Berklee Today


The Quixotic Life

  Jeanne Ciampa-Centrella
  Jeanne Ciampa-Centrella is a singer/songwriter and the mother of two. She has released the CDs Power of Falling and Sketches. (Visit

When you become a musician, your life begins to fit the description that the poet Miguel de Cervantes penned in his famous sixteenth-century novel Don Quixote de La Mancha. "When a poet is poor," Cervantes wrote, "he spends all of his divine fruits and fancies trying to win his daily bread." Yet Cervantes finished writing his story. Despite being thrown into debtors prison and parenthood (which is somewhat similar), he did not turn his back on his art. Nor should we turn our backs on ours.

Finding a niche in the music industry is difficult and often curiously serendipitous. Whether we are songwriters, sidemen, or audio engineers, we leave Berklee and head out to achieve our musical ambitions without obvious arrows pointing us toward our destination. What we do and where we end up are often the result of our own efforts and possibly a little luck. In order to know what has contributed to the success of other musicians, I spoke with Jonatha Brooke, who owns her own record label and issues CDs of her original music, John Sands, who plays drums for Aimee Mann, and Sean Hurley, the bass player for the RCA recording artists Vertical Horizon. Examining the mathematics of each artist's success, I found an equation all use.

It is a pattern of relentless pursuit that morphs with failures to flush out success. It also involves a combination of boundless energy and making intelligent choices, surrounding yourself with the best, and never being satisfied with your own level of performance. Brooke, Sands, and Hurley constantly strive to be inspired and therefore inspire others. Inspired people are never content with their creation for long. Creativity is a force of nature. Staying in touch with that raw force is an artist's duty. It is our job to avoid spending all of our divine fruits and fancies winning our daily bread in order to create.

Let's face it; the world owes us nothing, and we need to learn to earn a living. That makes the equation for success easier to write about than to actually solve! There are forces working against us (mortgages, taxes, electric bills, car payments, and so on). One could easily succumb to the pressures of life, but the artist must rise above the mere pursuit of daily bread.

When you add children to the equation, it's like going from basic algebra to Davis's theory of minute particles. John Sands '78 works as Aimee Mann's drummer and has two beautiful children. We share the same lament. We each love music, recognize its hardships and required sacrifices, and have a determination never to let the cold, hard realities get in the way of creating. But when you have children, some choices are even more difficult.

"My kids hate it every time I leave to go on tour," says John Sands. "But I tell them that this is the work that makes me happy. When I am home, I'm 100 percent dad; when I'm on the road, I am 100 percent musician. I think it's important for my children to learn that I followed my heart and make my living at a job that I am passionate about."

Choosing music and parenthood is a double whammy for which one should earn a double Grammy. Or would that be a double mammy? We somehow have to conjure up Triton, the ancient god of resources, to get the music from our heads to the ears of others and make a living.

Dealing with the logic of my four- and three-year-olds as they fight over SpongeBob underwear annihilates my joy as much as having the budget on my demo exceed all financial predictions. The budget busting also leaves my nonmusician husband uttering, "The horror, the horror" as he gazes into the darkness of his wallet.

A mother must see the big picture regarding the discipline of her little angels/devils. Similarly, I can't rest on my laurels for having sung the title track to the film End of Summer. I am never content with where I am at for very long. Always looking forward spurs professional evolution.

I'll avoid dropping names, but right now I have the good fortune of working with some great musicians as I seek to release my music on an indie label. Sure, I hope to move to a bigger label, to tour, and still be a great mom and wife. The latter entails the banal: homework, lunch bags with kooky drawings on them, and whipping up a home-cooked dinner for four every night. But I feel that I'm already a success because my life still feels inspired.

Even if you don't have children, the music business is a big challenge. Singer/songwriter Jonatha Brooke shared sage advice about finding her niche in the business. Brooke, who initially gained notice as a member of the folk-rock duo The Story, has experience with big labels. In 1999, she decided to go it alone, releasing her music on her own Bad Dog Records label. Her talent and hard work have earned her invitations to record with Bruce Cockburn, Geoff Bartley, Vance Gilbert, and others. Her songs have been featured in the soundtracks of the Disney movie Return to Never Land and the TV series Providence.

"It's just incredibly hard work that's never finished," Brooke says. "Maybe once in a while there's someone who breaks through organically, but most hit records and artists are keenly marketed and produced, and there's somebody at the top who's given the green light and thrown around a big bunch of money. You have to be honest with yourself and ask, 'Does what I'm doing fuel me on every level? Would I be miserable trying to do anything but this? Will selling between 5,000 and 100,000 records be enough?'

"What keeps me going when I feel I just can't get a break is the knowledge that no one can take away what really matters to me. I can still tour whether or not MCA drops my record. I can still make a record without a major-label budget or marketing plan. I have something they can never touch: the next song that I have to write."

Another view comes from Sean Hurley of Vertical Horizon. "It takes time and money to make it all work," Hurley says. "That's what big labels have. The important thing is hooking up with a label that believes in you and supports your music.

"I think it would be nearly impossible for only one person to do what a label like RCA does for a band," says Hurley. "Press, promotion, and marketing all require serious attention to get real results. Even with a label, an artist needs a team of believers in order to break out. The best thing anyone can do is start with one person - a manager, booking agent, or producer - with some connections and start assembling a team as you build your business.

"My personal career has had its ups and downs, and I just try to ride along and make decisions that feel right at the time. I'm living and working in L.A., and I wouldn't change a thing because I don't know what might be happening tomorrow as a result of what I am doing today. I just try to take advantage of any opportunity that comes along and get involved with as many projects as I can to keep learning new things. I'm lucky enough to be working with great people and musicians, and I know that I'm in it for the long haul - wherever that leads."

After we spoke, Hurley got married, bought a house, and on the day of the closing, he learned that his group had been dropped by RCA. It seems that having sold two million albums doesn't constitute an insurance policy in the big leagues. I admitted to Sean that I am a kept woman. Having a husband who has a secure profession makes continuing my artistic aspirations possible. Perhaps being a parent and an indie musician/artist is not an easier equation than being successful on a big label.

To a certain extent, we all strive to be visionaries in what we love to do. That love keeps us in music and fires the spirit to create. Love kept Cervantes moving his pen. Artists must keep that love alive. The hope it spawns feeds our dreams, which is what matters most in the quixotic life.