Update and Show!

Hello fine people!

I realize I’ve been very inactive on the internet front, and wanted to post an update for those of you who might be curious about what I’ve been up to.

This year, I took a break from the more public aspects of my singer/songwriter career. Mainly, I wanted to work on writing and recording a new album, mostly by myself, thus requiring me to acquire some new technical skills. Thanks to funding from the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council, I’ve been able to take this time to reset and work on things in a focused and deliberate way. I’ve been living in Montreal for the past few months, so I’ve also been taking in a lot of interesting live music, theatre and visual art.

My hope is to have a new album ready for release in late Spring. It is slowly taking shape and I am very excited to share it with you. More on that later…

I also had been feeling a pressing need to address some deeper issues for myself, surrounding anxiety and my general well-being. My approach to life and career were feeling unsustainable and I needed to make some changes, both internal and external. I felt a lot of fear surrounding taking this time. It has felt precious and necessary but risky. There is a lot of pressure on artists these days to be “on” and engaged all of the time. But that approach has never worked for me, and I’ve often found myself needing periods of greater introspection and space in order to process and write. I’ve learned that both my health and my artistic process rely heavily on these periods. I’ve also learned that one needs to take this time for oneself, because it will never be freely offered or “permitted” by any outside force.

But – I’m getting back to it! I am playing a short set of mostly new songs on Sunday, November 26th at 3pm in Montreal at La Plante (185 Van Horne). If you’re in Montreal, come out! It’s part of a series called Noisesundaee and should be a lovely way to spend the afternoon. Details here.

It’s been a very full year. I grew my hair longer than it’s been since high school, joined a choir that sings Renaissance era music and swam in the Baltic Sea.

Have a wonderful late fall/winter.

Best,

Anna

PS. I’ve come across some really inspiring books this year – in particular, “A Field Guide to Getting Lost” by Rebecca Solnit. I’ve also gotten so much from the “On Being” podcast. This episode is particularly wonderful.

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Weightlifting Post #1

I am a songwriter, composer, singer and violist.

Just over a year ago, I started practicing olympic weightlifting.

This is me weightlifting…

It wasn’t completely out of the blue. I’d practiced yoga, cycling, running, bodyweight resistance training and some other forms of weightlifting, but it still feels as if the sport found me. From the very first day, I was hooked. Never has a sport (or anything, really) affected me so profoundly, and this is my first attempt to put some of that into words.

The first thing that I noticed was the simplicity and elegance of the sport. It requires a bar, bumper plates, a platform and special shoes. There are only two lifts performed in competitions: the snatch (where you lift the bar from the ground to over your head in one movement) and the clean and jerk (a two-part lift – from the ground to your shoulders, then from your shoulders to overhead).

There is a general routine that I follow every time I go. It’s a long list of tasks that happen in a specific order, many of which happen even before the real training begins: get dressed, eat toast, bike/walk to gym, put on shoes, wrap wrists, fill water bottle, stretch/warm up, bring barbell to platform, get a stack of weights, write down the daily workout.

I’ve never been particularly good at sticking to a routine, but I’ve had very little trouble following my twice a week minimum lifting routine for a year (minus a few weeks here and there when I’ve been away or sick). Engaging in this lengthy routine at least twice a week has helped me in two main ways. First, it’s helped me push through some of my inertia in other areas, specifically in my creative practice. Getting started has always been difficult for me. But another more recent revelation is this: perhaps some of the things I was having trouble sticking to or getting started weren’t actually things that I wanted to be stuck to in the first place. This is one that I’m playing with a lot, as I find myself shifting from things I’d always felt like I should be doing to things that I feel a deeper drive and satisfaction from.

Another particular thing about weightlifting is that the work happens in quick spurts. One will do maybe three reps max (or one rep if working at a high percentage of your max), which lasts under twenty seconds, before taking at least a one minute break.

I’ve actually started practicing music in this way. Rather than playing the same passage over and over again, I’ll play something once or twice and then physically walk away from my instrument for a minute or two. When I come back, I’m relaxed, refreshed and reset. Things that I’ve practiced in this way feel almost bulletproof when it comes time to perform them.

Weightlifting essentially requires you to use all of your muscles at once, in a very precise and coordinated burst. It also requires a ton of flexibility and balance. It is rigorous, and I have never worked my body so hard. I’ve also never been this strong before, stronger than I ever thought I would be. I didn’t grow up thinking of myself as an athlete, at least not past the age of seven or eight. Now that I can squat the weight of pretty much every person I know, the confidence is palpable. And this is just one of the ways in which I find myself to be actually profoundly different from my earlier ideas of myself.

I should mention that at the time I got into lifting, I was going through a kind of artistic reevaluation. I had been experiencing a lot of challenges, both professional and personal, and had stepped back considerably from playing many shows or focusing on my songwriting in a big way. My career as a freelance musician was feeling unfulfilling and unsustainable. I didn’t know the way forward, but I knew for certain that the only way to find it was to take some time away. I didn’t stop working altogether but for the first time since I’d started freelancing I took a mental break from the hustle.

I’ve always written songs and composed music. It’s been an involuntary reflex to my being alive. I’ve always believed myself deep down to be a composer. But from adolescence onwards, I  dealt with huge amounts of anxiety and self doubt that often manifested in an inability to trust myself, interfering both with my creative output and my ability to make good career choices. I managed to make two solo albums and participate in many other projects, but it always felt like I was operating with one hand tied behind my back. There was a certain amount of resistance against truly committing fully to my writing.

The only way one can lift something really heavy is to release all sense of doubt, all of your ideas about whether you can or can’t do it, and just focus on the actual task. It doesn’t mean the doubt can’t exist anywhere, but in the moment of the lift, there is only room for the task. It became my meditation. A meditation with easily measurable results.

Almost immediately, this mental process began to work its way into other aspects of my life. I first noticed it in my reading. I was able to focus better than ever before, and could read through an article or chapter of even something fairly technical (like an article on recording technique, or a business manual) quickly, and retain it. This is something I’ve had trouble with since I was a teenager.

Then I noticed it in my playing. Especially my playing under pressure. I am now able to consistently release whatever it is that’s bothering me or distracting me in a particular moment, focus on my body, breathe and then play to the best of my ability. Nearly always. This is something I’ve had to work on very hard over the years, and though it got better through my yoga practice, psychotherapy, and running, it has become most consistent since I started weightlifting.

And now, I’m noticing it in my songwriting and composing. I am not necessarily feeling any more creative, but for the first time in my life, I’ve been able to work at it for at least two hours nearly every day. Whereas I used to get overwhelmed very easy by the idea of working on my songwriting, I now approach it the same way I approach lifting – task by task, with room for doubt in my larger psyche, but not in the exact moment of undertaking the task. In this way, I’ve actually been teaching myself (with some help from knowledgeable friends and plenty of internet articles and tutorials) how to record my own music, something I never in a million years thought I’d be able to do.

I think that the simple physical act of getting up from under a very heavy thing is profoundly mentally transformative.

Another thing I’ve noticed, especially when practicing heavy squatting, is all the ways in which my body tends to work against itself under stress. At some point I realized that while I was working with my legs to get back up again, I was actually PULLING the bar down with my arms. Once I stopped doing that, the motion became a lot easier and I could increase the weight on the bar. So, another question I ask myself these days, which is also a very popular question in Buddhist meditation, is “What can I release here that isn’t helpful?”

It’s also taught me patience. We mustn’t hurry. Sometimes progress happens so slowly and imperceptibly (and sometimes in reverse!) that it feels impossible, and then there is suddenly some magical and unexpected gain.

And now, I am asking a whole lot of questions, that I hope to address in conversations and future posts. 

For starters, I’ve been thinking about the way the arts and athletics are generally placed at odds with each other in our society. Both at school and in my family, you were either an artist or a jock. You couldn’t be both. The crazy thing is, playing music and playing sports share so many elements. They are both deeply physical tasks, and to perform well at either one of them requires almost identical mental training.

Why does conventional music training often deny its deeply physical nature?

Could cross training of this sort (not necessarily weightlifting) become an official part of conventional music education?

How can I further break down these barriers to reveal the essential interconnectedness of all physical practices?

I have thought an awful lot about being a woman, and how all of the subtle things we are taught growing up go firmly against what is required of us to perform. We are taught to shrink, to not be too loud or bold, to hide our bodies, or if our bodies aren’t hidden, that we must be sexualized. But we are also taught to be ashamed of our sexuality. In order to perform, one must be big, take up space, command attention, be fully present in our bodies and be comfortable in that. We must release our need to be liked and approved of. We must release our worry about what other people think, release our need to compete. These are all issues that I have been able to address through weightlifting and other physical practices. I am so eager to keep exploring this connection.

And as I continue my journey, I will continue to track my anxiety levels, both in performance and in daily life, as I know there are still some very profound connections to be made.

Onwards!

Experiments

I’ve been getting some new ideas about performance lately.

One of my favourite writers, Parker Palmer, said that we must only give what is freely flowing within us. Anything else does damage both to us and others. And NOT giving what is freely flowing within us does damage both to us and others.

I’ve always had a tendency to deplete myself when I perform. I’d spill my guts all over the stage. Scrape up whatever I had, even if it wasn’t very much, and fling it into the audience. It felt good in the moment. But afterwards it felt like I’d used myself all up. There was nothing left. I’d get depressed, exhausted.

Lately I’ve been experimenting with approaching the stage with one intention – to only give what is freely flowing within me. No striving allowed. Nothing performative. It’s changed my approach to singing, and it’s made me begin to examine and let go of my people pleasing tendencies. It’s sometimes uncomfortable, hard to stay focused, and I feel the pull back to my old ways.

But there is this great reserve of strength and power that reveals itself only when I take this approach.

And I wake up the next day feeling rested, grounded and eager to play again.

I will continue with this experiment. The next step is to take it to other aspects of my life. We’ll see how that goes.

Also. I have recently discovered my deep love for the little plastic “grab bags” at thrift stores. I’ve been photographing some of my favourite combos. Here are dinos and many many pigs.

pigs-and-dinos

New Album

56-58900 seneca college imp 25 d3178 sept5.eps

Last week I released my second album, Sky Stacked Full. It felt simultaneously huge, but also very small. I wrote some of the songs on the album a full decade ago, although many are more recent than that.

In November 2014, I received a Toronto Arts Council grant to record. I hadn’t made an album in five years, and I was elated. The same day the letter arrived, my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

The next seven months were a blur of caregiving, recording and coping, essentially. My siblings were all around, so I certainly wasn’t solely responsible for my mother’s care, and for that I am very grateful. I also have an incredible group of friends.

But I knew I couldn’t sustain everything in my life on top of my mother’s illness, so I decided to refrain from playing shows, the first time I’d done that consciously in over a decade. I continued to freelance, since it is my livelihood, but I stopped almost all other performing. I also stopped trying to propel my career forward, stopped doing much social media, stopped applying for grants, booking tours.

At first, I did so hesitantly. I hadn’t realized how attached I was to myself as a songwriter and performer.

And then.

I just relaxed. Completely. Even though my life was filled with very stressful and emotional things, this very deep part of me relaxed. Perhaps for the first time since I began envisioning my career as a singer songwriter.

There was an expansion. A deep breath. And then — something I can only describe as curiosity revealed itself to me.

And, then I thought this : perhaps only in the absence of anxiety can we be curious.

I began reading voraciously, something I don’t recall doing much of since I was a kid. I read A Brief History Of Everything by Bill Bryson, Where The Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists by Kay Larsen, a ton of poetry by Mary Oliver and many others. I began listening to podcasts : On Being, Audio Dharma, Radiolab and Astronomy Cast. I felt like I’d been starving for knowledge all of those years, finally noticed it and had the ability to satisfy it.

My work turned very internal. My goals became to be available for my family, to make the best album possible, and to trust myself fully in the process. I made sure to sleep and eat well. I exercised regularly.

I started to notice all the ways in which I was not doing so well. I have always suffered from anxiety and depression in varying degrees, and though I had found ways of coping in a general sense, I had never stepped back far enough to examine exactly what was going on, which beliefs or behaviours might be feeding into those states, what they could reveal to me if I just paid a little more attention. I was able to look at my performance anxiety, my lack of physical confidence and how that affected my live performance. I was flooded with ideas daily, merely because I could finally pay attention.

My mother died on June 19th, 2015. I went back to the studio to record the last bit of the album in August.

It is terrifying for artists to take time away from their public lives. Many of us forgo vacations, even if we can afford them. We rarely take breaks of any kind, or if we take a physical break, we cannot free up our minds. I’ve often felt I was balancing a very unstable stack of connections, opportunities, interest, relationships that might tumble down if I leave it for even a second.

I suppose it did come tumbling down for me. I stopped getting certain kinds of calls. I said no to enough things that I felt pretty forgotten, out of the loop. But I’m coming to realize that it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.

I found myself with all this time and energy. I began going to the gym more, focusing on getting stronger. That practice eventually evolved into training in Olympic style weightlifting, which I now do three times a week. (I will write more about that in a later post).

Losing my mum, who was my last surviving parent, called into question my ideas about approval and success. I noticed my tendency to look to others for acceptance, to show me what kind of art I should make, to tell me what success looked like. I have a lot of really smart, helpful, well meaning people in my life. But I think I was missing the crucial self trust and knowledge that, ultimately, the only person whose opinion really mattered was my own.

So now it feels a bit as if I’m starting over. It feels daunting. Two years out of the loop feels like a very long time.

But I think of all the things I learned along the way. All of the ways in which I am much healthier and stronger, both physically (I can now squat 86 kilos and dead lift 92!) and mentally.

And, another shift happened, which was that instead of wanting to be successful, I have begun trying to figure out how to not be miserable. That may sound like a low bar. But there have been times in my life when I have been successful in an outward sense, but completely miserable.

I decided that if the path to not being miserable didn’t involve playing shows or writing music, I’d be okay with that. I have enough income as a freelance musician that I don’t need to be pursuing a creative career on top of that.

I’ve recently started playing shows again. And I’ve enjoyed it. To my surprise, it feels very different, and much better than before. Perhaps stronger, perhaps more direct. Perhaps more grounded. I’m not sure. But it feels good. So I’m going to keep doing it.

Less than 100 years.

Not very long ago at all, it wasn’t considered a crime or even an embarrassment when a man in a position of power abused a woman. Tonight, in light of Kathryn Borel’s incredibly courageous and direct statement, I thought about just how many women were sacrificed for the men who are celebrated for the development of our culture. I considered those generations upon generations of women who never had a chance to contribute their gifts. It’s easy to imagine that things are so different now. But we’ve had the vote for less than 100 years. ONLY.

I’ve been very lucky, but even so, I’ve been verbally objectified, humiliated, touched inappropriately and sexualized by male teachers, male co-workers, reprimanded for dressing too sexy in a government-run workplace (i.e. being a girl in her early twenties wearing regular clothes), essentially blamed by my boss for a co-worker’s bad behaviour. Every woman I know has had experiences like this, or worse. It is common.

In school, we were taught that sexism had ended (as had racism). I remember feeling a sense of deep pride that I was a girl, and that I was finally free to show the world how great and smart and capable girls were. If I were to identify one clear trajectory over the course of my life, it would be the ever growing realization that though we have made progress, we are far from where we need to be. Still so far from being unencumbered by thoughts about our safety, the male gaze, the subtle competition we feel with other women, which happens between oppressed people.

I often wonder what we would be capable of if we didn’t need to spend so much of our brain power on these things.

Countless influential men, who pepper the media and history books with their knowledge and accomplishments, are also known abusers. As we continue to move forward, as I certainly hope we do, I wonder what our accepted collective history will look like in 50, 100, 200 years. Will we still be celebrating people who achieved success while abusing others? Or will we be telling a different story?

Speaking vs. Not Speaking

I grew up with idols who didn’t speak, except occasionally on the radio or tv.  Although Windsor was a medium sized town, not a lot of folks came through. So I never saw any of my celebrity idols in the flesh. Most of us probably grew up like that.

Impossibly large, flawless characters. You only heard them on their official recordings. Only read their official lyrics. Rarely saw anything but their approved press photos.

One of my first conscious thoughts was that I was a musician. Later on, when I really started to develop my sense of self (and self-consciousness) I decided that the way to be a great artist was to become elusive, aloof, buried in my journal – ultimately SILENT, except when I was creating my art. Like the fancy people I strove after. In my silence, I’d focus on the traits that I thought separated me from the rest of humanity. My unique talents. My drive. My otherness…

I desperately wanted to be seen, heard, listened to. Discovered. But I was terrified of engaging. I’d never engaged with Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell, or the Cranberries. They didn’t ENGAGE. If anything, they lead, presided, but only by virtue of the existing technology and access. Nowadays it seems like an antiquated form of celebrity. And only those grandfathered in by their pre-internet fame can have that kind of weird anonymity within the spotlight.

There is safety and immunity in being untouchable, you know. It’s a nice fantasy.

But it’s also ridiculously lonely. And it’s not enough to propel a career forward anymore either.

For someone growing up with a lightning strength impulse to communicate, restricting that channel to only performances and composing caused me to leap out of my skin whenever I’d open it. A flood bursting forth.

Last week, I had a conversation with a fellow artist about our anxiety surrounding the compulsive social media networking required of most artists today, our resistance to giving up our privacy, sharing the minutia of our lives. It feels too intimate, and incongruous with the idea of artistry that we were served as children. We no longer have the luxury of revealing only polished products and images.

But I’m slowly coming to realize that there’s something really amazing about the immediacy we have now. It used to be imperative to create a polished product in order to reach an audience at all. Now, it seems that the only imperative thing is to communicate at all, which we can do so directly and efficiently. A game changer. And something I’ve recently become enamoured with.

The mere act of talking to a friend and identifying that we both share this same anxiety is enough to nearly neutralize it, at least in the moment – yet another argument for sharing, opening, community. If what we truly desire is a feeling of fulfillment and happiness, then the more truthful, vulnerable and public we are with what we are most afraid of is the perfect way to dismantle the very structure of these fears.

Lately, I’ve been especially enamoured with the writing of Courtney Martin and Parker Palmer. Though they publish books (which are wonderful!), they also write really thoughtful blog posts on a weekly basis, and are active on social media. With such clarity and humility they often put into words things that I’ve been feeling but haven’t figured out how to express.

So, instead of being filled with resentment of these technologies that are forcing us to adapt more quickly than we are comfortable, I wonder whether they are actually helping to wear away at the veneer that insulates us from each other, from our idols, from our humanity.

So. I am choosing to speak. And play. And write.

Last week, I went to the park to sit in the sunshine.

IMG_1867I took a little nap, and when I woke up I laid on my stomach and wrote in my journal. It was glorious!

I was interrupted by a dude with a bike who just sat down next to me and said “What are you writing?” He was maybe in his mid or late thirties, had obviously been out for a ride, had also obviously had a few beers. He wasn’t drunk, but maybe uninhibited.

My first reaction was “Okay, he’s forward, but I’m willing to have a short conversation with pretty much anybody.” But he was asking more and more questions about my writing, saying he was also a writer. (When I asked him what kind of stuff he wrote, he said “Oh, you know, Shakespeare” and wouldn’t elaborate. !!!!! ) He kept asking me to read him something from my journal, obviously with romantic/carnal type intentions and was being more and more pushy. He didn’t seem to understand the word “No.”

I started feeling pretty vulnerable, even though we were in broad daylight, since I was still sort of lying down, and didn’t have shoes on. I pretended to joke with him while I hastily put on my shoes, since he obviously wasn’t taking a hint. When I got up to leave, he said “What, you’re leaving?” I told him simply that it was time for me to go. He said, “I hope I didn’t scare you away.” A huge part of me wanted to say, “Yes, you scared me away. You sat down with me without asking, and you’ve been trying to pry into something I’m clearly not interested in sharing. I was enjoying myself alone, and you’ve ruined it. And you’re creeping me out.” But I didn’t. I just said “No, of course not” and left.

This isn’t the only example of this type of thing happening to me or other women I know, but this time I felt compelled to talk about it.

I’m reminded of some article I read part of awhile ago written by a man to women, saying basically – “You’re doing yourself AND men a disservice by lying about why you’re leaving or rejecting us. Just tell the truth.”

I would love to. Why didn’t I? The truth is, I was afraid of offending him. And not just cause I was afraid of disappointing him, which I know factors into an embarrassingly large amount of my dealings with men, but rather, that I was actually kind of AFRAID to tell him that, indeed, he had scared me off. I knew we were in a public place, but I also knew that I wasn’t that far from my house. I knew that he was a lot bigger than me, and if he’d had any kind of readily accessible empathy at all, he wouldn’t have had to ask the question in the first place. I would LOVE to be able to tell insensitive men to back the fuck off, but even now, I feel too weirdly frightened to. It feels shitty.

The other thing that I was reminded of was a movie I saw a couple weeks ago – a movie made in the last year – where the entire romantic love affair progressed like this: Man asks woman to go on a date. She says no repeatedly. Scene cuts to the couple on a date. Man asks woman to come back home with him. She says no repeatedly. Scene cuts to the couple in bed. And so on.

There are so many examples that show us that when women say no, they actually mean yes, or at least maybe. I can also think of examples in my own past behaviour that clearly exhibits this trajectory. Occasionally, it would be that I’d changed my mind, but usually it was because there came a point where saying yes and accepting the ramifications was a lot easier than saying no.

So maybe that’s another reason it is so fucking hard to say no to a pushy man. “No” doesn’t actually mean anything — except maybe a coy “yes” to a depressing amount of men. There isn’t a way to do it without essentially saying “I’m not saying no” as you back away slowly and hope he doesn’t notice…

As a result, I wonder if women have a harder time distinguishing between our own “yes” and “no”s. I know I’ve been confused in the past. “If this man thinks this is a good idea, then I must just be missing something.” It upsets me, and I have a feeling I’m not alone in this.

I know a ton of men who aren’t like this. I’m lucky to know so many. But every so often, I have an experience that reminds me just how lucky I am. And that makes me see how much more work we have to do to level the playing field.

I’m curious to know other people’s thoughts on these kinds of things…