Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Hip Girl Interview: Tessa Souter

Here is a story from one of those inspirational artists that you read about who successfully followed her dream later on in life ... and made it! Except that she followed not one but TWO dreams, and made them BOTH happen. Jazz singer, writer and author of Anything I Can Do YOU Can Do Better, Tessa Souter is a woman who is not only an inspiration, but has enough generosity and compassionate belief in others to want to see them do the same.

You can see throughout her story how important friendship and encouragement from others has been to her. Who can you support in your midst? Who are your biggest believers?

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Where did the inspiration for your book, Anything I Can Do, YOU Can Do Better, come from?

A friend who I used to co-coach with nagged me to do it. She thought I would write a good book. I mentioned it to another friend who was an agent and she said, "if you do that book, Tessa, I will agent it." And then she bullied and pushed me into doing a proposal. And then she got Random House to buy it. Then my Random House editor nagged and pushed me throughout what was an incredibly difficult year in my personal life that no one really knew about. So I had encouragement from lots of sources.

What made you first decide at 31, to really try and make a living as a writer?

My brother and I had always wanted to be writers since childhood. I had my first poem published in the Dartington Times when I was 11. It was about the wind! Plus I loved writing stories and epic poems and all my teachers would fall all over my parents about it until about age 12, when I became a rebel at school. Friends used to send me books and say "YOU COULD HAVE WRITTEN THIS!" I studied English Lit at university when I went back to school when my son was 8. My first job after university was editing reports and proposals for a ghastly engineering firm. So I started looking every week in the Guardian media page for jobs. Then one day I got a job at Parents magazine as an editorial assistant. A few weeks into that I got comissioned to write an article about doing adult things with kids, like going to opera or ballet, and picking good operas or ballets for kids. My editor loved it and made me do more. From there it snowballed.

How and why did you then successfully re-invent yourself as a jazz singer?

Ah well that is still a work in progress, the success bit. I played guitar and sang from age 12. I would have been a singer but instead I had my son at 16 and ran away from home (ran away first, then had him). Kind of put the kybosh on that dream as then I had to be a responsible parent. When he was grown up, probably around 21 or 22I sang at a kareoke bar in San Francisco and someone there who heard me called the bar after they'd left and asked me out on a date. We went out every week to hear live music for 6 months and sometimes we would sit in. We both sang. Then we became a couple and he spent years persuading me that I could do it as a job. When he fell out of love with me, it seemed it was a great way to get his positive attention. He still encouraged my singing, even when he was seeing other women. But in the end we broke up and then I really NEEDED singing. It's a fantastic painkiller. And people would hear me at open mic jams and ask where they could come and see me perform. Then a friend had me sit in on his regular Friday gig and I got offered a regular Saturday gig by the restaurant and it all kind of grew from there.

What is the most significant challenge you've had to overcome as a professional artist, and how did you do it?

Still working on that one. I think the biggest challenge is that 90% of the work you do as a professional is nothing to do with ACTUAL singing. The actual singing bit is easy and wonderful and fun and i love it. But that is one hour to about nine of behind the scenes stuff of promoting, getting gigs, getting past the gatekeepers, doing it whatever mood you are in, making sure that people come out because you owe that to the venue, (as well as it being more fun for you). And your body being your instrument means that in spite of doing all that stuff and trying to make a living and all the unbelievable stress of that, you have to remain fit!

What insight into your practice has kept you going the most?

That if you keep putting one foot in front of the other towards your dream, you will see progress. The universe kind of joins in. You might not always see it yourself but then you have your friends around to support you. So even if you don't feel like doing something -- like practicing or learning new material or whatever, you must force yourself. One of the amazing rewards is how much insight you get into yourself when you compose. At the end of some of my songs I think, "Wow! Now I know EXACTLY what that incident/person/thing meant to me."

What priceless tip can you leave as a final 'gift' to aspiring singers and writers to help them accomplish their dreams?

Read Tessa's final gift on Creative Resistance