Work Stories: Jason Harrod's what-shall-I-cry-out calling

Welcome to the newest post in a brand new series of guest posts on the subject of our everyday work lives. For the remaining weeks of Ordinary Time, I’ve invited some friends to share a one-day snapshot into their work life that will help us see what they know to be true right now about who they are made to be.

I met today’s guest through a friend-of-a-friend connection when I was booking musicians as part of a former job. I hadn’t heard of him, and somewhat skeptically searched for him online. Before the end of the first song I heard streaming from his website, I became a lifelong Jason Harrod fan. And that was before we even met in person. After we invited him into our home, I became a lifelong Jason Harrod friend.

The life of an independent singer-songwriter requires deep wells of courage and perseverance. That’s not a particularly profound observation, but it takes on the form of prayer and patronage as we begin to know artists beyond the work they create. Jason walks out the vulnerability of making music and friends again and again - all while maintaining a commitment to ask honest questions and search for hidden, complicated beauty in his relationships with God, people, and place. Whether you are a songwriter or a spreadsheet-maker, I hope you’ll be encouraged by Jason’s wise and life-giving insight into the rewards and challenges of our daily work.

p.s., May I also recommend Jason on Patreon and Instagram?

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I’m a singer-songwriter.  My work, as I see it, involves writing songs and singing them for people.  That’s the main thing, but then there are subsidiaries: I have to book shows, promote shows once they are booked, record and manufacture recordings, keep track of inventory, book travel, and generally try stay in touch with my audience while generating new fans.

There are other subsidiaries. Keeping despair, regret, anger and fear at bay. Maintaining joy and gratitude, connecting with God, taking care of myself physically, becoming more proficient (or at least not losing proficiency) in what I do.  But most of those things, of course, are part of being human. I’m not sure if it counts as “work” or not.

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Over the years I’ve had other work which might not be directly related to performing music which helps make ends meet. That used to mean food service.  I recently inquired about a job at a fried chicken restaurant in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. The man behind the counter, weary-looking but friendly, in a grease-splattered apron, told me they could use me.  The pay would be $8.00 an hour (under the table), $9.00 if I could cook.

“Can you cook?” he asked.  

“Kind of,” I replied.  

“We’ll teach you,” he said, and wrote my number on the wall.

I went home and slept on it, and woke up sure that I didn’t want that job, and thankful that I have been able to make ends meet in music-related jobs for the past few years.

Most recently that’s involved being a music director, worship leader, or guitarist for Christian churches. The longest stretch I spent as music director was at the first church for which I was employed, a church called Dwell, on Manhattan’s lower East Side.

I used to have an uneasy relationship with the concept of work, and for a while thought I hated work. Maybe I did, and if so, it’s because I hadn’t learned to find the value in doing necessary things that aren’t fun, and the great reward that comes with having pushed through to accomplish something I didn’t think I wanted to do.

I learned a lot about joy, purpose and efficiency in work from Gerko Tempelman. Gerko is a Dutch author, philosopher, and teacher who was for a while an intern at Dwell. He has a contagious and reflexive love for work. When our church didn’t have enough work to keep him busy, he turned his attention to me: “All right Jason Harrod, what are we gonna do today?” Gerko would ask, and I’d tell him what I wanted to do. “Put it on your schedule!” he’d say. Gerko’s enthusiasm was infectious, and something shifted in my mind, where I started to enjoy even the mundane aspects of my job, like sending booking emails. I learned the value of making lists of tasks and scheduling those tasks, and the joy of crossing things off lists. Gerko helped me book a multi-State tour, and then came along and played drums in the tour band we assembled. His wife Rachelle came too. It was a great way for them to see the country, and exciting for me to see the country through their eyes, though it is the Dutch way not to get too excited about things. “I rate it a 7” is one of Gerko’s favorite expressions, by which he means, “It’s pretty good.” I think Gerko and Rachelle rated America a 7.  

Another tool which helps me work is using the “Pomodoro method” of work.  I work for 55 minutes then take a 5 minute break, during which I usually do jumping jacks to get my heart rate up before sitting back down. I have a timer going right now.

I strive to wake up, make coffee, write a list of what I want to do, and put it on a post-it on the mirror. Then I schedule each task and put it on my calendar. It helps to give me an overview of what I want the day to look like.

A typical day might have a couple of hours worth of sending booking emails or facebook messages -- reaching out to people to see if they want to book me for a concert. I find that emailing friends and acquaintances who already know my music is more fruitful than emailing strangers, although occasionally emailing someone cold will yield results. I might make myself a goal of sending 5 booking emails a day, but find that once I get into the task, I send more like 10. Once I book a show I try to promote it. If I’m playing a show in, say, Des Moines, I do a Facebook search for all my friends in Des Moines and then send an individual message to each one. It’s probably the part of my job I like the least, but on the other hand, it keeps me connected to my friends and acquaintances.  

I think singing is the main thing I am about and the thing I love the most. That is at the core of who I am. Singing and making a joyful noise, or a beautiful sound. Praising. (This brings to mind the Rilke poem. Over and over the poet is asked what about this circumstance, what about that, and the poet has only one answer: “I praise.”).

The second-most thing I am about is songwriting. I sometimes give songwriting workshops, and at the top of a handout of quotes about writing I give participants is this verse: “A voice says, "Cry out." And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’” (Isaiah 40:6).

That’s at the heart of being an artist, I think. Figuring out what to cry. And the irony is, you don’t know until you start. You can’t know what the cry is until you open your mouth and make a sound.

I can be a slow songwriter. Sometimes too slow. Partly, it’s because I am a perfectionist. I don’t like putting anything on a record if I don’t think it’s really good. So I can tinker endlessly instead of letting go. Other times it’s because I don’t know exactly what a song is supposed to say, or how to finish it. It’s much easier to start a song than to finish it. It’s easier to leave than to come home. If a song is like a pot on the stove, I have about 20 pots on the stove, simmering, bubbling. Sometimes I go back and taste, and stir, and taste some more, and think how wonderful the dish will be and then wander away to let the pot simmer longer.

There is a joyful place I have or can reach where thoughts and images come bubbling up from within and tumbling out in rapid succession. There’s an inner spark that connects and takes flame. I try to keep a pilot light burning so I’m ready for inspiration when it comes. There are ways to cultivate the ignition. Reading good poetry is one. Exercise is another.

My friend Jay bikes every day from Brooklyn to Manhattan, and got a big red bike with a giant bell on it to ring at pedestrians to replace his rusty old Schwinn, which he gave to me. I take it out to Prospect Park and ride around the 3.35 mile bike circle 1 to 3 times, and come home. Getting my heart pumping gets ideas flowing. The other day, some ideas started coming on the way home from biking. I didn’t have anything to write with so tried to hold them in my head until I came home. This is what I got:

“When revolution becomes rote

How do you unpack nostalgia?

Sadness hooks in and hovers

what's the shape and nature of it?

A well-placed breeze or wind can

Dislodge memories and send them tumbling.

Can discharge synapses.

I desire a dislodging.

(That feeling of Sun going away

when the sun goes behind a cloud. You feel your spirit dim.  I want it to brighten again).

I want a medium not a social media.

I’m just a click away from my farthest friend,

far far away from my

Most Ardent ignorer.”

What are those lines about? Feeling sadness “hook in,” but also how sadness can be dislodged. Reflections on wanting to create but feeling dormant, wanting a spark to ignite so that I can create.  A last few lines about how seeing our friends on social media can make us feel farther from them.

There are some good lines there. I feel happy with those. That’s kind of the raw material or the “starter” (like bread starter) from which I might try to build a song.

The next step might be finding a melody and a chord progression to match it. I’ll strap on a guitar and play some chords while singing some syllables -- maybe some “oohs.”  Then I might look for a line which might come close to matching the syllables meter-wise.

The “spirit dim” line is pretty good.  I might use that as my starting place:

“I feel my spirit dim.  

I want it bright again.  

I can’t find sun within.
So I look out for you.”

That’s pretty good, and I have the beginnings of a structure. I can build from there.

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I have a writer friend who told me that he read somewhere that lyric poets and mathematicians do their best work as young men and women. He might be right. And for some reason I want to add cartoonists. Bold vital lines get weak and trembly. Ideas get recycled.

I do think young people have a zeal for life and an audacity that older people can lose. It’s not hard to find examples of recording artists who used to make terrific records but don’t anymore.

Occasionally I think my best work is behind me, when I listen to an older song that I think is particularly good. I wonder if I will write a good song again.

I think part of being true to one’s calling is holding it loosely. I try to maintain an idea of stewardship. I have gifts that were given to me, and in gratitude I try to cultivate them and use them to serve others (as well as to make a living, which I admit is a strange mixture). I try to hold everything loosely.

In fact, I did have a moment of crisis a few months ago. I had obtained a list of possible venues from a friend and emailed each one of them, asking if they would consider booking me for a performance. In such cases I try to maintain a tone of optimism. The response rate was pretty bad. A couple of “no’s,” many non-responses. I found myself getting resentful, which is a bad place to be. Resentfulness chokes gratitude. I was tired. I took a break from booking shows because I didn’t know what else to do. And in that break, I felt like God put a hand on my shoulder and gave me permission to quit. He told me “you don’t have to do this, you know.”

Whoa. I felt a weight lifted. Relief at not having to pursue a career as a singer-songwriter. I let go inwardly. I felt like a fist was unclenching. I breathed for what felt like the first time in many weeks. I felt also a sense of mourning. I still don’t know what I was mourning, exactly. Maybe it was the loss of a particular way of life -- loss of identity. I was envisioning saying good-bye to an old friend. I walked around in a bit of a daze for a day.  I called my old songwriting and touring partner, Brian Funck, just to hear his voice and reminisce.

And then I felt like I heard God say, “Just because you *can* let go doesn’t mean you have to. Keep going if you want to.”

And then it occurred to me, that I’m doing this -- being a singer/songwriter -- because I want to, not because I have to. That mental shift allowed me to see each day’s work as a choice and a gift. I decided to keep going. I find I’m bringing new energy, gratitude, and joy to each day’s work, and receiving more in return.

Jason Harrod is a Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter.  He tours frequently throughout the US and is currently working on his fifth full-length solo album. You can find out more about him here (jasonharrod.com).


What about your calling?

What are some of the “subsidiary” tasks necessary for you to work out your core calling?

A song and a prayer for all of us this week

 
O God, whom saints and angels delight to worship in heaven: Be ever present with your servants who seek through art and music to perfect the praises offered by your people on earth; and grant to them even now glimpses of your beauty, and make them worthy at length to behold it unveiled for evermore; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
— Book of Common Prayer, "Prayer for Church Musicians and Artists"

(You can read all of the Work Stories here.)