I saw Nick Jaina read at Valentine’s in Portland this past January. I knew his music pretty well, but his writing was new to me. A few days before, I had read his gorgeous essay in Vol 1. Brooklyn about the Yo La Tengo song “Green Arrow,” a piece designed to be read while listening to the song, and meant to take the same amount of time to read as the length of the song. Along with a few entries from his recent book, Get It While You Can (Perfect Day Publishing, 2015), he read the essay, accompanied by the music. It was apparently the first time he had ever tried to sync the two in public, and though the reading ended up being slightly shorter than the song, it came off beautifully. The overall effect was a hypnotic blend of the song’s dreamy, slow-burning atmospherics and the soft, quavering rhythm of Jaina’s words. It was a sublime, intimate performance, threaded through with earnestness and grace, extemperaneity and meticulous craft, and of course, barrels of self-deprecating wit.
I went home with a copy of Get It While You Can, a memoir told in a series of vignettes which revolve around the story of a ten-day meditation retreat and a collection of unsent love letters, addressed to various unnamed recipients. I had a number of other books on my night stand that I meant to read first, but once I started reading the first page, I couldn’t put it down. Smart, lyrical, crushingly honest, it had a sheen of familiarity that felt almost like deja vu. The creative failures, the relentless heartache, the loss, the yearning for spiritual comfort, the inexhaustible flicker of hope were all distinctly his, but like the best art, it spoke to my own experience in ways that I somehow hadn’t been able to articulate.
Here is one of the unsent letters:
There is a riveting moment right before an orchestra begins to play when there are a few dozen well-dressed, talented musicians waiting in silence for a man to tell them to start. In that moment they are doing nothing, sitting with their instruments in front of two-thousand people in a large concert hall. The silence in that moment is very expensive, very educated. It is of a different quality than you find in a meadow at dusk.
There is also the moment when the stripper has finished her routine. The music has stopped playing, the energy in the room dissipates, and she puts her clothes back on. I find the way she puts her clothes on to be so much more compelling than the way she takes them off. There is no show in it.
I’d also like to direct your attention to the moment when the first side of a record has finished playing and the needle spills into the center groove and keeps spinning until you get up and turn the record over. The amount of time it takes to get from the last song on the first side to the first song on the other side will always be different. If you’re on top of it, it might just be a few seconds. However, if you’re other wise occupied–if there’s a cat on your lap, if the egg yellows are congealing, if you’re getting to second base– it might be a while before the record gets flipped. There is noting the maker of the record can do to dictate how long it will last.
Nick is touring the country now, playing shows and promoting the book. We corresponded over the course of a week as he traveled from city to city.
Todd Gleason: One of the things you write so well about is the myriad ways in which music is inhabited, by both the musician and the listener. I am particularly struck by the attention you give to small musical moments. You have an almost forensic approach to exploring so many of these, from Nina Simone at Montreux, to Ray Charles’ “Ring of Fire” to Simon and Garfunkel in Central Park. “Forensic” is not to imply that it ever comes off as dry– your approach is very intimate, and a deep emotional resonance always comes across. Unlike Greil Marcus does with similar moments, you don’t veer into wildly hyberbolic, inventive speculation, (which in his case can work, because he is consciously working within some greater stream of rock n’ roll mythos that he is also adding to– another issue entirely, of course.) What you seem to be after, rather than mythology so much, if I can paraphrase from your Large-Hearted Boy notes, are certain “small, unspoken miracles.”
This tendency is familiar to me, and I have delved into similar moments– some the very same as appear in your book. Paul Simon on the Dick Cavett Show, playing “Still Crazy…” all the way up to the bridge– I was always fascinated by how at that moment, that soaring “Four in the morning…” was out in the ether, shadowy and vague and waiting to be born, and how certain songwriters (Simon in particular), write songs that sound so finished, so eternal, so cosmically etched into stone, that it’s a shock to witness one in a state before it was fully formed.
It can be jarring when somebody else has experienced a moment in much the same way as you. In Willy Vlautin’s book Northline, one of the characters gushes drunkenly about Johnny Cash’s Live at San Quentin, when he plays the brand new song “San Quentin,” and then after the raucous reception, plays it again. And not only that, they put both versions on the record. I used to listen to my dad’s record, amazed that they would put the same song twice in a row, and here was somebody articulating almost the identical sort of awe. In hindsight it seems obvious that other people would be struck by such a thing, but at the time, an experience like that seems so personal, it’s hard to imagine anyone else having it. I think this is a way that art is often experienced by the individual. It feels like ours and ours alone.
There’s the moment in Don’t Look Back where Dylan and Donovan are trading songs in a hotel room, and Donovan plays “I’ll Sing For You,” and then Dylan follows, by casually sucking the air out of the room with yet another freshly conjured masterpiece, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” There is a split second shot of Donovan’s expression, and he looks truly crushed, and it’s easy to imagine his entire soul collapsing inside of him as he witnesses what a monstrous and untouchable talent his idol is. When I first saw it, in my twenties, I reveled (somewhat cruelly, I admit) in what I saw as a fraud getting his comeuppance. As I got older, my loyalties changed. I was more and more put off by Dylan, the young arrogant dickhead genius, and was won over by Donovan’s sweet earnestness and hapless vulnerability. Of course, in nearly any conceivable scenario that involved a choice, I would still pick Dylan, hands down. But in that single moment, it’s Donovan I far more identify with, and in any reality, probably who I would end up getting along with the most in that room.
What draws you to writing about these moments, to breaking down the action, bit by bit? Have you ever had someone tell you that they experienced a moment in nearly the exact same way as you? Or stumbled across an articulation of something that was eerily close to your own experience? How have your relationships to these moments changed over time?
Nick Jaina: These moments remind me of truth and spontaneity and I revisit them whenever I am feeling sad or lonely. That spark of recognition of the magical moment is what I’m always looking for in interpersonal interactions, and if that is stifled in some way I find myself reaching back to these recorded moments. I didn’t write about it in the book, but the other two categories of videos I turn to in times of loneliness are spectacular sports plays that include the audio of the surprised commentators, and blooper reels from television shows like Seinfeld. All of them share in common the capturing of supremely talented entertainers in a moment of honesty, transcendence, or vulnerability. I love when the camera shakes and the person’s voice quavers and you know a real moment is happening. So much of what we see is scripted and rehearsed, even in real life conversations with people on autopilot, that when something real happens it makes me happy to be alive.
I purposely picked moments that were fairly obscure and that most people probably hadn’t seen, so that I could feel that I was presenting something new to people. I have been surprised to have had a couple people mention that they’ve watched some of the same moments, though they are often people that are pop culture encyclopedias, which I am not. I will watch a video of Paul Simon playing a half-finished song a dozen times but I still forget to ever listen to any songs by The Who.
My relationship to these moments has stayed consistent over time. They all still give me chills or make my heart leap. As someone who performs for a living, they encourage me to not reach for perfection, but to allow glints of humanity to shine through. The little mistakes and breaths are often what people love about a performance, or at least it is for the kind of audience I am looking for.
Todd Gleason: When I saw you read at Valentine’s, you prefaced one of the pieces (not sure if it was the Ray Charles piece, or the Yo La Tengo piece fromVol. 1 Brooklyn) by saying something along the lines of “So much music writing and criticism is about dissecting what’s wrong with a piece of music. I’m much more interested in writing what’s amazing about it.” Pardon the paraphrasing, and feel free to correct the statement to more accurately reflect what you said, but I definitely agree with the sentiment. Not that I think negative criticism has no place– a lot of it can be entertaining, and even sometimes inspiring and useful. But personally, I am always drawn more towards the wonder and the magic and the open-hearted approach to experiencing music, even with its brokenness and flaws. Which is not always easy to write about without veering into sentimental hyperbole.
What are your general thoughts on music writing and criticism? What draws us towards reading and writing about it? Are there any music writers, in particular, that you love? Any you can’t stand? What’s it like to read about your own music, and has it ever changed the way you think about your work?
Nick Jaina: My problem with critical writing of movies and music and art is that it’s all based on this idea that there is a perfect piece of art and that the reviewer’s job is to tick off all the ways that the particular piece he’s reviewing falls short of that ideal. I understand how that developed and that there is a value to it, but it’s just an exhausting way to look at the world. It conditions audiences to watch a movie– something that should be entertaining– and have a constantly fluctuating letter grade in their head. “Well it’s no Star Wars, but it’s better than the last comic book movie I saw. B minus.”
To me, there are two things wrong with that. One is that you’re not enjoying the experience in the moment, and the other is that you’re not accepting the piece of art on its own terms. How were we convinced that one ranking system can cover Guardians of the Galaxy and the new Lars Von Trier movie? Those movies are only comparable because they have moving images and sound and they are a certain length. Otherwise they are attempting completely different objectives, and whether you like them or not depends on how you relate to the story and the characters and what mood you’re in and how much you participate in trying to like it.
I can’t think of very many times that I’ve read that kind of criticism of something and then gone and enjoyed an artistic experience because of it. But I can think of many times where someone, often my older brother, said, “Hey, check out this album. Don’t get discouraged by the first song. Listen to the way the drums come in on the second track.”
The experience of someone showing you how to love something is very valuable and I wish it was a more encouraged form of writing. I think we seek out music criticism because we want to live in the world that the musician made and understand it more. That is the ideal function of music criticism, but more often it’s used as a filter that can help us determine that we don’t have to try to like something, or even give it a chance. There’s a value to that kind of writing, but there’s just so much of it. I’m sure it’s more marketable and it pleases publicists more.
I love Carl Wilson’s writing, particularly the 33 1/3 book where he tries to understand how to love a Celine Dion album that he instinctively doesn’t like. I love it when a writer can weave in history and personal stories and help the reader understand the context of why a piece of music is the way that it is.
I’ve rarely read reviews of my own music, because there just doesn’t seem to be a point. I long ago gave up the hope that the lyrical content would be discussed in a serious way. Since words were the reason why I got into music, it’s disappointing to realize that the discourse is more about the superficial aspects and the fashion. Which, again, is fine, but I don’t have to participate in it.
Todd Gleason: Speaking of reviews of your work, there was a nice one by Scott Nadelson in the LA Review of Books not too long ago. In it, he calls the book a “meditation on failure.” To me, it seems to be less about “failure” than what you were saying earlier about the absence of perfection– how faith is intertwined with doubt, the pursuit of serenity with “the douchebag in the windbreaker,” romantic ideals with the turbulence of daily life and emotions, the song you hear in your head with the song that ends up coming out. Later in the review, he alters his premise a bit, saying the book is actually less about failure than about the sacrifices that come with the creative life.
Either way, there is a lot of pain in the book. Misfires. Mistakes. And failures, you could say. Nadelson claims that you hide at times behind “a charming but protective wryness,” which again, to me, seems like less a protective measure than inextricably entwined with the pain itself. You always seem to me to be as unflinchingly honest as is possible in the moment. In a song, we can often express personal experience indirectly by burying it inside the abstraction of the music. In a memoir, in what is ostensibly a truthful telling of your own experiences, at times you have to make yourself incredibly vulnerable.
What was it like tackling these painful experiences? What was your process of deciding which of them to write about and how to go about it? How was it different from putting the same experience into a song? Did you have to push yourself to be more naked than you were willing to be at times? Did you ever find yourself having to hold back, deciding it would be better to not reveal too much? What do you think of the idea of your book being a “meditation on failure?”
Nick Jaina: Writing prose is a world away from writing a song. As you say, a song can always hide behind metaphor and abstraction, but if you’re writing a memoir it really pays off if you at least occasionally say something direct and plain. I realized early on that what would make an interesting memoir was also what would be uncomfortable for me to write about, and I’d just have to cross that line early and not reconsider it every sentence I wrote. The fear, I guess, is that you will write something vulnerable about yourself and people will just laugh at you. But that’s just fear messing with you. In reality, people are glad to hear vulnerability in someone else, because everyone has tender parts.
The only ways I held back were in talking about other people, because they didn’t have the chance to decide whether they wanted to be a part of the story. I agonized over it in the three months between turning in the final draft and having actual books in my hand, because I was writing about people I loved deeply and didn’t want to hurt anyone. I was comforted by Anne Lamott’s words: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have treated you better.”
Anyway, I know I could handle whatever embarrassment I got from being vulnerable, but I did end up taking out certain lines about other people. There can be a big difference just in saying someone ‘probably’ thought something than that they ‘might’ have thought something, for example. You have to be careful, because when it’s printed on paper it feels so final.
I didn’t read that particular review, but I think it’s fair to call the book a “meditation on failure,” as I felt like a failure and I went to meditation. People are so afraid to be anywhere near the word “failure”. I think it’s better to just accept that failure is a major part of life. Especially in the performance world, failure is always around the corner. One miscommunication, one improperly promoted show, and an entire night of your life is embarrassing and awkward. I just have to remind myself that the story of a life is so long, and the verdict on it is not up for review every night.
Todd Gleason: What was the genesis of the book? When and how did you decide to write one? How did you decide what to write about, and what was the overall writing process? Was it always planned to be a series of vignettes, or did the structure evolve? What were some of the dead ends, lost ideas, parts you tossed out? How did you know when it was finished?
Nick Jaina: I had wanted to write a book for years, but if you’re wanting to start a memoir, you’re always going to be looking for that point when the narrative arcs in your life have resolved themselves and you can tell a story without being in the middle of it. Of course, that time never really comes, so you just have to jump in and start writing words and hope to work out the narrative by the end.
It was originally going to be a collection of essays, starting with a few pieces I had previously published in other places. I didn’t feel too excited about that format, because I wanted there to be something compelling about the stories that would make the reader want to keep going, and for that to happen you need a thread that runs through everything, preferably something with high stakes. It was only after six months of writing that I realized that the meditation retreat could be the framework for the whole book, so I tore into all the essays I had and tried to make them fit with that. They had all been existing as stand-alone pieces up until then, so I had to go through everything and make them consistent so it felt like they were building to something.
I went to South America to write because I knew I could live cheaply there and not have any distractions. I thought I would write about my travels there, and I did, but most of that writing was later discarded because it didn’t fit with the progression of the meditation retreat. A lot of the writing that got thrown out was not working because it wasn’t personal enough, or there weren’t high enough stakes. I had a whole essay about the Voyager probes that ended up being just a paragraph in the finished book. I had a whole essay about food in Colombia.
It’s funny what you try to write and what actually comes out. This was not at all the book I thought I was going to write, or even the book I thought I was writing while I was writing it. It takes a lot of fumbling around in the dark until you bump up against something interesting, and it sparks you to remember, “Oh wait, THIS is what I want to write about!” It’s a good lesson that you can’t just sit there and think about the perfect book and start writing it when you’ve got it all figured out in your head. Instead you have to just write through all the doubts and confusion.
Pretty much every day I spent writing felt like a failure. The whole time I was in South America I thought I had made a mistake, that it was a waste of time, that I wasn’t going to end up with a book. All the days I spent editing and re-writing still felt like failures, like I was just re-arranging bad words. I can’t think of very many days in the whole process where I went out at night thinking, “Yeah, I killed it today.” It’s amazing to me still that after months of failed days, somehow I had a book. It’s a good reminder that the voice in my head telling me I’m failing is not a very good judge of things, and I should just tell that voice to fuck off.
Todd Gleason: Was there anything that you were listening to/reading/ watching while you were writing that stands out as influencing the book? Do you find yourself seeking inspiration or resisting outside influence when you are trying to write? Like all good writers, I imagine you are an avid reader, and are influenced and inspired by a wide variety of writers, but are there particular ones who you would consider strong influences?
Nick Jaina: I’m actually pretty bad when it comes to reading books and listening to music. If I am working on an idea for something, which is almost always, it will be rattling around in my brain and I find it hard to read something very involved, because I need that time to think about what I’m trying to say. It’s the same with music, even more so, in that it’s hard to work on a song while listening to another song. Sometimes I’ll hear just the beginning of a piece of music and it’ll inspire a solution for something I’m stuck on, and I’ll just turn it off and work on the music I’m writing.
It’s not ideal. I wish I could have another life to live where I could just enjoy music and books and not be stripping them for ideas or analyzing their structure. If it were something I could turn off at times, I would.
Todd Gleason: In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway says “I had already seen the end of fall come through boyhood, youth, and young manhood, and in one place you could write about it better than in another… Maybe away from Paris I could write about Paris as in Paris I could write about Michigan.”
Place figures into your writing quite a bit. Sometimes it even functions much like a character– like in the New Orleans chapter, for instance, you write about its personality almost as if you are writing about a person. As someone who travels a lot, and has lived in many places, you have a lot of experience with both changing landscapes and different environments you’ve called home. What is important to you about place, and how do you approach writing about it? Do you find Hemingway’s little axiom to be true for yourself? Is it easier to write about a place when you are not in it, or does it work better when you are there to absorb the details?
Nick Jaina: Yeah, what Hemingway said.
The trouble with writing about a place while you’re in it, as in with writing about a story while you’re still living it, is that you can’t possibly see the whole arc. It’s dangerous to fiddle with it while it’s still going on. To hack away at it would be like kicking the legs out from under the stool you’re standing on.
I think what you can do is get the details down, yes. You can save the story for later, but you can get street sounds, and what the air smells like, and how many paces it is from the doorway to the bus stop. All those un-Googleable things. Those things are important to jot down at the time, but to really reflect on a place you need to compare it to another. So, yeah, Paris seems so much more Paris-y when you’re in Michigan. You can really see what stands out. The contrast on the photograph has been turned up.
I love traveling because it reminds me of different parts of myself. As many times as I’ve been to New Orleans, I can’t really remember what it feels like in my body as I hold a bottle of High Life and stand two feet from King James as he sings at BJ’s on a Monday night. So you have to keep going back. That’s the problem with travel. Like any addiction it just makes you want more.
Todd Gleason: How is the tour going? You spent a lot of time writing this book, which is a pretty solitary act, and now you are reading the same words out loud to an audience. What’s that experience like? How do you decide what parts you want to read? What kind of strategies and approaches have you developed for performing your work? Has it changed your view of the work at all? How are people responding to the book? Any experiences or anecdotes from the road you feel like sharing? Any great shows? Terrible ones? Completely fucking weird ones?
Nick Jaina:Well, obviously performing and writing require very different mindsets. I’m definitely an introverted person who is much more suited to writing, but I’m grateful to have been pushed into the performance world, because it forces me to be more open-minded and flexible and meet people. I think if I were just a writer I’d know about five people in the world and I’d never go out, but because of music, I meet new people every day who change my life.
I haven’t previously had any consistent success in touring, so it’s interesting now to write about those failures and then read about them out loud at shows. Somehow it’s working out better than any previous tour I’ve done. It helps that I can do it solo and drive a small car, instead of taking a bunch of guys around in a van. I don’t think many audiences consider the logistics of touring, but it’s really quite difficult to make it work, and the money you get paid is often so meager.
The shows I have been playing are more intimate, and because I’m reading these personal stories from the book, people come up to me afterward asking for advice or just wanting to thank me for writing about such tender things. It feels better than the average rock show experience, where often times the only feedback I get is at the urinal trough when some dude next to me says, “Hey man, sounded good.” I never was interested in going to all this trouble to create something deep and subtle just to have it “sound good.” I mean, you can buy a few hundred dollars of equipment from Guitar Center, plug it in and have it sound good. I want to do something that actually enriches people’s lives, and I think I’m getting there.
I usually fall back on reading from the unsent love letters, because those are short and poetic and can exist almost like a song in the middle of a set of music. I’ve committed to reading at least one section at every show I do this year, even if it feels like it will be inappropriate. I have played shows at loud bars where I wish I hadn’t made such a commitment, but even when I read in those situations, people always respond to it. In my mind there’s no way anyone could even hear me through the din of the bar, but they do.
But mostly I’ve read in quiet living rooms and it has been a great experience. I’ve gotten the confidence to read longer sections, and sometimes I go twenty minutes without an obvious applause break to relieve the tension. You have to have a lot of faith that people are digging it, and that’s what I keep telling myself: Have conviction in your words. You once believed in them enough to print them out. Stand behind them.
Todd Gleason: Aside from touring and promoting this book, what’s next? What other creative projects do you have in the works?
Nick Jaina: I’m always writing songs and prose, so it’s just a matter of hunting down the binding element that can bring those things together and make them a book or an album or whatever, and then figuring out the best way to release that project. I have to say this is the first time in my life where I’ve wondered what the purpose of making an album is. I love writing songs, but I have too many boxes of my unsold CDs in friends’ basements, and it’s hard to justify any expense for recording studios and all it takes to get an album together if people will just stream it for free. This makes me very sad, because I love the album form, but we seem to be getting to a reckoning point with music where either we’ll look at it just as a hobby or a good-hearted charitable thing for 99% of musicians, or… I don’t know what. But I’m always writing and trying to figure a way to make it valuable to people. Maybe sometimes the value comes in disappearing for a while.
I also write music for contemporary dance, and I have a performance of those works at BAM in New York in the fall. I’m always looking for the lasso that can tie all these disparate things– words, music, dance– together in one project, but maybe that’s impossible. I’ll keep trying, though.§
Nick Jaina is a musician and writer from Portland, Oregon. He is a co-founder and musical director of the Satellite Ballet and Collective in New York City. He released his first book, Get It While You Can, a work of non-fiction, through Perfect Day Publishing in January 2015. You can find out more about him at nickjaina.com.