THE UNCONVENTIONAL: Finding Yourself Through Taking a Risk

I'm sitting here in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, getting ready to go check out the studio where we will be recording the winning song from the songwriting contest, on a beautiful spring day. (although my day started with me saying to my 2-year-old, "Cream cheese is NOT PAINT.")

Actually that's the perfect segue to the unconventional challenge! Because she clearly saw the situation differently. In her mind, cream cheese should absolutely be considered as paint.

This challenge asks you to think outside your comfort zone while writing a song. To see, or rather, write, things differently.

In my mind, basically this means using any songwriting elements that are not something you hear a thousand times a day on the radio. But on a more personal note, it can mean utilizing any tool that is not normally in your wheelhouse. A lot of you have done this to beautiful effect already in this activity. Kudos!

If you normally write in major, try minor. Like writing in 4? Try 3! Add an extra bar in a phrase, or take one away. Write in a modulation, or strip the song down to a whisper. Write about a subject that is unfamiliar. This is your chance to, well, take a chance!

In thinking about my own song catalog today, I thought of a record I made called Simple Stories. It was my second jazz record for the Sunnyside label.

Upon first listen, the songs on the album might not sound that unconventional. But here's the backstory. Get ready, it's kind of long.

I used to sing and write all the time in my youth (see my "Modern Mona Lisa" entry in the visual inspiration challenge, from a rock band I sang lead in during high school). I started writing songs at age 7 and never looked back.

After high school, it was off to college to study classical piano. It was there that I discovered jazz, and also continued playing/singing in rock bands. 

In 1994 I attended grad school to get a Masters Degree in Jazz Studies. Here is where the story gets interesting.

Now, this story is not written to take issue with any particular university or music school. I had many great experiences in both college and grad school.

However, at the time, at my particular school, students were defined by labels. They either inhabited the classical OR the jazz side of the music school, not both. Or they were jazz players, but then definitely not singers. And girls, if they were singers, were often not taken seriously as instrumentalists. And to add to all of this, there was a numbered system. If you weren't number one--well, it was like wanting to be the most popular kid in school. Everyone wanted to be number one.

You get the picture. Thus, when I arrived, I felt like I had to choose, in order to fit in. I chose to just play jazz piano.

So I hid. I hid my singer/songwriter self behind the piano. I hid my face behind glasses. I hid my femininity behind boyish clothes. I thought if I wanted to be taken seriously as a jazz pianist, I had to "prove" myself by not singing, and by being "one of the guys".

It worked, in its way. Because we all have different sides of ourselves, and can choose to take out those sides whenever we wish.

The only problem was, I LOVED to sing. I LOVED pop songs. I LOVED being girly sometimes. I didn't even know how much I missed these things because I'd pushed them away so far.

I'm thinking most people can relate to getting stuck behind a "label" at least once in their lives.

Luckily a few happy accidents led me back to my full self.

First, I ended up with the BEST possible classical piano teacher at my school, Dr. H (because even if jazzers were identified as jazzers, they had to take classical as a side requirement). Dr. H was open to ALL styles of music. He could sightread orchestral scores, but also played stride piano. Everyone pretty much idolized him, and was also a little intimidated by him.

He didn't think I was a weirdo for liking more than one style of music. And he was living proof that a person could cross bridges and still be inspiring and cool.

Once, when I came in depressed because of a boyfriend situation, he had me ditch the lesson entirely and we went for ice cream. He reassured me I'd be okay (while reminding me to practice my scales for next week). He was both a teacher and a mentor, and he believed that I should become whatever kind of artist I wanted to be.

If you already have one of these teachers or mentors in your life, you know it. And you are LUCKY. Embrace what they have to tell you. Pass it on.

Okay, you've hung in there this long. This story is leading somewhere. Promise!

Second happy accident (although I actually happen to believe that everything happens for a reason): I moved to NYC in 1997 to join the Big Apple Circus band as a keyboardist. My first day here, I was so scared. Would I be good enough? What label would I have to wear this time?

I needn't have worried; my fellow bandmates were welcoming, funny, and talented as hell. They didn't know about my past--in NYC I could be whoever I wanted to be. I could start fresh. I went out every night after work and saw whatever music I could--the symphony, a musical, free jazz. It dawned on me more and more that music had a much broader definition than I had been letting myself believe.

Soon after, I joined an all-girl band called The Lascivious Biddies, a band I'm happy to say is still together today. They became my best friends and encouraged me to start singing again. I did, at first shyly in the background. They kept prodding me. Soon, I sang a bit louder. And a bit louder. I started having fun with my stage style. Having fun writing and experimenting. Rediscovering myself.

If you already have such accepting peers, bandmates, or friends in your life, you know it. And you are LUCKY. Embrace what they have to teach you. Pass it on.

Around the time I joined The Biddies, another happy occasion: I was signed to Sunnyside Records and put out my first album, Sun is Us, an all-instrumental progressive jazz album which I am very proud of. Luckily for me, Sunnyside's executive producer Francois Zalacain is not only a master of his craft and very loyal (and took a risk on me because he simply believed in me), but was also open to me including vocals on my second album, Simple Stories, which came out in 2003.

By now, I was ready to try on an unconventional hat. For me, that meant including a variety of different sounds and styles on the record, which was pretty unusual at the time for a jazz record. I had my friend, Brazilian vocalist Luciana Souza, sing on two songs, but I also gave myself permission to sing on one track, Pure One.

It had taken a long time for me to overcome those voices inside myself. The ones that say, "What will people think if I don't do this song/record the way everyone else does? Will they laugh at me? Will my community ostracize me for not sticking to a particular genre/set of standards? Am I a poser? Who do I think I am, trying to sing? I should leave that to the professionals! No one will take me seriously!" etc etc etc.

Sound familiar? Anyone else have a version of these internal demons? These inner critics?

I would guess we all do. It is HARD to let them go. To take a risk, stand out, be noticed, be who you are even if people think you are a goth but you secretly adore Florida Georgia Line. Or if you have a tough facade but write sappy love songs in your room late at night.


I have found that those who have been most successful in this world (Steve Jobs, Oprah, Norah Jones..) have achieved their success by not only taking risks, but by being true to themselves.

I let myself do both on Simple Stories, and to this day it is my favorite album I have ever put out, or been on. The album starts with CHILDREN'S CHOIR, for heaven's sake! (I was teaching 3-6 grade music at the time). There are freely improvised pieces alongside the vocal tunes. And I SANG. For all the world to hear.

I've been singing ever since. Recently I went back to my hometown and reunited with that first rock band, where it all began. (That recording of "Modern Mona Lisa"? Written in the 80s, re-recorded just a few months ago!) I stepped out, and back, into my rock star skin. And you know what? It feels GOOD.

I actually didn't set out to write about this today. I had something else in mind. But I guess I needed to say it, because this is what came out. Thanks for reading.

Now it's your turn. Can't wait to hear what you come up with.

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Comment by Anna Pearl Roseberry Belinda on June 4, 2014 at 9:02pm

I went outside my comfort zone with the piano and friends! (guitar done in a collaboration!!) We used overlapping which I loved and I think it gave the song that extra oof! I laughed a whole bunch and instead of writing a SAD song like I ALwAYSSSSSSS always do, here's a happy tune!

Hey darlin you're lookin fine

as usual you're mine and I couldn 't have it any other way

ahey ahoo

I'm starin right at you and I just can't get away


I'll sing to you you'll sing to me

and I've never heard a better harmony

I'll sing to you you'll sing to me

and I've never heard a better harmony

I'm starin at you fallin in love (fallin in love)

Cuz you know you're my only one (only one)

baby look at what you've done,

You've made a mess of me

I can't speak I can't breathe can't do a thing you've made a mess of me 

now look at what you've done

this is the part where you tell me you've fallen in love with me;)

(back ground overlap)

Comment by Megan Doyle on June 3, 2014 at 9:36pm


What if I forgave you 

When you spoke rough 

What if I had said it wasn't enough

But words they ain’t enough 

Oh I ain’t givin’ up

Oh what if I had said

I love you one more time 

Would that change the fact 

You needed room to grow alone 

Escape it ain’t enough 

Oh I ain’t givin’ up 

I’m living half my life un-done

I think I left me in your arms 

Forgot the reason I’m myself

So take my hand

Take my hand

Take my hand

What if every word you spoke

Meant nothing even I love you 

Tell me more

Than three words I’ll chew

Love it ain’t enough

Oh I ain’t givin’ up

Comment by Zandi Holup on June 3, 2014 at 5:32pm

Hi! I tried to block the idea "make this a hit!" out of my mind. I tried to just write this for pleasure and not worry about the structure. I just let the poetry hit me like a ton of bricks. 


This cross inside my hand was shattered on the kitchen floor


then me and all my plans were pushed right out the door


just had the time to grab my suitcase and my old guitar


she looked at me and said, kid you aint gonna get very far


I said I’m further then you will ever be


because I’m leavin’ with some dignity


All the dirty things you hear from playin all them crowds


all of the diamond rings, and all the times you heard the vows


the metal and the paper aint what matter in the end


you say the life I lead has done more to you then offend


well I’m more offended then you will ever be


cause happiness is livin inside of me


hoo ooo ooo oooo


oh ooo oh oh, ooo wow ooo wow ooo wow oh oh oh 


hoo ooo ooo oooo


oh ooo oh oh, ooo wow ooo wow ooo wow oh oh oh


All of the times she screamed I walked on eggshells out the house


a girl can only dream she won’t be bitten by the louse


I had the guts to call her b**** and wet my face the salty way


but when she threw the bottle, I had no choice but to obey


Well I obeyed her longer then I’d should


Because now my life’s a mess of misunderstood


hoo ooo ooo oooo


oh ooo oh oh, ooo wow ooo wow ooo wow oh oh oh 


hoo ooo ooo oooo


oh ooo oh oh, ooo wow ooo wow ooo wow oh oh oh 


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