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6527212 June 08, 2010

Believe in Yourself: Liimu McGill

"I love the creative process and honestly, it is so much like motherhood."

Aberration Nation is not a mommy blog. There's absolutely nothing wrong with mommy or daddy blogs; the world needs them. But Aberration Nation is about humanity and creativity. If we also happen to be moms and dads, that's great too.

Interestingly, my guest today, singer/songwriter Liimu McGill, brings up the thought-provoking comparison between creation and motherhood. I've often thought of my novels as my babies. Most writers know the metaphor about sending children and manuscripts out into the world. Both situations are scary as hell.

There is, however, a major distinction between the two. When my children become adults and leave my side, they will continue to morph, grow, and evolve into fully realized individuals. On the Border's bookshelf, my bound manuscript continues to be the shining vision I once turned into reality. That accomplishment belongs to me, my children do not.

Liimu poses the question, "Are my children simply something I created, or are they an expression of me?"  She goes on to imply that they are both, as is her music. Although I understand the intent behind Liimu's comparison and agree to some extent, I struggle with it on a personal level.

Growing up, I had a parent who wholeheartedly believed I was her creation and vessel of expression. Perhaps if I'd been a novel, I would have become her masterpiece. I would sit on shelf after shelf after shelf, never straying from that grand vision she once had. But I'm not a book, a story, a room to be decorated, or a song to be performed, I'm an individual.

My saying this bears no reflection on Liimu; she's a fantastic mother. Like her, my mother is highly creative. One of the things she longed to create and be part of was a perfect world. Like Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver, we'd play our roles to perfection. 

"My, that's a wonderful dream," you say with a pleasant smile on your face. 

Too bad life got in the way.

Then you begin to wonder about this highly creative mother. Your eyes grow wide and you ask, "Gee, Wally, it doesn't seem to take too much creativity to imagine a perfect world, does it?" 

Oh, that's the easy part. 

Last week, I wrote about dedication. Well, my mother's dedication to her dream of a world of  psychological and social perfection was so incredibly intense that it began to exist for her. Anyone who stepped out of line or failed to follow the hidden script became a threat. Their cruelty in refusing to participate in her subconscious agenda was perceived as verbal abuse. As you can imagine, my mother has suffered incredible harm from all sides. She became a victim whose perpetrators were everywhere, and worst of all, they were her children.

Creation and expression are beautiful, invaluable gifts, but when a creative person loses their ability to distinguish between what they have the right to create or express, trouble follows.

"Censorship!" you cry.

Don't misunderstand. I'm merely suggesting that when we can't help but gaze at our children and consider them more beautiful, interesting, and amazing than the greatest works of art the Earth has ever seen, let us step back and accept that it's their humanity and their unique individuality that makes it so.

They will never sit on a shelf or hang on a wall.

What's your story? Are you surprised by where you are or did you always see it coming?

Saying I’m surprised that I’m still making a go of this music thing has got to be the understatement of the year. I sang in my first production at the age of eight, and sang in choirs and musicals throughout high school. I went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts for my first year of college, and was told I showed great promise. I didn’t realize it. Hell, I didn’t realize a lot of things, not the least of which being that my addiction to alcohol was going to come and knock me on my behind, squashing all my dreams in the process. I dropped out of school and hit a hard bottom within just a few short years. By some miracle, I was able to get sober but was told that pursuing a career in the music industry wouldn’t be the smartest idea. So, I put it on the shelf. I focused all my energy on getting solid recovery and decided about five years into it that singing in wedding bands would be a safe way to release my continuing passion for music. I met my husband at my first audition and about six months later we fell in love. We played together in wedding bands for about ten years until, after the birth of our third daughter, I decided to just give it up. I reconciled myself with the fact that perhaps I would be able to vicariously enjoy a career in music through one of them.

That wasn’t the plan, apparently. Things changed one day when a friend told me about an audition for a new “American Idol” type show called “Clash of the Choirs,” where celebrities would assemble choirs and they would battle it out in performances on national television. I told her she was crazy – I couldn’t audition for something like that. My four year old had a birthday party to go to! Long story short, I did audition and not only got in the choir, but got hand-picked by our celebrity choir director, Patti LaBelle, to sing a solo on national television.

This led to a relationship with one of Patti’s producers, Tony Moore, and his company TM Muzik. Tony encouraged me to work on a solo project and helped me to rekindle my love and penchant for songwriting. My husband signed on to help me assemble a band and quickly became my musical director and sole cowriter. To date, we have written nearly a dozen songs, and are gearing up to release our first EP. We’ve even set up a studio in our house and Glen will begin working as a professional freelance producer and songwriter for other local artists.

I had assumed that because my original path got diverted and delayed, I couldn’t have a music career. Silly me. In some ways, my music seems to have a life of its own, insisting on being created and performed whether I think it should or not. People seem to like it, and I love to perform it, so I’ll continue to do so, regardless of the outcome.

With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

When I was asked to put together my first show for TM Muzik, Tony wanted nine songs – six original songs and three covers. I hadn’t been doing any songwriting for nearly 20 years at that point, but one song, “Believe in Yourself,” had stayed fully written in my head for all that time. So, I came to the show with a whole slew of covers and that one little song that I wrote in about 20 minutes in the days following my father’s death in the fall of 1989. The crowd and Tony’s reaction to that song was my “aha’ moment. In the audience, I saw people closing their eyes, wiping away tears, staring transfixed as I sang of the pain of losing my father and the comfort I got from hearing his voice ringing in my head. I heard myself singing to them about how all those years ago he had told me to just keep going, to just keep dreaming, and most of all to keep believing in myself, and that all my dreams would come true. And as I stood there on that stage, I realized that they had come true, and they still are.

For you, is music more about creation or expression? It could be both, but does one dominate with regard to your need/urge/desire to be a singer/songwriter?

I love the creative process and honestly, it is so much like motherhood. So, is motherhood about creativity or expression? Are my children simply something I created, or are they an expression of me? The other thing is that being creative and expressive are just part of me, so it’s not like it has impacted my need to be a singer/songwriter. There has only been a brief period of time when I wasn’t singing or writing songs, and during that time I gave writing fiction a go. (I’m a much better songwriter, I must admit, though I haven’t given up on the dream of perhaps writing a book one day.) When I gave birth to my third daughter, focusing on that creative effort took every ounce of energy I had and all other creative pursuits had to take backseat, but only for awhile. So, I would say that I am inherently a creative person and by honoring that, I express myself through whatever it is I create.

Do you believe that a highly creative person can give more than one art form 100% of their ability/soul (i.e., writing and painting, music and art, etc)? Can a person succeed at more than more, or does trying to do so dilute what they have to offer?

Absolutely, I believe that a creative person can pursue more than one art form. Look at what Michelangelo, a sculptor, did in the Sistine Chapel! Look at how well Jennifer Lopez has done lending her talents to dance, song, and acting. (And I’m sorry, but until you have seen “Selena” and “U-Turn” reserve your judgments about her as an actress. I would argue that it is the area where she has the most genuine talent.) I think that those of us who are guided in our creative process by a higher power of some sort actually need to lend our talents in multiple areas, because we’re really not the ones who are ultimately in control of how and where our talents are most needed in the world. Today, I feel like I need to be writing and singing songs, but tomorrow, it may be time for me to tell my story.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both?

Which came first, the breakdown or the song about it? Well, as someone who has literally sung my way out of a mental institution, I can honestly say that there’s no easy answer to that. I have always felt like I feel things very, very deeply and I needed creative outlets for all that emotion from a very young age. The challenges I have faced in my life have only given me more to write about. That doesn’t mean that they were any easier for me to overcome, but I always felt, even as I was going through them, that they were contributing to my story in some way.

Have you had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

The people in my life have been very supportive, to be honest. The one criticism I have gotten over the years, and continue to get, is that I have my hand in too many things at once, that I am overextended. This is probably true, but when I don’t do a lot of things, I get bored. That’s when I get into trouble.

Unfortunately, many creative people never achieve the success they dream about. Which of your dreams have come to pass and what do you dream about now?

I will always be able to look back on the experience of singing with Patti LaBelle as a shining moment in my career. Having sung live on national television for 10 million viewers is something I will never forget. But the dreams I am most proud of have more to do with what I have accomplished in private. I am so proud to have created a space with my husband in which we can cowrite songs and, in the future, encourage our children to pursue music if that’s what they want to do. I am so proud that I can call myself a songwriter today and that my girls have seen me evolve from a singer into a songwriter, that they like my songs and sing them, and brag to their friends that their mom is going to be famous. Even if that doesn’t happen, I love that I have rekindled my dreams and in so doing, have taught my children that having dreams is what’s important, regardless of when and how they come to fruition.

Do you ever wonder if what you're creating or expressing is as meaningful to others as it is to you? How important is that to you with regard to your overall goals?

I create for God, myself and the world, in that order. I love when my children sing my songs, because I love having created something that brings them joy. Looking out into an audience and seeing someone sing along makes me happy, and yes, seeing someone well up with emotion when I sing a song that comes from a deep emotional place also is very satisfying. It’s satisfying not because of anything it says about what I have done or written, but it gives me affirmation of what I suspected to be true: that the songs I’m writing come from a higher place and are not really “mine.” As soon as I write them, they belong to everyone. So, when I see someone wiping away a tear or when someone comes up to me and says they were using the word crazymaker in a sentence when they were at work and can’t stop singing the song, I know that I’ve brought some joy or some comfort to their life through the music. In other words, the music has done what it came here to do.

Is there a difference between being creative and being talented? What are your thoughts on this?

There are plenty of people with talent who choose not to be creative. Just because you CAN sing, doesn’t mean you have to necessarily exercise your ability to do it. And you don’t have to write songs to be creative, as anyone knows who has heard Fantasia sing, “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess or Patti LaBelle sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I do think that I have learned through my journey the difference between being creative and talented, though, because I spent many, many years just being talented, performing renditions of songs that were exactly like the originals. I enjoyed that for a long time. I enjoyed just singing songs and got and gave pleasure by just recreating something beautiful, rather than creating something new. It was scary and took me out of my comfort when I showcased my original music for the first time in August 2009. But creativity is like a muscle that becomes stronger with regular use, and now I can’t going through a day without exercising it anymore than I can imagine letting my gym membership lapse!

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

God doesn’t give you more than you can handle, so do what you can and He will handle the rest.

I feel like it’s important for me to remember that I’m not running the show here. When I feel like I’m in charge of the earth spinning on its axis, I start to feel overwhelmed and paralyzed with fear. I feel incapable of taking care of myself, let alone anything else, and I have a lot to do in any given day, so this is a dangerous mindset for me! This mantra reminds me that I can believe in myself and my ability to do what needs to get done and everything else will be taken care of. That gives me peace and happiness, and ultimately, peace and happiness are the goals, not fame and fortune. If I achieve peace and happiness, then I have won.

To learn more about Liimu and her music, also visit her on MySpace.

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6527212 April 21, 2010

Just Getting Started: Christine Havrilla

"I've felt energized by my small accomplishments--especially knowing how tough it was to get where I am today."

I stumbled upon my guest today, singer/songwriter Christine Havrilla, in my kitchen while eating a bowl of Cream of Potato Soup and a handful of Spicy Sweet Chili Doritos. I usually make my lunch, take it to my office, and eat while I work. However, on the day I ran into Christine, I decided to plant myself in the kitchen for some reason. I turned on the television and began flipping through the channels.

Click. Stupid.
Click. Boring.
Click. Oh, brother.
Click. What the hell?

Click. And there she was on some kind of local programming channel. Her spicy sweet chili-packed voice and lyrics caught my attention. When her performance came to an end and her website address flashed across the screen, I knew I had to find out who this woman was. I absolutely loved her soulful, honest voice and the original song it relayed. Once I read about her and listened to some of the music she's written, I knew she'd be a wonderful addition to Aberration Nation.

And I was right!

Now here she is!

Her story reminds us to take joy in our small accomplishments. Over time, it's easy to grow numb to all the positives in an effort to survive the negatives. If you're like me, you tend to focus on the big picture, the end goal, the shimmering mountain top. Christine's made me realize that I've become highly skilled at squelching away the excitement I used to get from the small wins, those tiny shimmers of hope and support I so desperately needed and appreciated.

The first time an agent called to request a copy of my manuscript, I literally danced through the house. I screamed. I cried myself to sleep with tears of joy. It was as if I'd won the lottery. That was back in 1994, five years after I'd begun writing my first novel. I had no idea about all the twists and turns ahead. I wouldn't have cared anyway. I soaked in that moment of joy and accomplishment for all it was worth. It energized me and reminded me how hard I'd worked and how much it meant to me.

When I was offered the opportunity to write a book for McGraw-Hill, I walked on air for months. Again, I cried. I was going to be in print! Someone was interested in what I had to say. I was legitimized as an author. I knew it was a positive step, regardless of any other stumbling blocks yet to come.

Today when agents or editors love my work, a sad clamp closes across my heart and a little voice whispers, "It probably won't amount to anything. Don't let yourself get too excited." When people send me notes about how much they were moved by my novel, Aberrations, I feel myself shutting down, squelching the joy.

Does this feedback mean any less to me than it did in 1994? Absolutely not.

In fact, it means more to me with each passing year and with each word I write. It's difficult sometimes to explain the toll of surviving ongoing rejection, year after year after year. To walk away from it and keep going, I've become a bit numb. I hate that. I've become like some kind of dark prairie animal who tunnels through the terrain, ignoring the painful bumps and jabs, and also the clear, smooth silky pathways that seem to clear out on their own. It's almost like none of it--the negative or the positive--matters anymore as long as I'm moving forward.

I miss that early joy.

Someday I hope to stick my head up out of the tunnel and realize that I've achieved my goal. Christine has reminded me how much happiness and pride I may be missing by not allowing myself to celebrate all the A-list editors who now know my name and have acknowledged that I'm a talented writer despite not picking up my work; all the fantastic reviews Aberrations has received although it's not flying off the shelves at the moment; and all the people who've so appreciated reading and being highlighted here on Aberration Nation.

Once upon a time, as a twenty-something with low self-esteem, I feared that writing a novel was an impossible feat. It literally felt like an attempt to jump into the stars and fly. I wondered if people would laugh at me if they knew what I did late at night. I didn't tell anyone except my family that I was writing a book for three years.

Now I've written four.

Thanks to Christine, I realize it's time to remember where I started and get busy sucking that positive energy out of all those small accomplishments. I suspect she's just getting started. So am I. Those shimmering mountaintops may be just over the horizon.

What's your story (in a nutshell)? Are you surprised by where you are or did you always see it coming?

I picked up a guitar around the age of four and taught myself how to play. I was inspired by my dad who played as well as my aunt, two uncles, great grandfather, and great uncle who all had guitars, mandolins, accordions, drums etc. I was surrounded by a family who loved music! I used to take my guitar to school (I went to catholic school and played in church with the nuns!).

As I was growing up, I always had a friend around to play music with. I finally joined a band and then started my own band doing my own music…As I noticed more and more people coming out to hear us, I wanted to make an album & really go for this “music-thing” that had been pulsing in my veins from an early age. So now I am still making recordings, writing, and touring all over as a full-time musician. I'm not surprised because I knew I was always drawn to that flame of music. I had other interests (sports, drawing, photography) but always came back to music as my main passion!

With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

One of the first ones was about two years before my first recording when I realized people were coming out in large numbers to hear my music and support what I was doing. It hit me and touched me in a way that has made such a difference as far as really going for it. The fact that there was a very cool connection happening at shows made me feel like I was right where I was supposed to be.

As far as my current creative focus--that concept seems funny at times because I'm finding myself creating three different kinds of projects right now and not always having an easy time focusing. It is not a bad thing because I am still creating. I believe I'm gearing up for an “a-ha” moment very soon that will help me decide which direction to go!

For you, is music more about creation or expression? It could be both, but does one dominate with regard to your need/urge/desire to be a singer/songwriter?

My music is both. Yes, I create songs; however, I feel as though it is just as important how I am expressing it to an audience. A piece of work can be made, a song can be written … but there is more passion when it's being expressed from my heart and gut. To me, one does not dominate over the other. To be a singer/songwriter you need a song to tell your story and if you can tell it in a way that people see and hear the passion behind it, it will make much more of an impact.

Do you believe that a highly creative person can give more than one art form 100% of their ability/soul (i.e., writing and painting, music and art, etc)? Can a person succeed at more than more, or does trying to do so dilute what they have to offer?

I do believe an artist can be drawn to different types of creative outlets, but if you're giving 110% to a certain project, it should be your main focus and commitment. It should be sucking the life out of you. That is what propels me to want it and want to get somewhere with a new project. It works because it “matters” in a extreme way.

I do also find that mixing it up and finding another creative outlet can help you express yourself in a new way. It may help you see from another perspective and then that relate back to your main project.

The other issue I sometimes face while working on a song is that I end up getting ideas for a new song and then take a right turn. I eventually go back to the main song I was trying to work on. There are times when I just let myself be taken in a different direction by my music and ideas. It's great to see where it leads!

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both?

Being creative and wanting to follow my heart and gut to be a musician has led me down a road that is different from others who might have chosen a “safer” path. Yes, this may have lead to aberrations in life but, in the long run, getting through those struggles and really getting over the huge mountains that were laid before me (I put them there sometimes) has turned out to be highly rewarding. I've felt energized by my small accomplishments--especially knowing how tough it was to get where I am today.

Have you had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

Yes, I've had a few people in my life who may not have understood to the fullest extent what my passion for music is and why I must do what I do. I knew I could never convince them or make them see through my eyes so I had to slowly weed out some people from my life who were negative or trying to bring me down. Now it's all good. However, I will say that when challenged by people, you need to try to understand their motives. It may not be as simple as a failure to support you.

Unfortunately, many creative people never achieve the success they dream about. Which of your dreams have come to pass and what do you dream about now?

Many creative people never achieve their dreams but it's the pursuit of these dreams that keep up creativity and the ability to continuously challenge ourselves. I still have goals that I want to achieve but fortunately have been blessed by many accomplishments along the way that nudge me to keep going! I'm thankful that I've been able to do what I absolutely love and have had songs in films, won awards and grants, recorded albums, played amazing shows with bigger names and have also played at amazing venues. However, I DO want more! I want to continue all of this and reach out to larger audiences.

Do you ever wonder if what you're creating or expressing is as meaningful to others as it is to you? How important is that to you with regard to your overall goals? If you've created something that purely expresses who you are, is that enough, or is the circle only completed when someone else says that you understand them or how they feel?

I create a song with a story in mind or something that inspired it. When I share it with an audience, it can land on them as the way I see it or they can totally have their own interpretation of it. I'm satisfied if a song can “move” someone and there is a connection. At the end of the day, I don't need people to “get” me or my music to feel complete. When I can finish a song that is one satisfying feeling. When it goes over well, that is the second. If it compels someone to write in to tell me about how much it touched them and how life-changing it was for them, then that is the most amazing feeling there is!

Is there a difference between being creative and being talented? What are your thoughts on this?

Yes, I do believe there is a difference between being “creative” and being “talented.” If you can have both, that is amazing!

I know some musicians who can read music and play any song you lay in front of them; however, they can't create a song of their own from scratch. They are very talented musicians, but maybe not as creative.

For me, just playing a song is not enough. Getting back to the point I made about “HOW” you play a song, I feel that if you are creative and can write a song that is one thing. If you can write the song and then be talented enough to express it in the best possible way, there you have the collaboration of the two working for you.

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

There is an Emerson quote I love that says, "What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us." Those words always grounds me and remind me that no matter what great thing I've done, here I am now. No matter what is going to come, here I am NOW. What I've learned inside is more important that what I've accomplished. I try to take that with me and be “present” for every show and every moment. It's sometimes difficult, but a challenge I will always take on.

I also have a motto about music being, “How you sing … and how you play it.” I never want to go through the motions.

The last thing is that I will try any music experience once to see how it goes. Sometimes I'm pleasantly surprised by how amazing it is when I originally thought it was something to pass up.

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