Sunday, July 5, 2009

Following the Muse: Songwriter Jean Mazzei

Given our shared love of yoga and music, it’s easy for me to hang with singer-songwriter and yoga instructor Jean Mazzei. But having a lot in common doesn’t get in the way of me learning a thing or two from her every time we get together. Whether she’s fronting a rock band (Flying Venus), playing a jazz gig with her husband John Mazzei, or holding down a stage with just her voice and guitar, Jean always brings a unique point of view to the table. Having recently returned from India, I asked Jean some questions about her process as artist, seeker and performer.

DC You’re both a musician & a yogini? What's your experience of these practices informing one another?
JM: They have informed each other deeply and subtly... Yoga has informed my music especially in helping me keep a level head and not take things personally in the very personal music business. Also the practice of yoga has informed my ability to be open and recognize when inspiration is striking.

My artistic life has informed my yoga in that I’ve learned that inspiration is a fleeting thing and the importance of being in the moment. Many times I’ve thought of a poem or a song thinking “I’ll remember this later” but when later comes, the idea is totally gone. I mean totally! I learned to honor those moments as gifts from God, the Divine, and the Muse – whatever terminology works for you. It’s the same with having an awesome asana practice or meditation – they just don’t happen every day, so when they show up, honor and appreciate the gift of that experience. My personal practice is to open myself up to finding more and more of those magical experiences in daily life. I believe that they are happening all the time; it’s just my own blindness that keeps me from seeing them.

It wasn’t until someone pointed out to me a few years ago, that music that heals doesn’t have to be overtly spiritual – it can be something that resonates within a person, like certain songs I listened to did when I was younger.

Being a yoga teacher is also much like performing. You hone your craft and when the curtain goes up, you get out of the way. They don’t seem so different, it’s just that as a yoga teacher I can watch people’s lives change before my very eyes, where as a musician, I don’t get that kind of feedback. Because of that, I’ve questioned whether or not I should devote my life to teaching, and what place writing and performing music has for me. I know that I’ve always been a performer, which is an art form in itself.

DC: You went to India recently. Did it change your perspective?
JM: Traveling always changes my perspective, and traveling for more than a week, even more so, and in a 3rd world country, even more! So traveling to India was your basic triple whammy perspective changer. The main thing that traveling does for me, is that it pulls me off of my routine – stops the momentum so to speak, and in doing so, I can step out of the patterns and see/feel with fresh eyes.

I had never really wanted to go to India, but was drawn to this particular trip because of who was leading it, and that the focus was on visiting the shrine of the Divine Mother in Kamakya…[and] that the left hand of Tantra is still practiced there.

DC: Did the poverty throw you?
JM: It’s arrogant that I should think that my way of life is better than theirs. Yes, I have more material wealth, but who am I to say that it is a better lot in life? I’m used to it, and I’m not saying that their way of life is better, so I should give everything away and live in a hut. It’s accepting and acknowledging our differences and realizing that not one size fits all. I teach that concept in my yoga classes a lot.

DC: You've sung jazz, in a rock band and as a singer-songwriter (not to mention theater and voiceovers!) What's interesting you most now?
JM: Right now I’m feeling driven to start exploring some instrumental compositions – stuff I can use in my yoga classes. Performance-wise, I’m at a place where I feel like I can really put out what I’m meant to do. I feel like I can change the energy in the room, which is why most people go to a show anyway – they want to be changed in some way for the better, even if it’s just making a change for the moment. If you go in, watch a show, and leave feeling the same, chances are you won’t go back to that show.

I’m more excited about singing my own songs, but there are times when singing some jazz tunes or covers can really do the trick. I’d love to be able to do something like Imogene Heap. That sound she created in “Hide and Seek” really melts my butter.

DC How has your writing process changed, or has it, since you first began?
JM: It’s the same, except now I have more tools. When I first started writing songs, the melody and lyrics would usually come in at the same time. That still happens, and when it does, I think it makes for some of the most powerful songs. When that doesn’t happen, I noodle around on the guitar for cool progression or hook, and then start singing placeholder lyrics until I can figure out what the song is really about. Then I refine the lyrics and music to support that. Other ways I’ve written – I’ve created weird instrumental beds on the computer and sang over that with lyrics I wrote first. Right now I want to do some devotional singing – take a chant or Sanskrit prayer and start improvising in to the computer. Or the other way around, create some sort of cool drone first, and then start singing. The bottom line, whatever gets me in the door is what works! My favorite is when I get a really clear lyric with a melody, and I know exactly the feeling or story of what I want to say.

DC: Where do you go for inspiration?
JM: I used to draw on my past experiences, mostly the painful ones, and now I feel like I’ve mined my subconscious about as far as I can. Now I use my actor’s imagination and imagine the life of another character and tell that story. Sometimes I’ll give myself an assignment, like “write about a street person” or “write something like Neil Young” or “write and AABA form,” or “try to use only 3 chords in the same order.” At this point, I’m rarely inspired by my personal life, so it helps to create structures for inspiration to come out of. It’s much harder to write a happy song and pull it off. People can relate more to pain and edge, but when they hear about a happy person with a happy ending – well, it can sound insincere, false, or preachy. I know I’ll be inspired again, and I’m looking forward to what the next phase will be. My practice right now is to be present and open and wait for what comes next.