I have no idea how musicians do what they do. I've never taken a music class, never even dabbled with an instrument (unless you count banging a djembe at a drum circle from time to time, which, really, I don't). Ah, but who cares. I embrace the mystery, and I love losing myself in sound.
Lucky gal that I am, I've gotten to see singer/songwriter Jenee Halstead make her magic many times over the years. She's an incredible talent with a unique voice. Plus, she is also the QUEEN of changing up hairdos. Boldness and reinvention ain't got nothin' on this gal!
Jenee, how long have you been songwriting, and what got you started? I started writing songs twelve years ago when I was twenty-five. It was in response to learning things about my family history, and about facing aspects of my own life that seemed unsavory, aspects that were causing me to have depressive moods and feelings of helplessness. I had always envisioned myself writing songs when I was a young girl. When I finally got around to it, it was more of a coping mechanism than anything else. I knew I wanted to write and express my emotions, but I felt it was so late in the game for me that I didn’t have a lot of expectation. I thought I was too old to start a writing career. Ha! Isn’t that hilarious?! Here I am at 37, feeling like I have barely scratched the surface with the songwriting process. Initially, I think my songs were really terrible. Just too self indulgent with not enough universal feelings that make a song reach out to others. There is a way to hold this space for a song and have it be personal and profoundly universal. This is the secret to the best creations, that they are both microcosmic and macrocosmic.
"I still never know how to write a song when I sit down. I get so scared and think, 'What am I doing?' I feel like a newborn."
How would you define creativity? For me, creativity is a channeling. There's an initial spark that comes from somewhere, a bothersome sort of feeling on the side of my brain or my left shoulder, and it feels like a thought, but is much deeper than that. It “comes in” or drops down from wherever and literally sits there for a little while, but not long! I must act on the feeling (via dictation), or hold it in as long as I can until I get to a dictation tool. This feeling is a door to the great subconscious energy of my mind emerging to dance with me. Somehow, through a writing exercise, a walk, a drive, or washing the dishes, I open myself up to this thing or feeling. And, when I am open - which can be at just about any minute I desire now if I am present - there will be something ripe to pick, as long as I sit down and take the time to get it out.
"I guess the key to creativity is the parameters. Each of us as creator beings is gifted with the parameters. The parameters are what help us define something specific to turn that thought form or dream into the manifested thing we hope for."
Do you have any daily or weekly habits and practices? I don’t have any. It is terrible. Literally terrible. To be honest, I spend too much time allowing myself to spin out from daily life and my smart phone. I think smart phones rob us of our ability to be with ourselves...especially in the kind of peaceful and grounded way that is required in the creative process. Some people create really well in chaos. I cannot. In order to have daily or weekly habits or practices you have to be very grounded. I am often caught up in the business side of managing my art and my life, and it can take over and keep me from doing the thing I want to do - am meant to do - more often.
Where does inspiration come from? Inspiration can come from the most surprising places and can be such a gift of wonder. Sometimes inspiration makes absolutely no sense. It causes me to question who I am, in a good way. It's like learning something about yourself that you didn’t know existed. Why are we inspired by some things and not others? What is “universal inspiration,” such as a musical piece, or a movie that grips everyone in the room, vs. something that only moves us personally to do the work we are doing? Ultimately inspiration comes from a need to interface with the mystery of being human and our ability to create. It tugs at emotion. There is always an emotional core at the center of inspiration.
When do you feel most open to your creativity, or at your creative peak? I feel most open to my creativity when I just sit down and give it half a chance. It is kind of funny that way. I don’t really have to try too hard. I just need to show up and keep on showing up. It always gives me something. There is always a gift. I feel at my peak when I am able to hold the energy of creativity and stick with it, not let it burn me out, or cause me to have to stop. I want to hold the channel (sort of like being able to hold an electrical current) for longer periods of time and with more regularity. I don’t think I am anywhere near my creative peak in terms of my life’s work, though. If I spent more time and gave this creative thing half a chance on a daily basis, and produced years of material, I don’t know if I would even begin to scratch the surface of this peak. Does it have an arc?
Some say music is the only art form that's truly universal. No matter age, race, or economic status it seems everyone loves some form of music. Why do you think that is? Everyone loves music, because music is the language of the soul. Music is vibration. It requires no words, no explanation. It is the color for feelings, like a palette. One strike of a bow on a cello in a certain key can soothe and define the way someone is feeling inside without a single word being uttered. If I am feeling melancholy, and someone plays a minor tone and is also present with the tone they are striking, I feel totally understood and soothed at the same time. It is the recognition and acknowledgement of such melancholy in music that allows us to strike that personal chord deep within ourselves.
"Bones are resonators. Music, made of vibration, resonates deep within our bones."
Tell me about writing your lyrics vs. developing melodies? Lyrics and melodies are tricky. Many times I find if I am initially writing a song with lyrics and melody together then the final product ends up nothing like the original. There is maybe one line in that first draft that is the golden nugget and remains at the core of the final outcome. If I am writing first without music, then the lyric content seems to be much more stable. Lyrics often require a lot of editing for me, as well as having a great co-writer/editor. My producer Evan Brubaker is wonderful in this regard. It is almost as if we have the same brain. With melodies, they either come out as whole pieces or again, like songs, have to be reworked and reworked and reworked. This is again where Evan comes in. He can take a melody I am working on and just expand it, or turn it in a way that more fully expresses what I want to say.
Do you write on a guitar or piano? I like to write on piano these days because I am so bad at it that all I can do is concentrate on the melody. It is a very linear instrument. Everything is lined up right before you, so you aren’t confused about the type of chord you are playing.
You've played venues around the world. What's it like going to a foreign place and looking out on a new crowd? I love it. It is always nerve-racking, but people are pretty gracious everywhere I go. One woman came up to me after a show and had her friend translate. She spoke little to no English. She did not understand the subject of my songs, but said she knew exactly what I was saying the entire time, and that I had given her a lovely gift. I try to concentrate on that when I am nervous about a new audience regardless of where I am playing.
What are you working on now? I am working on trying to develop better writing habits and learning technology. I won a grant from Club Passim (in Cambridge, Massachusetts) in January and bought a synthesizer. Now I want to take the time to learn it. I have not started to compile any work for my next album.
Favorite artist or influence? Right now, Norwegian singer-songwriter Susanne Sundfør gives me hope in everything. She is a full-blown tour de force that is already 100% in her artistry. She started out a bit more in the singer-songwriter realm, then moved into synth and electronic based music on her last album. The emotional landscape of her music is challenging, mature and profound.
You recently quit your job to become a full-time musician? What lead up to that decision and how are you feeling about it now? I felt like I needed to really pursue what I was doing, and give it a fair shake. Waitressing was eating up my time and energy. I was watching my friends zoom past me career-wise. Right now I am a month out and have not had a lot of time to put together shows, etc. because I am still trying to piece together my part-time work. I am happy to not be waiting tables, but I am hoping I don’t get further off my course by having to piece together income with performance. It can be a tricky balance and I am open for new opportunities to come in.
Any advice for other aspiring musicians? Get clear about why you are pursuing a career in music. Talk to a lot of other songwriters/musicians who are working, and make sure you understand fully what you are getting yourself into. It is not a money-making venture these days unless you are a world-renowned performer/artist. If you are doing it because you can’t possibly imagine your life without it, then you are probably on the course to pursue it. However, this doesn’t mean it will be easy. It is where the hard work starts.
Jenee Halstead grew up Spokane, Washington, exploring her mother’s garden and singing along to records with her Dad. In middle school she transformed into the rarest of birds - an athletic choir geek who sang medieval choral works, but loved Led Zeppelin and Dolly Parton. She wrote quietly on her own for years, moving from Spokane, to Seattle, to Alaska, and finally to Boston in 2007. She can be reached via her website, on Facebook or Twitter.