Earlier this afternoon I returned home from one of my big road trips. I’ve taken quite a few this year, mostly the same route as I have been back and forth preparing for this past summer’s move to Oregon. This one was no different: trace the Oregon coast southbound towards Santa Cruz, see some friends. Do some birding on the way to LA, have a bit of a freak out getting into town. Went to Joshua Tree, spur of the moment. Great times with one of my oldest and best friends. Freaking out in the car in LA again, driving north on 395 towards Yosemite. Actually, getting a site there, fishing, hiking, birding, freaking out, and then it was time to come home. I stopped in Lake Tahoe and Klamath Falls, so I could get some rest. Saw some more birds, lived on the edge of my autism for the past 4 days.
I’ve been taking these trips since I let my PhD program in 2014. The first one was to Grand Canyon and Joshua Tree. Since, I’ve crisscrossed the country more times than I can count so I could chase the dragon of playing music for a living. Last fall I started traveling for the sake of my mental health. No music, rarely even bringing a guitar. This trip was no different than when I went to King’s Canyon and Sequoia National Parks around this same time last year. I did it to bring clarity to some difficult and nagging questions about my life, this time a few weeks away from turning forty.
My life hasn’t worked out the way I would have wanted it and I still feel privileged to be where I am right now. Here’s a picture of Russell James at age 40: steadily graying beard and curls, still no wrinkles around the eyes, disabled, a pesky spare tire that just won’t go away, pre-diabetic, autistic, chronically depressed, fairly unknown musician fighting for his life in the obscure fringes of the music industry like so many other dreamers out there. I’m joyously married, and I live in one of the greatest towns in this country. I have two amazing dogs who are currently sleeping at my feet.
Me at 40
And I’m confused, discouraged, tired of the life I’m living.
Earlier this year I had a eureka moment, which rooted the questions I sought to answer on this trip firmly in my mind. Mainly, what do I want out of life? What do I want out of my music? What is reasonable? What is possible? Where do I want to go? These sound like traditional musings of someone turning the corner into middle-age, but for someone like me, someone who didn’t have the opportunity to figure out what they wanted for themselves for all this time, these questions are everything. I’m not just humoring over-the-hill fantasies, this is a serious quest. One most of you took when you were in your late teens and twenties. I’ll write a blog about that sometime soon, but for now you’ll just have to trust me.
Here is a confession: I haven’t enjoyed playing live music in at least a year, probably more. This has been reflected in the number of shows I’ve played and the number I’ve cancelled. Live performance has become a root of a lot of anxiety and meltdown. It’s exhausting for me. I sort of enjoyed making my latest album, but not a whole lot. I certainly didn’t have many moments where I was excited about it. As it released last month there was a disparaging, anti-climactic feeling along with it. I was more relieved to get it off my plate than I was excited for people to hear it, and that’s sad. To be honest, I don’t even know if I like this record, and that’s where all the questions started.
To summarize, Pay Attention, is full of electronic bips and bops, synthesizers, heavily effected electric guitars, and brutal, autobiographic honesty. It sounds great, people like it, but it’s not me. I felt this as I was finishing everything up for its release. It feels inauthentic to who I am, and it has nothing to do with why I started writing music in the first place. It was a creative effort, of that I am certain, and I am proud I finished this; but I can’t help but think I finished it only because I said I would (admirable, if not efficient).
I write music compulsively. It’s an obsession. Five years ago, I talked to a songwriter from Albuquerque who has been pretty successful and is well-known in many circles. His advice to me was to write every day. I took that advice and ran with it. Now I can write 3-4 songs a day; most of them are throw-aways (not everything Tom Petty ever wrote made it on an album). I’m now burned out. Songwriting has taken over my brain. I awake with ten new ideas, and they multiply throughout the day, sending my mind spinning in too many different directions. The only way to vent the steam created by this fusion is to write, so I write to keep the voices at bay. I’m not excited about it, I just do it.
When Pay Attention came out, I decided I was putting the brakes on my songwriting. The obsession was too painful, it has to stop. Since stopping, creativity has continued to spill out. I write lyrics with no music, poetry, I’ve seriously engaged photography. I still have a slate of live shows scheduled and I’m going to play them, if anything to keep me limber. But until this last trip, I really didn’t know what to about my lukewarm feelings towards the thing that has sustained me for my whole life. The one thing I could always run back to.
What I do when this happens is to take a trip, one with a lot of silence and long drives. This trip was as effective as any other I’ve taken in an effort to sort somethings out.
I’m no longer excited by music because for five years I’ve been motivated by the idea of success, both in recognition and financial ways. This is no way to live. Walking through life making decisions based on what others think is pretty damn common for autists like me, and it is also antithetical to being a true artist. Pay Attention is the apex of this crowd-pleasing motivation: pop songs with brutal emotions sewed into them. The sound was completely shaped by what I thought people may want to hear from me. That’s not to say I didn’t want to make the album, I did and in a lot of ways I’m still glad I did it; but I know when I look back at this writing cycle I’m always going to come up disappointed.
What I realized on this trip was when I got excited about writing songs, this would have been when I was seventeen, it was simplicity engaging me. A voice, powerful words, and a guitar. That’s all Elliott Smith needed. It’s all Damien Jurado needs. All of my favorite artists can communicate with only a guitar and a voice. So, this solves one problem: I need to get back to the basics of what excited me about music when I was younger. A voice, powerful words, simple guitar. This is the easy part.
Elliott Smith, an early hero
However, something else entered my life over the past five years, which puts a damper on everything I do. I’m of course talking about my late-in-life diagnosis of autism. As I’ve travelled around the country, my autism was given room to grow and space to show itself. Stimming started after touring, meltdowns became severe, suicidal situations 2000 miles away were commonplace. What I’ve learned is I can’t survive the way a typical musician survives. My brain just won’t ever let me do it. Autism is always there, putting up some road block or another.
See, with autism, literally EVERYTHING I do is harder than it would be for you. Sometimes ten times harder, sometimes a thousand. I can’t be the musician I want to be, I just can’t. I can’t tour extensively, it can be dangerous for me to be alone far from home. I can’t handle the noise, the traffic, the stress, the social situations, and the late nights. I need consistency, I need to experience routine. As this has become more and more apparent, my obsession with understanding autism has grown.
Right now, I’m rethinking what the point of my life is. I’m realizing that the point of someone’s life isn’t static; it changes when experience puts up a road block. I used to think the point of my life was to share my music. Now I’m not so sure it’s the end all-be all I thought it was. In fact, I know it isn’t. It’s part of my point, but only a part.
The other part is educating you, and the rest of the world, about what autism really is, how it effects people’s lives, how it can be hell and heaven at the same time. I have decided that over the next few months you’re going to see me changing a few things. My social media will no longer be focused on my music and my landscape photography. I will still engage these things I love, but my big focus is going to be on autism. I have a lot of questions I want answered, and I want to share them with you.
The music industry, like everything else in this world, is built in a way that works against people like me. In the music industry, like everywhere else in the world, people like me are forgotten and pushed to the margins. I’m ok with that; the music industry is bullshit and anyone who things they’re going to “make it” is crazy. If you’re doing it for that reason you’ll never be satisfied with your work, you’ll always be frustrated, and you’ll end up quitting. This is especially true for someone like me. I’m finally moving on.
Music has been good for my autism because it has taken me places I never thought I’d go. I feel privileged for this. On the other side, these travels, these places, all these people, it’s damaged me. It’s burned me out. Music is important to my life, but it’s not the most important thing. It’s time for autism to become my central focus, my locus of control, my faith, if you truly understand the definition of that word. It’s time to let it stretch its arms into every area of my life, and you will see the change. It will appear obsessive to some, but it’s more important for me to understand how to live my life as easily as possible, and to have folks understand me, than it is for everyone to like me. I don’t need that like I thought I did.
Autism, nature, music. In that order. I hope you’ll continue walking with me on this journey. I’m only just starting to figure out the map.