Former Rock Critic Finds Her Own Tune
Joan Anderman once had what a lot of other rock-obsessed baby boomers would consider a dream job. As a popular music and culture writer for the Boston Globe from 1998 to 2010, her duties included reviewing records and concerts, and interviewing music icons such as Annie Lennox and the Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde.
Nevertheless, in 2010, Anderman walked away from The Globe and started on a multifaceted second act. She created a website, MiddleMojo.com, where she plays both reporter and essayist and focuses on the subject of creativity and its relationship to aging -- that is, what happens to artists and their work over time, and how older people explore new artistic avenues. She's continued to interview performers in midlife, ranging from singer Rickie Lee Jones and guitarist-songwriter Richard Thompson to actress Janeane Garofalo and rapper Chuck D.
She's also started out on a new artistic adventure of her own. Though she sang in school productions while growing up in Southern California, she had pretty much abandoned performing music when she became a journalist. Now, after all those years, the 52-year-old mom is trying her hand for the first time at writing songs rather than articles, and blogging about the experience of trying to awaken her musical muse at midlife.
In an interview with SecondAct, Anderman talks about her musical influences, midlife creativity and starting on a new direction in life.
SA: You mentioned that Carole King's kids went to your high school. Did that influence you at all later as a music critic?
JA: A lot of well-known artists in music and film sent their kids to the high school I attended, and I think spending time around them in that context -- not as a fan, necessarily, but in the more mundane setting of carpools and birthday parties -- humanized them for me. It colored my notion and experience of celebrity and also gave me the understanding that being an artist is a job, a job that someone's mom or dad might have. I think that growing up in that milieu influenced me not so much as a critic but more generally as an arts journalist who conducts interviews and writes profiles. I'm comfortable talking to anyone, I'm not especially star-struck, and I guess I feel like I belong. Those qualities are useful when you're sitting down to chat with Madonna or have 10 minutes on the phone with Lou Reed.
SA: What prompted you to leave The Globe?
JA: I left The Globe in 2010. I had actually tried to quit two years before that but was reeled back in, and it took some time to work up the courage to do it again. My reason for leaving was simple: I wanted and needed a change. That said, it wasn't at all simple for me to get to a place in my head where walking away from a plum job with a good paycheck and prestige at a major daily newspaper seemed like a rational choice. I remember when I was agonizing over the decision, my husband asked me a question that really brought things into focus. I love the film Harold and Maude and he asked me who I'd rather be: Maude or Mrs. Chasen, Harold's mother. Would I rather be an adventurer or a lady with money? Somehow that question crystallized the choice I was facing.
Being a music critic was wonderful in so many ways for a long time. I mean, I was paid to go to shows and listen to albums and have conversations with interesting artists. You also have to do the work, and I take writing very seriously. I'm a slow, somewhat obsessive writer, not well-suited to the pace of a daily newspaper, and the deadlines were always a source of anxiety for me. I'd go to a show, leave at 10:30 whether it was over or not, race back to the newsroom, and file the review by 11:45. Not the ideal format for laboring over your prose. Also, after years of being on a beat, I started feeling like a hamster on a wheel. I was repeating myself. I was bored. And finally there was the onset of midlife, and the awareness of how quickly time was passing, and the knowledge that if there was something else I wanted to do, I had better do it.
SA: You're actually doing several different, but intertwined, things. How did that all come about?
JA: In the spring of 2010, as I was just starting to think about what I might do with myself post-Globe, my daughter Hannah, who was then a freshman at Barnard, was contemplating taking a year off from school. We spent a couple of months talking pretty seriously about taking a year's worth of college tuition and doing some kind of project together, and then writing a book about it. We tossed around the idea of putting together a small music festival. Then we talked about writing songs together and making an album. She wound up back in school that fall, but the seed was planted, and as I thought more concretely about what was happening in my life and in me -- this powerful craving for novelty and adventure -- the idea of a broad inquiry into the nature of creativity in midlife began to take shape.
I realized that it could encompass my skills as a journalist and be a personal odyssey, too. I love music, obviously, and the thought of making my own was seriously thrilling. I liked the idea of starting at 51 (I'm 52 now), which is such a crazy-ass thing to do. We fetishize youth in this culture, especially in entertainment, and perhaps most of all in pop music. So many artists I admire are in midlife. They're experiencing change in their minds and their bodies, in the marketplace, in their senses of identity and purpose, and I want to know how all those facets of aging are impacting their creative lives. What's the connecting thread? We're all getting older, and we all want to live artful lives.
SA: You interview an eclectic variety of people on your website. What are these artists discovering about themselves as they age, and what can we learn from them?
JA: People have wildly different experiences of aging in general, and also a spectrum of attitudes and approaches to their crafts and their careers, but a couple of themes are emerging that I think resonate whether you're a rock star or Joe Blow. One is the reality that inspiration isn't a gift or some kind of magical spell that's visited on the chosen few. Creative people work hard at being creative. There are moments or stretches that are more fertile than others, but by and large making things requires vision and commitment and -- this is a big one -- the willingness to be open and take risks.
I think for a lot of people the responsibilities and burdens of adulthood and family life can tamp down that spirit of adventure. We begin to value security and familiarity, which are antithetical to creativity. Nearly everyone I've interviewed says that their mastery of art and craft has deepened over time, although their cultural relevance may well have diminished. Some become nostalgia acts and others forge ahead in relative obscurity. Either way, there's this idea that one can't rely on the judgement of others to assign value and meaning to one's creative output. That's a notion we can all benefit from across the board, in art and in life.
SA: Was there a pivotal moment when you suddenly decided 'I'm going to try writing songs myself?'
JA: There wasn't an epiphany. It was more of a dawning awareness that I wanted to live a more creative life, and I suppose writing songs is the most natural extension of that urge. I've spent the last 25 years writing about songs. In a weird way, it doesn't feel like a huge leap to go from writing about songs to writing songs.
SA: How many songs have you written?
JA: I have two finished songs and two partly finished songs. Even the finished songs feel like works-in-progress, though.
SA: Is the songwriting just a mind-expanding exercise, or do you have a goal of eventually writing songs that you or someone else will perform?
JA: This is also something of a reclaimed dream. I fantasized about being a musician when I was young, although I never pursued it with any real purpose. I love pop songs. That said, the idea of performing scares the hell out of me.
SA: What's it like to actually write the music and words now, instead of analyzing someone else's recordings? When you hear your efforts later, do you find yourself having to resist being the critic?
JA: I've written a bit about this on Middle Mojo. The thrill of creating music seems to disable or mute my critical faculties, at least temporarily, and I think that might be a good thing. I'm a rank beginner. If I were constantly critiquing my inevitably feeble first steps, I'd be immobilized by my inexperience and limitations. So I've had the extremely odd sensation of coming up with a verse or a chord change or a whole song and having no idea if it's decent or dreadful.
I do my best to check myself: take a mental step back, try to listen with objective ears. But it's really hard. I think I wrote a while back that I now understand why there is so much bad music in the world. It's because making it is such a rush. I have, thankfully, been able to kick into a more productive critical gear and assess, to some extent, my own work. Of course then I run into a whole set of other problems having to do with my lack of expertise. It's one thing to be able to say something isn't good, and it's another thing to be able to make it better.
SA: What's your songwriting process like?
JA: I was pretty freaked out, after establishing songwriting as such a prominent piece of the project, that I would sit down to write a song and find that I couldn't do it. That I just didn't have it in me. So I decided to go away by myself to a cabin in Joshua Tree, the idea being that my best shot at figuring out how to be open and unfettered and inspired, my best shot at finding my muse, would be there, in the desert. That was in April, and I guess it worked because something happened. I started two songs there. My process was pretty basic: I sat down with my guitar and a notebook and let my mind wander. I can't say I've developed a routine beyond carving out chunks of time to do that.
I have a good friend who used to be a producer and manager and now lives on a farm in New Hampshire, and I've been going up there to work on songs. He taught me how to use GarageBand, and recording has become an important part of the process. Listening gives me perspective and insight and clarity that's hard to conjure when I'm focused on trying to play guitar and sing at the same time.
But I've also learned a lot from talking to accomplished songwriters about their rituals and processes. Sam Phillips surrounds herself with meaningful objects in her writing studio, and when she's in a rut she takes long walks. Lucinda Williams leaves her tape recorder on the kitchen table, and the first thing she does when she wakes up in the morning is listen with fresh, rested ears to the previous night's ideas. When Aimee Mann went through an extended period of writer's block, she started doing exercises from a self-help book and cutting out headlines from a newspaper for lyrical ideas. That's another, frankly self-serving, way the strands of Middle Mojo connect: I'm extracting incredibly useful information from the interviews.
SA: What are you discovering about yourself and about midlife creativity through songwriting?
JA: Songwriting feels like opening a vein. It's the most exhilarating and sometimes excruciating thing I've done. The feeling of wonder and accomplishment has nothing to do with the quality of my songs, or how other people may or may not receive them, or what happens to them. On the contrary. There's an immediacy to it, and a pretty startling sense of discovery, and -- this sounds cheesy -- this wildly potent feeling of being myself. I don't know what I expected it would be like. I don't think I imagined it would feel like this.
SA: There have been at least a few music critics who've successfully jumped the rail and become musicians. Do you daydream about writing a really good song and it turning into something big?
JA: I don't. But I would like nothing more than to write a really, really good song.
Previous Post: 4 Things You Should Know About Medicare
Next Post: Hot Topics: Employment Stages Modest Comeback for Workers Over 45