Friday, April 28, 2017

#Lighter

https://soundcloud.com/jensenmcrae/sets/lighter

My EP is out. Go listen and then come back to this (or better yet, listen while you read).

I really wanted to write a post about all the songs on this EP, because I really love all of them for different reasons. I just want to get out of some of the thoughts and feelings I have about the songs, many months after writing them, a few months after recording them, and only a couple hours after their release into the world.

1. I Don't Date Smokers Anymore
Written: June 2016
I had just finished my freshman year and I was in a writing slump. I only wrote 3 songs in May that I could call legitimately finished, which for me is an abysmal count, and I was feeling uninspired. The piano was dull and the guitar was limiting. But then one day when I sat down again to write, determined to churn something out, regardless of quality, this song came out of me. I didn't realize it was a feeling I had to get out -- the reclamation of self, the declaration that I would no longer fall for people who were better at self-destruction than anything else -- but the metaphor came out so tidily and the guitar part sounded so cool that it felt like fate. Don't worry, I've still crushed on a smoker or two since writing it...;)

2. Night
Written: October 2016
In the middle of October, my songwriting professor brought a guest speaker in to teach us about alternate guitar tunings. I was inspired by the sound, and went home that night to change the tuning on my own guitar. I didn't write anything, as the next night was the first sophomore pop final and I wanted to rest my voice, but I hoped that something interesting would happen to me in the next few days so I could return to the guitar and write something I was proud of. Literally the next day I got my wish...and the day afterward, that Saturday morning, I journaled frantically for half an hour straight, then sat at my guitar, and wrote this song in one fell swoop.

3. I Came Home
Written: November 2016
The 2016 election broke my heart, as you know if you read previous blog posts of mine. My professors consoled us with the knowledge that now, more than ever, our art is important. Our voices matter, especially those of us who are marginalized in some way. The Friday after the election, during my music history discussion section, I wrote the lyrics to this song without humming a note, though I envisioned the chords and melody in my head. The next day, I sat down with my guitar and recorded it in one take.

4. Light Goes Out
Written: April 2016
I didn't write this song envisioning an EP, let alone knowing that this would function as a title track of sorts. But man, did I enjoy writing this song. I was three months into learning the guitar and still figuring out how to trick people into thinking I knew how to play it. I had been playing some version of this chord progression for weeks, but all at once, on one of my last Tuesday nights in my freshman dorm, the lyrics and melody started coming out of me. I've said before that every time I sit down to write, I think I'm trying to write "In Your Atmosphere." This is the closest I've ever come, I think. The day before I wrote it, I heard "Mama You Been On My Mind" by Bob Dylan for the first time, and I quote the title in the bridge. I think this is my version of that song, too. Really, though, it's a love letter to a person who cannot love themselves. A theme, I suppose...

So those are the four songs on this EP. I have written dozens of songs I'm very proud of that I've never shared, and hundreds of songs I'm not that proud that maybe will find a home someday, anyway. I'm excited about this new chapter, about putting all the things I make in my room out into the world. The people who helped produce and play on this are stellar people and stellar musicians. The people who have been sharing it are wonderful friends.

I feel lucky and happy and whole.

#TheLighterEP

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Time and Starting Fresh

I'm not gonna lie to you, I had a weird night last night.

Honestly, it was a weird day that dovetailed into a weird evening that didn't end until 4 in the morning. Ted Mosby's mom was right: nothing good happens after 2 a.m. (although shoutout Mackin Carroll for always bringing his conversational A-game no matter the hour. And his Crazy 8s A-game. We will finish sometime, and I will trounce you.)

Whenever I go to a party, I have a small existential crisis. If you see me looking up to the sky, I assure you that nothing interesting is happening up there, I'm just looking for stars. I started doing this at the beginning of freshman year, when I was so consumed with social anxiety that I needed something to ground me. I chose constellations, however few and far between they may be in smoggy LA skies. If I can find just one star to look at, somehow my brain is satisfied and convinced that Everything Will Be Okay.

These existential crises progress into stranger and deeper spirals the later I stay up. By 4am, the last hour where people could conceivably still be awake without intersecting with those damn early birds who are starting their days, I am Full Philosophical Jensen. Even though I am her, I do not like being around her. She is so pretentious and she talks so much and she writes poems that do not make a lot of sense in the morning.

When I first woke up today, I felt embarrassed. I didn't get drunk or make any materially bad choices, but I had let my night be guided by unrealistic expectations. I thought if I just stayed up late enough, if I just saw the night's events through to their logical ends, then I would receive a reward from the universe. All my insecurities would disappear, all my anxieties would be soothed, all my behavior justified. But the truth is that we mythologize the lateness of the hour because we think time can absolve us of our weaker selves. "It was late" is almost as good an excuse as "I was drunk." Time is relative. At 4am in Los Angeles, it was noon in London, and I had the audacity to believe that I was special. I talked about that at length last night, as I so often do, asking my friends if everyone thinks they're special. Mackin quoted Fleet Foxes lyrics.

So it goes.

I guess I am writing this to tell you that it is not too late to give yourself a fresh start. You can make choices based not only on what feels good, but also on what feels right. You can be radically honest with yourself and the people around you and you don't need a broken clock to do it. You can choose to fix what you did last night, or forget it, or follow it home. You can wash your face and take some Emergen-C and drink a warm mug of tea. I know it's the end of the semester and the end of the month and, unless you are a baby or very old, some strange middle point in the long and confusing continuum of your life, but listen:

You get to pick when your fresh starts happen. And a Sunday in late April seems as good a time as any.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

On Forums and Fangirling

Last night I saw John Mayer at the Forum.

It was a great show.

The first time I saw John, it was a really different experience, to say the least. I finagled my way into the Hotel Café despite being 19 and lacking identification that said otherwise. I sat in the very front of an already small room. I arrived at 7pm to see my good friend Madison Douglas play a beautiful acoustic set, then watched five and a half hours of increasingly intense and awesome music, until at 12:30 a.m., John emerged to no introduction, no announcement, no fanfare. The room released a collective gasp, even those of us who knew he was the secret closer. He played some of my favorites--"Slow Dancing in a Burning Room," an acoustic cut of "Love on the Weekend," "Dear Marie," an underrated track from his less-than-popular album Paradise Valley--and he played some songs I don't get that hyped on--"Who Says," "Waiting on the World to Change," etc. His voice was even more transcendently beautiful live than I could have interpolated from all the live videos I've watched online. His guitar playing was legendary. He was what I wanted him to be and more. I tore a page out of my journal and scribbled a note that said something to the effect of:

Dear John --
You are my greatest musical influence and inspiration. I'm currently studying popular music at USC's Thornton School of Music with an emphasis in songwriting. Every time I sit down to write, I'm trying to write "In Your Atmosphere." I hope one day I figure out a way to do it, and that I make you proud. Here is my email address [redacted] and my phone number [redacted] -- contact me if you are so moved. You are my hero.

Love,
Jensen


When he finished his set, after multiple jam sessions over Bill Withers tunes and a series of encores, I leapt up from my table.
"John!" I yelped. He turned around. Hands shaking, I handed him the folded note--when did I get so bashful?--and he smiled.
"You're my hero!" I blurted.
"Thank you," he said, holding the note up, kissing it (!) and sticking it into his pocket.

I think part of me knew he was never gonna read it, but there it was, attached to his person.

What happened next can be summed up as: I went in the green room to hang out with Madison and Theo Katzman and hopefully get a chance to have a real conversation with John, but dehydration and overstimulation contributed to me fainting--not once, but TWICE. No, that is not a euphemism. I quite literally fainted, mere feet away from my greatest songwriting hero. No word on whether or not he saw or not, because the first time I came to, he was still taking selfies with fans, and the second time I came to, he was gone. I got in the back of an ambulance, they prescribed me food from the 24-hour diner across the street and to Locate My Chill, and Madison and I ate four hundred orders of sweet potato fries and laughed hysterically at what our lives had become.

This second time was more calm. I split an Uber five ways with some other super fans in my program, and while they went up to their seats in the nosebleeds, I sat by myself on the floor. I was next to a very sweet couple who loved John as much as I do. As soon as he came out, we were all losing it. And he really did slay a long and demanding show. His voice rarely wavered, his lock with the drums and bass was the dream of every performance professor in my program, and he seemed genuinely elated to be onstage for us.

But there were parts where he looked tired, and he seemed like he was mailing it in.

I've watched the "In Your Atmosphere" video--conservative estimates only--four hundred million times. I know every vocal inflection and every guitar lick and could probably sing the lyrics and instrumentation a cappella note for note. So when he played it last night and he changed things up, or perhaps forgot his original version...that hurt a bit. And I'm gonna be honest, that video from "Where The Light Is" is one of the most heartbreaking solo performances I've ever watched. Last night at the Forum, 9 years or so later, he wasn't emoting the same way. His raspy voice has this naturally evocative quality, but it wasn't the same. Maybe he doesn't love the song as much as I do. Maybe he was eager to get to his trio set. Maybe he was just genuinely tired from being on the road, knowing he's got many months of touring ahead.

After the show, we rehashed every song in the Uber back to campus, and continued to dissect his showmanship over McDonald's fries. A woman wandered into the restaurant and screamed at the patrons through a hoarse voice that none of us were innocent of sin. We were all college students. Of course we weren't. I digress.

It was 12:30 or so at this point, the same time four months ago when I first saw John Mayer take the stage, and like the previous time, I was more worn out than I thought I'd be. The thing about late nights is that they're not nights at all, that by technical measures it is already the next morning. I got an extra order of fries by accident, and I graciously handed them off. We were all starving, burning through our food at a breakneck pace and having the conversations that all music students have--here's what you need to be listening to, here's who I want to play for one day, here's what John should have played in the acoustic, no, the trio, no, the full band set, here's the best concert I've ever been to. There were lulls borne of exhaustion but never of boredom, because when you go see your favorite artist on earth with other people who love him as much as you do, it is impossible to be bored. But here you thought it was impossible to be tired, impossible to feel weary when you are watching your hero play, when you're someone else's hero and you're playing to a sold-out crowd in one of the greatest cities on earth.

But you can get tired, whether you're awestruck in the audience or up on the elevated stage, looming larger than life above the rest of us. John Mayer is a goddamn human being and I am sorry for ever pretending he was something else. He makes mistakes. His gear doesn't work (and didn't last night, on what one of my buds later told me was supposed to be "Heartbreak Warfare"--DAMN it!). His voice breaks--he had to get surgery in order to get it back, and he thanked his doctor, who was in the audience with us. He has songs he likes, songs he's tolerates, songs he truly hates but knows he has to play anyway. And more than anything--how could I miss this?--he gets hurt. The songs on "The Search For Everything" are about a loss of love that leveled him so profoundly he had to make an album about it. John Mayer is not only breakable, but broken. He gets sick and he gets rejected and he has to pay taxes and this is a job for him, for all of us, last night was a two-hour escape from the drudgery and stress of our lives, but for him, for all the magic and dreams coming true on that stage, he was getting paid for it, and it was work, and there is something about getting paid to make magic that sucks a little bit of the life out of it.

I still love John Mayer. He is still one of my biggest influences. But I don't think I'll ever faint at the sight of him again. And I think I'll cut him some slack if he plays "In Your Atmosphere," and he skips the real ending.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

"I'm Just Not Into Your Voice That Much. I Don't Like It."

The title of this article is a glowing review I just received from the music blog A Little Bit Louder!

When I read it, my first instinct was to chuckle.

Then to cry.

Then to chuckle again.

It's funny. Since the beginning of my sophomore year, I have doubted my ability as a singer and performer. I have felt increasing confidence in my strengths as a writer across all media--songwriting, screenwriting, fiction, poetry, blogging--and dwindling belief in myself as The Artist. I thought it was natural, that very few people make it as artists and that 19 might be the age where I gracefully bow out of the race. I still had big dreams, you know, still wanted to write for big artists, have my music placed in film and television, still wanted to sell a movie (and actually get it made), still wanted to have a book published, etc. These are not the dreams of a small heart or mind. But my biggest dream, the dream that used to keep me up nights, the one that still makes my heart pound when I think about it coming true--that was relegated to the ranks of "astronaut," "brain surgeon," and "President" (although now that I think about it, that last one might make a comeback...)

But reading blogger ChrisDylan's review of my song "Super Moon," a song I'm incredibly passionate about, a song I've believed in since I wrote it when I was 17, a song that is one of my most vulnerable musical expressions I've ever made public, a song that a Grammy-award winning producer thought was good enough to put his name on...well, it changes my tune. (Sorry.)

A lot of my friends have been releasing music to great success. They've got thousands of plays on SoundCloud, performance opportunities I envy, and yes, lovely reviews on music blogs. By those metrics, I'm falling way behind.

But this comment, above all the other negative ones I've gotten since I started using the godforsaken devil's chamber pots known as submission engines, has made me want to bring my old dream out of retirement.

I know I'm going to keep losing faith in myself, because for the foreseeable future, rejection is all I'm going to get. But the next time a guest in pop forum asks who in the room is an artist, I won't sit on my hands. I'll promote the heck out of my new EP (#TheLighterEP, coming to you April 28) and I'll play gigs without worrying about crowd size or applause.

Because nothing is more satisfying than accomplishing your biggest goals, then telling the stories of all the people who said you weren't good enough.