assistant, actually writing for magazines was a dream but, again, not something I really thought would happen. But I faithfully took the first step by applying for (and beating out a hundred others to get) a job as a lowly editorial assistant at Parents magazine.

Did I think I would one day be writing for The Times or Elle or Vogue — which is what I ended up doing? Absolutely. er… Not. And when I got my first commission, when the Parents editor just announced at a meeting one day that I was going to be doing a piece for the next issue on introducing children to the opera and ballet and other adult leisure pursuits, I was shocked. And terrified.

So I called my writer friend, Sarah Litvinoff, author of The Confidence Plan: Essential Steps to a New You, who at the time I barely knew, and asked if I could read her my first paragraph over the phone.  “Of course!” she said. When I’d finished she said: “Oh, it’s wonderful. I can’t WAIT to hear the next paragraph!” Eventually, paragraph by paragraph (all read to Sarah over the phone), I finished it.

Actually, even while I was writing this book, I struggled with the idea of writing an entire book, until my editor at Random House told me to think of each chapter as its own long article. That made it much more manageable.

So my advice to MP at this stage is:

  1. Keep visualizing the “end”, in a very light way, without thinking at all about allthe steps it will take to get there.
  2. Think about ONLY the very nextstep — going to the next open mic, applying for magazine jobs, writing the next paragraph….
  3. Enlist the cheer-leading skills of a friend who believes in you and (very importantly) the possibilities for you.
  4. For crying out loud, don’t ask “Mr Bronte” what he thinks — even if he’s you.

Let me know if that helps.

“I remember once hearing one of my younger brothers telling his girlfriend my story, what my career was like – I was born, I was talented, I got into piano, I had this neat place and I worked with Miles Davis. He left out this giant part which was the struggle!” Keith Jarrett, jazz pianist [From The Man and His Music]
As I now know, at each step you take you will feel anxious, depressed and tempted to remain with “the devil you know” rather than strike out for the deep blue sea. …. Pursuing something that really means a lot to you; something that comes first in your life; something that is almost as precious to you as a child; something that essentially means putting your soul out there for anyone to stab at if they want to; something that means getting emotionally naked – well, it hurts. … I met someone at a party once who told me she had become a journalist by default because writing a novel in her 20s had taken over her entire life. “I couldn’t think about anything else!” she said. “I wouldn’t want to be like that again!”

Don’t be one of those people who need permission from the rest of the world to be a happy successful human being. You don’t. You only need
your permission. … When I confided in my cousin, who had never heard me sing, that I wanted to be a singer, he totally dismissed it as nonsense and told me a terrible story about his ex father-in-law who had similarly “set straight” some poor neighbor who’d asked his advice about whether or not he should be an opera singer. Of course not everyone who wants to is going to be able to sing or paint or write or whatever. But my cousin [who now loves my singing] hadn’t even heard me sing. Yet, I obediently went along with his advice.

Or maybe I just used him as an excuse.


Today I thought it would be a good idea to explain the actual TITLE of my book. Anything I Can Do You Can Do Better: How to Unlock Your Creative Dreams and Change Your Life. One of my friends messaged me on Facebook saying: “You obviously haven’t heard me sing!” which made me realize that some explaining is in order.

When I was writing in my journal this morning — by the way, journaling is definitely de rigeur for anyone pursuing a creative life — whether they are writing or singing or painting or sewing or what — so many ideas come to me when I am journaling that would never have occurred to me if I were, say, watching breakfast television, or even (perhaps) reading War and Peace! Phew, that was such a long sentence that I am going to gratuitously end right there and pick it up again in the next. It came to me that singing isn’t something I “do”, it is something I “am” or maybe “have”.

So the book isn’t going to tell you how to sing, or write or paint or sew or whatever. I think that is probably something you have an innate talent for or not — although of COURSE practice makes perfect, not to mention “use it or lose it”! So it’s definitely worth thinking about what it is that you are best at before you decide to devote the rest (or even the next ten years) of your life to it. But the idea of the book is how to then “do” whatever it is you have chosen, or has chosen you.

I forgot to mention earlier in the blog that another major player in my career change was life coach Laura Berman Fortgang, who gave me three months of her amazing personal coaching just before I got into it. I had met her while researching an article which was published in 1997 for the Times in London on Life Coaches (I promise to add the link to the article in a day or so — still learning how to do these things), and thought it would be interesting to experience being coached and maybe write about that. [Much later, I was helped in making the transition by a year of coaching from another fantastic life coach, Mark Forster, but more on that another time.]

She asked me what I wanted to focus on that I had wanted to do all my life and I picked singing because, (1) I was living with someone, who (for the first time since I had grown up) really believed, not only in my talent but in its possibilities for me and (2), I had always dreamed of doing it. As a very small child. Shopping in the local VG store for dinner all through my teenage marriage. Ferreting through clothing in charity shops for something decent to wear when I was a single mum. Even in my 30s (in San Francisco), singing at the top of my voice cleaning the houses of my favorite clients; the Good Germans (who had an amazing collection of jazz music, which I looked forward to listening to because I didn’t have money to buy CDs) and Joseph, who understood. Everything. Who gave me Tower Records tokens every Christmas with a stern note about how I was to use it only to buy music. Who once called me at home and told me off for leaving money in exchange for an orange I had eaten. [“Anything in my kitchen, Tessa, is yours!”] And who, when he died of AIDS, left me his CD player.

And had I not got married to an older man when I was 16 (i.e., before I really even started “living”), to be a singer was what everyone around me assumed I was going to do for a living when I got older. As it was, at a very formative age I spent two and a half years married to someone who was so insecure (clearly, secure men in their mid 20s don’t go around impregnating children — as I now realize I was then) that he pretty much imprisoned me, until I escaped one day (with Mum’s help) when he was at work. I was allowed out on my own only twice during the entire marriage. He even raged about my going back to school to do my ‘o’ levels (which I did in only four months, instead of a year), So singing? Fuggedaboutit!

So that severely put the kibosh on those childhood dreams for myself — which belonged as much to my friends and my “Irish twin” brother as to me. And then being solely responsible for a child, financially and emotionally, from the age of 18. Well, it wasn’t easy — speaking of “You Can Do Better!

Worth it? Yes! Easy? No!

But not to grizzle. Because I think all those experiences have made me what I am (not to mention provided me with the most amazing son), and are there in my music now. And I hope that they can be useful to others who might be thinking that they threw their lives in the bin by making one “mistake” or who might be thinking it’s too late, or too soon or too anything (er … try scared! I know a lot about that one). Or who might be doing really well in one field but don’t know how to begin to change to another. No, I wouldn’t say I am a wild success in terms of raking in the dosh (cough!). But even in the midst of despair, and feeling stuck, when I think about how lucky I am and how far I have come in the ten years that I have been singing professionally, I am willing to put my head down and keep soldiering ahead. And I’d like to inspire others to do the same, and pass on some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way.

In the book I talk to my friend British plumber Mal Peet, whose first novel, Keeper, was turned down by five publishers (including the one who eventually picked it up!) before going on to win the Branford Boase Award and the Nestle Smarties Children’s Book Prize. His third, Tamar, won the Carnegie Medal. And he has just won the Guardian Prize for Fiction for his most recent, Exposure. For years he had come home in the evenings after a hard day’s plumbing to spend his evenings literally wallowing in the tub, with a pint of cheap beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. He started his new career after the age of 50. US corporate business woman Karen Quinn (also in the book) wrote her bestseller The Ivy Chronicles (currently being made into a movie), after being laid off. “Tessa Souter” (that would be a fantasy version of me) actually has a singing appearance in the book, which she was still writing at the time I first interviewed her. She’s now on to her fourth or fifth. A huge success. 

 These people inspire me! And I hope they will you! 

Now … stop procrastinating and DO something!

See you tomorrow.

Tessa’s music page

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“Most self help books are a bit irritating but this one is different…. Anything I Can Do You Can Do Better is brilliant for creative types losing sight of their big dream. So if you want a kick of inspiration to begin writing that epic love story, while still paying the bills and looking after your family, this is for you.” Reveal magazine

“Inspiring… reading this book is like listening to a very wise friend.” Prima magazine

“This is absolutely not the standard ‘rose-tinted spectacles’ personal development book. But she doesn’t just tell you how she did it, but also tells you how you can do ‘it’ too – whatever your own personal ‘it’ is.” Mark Forster, author of Do It Tomorrow

“Tessa’s wit, determination, guts and advice will inspire anyone who wants to go for their dreams.” Sarah Litvinoff, author of Starting Again

“Tessa Souter is a gem of a person. Her story will inspire you and teach you and bring you to tears as you feel awe in the presence of her humanity.” Laura Berman Fortgang, life coach and author of Take Yourself to the Top: The Secrets of America’s #1 Career Coach

So today I decided why not start at the very beginning of the book. Yesterday was an answer to a specific question from a singer. But the original plan was to excerpt bits of the book and then comment on them with the benefit of hindsight gained from the three years or so since the book came out. As well as (hopefully) receive comments and tips from YOU.
The point of the blog, I realize, is to get you started in your chosen career, if you haven’t started already, and (if you have) to help you (and me) keep going when you (and me) are flagging. And I have to confess, I am going through a bit of a flagging stage right now — for no good reason, because when I think about it, I have been utterly blessed in many things, including my careers, first as a successful journalist — writing features for Vogue, Elle, the Times, Guardian, South China Morning Post, Sydney Morning Herald (oh, tons of places) — and, now, as a jazz singer with three CDs out (two recorded for real life labels) who has headlined and sold out major clubs in New York and around the world. On my good days.
Some things before we begin. 
1. All book excerpts will be in italics so you can tell the difference between the book and the blog.
2. If I make comments within the book excerpts that weren’t there originally they will be in different color.
3. Ellipses mean I have taken out chunks of the book for the sake of brevity.
4. I want to be honest and not have to be all rah rah rah if I don’t feel rah rah rah that day. And free to be rah rah rah if I do.
5. I welcome any helpful tips and comments and questions you may have. Please feel free to leave your URL along with your comments. 
So here is the Table of Contents so you know what kind of things we will be covering. 
1: All You Have To Do Is Dream: Getting Started
2. Walk This Way: What To Do and How To Do It
3. I Will Survive: Supporting Yourself
4. The Long and Winding Road: Keeping the Faith
5. Love Me Or Leave Me: Negotiating Your Intimate Relationships
6. Help I Need Somebody: Agents, Managers and Mentors
7. Helter Skelter: Handling the Emotional Roller Coaster of the Artist’s Life
8. I’m Just a Jealous Guy: Competition, Envy and the Green-eyed Monster
9. Blues for Junior: Taking Care of the Children
10. Up Up and Away: Success at Last
11. Go You Own Way: You Know Where You’re Going
Reading and Resources
[book excerpt
“You shall go to the ball!” The Good Fairy to Cinderella
Since I decided to actively pursue my dream to be a singer, I have never been so happy — or so miserable. It’s not so much an emotional roller coaster ride as like being picked up in the hands of a huge giant and carried around tenderly for a brief period of respite, and then dashed to the ground. Over and over again. A few months (or years) of that will turn anyone into a bloody pulp, which means you need guts to spare. So the first thing you should truly understand and acknowledge about following a creative dream is that — contrary to what you might imagine — it’s not all elation and joy, it hurts, even when you “make it”. Why else would so many rock gods and movie stars implode once they get there?
Yes, there are a lucky few who are born or married to the rich and famous, or who are well connected, or both. But even they have to prove themselves. Think of Sophia Coppola’s ten-year transition from critically panned actress in her father’s The Godfather Part III to Oscar-nominated director and Oscar-winning screenwriter for Lost In Translation. I think it safe to say that no singer was discovered by someone who overheard them singing in the shower. No writer was discovered by a literary agent accidentally coming across their private journals hidden under the bed. 
Paul Auster sent his first manuscript to nineteen publishers or more before one of them picked it up and made it into a best seller. In 2000, only a year into singing professionally, my voice was described as “The most deeply and profoundly moving voice I have heard in the past ten years” by Columbia Records. Another major label (Blue Note) said: “I don’t hear anything special in her voice.” [Ouch!] Both were talking about the exact same demo CD.  
There’s a reason so many great artists commit suicide. It isn’t only that they are “sensitive” souls — although that doesn’t help. The hard fact is, if you are chasing a dream, it takes over your life. It becomes an obsession. And it tests you continually. 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. Once you reach the point of no return [Oh. My. God. I didn’t even register that phrase when I wrote it!] you will not even know why you are continuing, but you won’t be able to help it. “I am working,” wrote Frida Kahlo to a friend. “But even that, I don’t know how or why.”
You are going to have to prove yourself to yourself, your family, your friends, the world, the universe, prove your staying power, prove your worth it, prove your belief in yourself. And you are going to have to do it over and over (and over) again. There’s a long list of people who didn’t stay the course. Judy Garland, Vincent Van Gogh, Diane Arbus, Virginia Woolf, Spalding Gray, Susannah McCorkle, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton … all killed themselves. Many others drank themselves to death. Or died of the effects of drug abuse. Because pursuing your dream is such a painful endeavor at times, a significant percentage of people can’t do it without medicating themselves, even if nowadays that means anti-depressants (the modern artist’s laudanum). 
You will struggle with money, relationships, envy (other people’s and — even worse! — your own), self-confidence, ego, faith in yourself, in God, in your very soul). Pianist Keith Jarrett put it brilliantly in the The Man And His Music by  Ian Carr, talking about one of his albums. “Spirit was born of drowning in a certain place so I could come up to the surface in another — without forgetting the drowning and without dying.”

Still want to do it? Okay then. Because in spite of everything, I can safely say that just pursuing my dream — let alone achieving it — has been the best thing I have ever given myself. I hope this book will be your good giant that will catch you before you fall. But most of all, I hope it helps you realize that (as my literary agent kept saying to me over and over again when I was writing this book): “You can do it, Tessa. I believe in you, and I know you can do this.”
This book [and blog] is dedicated to you.
To be continued….
Click here to buy book 

“Most self help books are a bit irritating but this one is different…. Anything I Can Do You Can Do Better is brilliant for creative types losing sight of their big dream. So if you want a kick of inspiration to begin writing that epic love story, while still paying the bills and looking after your family, this is for you.” Reveal magazine

“Inspiring… reading this book is like listening to a very wise friend.” Prima magazine

“This is absolutely not the standard ‘rose-tinted spectacles’ personal development book. But she doesn’t just tell you how she did it, but also tells you how you can do ‘it’ too – whatever your own personal ‘it’ is.” Mark Forster, author of Do It Tomorrow

“Tessa’s wit, determination, guts and advice will inspire anyone who wants to go for their dreams.” Sarah Litvinoff, author of Starting Again

“Tessa Souter is a gem of a person. Her story will inspire you and teach you and bring you to tears as you feel awe in the presence of her humanity.” Laura Berman Fortgang, life coach and author of Take Yourself to the Top: The Secrets of America’s #1 Career Coach

Okay so this is actually a response to a question from singer Deborah Latz, on how to travel with your CDs and general traveling advice. She has a nice tour upcoming in France at multiple destinations. I don’t expect future posts to be this long but there was a lot to cover!

Question. When you travel overseas and bring your CDs (say 200) have you experienced any problems with customs? Do you bring the CDs on the plane or put them in your luggage?  Any other ‘tour tips’ you have would be greatly appreciated!  

There is no specific advice in the actual book on this. However, since the book came out in 2006 I have traveled extensively and learned the following:


1. For crying out loud, better to take too many than not enough. On my first trip to Russia I only took 100 and sold out almost at once. Very frustrating to be turning away people who are desperate to buy your CD. 

2. CDs are heavy. Invest in a wheelie case with FOUR wheels. You will be amazed at how effortless these make heavy luggage (more on this below).

3. So far customs have never asked me about them but you can always say they are promo copies. 

4. Whatever you do (see Point 4 of PACKING),  make sure you put enough to sell on  your first gig in your HAND baggage, in case your other baggage doesn’t arrive at your destination at the same time as you do (always a drag!).

5. There is a limit to how much money you can bring back from certain countries. I could never work out what it was in Russia, I think $3,000 — which can make for a very stressful time on the way out. Find out ahead of time by calling the relevant embassy.


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).


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), 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.  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 two packing checklists (one for domestic and one for international travel) 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).

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 and a touch of glycerine 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.


12. FOOD GLORIOUS FOOD! What’s this doing under “packing”, right? Or have you been to Siberia? Or, indeed, Japan (see, 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.


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!


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!


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:

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 at 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.

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. 

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.

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.

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.

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. 

Since I lost my health insurance (don’t get me started!) I haven’t yet discovered where to get these done for free, but in my opinion, better to be safe than sorry, so they are worth the $25 or so fee to get them done in a drug storer.  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. 

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.

Send your questions to and I will do my best to answer them. Meanwhile, my plan is to blog on some aspect of doing my book EVERY DAY!

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