Bliss and the Working Artist


The first words that passed through my mind when asked how my life as an artist-musician had given me bliss were, “the Agony and the Ecstasy”. I thought about it for a few days, and then came to the conclusion that bliss was the Holy Grail of creativity.

Of course, there are varying degrees, different shades of bliss; the feeling that comes with taking on a difficult piece, slowly dissecting and rebuilding it until you are it’s master, commanding it to your soul, to your fingers or whatever your canvas…that’s definitely a kind of bliss, that fluidity between you and your art. There’s the bliss that comes from pure artistic spontaneity, prefaced by the ability, after years of hard work and practice, to deftly steer your talent where your imagination would take it. The moment when you are creating and lose your sense of time as the framework of reality, where you merge the fabric of eternity with some kind of spiritual broadcast to which you have accidentally or purposely tuned your inner radio.

For me it happens almost every time I write, paint and most times
I perform. Maybe not right off the top, but somewhere along the creative journey I get lost, so wrapped up in the process that I lose track of time, fear, self and ego. Somehow, breathing in the moments and being immersed in a lack of self-consciousness, I am a child again; lost in wonder, deep in the now-ness of it all.

Then it passes. A misstep, an off-cue, someone walks into the room and once again I find myself caught in a manic struggle back to nirvana.

I would be less than honest if I overlooked the bliss aspect of success, although in an artistic sense, success can be pretty subjective. At least, when playing tennis, we know at the end of the match who won…or lost. In music-art business heaven, the halls are littered with the souls of the once successful, then disenfranchised, the lost and the broken-hearted.

Fame can be quite a dominatrix, a bitchy, condescending opiate…if you let it. But I think no matter what stage of your career you are in, if you can learn to recognize and accept the Voice we all have inside us, there is bliss to be had, no matter what your star status may or may not be. If you’re about to make a big breakthrough, I think it’s important to be aware of how the bliss that got you there can be marginalized in the glare of the lights and publicity. You need to protect it, nurture it, so that it in turn will nurture you, even when the future doesn’t look so bright, which is an inevitability in any career. At some point you will question yourself, your talent; that insecurity is a natural offshoot and spur of creativity.

Ego is dangerous to bliss. It second-guesses, unnerves. It’s like static to your cosmic creative radio station, the loud customer in the diner, the siren cutting through your dreams. That being said, ego can be an effective stimulant for blindly climbing mountains saner mortals would shun.

Comes down to the question of who’s steering whom. Are you using your ego as coal in the furnace, or is it a fire that will eventually burn your butt on the road ahead? We all have ego, there must be a reason for it. Over the years I’ve chosen to tap my ego as a means to propel myself, like a kind of gauntlet thrown out in defiance. I’ll tell anyone who will listen, especially myself, “Someday I’m going to_____!”

More than several people in my life have thought it a dangerous play to put forward my dreams and goals like that, subject them to ridicule, to the potential of failure and even more ridicule, but I’ve always felt that if you aren’t living, you’re dying. If you don’t walk boldly outside of your comfort zone now and then, even if you make what some people might perceive as mistakes, then what’s the point of breathing?

Put it out there, if only to make it real in your own mind. Words are powerful, embrace them; try to learn to respect their hold on your reality.

Dreams are hard enough to make come true; in my opinion, it’s best not to let fear of failure be your first stumbling block.

When I was a little girl, our home was situated in the middle of bucolic fields, split cedar fencing and copses of trees, deciduous and evergreen framing the sightlines. We were about ten miles from the nearest town and my closest friend was about six miles away. There were chickens, ducks, pigs to feed, a cow to milk, as well as dishes to wash and other kitchen work in our family business. My parents were quite preoccupied and self-involved, so once I had finished my chores I was pretty much left to my own devices. Most of the time my only company besides the animals was my imagination and voice.

I remember seeing “The Sound of Music” for the first time on television when I was about 12, and for many months from then on whenever I was feeling lonely, I would run through the fields pretending I was Julie Andrews, as Maria, singing at the top of my lungs, “The hills are alive, with the sound of music!” I would spin around and around like I had seen “Maria” do, and run and get so lost in my imagination that hours would go by, and just like Maria I would come home late, in trouble…again. My worried stepfather would yell, “Child, I don’t know what gets into you sometimes!” but even as I choked back tears, in the back of my mind was playing, “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” and I was smiling inside, and his anger just spilled off of me. I think that’s when I first became aware of literally creating a state of bliss that transcended time and sadness.

I started playing saxophone when I was thirteen years old. My parents rented a student model, an old clunker of a horn that squeaked and squawked when I tried to make it work. I used to have to practice in the barn because it sounded so bad.

Oh, I hated that horn! No matter how hard I practiced, it refused to do my bidding. Sending home notes with report cards, my music teacher practically begged my parents to get me a new one, to no avail. I had a paper route by then, and so for two years every penny I could put away I did, until I had finally saved $700.

Another music teacher in Nanaimo let my teacher know he had a Selmer Mark VI tenor saxophone that he was looking to sell so he could get a new outboard motor for his boat. For those of you who don’t know about saxophones, buying this horn was the equivalent, especially to a junior high school student, of being able to own a Stradivarius violin or a Steinway piano — more horn than I had ever dreamed of playing!

When I finally got up the courage to ask him how much he wanted for it, he replied, “How much have you saved up?” I was crestfallen, because I was sure I wouldn’t have enough. Selmer saxophones even back then, were usually worth well over a thousand dollars, but I was hoping he would let me pay whatever monies I didn’t have saved yet on a payment plan.

“Seven hundred dollars”, I pretty much whispered back to him.

He thought for a moment then smiled and said, “Then that’s what I’ll sell it to you for.”

That was a moment of bliss, pure bliss and as if it were yesterday I can remember swinging that rust coloured Selmer saxophone case beside me as I floated down our long gravel driveway, skipping, singing, dreaming.

Of course, being a girl of rather independent thought, I hadn’t asked my parents if I could buy it, even though it was my own money. My stepfather was furious! What a colossal waste of my savings he thought it was! But I didn’t care; nothing could touch the kind of happiness I felt. That was when I first became aware of how the proportional reward of bliss was sometimes directly related to the amount of hard work and sacrifice that went into achieving it.

I still have that saxophone, and it’s earned its worth hundreds of times over. Every time I pick it up, it carries not only the weight of the metal that forms it, but also the weight of my experience with it, and the bliss that comes with earning a dream.

I left home when I had just turned seventeen. My parents had sold their business and moved us to an even smaller town with, compared to what I was used to, a nightmare high school band program complete with nightmare band teacher.

I knew by then that I wanted to be a professional musician, and between our unhappy home and the school band situation, I knew I had to get out. So I moved from the Duncan countryside back to Nanaimo, where the same teacher who had sold me my saxophone taught a first rate high school band program that went on to win many awards in music festivals across Canada, as well as graduating musicians like myself, Diana Krall, and Ingrid and Christine Jensen, just to name a few.

It was hard living on my own, but I was used to hard. Again, music, art and writing were my lifelines, links to sanity that filled my soul with bliss even when my stomach was empty.

My stepbrother and his wife took me in for the last part of grade twelve, which was a lifesaver. Even bliss sometimes isn’t enough to keep a girl going, and my after-school job waiting tables and the odd gigs here and there didn’t cover the bills. I was and am still eternally grateful for the way they stepped in to help get me through. Without their love and support, I probably wouldn’t have graduated from high school or gone on to jazz studies in college; without them I don’t think I would be the successful woman I have become.

On any journey toward bliss, if you work hard and are aware, you will notice the presence of Angels, not necessarily in the biblical sense, but people who will step in to help you along the way. It’s happened to me over and over in my life so many times when hope seemed lost that someone has reached out just enough to gently guide me back to my path that I dare not discount the magic of it all, the connection of love to feeling bliss.

In my brother’s living room towered a fabulous, huge reel-to-reel tape player, a turntable and lots of great records of the seventies, including a Long John Baldry record featuring his and Kathy MacDonald’s version of “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” written by Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers.

Once again, I found myself getting lost in the music, and when no one else was home, I would sing Kathy’s part, “Baby, Baby!” along with the record, at the top of my lungs as I danced around the room. I told myself that someday I would sing that song with John, someday I would be on a big stage belting it out beside him.

Many years later, I almost laughed aloud in the middle of a gig at Ontario Place singing that very song with Long John Baldry as I remembered that young girl singing in the living room. Kathy had been unable to do a Canadian tour Long John Baldry was putting together, and so his management had called me. At that point I had been a professional musician in Vancouver for about five years, playing with many bands, doing session work in studios, just like I had dreamed of as a teenager. When I got the call, and was told that they wanted me to play saxophone and sing “Loving Feeling” on the tour with John, I was ecstatic! I also made what I call a connection equation that goes thusly: “Intent plus action times coincidence equals destiny.”

By the time we played Ontario Place, I had it down. As I sang the duet, for real this time, practically screaming out the “Baby, Baby!” parts, John leaned his head back, closed his eyes and said softly, “Yeah, sing it Kate!” At first I was taken aback, almost as if a boyfriend had called out another woman’s name in the midst of love-making, but then I realized that it was a compliment of the highest order. I had always admired and respected Kathy so much; I wanted to be her sometimes! If for even a moment I could make John think I was Kate singing on the stage beside him, that was a creative success. It gets pretty easy sometimes to look back and see how all those little choices along the way go into creating a person’s destiny.

Many years later, as I was nearing the end of a decade long hiatus from the stage to raise my sons, I actually got to sing with Bill Medley too, but not that song. Instead I sang, “The Time of My Life”, but again I was struck by the synchronicity of it all, by the bliss of dreams coming true, by the melding of the literal and the figurative, the cycle of fate directed by hard work resulting in bliss, and that night, as he kissed my hand at the end of our duet, I did have the time of my life.

I have been blessed over the years to work with many great talents and stars of both my childhood and the modern age. I believe that being mindful and grateful of those blessings is a means of keeping the tap open to experiencing even more. If you don’t thank the universe for the blessings you’ve received, no matter how small they seem, if you don’t release and reflect the love you’ve been given back into the world, you make it difficult for the universe to provide you with more. It’s tough to send love through a closed door.

Looking back at my career, and at my life in general, is like looking over a huge quilt: hundreds of different coloured and textured pieces connecting to form the story of me, always clearer in hindsight, with a little distance and objectivity. There have been many successes, a few missteps, and often there have been unexpected forks in my path — but I have always believed in following my inner voice on my quest for bliss. Some people call it their soul, their heart, their conscience; I call it “the Bird”.

Years ago I was speaking with a friend who had recently battled alcoholism with the help of the 12-step program in Alcoholic’s Anonymous. We were talking about our inner voices, and he told me the story of the Buddhist concept of “The Bird and the Waterfall”, the Waterfall being the noise and clamour of all the people and experiences of one’s life, and the Bird being one’s own personal truth, and how one must constantly strive to shut out the roar of the Waterfall so as to hear one’s truth, one’s Bird.

I have always loved birds, love their music, their freedom, their ability to soar, their poetic beauty, and so I made a personal note of the synergy of our conversation. From that point, not only did I rename my inner voice “the Bird”, but I wrote an entire rock opera called “The Bird and the Waterfall” about the dangers of ignoring that bird, the truth that sings in all of us.

I was captivated by the idea of following my own personal truth as a means of discovering bliss, of shutting out the external voices, sometimes so negative, of some of the people around me, so that I could find the strength and clarity to achieve my goals, that I became quite obsessed with the concept.

I discovered that sometimes on a path to bliss, if you cause people to look at themselves, no matter how unintentionally, and they don’t like who they see, they are not likely to thank you for the experience. To help myself get through these potential pitfalls, I worked hard at gaining empathy and perspective in trying times.

My friends and family know I have quite a penchant for quotes, for moral stories or parables. They’ve heard me say over and over things like, “Time is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once,” as a means of practicing patience; and Henry David Thoreau’s “So high as a tree shall aspire to climb, so it will find an atmosphere suited to it,” to inspire myself to keep going forward, step after step — even when it seemed impossible to continue to believe in myself, and in my dreams.

When people have acted cruelly, or have attempted to belittle me, I remind myself of the Haida Gwaii story of the two crab fishermen, one native and one not. They walked side by side, each carrying their bucket of crabs, but while the native’s crabs stayed put in his bucket, the non-native’s crabs kept climbing out. Frustrated, he asked the native what was the secret to keeping his crabs in his bucket. The Haida Gwaii replied, “It’s easy…every time one of our crabs try to climb out, the others claw him back in!”

When you are searching for bliss, there are some who will not support you in your endeavours. In Australia, they call it “the Tall Poppy” syndrome, where the tall poppy casts too much shade on the rest of the flowers, and so they work hard to grow tight around its stem, to choke and cause it to topple, anything to get the shade off their faces. Knowledge is power; educate yourself, take the time to learn that no matter how alone you feel, there have been millions who have walked a similar path, who have succeeded in the face of adversity, who have felt your pain and not only endured it, but turned it into fuel that propelled them when the going got tough. In that recognition of belonging, there is bliss.

As it pertains to the music and art business, talent and dreams will only get you so far. The rest is just incredibly hard work, self-belief and focus. There is no sugar-coating it, no shortcut, no Get out of Jail Free card. If you attach your ideal of bliss purely to an MTV or Entertainment Tonight version of success or signing on with a major gallery, I think at one point or another you are going to be in trouble. The creativity business is changing so fast right now, like so many things in our hyper-paced world, that even the heads of seasoned professionals like myself and many of the most powerful people in the entertainment industry are spinning, searching for a way to make sense of it all again, to find their place in it.

For me, it has always been important to remember the little girl I was, the original dreamer, which is why I felt I needed to include a snapshot of her in this story. I’m not saying that in order to have a career in this industry you need to go through what I did as a child and young woman, but I will say that the strength I gained as a result of my experiences has served me well, and continues to help me not only withstand the tough times, but also to appreciate bliss when it happens. It’s all about perspective whether that glass is half empty or half full and I now know that even that half full glass will not only quench my own thirst, but will also be enough to share with the world around me.

I can think of few things in this world that make time stand still like music and my other artistic pursuits. Bliss isn’t rooted in the ego, or in an outcome; but in the doing, in the now-ness of it all.

I’m sure you’ll agree that when you are listening to a song you love, it is difficult to imagine the melody of another song at the same time. Also, I think everyone has experienced the discomfort of hearing two or more different pieces of music played at the same time — the tonalities argue, because music is meant to be a singular or “now” experience.

When I am creating or performing something, there is no past or future, only the present, the eternal Bird singing to me and me listening, channeling its song, whatever that may be at the time. When that happens, I feel as close to Heaven as a mortal can ever feel; I am hooked up with the universe, out of my body, floating freely, weightless, at peace.

In writing this essay I have discovered within myself many kinds of bliss as it relates to my career in music and art, but I would have to say that for me the state of bliss I find in creativity is my favourite.

It’s also important for me to say to anyone thinking of pursuing a career or even a hobby in music or art, that no artist hangs their art on the wall unless they are happy with it. Not everything we do satisfies our creative spirit, our inner perfectionist. Many canvasses have been left half painted and dusty in my garage. Many a song in my lyric workbook never finds an ending.

We are always searching, always yearning for a higher ideal. Every time I reach a goal I have set for myself, it seems someone moves the goalposts that much farther away. Leonardo Da Vinci’s last words on his deathbed were, “More time, I need more time!”

When I read his words I became quite depressed because I realized that I would never have enough time to achieve all the things I wanted to do, the music, the art, the writing, not in this lifetime anyway. But every time I take pen to paper, brush to canvas, sing or write a song, or run my fingers up and down a musical instrument, my misgivings are lifted as time again becomes inconsequential; a footnote on a life lived in the present.

That’s what following your own path to bliss can do for you.

I highly recommend it.