Chapter 3: Build Your Own Stage
How do we decide what we are passionate about in life? Many of us spend our entire lives searching for our calling. It is the big existential question of our time. We are looking for one thing to complete us, be the answer to all of our problems and be the guiding beacon in a dark confusing world. We may ask ourselves, what is it that we are searching for? Or, what is my destiny?
Here’s something I’ve learned over the years: we don’t have one true calling. In fact we have hundreds of different callings throughout the course of our lives. As we grow and change, so do our interests and passions. They may be similar or connected or may take a zig zag obstacle course over time. For example, I have one friend who started off as a fashion model and now works as a gardening teacher on a farm. And I know another person who started as an electrical engineer and later became a film director.
You can take the pressure off of yourself to try and find one thing to define your entire life as a young person. While society is set up for us to pick something and perform that task over and over for the rest of our lives, that is antithetical to how we, as humans, live and learn. What’s more important is to discover what you like as well as what you don’t like by trying different things and seeking new experiences. It’s not about the work itself; it’s about which aspects of the work make you feel curiosity and joy. There are a million ways the things you like can play out through the course of your life either through personal relationships or through projects and jobs. While you pursue these various avenues and outlets, you learn about variations of yourself and come closer to defining who you “are”.
When I was young, I was pulled in many directions to try this or that. Sometimes I was good at this and would succeed and sometimes I was bad at that and would fail. Sometimes I was good at one small part of something but not all of it or found that I liked one aspect of something but not another. All of these were valuable lessons and helped me sharpen who I am over time. Whether I succeeded or failed, I learned something. And while perhaps the specific thing I was trying to accomplish didn’t work, it not only taught me how to better define myself and interests but also many unexpected lessons that became useful down the line. This process is you’re calling.
Passion is more important than talent
It happened one night on a whim. I think it was 2005 or 2006 but to be honest it’s hard to remember with any real accuracy. Keep this in mind: the events and activities that feel really important to you at the time, you literally won’t even remember a decade later. For what it’s worth, this story is the best I can remember.
I had been out of college for a few years, had a part time job teaching video to underrepresented kids, and was working on a bunch of art projects. I had realized that politics and culture were both really important to me, and I found ways to work on several things that satisfied each area of interest. I was living happily with my boyfriend and had cobbled together some income and a pretty cool life; I had a general sense of what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go but no firm plans around anything specific.
One night, I was at a bar in Lower Manhattan with some friends when I had what felt like a major revelation. I was dancing to David Bowie and was feeling particularly alive — filled with happiness, surrounded by friends, inspired by art. I realized in that moment that maybe it was actually music that had always mattered to me most in life. While I studied film and thought I wanted to be a storyteller, I found the medium to be old and stuffy. The audience sits in a dark room alone and consumes your story, it is a very one-sided conversation. Music, however, has an immediacy, both a contemporary relevance as well as a historical marker; it tells stories, it has feelings, it shares the human experience, it even makes you move involuntarily. Music creates community. It brings people together, young and old, rich and poor, around the world in a way unlike a lot of other art forms. I had no real experience with music other than as a fan, but I realized that night that maybe I wanted to be a part of it, not just as a listener, but also as a creator.
This all happened around the same time as I was turning 27, and the recession hit right as I was having my Saturn Return. That’s that astrological thing in your life in which everything gets turned upside down and nothing seems to make sense anymore. I talked about this at the time as if I had been ready to become the person I was meant to be, to find “myself”. Most of my friends were marrying their college sweethearts, moving to the suburbs and starting to have kids. I didn’t think that was for me, so, while everyone else I knew was settling down, I decided to go get lost and find myself again.
I didn’t just decide one morning that I wanted to start a band. Instead, I decided that I needed to open myself up to new opportunities and experiences-to try things I hadn’t tried to see where they would lead. I’d long thought about my dance-floor epiphany and decided to see where my dream to create music might take me.
I wasn’t a musician, but my brother Brad was in a band so I asked if I could join him on stage from time to time. I started joining for one song and then a couple of songs, playing tambourine in the back and then I’d start to sing some backing vocals on a chorus here and there. Looking back, I can see that this was the right approach for anything I was trying to accomplish. Breaking down big challenges into small accomplishable goals. The mistake many people make is they over-try, meaning that they have a goal and then work really hard at trying to go directly to the end goal — 0–1 million overnight — instead of building organically over time.
About six months later, one of the main members of Brad’s band moved away from New York City, and the band broke up. At around this same time, I broke up with my boyfriend whom I’d been with for the past 5 years. Suddenly, I was in a place where my life as I had known it no longer existed. And so feeling like I needed a fresh start, and looking for a new adventure to direct my energy toward, this was a perfect time for a change. All of the pieces were in place, the shambles of a broken band with some following and momentum, me with a newly found abundance of freedom and time, and nowhere to go and nothing to do, so it made a lot of sense to jump on this opportunity. It’s important to learn how to identify opportunities. The universe is constantly surrounding you with the pieces you need to take and run with them. But you have to know how and where to see them. An educational guide at a historic home once told me, “Take what you have and make what you want”.
One night while I was out with Brad, I cornered him. “Brad, I’ve got a great idea. I’m going to learn how to play the drums and sing and we’re gonna start a band and play, just the two of us.” He looked at me. “Jess, you are not good enough to be a musician,” he said. I couldn’t argue with him — I wasn’t a musician — but I was determined not to let that hold me back. I was passionate about music and I knew I needed to try this experience. So what if I wasn’t super talented? I wasn’t trying to be Stevie Nicks; I was just trying to create something. The next week I was able to finally convince Brad it was a good idea, as a temporary solution until he could get a new band together and we immediately made a post on our Myspace that said, “Cool news, we started a band!” It was official and now we had to follow through.
Once we decided to do this, we started moving fast. We changed the old band name from The Mountain Men to The Frontiersmen and then shortened it to This Frontier. A friend, helping us brainstorm band names and waxing poetic said, This Frontier Needs Heroes, and we knew we had our name. We thought of the name as a lifestyle. It meant to look in the mirror and find the hero within yourself, instead of looking for false idols or heroes. Plus, “frontier” was a nod to the past while thinking about the future. It evoked images of people plunging into the unknown territory, looking for a better life — kind of like I was trying to do.
I was excited to try something new, but Brad had been right about my musical ability. No matter. I started to teach myself the drums and how to sing. I didn’t know where to start. I think I was too embarrassed and too broke to take lessons and had too much pride to admit I didn’t know what I was doing. Brad had a friend’s drum set in his basement, and I would put on headphones and listen to songs I liked and just try to drum along. I’d pick songs with a really simple drum beat, something that was distinctive and iconic but that I could actually play along to. I remember drumming to The White Stripes Seven Nation Army with its simple kick drum. The drums are really hard! I was getting discouraged but I had to figure out something I could do to be successful at.
Brad and I put together a really stripped down drum set that I could play simply while still sounding good. We didn’t have any money, so we found an old marching band drum on the street at the school by my apartment and put legs on it to use it as a bass drum. I had one little cymbal and played both it and the drum with this huge mallet that looked like a giant Q Tip. It was really more atmospheric and vibe-y than a traditional drum sound. You could accurately describe it as “minimal.”
I started singing very simple — probably barely audible — oohs and ahhs behind Brad’s lead vocals. At first I was afraid to hear the sound of my own voice through the microphone and tried to cover it up by being quiet and hoping no one could hear me in a noisey club through a bad speaker system. To help get over my nervousness, I thought a lot about history’s most important singers for inspiration. John Lennon famously hated the sound of his singing voice and a particular recording technique of doubling his vocals was developed just so he could stand to listen to himself. Bob Dylan is arguably the worst singer of all time but also one of the most influential musicians in American history. Those voices lacked a tonal perfect sound, but they compensated with feeling and truth, something that people connected and identified with. And that I realized was something I could do. I realized singing wasn’t about being good; it was about putting yourself — your voice — out there. It was about using it to connect with others about things that are important to you, that you care about, and that mattered. Over time, I let myself sing louder.
I ultimately had no formal classes or training, just did everything from what I could hear and feel. I also taught myself the ukulele and then eventually the autoharp, folk harp, harmonica, and flute just from listening and playing along. I could play a lot of things a little bit, just enough to add some texture to whatever we were doing. I remember the day when I bought my ukulele. I gave myself a 2 week deadline and then I had to perform with it and sing a song all by myself — something I had never done before — at my friend’s art show. I learned how to play the old folk song “Home on the Range” because I knew it would be easy to learn and was essentially a sing along, so if I messed up the audience could join in.
The night of the performance, I was extremely nervous even though I was performing for a room full of my friends and peers whom I knew would support me no matter what happened. Instead of letting my fear get the better of me, I remembered how hard I had practiced and told myself I was ready. I didn’t worry about being perfect but instead about having fun and being playful. As soon as I felt the audience respond, I felt a rush of excitement. I remembered all of the words and chords and people started to sing along. All of a sudden I — a self-taught amateur singer and ukulele player — was commanding a roomful of people and getting them to join me in song. After that night I knew I could do anything I was afraid of.
One night, about a year after we started playing live shows, we had a gig at a bar in the East Village during a blizzard. As we were packing up the car for the show, we thought; it’s snowing, it’s a Wednesday night, it’s in the East Village — no one is gonna come to this show. We decided to leave the drum set behind because it was big and a hassle to carry. I would play tambourine and sing and stand right up front on the stage next to Brad.
Of course, the place was packed! I was so scared to stand and sing with no drum set to sit and hide behind. But we were there and I didn’t have time to be scared or shy away. This was the moment I had to step up to the mic and give it a shot.
During that show we realized this was the perfect set up for us as a twosome and as siblings for several reasons. One, it was never one person in front of the other so there was no weird power dynamic of someone being better or more important than the other. Two, it was really different from what other people were doing, so it made us stand out and created a very special and intimate live performance. And finally, with nothing more than our voices and a guitar, we could fill in the space with the things we didn’t have — a full band and additional instruments — by making jokes or dancing along to the songs and inviting people into the music. Our lack of a traditional setup became our biggest asset because it forced us to fill that space. We knew each other so well so we were really good at improvising and riffing off each other. We would make people feel like it was ok to laugh and to feel, not just to sit there and listen.
This first year or so of the band I was still learning and trying new things while we were already playing out in front of audiences. I was starting small while also having enough pressure and accountability to push me to follow through. I was parallel pathing so I was taking on challenges that were exciting to me while also not taking on more than I could chew. This is a sweet spot for finding motivation and following through on accomplishing your goals.
One of the most important things I learned through these years of trial and error was that the end goal of life is not to be “good” at something, it is to be good at life. Life is a way to practice the experience of being alive many times, to continue to improve and tweak, evolve and change until you’ve found the things you love and can share that love with the world. There will not always be one true answer. Probably the best example of how I learned this comes from my days in the band.
I was successful at learning to play not because I was good at music but because I loved what I was doing. I loved being on stage, performing and singing, meeting and talking to people at the show after. And the love I had for what I was doing could be seen and shared with our audiences. Everyday we stop ourselves from doing things because of the narratives in our head and the stories we tell about ourselves and our potential. “I can’t, I’m not good enough” we say. But what does it mean to be good enough? Talent is rarely naturally given. While we may be born with certain aptitudes, the most talented people in the world had to work extremely hard to cultivate their skills. And the qualities of some of the greatest heroes in the world are simple things within all of us like confidence and courage. Qualities anyone can develop and maintain. You are born knowing nothing and the only way to accomplish anything is to learn how to do it. And the only way to learn how to do it is by trying, failing, and then practicing until you get better. If you’re passionate about something, don’t be afraid to try it.
Experience is more valuable than money
We were always entrepreneurial about the band. We knew it had to be only the two of us because anything else was a barrier to our success. It’s too hard to get 4 or 5 people to agree with one another, to keep four or five people happy, fed, fulfilled, excited, agreeable, positive, not too drunk, not fighting, you know, all the things that are important to keeping a band together. Plus, we knew if it was just the two of us we could survive on what we made. Between the cash we made from tips, door covers, and selling merch, plus our wits, and a healthy sampling of favors from friends, we could make the band our job as well as our lifestyle.
We also knew that since we were siblings, there wasn’t anything we couldn’t get over. We could say anything to each other, like the meanest, most hurtful thing you could ever imagine, and go back to being friends a minute later just because that’s how families work. This is probably the most important quality to have in any type of working relationship, how to fight well and move on productively. Choosing a work partner can make or break your business or project. It’s sometimes difficult to see our strengths and weaknesses and to really know what we are good at and enjoy doing. That is the first step in choosing a work partner, knowing yourself. It’s also important to know that you are better off working with someone who is committed and passionate in the present as opposed to looking endlessly for someone who is “perfect”. Perfection doesn’t exist. Keep working and moving forward even if it’s less than ideal. It’s better to grow than to stand still.
Our live show was probably our greatest asset because of our on stage banter and audience rapport, but we quickly realized that shows were not really worth the time because we were missing out on the opportunity to actually make money off our music. The way booking worked at our stage was that a venue would give you a time slot, expect you to bring everyone you know to the show, and then give you a small percentage of the money and maybe two crappy beers for playing. We ended up bringing all of our friends to someone else’s space to have a good time and then essentially paying them so we could play. It was pay to play and we were doing all the work and not reaping much benefit. That system didn’t make sense to us.
That summer we decided to throw our own events. One of our friends had a gallery in Williamsburg with a backyard, that we had previously played some shows at and used to hang out in. We put together a summer music series, where once a month we curated 3 bands to play in the backyard and then we would headline the bill. We called it The Garden of Earthly Delights, and it was such a success that we returned for 3 years and expanded it to more and more shows every year. It grew so much that we even had corporate sponsors by the end. This way, we were able to have control over the space, made all the money from the door and the bar and split it evenly with the gallery. We were still doing all the work, but we were being compensated fairly for that work.
Along with being able to take a larger share of the profits, we were able to build a community. Often the bands we booked for The Garden of Earthly Delights would come to all of the shows in the series. Everyone was friends and wanted to help and support each other. They understood how important it was to be connected to a greater narrative than their own success. We also knew that the best way to make friends was by working on projects together and for us that meant playing shows, making flyers, making music videos or taking photos for your friends bands. If you wanted to meet someone or be friends with someone, the best way to do it was to invite their band to play a show because then, through the process of organizing the show and playing the show, you would get to know them. Everyone was coming up together, and you had a pool of all of these crazy talented artists who could do a bunch of different things. Everyone shared insider tips and secrets and swapped favors.
Most of the people in this community were not rich. They had come from nothing and had some kind of freelance job to cover their bills. But everyone they knew worked the door at a club, or slung coffee or beer, and favors went around and around so that outside of rent and utilities it was virtually free to live in NYC. This became essential in the recession that was about to hit our neighborhood. I saw some of the best minds of my generation have to give up on their dreams, to move back home or take “real jobs”. For the first time I experienced a distinct lack of money and opportunity in NY. This network didn’t just help promote our band or our music, it helped everyone survive. This is how communities supported each other and created a value greater than money.
During this time, and after about two years of playing shows and developing our sound and style, we wanted to record our first album and try to release it on a label. We felt like we had done a lot on our own and in our neighborhood and were ready to take it to a bigger stage. We took all of our savings and hired our friend to record us. I think we could only afford 3 or maybe 4 studio days total. We asked a couple of our friends to play bass and electric guitar on a couple of songs, but it was mostly just me and Brad. We also had a friend stop by and take some photos. We may or may not have paid them all in pizza and beer.
The next step was to try and get a label to release the album. We looked at all of our favorite contemporary bands and saw which labels they were on. We also looked at what other bands sounded similar to us or were in a similar genre to find labels who might potentially sign us. We didn’t have the money or resources to go after everyone or take a numbers game approach, sending out CDs to hundreds of labels, so we had to be really sharp and focused on who might actually really like us and sign us to their label. I remember so distinctly we sat on my living room floor and made burned CD copies of the album from my computer. Then we hand signed each copy with a gold paint pen and sent little gift packages with buttons and t-shirts to all the labels on our list. I wonder if any of those people still have those, or if they just threw them away.
We believed so much in what we were doing, and saw everyday how much our music made an impact on people’s lives, through their comments and support that I don’t think it ever occurred to us that we wouldn’t get a response from a label. But after all of our hard work and effort, no one offered to put it out. Looking back, not getting signed was probably a blessing in disguise. We knew we had something special and that we could take this further than just playing shows around town. If no one invites you on the main stage, just build your own stage and put yourself on it.
We already had the base foundation of the band built. We knew how to play songs and perform, we knew how to book shows and get friends to come out, we knew how to partner with other bands and make artwork to promote our albums. We knew how to record and manufacture a CD and sell it online and at shows. We even knew how to make (a little bit of) money off our music. We were essentially operating a startup, acting as Co-CEO, CFO, and CMO of the band. We knew that we may make less money overall than taking a more traditional route, but that in relation to the amount of effort we put in and the other things we’d be gaining by doing it all ourselves it was actually a way better deal.
In order to fully commit to this endeavor, I decided to quit my job. At the time I was working at an after school art program I had built from the ground up in a recreation center in Lower Manhattan where I taught documentary filmmaking to underrepresented kids. I decided it was time to take the leap, take this to the next step and see how far we could go. In my mind, our potential and opportunities were limitless. I only saw the positive reinforcement in all we had tried and succeeded at. In reality we were just scraping by, but it felt like this could be a real thing like we could become professional musicians and actually make a living touring the world. So I decided to invest and made a sacrifice and left my job. I packed up everything in my apartment, put it in the basement, got a subletter and moved to my mom’s house in the suburbs.
You have to have the courage to fail. And I mean like fall on your face fail. Everyday when I walk into some corporate office, I say to myself, if the worst thing that ever happened was I got fired. And the worst thing after that was that I could never find another job in NYC again. And the worst thing after that was I ran out of money and had to leave NYC. That would be a blessing and probably the best thing that could ever happen to me. I have absolute gratitude for every moment here but I also have nothing to lose. And I know I live a blessed life compared to my grandmother who was a depression era farmer in the south or even my mother who raised 2 kids on a waitress salary and with an alcoholic incarcerated husband. I’ve been a dreamer, a musician, a media executive and I could give this all away in a heartbeat to live a simple life by the beach somewhere in a third world country. That’s actually what this book is all about, it’s your story to tell so do whatever you want.
Being an entrepreneur is really really hard. Creating your own path is really really hard. And even more so when you’re building every piece truly from scratch. It’s not as simple as the seemingly overnight success stories you read in magazines or inspirational memes about “hustling’ you see on Instagram would have you believe. But ultimately, even when you have a “real job” with a company you’ll need to take an entrepreneurial or creative approach to climb that ladder. Learning how to build things autonomously was the fast track to success. What I taught myself through the band is what made me successful in music and in jobs in other industries years later because I knew how to teach myself new things, start something from the ground up, and create something that didn’t exist. I could operate a company not just perform a task. I could think big picture about strategy and see how all of the roles fit together as well as operate day to day on the minutiae that brings the strategy to life. I had spent my 20’s building value through experiences as opposed to money. And that experience was more valuable than any paycheck I could have made.
You Can’t Do It Yourself
I remember feeling like it was completely possible that if I did this, made this choice to quit my job and sublet my room, and leave town with this band that some parts of life might pass me by or that I could miss them completely. All of my friends were settling down, and while I was only in my late 20s I felt the pressure to do the same. Instead though, I felt so strongly, with absolutely not one ounce of doubt in my mind, that this was the right thing to do. And that if I didn’t do this, not only would I regret it for the rest of my life, but I’d be wasting an opportunity that not everyone gets to have. That more than anything was at the heart of my motivation. My father was deeply troubled and suffered from depression and alcoholism for most of his adult life. I always had this feeling that he had wasted his life, and this was my chance to redeem it for him and use my life for some extraordinary act of proving something that couldn’t be done.
In November 2007, Brad and I were at our mom’s house in CT making Thanksgiving dinner when Brad came running into the kitchen. “Oh my God, you guys will never believe this. But we just got a Myspace message from a festival in the UK that wants us to come and play next September.” At first we were completely shocked and didn’t believe it. How could they have even heard of us? Is this a scam email? But after looking into it, we learned it was this really awesome festival called End of the Road and they were focused on what in the UK they’d call Americana music. We looked at the line up and it was all of our contemporaries, every band who we wanted to play with would be playing.
And they were going to pay us £1,000 (more than we had ever made before) and we’d play in a tent for over a thousand people (more people than we had ever played for before). We played a lot of shows, but it was mostly in places and for people we knew, maybe 50–100 people at a time, in backyards and bars across Brooklyn. This was a whole ‘nother level. This was the break we had been waiting for. We had jumped off the cliff and the returns were already coming back to us. We decided to take this seriously and dedicated the next ten months to preparing for our UK debut.
We started booking a US tour so we could practice playing live for new audiences and continue to hone our live act. We had no idea where to start so we looked at our friends’ bands on Myspace and basically just copied which towns they were playing in and which venues they went to. We designed a route to do a figure eight across America with 60 shows over 60 days with stops that wouldn’t be too far in between. Once we had that, we emailed probably 100 people in every town. All of the venues, coffee shops, local newspapers, house concerts, DIY promoters, college radio promoters — anyone who we thought might like us. We’d email people all day and then eventually, at least 1 person would respond to us and book us to play a show. And that’s how that first cross-country tour was booked, one email at a time. After emailing people for 2 or 3 months we finally had all 60 shows booked.
Our tour was set to kick off in the Spring. In the meantime, we wanted to get a head start and do some more local and regional touring. We decided to book a short 4 day tour of New England and brought a friend who played bass for some backup and a friend who was a photographer to take photos for the album we had just recorded and were about to self release. We made home-made tie-dyed t-shirts with our band name written in gold puffy paint along with homemade copies of our CDs to sell. We made an easy route, up through Vermont to Montreal and back, and off we went on this wacky road trip in our mom’s old Honda Accord.
The first stop was in Montpelier, Vermont, at a coffee shop that turned into a restaurant and bar at night. When we booked this tour, we were only guaranteed to make money at the door and off of our merch, (which wouldn’t amount to much) so we didn’t have enough money to afford a hotel. Our plan was just to show up, make friends with some people in the audience and convince them to take all 4 of us into their homes for the night.
We had finished playing our set and watching the other bands but we still didn’t have any place to stay when we started talking to a girl in the audience. After a while, it was getting late and we had to just ask her directly if she could host us. Let me tell you — that is scary and hard to do. Asking for help or favors from strangers cuts to the heart of our fears around rejection and imposition. But she offered to let us stay because, as it turned out, she lived in an old motel, with a main residence and several cabins on the property. She also owned a chocolate shop and made her own handmade chocolate granola right there on the property. We thought this sounded great and took her up on the offer to stay.
When we got there, we found that what she meant was that we could sleep on a concrete floor in her main cabin residence. And so the four of us, too late to do anything else, put down our sleeping bags on this freezing cold concrete floor in Vermont in December and went to sleep laughing at the absurdity of the situation. When we woke up in the morning, we also discovered that the previous owner of the motel was a WWII enthusiast, and the entire property was covered in war memorabilia. It’s pretty alarming to wake up in a foreign place, not to mention one with antique tanks and guns strewn about the property. Nonetheless, our host was kind and welcoming and even gave us a tour of the chocolate factory. We thanked her for her hospitality and went on our way.
We were relying on the kindness of strangers for our entire livelihood. To come to our shows when they had never heard of us and didn’t know us, to buy our CDs and t-shirts, to put us up in their homes, to give us money to feed ourselves. It was hard to ask people directly to support us in a variety of ways, either through their time, money or shelter, but we were living off of the band and didn’t have a choice but to ask. When we first started I was afraid and thought people would be mad at us but over time I saw how much people wanted to give. We were doing something many of them wished they could do themselves, but didn’t for a large variety of reasons. When they supported us financially, it made them feel like they were a part of what we were building, and they were because their contribution directly enabled us to continue to create and share our music with people all over the world.
I had never had so much faith in humanity then at this time in my life. It was remarkable how we could walk into a new city we had never been to before, find someone interesting we could relate to, and make friends to the point where they would offer to care for us. It truly was a beautiful thing and we survived like this for years, in our own personal version of the sharing economy. It’s also insanely bizarre, to just type in a place to a GPS, in a city, town or state you’ve never been to, drive 3 or 4 hours and then show up there and be present and open to have an experience there. We saw first-hand how much pride people have in their towns, no matter how big or small, and they wanted to show us things and take care of us. We would have never been able to have the band at all or grow it as much as we did without this support from others. We owe a lot of what we did to everyone who helped us.
Soon after the new year, we set off on our full US tour. We had barely played outside of NYC and had never driven across the US before. We started down the east coast and through the deep south, up through the Midwest to the Pacific northwest and then figure eight-ing down the west coast and back through the midwest all the way home.
The first month was incredible. We played 30 shows in 30 days in 30 towns across the south and midwest. We were tired but happy and still excited about our adventure. But as we headed West, the drives got longer and soon we were waking up at 9 and driving 8 solid hours across a desolate, snowy plain to arrive in a place where we didn’t know anyone and where the landscape and culture were a bit more unfamiliar. We were a little worn down, in need of a little friendly spirit and a lot of positive reinforcement.
That was the start of a rough stretch on this tour. We had some nice moments, like in Vancouver where our friend had organized an awesome show for us at this cool, local art gallery and her dad came and made grilled cheese sandwiches for everyone. But then we got stuck in a snowstorm going over a mountain pass in Oregon and saw our friend get arrested for jaywalking in Seattle. Soon after Brad and I got into a huge fight about something I don’t even remember and we weren’t talking to each other. Can you imagine being in a car with your brother, after being in that same car with him for four straight weeks, just the two of you, and all of a sudden you’re not talking to each other all day, every day for several days? Well that was us, driving down the California coast.
We kept going like that for days. Driving all day, not talking to each other, getting up on stage every night, and having to perform while pretending we weren’t mad, tired, annoyed, exhausted, and sad so we could do our job and entertain people so they would give us the money we needed to live. We started to make our way back east and I’m not sure what happened but we finally started talking to each other again. I guess if I don’t even remember the reason we were mad, it must not have been that big of a deal.
We made it to Texas and stopped in the border town of El Paso. I remember all of the young people still lived at home because they didn’t have jobs or money. I remember we talked for awhile to a guy who was a vet and when we asked him if we could crash with him he revealed that he was homeless and lived in his car. We met a Mexican couple who asked us to come to their house and said they would make tacos for us if we spoke to their kids about how to follow their dreams. These moments made up for all the crappy ones of the past few weeks. When you travel and meet new people, hear about their hopes and dreams, fears and loves, all of it that makes up a life. The people we met at shows were real locals living in each town, and I learned a lot about America and the struggles people face. I felt like I was doing this for them.
This tour came to an end and as soon as I started getting settled back into my routine again in NY, it was time to start prepping for our UK tour and to leave all over again. We had the festival appearance to cover our flights and anchor our tour through England, but we wanted to play more than just the one show while we were there so we had to start booking. We tried to get a booking agent to start, because while typically we wouldn’t have thought it was worth it to pay someone, we just didn’t have the contacts or enough knowledge of the UK to do it on our own. And we actually did get interest from a booking agent, a great one in fact, who quickly booked us as an opening act on a tour for an amazing up-and-coming artist who had a similar sound and was gaining popularity. But about a month before, something happened and the tour got canceled and we were back to square one. So with little time and knowledge of where to start, we ended up booking our own tour for 10 days of shows across the UK.
We took a similar approach from how we booked our US tour. We looked at every band playing the festival we were playing and then looked up all of the dates, locations and venues they were playing. We had to research and contact each one, cold pitching ourselves to people who had never heard of us. That process helped us really hone how to tell our story. Who were we? Where were we from? What were we all about? And all said in about 3 sentences for someone with a UK perspective, who doesn’t have much time and we’d have to grab their attention.
You’ll have to get good at this, and I know a lot of people are uncomfortable with self promotion but telling your story is one of the most important tools you have for getting new work and opportunities. We live in an attention economy, and it’s how people connect and relate to you, understand where you are coming from and how to identify you. And you need their help! It’s like finding the right spot for a puzzle piece and filling in the gaps in people’s minds. Telling stories is how we process the events of our lives and ultimately people care less about facts and truths and more about the story of why something happened.
Start by asking yourself the basic questions of who, what, where, when and how. Then you have to identify what makes you different. Find the one thing that sets you apart from everyone else who has the same answers to those questions. Look out across the world and find other people who have a similar story. Gut check yours against theirs. Is it the same or different? And how so and in what ways? Ask yourself, how would you use a well known persona to describe yourself to someone you never met? Who are you “like”? Sometimes, we would say something like, we are a brother-sister Bob Dylan. Also, ask yourself what problem you are solving in the universe. It sounds big and existential but on the one side there is you, and on the other side there is a problem facing society. Where do these two things meet. That intersection is your personal brand.
Now, try telling that story in one sentence. If you need a page of text to describe yourself you don’t know what the story is yet. Sometimes I come up with a new idea on how to frame something or message myself and I’ll try it out, over email, in person at a party, see if it makes sense and connects with someone. Then I can add to it or tweak it accordingly. Sometimes I tweak it for different audiences, saying slightly different things to different people who have a different frame of reference. Continue to tweak and refine, condense and consolidate until you have around 3 sentences. That’s your elevator pitch. Try it out on your social profiles, cold emails and to people in person at parties or networking events. And then keep revising it. Your story is never done, it is constantly changing and evolving throughout your entire life.
This was the first time we’d leave the country to play music. We were super nervous, and wondered if people would like our music and if it would resonate. We played the next day at our festival appearance, in the middle of the afternoon to an audience of thousands. It was inside of a giant teepee tent in the middle of a field somewhere outside of London. The crowds had never heard of us before but wanted to check us out and they were all sitting cross legged on the floor with beers in their hands listening. We had never had that experience before — of an audience truly listening. It was probably one of the most profound moments of the band for me. Hearing my voice fill up an entire tent full of thousands of people. Someone coming up to me after, recognizing me as Jessica from This Frontier Needs Heroes. I reflected on how far we had come. From being afraid to sing, to standing on this stage in front of thousands of people who didn’t know me but wanted to hear what I had to say. It gives me goosebumps even remembering it today.
Our minds were blown open that weekend and on that tour. We saw a whole other world of opportunity and potential growth now open to us. If we could play for audiences of thousands in the UK, and play shows in towns across the US and England we’d never been to before, and meet friends in places halfway around the globe, play on the radio and get ourselves into press outlets, then honestly, we could do anything.
We learned so much from this first album cycle. How to record and self distribute, how to book a tour in the US and the UK. We learned how to do everything ourselves, the hard way. But more importantly, we learned how to live off not that much money and not much more than what we could ask someone for. We rode out the recession by building our own company and redefining our lifestyle and ideas of success. With help from people around the world and our driving passion and determination, we got into doors and spaces a lot of DIY bands could never go. Our lack of abilities and resources forced us to be creative and build a community rather than a transactional business. They made us find another way, to find our own way.
Learn Your Limits
After our first album cycle, we were completely emboldened. We had made our first record, booked our own full US tour, booked a UK tour, did all our own press, and made a (modest) living doing it. When we came back from touring, we again had this feeling like we were at the beginning of something big and exciting. Like we actually had a shot of “making it” and doing this professionally. That was a pretty great feeling. Enough to keep us moving forward, motivated and encouraged that we were on an important mission to accomplish something excellent.
So when we sat down and started to think about our second album, we had to take a hard look at the model we had used and what we wanted to do to get to the next step. In some ways, we were already a massive success. We had accomplished many of the things we had set out to do, experiencing things a lot of other people would never have the opportunity for. In some ways, all of our dreams had come true. But at the same time, we didn’t have any money and we were back to the harsh reality of living in NYC.
We had started at a bar in Brooklyn, just the two of us and we had been able to do all of these amazing things. We did it by building our own stage when we couldn’t get on an established one, by building our own label when no others would pick us up, and by creating our own tours and adventures when no one booked them for us.
In the seven years that followed, we launched our own record label and crowdfunded thousands of dollars to make two more albums. We were running a company, making sales, and shipping to customers all over the world who were buying our music. We were selling our CDs in local shops in towns across America that we stopped in during our tours. We hired a publicist, who got us more media exposure than we ever had before. We premiered our third album on SPIN and saw our music videos on Stereogum and other indie blogs.
In some ways, the band was more successful than we’d ever been before, but I started to realize that that success hasn’t changed anything financially for us. We were still sleeping on friends couches and having to tour all the time to make money. I guess I’d assumed that if you are premiered on SPIN then your life changes or something. I can tell you definitively, my life didn’t change at all. I’m not sure what I was expecting but that was the first time when I started to ask myself, “Do we just keep doing this? Is this as big as it gets? What is it that I’m hoping to achieve here?”
The third album cycle ended around the same time our father passed away, and while I was seeing some traction in my newly formed professional career. We had never been able to make enough money to completely support ourselves and live off our music and I had continued to take freelance jobs in between touring cycles. Brad and I had two different reactions to our father’s death. He felt more sure about his calling than ever and doubled down on following his dreams and pursuing his art. For him, our father’s death proved that life is short so you should make it count by doing what you love. I on the other hand felt like I was tired of all the traveling and had to save for my future and be more responsible than I had been previously. I decided to take a little break from the band and to not start the process of making our fourth album. So I decided to walk away and to focus more on my burgeoning media career.
I assumed we’d just take a break and get the band back together one day. That I’d do other things in the meantime like get married and start my own family. I had a whole narrative about how, in 30 years, kids would be looking through an old vintage vinyl record bin and stumble across our album. These future kids would find it and they’d think it looked cool and would give it a chance for $1 or $2. They’d tell all their friends and soon we’d have a cult following and tour Europe. That was basically my retirement plan.
In some ways the band is the thing that I am most proud of in my career because we built it from a random idea in a Brooklyn bar into something pretty extraordinary. Then the other side is, that it still feels like a failure because I was never able to make a “real salary” off of our music. It’s important I think to really recognize that even when you’re successful you can still feel like a failure. And even when you know money isn’t the most important thing in life, you do have to face the realities of society and to make choices about what that means for you. The bigger you get and the more you achieve, the more you often desire, it’s just an endless cycle where you then want more and you want something else.
It’s hard to know when to “quit” something, even when it is no longer serving you. Sometimes it’s a feeling, sometimes something major happens in your life to help you decide — like the death of a loved one. Sometimes you get decision fatigue and just do whatever is the easiest thing to do. Even if you quit something for good reasons — because it’s no longer serving you, you’re tired or bored, or things aren’t working out the way you planned and you want to cut your losses, you may still feel like you somehow failed. You’ll tell yourself you’re not good enough or didn’t work hard enough because you weren’t as successful as someone else in this same industry and field.
But quitting is not always a bad thing. In fact, in many ways it can be the best thing for you. Deciding to quit something means that it was time to move on and you had the strength and conviction to know yourself and know your limits and capabilities. That is a triumph. Today as I write this, it’s been 10 years since our first album was released. Brad is raising money for his 5th album and is on tour in Europe.