by Christine Kane
Back before I had released a CD and had only written about six songs, someone told a booking agent about me. One day the agent called me at home. He was clearly tired and jaded from many years in the business, booking people for not enough money, and a roster that was too full. I can see this now, but back then I saw everyone as knowing more than I did, and everyone was more important. (I still get like that at times — but the list no longer includes anyone who happens to have a business card.) The agent and I had been on the phone for about five minutes (during which he told me that someone had said he’d be impressed by me, but that he probably wasn’t going to be impressed, but that he thought he’d call anyway) when he asked me, “So, what’s your image?” And I said, “What?” “Your image,” he said. “You have to have an image. What’s your image?”
And that’s all I remember of our conversation.
I tried to paste together an “image” on the spot, like the flimsy plastic Colorform dolls I had when I was little. I don’t know what I said. There were lots of um’s. But I remember the question often. Now that I’ve been playing music professionally for quite some time, I consider it a bad question. Maybe if it were communicated differently, a young artist (and even a veteran artist going through doubt or drought) can ask themselves something along these lines. But in this instance, the agent was asking it from the context of “Can I sell you?” And I have learned that a question like this is better asked from the context of “Who are you and what do you want to say and what’s going to get you through the challenges that are inevitable on a path like this?”
If I could act out the part of the agent in that scene, I’d say something more like this: Okay, you’ve played how many performances now? How do you feel about it all so far? And you know, as an agent it takes me a while to develop a feel for what I can do for an artist, so during that time I really want you to explore this: Why are you doing what you do? Why are you a songwriter? Why are you an artist? And I want you to think of the “bad” reasons, as well as the “good” reasons.
At the time, my answer probably still would’ve been peppered with um’s, but I would have at least been able to approach the process with clarity. If I were honest, mostly back in those days I wanted approval from my parents, and I wanted to prove myself to the teachers who never believed in me, to any guy who had ever broken up with me, and to a few girls in high school who I thought had betrayed me. (I had a bit of a victim thing going.) Unconsciously, I was out for approval and some weird intangible revenge. That was the “bad” part. The good part was that I wanted to be able to make people feel the way that I felt when I listened to great songs, and to move and inspire people the way other performers had moved and inspired me. Not much to go on. But it was a starting point in the process. And this questioning is a process, not a quick answer, and definitely not an “image.”
Don’t get me wrong. An image is great. Now it’s called “branding.” Which is why you see Pepsi billboards that say things like “The Joy of Cola!” And even though you have no clue what the hell that means, you’re supposed to get that this brown fizzle-y drink will make you more fulfilled than, say, a Yoohoo. (As far as I know, Yoohoo hasn’t yet branded. Maybe their billboard will say “This is DISGUSTING!”) An image (or brand) is necessary for marketing, I guess. But it’s not the place to start. An image was great for Sheryl Crow, but my suspicion (and what little I know about Sheryl Crow’s career) is that all the depth and ingredients were already in place, which allowed for a phenomenal success to occur. The same people who worked on Sheryl Crow’s image also tried to create the exact same success with a country artist, and it didn’t succeed. The thing about marketing an image is that it’s so fleeting. If the deeper voice isn’t shining through, an image is just that.
When Harrison Ford was on “Inside The Actor’s Studio,” he said that being an artist is a service profession. I agree wholeheartedly. (Personally, I think that everything is a service profession.) And you don’t have to say inspirational things to “serve.” Just go to a Jimmy Buffet concert. Fun is service. I’ve been every bit as spellbound by Jerry Seinfeld’s new stand-up show as I have been at a Shawn Colvin concert. I was blown away when I saw Oprah speak in an auditorium, and I was blown away when I saw Jane Hamilton do a reading at Malaprops Bookstore. The thing is that each of these people is who they are (image and all) so deeply and so purely that they give us each permission to shine in our own way, too. And that, I believe, regardless of the message contained within each show, is the highest calling.
But it can’t be forced. It takes time. It takes observing yourself, and watching your work as it evolves. I remember seeing Melissa Etheridge for the first time, and oh my god I wanted to be that hip, that cool, that tough, that angry (this was the “Brave & Crazy” years), and I crack up now thinking of how often I tried to work shrapnel and glass shards into my lyrics. Luckily, this was long before I started performing live so no one ever heard my lesbian-wannabe attempts. After years of trying to be everyone but myself (of whom I was profoundly terrified and ashamed), I could start to relax and open up to this quiet authentic voice in me and allow it to have a moment here and there.
If I were Deepak Chopra, I’d offer you “Five Steps to Finding your Purpose and Image.” And three of those five steps would have two or three more steps contained within them. This would allow you momentarily to have the illusion that this process is linear. Alas, (I never say alas, but I am saying it now) there aren’t steps. And none of this is linear. But I can share a few thoughts I’ve had about this idea of purpose and image, and what I’ve learned in my own process…
If It Makes You Happy
Lots of people say to “Follow your bliss!” or “Do what makes your heart sing!” and the pressure of that can be enormous and almost meaningless. (“The Joy of Cola!”) Bliss and singing hearts are big deals. I don’t like big deals. I’ve found that happiness speaks to me quietly. And sometimes our heart’s song is buried under so much garbage that it’s hard to uncover it. Early on in my career, at even the worst “everyone – is – drunk – and – one – guy – is – actually – eating – pickled – eggs – from – a – huge – jar” shows, the audience laughed at some of the things I said. Now, THAT made my heart sing. I didn’t know I could be funny. And I didn’t even know how much I loved making people laugh. I resisted it because, again, I wanted to be tough (like Melissa) or hip (like Shawn) or at least cooler than someone who was simply funny. But without trying, it just started happening. And so, instead of just hoping it would continue, I honed it. I became interested in learning how to tell a story. I found myself writing (and resisting writing) funny songs. And now, I study humor. I love comedy. I recognize it as a great art form on which I will be working for years and years.
So ask yourself : What makes me happy about what I’m doing? And do I resist it for all those stupid ego reasons or because it seems too effortless or not cool enough? And what are all the other reasons why I am scared to pursue this? My friend Tammy Scarbrough is a massively talented massage therapist. She wants to start writing about healing and recovery and to facilitate retreats. Her resistance comes from her years in academia. She is constantly challenged by her cynical/scientific voice that’s always rolling its eyes at her flakey ideas. And I know that side well (I am the youngest in a family of academic types), so I continue to encourage her to allow the flakey in, and charge forth in spite of it. (Her cynical side actually makes her a GREAT teacher and healer because she’s able to hear other people’s doubts and speak to them with clarity.) If you were to actually trust what your heart tells you, what would you be doing…and what would you stop doing?
Be. Do. Have.
When I facilitate retreats for women, I open up with this concept. Be. Do. Have. Be what you are, be that person you want to be. Then, do everything you do from that place of being, and with that vision in mind. And then have. The rewards, financial and otherwise, come pouring (or trickling) in from your work in the world. They can’t help it. This model requires a lot of faith. And it’s never good news to people who are used to “going out and getting.” Create an image! Get what you want! Have a Pepsi!
The “being” part of this is obviously the foundation. It’s the whole point. In 1999, I had a huge meltdown because I was so crazy tired from being on the road, running around in a very imbalanced way, trying to be singer-songwriter chick and do it the way everyone had told me to do it. I spent the year asking myself why I was so unhappy if I was pursuing my dream. Wasn’t I following my bliss? Wouldn’t Joseph Campbell be proud?
During that time I got very clear about my choices, and about who I choose to be versus who I’m trying to be. I recognized that I wanted to serve, but that I had an awful lot of ego voices in my head running me ragged. I entered into the “be” part of the equation. I did a lot of writing that year. And praying. And emoting. I still did some shows, but the year brought about a huge restructuring for me, which led me to fire my agent, limit my touring schedule significantly and write the most honest songs I had ever written. (All of the songs on “Rain & Mud & Wild & Green.” ) Everything I did or planned came from that foundation. It changed my life and my work radically.
If You Genuinely Have Something to Say…
In her book, A Return to Love, Marianne Williamson writes, “Arnold Patent wrote that if you genuinely have something to say, there is someone who genuinely needs to hear it. We don’t have to invent an audience so much as we have to hone the message we plan to give them once they get here.” The image model of being an artist (of being an anything) in this world is about invention. It’s the “doing” without the “being” inside. It’s the Spice Girls.
One way I can illustrate this idea is through the idea of song contests. I get asked by beginning songwriters whether or not they should enter song contests. My advice about these contests (most of which happen at big festivals) is to stay at home and keep writing such great stuff that the festival will come banging at your door someday because they have no choice. Your time is better spent in the becoming or in the writing, rather than in the ever-illusory “exposure” of winning a song contest. And this doesn’t mean that if you don’t think you have anything to say, don’t bother writing until you do. You always have something to say. You always have a voice. My point is that your voice and who you are becoming is so so so much more important in the world than contests will ever be.
I like the idea of life as a work of art, meaning “always in process.” Everything I’m most proud of in my life and everything that has busted me open in great (and sometimes painful) ways has come through being an artist, through having my own business as an artist, through being in this process, through being willing to be scared and going for it anyway, through writing a song even when the voices were screaming “this sucks!” Those are accomplishments that no bio, website, song contest, Grammy award or image can give or take away. And if, back in my early 20’s this agent had conjured up some image or brand of me that I then had to contort myself to climb into each day so that I could gain approval, ultimately I would have crashed. Though I’m sure the approval would have felt fantastic for a while. After all, there is no joy in cola. Just a brief sugar high.