If you want the truth, here's my own story.
I grew up doing big-time music performances at the Kennedy Center, the Apollo Theater, and Carnegie Hall, singing the US National Anthem solo + a cappella many times for the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals Major-League Baseball teams and 20 times for DC United Major League Soccer Team, performing in three professional musical theater shows per year, landing lead roles with the Washington Opera's children's program, having an agent and booking film roles, performing with the American Ballet Theater and the St. Petersburg Ice Ballet at the Kennedy Center, winning singing scholarships in school, and the list goes on.
I excelled in the most rigorous academic program, the International Baccalaureate program, and ended up placing out of my university classes because of my prior studies. I thought I could do anything successfully. Then I went to opera school because I didn't know what I wanted and I thought that if I learned how to sing opera, I could sing anything. I went to the Schulich School of Music at McGill University in Montreal, Canada and enrolled in a music major and an English minor. I was in opera school by day and living a different life at night - I performed in musical theater productions, was involved in electronic music parties, art + technology festivals, indie music scene, world music and jazz concerts, and circus lofts. Yet, I always had one foot in and one foot out of the opera program.
I never felt confident in my opera program. I could never land a role in my conservatory productions, even though the head coach from the Metropolitan Opera once ran down to me from an audition panel to tell me I had something special but that I just wasn't ready yet. This was my life rope that I held on to. I was going through a vocal technique issue at the time, yet I gave EVERYTHING I had in my final semesters to give opera a try... and it just wasn't me.
I escaped to the south of France to work on a vineyard to get away.
I came home and knew in my gut that I couldn't give up; I needed to sing. I found an audition ad on Craigslist for a Gypsy jazz band looking for a singer who could sing in French for a Christmas gig at the French Embassy. I learned a few songs that day and landed the audition that night. The gigs kept coming in and they paid, so I went with it.
That was seven years ago, and I was finding small successes that built upon each other.
I built myself up again to become a full-time professional singer in New York City, which was my childhood dream. I took vocal lessons from three major teachers: Jeremiah Abiah, Ron Goading, and Grace Gori, and they helped me work through my technique and sing at my best.
I won an Artist-in-Residence position at the Music Center at Strathmore, where I was supported with mentorship, performance opportunities, workshops on the business of being a professional musician, and money to put on concerts. I landed a fully hands-on apprenticeship as an audio engineer at a New York City music studio that serviced platinum and emerging artists (after 7 failed attempts - I just persevered and kept showing up and putting myself out there and finally they brought me on board). That year, I wrote and released my first EP of original music. I later was blessed with patronage for my art, went to France to live in a Gypsy caravan and sing and study with the world’s greats in Gypsy jazz, won songwriting competitions, and met with influential music managers, entertainment lawyers, and booking agents.
This process was encouraging, but I also knew I was facing struggles with my own artistic desires - I wanted to find ME in my music and I couldn’t get there. Performing cover songs that didn't fully express my full self was the only way I could see to find appreciation for my creative self. I had trouble translating what’s in my head to my own original music. I recorded more music and PR firms, music critics, booking agents, and managers wouldn’t know how to categorize my music because I was confused and all over the place. I ended up struggling, frustrated, and feeling misunderstood. I felt I was going in circles and I was afraid to fully commit to my desires to forge my own path...
I then developed a twisted and unclear vision - my inner struggle to find my identity as an artist, subconsciously creating the starving artist life I felt I needed in order to have integrity. I was going in circles and felt anxious, broke, and confused.
I thought that to be the legendary artist that I vaguely desired to be, I’d need to prove myself from an underdog situation and rise to success in my rags-to-riches story. I thought I could only gain respect as an artist if I suffered and struggled like so many of the glorified artist stories.
I’d land big gigs like performing at the Rainbow Room at the top of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the Kennedy Center, and Blues Alley and be asked back a number of times, but often I would feel like I wasn't reaching the big strides that I knew I was meant for because I was so confused.
I was frustrated. I couldn’t get a handle on what I wanted. A booking agent who’s booked big names to play live at the Oscars and at Carnegie Hall was interested in my abilities, but saw my confusion; he nicely encouraged me to follow my dreams with my original music and that he couldn’t help me if I was torn between projects. The struggle continued going in circles like this for years. I’d make little steps forward, but reach nothing significant as quickly as I’d like.
Meanwhile, I’d feel increasingly anxious with the pressures of success in the music industry. I wondered if I would need to move to LA and change my location to make it work somehow.
Make what work? I didn’t know what I even wanted! I was on welfare - I didn’t have enough money to buy luxe grocery items like cranberries. On the outside, I was okay - pursuing an artistic life in NYC with success through releasing original albums, making music videos, and performing all the time. Inside, I was an anxious, fearful mess.
The final straw came about in October 2016 when I was invited to join one of my mentors to go see a pianist friend of ours perform at Jazz at Lincoln Center. My mentor knew I was stuck in a rut, and we tossed around money-making ideas on the way to the concert. Maybe I’d try to launch a style blog on Instagram. I didn't know.
Then, at the concert, I saw a singer perform who was good, but she didn’t strike me as memorable. Yet she was up there performing and I was in the audience. I craved to get onstage and sing. I thought I could deliver a better performance. Through my mentor, I even happened to know the booking agent of the venue and its programming.
If I played my cards right, I could shoot to get a gig there with my all-star Rainbow Room at 30 Rock Gypsy jazz band. I threw the question to my mentor to inquire about getting me a gig there. My mentor politely declined, knowing I was lost and confused and that that wasn't wasn't my DREAM. Ouch. She was right. The rest of the night was a major inner failure. Something had to change.
At 7am the next morning, I started taking action. I searched for how I could start changing my mindset and redirecting my life. The ensuing six months were filled with personal development work, goal-setting, discipline podcasts, finance podcasts and courses, and reshaping my music performances.
My singing style developed and the appreciation for my performances grew to new heights. I started earning more money than ever. I cut up my food stamps card, embarrassed to search for love while on welfare when I was perfectly capable of rising up and out of my struggling-artist syndrome.
I won a grant with the Brooklyn Arts Council to teach songwriting workshops with senior citizens, and with that money, I opened up an emergency savings account and a retirement fund. I invested in coaches and mentors to help me decipher the answers I held within myself. I wrote down a goal to get a manager by a certain date, since I knew I needed help and couldn’t figure it all out on my own any longer, and sure enough, an experienced manager came to my work and wanted to take me on. I worked harder than ever before and applied to prestigious artist residencies abroad, but didn’t win any. I'm grateful that; it pushed me to not let anyone's rejection define my experiences. So, I decided to take matters in my own hands and make my own month-long residency in Cuba, which ended up being greater than anything I could have every imagined.
I write this to you now in Havana, Cuba. I’m in the pistachio green high-ceilinged salon of a beautiful colonial flat in the Centro neighborhood (the real life of Cuban Havana), overlooking the Malecón sea wall a few blocks down. I get up from time to time to walk to the white ballustrade lined with lush plants that make up the balcony, and watch the classic 1950s American cars pass by below in various colors: sky-blue, verdent green, plum purple, ….
If I look straight ahead, I see people move from their kitchens to their balconies, taking time to people-watch. I see boats pass by in the Gulf of Mexico in the distance. Occasionally, Cuba’s famous music lights up the night and passes away again as the boom box moves with its owner down the street.
The other night, I spent an evening in this salon writing a new song. I came up with a chord progression and a melody, and set some lyrics in place inspired by Cuban poetry I came across in the countryside. Source unknown for the poetry. I strummed the guitar and sang the melody out into the streets, and a family across the way stopped what they were doing and listened from their kitchen table. A young guy upstairs stopped hanging laundry and stood by his balcony to listen. I felt like Audrey Hepburn singing “Moon River” on her windowsill in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
There’s SO much more that’s been happening here for me - taking my paints down to the Malecón and mixing colors and putting brush to paper as the sun sets, exploring art galleries and having impromptu jam sessions with musicians inside, sitting in with musicians performing at restaurants and hotels, salsa
dancing into the morning, and another big thing - collaborating with Cuban hip hop artists on three tracks, participating in a documentary film, and performing with these artists at Havana’s renowned contemporary art and music cultural center - Fabrica de Arte.
I’ve been taking piano and percussion lessons daily in Cuban jazz, have written another song inspired by a piano exercise, and felt in my gut that I should make a recording of these. My money mindset, sculpted by my educating myself in finances, combined with clarity of my life’s vision, guided me to pinpoint what I needed to do. I needed to make a recording for my next album. My manager has been encouraging me to write and release new songs, I’ve been wanting to record more world music, and I really connected with my music teachers (who are phenomenal musicians). I felt it was the right thing. So I’m going after it. The “how” as to how this project will unfold will be resolved in the future when I return to New York City; but for now, I know that what I need to do is clean up my original songs, polish the cover songs I want to record, figure out logistics for recording and shooting photos, and get crackin’.
Maybe that’s how you feel today. I hear you. You just have to get started. There’s a saying that courage is not the absence of fear; it’s the ability to continue in the face of it. Listening to your gut and moving towards your deepest desires takes courage. Moving forward towards them despite fear is worth it; what’s on the other side is better than anything you could have ever imagined.
My life is different now. I’ve created my own music and art residency in Cuba, I’m recording my fifth album of my original music, I’ve set up financial structures that enable me to feel empowered, I'm my own boss, I’ve finally started to see what it’s like to be in serious relationship after five years of insignificant dating, I’m making more money than ever before, I’m setting bigger and more concrete goals because I’ve experienced that when I set tangible SMART goals, I actually do realize them.
All of this is possible, for you, too.
When you follow your intuition, it might lead you to a Gypsy caravan...
Late night jam in a Romani Gypsy caravan. Mary Alouette (vocals), Benjy Winterstein (guitar), Billy Weiss (guitar), and Alexis Lograda (violin). Samoreau, Samois sur Seine, France. Video by Siv Brun Lie.