My Cabin in the (Holly)woods

My dream cabin. In the real woods. With snow. And endless tea.

My dream cabin. In the real woods. With snow. And endless tea.

I'm a pretty deliberate person. I like to plan out how I'm going to do something and then get down to it. The problem is I also tend to be a poor communicator, meaning that when I decide to do said something I also forget to tell people and then they wonder what I'm up to, or if I'm still functioning as a human being (hi mum, I'm still alive).

Moving to LA has been an eye-opening experience for me and something I've been figuring out since I arrived has been how to strike a balance between pure songwriting and working on my path as a dedicated artist. In the past few weeks I've been honoured to meet with, and receive encouragement from, some pretty amazing people in the industry. My reaction to all of this was to hide away and write furiously, with one goal in mind: write the best songs I've ever written.

Don't get me wrong, my goal has always been to write good music, but you know that old quote, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got"?

Henry Ford was onto something there. Since taking those meetings and slowly absorbing the advice I received I shut myself away, albeit in a room and not a cabin, and forced myself to start thinking outside of my comfort zone, to dig deeper, write more honestly.

It's frustrating at first to see the edges of the box you've built around yourself, to feel the limits and become acutely aware of how you've put yourself into a corner. It's maddening to re-write a chorus to a song over and over and over again, each time trying something new until you don't think you can possibly come up with something different. There's a mild sort of insomnia you start to develop because you've been so obsessed with trying to out-think yourself that now your mind has decided to run off with the idea and work overtime.

My cabin the in the (Holly)woods.

My cabin the in the (Holly)woods.

There is also a magical moment when you tear aware a little piece of the wallpaper on the inside of your comfort zone, a sliver small enough to let a little light in from the outside. It feels like the effort to tear it off is an order of magnitude more than the size of the hole you make, but what you see on the other side - it's a glimpse into what is possible and it's like rocket fuel on a fire.

Despite the excitement I've also had to become really patient with myself. See, I've had this advice before from almost the same people, but way back. Thing is I never quite knew what to do with the information, how to process it and make use of the advice I was given. I have pictures of me hanging out with some of the most important musicians in my life who were giving me exactly what I needed to hear, but I wasn't mature enough or experienced enough to know how to use it. I've had to learn how to forgive myself for being human, for being young and dumb, and for feeling like somehow everything they tried to impart to me went right over my head. Everyone is on a different track, each of us at our own pace, and at some point it clicks - it just won't happen on anyone else's schedule but yours.

So this is why I've gone very quiet on all public fronts and will probably continue to be quiet for a little while longer. I've made a pact with myself that no matter how I excited I get about a song in the moment I'm not going to put anything out until I am absolutely sure that it's the best I can do, that it's a song that is needed and can touch as many people as possible. For that to happen I'm going to keep digging until I hit that vein of gold, which means going through a whole lot of junk until I get there. I just can't wait to share it with you once I do.

Fasting

 (or How I Learned Just How Much I Rely On Food)

It is amazing how much you learn about yourself when you take away the basics, the stuff you do so much on a daily basis that it's become second nature or habit. I've been fasting from sunrise until sunset for the past 9 days (of 19), meaning no food or drink, and it's something that I've been doing as a Bahá'í since I was 15, something I've come to look forward every time it comes around. For Bahá'ís it symbolises a month of focusing on our inner, spiritual selves before the new year starts the evening of March 20th - and to be honest, it's the most amazing way of preparing yourself for another year.

"It is often difficult for us to do things because they are so very different from what we are used to, not because the thing itself is particularly difficult." - On Behalf of Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 342

Initially there's the challenge of not eating or drinking all day, which I find gets easier as the fast goes on - and the challenge of relearning what you can actually eat. You learn how to focus on the foods that matter, prioritising water above everything; there are mornings I get up a little late and make sure that I at least drink a litre of the stuff before my day starts. By this point in the Fast I'm down to miniature portions, virtually no tea (which is shocking for me), and handfuls of almonds & dates - stomach shrink is real.

The biggest challenge I've encountered - one that seems to shapeshift on a daily basis to keep me on my toes - is that of dealing with just how dependent I am on food for maintaining a daily sense of order. Sure, changing your schedule to get up at 5am and try to be in bed early enough to make that happen (or nap during the day) is a bit tricky, but I've noticed just how much my emotional regulation and general functioning suffers during the Fast. My motivation for self-propelled projects slides and I tend to turn inward, I start to feel a little less stable without the foods I turn to for regulation (tea, biscuits, nuts, etc), I get reluctant to do any kind of exercise, and my desire to socialise goes right out the window.

What I'm learning from all of this is how much of my behaviour sits in the realm of the subconscious mind, how many things I do without thinking and what that means for me. It blows my mind that the simple act of moving two meals to the farthest ends of the day and eliminating one throws me off course. I see how often that having a cup of tea in my hand whilst meeting with someone gives me a sense of comfort and a little distraction (what else are my hands supposed to do?). I've also completely underestimated what I'm capable of without the basics, not that I've been doing more than usual, but there seem to be so many reinforcements in our society about how frail our bodies are without certain things - when I've found a well of untapped energy in just the joy of being alive.

"Besides all this, prayer and fasting is the cause of awakening and mindfulness and conducive to protection and preservation from tests ..." - Abdu’l-Bahá, Bahá'í World Faith p. 368

Lessons so far? Focus on being present as much as possible, aware of who and how I am. And how good tea is.

Back on the Horse

There is such a thing as trying to do too much, but I'm a sucker for the 'trying' part. One of the byproducts of that, though, is starting to lose track of things and it's usually something that happens little by little, eventually catching up to you and saying, "Hey, uh, are we still doing the thing?".

Three months ago I moved to LA, a move that was a long time coming and saw me diving head first into a scene that I've flirted with for a couple of years now. Back in 2013 I made my first trip down here from Oakland to work on some new material with David Pramik and we ended up creating Black Buffalo, a project that sounded nothing like anything I'd ever done before, and opened my eyes to what was possible as a songwriter. Over time I came down here more and more, spending 7+ hours on a bus each way, loving every minute of my creative time, and becoming a part of a community that has embraced me deeply.

Since moving here I've written voraciously, jumping into the deep end of the songwriting world, and though it's been incredible so far I've also learned that I'm having to carve out time to be me - personally, but also as an artist. Writing so much for other singers is amazing, but it means I haven't had the time to write for myself, rehearse, perform, and do all of the things I'm wanting to do online with YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, etc.

The past week or so I've been restructuring how it all fits together and it's a bigger challenge than I expected. I didn't realise just how much time I had for myself when I was just focused on being me - crazy - but I have a feeling it's going to help me concentrate on what's important, create better art, and bring my A game to you. The next couple of months are going to be one giant big experiment, so here's to working for the payoff - more music, better music, better me.

China

I just got back from the most incredible trip to China (thanks to my friends at Ztylus) and, though I'm going to share everything about my experience, I thought I'd give you a quick TLDR before digging in.

  1. Chinese food can never be enjoyed outside of China ever again once you've had it there.
  2. QR codes are everywhere, widely accepted, and are super easy to use.
  3. America thinks they know how to do big. China actually does.
  4. The Chinese people are incredibly friendly and generous.
  5. The Chinese language might look complicated, but structurally it's beautifully simple.
  6. Beijing's air pollution problem is very real and very scary.
  7. Signs of abject poverty can be seen everywhere, even in the centre of the capital.
  8. Pre-20th century Chinese architecture is mind-blowing in its complexity.

Two months ago I was on the phone to Ztylus, a mobile phone lens company I fell in love with last year, and they proposed the idea of me coming out to Beijing to represent them at the China National Convention Centre. Mind-blown I said yes, and 7 weeks later I was on a plane with Rezal, heading to a country I've only ever seen in movies or news reports - and wondering how I was going to kill the 12 hour plane journey.

The first thing you notice when you land in Beijing is how everything seems to be hazed out behind a cloud of brown smog, making it's scale hard to get a grasp of. We were met by Liu, the head of one of the largest photography shops in the city, who became a close friend and companion of ours over the days we were there. I was due to perform for the next three days, starting at 10am the next morning, so sleep was top of my list of things to do upon arrival. Little did I know we were being hosted in the most beautiful hotel right next to the Olympic Green in the north of the city - so sleep came easy, the lights of the Bird's Nest and Water Cube offering a gentle night-light effect.

Waking up the next morning - and after the most incredible breakfast - we headed straight to the CNCC and the Ztylus stage where I'd be performing for the next three days. What greeted me was an amazing sight: a full stage, and enormous screen showing my pictures, videos, and interviews. I was a little nervous when I started my first set as I realised that the language barrier could make things a little awkward, but that quickly dissipated as crowds of photographers and conference-goers started gathering, completely engaged with me.

This continued for the next three days and I quickly developed a group of regulars who figured out my performance schedule, racing over from their booths to see me every time I played. That level of engagement is something I've seen happen in other countries, but over a much, much longer period of time - months, even years - and it confirmed for me what I'd started to realise when we first met the Ztylus team: Chinese people are some of the kindest, most curious and engaging people on the planet. Between shows I was meeting local media crews, spending time getting to know Tim, Zytlus' CEO, and experiencing Chinese culture and cuisine with Rezal. One of the highlights of those first couple of days was experiencing Peking Duck in the most famous restaurant in Beijing that prepares it. Not one part of the duck is wasted and all of it is presented beautifully, with so much care and attention to detail - not to mention deliciousness!

Once my shows were up it was time to spend a couple of days in Beijing itself. I didn't think the magical first few days could be topped, but I entered a completely different world once we left the confines of the CNCC and the Olympic Green. First we explored Tiananmen Square, Beihai Park, and the Summer Palace, and what struck me first was the scale of everything. Walls, gates, paintings, and monuments all seemed to stretch into infinity, colours vivid and entrancing. Beihai Park is a 1000 year-old Imperial garden right in the centre of Beijing, but you would never guess your location from the sheer tranquility you experience when you get lost in the middle of it.

We climbed to the highest point where a beautiful Tibetan pagoda rests, before heading down into one of the oldest markets in the city, experiencing local Beijing foods - which were both incredibly delicious and insanely cheap. We then took a taxi across town to the Summer Palace, an enormous and beautiful collection of temples and Imperial buildings all sitting around a man-made lake. I can't quite describe what I felt while there, but it was something between awe and peace. After climbing an endless series of steps that led to the top of Longevity Hill I found myself looking out over the entire city of Beijing, the scale of it suddenly hitting me. What is amazing, though, is that up there all I heard was the whisper of the wind on the wooden temples, rustling through the trees. Peace.

Our last day saw us visiting the Forbidden City, something I'd be fantasising about since arriving. Again, the scale of it was completely overwhelming. Walls stretched to infinity, courtyards considered mere entry ways dwarfed most modern plazas, and the detail to which everything is crafted stunned me into silence throughout our day there.

Leaving was hard to do. Not only had I met so many wonderful people, but I'd developed a deep appreciation for a nation that I've only ever known through news reports and movies. Media and politicians in the west - and particularly the US - always seem to be finding fault with China, but never offering any real knowledge or perspectives on a country that I think is deeply misunderstood. It's recent history as a communist nation and veritable industrial powerhouse has come to symbolise what most people think of it, but it is so much more than that. It is a deep ocean of cultural knowledge, rich in generosity and creativity, one that we have much to learn from if we only take the time open ourselves to it.

The Importance of Mentors

One of the most important pieces of advice I ever received - and one that has shaped who I am and how I navigate the world - was this:

Surround yourself with a group of trusted mentors, people who inspire you, advise you, and excite you.

Now, I can be a pretty rigid thinker. When I first heard this I immediately created a vision in my head of who these mentors were and how they'd assist me. Firstly, I imagined them all as songwriters or highly accomplished musicians. Secondly, I imagined that they'd all have sage advice about my career (and just my career) and that everything they had to tell me would give me an instant level up.

When you define your expectations before you even start something you're already blocking out an almost infinite number of possibilities and new directions - which is exactly what happened to me. Yes, I learned a lot from the people I was surrounding myself with, but what I began to realise is that what I really needed (and ultimately wanted) was deep life advice, viewpoints from people who have been through life and learned hard lessons, people I could turn to in the heat of crisis and find solace.

I was so caught up in putting career first that I forgot to make sure that the foundation I was building my life upon was a solid one. Career without life is ultimately hollow. I learned this firsthand by observing the people I admired the most in life, learning about their habits, their values, and their ultimate goals, seeing that they managed to have both a successful career and a fulfilling family life (which media would have us believe is nigh on impossible). Once I realised that my mentors didn't necessarily have to be musicians my world opened up.

What I learned on top of this was the most important thing of all - and the most obvious when I look back. Although having mentors is a huge help, you have to act on what they tell you. Mentors don't just magically fix everything, open every door, and clear every path. It can happen that you will happen upon someone who will open big doors for you, but you need to be ready to put in the work to walk through them. Again, it sounds obvious now, but my younger self spent way too long looking for a fix-all solution.

In short, mentors are some of your your best allies, but you need to be ready and willing to act on their advice. What they have to tell you is just a fraction of a mentor's power - it's what happens when you act on it that brings out the real magic.

Time is precious

Last night I did something pretty surreal. I watched a special screening of 'The Walk' at the Skywalker Ranch in Marin, California, and it was amazing to watch it surrounded by so many of the people who made it possible (it's a beautiful movie - go and see it!). At the end we were treated to a Q&A with three of the creative leads and, after nobody seemed up to break the question ice, I asked them when they had first started working on the film.

This got me thinking. Say you're a creative in the film industry. You will work for years on a film and throughout the course of your career end up releasing a hand full of films that you will consider your best work. That means you only really have a limited number of opportunities to do something truly incredible. Even the most popular artists are only able to release a few really ground-breaking or brilliant albums within their lifetimes - John Mayer's Continuum, D'Angelo's Voodoo, Mariah Carey's Music Box. That's not to say that there aren't exceptions, but most of us will have a hand-few of defining moments in our lives, things that we are truly proud of, that will outlive us in the here and now.

Over the past few years I've set myself countless goals and projects - music to release, places to tour, people to collaborate with - and as hard as I try to make it all happen it is just a select few things that make it through the grinder that is life. In the words of Robert Burns, "The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley". It took me nearly 7 months to plan, execute, and release 'The Summer EP', and all along the way I kept wanting the process to go faster. I wanted an April release - that soon became May and then late June. But life is not just our careers and passions - it lies in our relationships, in the little things we need to do each day to stay human and connected.

I've been tempted to think that if we could live forever life would become stagnant. There would be no pressure to do anything because there would always be tomorrow. I've found that the beauty in life lies in those moments that exist only in passing: the glow of mist at dawn, the electricity of a first kiss, toast when it's just crunchy enough. Each moment is an opportunity for us to start creating our masterpieces, and each moment we decide to push it to tomorrow is a moment lost. I'm as guilty as anyone of putting things off for immediate gratification, but I'm working day by day make sure that those defining moments in my life have my fullest attention. Time is precious, so spend it well.