I’m on my way home.
It is a simple, singular, and powerful thought that has been pounding in my head for the past week. When I landed at Bob Hope airport in Burbank, CA 7 days ago, I had this resounding feeling of excitement and comfort. I was back on the west coast. I was in familiar territory, and just a couple steps closer to Seattle, where my heart has been aching to be for 3 months.
I was born in Pomona, CA, east of Los Angeles, and my very early childhood was spent growing up on Mount Baldy near a Zen Buddhist retreat just north before my family later moved to Washington. Honestly I can’t remember anything from my brief stint living in California as a child, but I’ve always felt strong ties to my birth state, and it was nice to be back.
When I landed in Burbank, I stepped off the small connecting jet plane with ‘Same Love’ singer Mary Lambert, and my fellow string player cellist Rebecca Chung-Filice. Just being on the tarmac at this small airport in California gave me an extra spring in my step, and I was so elated that I felt akin to floating as we walked to baggage claim. Even my violin case didn’t dig as deep into my shoulder as it usually did.
Mary, Rebecca and I diverged from the Macklemore and Ryan Lewis tour for a couple days in support of Mary Lambert’s signing with Capitol Records. Of all the singers and featured artists on the ‘Heist’, she is the first to depart with a major label contract in hand, and I couldn’t imagine it happening to a more deserving, wonderful human being. Her performances are utterly spellbinding in their rawness and execution. Previously I had done a lot of string arranging for her, and she brought Rebecca and me along to California as a duet to back her for a showcase and some video taping at Capitol Records Studios. I was thrilled to join her.
A secondary thought started creeping into my singular happiness of being back on the west coast: Who’s Life Did I just Steal into?
The next day we walked into Capitol Records Studio A. This was hallowed ground to me. Nat King Cole, Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra and millions of other iconic artists have recorded there. I felt my pulse run. We recorded a number of songs with a large team of cameras, stylists, record executives watching and tracking our every move. Now I felt like I was in a gilded birdcage, but instead of feeling trapped, I felt like the prized royal jewel along with Mary Lambert. When I worked at a record label myself, I always marveled at the relationship between the business people behind the scenes and the creative artists they managed, oversaw, and guided. There was always a sense of awe and excitement from the label people at the talents of their artists. Being at the receiving end of this adoration, at Capitol Records of all places, was too surreal for me to fully process. Once we wrapped up the video taping at the iconic Capitol Records Tower, the next day we played an industry showcase at the Mint in Hollywood for a huge majority of the Capitol Records executive staff. It was an incredible show. Yet again the thought crept into my head: Who’s life did I just steal into?
I think this secondary thought had been stirring on the periphery of my consciousness for almost 2 months now, and was only now fully manifesting. It got significantly more bizarre and pronounced over the next couple of days however…
The next day I took a cab to the massive Staples Center, and reunited with the Macklemore tour team for our show that evening. Just stepping into the 950,000 square foot arena was awe-inspiring, but knowing that that evening we would be playing for a close to sold out crowd – 20,000 filled seats – was mind-numbing. Being with the full Macklemore family again was comforting – and our full homecoming to the West Coast was momentous. Our performance that night at the Staples center had a new sense of purpose, and was full of fervor and excitement. I think it was one of the most engaged shows I had played the entire US tour. I think just knowing that we were close to home was reinvigorating all of us: Ben, Ryan, the band, the crew, management, etc. The end was just over the horizon. Some semblance of a normal life was just around the corner.
Later that week, I sat to the left of the massive stage for the Grammy Nominations 2014 ceremony at the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles. Mary was sweet enough to give me one of her extra tickets so I could have a seat. I had shook hands with LL Cool J earlier, and exchanged brief greetings with Robin Thicke like they were my neighbors. This was definitely not my life. I found myself scrutinizing if stuff was real or not everywhere. As the show was broadcasted nationwide that evening, I was sitting in the audience scrutinizing if someone was actually playing the music live or not…. is the performance actually real or artificial? Are they triggering the music being played? Is the band ACTUALLY playing or is it all backing track? Is it fake? or smoke and mirrors? Most of it is highly orchestrated theatrics. However, some of the performances (Keith Urban, Robin Thicke, Earth, Wind and Fire) were incredible displays of virtuosity, and gave me hope that the artistry and integrity of music wasn’t completely deluded in this world of cameras and stylists.
During the commercial breaks of the show, they had Los Angeles debutantes come in as seat fillers, so it gave the impression that the entire theater was filled and that there wasn’t an empty seat in the house – at least to the national audience on the other side of the camera. The room was plenty filled, but this practice of literal musical chairs surprised me. The life I felt like I was stealing into definitely was showing it’s darker, more artificial side. It was fun, showy and theatrical, but definitely fake.
Then the most incredible moment happened. The Heist – the juggernaut the entire team had been supporting for the past 3 months – was nominated for seven Grammy awards. I remember my heart stopping, and feeling a rush of conflicted emotions. Could I say I was a Grammy nominated composer for my work on the album? I’m still not sure, and that is disconcerting. I felt like it was a victory for the team, but then I also felt like it was the victory of Ben and Ryan. We are the smoke and mirrors for their show – the theatrics and the unsung heroes. Was this our night as well? The way everyone outside of the Macklemore team was acting it didn’t feel that way. I was proud and ultimately happy for Ben and Ryan however, and for Mary Lambert for picking up a nomination for ‘Song of the Year.’ This wasn’t home however. This was an insane other dimension. I had effectively jumped through time and space in a Fringe-like universe shift. This was the bizarre world that Macklemore and Ryan Lewis had been occupying for the past year since the release, and now I was fully seeing it all.
Backstage at the Grammy’s was a mad rush of cameras, security, and random colorful characters. I felt out of place. There was so much hustle and excitement, intense adoration, sucking up, and more…. and still that ubiquitous feeling that a lot of it was artificial – just one giant theatrical show – even backstage. Where exactly did I fit into all of this, in this bizarre plastic heaven? How does one retain a compass of self in the madness without succumbing to it?
A couple of days later, I’m still reeling from this brief exposure into the world of intense fame and celebirtydom. There is an intense alluring nature to it all. Just feeling a taste of that adoration while I was at Capitol Records with Mary Lambert was addictive. Thankfully, the singular, powerful thought that I originally began with has returned: I’m finally going home, where life makes sense.