The first song I ever wrote was for a girl. It was the 8th grade, I thought I was in love, and I played guitar. It was the only logical course of events. Unfortunately, my attempt at winning her heart didn’t go as well as I’d planned. Instead of blushing and telling me she liked me too as I had imagined, my serenade was followed by some constructive criticism on song structure and lyricism. Although it was a crushing blow at the time, I must admit that her feedback was spot on. Moreover, that catastrophe was not enough to convince me to give up on her. Unsurprisingly, it never worked out.
I used to love music. As a kid I gravitated to it–even though neither of my parents seem to feel strongly about the art form–burning albums off library CDs and listening to “American Idiot” on repeat on my first generation iPod passed down to me from my cousin, who got it from my dad. I played violin in elementary school, then switched to guitar in middle school (much cooler). In 7th grade I compiled a Powerpoint presentation to convince my parents to let me take saxophone lessons as well. I loved playing music more than anything and by the 8th grade I was in 3 bands at school. But there was always something that held me back from dedicating myself to music.
No matter how much I loved to play music, there was always a voice in my head telling me I wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t a prodigy or a natural and I let that hold me back. Whenever I heard a kid at school play something amazing or watched some insane Youtube video of 5 year old guitar shredders I got so discouraged I couldn’t practice for weeks. I wanted to get better, to dedicate myself absolutely to learning guitar and composition, but I think deep down I was afraid that no matter how much I practiced I would fail. I wrote sheet music for songs in 7th and 8th grade and wrote instrumentals on the piano, but they felt childish. How could I seriously pursue this when there were so many young Mozarts who would always be one step ahead? Slowly but surely my love for music began to dissipate. What had once created joy now created shame and guilt. After 9th grade I stopped playing music all together.
In the last year I started to be inspired by music again. I went to local shows, many of the performers my age, and fell in love with the mosh pit. The music I listened to made me feel a happiness and energy I seemed to lack in other parts of my life. By the end of senior year I was living from concert to concert, waiting until the music could roll over me and I could be surrounded by dancing and jumping bodies once again. Slowly, I started to pick up the guitar more. I learned new songs and blasted music in my room. I tried my hand at writing some songs, most of which I scrapped. The joy was there again, but so was the doubt. If these kids are my age, I thought, how are they so much more accomplished than me? The two voices in my head were still at war when I left for Nepal.
I was introduced to Sage Cooper on the 3rd day of our Helambu trek. Sage, it turns out, is the musical alter ego of our instructor, Anna G. Stevens, who was happy to tell me and Julia all about her hit singles “Girl in a Truck” and “Shit Out of Luck,” as well as her album, “Red, White, and Rainbow.” All of a sudden Anna was gone and Sage had taken her place, singing her songs loudly and energetically as we walked. Not one second after she finished her rendition of “Girl on a Truck” she declared her next song would be called “Fern Season” and immediately started making it up on the spot. I was cracking up the whole time, but I was also inspired. Anna/Sage could burst out into song at any second and she never cared about what anyone thought or how good the lyrics or melody were. She just sang the first thing that came to mind. “All Sage’s melodies sound the same,” she told at one point, mildly troubled, before bursting into song yet again. It was the first time in a while that I experienced the fun of music.
After Sage had finished a few of her songs I felt like it was time to introduce her to my own musical alter ego: Pierre. Pierre is the lead singer and guitarist of me and my cousin’s band, Pierre and the Pink Tacos. Pierre always wears a turtleneck and sings with an unlit cigarette between his lips. The Pink Tacos have one song called “Saffron,” which a wrote in a few hours, and we like to sing it at top volume whenever possible. Screaming “Saffron” and laughing with my cousin was the closest I came to just playing music and not caring in a long time, but even then I struggled with the voice in my head telling me the song was stupid and too simple.
Once Sage and Pierre became acquainted it was the decided that the country spirit of Sage Cooper and the punk soul of Pierre should join and form a power duo. This duo was named “Croissants in the Outfield,” a name that mixes the cultures of the U.S. and France. Anna immediately thought of a song title: “Cholula (4:37 pm Snack).” She started singing right away. I hesitated to join in, still weighed down by self doubt, but finally joined in. I felt myself smiling.
At the beginning of the Patan homestay I was pushed straight out of my comfort zone when my homestay father asked me if I played guitar. I nodded and said “a little bit, remembering earlier that day when he had whipped out his electric guitar during our ISP, declared he wasn’t that good, and started playing “Stairway to Heaven” flawlessly. He handed me the guitar and I strummed a few chords and smiled nervously.
“Will you play a song?” he asked. I started to play the one song I could remember the chords to in that moment, “Talia” by King Princess. It was a shaky start because I was so nervous, but I quickly gained more confidence. At the end of the song my homestay dad told me I have a good voice, which was nice because I’ve always considered myself to have a decidedly bad voice. Feeling more confident I asked if I could play a song I wrote. I had written it in the week before the trip, it was the 2nd song I’d ever written, and of course it was also about a girl. My creativity thrives off unrequited love. As I started playing the intro my homestay mom also entered the room to listen. My voice shook and I fumbled the chords a few times, but at the end they clapped enthusiastically. “You composed this?” they asked. “Very nice.” I beamed.
Over the next weeks I would come home every night and pick up the guitar. Some nights I would play songs I already knew, but most days I tried to write. Inspired by a song title Julia came up with on the trek, “Rivers Back Home,” I wrote lyrics and chords for the debut of Croissants in the Outfield. That was followed by “OK,” a sort of indie love song (unrequited love of course; “Granny Panties,” about a lull in a relationship; and “Vita,” a song about Virginia Woolf’s lover and fellow author, Vita Sackville-West).
I never thought I would ever perform a song in front of an audience, let alone a song I wrote myself. I have only sang alone on stage once, and I was 3 years old. It was at a saloon just outside of Yosemite and it was karaoke night. Much to my parents surprise I announced that I wanted to sing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” I was known for being a quiet and shy kid, so they watched in shock as I marched up to the stage and performed a stone-faced rendition of the childhood classic. That was the first and last time I sang in public. As I got older I became more and more paralyzed by my own shyness. I hardly talked, let alone sang. I just told people I was a bad singer to avoid ever singing in a public situation, and somewhere along the way I began to believe it (I’m not a great singer, just not terrible). It’s only been 2 years since I even felt comfortable singing in my own house. Now I sing at home all the time. But I still never expected to perform–until Arts Night rolled around.
“Arts Night” was a phrase that was thrown around a lot in the first 5 weeks of the course, but I don’t think anyone apart from Anna G. was ever certain it would happen. But she took her idea and made sure it became a reality, calling on connections and connections of connections to make sure it became a reality. When she finally announced that Arts Night would be happening in a cafe near Durbar square and that it would be in partnership with Spoken Word Nepal, I was both excited and nervous. We had talked theoretically about Croissants in the Outfield making their debut at Arts Night, but now Arts Night was actually happening. I had a song, but I would have to perform it.
I told Anna G. I had written “Rivers Back Home” at midcourse. I can’t accurately describe the expression of her excitement, but I’m pretty sure she said, “that’s the best thing I’ve heard all week.” I taught it to her later that week during game night on the roof of the Program House, surrounded by the lights of Patan. The day of the performance I taught the chords to Leija so we could have two guitars. After our first practice with all three of us (Leija did harmonies!), Croissants in the Outfield became a trio.
Arts Night was amazing. It was in an outdoor space lit by fairy lights, seating in the small garden, tables for food and Spoken Word Nepal books, and an art installation Anna created inspired by Postsecret which encouraged people to anonymously write down secrets. A couple minutes before the performances started a couple groups of tourists just wandered in off the street after seeing our sign. Anna G. looked like she was going to pass out from happiness, and I think it amped up all of our excitement as well. The crowd was larger than we expected, and I started to get a little nervous, but I kept my cool. The night started with Anna and Yukta (from Spoken Word Nepal) introducing the event, then Rishi took over to MC. Will performed a Vance Joy song first and then there was a poem reading before Croissants in the Outfield. All the performances that night were absolutely incredible, done by both members in our group, Nepali people, and some people who just decided to perform on the spot after being inspired by the other performances. Will and Scout read a poem, Julia read a story her sister wrote, and Rishi read a poem. Croissants in the Outfield performed “Rivers Back Home,” which went pretty smoothly until the end of the song when I played the last chord wrong. I just played the correct chord and then shrugged to the audience and got some laughs.
Later one of the girls who had walked off the street came up to me. “I really loved your song,” she said, “and I’m really sad I’ll never be able to hear it again.” I had never realized that someone would actually want to listen to a song I wrote. “She probably wanted your number,” Leija told me after I recounted the story to her. I shrugged, grinning. In some way I had conquered some of my fears, and it felt amazing.
This course has taught me that music isn’t something I need to succeed in. It isn’t something to be conquered, something to elevate me above others. I don’t have to be the best in order to be valid. Music is a way to for connections. Whether it was our 2nd night on course when we had a jam session that broke the ice and was followed by a 2 hour talk (and many jam sessions after), bonding with Sage Cooper, or singing along while my homestay dad played guitar, music was what brought us together. No matter what the difference in background or language, we can always communicate through music. And for someone who often struggles to find the right words in conversation, this discovery was nothing short of beautiful.
Photo credit: Scout Kay