This week I'm talking about branding strategies in music that actually work! There's a lot of strategies out there that people share that work on paper but don't actually yield results. So today I'm sharing 3 that will help artists build their brands and stand out!
This week I'm sharing many different ways you can earn money in the music industry! Not everyone wants to be an artist or producer but there are still many jobs in this industry for you that will help out people a ton! So take a look and enjoy!
Whoever said being a musician was easy LIED. This job is very hard, especially just starting out. There's so much you have to remember and sometimes you get so used to doing things a certain way you don't even realize your brain and body needs a break. So here's a video on burnout as a creator and what you can do to keep your health prioritized!
I can't believe it's already September! 😱
It's actually my 30th birthday on Monday and so today I decided to share 30 lessons and things that I've learned so far in my music career as an Independent artist. Some of these things are funny, some of them are more serious but either way I hope they'll help you navigate a career in this industry!
xo, JONATHAN MILLER📕
Writing music gradually went from writing lyrics and melodies to making instrumentals on my laptop as I continued on. One day my mom, my brother, and I were shopping at Target and out of the corner of my eye under the electronics section I saw a computer program called “American Idol Jam Trax.” I was 15 years old and had very little understanding of music production but I knew what American Idol was so I was interested. I convinced my mom to buy it for me (“Is this something you think will help you get better?” -every investment needed a purpose) and with her support I went straight to work that night.
This “digital audio workstation” was relatively uncomplicated for a freshman in high school. I learned how music loops were pre-recorded little sound bytes you could repeat over and over to create bars of music. By this time my familiarity with song structures was well-seasoned from writing hundreds of lyrics and melodies so I clicked on the first synthesizer loop I found and my jaw proceeded to drop.
The first sound I found was nearly the exact synth line I had made up in my head from a song I’d written a month prior! I was flabbergasted and excited. Taking it as a sign I was on the right path, I began creating songs by grouping these loops together based purely on what felt right to my ears. No musical training, just going off of intuition. Soon enough, one song became two then 30, and so on.
Of course I wrote lyrics to nearly every instrumental I made, but there was still one problem. How do I get my vocals on these songs? I had very little concept of how recording worked, let alone the mechanisms to make it function on a laptop, but surely if I could do that, I could finally create an entire full-length album, right?
I saved up any money I could find, did some odd jobs for people, and again with my mother’s support, I acquired some additional cheap, beta equipment to help me put it all together. My mother hadn’t really even heard me sing at that point but she recognized a drive within me and gave me space and support from afar to figure it out. Something that would eventually come to save me one day not too far in the future.
I practically had zero concept of what I was doing. People would talk to me about musical instruments and chord progressions and I didn’t understand a single word they’d say. YouTube was in its infancy and tutorials for recording were extremely hard to understand unless you were a trained producer and musician, both of which I was not. I skated by in choir by mimicking my designated parts from those seated near me rather than reading sheet music (a language I still barely understand although eventually gained some elementary knowledge on the subject after high school.) I had all this musical desire and inspiration that I kept largely to myself as a shy kid. Nevertheless though by the end of of freshman year, I managed to scrape together my first studio album, “Intertwined.”
The album is ROUGH. In hindsight, I’m not sure real melodies actually exist on it and my vocals can’t really be considered as such but I’m proud of it regardless. It’s a little time capsule of a teenager not knowing what the hell he was doing. My childhood artist friend gifted me with an album cover for fun which I of course, used. Again, I had no clue about how to do music promotion especially because performing live wasn’t much of an option. I lived in a city built for alt-rock music, I was too young to perform in clubs and no one in my circle understood what a backing track was. I was also very shy. Still determined to try though, I burned every CD and cut out every single album booklet myself.
Eventually I created my second studio album, “Convulsion Heart,” another time capsule of teenage angst. I was a sophomore and junior during this time and even though it’s still very rough around the edges, unbalanced, and off-tune in parts, it’s still the product of someone who put their mind to it and created music. I found an online music distributor which got my songs up on iTunes for more sale which was very exciting!
However, people kept calling it “techno music” which at the time felt like some kind of derogatory slur, until I realized many years later that it wasn’t one. It absolutely was techno music but I always did my best to put my pop star dreams in to it. Neither of my albums went anywhere or got any radio play but I did manage to put together a music video (again by myself in private) for “Convulsion Heart” using the photo booth app on my Apple laptop. 2009 was a long year.
It was long because of coming out as gay and my not-so-secret-secret relationship. I really wanted love like every teenager does but something was off from the beginning. I found myself lying to those around me more often, making excuses for bad behavior, and hiding even more. My sophomore album felt darker because it really was a dark time for me, as cliche as that is for every pop artist to say. Psychological and emotional abuse seeps its poison into every aspect of your life without you knowing and my songwriting always seemed to know things before I did.
I was just a kid. All of my friends got to be in relationships, why was mine destroying everything that I knew? Was it “the gay thing” that made me feel like the family shame or was it something more? Was it both? I was so confused and conflicted. The biggest eye opener was when my boyfriend tried to run me over with a car as he completely ignored my pleas to stop. Luckily, I had the sense about me that day to jump out of the way.
That is not normal.
Eventually, after numerous other events including cheating on me with the guy down the street from me and telling me I deserved it, I broke up with him and chose myself over what I believed at the time was love. During this time, I wrote another album called “This Summer Air” (a lighter-toned body of work) my senior year in more of a pop-rock style after a song I’d made called “Somebody” strangely seemed to make people pay attention to what I was singing about.
The album chronicles my realization of realizing that even though sometimes things can feel really good being young and in love, abuse is abuse. One song in particular, “Revolution (Part 2)” represents the moment after I realized internally there was no going back. I’d written it 8 months before I finished the album and it was originally going to be the last song on the album. My songwriting oftentimes feels like little messages to myself from my subconscious. Something I know deep inside but might not be ready to learn.
However, I didn’t want to end this “lighter” album on a dark note, so at the last minute, I wrote a song called “Celebration” because it captured the heart of what I imagined love COULD be. The album was much more accessible to different age groups I was finding and I had slightly more of an idea of what I was doing so it became my best-seller at the time. However, after it was out, it immediately didn’t feel 100% right to me sonically. It felt like I was covering something, a habit that most abuse victims know all too well. It felt like I was telling the story I thought people wanted to hear. I love “This Summer Air” and still treasure those songs deeply but at 18 years old, I was done not doing things for myself.
I began to take back control of my life as the end of my high school career approached. I was lighter in apparent stress to those around me but fury waged a terrifying war inside me. A war I would go on to fight for an additional ten years in silence. I was heartbroken. I was betrayed. Manipulated, bullied, afraid, silenced, confused, and embarrassed. It felt like I came crashing out of a cocoon into another world. Who was I?
Everyone was telling me I needed to be this, that, or the other thing. I needed to go to this college, and “live the life we didn’t.” They got so busy telling me what I needed to be, no one stopped to ask what I wanted. I had just escaped this traumatizing relationship and I felt I couldn’t say anything simply because my being gay was a taboo subject. Truthfully, I just didn’t know how to communicate what I felt either. I once again was silenced in my own emotions; trapped within my own body. All I wanted was to be heard. Eventually that fury turned into strength when I realized that the past could stay right where it was because the only thing that began to matter to me was my future.
I dove immediately back into my electronic sounds and writing. Soon enough the lyric “I am a machine but not a robot for your operation” came to my head and I began writing a song called “Graduation” (literally the week of of my high school graduation, fittingly.) I showed the instrumental to my brother one afternoon and he immediately asked, “Wait… Do you have lyrics for this? That’s really good.”
I knew it was good. I felt it in my bones.
After recording it, I then showed it to my sister who proceeded to tell me it was the “best song I’d ever written.” My siblings were hard to win over sometimes and to have their support in this way meant a lot but this song spoke to me in ways that even still to this day I continue to discover. I poured every ounce of my desire to be heard and passion for freedom into every moment, lyric, melody, and sonic in that song and just let loose.
For the first time, I did not care about anyone’s feelings but my own and my art was beginning to reflect that. My siblings’ support was just a small cherry on top. I still felt like a prisoner to my abuser though. I wanted freedom and my music was going to take me there.
Three months after “This Summer Air,” I dropped an EP called “Rising Eon” that still remains as one of my favorite bodies of work that I’ve done because it’s nothing but emotion. I learned how to update my own songs, re-record things and modernize them. It’s growth on high octane and after showing a specific song on the EP called “If You’re on the Same Level” to my mom, she eagerly told me it was time to do a full-length music video and show the world my music.
The goalpost for an artist is never a far-off place in the future of financial security, fame and fortune. Those things come with time through work and a little bit of luck. Instead, the goalpost of the artist is to never give up on the dream that inspired you to take a leap of faith in the first place. Life tests you incessantly to see if you’ll give up on yourself, but you mustn’t give in. Never stop chasing your dreams but never forget what led you to chase them in the first place.
“Take a leap of faith and hope you fly.”
A phrase that echoed in my mind when my phone rang one September afternoon with the voice of a businessman saying they’d like me to come down to Los Angeles and write music soon.
To be continued… #BookTwo
Summer 2021 has been quite a wild ride! A lot of great music was released this summer (myself included 😉) and so today I wanna share some of my favorites! This video only features my top 10 but make sure you check out the full Spotify playlist below! Don't forget to follow me too!
[ Click Here for the Full Summer Playlist! ]
One of the hardest things to do in this world is to tell the truth. When you grow up feeling alienated from those around you, it can feel like what you have to say doesn’t matter. In actuality, to many of those people, it doesn’t. They don’t care about you, your feelings, or your opinions -but it’s not always out of spite. Humans have a way of getting wrapped up in their own story in a way that doesn’t often leave room for yours. The problem is, you’re left alone in your head knowing that what you have to say needs to be said even though it might upset some, it might even hurt them. So for many years you remain silent. However, your experiences are your truth. Chances are if you’ve been led to think that no one will believe you if you tell your story, it’s a story worth telling.
This is mine.
I have always known I was gay. I grew up with a lesbian aunt and an uncle who was gay too. However, I was 3 years old when my uncle died at the height of the AIDS epidemic in 1994 and I didn’t see my aunt very much either. It never occurred to me, though, that anything was different about them. No one said anything to lead me to believe anything otherwise and my mom, whom took care of my uncle while he passed away, never shied away from the word “gay.” The problem was I didn’t understand the context of what the word meant.
It wasn’t until I was home alone sick though (many years later) when I heard a news anchor on TV refer to two men as “gay” that my 4th grade brain finally put two-and-two together. I laid on my bed and thought “Oh… that’s me. That word describes what I feel. Ok.” That was it. Unfortunately, I learned soon after that there were negative connotations to this word.
My friends were bullying me for the sound of my voice. Kids of all ages bullied me because most of the friends I believed I had back then were girls. Around the age of my little self-realization, the word “gay” became an insult. Something you hurled at someone you wanted to inflict pain on. This “gay” thing made you weird, strange and different. People were also getting hurt if you were suspected of being it. It was confusing because some people seemed very accepting of gay people and others vehemently hated them. Was being gay bad or good? I never received a clear answer. I just knew I needed to make sure no one found out their insults and bullying tactics were correct when it came to me. If I came out then certainly, my entire world would be destroyed.
As I grew up in the subsequent years following 9/11, I realized how polarized my family was in their beliefs. Half of them conservative, Proud-to-Be-American types who loved hunting, fishing, and guns. The other half of my family was liberal, embracing of changing times whilst being critical of guns, the government, and favored something called “domestic partnerships.” My father belonged to the conservative side and my mother was a free-spirited liberal (or “hated all politics” as was common to say back then.)
Throughout middle school and the beginning of high school I realized everyone had a point of view! I remember my mother crying in the hallway after George W. Bush was re-elected fearing that my aunt could never get married. My dad constantly asked if I was interested in religion and learning more about God. My friends began to firmly plant their feet down on certain political topics I didn’t understand. My siblings, all older than me, fell on both sides of the aisle too and frequently assumed I believed what they believed. Everyone told me how they felt about everything. The only person’s opinion I never heard was my own.
Freshman year in 2006, I finally got the opportunity to visit my friends in Japan with my mom. A place I had only dreamed of going, I felt right at home the moment we got off the plane. My friend and his family became my host family, flipping the script on what I knew always being the host family back in the USA. We visited places like the shopping district in Harajuku and Asakusa with the big Red Lantern leading to an ancient temple. I participated at another friend from the International Program’s school festival led by all of the student clubs. I walked the streets of Saitama, Akihabara the Electric City, and even Tokyo Disneysea for its 5th anniversary! I specifically remember going to the Edo-Tokyo Museum too, learning more about the history of how Japan’s capitol city came to be -this time by experiencing it first hand. My host father told me to pay close attention because there would be a quiz afterward (a promise he promptly fulfilled that night before I went to bed.)
The trip culminated in an International Program reunion featuring students from almost all of the previous 20 years. I was in my favorite city with the people who felt like family to me. I wrote songs with my host brother and visited the Pokemon Center in Japan (buying the new games several months before they’d arrive on US shores) feeling cautious but magical. I felt like I had space to hear my own thoughts. Maybe it was the 5.0 earthquake that shook the home I was staying in or maybe an earthquake occurred within me, but either way for the first time I had a strong opinion of my own about my life.
It took over a year later but I began coming out. It was sophomore year, beginning with my best friend at the time and then my mother (both of which had long assumed being gay was my truth.) It was terrifying and liberating. My mom cried because it brought back all her fears from losing her brother, but she was supportive. My best friend got very serious when I told them and they swore not to breathe a word to anyone, (a promise they kept even after the world found out.) Eventually the word got around without me saying anything! To this day, I have only ever come out, myself, three times because most people just assumed I was or didn’t care either way.
Public opinion was also changing. Lady Gaga ruled the airwaves and gay marriage was slowly being legalized state-by-state. I remember in Government class we did a mock legislative meeting where each student had to present a bill that would be voted on by the class. Of course, I chose gay marriage and aside from two people due to religious reasons, my “bill” passed by landslide.
Other kids were out at this time in school too. Most of the student population actually favored gay rights and would have participated more in my school’s day of silence if the Gay-Straight Alliance club president had done a better job telling people what day it actually was. My high school wasn’t perfect and coming of age in that environment was definitely a privilege, but things were changing, which I appreciated. I, myself was changing. The only person who didn’t know how to deal with that was my Dad.
I did not come out to my father by choice. My dad was accepting of gay people, but having a gay son was much more of a complicated issue internally for him. After finding a picture of me and another boy I may or may not have been secretly seeing at the time, he cried very hard like a river becoming a flood, then an ocean. We sat there in the living room in silence as he fought back tears. I felt like I had committed the worst crime a person could commit. He tried comforting me in the best way he could, but I knew he was wrestling against his beliefs and his reality behind the emerald eyes I also inherited. Even though we lived in the same house, after that day, my dad receded into his work and barely spoke to me again for three years. There were many other factors to this as I would learn later (the recession hit our family hard and we nearly lost everything at one point, never fully recovering) but the guilt stuck with me.
However, it wasn’t the only guilt I was harboring. Something was eating me from the inside. Something was wrong and something was worse. The boy I was seeing disguised himself as kind and beautiful like a perfectly wrapped Christmas present… but this was a manipulation. “He didn’t mean to,” I’d tell myself, “it was just one time.”
It wasn’t. It was never just one time.
He wanted me to keep quiet and because I was seeing my truth destroy the world that I knew, I followed suit willingly. I wanted love like any teenager does, but this wasn’t love. This was different and I knew it. Somewhere deep down inside, I understood what was happening to me in secret wasn’t normal but I pretended I was ok because simply being gay and in a relationship was collapsing everything. The songs I wrote took on stronger emotions about freedom and anger. I didn’t consciously understand why though.
It was May of 2010. I was 18 and a word kept cropping up in my mind over and over again. Little did I know how many personal meanings this word would go on to have for me as I began to open my eyes to the ways I was being treated by people.
It was time to rewrite history. It was time for moving on.
It was time for Graduation.
Music has always been a part of my life. Growing up through the 90s country-pop crossover movement exposed me early on to a lot of different sounds, perspectives, and stories. The very first song I ever remember loving was “She’s in Love With the Boy” by Trisha Yearwood, released the same year I was born. However, it would be “One Way Ticket (Because I Can)” by LeAnne Rimes and “Down Came a Blackbird” by Lila McCann that pulled me in a little deeper. In fact, my very first CD was Lila McCann’s self-titled album for my birthday. Unfortunately, I got it, before I even had a CD Player. Luckily, my mom played it quite often for me on hers.
Country music told rich stories that I found fascinating. Growing up in the suburbs of Oregon in a family that wasn’t particularly religious, I didn’t always relate to every lyric but the melodies hit hard. Acts like Faith Hill, The Chicks, Tim McGraw, Reba McEntire, Brooks & Dunn, Martina McBride, and more stayed in frequent rotation on our home stereo. The way I could picture the whole story in my mind in excellent detail from just a few lyrics, however, captivated me the most. As I grew up and music on the radio began to change, I noticed a unique pattern that pulled me into music even further. If it was a song I could dance to, I was especially into it.
The Bubblegum Pop explosion toward the end of the decade pulled me in like gravity much faster than country music did. The way it could change its sound and move between other genres that were traditionally fragmented off from one another was fascinating. Pop had a unique ability to morph into a country song or a rock song. It could even ascend into dance music or hip-hop! Something about it felt different.
*NSYNC, Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera were the first artists in this Pop world that really took my breath away. They of course, were immediately followed by TLC, B*Witched, Ricky Martin, Brandy, Spice Girls, and Celine Dion as well as a multitude of others. If a pop act act came on the radio or my TV screen -nothing else was important to me. Their choreography, cascading riffs, white or silver colored outfits paired with rich, vibrant colors captured my attention. The “digital bubble” aesthetic as I called it felt futuristic and forward-thinking as a kid, a stark contrast to the everyday feel of country music. The internet was in its infancy too but growing exponentially fast. Everything started to have an outer-space feel to it that kept my interest and wonder. The former members of the Mickey Mouse Club took my breath away, but one of them in particular held my attention a little longer.
Britney Spears was everywhere in the 90s. The mall? Britney. The toy store? Britney. The Disney Channel? Britney. The 17 year old phenomenon came out with the iconic “…Baby One More Time” album that was given to me one Christmas by my grandmother. A single woman at the time, my grandma splurged that year and bought all of her grandchildren a boom box and Britney’s debut album. As we eagerly opened our gifts, I thought it was strange how the physical CD I found on the inside was colored pink whilst all of my siblings and cousins’ albums were blue. Maybe it was random luck or perhaps my grandma knew something I didn’t back then but either way it was unique. Soon, all of my cousins busted out our new CD players and began playing them all at once. Funny how my first official listen through a CD that I, myself, owned ended up being an eclectic mashup consisting of all of the songs on it at once.
Britney spoke to me. She could dance, she could sing, she made great music. Still to this day, nothing sounds more 90s to me than the “…Baby One More Time” album. I would listen to it repeatedly and use it as the soundtrack for my made up Power Rangers TV episodes, playing the right song at the exact climactic moment to capture the feeling. I shook every wall in my house dancing alone in my bedroom on “stage” to a sold-out crowd. Britney Spears opened the door for me to a new level of imagination.
I liked this fictional feeling of “performing.” Quiet and shy, I dared not to breathe a word of my desire to sing and dance to anyone. Pop music was cool to me but it definitely was considered “girly” and “uncool” sometimes. Even so, pop music shook my bones and took me to another realm of existence. Britney Spears WAS pop music and inspired me in so many ways.
She was also unfailingly kind. She created a whole summer camp to inspire young artists to pursue their dreams. She drove through her hometown and gave every single person $100 for Christmas to give back a piece of what she was lucky enough to have gained. Pop stars were often criticized for being shallow but Britney demonstrated the importance of being humble as a star. She was the definition of a true artist who, little did I know, would awaken the artist within me the moment I opened that pink CD.
Something was magical about the feeling I had dancing alone. I felt like the lyrics were coming true on my imaginary stage and all of the audience members could feel the electricity as well. Music could say what I couldn’t. It was magnetic to me and took hold of me like magic.
I became interested in who was writing these mystical words and through the booklets often included with my CDs, I discovered what were called “track credits.” As the millennium turned I began to notice repeated names in most of my music booklets. Kara DioGuardi, Charlie Midnight, Andreas Carlsson, Rami Yacoub, John Shanks, Matthew Gerrard, and especially someone named Max Martin all became names that lived in my head alongside the artists who were singing these songs. It got to the point where I would scan these track credits before listening to a new album, specifically looking for one or more of these names because if they showed up, I knew I was going to love that song. I couldn’t wait to see what it would sound like and what story or emotion was going to come forth. If they wrote it, I felt it. However, what began to really fascinate me was when artists wrote their own music.
Something just clicked on those songs. It felt like I was talking directly to the artist, one-on-one. I could hear their thoughts, feelings, and emotions in their own words. It was like I was in a room alone with them and listening to their truth and viewpoints that resonated with my own. It struck me so much that one day in 2004 while home on Christmas break, I had an epiphany to try writing a song of my own.
I was very familiar with song structures, (it’s like poetry right?) I studied Max Martin and Kara DioGuardi’s music -there was no way I couldn’t do this, I told myself. I had no concept of how someone could create a melody nobody had already written and I had no clue how to play any instrument, but I knew I could write words pretty well. I sang alone at home when no one was around so maybe I could just make up a melody? I remembered an interview I had seen on TV where I heard someone say “write what you know” and so my 7th grade brain said “let’s try it.” I got out some loose leaf paper from my binder, laid down on my bed and got to work. 15 minutes later I had done just that.
“My World” became the very first song I had ever written. I had no idea where it came from but it appropriately described what I saw through my 13 year old eyes. It was simply a melody I pulled out of thin air and the lyrics I had written down on paper. It wasn’t the best song (“Your eyes sparkle like a crystal” is a little embarrassing of a lyric to me now) but nevertheless, it was mine. I was proud of it. Writing lyrics felt different. It wasn’t a school essay. It wasn’t a poem for an English assignment that I didn’t really understand the rules to. I was a teenager with all these emotions and writing them down in this lyrical format seemed to click a special gear into place within me like a puzzle piece fitting perfectly into its slot.
Soon enough, one song became two. Then three, then four and two months later became 32. In my own little imaginary world, I split these 32 loose-leaf songs into made up albums (I had enough material, after all.) My first “album” was appropriately titled “My World” in honor of my first song and was quickly followed by its successors, “Me” and “What Happens Now?” Three albums of lyrics and melodies, each one growing in sound every 10 songs or so. However, this was getting out of hand. I wanted to keep writing but I needed to be even more organized. So, I got paper protector sleeves and put each one of my special 32 original songs in its own. I then compiled them into my “Southern Island Collection” Pokemon Binder to keep them all together before moving on to a yellow spiral notebook.
Quickly that spiral notebook became 18 spiral notebooks and my 3 made up albums grew to over 50 -all with unique melodies, lyrics and perspectives of a growing teenager that I still remember to this day. Hundreds of songs fell out of my pencil as the years ticked on. I couldn’t stop. They came from somewhere within me that I didn’t dare question. Some days I would write 1 song, others I’d write 10. I would get an idea for a song from anywhere, too! In the middle of science class, a strange word I would hear on my vocabulary lists, from current events, right when I woke up, a phrase someone would say in conversations, it didn’t matter. I leaned into this ability to hear something in the nothingness and turn it into a song. It felt like a superpower. When I was writing my songs, nothing else mattered to me.
Songwriting was special. It was simple. It was my history, my present and future, my truth, and my journal.
Songwriting also helped me understand one emotion in particular. Something that I didn’t quite comprehend in most of the songs I would listen to from other artists. A concept that I couldn’t really connect with unless the artist was specifically a woman. There was something in their music I innately understood that I didn’t know yet how to verbalize. A feeling that began to work its way out of my brain and into my lyrics. Something private I kept to myself that most people saw right through but I tried hiding regardless with every fiber of my being because slipping up meant total destruction of everything I knew.
This week I'm sharing 5 tips for music collaborations! Great music is oftentimes a collaborative effort but before you bring someone new into your art there's some things you've gotta know! Watch this so you can know how to better protect yourself -and your money!
In 1987 the YMCA in Portland, Oregon formed a special partnership with the YMCA of Saitama, Japan (a city just outside of Tokyo) to provide a unique opportunity for Japanese school children to experience life in the US. In conjunction with this partnership was an additional joint effort between the YMCA of Tokyo and Tokyo University to allow 2-4 college aged students to come to Oregon for volunteer work and school credit as well. The university students would arrive in Portland mid-July and remain there for about 2 months and the school children would come the first week in August staying for roughly 2-3 weeks. Originally led by my aunt, my mom graduated from volunteer to leader of the program in 1999. Portland already had a long history in terms of trade with Japan even going as far as establishing its “sister city” with Sapporo, a northern town in Japan on the island of Hokkaido. This unique International Program was designed to be a “cross-cultural celebration promoting peace, love, education, and community across border lines.”
It was too! The university students would practice and study English while also having many opportunities to teach Japanese culture, language, festivals, history, and traditions. They would be involved in art projects, volunteer efforts around the city, sightsee, shop, and a multitude of other activities. The groups of kids and teenagers, accompanied by 2 staff members from Saitama, would spend their first week in Oregon at a YMCA-sanctioned summer camp to learn archery, rock climbing, horseback riding, swimming and more. The remainder of their stay would consist of exploring Oregon during the weekdays. Evenings and weekends were reserved for time with their host families.
A host family is a person (or literally an entire family) who shares their home with someone else who might be traveling. This is popular for university students all over the world traveling abroad as a way of cultural immersion and understanding daily life in another country. Which is exactly what my family did every year since the program’s inception. Both children and leaders, all Japanese participants stayed with a host family during their time in the states. Host families whom had children (or people who just wanted to volunteer their time) were also encouraged to join the special day trips we would take the Japanese participants on around the Pacific Northwest. Who doesn’t love an excuse to get away for the day?
Everyone was invited to volunteer -even if you couldn’t be a host family- to join the celebration and education of seeing your own world through another person’s eyes while also learning more about someone else’s world too! It all culminated in a celebratory good-bye BBQ (almost always at my family’s house) with all the American families, Japanese Kids and Leaders, volunteer staff, and anyone else touched by the magic of the International Program coming together for a night of food and celebration before the kids went back to Japan. In total, the program lasted about 10 weeks each summer with some groups combined in the hundreds.
I eagerly soaked every second of this up.
The syllabic sounds and rhythmic patterns of the Japanese language have been present in my household for as long as I can remember and it always fascinated me as a child. Each student brought a small guidebook of common phrases to help them communicate in English and just as my Japanese friends would use it to practice their English pronunciation, I decided it was my duty early on to memorize every phrase in Japanese as well. I wanted to know about this world my friends came from. I wanted to know what they were saying.
The 90’s anime boom was also in full swing in the US which meant that most of the media content I consumed originated in Japan. During the height of Poke-mania, for example, I was so fascinated by the second generation of Pokemon that I had exclusive early access to years before it would officially arrive in the US. I saw Yu-Gi-Oh cards two years before the franchise would explode here as well. I already loved Power Rangers and was thrilled when I found out it originated in Japan as a show entitled Super Sentai. A performer named BoA and her music also caught my ears through the mix CD of one of my friends at one point too. Anything and everything that reminded me of my friends from Japan captured my curiosity.
One year, when I expressed interest in two foam toys that the college students were using for an event depicting one of the Japanese syllabaries, Hiragana, they struck a deal with me. I could keep the foam toys on one condition. I had to memorize the entire nearly 70 character set by the end of their event. Anxiously, I was given a “cheat sheet” to practice with and my seven year old self got to work immediately. The Japanese language was a puzzle that I was bound and determined to figure out. When they finally returned, I took their test and had officially learned how to read one of three Japanese alphabets in 45 minutes. I still have those foam toys today.
Every facet of Japan fascinated me. A country and people with thousands of years of history and tradition had much to teach me and I was ready to learn. When I wasn’t learning slang words from my peers, The leaders from Saitama would bring me children’s books in simplified Japanese to practice reading. They would drill me during our free time in the mornings to see how fast I could write Hiragana. As a gift, I was given a Yukata (a Japanese traditional clothing item typically worn in the summer) from one of the leaders who frequented my house year after year that was originally too big for my child sized body. Luckily, I eventually grew into it though. The university students would educate me on certain festivals like Tanabata (the Star Festival) and the story of two fated lovers in the Milky Way only allowed to meet on the 7th day of the 7th month. I gobbled up star-shaped candy known as Konpeito and learned how to fold an origami star from a thin strip of paper. Anything they were willing to show me, I was thirsty to absorb.
The concept of Origami, in particular and transforming a square piece of paper into a fire breathing dragon, samurai hat, or majestic crane was mind-blowing to my 4 year old brain. I was taught by one of the male university students in 1996 the importance of precision and taking one’s time while folding because slight errors could affect the remainder of the final product. If something became too complicated though, it was better to turn the paper into something else because crumpling it up and throwing it away was wasteful. I learned from him that even if things don’t turn out the way you expect, it doesn’t mean the end result can’t be just as beautiful.
Learning history was just as important as the artistic aspects as well. The adults who watched me grow up year after year taught me that in order to properly appreciate something, you need to know where it comes from. For example, understanding why “Kawaii Culture” is the way it is as we know it today was because with thousands of years of history comes colonization, conflicts and war. You cannot take the aspects you like of something and ignore the rest of the picture. As I got older, our conversations deepened and discussing economic problems each of our respective countries faced while also celebrating the positive things that existed became commonplace. I was completely immersed in my own unique experience and my friends became my family. We didn’t speak the same language but you would be amazed at how much can be communicated without words. A program designed to bring about peace, harmony, and education ended up bringing about family, love, and acceptance within me.
This was a word that felt strange to me. It implies inclusion, a concept that was more foreign to me than any country was. Outside of the International Program and my schoolwork, I certainly wasn’t included in most things. The American friends that I did have were all athletic and I certainly didn’t have much interest in sports. My brother was a pre-olympic gymnast which intrigued me only because he could flip around like my Power Rangers.
Still, it wasn’t enough to make me want to pursue the activity. My parents were busy with their jobs and my half siblings lived in another city an hour away. That usually left me alone with my thoughts, my schoolwork, and my toys. Loneliness is a bitter friend; a blanket that can keep you comforted in the dark but doesn’t keep you warm like you hope it will.
There was also one major problem with the International Program. It primarily consisted of Japanese people coming to Oregon, but not the other way around. I lived in the US and plane tickets were very expensive. 9/11 eventually happened and fear of planes was at an all-time high. Airport Security was being revolutionized and that meant I was forced to stay right where I was.
As an obviously white kid, trying to explain a Japanese Program that was so special to me to my American friends always kept me on the outside. It made me weird. To them, I had all these mysterious “friends” far away across the Pacific Ocean that none of them ever saw. Sometimes I’d slip up and refer to some of my Japanese friends as my “family” which made things even worse. I’m not Japanese and would never try to claim to be, but a child only has so many words to communicate with. If I spoke, my words would get twisted and I’d be the odd man out again. The program would on occasion, continue beyond the six weeks and we’d have guests in the winter or spring! Each time they’d come, I’d feel that same foreign concept of acceptance and it felt strange.
I would also be right there volunteering with my mom organizing information packets, creating picture collages, giving speeches about the program as well. That strange feeling the program gave me left me craving any moment I could remotely be involved with it. I’d write letters all year long to my friends and decorate my room with gifts and stickers that reminded me of them across the sea. I was fully immersed in another culture that wasn’t mine and as I grew, I felt more and more alienated in what was supposed to be my own.
This was a strange phenomenon that would take me many years to understand. The artistic dance of jumping between two worlds but not belonging to either would go on to be the centerpiece at my life’s dining room table. However, the information on this phenomenon would elude me until I became an adult. Instead, I could just feel these confusing emotions surging through my hand like a lightning bolt waiting to strike but all that comes is static electricity and anticipation in the air. Anger, sadness, love, happiness, depression, loneliness, and more leaking out of my heart with no one to hear them or help me understand what they meant. Somedays, I’d hide away in my room with my music turned up so loud that the walls would shake because I needed to feel the 4 on the floor beat hit my chest. I had all these feelings and couldn’t process them. I wanted some kind of lateral compassion and when I couldn’t get it from my friends, the next easiest place to find it was through other people’s music.
That was until one day in 7th grade when I thought I’d try writing a song of my own.
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