Exiting Your Comfort Zone

I believe we're all shy in our own way. When I was young, my parents coined me as a "shy child", only to be confused by the fact that I grew up always performing in some manner - whether it be dancing or singing or soccer, or later on, playing guitar. They weren't wrong, my shyness runs pretty deep and is definitely still there, and depending on when and where you met me, you may agree with the sentiment or be completely confused by it.

Since I was twelve years old, I've lived in a different country almost every four years. I've frequently relocated and reformed my friend groups, bands, roommates. Every time I do this I'm faced with a hard look in the mirror - who am I really? What am I about? How do you pronounce my name (it's not English, it's Afrikaans)? Where am I from? What exactly IS my accent? Am I shy? Am I not shy? Am I bold? Am I cool? Am I nerdy? Am I a hipster? Am I a punk? The point is, that I've been outside of my comfort zone pretty consistently, having to observe my tendencies, and here's what I've taken from this experience.

Being out of my comfort zone made me stronger. When I became more and more interested in being educated (yes, that wasn't always a goal of mine), around 10th grade, I used to challenge myself to stay alert in every single class, every day. Never day-dreaming or zoning out, but rather really absorbing what was being said. I promised myself I would raise my hand and ask a question when I didn't understand something. For some reason, this part was almost impossible for me to do. To this day, I can hardly ever remember simply raising my hand to speak up... and this is the same person, who if you ask at any given time to play you a song and spill my guts and tell you every secret through lyrics one-on-one, I would. But I felt anxiety about speaking up in a school or college environment.

I started to think more and more about comfort zones and what being comfortable meant and why something such as "comfort" or being "content" is what one should strive for - at least what society has told me one should strive for. I think when people address this idea of being taken out of their comfort zone, often they often jump to the big picture right away and feel overwhelmed. But being taken out of your comfort zone can be something as small as raising your hand to ask a question and contribute to a class. 

So the contradictions continued and as I moved around and re-made friends and auditioned and did try-outs in high school, I remained afraid to ask questions... of admitting I didn't understand something. I was always a very social teen, but even so, some anxieties persisted. I used to be afraid of walking into a room full of people I don't know or only vaguely knew. Even a loud, drunk party in college. I still am sometimes, but I eased into it by going to concerts on my own. I told myself that if I could start up a conversation with just one person while at a show, about a band we both evidently like, then I had taken myself out of my comfort zone that night and progressed as a person. I went from going to gigs on my own, to going to parties with only one person I know, and not making a point to tag along by their side, but rather meet new people. I want to reach a place where I can have a proper conversation with anyone I meet... young or old, artist or businessman - you get the idea. I want to be able to fundamentally connect with people on many levels, and so I had to face this fear.

Instead of me writing that you should quit your job, pack your bags, and go on a life journey across Europe to discover who you are and be taken "out of your comfort zone", here's what I would say. If you take some time to observe your inherent quirks that are so unique to you, you may find a way to open up some new doors you hadn't considered before. There seemed to be something very endearing and captivating about the concept in the film "Yes Man"... sometimes I worry that we as people have become more and more afraid of experiences... and really, of experiencing ourselves in a way we haven't yet before. So, I challenge you to face your habits you can see need some re-shaping, even just the small ones, because that's really the only way you can keep evolving and surprising yourself.

Yesterday I did yoga for the first time. Not because I believe Yoga is the type of exercise that would be affective for me (it isn't at this stage in my life), but because one of my best friends is a Yoga instructor and I wanted to experience what she does with so much of her time. Not only that; I'm shy to try new things in front of other people because I worry I'll look "stupid" or uninformed, so I decided to challenge this anxiety. There I was, the least flexible person in the history of the world, doing Yoga in a group. It was scary for me and I giggled and felt awkward, but I did it. 

Muscles that I didn't even know exist still hurt as I write this.

Love,

Sulene

Not Giving Up

I've been on quite a few journeys these last few months and I have so many stories I want to tell you! It's been a hot minute since I wrote a post... and by hot minute, I mean several months.

I got the opportunity to have an incredible experience recently - I went on tour with a band called Candy Hearts as their guitarist, being able to have the touring experience I've wanted for a long time. I got to meet bands and artists who I very much admire; some who I've even been listening to for ten years! These are people who I can honestly say have paved the way for a musician like myself... they're a testament to what I aspire to do as a performer and writer.

Through many amazing heart-to-hearts, I noticed there seemed to be a common thread in the conversation - persistence. Not giving up. Just... keeping going. It led me to think about so many projects I had started and quit. How many bands I was in who called it a day because one member left. How many albums/EP's I've written and never put out. There's something to be said for not only turning your intentions into a reality (which I harp on about way too much), but also continuing to do so. I was astounded to hear from these musicians and bands just exactly how many years they've been doing what they do, together... through rain and shine. Not all their journeys were easy, but somehow, these amazing souls prevailed and got to the place where they are - a place many starry-eyed kids dream of when they tell their parents they want a red electric guitar for Christmas because they're going to be a "rockstar" when they grow up. There are real life rock stars, and they're people like us, who stuck it out. And I admire these artists more than ever for doing that.

So that's all for now. I'm here in sunny South Africa visiting my family, after two years of being in America. I'm in my element, reflecting on the year, and writing lots of new music!

Love,

Sulene

Happiness vs. Success

Okay, this is a giant topic to write a short blog post about. But I'm going to do it anyway.

I have a history of being physically, mentally, and emotionally at my worst when my career has been at its best. At 24 years old I've now had about a decade of actively pursuing whatever the pursuit of the day, or rather, year was. Lately, I've had some time to sift through the noise and do some much-needed analysis. What I've been uncovering has been quite astounding.

When I was 20 years old, still in college, I noticed a grey cloud moving in over my head, and I couldn't figure out what it was all about. Each week it grew a little bigger and darker as it threatened my sunshine. It never poured, but it never moved away either. This is how I would describe my mood for about 18 months. Symptoms included generally being so chill that I had no preference to anything, no excitement, no panic attacks, and the strangest symptom to me was my extreme hatred and disappointment in the world as soon as I woke up, followed by an indifference as I pushed through and continued with my work.

At this time, my "work" was a band which I'm still in, called Helicopria. Helicopria was starting to become quite successful - we had a first EP, we played some great shows, we had beautiful, sponsored merch, we wrote interesting music, we were best friends, and we seemed to be acquiring a fan base by doing something we just naturally enjoyed. Life was great.

The turning point was when we were asked to perform internationally, forcing us to up our game. We now had a long list of sponsors who had our back, and we felt a responsibility to be fucking awesome at what we do. We played on TV shows aired to millions, were interviewed on CNN, and ended up opening for the internationally renowned band Mando Diao, which to date is the biggest show I've played. Out of respect for my band members and ex-band members, who to this day are still some of my best friends, I will say that we were pushed to our maximum and everything that tore us apart was because of this. For the first time in my life I got so nervous I fainted backstage, several of us went to the hospital for physical strain, exhaustion, or musician injuries, and reviews of the band surfaced that opened up our every move on stage to criticism. All of a sudden people also cared about what our backgrounds were, what we wore, and how we presented ourselves. The comments to this day that stood out were the ones focused on our musical education - all having gone to Berklee College of Music, people scrutinized our sloppy live performance and choice of noisy progressive rock. Oh yeah, if you don't know the band, we're a prog-rock band. In many ways, we didn't fit the convention of a rock band, and we took some heat for it. Eventually we turned on each other and we had to take a step back from the spotlight.

Coming back to class at Berklee, the come down from the Helicopria experience was very difficult. Tour was exhilarating, but it was back-breaking. It was love and it was hate. It was the best time of my life and the worst time of my life. I felt confused by all this and fell deeper into my continuous, unwavering sadness. Until eventually it came at me with teeth and claws and demanded I figure this shit out, that I figure out why I was so sad when I was arguably at the height of my success of a guitarist and band leader. Why was I sad and why were we all sad? Why were we falling apart? Were we not ready? Were we not strong enough? We were getting everything we'd ever asked for. 

This is one story out of many that I have combed through this last week. The formula has been pretty constant for the most part; idea, pursuit, honeymoon-phase, intense hard work to persevere, then a career breakthrough coupled with an emotional breakdown. If there was a graph to show this, there would be a steady climb with success and happiness both going up, and as the success ratio rockets up, the happiness nose-dives. Why is this? Could it be... dun dun dun... the breaking point? O_o

This whole blog post is being written because someone asked me yesterday if I believe that happiness and success could be the same thing. At first I thought well, yes, isn't that what we all strive for? But upon second thought I answered that if they are able to be the same thing, I hadn't experienced it to any great length. Hard work doesn't always feel good, and sometimes to do something extraordinary, you have to push yourself to extraordinary lengths. This is what I've done time in and time out. I was even led to speculate that there might be a masochistic part of me that thinks if it doesn't feel so good, that it's progress, and if it's easy, then you're stagnant. Then the feeling of success became mistaken for happiness. I think I may be onto something here...

I come from a family of doctors, lawyers, and generally intimidatingly intelligent and hard-working people. According to the family, there's always space to work harder, life is difficult, and sometimes "you're not going to always love what you have to do". This is interesting, I've realized, since my creative pursuits have often turned into a Frankenstein that gets out of my control.

If you're reading this in hope of me demonstrating my light-bulb moment where it all clicked and made sense, then I'm sorry to disappoint. As I sat down to write this, I hoped I'd have that moment and write it right here in this paragraph. I will tell you what I know so far - this week I have felt the most at peace I have felt in years. There is this calm inside me and I seem to be transcending mental and musical blocks, covering unchartered creative territory. I have been more honest with myself. It feels amazing. My career is at a standstill, yet I feel so peaceful as a person.

One could argue that each of these pursuits were just not what I was "meant to be doing". One could say I wasn't ready. One could say I was too young and dumb. Or maybe, just maybe, the dumbest thing I ever did was to allow constant unhappiness to be a part of the equation. We seem to all have a different threshold. I can tell you this much; if you're going to seriously pursue being in a band, and you're expecting to have a fun time all the time, you're in for a rude awakening. It will take years off your life and you will tear your hair out. I believe it was Bukowski who said "find what you love and let it kill you". I know, it's just a quote, and I can't possibly know what exactly he was referring to, but it seems appropriate food for thought right about now. Do I accept this as my truth? What is worth it, and what just isn't?

Right now, I have no job, no income, no visa, no lover, no band. I'm sort of a "non-person" floating through America, just being me until I get the green light. What an opportune time to figure some stuff out. In conclusion, long story short - I don't want to kill myself anymore. I don't want to work 'til I drop. I want to be healthy and happy. I want to use all of my musicality, my mind, and my body creatively. I want to be a great performer. I want to feel my body. I want it all to be unified. I want to be aware and in control. I want to be, dare I say, happy. And successful.

They say that change starts with awareness, and that that's the hardest part. It may have taken some time, but this is a new page. I am certain of it. Shall we see what happens next?

Share your stories with me. We're all in this together.

Sulene

Your Essence

I've been trying to write all day. It's been a weird day, for sure. The last two nights I haven't slept well - having trouble falling asleep and waking up several times during the night. Even waking up in a panic, hours before my alarm is set to go off, feeling like I've missed the alarm and slept in. This is very uncharacteristic of me.

You see, tonight I don't have much on my mind except that tomorrow I hear back about whether I got my Artist Visa or not. "Artist of Extraordinary Ability" visa, to be exact.

So, in this moment, I will be a real person and I will write about what I'm feeling, what I'm thinking, and how I'm so overcome with emotion tonight. I can't hide where my mind is right now. I take pride in putting on a brave face, and many months ago I put any of my visa-related anxiety to rest. I told myself I would give this my best shot, a visa that is known to be very difficult to obtain, and I would let it all play out as it should. I put my trust in the universe and I just kept doing me.

This is all fine in theory, and I've been surprisingly calm through this 6-month application process. But there's one thing tugging at my heart tonight... I want this so bad. My life and career have been in some sort of purgatory for two weeks now. I can't renew my lease on my apartment, I can't spend any extra money because, well, I don't know if I will be able to return to my job next week or not. At first this was an opportunity for an amazing break, a "government-enforced vacation", I like to call it. But now my brain and heart are starting to speak up, going "okay, I'm ready now, please give me the answer so I may continue with my life". Never have I felt myself at such a stand still. After almost a decade in this country, I feel a bittersweet sadness about my time here. I feel scared and excited. Upset and relieved.

I know this is a blog centered on the life and career of an artist and the challenges that come with it. I know not all artists will deal with something like an "Artist of Extraordinary Ability" visa, but then I thought... we all actually deal with this, in some way.

My friend Scarlett, who is one of the most talented songwriters and violin players I've ever heard, came through New York on tour with her highly successful and mind-blowingly incredible band from Texas. Sharing a couple beers with them, a few of the members told us how they either live with their parents or that many don't even have apartments or houses. All their belongings are in storage because as this tour progresses, they will hear news about their future as a band in this industry, and this may change their living situation. It may change how often they're home, if at all, for months at a time, or where they will all move together. They, too, are in the endless in-between, together, waiting on someone to either approve their "artist of extraordinary-ability-ness" or not.

Composers wait on directors to give the go ahead with the demos of the score, to ask for edits, or fear being replaced immediately. Directors, after giving all their time and sometimes a lot of their money, await box office results, articles, reviews, and ratings, on a film I have heard many of them call their "baby". High school graduates wait to hear back about college applications and if they were accepted to their dream school. Many, if they're lucky to celebrate being accepted, await a decision on scholarships, and then on how much financial support that will get. My friends are interviewing for jobs in New York City, savings running out with every passing day, hanging on by what feels like a thread, and they wait for that call or email. They wonder if they will be able to feed themselves next week or not. It seems, in some way, most of us are trying to live up to some standard to obtain some thing, so we can have a better life.

Sometimes I feel so overcome with bitterness, sadness, and frustration at having to prove myself that all I can do is feel the poison pulsing through my veins, destroying me slowly. I drink. I sleep in. I eat badly. I talk badly about myself. I talk badly about other people. I cry.

So here's what I want to say, if there's anything I can offer to the world tonight. Believe in yourself. Believe in your cause. Your dream is not illegitimate. Your dream is not open to interpretation... not by anyone. Carry your dream with you like a badge of honour. Wear it. Share it. Talk about it. Live it. Be excited about it. Be you, just the way you are in your essence.

So that's it. Here we are. As we speak, someone may be sitting down and reading through 300+ pages of my music career... my life. Awards, articles, diplomas, pictures, gig listings, tours, credits, endorsements, the list goes on. They are deciding if I'm considered an Artist of Extraordinary Ability, or not.

I am an artist. I'm an artist in my very being, in every fiber or who I am. I can't escape it, and daily, I cannot shake it even if I want to. Believe me, I've tried to fight it. When I was 14-years-old and had to do my first job shadow, I proudly shadowed a lawyer. As I write this, I will tell you I do not remember a single thing about it. I don't even remember who the lawyer was or what we did. It made no impression on me. I can tell you the name of every instrumental music teacher I've had - piano or guitar or voice or saxophone. I can tell you the name of every theory teacher I had. I can tell you on which side of my first guitar teacher's nose she had her nose piercing - because I have the exact same one, in tribute to her. I can tell you where i was, who was there, and what type of guitar I was playing in my improvisation class in high school when my music teacher asked me "have you heard of a college called Berklee College of Music?".

No matter what someones tells you, or what value system you're being measured up to, all that matters is that you believe in it and that you feel it. I am so incredibly proud of being an artist and I will spend every single day harnessing this amazing light that I feel inside of me. I want to change the world, from whatever country I end up in. That will never be taken away by me, and it will never be silenced.

You see, this is the most beautiful part of the situation. If I don't get a chance to stay here, and I pack up all my things and leave in two months, I will still be an artist. I will still write music and play in a band and write scores and write this blog and build a connection with artists around the world. So in this way, I carry my craft with me where-ever I go - I carry my "extraordinary ability" within me.

It's been a long time in the making, to be waiting for this decision. But no matter what, my eye is on the prize and it always will be.

With overflowing love,

Sulene

The Breaking Point

Most of you who read my blog are either friends of mine, or people who have become friends of mine through approaching me with messages about your experiences in relation to what I've written so far. A couple months ago I made some kind of subconscious commitment to approach my blog from a place of honesty and openness. Sometimes it's been really scary, or sometimes it's been very empowering when I feel like I can reach a couple of people with my stories and motivate them in some way. Sometimes I go on a first date with a guy and he tells me he has read my blog or watched my vlogs and that slightly saddens me because now he's read multiple chapters of me before we could mutually learn one another. But I guess that's what happens when you write your stories for all to see.

I can honestly say in the last three months, to date, I have learned more than I have learned in my whole life. I have not had big questions answered, but instead had big questions raised. There's no way to sum up all the life lessons and experiences in a single post, so I will treat this one as the prologue to the stories (that will either bore you or move you).

I'll start by saying that right now I'm sitting at my desk in Brooklyn. It's 5 pm, and I'm listening to a pop punk playlist from the 90s. My entire apartment is spotless. I can feel a fan blowing cool air on my shoulders and I have sunlight streaming into my room. I'm drinking a Bloody Mary and I'm not wearing a bra or shoes. I'm relaxed. This is the first time, ever, that I'm writing you a post from my desk, in the daylight, in all these conditions, and so wide awake.

For the last six months I have been working in the film industry. A lot of people know that my thing is that I'm a musician, but few understand more specifically what my current job is. I'm a composer, and my work ranges from original scores for films, commercials, and live dance, to me acting as an assistant composer to scores for feature films and many television series. I also sing and play various instruments on all these works, and do orchestral mock-ups. I generally work seven days a week on my craft, and a day off is usually spent sleeping all the sleep and eating all the food - recovery.

I blindly boarded a fast-moving train half a year ago, and I never got off... until yesterday. I had felt myself move further and further away from the world and off into some parallel universe where I stopped being able to relate to most people as I became immersed in my journey.

I became so fixated on making art, and the incredible opportunities that I felt lucky to have right in front of me, that I allowed everything else to fall at the wayside. The first was my sleep schedule, the next was my friendships, my family, then my boyfriend, and then my health. I know for a lot of artists we unfortunately don't see the blaring red flags until we're lying in a hospital bed or we're in rehab - I don't want to end up in either again.

Long, sappy story made short; I reached a breaking point. I've never had a breaking point in my career before. I woke up one morning, not too long ago, and I couldn't imagine getting out of bed and walking the two blocks to the subway. I'd been sleeping about 2 hours a night for two weeks, if at all, and I'd stopped eating full meals because my stomach was in pain from what I can only imagine was stress. My limbs felt like jelly, and the final straw was the pain I was experiencing in my wrists for about two weeks. That morning, all I could think about was sleeping and could hardly lift my arms to turn off my alarm. You know when you wake up in the morning for class and you think "man I would do anything to just keep sleeping"? Well, I thought that, and this time it was so real. I felt myself stop functioning. I contacted those who relied on me and told them what was happening to me in the clearest, most objective way possible. I told them I was breaking, that I was falling apart.

It feels like I've been gone on a trip for six months. Where did my friends go? Why does everyone have girlfriends? Who are these girls they're so in love with? Where are my roommates? I didn't even say goodbye when they left. Where is my best friend? She went back home to Cali and I missed her party. Where is my bassist? He moved out of New York. I didn't even say goodbye. Where in the world is my dad? He called me and told me he's on his yacht... but where is he traveling? I don't remember. It's all a blur. My lease is up this month... where am I going to live? I haven't thought about that. I don't have a clean shirt to wear. I haven't used my kitchen in over a month. My curtains are duct-taped to my windows. It looks like hell in here. I'm in a nightmare.

Today is the second day I'm now spending time with friends who I've known since I was 7-years old. True, life-long friends, and we are reminiscing about how many years it's been since we saw each other. Somehow, our friendships had survived, while some others, I'm sad to say, did not. And neither did my relationship, and it will probably never grow into a friendship either. I then realized that my exhaustion wasn't a result of the last six months, it was a result of the last six years. In the last six years I've gotten a degree, I've toured with three major bands all over the world, I've released multiple albums and written multiple scores... but... where did the rest of my life go? I'm not sure. That's what I'm here to find out. It's like coming up for air from some sort of coma. Neglect is the word that comes to mind, and I'm just trying to stop that from turning into regret.

What is balance and how can we achieve it?

What is happiness and what is success? Do they go hand in hand? I always thought they did, now I don't think they always do (and trying to explain that to someone who is watching you willingly suffer in the name of "the dream" is no easy task).

Do artists have to be martyrs for their work? No, I don't think so and I think this is an unfair stereotype that has been placed on a lot good, open, hard-working people. We all deserve love and connection. I don't want to buy into this "well, you chose a difficult path" crap any longer.

Everyone deserves a good quality of life. How can we work together towards this universal direction?

In order to achieve the above, many risks need to be taken. Many uncomfortable conversations need to be had. I for one need to grow-up, I need to be assertive, and I even need to unlearn some of my cultural tendencies - things like caving under the demands of those older than me or not speaking up about what I want.

Learn to protect yourself and believe in your contribution to the world. Go out there with a vengeance, and take a stand for what you believe is right.

"Stop this train I want to get off and go home again

I can't take the speed it's moving in

I know I can't

But honestly won't someone stop this train"

I've been singing these lyrics by John Mayer for years and never did they mean as much to me as they do today. So that's it, I'm stopping the train, if only for a brief moment to recenter and not hurt myself any longer. I hope when I get back on that I won't travel too far away until I come back to visit, before leaving again, back and forth. That is the cycle. I hope more people will join me on the train and watch the scenery with me, and laugh with me at the madness of it all. That's why I'm here, writing to you.

Many life lessons to follow soon.

From the self-help punk,

Sulene