Is it too late for a music career?
That’s a question that runs through my head often. Intellectually I know that each day I ask myself this question, another day has passed. If there is a “right time,” I’m steadily moving away from it. I can’t fix this problem, not without a time machine. The only thing I can do with the time machine I do have, which is my mind, is to go back and better understand the path I’m on.
Lurleen is teaming up with NextTribe to offer a singer a chance to open for her at her album release party on Dec. 8th in Austin (you’ll be flown in and housed for the event). Could that be you? Click here for the details.
I didn’t come to music as a person who excelled with an instrument as a child, play in high school or join a band when I was 18. I was child who danced— jazz, tap, ballet, baton. So music was in there. I also took piano lessons, but if that was the criteria for successful adult musicians then our numbers would be legion.
If you remember the movie Dr. Doolittle (Rex Harrison not Eddie Murphy), it featured a two-headed llama called “The Pushmi-Pullyu” who was always trying to go in two different directions at once. That personifies my past experience with music. For me, it meant there was a drive towards music and an equal opposing force that said “Hell No!”
The “Hell No” side had an Excel spreadsheet full of reasons to focus elsewhere. And if you knew me, then you’d know I really love a good spreadsheet. The strongest argument my “Hell No” side had was, “Why in God’s name would you put yourself out there like that?” Plus the others were not bad either.
“Who do you think you are?”
“There are way more talented people out there”
“There’s so much you don’t know”
“What will people think?”
“You are going to make mistakes and everyone will know”
“Do you think you’re 18 years old?”
All About Exposure
All these questions came down to one thing—exposure. I didn’t want that. I never wanted that. I grew up in a way that most people who know me likely couldn’t understand. I was afraid, every day, all day. As a mom now it’s really hard to imagine a small child of four or five years old in a constant state of terror but that’s what I was. I grew up in a large, blended family: I was the youngest of six kids. My father was abusive and unpredictable. He was angry all the time and prone to explosions of temper and physical violence. My sisters and I were hauled out of bed in the middle of the night if dishes were left in the sink. I was hit with a belt when I was two years old because I opened the refrigerator and looked inside for too long. The list of traumatic experiences is long and sadly not all that original when stories like mine are shared.
I couldn’t summon the courage to audition for a college voice class.
As a consequence, I was a kid that should’ve been a wallflower, the quiet kid in the back of the room, forgettable, a bit of a ghost. If I had been, then my life would’ve been so much “easier.”
But growing up, I had plenty of memories that somehow missed the wallflower memo. In grade school, I choreographed and performed a solo dance to “Greased Lighting” during the PE module on dance. No one asked me to do this. This wasn’t a recital. I volunteered! Who would do such a thing? To really appreciate the dichotomy, understand that I was an overweight kid. I was ridiculed for how my body looked and in spite of that, I put on a black leotard, my mom’s black polyester skirt pinned up with a gold broach and boogied on down to the nastiest song (trust me, read the lyrics!) from Grease. Further, I tried out for cheerleader in 8th grade when only the prettiest and tiniest girls would be chosen. Yet that didn’t stop me. I was on the softball team. Was I equipment manager, or maybe outfielder? Of course not, I was the pitcher. All eyes on me the whole damn time. There was a pull to be out front and to shine. It flew in the face of my need for safety, to be hidden.
Even as a young adult, I could feel the push/pull. I almost took a voice class in college at Southwestern University. I was friends with people in musical theater and they encouraged me to give it a try. I had to audition just so the professor would know where to place me in the class. I couldn’t summon the courage. I dropped the class before it started.
Hitting a Wall
Out of college, I found my calling as a social worker. I hated that there were people feeling hopeless, and I identified with that despair. I wanted to even the score and give them options. I was ambitious and driven, so I moved up. I took on more responsibility and moved into health care operations. The bigger the problems, the more intricate the spreadsheets. I loved it!
I hit a wall after my second child was born. Something kind of broke.
A big transition into adulthood for me meant therapy, lots and lots of therapy. I met a good man who loved me, and we attended couples therapy. This hard work would ensure a life that was less fearful where I could feel safe. It was scary but I was pushing through.
I put my husband, Dan, through medical school and residency and had kids. It was tough but I managed, until I didn’t. I hit a wall after my second child was born. Something kind of broke. I was depressed and my body started to give some signals that pushing through wasn’t going to cut it anymore. With all of Dan’s training complete, we moved back to Austin for “life to finally begin.”
Where’s the Safety Net?
The old saying of “leap and the net will appear” is very hard for someone like me. Everything in my life had been about trying to anticipate outcomes. I would try and predict my father’s mood, the next outburst, the trigger that would set everything off. In business, I tried to see around corners, what was coming that could impact revenue or staffing. I got so good at it that I thought I was a bit clairvoyant. In reality, I was just good at reading people because as a kid, my safety depended on it.
Not knowing the outcome was better than going back to a life that I didn’t fully inhabit.
All of that anticipation, in spite of therapy, just meant I was a bit neurotic. And of course, in the business world that sort of thing is rewarded. By the time my family had relocated to Austin, I had already been a successful manager of multiple healthcare businesses, even started my own healthcare compliance consultancy and was side by side with my husband launching multiple dermatology practices. I had two small children, friends and a life most would envy but…
Remember that “Push me/Pull you?” It had taken up residency in my head and it started saying things like, remember how you used to love music? I was at a crucial moment when the hard work of putting my husband’s goals first had ended. It was my time to choose—was I going forward or backward. I knew what backward looked like, I had absolutely no idea what forward would be, and I said to myself, “That’s going to have to be OK.” Not knowing the outcome was better than going back to a life that I didn’t fully inhabit. So, I looked on the Internet and made a call to a voice coach in Austin and set an appointment.
I Didn’t Suck
I started working with a voice coach who was supportive and took a gentle approach. I practiced diligently but still felt inept. We were running drills and she stopped me after I made yet another self-deprecating comment and said, “You know you’re good at this right?” I didn’t know that on my own and certainly didn’t trust it, but I was getting a bit happier. I didn’t think I needed a hospital stay to feel better.
Then one day, and I mean literally out of the blue, I started writing songs. They just showed up in my head. Sometimes, I would be half awake in the early morning and the whole thing would just show up in a dream. It was amazing and frightening. I didn’t have the ability to write the music out on paper so I would sing the songs over and over in my head until I got to my voice coach who would help to transcribe what I heard. I was so afraid that I would forget them. Pre-iPhone days, I bought a small voice recorder, and I would eventually record the songs as they showed up.
After I had written three songs, I decided to go to Nashville.
After I had written three songs, I decided to go to Nashville. Yes, I realize that that sounds completely crazy. The “Push Me” side was not messing around. I attended a songwriting seminar and brought my three songs on a handful of CDs. I met with industry reps, and I received good feedback. The first night of the conference, a group of us were taken to a bar and told to get on stage and perform. I resisted, I delayed, I panicked but the answer was the same. You will get up there. The bar was crowded. I wasn’t dressed as cool as I thought I should’ve been, but I got up there. The lights were bright and hot on my face. The music started and I sang. I got through it and the conference leader called out from the audience when I was done, You didn’t suck. Let’s hear another!”
I balked but they wouldn’t let me off stage until I sang a second song. That night changed my life. The next day I performed several times on stages around Nashville. I met with publishers who said, “We like these songs do you have any more?” I lied and told them I did. I planned to rush back to Austin and get busy.
Back in Austin, I met a wonderful producer, Mark Hallman of the legendary Congress House Studio. Mark had been in Carole King’s band and went on to produce amazing artists like Shawn Colvin, Patti Griffin, Eliza Gilkeson and many, many others. I came to him with much to learn. On one of my first days working with him I was struggling with my vocal. I teared up in frustration and he asked me, “You didn’t think this was going to easy, did you?” His tone wasn’t mean; it was honest. He meant, I was going to have to deal with my reach exceeding my grasp and it was going to be uncomfortable.
He was right but also incredibly generous and kind. We worked together as co-writers and he produced some of my earliest songs. I learned a great deal and gained much needed confidence. I owe him a huge debt of gratitude for helping me to grow as a writer and a vocalist.
Clearly whatever was driving my fear needed to be taken seriously.
With all this experience I was ready to perform, to “play out.” Sounds great right? I’ve got songs, found some musicians. I live in the Live Music Capital of the World; this should be amazing. But playing in front of people is very different from the cozy sound booth in the studio. “Hell No” resurfaced with a vengeance.
I played several gigs and was gaining momentum but at the same time, as the days before the shows came, I would get overwhelmed with anxiety. No matter how the shows went, before the next one I would worry myself sick. The thought of being on stage and making a mistake was paralyzing. I pushed on but it was not really working.
Thankfully my writing was unaffected by the waves of doubt. On a night a few days before a show, I tried to quell my nerves with vodka, but a couple of drinks wouldn’t cut it. I kept on drinking and drinking. The next day I woke up, hungover and sick. In that early morning haze, I had a faint memory of driving to the grocery store with my six-year-old son in the car. I was stunned. I could’ve killed us both, could’ve been arrested. I was ashamed and scared. Clearly whatever was driving my fear needed to be taken seriously. I did the show but afterwards, I said I was taking a break from performing. I resigned myself to the fact that my fear was in charge. I surrendered to it.
Surrendering to the Fear
I stayed where it was safe. I kept working in the studio and didn’t really talk about performing. I jumped headlong into the sphere where I felt safe, the business world. Nothing there was as scary as being on stage. As a small business owner, there were plenty of challenges to work through and I had kiddos to raise. I founded a nonprofit and built community support for skin cancer prevention where I spoke to large and small groups. I was definitely still on stage, but I wasn’t singing.
Years had passed and I had amassed quite a lot of songs, but no one heard them. I was stuck again. I thought that maybe the key to singing on stage was to just get more proficient. Get better at singing and then I would feel safer. I found a new voice coach by searching on the internet and literally asking the universe to give me what I needed. The universe answered and sent me Merrily Garrett.
Merrily had been a backing vocalist with some big-name bands in the 80’s and 90’s. I told her about my difficult experiences, and she got me right away. She helped me bring my voice out of the stranglehold of fear. I loved that the first exercises had nothing to do with sounding pretty. So much of my efforts in singing were trying to “get it right,” not making mistakes, be as pleasing as possible. If there was supposed to be joy in singing, I hadn’t been on the right path.
I wasn’t sure what it would get me but I knew I was supposed to be pleasing to most everyone.
When it comes to pleasing others, it taps into so much that women are taught from a very early age. I wasn’t even sure what it would get me but I was supposed to be pleasing to most everyone—how I looked, what I said, how I sounded.
I worked diligently with Merrily and my voice started to show up in new ways. I got stronger and louder and was able to add “sparkle shine” as she would say to my notes. Still, she knew that performing was where the work needed to be done. She held a performance class, Sing Club, once a month. Each time it would come around, she would say, “ I really think you should try this out.” She would assure me that it was low pressure, just eight to ten students and a piano accompanist. At first, I just said no. Later I would go and then beg off at the last minute. This went on for a year. Finally, one time she asked and I told her that not only was I going to attend, but I was also going to host it at my house. I gave myself nowhere to run. I was ready to face the fear.
Wrestling the Demons of Perfectionism
Sing Club was the perfect place to wrestle the demons of perfectionism and vulnerability. People took turns working on material, mistakes were made, and the floor didn’t open and swallow them whole. Slowly but surely, a different kind of confidence started to show up. I wasn’t holding my breath (not advisable while singing). I wasn’t overly afraid of not being taken seriously or making a mistake. I was finally OK on stage.
I was learning how to create what pleased me.
In all the intervening years, I had lost track of my players. I remembered a wonderful pianist I worked with in the past. I told Merrily that I was working up the courage to call him. She affirmed that this was a good next step, but I stalled a bit. I assumed he was too busy to help me out. I’ll translate that for you, I’m not good enough for his time. This shit dies hard.
I called Eddy Hobizal, who is also a music producer, and over the screams of a child’s birthday party he assured me he that he did in fact remember me and would like to work together. We started the process of evaluating the songs I’d written in the past and reworking them to suit where I was vocally and artistically focused. I wanted to move into pop and R&B, with piano at the center of the songs. Previously when I was asked how I heard my songs, meaning what instruments should provide accompaniment, I deferred to other people’s opinions. But this time I was clear. I was learning how to create what pleased me.
No Goin’ Back
Eddy and I were finishing up my first CD, “Magnolia and Azalea Dreams” at the end of 2017 and planning a release in 2018. During Christmas I fell and hurt my shoulder on a wet floor in a restaurant. During my recovery from the fall, I thought I had an ear infection, and an ENT specialist told me that instead of an infection, a virus had attacked my right ear and about 50 percent of my hearing was gone. Sadly, after a slew of treatments, very little of my lost hearing returned. I was panicked that all the progress that I had made with my voice and performing was for nothing, but again, I had a decision to make. If I wanted an excuse to quit, this was the perfect one. I told myself that I performed when I thought it was just an ear infection. I sang fine. I was ok, I wasn’t going back.
The new album is called “No Goin’ Back,” which in many ways is a great description of the commitment I’ve made to myself.
I released “Magnolia and Azalea Dreams” in March of 2019, surrounded by friends and family. It was a huge night for me to honor the many years of work that lead up to that moment.
Eddy and I began working on the next album right away and hoped to wrap it up in 2020. We all know what happened in early 2020 to derail the world’s plans. Thankfully, in 2021 we were able to resume more in-person sessions and the second album came together. There are a few songs from years ago that have been brought forward but the newest writing brings the whole journey more strongly into focus. The album is called “No Goin’ Back,” which in many ways is a great description of the commitment I’ve made to myself.
The pandemic gave everyone a chance to recalibrate and refocus. In the last two years I have decided to focus on what brings me the most happiness. That means instead of saying that I’m a businesswoman who happens to write music and sing, I now say that I am a performing singer-songwriter who is also a businesswoman (and who loves a good Excel spreadsheet!)
I’ve set the “PushMe/PullYou” out to pasture and my “Hell No” has turned into a “Hell Yes!”
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