Q&A With Damian McGinty on Release of His New Album, This Christmas Time

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Damian McGinty’s new album, This Christmas Time

My favorite Irish singer and actor, Damian McGinty of Celtic Thunder and Glee fame, has a new album out! Damian McGinty: This Christmas Time features ten songs, including two originals Damian wrote that are already proving to be hits with his fans. The album definitely tops my all-time favorite Christmas CDs list.

I had the chance to chat with Damian recently about the album, touring, and more. Thank you, Damian, for your time!

Pam Stucky: As you know, I recently did a Q&A with Grammy-nominated producer Warren Huart, who produced your album. Tell me about working with him? It seems you two have a real synergy together. How important is that in creating an album, and in what ways does it affect the end result?

Damian McGinty: Warren has been incredible throughout this entire experience. From the very first day I met him, he understood me as an artist. He knew exactly where I was in my career, and what I wanted to achieve with this record. Having a producer that gets all of that is hard to find, and is priceless. We originally worked on some material for another project next year, and once the Christmas record concept begun, there was only one producer I wanted for that. I was delighted Warren wanted to come on board. We did rough vocals in April before I toured Australia in May. When I was in Australia, Warren built a lot of the tracks, and then we did the master vocals in June before Warren mixed the record. He has been crucial in the entire process and I’ve absolutely loved working with him.

Warren Huart and Damian in Warren’s studio. Photo: Kasia Huart
Warren Huart and Damian in Warren’s studio. Photo: Kasia Huart

PS: This is your first full-length album, coming four years after your eponymous EP. What were some of the differences between making your EP and making this album?

DMcG: The EP I made was more experimental than it was serious. I wanted to try something I’d never done before, and it had much more of a pop feel to it than the new record. I was very surprised by the success of it; it was very humbling. It made me want to develop myself as an artist, and create a sound. That takes years. You can’t all of a sudden release a record after a few months of work. This [This Christmas Time] is my first full length album, and I’ve had a 10-year career. I want to do myself justice, and know what I’m putting out is a product I can be proud of. Once its out there, it’s out there forever. So the time and thought put into this album was much more than the EP. And the budget was naturally much bigger. This project was a big undertaking, huge. And it has taken over my life this year, but I’m delighted with the final product.

Damian at his photo shoot for the album cover. Photo: Damian McGinty
Damian at his photo shoot for the album cover. Photo: Damian McGinty

PS: In his Q&A Warren gave us a breakdown of the steps to creating an album. From start to finish, how long did This Christmas Time take to create?

DMcG: Honestly, all year. The work has not stopped. I sat down in January and looked at concepts, ideas, funding, etc. This is an independent record, so it’s not as simple as saying “Lets make a record.” It takes thought and the business behind it is months of work in itself, before the recording process begins. I had to open my own company, lock in the funding, hire the right people for my company. That is a lot of work. And it has been a learning curve. I don’t have a degree in business so I’m learning as a I go. And I was writing for the album with my writing partner Tom Harrison, before the album was even confirmed, in February. I had to be ready to go as soon as we confirmed the project, because I was touring in May and four months in the autumn. My schedule allowed little time for error.  So we had all of that done by March, locked in the funding, then started recording with Warren in April. We recorded through the end of June, then mixed and mastered in July and August.

A dapper Damian at his photo shoot for the album cover. Photo: Damian McGinty
A dapper Damian at his photo shoot for the album cover. Photo: Damian McGinty

PS: You wrote two songs on this album (along with co-writer Tom Harrison). Writing Christmas songs seems like the ultimate challenge—our traditional favorites are so iconic that to make a dent in that playlist seems almost impossible. And yet your songs are both fantastic. Let’s talk first about “Irish Christmas.” What sort of mood did you want to convey; what sort of story did you want to tell in “Irish Christmas”?

DMcG: I wanted to tell a story about Ireland. Home. I wanted to try and paint a picture of what that looks like at Christmas time, and capture the feeling. It was tough, because writing Christmas songs can easily get cheesy, or generic. So finding something to make it unique was the challenge. It came out quite easily though, myself and Tom had it written, lyrics melody and arrangement, in the space of four hours. Which is rare.

PS: The other of your original songs on this album is “Will You Dance With Me (This Christmas Time),” from which we get the title of your CD. This song is so catchy I catch myself humming it randomly without even realizing it! What was your inspiration for this song? How long did it take to write this one?

DMcG: I wanted to tell a story about love at all ages during Christmas. This song is about young love, old love, middle-of-the-road love. No matter what the situation, Christmas brings that together in ways that no other season can. That was the inspiration behind it. Again, it was one studio session and Tom and I had it done. We didn’t want to complicate these songs, or overthink them. We wanted organic results, and I think we got that.

PS: How does one even go about writing a song?

DMcG: Practice. Song writing is a muscle. I started writing when I was 19. The only way to get better is keep writing. The reason I haven’t released anything is because it hasn’t been good enough. I’ve only gotten really serious about it in the last two years. I’ve written close to a hundred songs at this point. I don’t believe in the concept of people trying to sprint before they can crawl. So I wanted to get to a point in my career where I’d crafted my performance and singing to a level that I was comfortable moving forward and beginning to write. That takes a lot of time. It doesn’t happen overnight; if it does, it won’t be right.

Warren Huart with Damian and co-writer Tom Harrison. Photo: Kasia Huart
Warren Huart with Damian and co-writer Tom Harrison. Photo: Kasia Huart

PS: How did you decide which other songs to include on the CD?

DMcG: Myself and Warren sat down and spent a few days and picked the setlist. We had to decide which direction to take the album in. We decided we wanted a few big hitters production-wise such as “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), and we wanted songs stripped back such as “River” and “Hallelujah.” It was important to have a good mix. We wanted diversity in the record.

PS: Do you have any favorites on the album?

DMcG: I think, you know, naturally you’d be quite close to your original songs, the ones you’ve written. I’m quite proud of “Irish Christmas” and “Will You Dance With Me (This Christmas Time).” Outside of that, I guess I like some of them for different reasons. “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” I quite like that because of the production. I think Warren has done an incredible job on that and has made the production on that incredible. But I’ve also always loved the song River, and that was one that I was very passionate about putting on the record and having it stripped back, with just the piano. I think River might be my favorite on the album.

PS: You have a duet on the album, “Last Christmas.” What can you tell us about that?

DMcG: Yes, I do. That is actually my girlfriend on the album, Anna Claire. When we were coming up with the concept and idea of the record, we thought it would be a good idea to do a duet. Naturally, we looked within the business, and our marketing team thought it would be really good to get a big name on there for obvious reasons. But when I actually stopped and looked at it, I thought, you know, I want to do this my way. We’ve been dating about three years now, and we have fun together more than anything else. We’re boyfriend and girlfriend but we’re also best friends. So when I sat down and thought about a duet, I thought, Anna Claire’s a great singer, and no one really knew that about her, honestly, outside of the people she grew up with. So, looking at the record, I thought, why not do that? I think people would enjoy that. I think people would like the realness to it, instead of getting someone I don’t know or who would be completely random who has X amount of follower online, which is honestly the way business is going now. People collaborate for those reasons. I wanted to do something real; I wanted to make something real. That’s why I asked Anna Claire, and she was delighted to come on board. I think she killed it. She’s incredibly talented. I hope people enjoy that track.

On release, Hallelujah went to #1 in the iTunes Holiday Songs Chart, and the album hit #1 on the Holiday Charts in the US as well as Canada and Mexico.
On release, Hallelujah went to #1 in the iTunes Holiday Songs Chart, and the album hit #1 on the Holiday Charts in the US as well as Canada and Mexico.

PS: When the CD was released for pre-order on iTunes, Hallelujah was available immediately, and the day you announced it was available on iTunes, Hallelujah went to #1 on the Holiday charts on iTunes. Did you expect that? For those of us unlikely to ever have a song at #1 on any chart, how does that feel?

DMcG: I did not expect that. It’s a very strange experience when you make an album and get to the release stage of the cycle. You do all this work creating it, funding it, building it, recording it. And then when you put it out there, you’re not in the living room when somebody’s playing that song. Or you’re not, you know, on the plane with them when somebody’s playing that song for the first time. I don’t get to experience that. So it’s always quite strange, and actually quite underwhelming when the record is released because you’re like, “Now what?” When that went number one, that was just a really good moment. Quite bizarre. But as an independent artist, it was nice to see. I don’t necessarily judge my work on how it does in the charts; it’s more of a creative thing for me. I just want to put good work out, something I’m proud of. If it tops the charts, or does well in the charts, that’s a bonus, and it was certainly that way with Hallelujah. I didn’t expect that. That was very overwhelming and very uplifting that it went to number one.

This Christmas Time also hit number one at Amazon on its release date.
This Christmas Time also hit number one at Amazon on its release date.

PS: You’ve mentioned before that you’re also working on a CD of original songs. What have you learned from the process of creating This Christmas Time that you can apply to the next CD?

DMcG: Oh! So much! I don’t even know where to begin on that. Making a record and doing it right, or at least trying to do it right, the first time around, has been the best learning experience I think I’ve ever had as an artist. And that’s saying a lot. In the nine or ten years I’ve been doing this I’ve obviously worked with some big companies, some big shows, been very fortunate to learn so much from so many great people. Starting out the process by myself, having to create a company, having to create the funding, having to get all the right people on board and hire the right people and make it happen, the learning process behind that was phenomenal. Moving forward, it will not necessarily become easier, because creating a project like this is tough. It’s not easy. It can be quite draining. It’s a lot of hours. It can sort of take over your life, which it sort of has done in the last nine months. So it won’t necessarily become easier, but it’ll become clearer moving forward, in terms of what I need to do and what needs to get done to create what I want. That certainly is the case with the [upcoming] original album which, as you say, I’ve been working on for a few years now. That’s a whole different baby that we’re currently nurturing, and it’s getting there.

PS: Will you be touring This Christmas Time? And where can people find out about it?

DMcG: I will be touring This Christmas Time. We are going to be going out in December after the Celtic Thunder tour, and there will be an announcement at the end of this week. I’m excited about that, I’m excited to tell people and get out there with the record. It’s going to be a fun experience. It’ll kind of be my first time on the road with my own project, so I’m quite excited for it. It’s going to be the first time I’m on the road as Damian McGinty. Just like the album, it’s a purely independent operation, so running that is challenging in itself, but again, it’s great, it’s growth, it’s how we build the brand and prepare to move forward, so it’s exciting.

Warren and Damian in the studio working long hours. Photo: Kasia Huart
Warren and Damian in the studio working long hours. Photo: Kasia Huart

PS: Your This Christmas Time tour will come at the tail end of a 72-city Celtic Thunder tour! This will be your third tour of the year, and that doesn’t include the week you performed on the Tranquility Cruise with Holland America. Are you ready for a rest?

DMcG: To be honest, I am ready for a rest. It’s very strange, because I do feel ready for a rest but I’m also more excited and more ambitious and driven. I’m more excited than I’ve ever been. I feel like I’m at a very good period, I’m at a very good age. Which allows me to be fully committed to what I’m trying to achieve. There’s a much bigger picture with everything going on. It’s not just about making a living; I’m trying to build something long-term, which takes a lot of planning, takes a lot of work, takes a lot of time, takes a lot of patience. But I think when all is said and done the time, work, and patience is really worth it in the long term. This album has me more driven, more excited, more ambitious than I’ve ever been. I’m excited to get back into the studio in January and get creating. We have a lot of projects next year that I’m excited about. So on the one hand, I am ready for a bit of a rest—it’s been the craziest year, probably, of my life—but on the other hand I’m also ready to move on to what’s next.

Damian at his photo shoot for his album cover.
Damian at his photo shoot for his album cover.

PS: Do you have a preference between touring and creating CDs? What do you love about each? What are the hardest parts of each?

DMcG: That’s a very hard question. I really love both of them. They’re very different in their own right. The creative process in making a record is a bit more like a 9-to-5 job, if that makes sense. It’s a bit more normal. Because basically what you have to do is, every day you go to work, pretty much, where “work” looks like a studio where you’re writing and playing instruments and creating melodies and lyrics and all that stuff. So it allows for more of a routine, which is nice. Touring, on the other hand, is incredibly sporadic; you never really know what it’s going to throw at you. Your routine is non-existent. This year, we were down in Australia in May, and that was so many flights in the space of thirty days. I crossed the entire world, I went LA to Ireland, Ireland to Australia, four weeks across Australia, back to LA, and was back working on this record. That amount of travel doesn’t really allow you any routine. It can be draining. But the great part of touring is you get to see all these places, you get to meet people, you get to perform every night, you get to do what you love. That’s worth the travel. Because the travel part can be physically challenging at times.

Damian on the set of his upcoming video
Damian on the set of his upcoming video

PS: I’ve heard there’s a video coming, too! What can you tell us about that?

DMcG: Yes! We shot the video in August. I finished the record in late July, then flew to Europe for ten days to spend with my family before the release of the record and the tour. We shot the video in the middle of August in LA before I met up with Celtic Thunder again. It’s great. It was a great experience. Again, another new experience, another independent one. I had to hire a producer, Julia Hodges, who’s a great friend of mine. She’s a darling, she’s really incredible, and the video wouldn’t have happened without her, to be honest. She hired our director, Tommy O’Brien, and we got actresses and actors in the video, which are some of my friends. We shot it over two nights, we did night shoots, which was funny, with friends. We started shooting at 8 p.m. and finished at 7 a.m. because it was Christmas and we were in California, so to create that environment because it had to be dark, because no one really thinks of Christmas and thinks of sunshine. So it was important to create the right atmosphere. I’m excited about it, about seeing the final product. I’m really proud of it. I think people are really going to enjoy it. I hope people enjoy it. It’s going to be out there in November sometime.

This Christmas Time is available now and can be found at iTunes, Amazon, and CDBaby.

Find out more about Damian McGinty at his website, as well as on FacebookTwitter, Instagram, YouTube, iTunes, and Soundcloud.

 


The Universes Inside the Lighthouse by Pam StuckyP.S. Did you know you can read my entire first YA sci-fi adventure book, free, online? And if you’re a parent or educator, or just someone who enjoys activities, check out the free, thought-provoking, skill-building activities at the end of every chapter! The Universes Inside the Lighthouse (and subsequent books in the series) was inspired by my love of books like A Wrinkle In Time or shows like Doctor Who. It’s my own exploration and answer to the deep and sometimes unanswerable questions: what else is out there? What if we could meet aliens from other planets? What if everything were possible? What’s more, through the power of truth-through-fiction, The Universes Inside the Lighthouse addresses issues of loneliness and compassion and gives parents and educators an opening to discuss these challenging but important issues. I love this series so much and I hope you will too! Start reading chapter one here! And feel free to spread the word!


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Q&A with Grammy-Nominated Producer Warren Huart on Producing and Working with Damian McGinty on his Upcoming Christmas CD

Warren Huart in his studio. Photo: KASIA HUART
Warren Huart in his studio. Photo: KASIA HUART

When Irish singer and actor Damian McGinty (from Glee and Celtic Thunder) decided to put out a Christmas album in 2016, one thing was clear: He wanted to bring on a world-class producer to bring the album to life in the best way possible. Enter Warren Huart, a Grammy-nominated producer with incredible energy and passion, and endless talents and skills. Warren and Damian have been working tirelessly since early this year to create This Christmas Time, and the end result is truly gorgeous.

I caught up with Warren recently for a Q&A to discuss his career, his love of music, his passion for helping others, and his work with Damian on This Christmas Time.

Pam Stucky: What first sparked your interest in music?

Warren Huart: When I was really young, about seven, my dad bought me, for Christmas, Queen’s A Night At The Opera. My father is a huge classical and jazz fan, and Queen were the only band he thought were worthy! Needless to say that album changed my life. It is still my favourite album!

PS: How, when, and why did you move into producing?

WH: All of the albums I fell in love with at seven years old were production masterpieces, like Queen’s A Night At The Opera, ELO’s Out Of The Blue, and The Beatles’ Revolver! So, years before I discovered girls I discovered music! As I got older and played in bands, even playing with successful artists I knew my real love was the recording and creation of music. The performing I loved, but the recording, for me, was huge!

Above: From Warren’s YouTube channel, Warren and Damian McGinty at Warren’s studio recording Damian’s cover of the Bee Gees’ hit “How Deep Is Your Love.

PS: In your role as producer and studio owner, you have a really successful YouTube channel. It’s clear that helping and educating others is a passion of yours. Tell me about that: What is your interest in sharing educational videos? What do you get out of it?

WH: Absolutely 100%!! I didn’t grow up with any advantages, I didn’t have friends or family in the music industry, I didn’t go to school for Audio Engineering, and I didn’t assist in major studios; everything I learned was by trial and error! So now with the decay of the traditional studio system and the erosion of the roles of Producer/Engineer/Mixer/Songwriter/Musician, all bets are off and anyone who owns even the smallest amount of equipment, like their cell phone or tablet, is able to make music! All you need is creativity! That speaks to me hugely! Almost everyone coming up in the industry mirrors the way I had to come up, so I feel I can help them in so many ways! It’s incredibly exciting time!

Gabriel Hugoboom, left, in Warren’s studio with Warren (center) and Damian McGinty (right), working on music for another album. Photo: KASIA HUART
Gabriel Hugoboom, left, in Warren’s studio with Warren (center) and Damian McGinty (right), working on music for another album. Photo: KASIA HUART

PS: How did you and Damian McGinty meet? What made you want to work with him?

WH: I met Damian through a mutual friend of ours, Gabriel Hugoboom. Gabriel is also a multi-talented artist and songwriter who I have had the privilege to work with. Gabriel brought Damian by one evening and we immediately hit it off. Damian’s voice is truly wonderfully unique, and combined with the fact that his work ethic is unparalleled, it was a no-brainer for me when he mentioned he wanted to do a Christmas album! Plus frankly he’s a thoroughly lovely guy who you know just wants the best for everyone, a product of great parents!

PS: You two started working on this Christmas CD very early in the year, and I know it’s been a long and intricate process. Once you and Damian agreed to work together, what were the first decisions that needed to be made, to create and guide the vision for the CD?

WH: Great question! The most important question, because all great albums are made in preproduction, and we spent quite a few days just running through ideas, choosing the right songs, making sure the key, the arrangement, and the tempo were right. Plus we discussed the shape of the record, how many fully orchestrated songs versus the stripped-down intimate songs. The album had to have an ebb and flow, and Damian was very conscious of the fact that we needed to make something timeless and classic, something he could be proud to stand behind for the rest of his career.

Damian McGinty’s upcoming Christmas CD, This Christmas Time, produced by Warren Huart. The album is currently available for pre-order (see links at end) and will be released October 14. Photo: Damian McGinty
Damian McGinty’s upcoming Christmas CD, This Christmas Time, produced by Warren Huart. The album is currently available for pre-order (see links at end) and will be released October 14. Photo: Damian McGinty

PS: I know this could be a very lengthy answer, but in a nutshell, what are the broad stages of CD production, and what happens in each stage?

WH: The basics of the album for me:

  1. The vocal comes first, and is the priority. So we did a basic piano or acoustic guitar part and then Damian would sing to it and we made sure it felt right on all levels, any adjustments to the key, tempo and arrangements were made then before further instrumentation was laid down. Interestingly a handful of songs Damian felt great singing over just a piano and he sang amazingly and even after additional overdubs those first vocals were still the best ones!
  2. After the basic vocal/piano or vocal/acoustic guitar we would get into overdubs, because I played many of the instruments on the record I would often start with a bass groove against the scratch track, then add more guitars or a very simple piano part, all of this even before drums! When I listen to great Motown tracks I hear everyone playing the song, not parts, the song, so often when tracking on my own I just play instruments in the way I’m inspired to, often doing drums last.
  3. Strings were done by Oliver Kraus, a master, who plays multiple instruments. He would come by and discuss the song with us (he lives the next street over from me in the Canyon!). This was great for the process as Damian was able to discuss his vision as well with a world-class string arranger. These details, however seemingly small, are what take an album to the next level for me! Our piano player was Steve Maggiora. He came by for three or four days and worked with us on the basic tracks, changing the arrangement, the key, and the tempo as the songs developed. Having a player of his talent makes life extremely easy.
  4. Lastly after all overdubs I did rough mixes for Damian to hear. The artist, and only the artist, should hear these, because the artist has to connect with the songs; they have to feel like something the artist can be proud of. Damian gave me great notes and came back to the studio for a few days and we re-sang just a handful of things that he felt he could beat (which if course he did!), and at his suggestion I did a couple of extra overdubs that brought the songs to the next level.
  5. The next step is the mix process. I mixed all of the songs and sent them in their entirety to Damian. He gave me great notes for recalls and we were able to meet just a couple more evenings and finish everything off.
  6. The album is mastered. Mastering is not something I skimp on at all! I use Adam Ayan who is a wonderful Mastering Engineer. His job is to give everything one final listen and apply any small sonic changes that he feels are necessary. These tweaks are Compression, EQ, and Limiting, and although very subtle at times can really do an amazing job to have the album feel cohesive!
Warren, Damian, and songwriter/composer Tom Harrison, who co-wrote two of the songs on Damian’s album. Photo: Kasia Huart
Warren, Damian, and songwriter/composer Tom Harrison, who co-wrote two of the songs on Damian’s album. Photo: Kasia Huart

PS: In the CD credits on Damian’s CD, your name is everywhere! You’re listed as performing on guitar, bass, percussion and drums, mandolin, banjo, backing vocals, as well as producing, engineering, and mixing. Is any of these your favorite—if you could focus on just one, you would—or are you the kind of person who thrives on variety?

WH: I love it all! I’m a guitarist by trade! Bass player secondly, thirdly a piano player and lastly a drummer out of necessity! Playing music is such a joy, I am truly blessed to be able to do it and every time I pick up and instrument and record myself I feel fantastic! I am also blessed to have great musician friends like Ben Potter on drums and Phil Allen who is also an amazing multi-instrumentalist who contributed to the great album! I have a wonderful team of people around me; it really does take a village!

Warren in his studio on bass guitar, one of seemingly dozens of instruments on which he is a master! Photo: Kasia Huart
Warren in his studio on bass guitar, one of seemingly dozens of instruments on which he is a master! Photo: Kasia Huart

PS: In the CD liner notes, in the choir of Happy Xmas (War Is Over) I noticed the names Charlie Huart and Lucy Huart. Are these your kids? How old are they? Are they picking up on your love of music?

WH: Haha yes the kids contributed their voices, my daughter is still very young, under two, so it was more of a murmur! My son, who is nine, loves to drum and has been known to play some rock guitar! But I certainly don’t want to push them in any direction. My father is an artist—a painter and a sculptor—and his love of art and music was inspiring. All I can hope is they see the passion I have for great art and they take that use it do what they are passionate about!

PS: Do you have any favorite tracks on This Christmas Time? If so, which and why?

WH: Big question! I love Joni Mitchell so I got chills hearing Damian do “River,” and of course “Hallelujah” turned out beautifully! I must say that “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” is a favourite of mine—my good friend Jack Douglas was an engineer on the original John Lennon version and we stayed very true to it. The big band songs were so much fun to do! Dave Ralicke is probably the best horn arranger and player I know, truly gifted, and his work on this album was incredible!

Warren in his studio. Photo: Kasia Huart
Warren in his studio. Photo: Kasia Huart

PS: What other projects do you have coming up?

WH: I just finished Cristian Castro’s album, his first in seven or eight years, and that was very exciting! I am currently working on multiple projects, a couple of which are very exciting, new artists Little Empire and Sage Humphries, plus I will have mixed a Cheap Trick cover of “She Said” by the Beatles by the time you read this, produced by Jack Douglas and featuring Joe Perry on lead guitar, and I will be working with Calum Scott who is already a big star in the UK.

PS: Where can people find you online?

WH: My sites are:

loved chatting with Warren! What a positive, kind, dynamic guy! I especially love his attitude toward helping others and paying it forward. Anyone with interest in the music industry should be sure to check out the wealth of information at Warren’s YouTube channel.

Warren, thanks so much for your time, and I wish you all the best in the future.

Damian McGinty’s Christmas CD, This Christmas Time, is currently available for pre-order on iTunes (release date October 14, 2016), with an immediate download of his exquisite rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Physical copies of the CD may also be pre-ordered at Damian’s website.

Find out more about Damian at his website, as well as on FacebookTwitterInstagramYouTubeiTunes, and Soundcloud.

‘Halfway’: With Movies Like This, The Future of Indie Movies is Bright

HALFWAY – Summer 2016 Teaser from Ben Caird on Vimeo.

Rating: *****

Several months ago I had the opportunity to talk with some of the key players in the new movie Halfway: writer/director Ben Caird, producer Jonny Paterson (twice), and actor Quinton Aaron (also from The Blind Side). The film is out now—to much acclaim (including winning Best Feature Film at the Julien Dubuque International Film Festival)—and I finally had the chance to see it! While I’m not a movie reviewer and definitely not a movie critic (I don’t like to be a critic, really, of anything), I’m delighted to have the chance to share my thoughts on a truly excellent film.

Quinton Aaron (The Blind Side) plays a recently released convict who finds himself trapped between his urban criminal past and his new life on probation as the only black man in a conservative white Wisconsin farming town.

I’ll begin with the cinematography (by cinematographer Benjamin Thomas). (Note: because, as I said, I’m no film critic, I decided to look up “what is cinematography” to make sure I knew what I was talking about. I found a good answer here: the cinematographer “makes every creative choice related to composition, lighting, and camera motion—anything that audiences can see in a given shot.” I assume this is done in collaboration with the director.)

To talk about the cinematography of Halfway, I first want to talk about wine.

Just as I am no connoisseur of movies, I am also no connoisseur of wine. In general, I like wine. I am not someone who has a “palette” or who could tell you if a wine is “oaky” or anything else. In general, if you open the bottle, I’ll have some. Sometimes I won’t like it. Generally, it’s fine.

Well, cut to several years ago when I worked at a not-for-profit organization that has an annual Gala event. One year, as often happens, staff who were attending were interspersed amongst guests to fill empty spaces at sponsored tables. By chance, I ended up at the table with the owners of the winery that had donated all the wine for the event. We drank some of the wine they’d provided to everyone, but, much to our delight, they also provided our table with a couple of $100 bottles of red wine.

Maybe you, dear reader, drink $100 bottles of wine all the time. I, however, did not, and still do not. Before I tasted that $100 wine, I assumed wine was wine. That first sip, however, opened my eyes—and my taste buds. The wine was smooth, creamy, delicious in a way I did not know wine could be delicious. The wine was a revelation.

The cinematography in Halfway was, in my opinion, a similar revelation. In general, I don’t much notice or think about cinematography in films. In this movie, however, I found myself mesmerized by the choices of angle, of depth of field, of positions of the subjects in the frame, of the subjects themselves.

Mind you, the movie was filmed on location in Montfort, Wisconsin. A place which—no offense to Montfort—is not known for the sweeping vistas of, say, Hawaii or the Grand Canyon or Iceland. Which made the cinematography that much more spectacular and impressive, frankly.

The richness of the cinematography also made me think about the difference between a Hollywood blockbuster and a small indie film. In Hollywood, the idea frequently seems to be that if you throw enough money and visual effects at something, that will hide all imperfections. With a smaller indie budget, there’s nowhere to hide. To do so much more with so much less is absolute talent, and in this Benjamin Thomas demonstrated exemplary skill. There is a raw, pure poignancy to the visuals in Halfway that reminds you: this isn’t a dream created in someone’s mind. This is real, this is our planet. This is something we can connect to on an authentic and visceral level, whether or not we actually know the area.

At any rate, I could recommend the movie for its cinematography alone.

Next, the writing. I’ll divide this into two components: dialogue and plot.

As a writer I am all too aware that writing believable, natural dialogue isn’t as easy as it seems. Not too long ago another indie movie was getting a lot of buzz, so I found it on Netflix and gave it a try. The premise seemed interesting, but the dialogue was awful: forced, cliched, unnatural. The actors did their best but everything felt stilted and uncomfortable. I couldn’t bear it, and gave up on the movie after about ten minutes.

In contrast, Caird’s dialogue is so natural as to make writing it look easy. With only a few exceptions throughout the film, the dialogue felt so consistent with character and with how people actually speak that it almost never felt “written”—the highest praise. This kind of writing is a gift to the actors, who then had a solid foundation on which to base their characters and make them truly come alive and feel real. To this end, all of the acting is excellent. From Quinton Aaron in the role of Byron, to Amy Pietz in the role of Beth, to sweet little Nicole Scimeca in the role of Julia, the actors all breathed life into their characters so convincingly that it seemed they were made for the roles.

As regarding plot, as I said, I am not a critic. The choices Caird made in his plot were his voice and vision, and he portrayed the story in the manner he wanted it portrayed. The movie goes deep and heavy, but I might have liked a little more complexity and range, even some longer scenes of light. The sparse dialogue felt true and honest, but I felt on occasion there may have been opportunity for a greater exploration of relationships. It also seemed Caird was hesitant to put his characters in too much danger, and he was quick to get them out of it. As well, some plot lines seemed a bit extraneous. These are valid choices—in no way do I want stories to be told inauthentically—but I suspect as Caird continues to write (as he absolutely should be encouraged to do), his characters and plots will also grow in depth.

This, too, made me think about the differences between Hollywood and indie films. Hollywood films follow very narrow constructs, but I wonder if indie films might start breaking these constraints. Halfway runs about an hour an forty-five minutes, fitting perfectly within the standard movie length. To fill out more of the plot, some of the visuals may have had to have been sacrificed, which would have been a great loss. Maybe as indie movies grow, filmmakers will begin to experiment more with structure, introducing us to new ways of storytelling—something which I think is an exciting prospect.

While I’m sure acting as both writer and director was exhausting, the benefit of having the writer also in the role of director was so evident in this film. The integrity of Caird’s vision was never compromised, and every choice contributed to making the whole greater than the sum of the parts. And again, I suspect this is something far more often afforded to independent films than the big budget films we’re used to.

If Halfway is representative of the future of indie movies, I am on board. Some of you may know that last year I decided to try writing a screenplay, both because I’m always trying to learn and grow as a writer, and because it seemed like an interesting challenge. In doing so, I did a ton of research into the industry (and have listened to every episode of John August and Craig Mazin’s fabulous and fascinating Scriptnotes podcast). Throughout everything I’ve read and learned, one thought that continues to come to mind is my prediction that the movie industry is on the verge of a very big disruption.

In my opinion, Hollywood studio executives and studios are dinosaurs that have painted themselves into a corner. What’s more, while in the corner, they’ve created the very meteor that will crash into them and ensure their extinction. Because the stakes have become so high—hundreds of millions of dollars per film!—there’s no room for risk or error, and that kind of culture can never lead to innovation or growth. I’m obviously no movie industry expert (as I’ve mentioned), but I predict—or at least hope—that the fears that have led the studios to so severely restrict their offerings will open up the space and audience interest for more independent filmmakers to create and present real stories again.

Because the fact is, we are not getting real stories from Hollywood anymore. We are getting special effects. Case in point: I am what I would consider an moderate or average Star Trek fan. I watched all of TNG and Voyager, some of TOS, never got into DS9, tried Enterprise and couldn’t get past the pilot. I saw that Star Trek Beyond was in theaters and thought, Why not? I watched, and it was certainly enjoyable enough but it felt like something was missing. What it felt like, truly, was that what little story it had was merely a platter on which all the spectacular visual effects were served.

Now, I have nothing against spectacular visual effects. They’re spectacular! But it does seem that more and more Hollywood is giving us nothing but big names and spectacular visual effects. Human beings do not need big names and spectacular visual effects. But we do need stories. I believe we need stories like we need love, like we need air. I believe that the reason we have language at all is because the stories inside our ancient ancestors burned so deep, the need to connect was so intense, that they were driven to create words. Think of all there is to language! To create something so complex out of nothing—not all at once, certainly, but eventually—came from a powerful craving. Visual effects are fun, but stories are life.

To that end, I am thrilled to see that Caird and Paterson and all the others involved in this film have created a truly special film—and what’s more, that they show great promise for the future of independent film. These are people to watch. Put them on your radar. They have stories in them that need to be told, and I believe we need to hear them.

The challenge, of course, with anything independent, is getting the word out. So spread the word!

Halfway will be screening at the following times in the coming weeks:

  • Milwaukee Film Festival on 9/23, 9/25 and 10/3
  • Woodstock Film Festival between 10/13 – 10/16
  • Greater Cleveland Urban Film Festival 9/18 and 9/22

The film has already played at the Dallas International Film Festival, the American Black Film Festival and the Julien Dubuque International Film Festival.

Links:

www.facebook.com/halfwaythemovie

www.halfwayfilm.com

Cast: Quinton Aaron, TJ Power, Gillian Zinser, Amy Pietz, Marcus Henderson, Nicole Scimeca, and Jeffrey Demunn

Writer/Director: Ben Caird

Producer: Jonny Paterson

Cinematographer: Benjamin Thomas

Composer: Miles Mosley

Original song: Jimmy Napes

Executive producers: Tommy Oliver, Nnamdi Asomugha, Jonathan Baker, Quinton Aaron, and Bonnie Greenberg

halfway

Q&A with Author Molly Ringle on Writing and Her Persephone/Hades ‘Greek God Fan-Fiction’

If you’ve linked to this page from the story at the Huffington Post, click here to find where the Q&A left off.

molly ringle books

There are some people who were born to write, and author Molly Ringle is one of them. When I see her approach to writing and the way she writes, or hear how she talks about writing, it’s clear: for her, writing is a form of play. Words are her puppets, and she is putting on shows. She makes it all look so easy, and the books she writes are nothing less than delightful.

With the release of my latest book, The Secret of the Dark Galaxy Stone (sequel to The Universes Inside the Lighthouse), and Molly’s latest book, Immortal’s Spring, Molly and I exchanged Q&As. Read mine at Molly’s blog, and see hers below!

Pam Stucky: You have written books on such a wide variety of topics, from ghosts to cousins to your latest, a modern revival tale of Greek mythology. I know this is a horrible question, and I never really know how to answer when people ask me, but: where do you get your ideas? Do you have a bunch of ideas in a file somewhere, waiting for when you are ready to work on the next thing?

Molly Ringle: I do in fact have a story idea file! (It’s literally called that: “STORY IDEA FILE.”) It’s just a Word document, a list with a few lines about each idea. I imagine I’ll never get around to fleshing out all of them, but they are there if I want them, and I do occasionally go back into that file and pick the next book project from it. The ideas may come from a dream I had, or a story that inspired me, or an intriguing business card I found, or an intriguing historical detail I read about, or anywhere really. Often, though, the next project chooses itself by hanging around in my brain and refusing to be ignored, and it doesn’t always have to be written down in that file. With the Persephone trilogy, for instance, I knew for years and years that I’d eventually get around to rewriting that story lurking in the back of my mind. And finally I did!

First in Molly Ringle's Chrysomelia Stories series: Persephone's Orchard.
First in Molly Ringle’s Chrysomelia Stories series: Persephone’s Orchard.

PS: Immortal’s Spring, the third book in your Chrysomelia Stories series, is coming out June 1. Having written series before myself, I know it’s hard to talk about a third book in case people haven’t read the first. Give us a synopsis of the first book, Persephone’s Orchard, and what inspired you to write it. Then, to the extent that you can without spoilers, describe how the story evolves in the next two books.

MR: The first book introduces Sophie, a modern college freshman in the Pacific Northwest, who’s treated to a brief but startling visit to the spirit world, and finds out she was the goddess Persephone in a past life. She strikes up a tentative friendship with Adrian, the mysterious guy who took her there, and soon her dreams and waking life are flooded with memories going all the way back to Bronze Age Greece. It’s a retelling of the myth of Persephone and Hades, but cast as a love story rather than its traditional kidnapping story.

I was inspired to write it because that was the myth that stuck with me the strongest when I was perusing my copy of D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Mythology as a kid–land of the dead, an impromptu marriage, her mother going nuts, crazy stuff happening to the seasons! It’s the kind of myth you can say so much about, because it wraps up a lot of issues within it.

So in the subsequent two volumes of my trilogy, the danger increases as Sophie and Adrian and their allies clash with a vicious anti-immortal cult. And we also unfold the stories of some other Greek gods, who have been reborn into modern bodies too. It involves many love stories and family problems, and lots of adventure and magic.

Second in the series: Underworld's Daughter.
Second in the series: Underworld’s Daughter.

PS: Would you call your series a “retelling” of one of the Greek myths? Do I have to have a solid foundation in Greek mythology to understand this series?

MR: I would say the trilogy counts as a “retelling” of the Persephone and Hades myth (and some other Greek myths too), though with many liberties taken and changes made. In one of the afterwords I call it “Greek god fan-fiction.” It ought to be accessible even to those who don’t know the mythology, but it has several fun bits of symbolism and other hat-tips in it for those who do know it.

PS: Did you do a lot of research for this series? Did you go back and read all the old Greek myths? With these stories being your own fiction, obviously you could do whatever you wanted; your stories didn’t have to stay true to the old myths. How did you decide how closely you wanted to parallel the original tales?

MR: I haven’t read all the myths–there are a lot of old sources out there!–but I did read more of them than I had ever read before. I figured I should know the existing material fairly well before I changed it all up. I read a lot of modern translations of various ancient sources (I do not speak Greek myself, ancient nor modern), and I consulted theoi.com frequently, which is an amazing site that cross-references just about every Greek mythology deity or figure ever known. Turns out the different versions of the myths sometimes contradict each other, so in changing the stories to my liking, I was pretty much only doing what every other myth-teller had ever done in the past. And I did change them a lot. Faithfulness to the myths wasn’t really my main aim; telling a good story was. My method was to use the myths as an inspiration, and to be more or less true to the character of each god (as far as we can infer such things), but beyond that I let the story go wherever it needed to in order to satisfy me.

Third in the series: Immortal's Spring.
Third in the series: Immortal’s Spring.

PS: As a writer, I often think about the idea that “every person is the protagonist of his or her own story.” Do you agree? How do you get inside your antagonists’ heads in order to make them more real to your readers?

MR: Antagonists are so hard for me! I know that in real life people do sometimes commit acts like murder or torture, or believe wholeheartedly in genocide or the scary methods of some cult. But it’s very hard for me to wrap my mind around why they think they’re justified in doing those things, and I don’t like trying to get into that headspace. Still, I give it my best shot, and I humanize my antagonists at least a little by giving them, say, fondness toward a family member or lover, or a willingness to compromise every so often, or a harmless opinion the rest of us can agree with.

As for whether the protagonists are basically me: I think a lot of them do have at least some traits I possess. But they usually get features I don’t have, too; such as notable bravery, or being fond of loud parties, or pursuing some profession that I never have and probably never will. (Sidenote: I rarely have my characters be writers. I know it works for Stephen King and many others, but it just feels too much like self-insertion for me somehow.)

Molly at home in Seattle.
Molly at home in Seattle.
If you’re joining this post linked from the Huffington Post article, start here!

PS: I was listening to a podcast interview with Paulo Coelho recently, in which he basically pooh-pooh’d the idea of characters “speaking” to authors or characters having their own lives that they revealed to authors. I know I’ve had moments where characters seemed to have lives of their own, which they were just revealing to me. What do you think? How do you build your characters? Do you have any process you use to get to know them better as you shape your stories?

MR: I have certainly had the experience of wanting to make a character do or say a particular thing, and having it just not work, because that was not in their nature. But it does sometimes take half a book or so before I get familiar enough with their nature to know such things. That first half of the first draft can be rough going for me; I can be inconsistent and unsure when it comes to characterization. Then I start to know them better, and it smooths out, and I go back and fix the earlier scenes.

But if I need help getting to the smooth-sailing stage, I find it useful to try writing up something on the side about them, like a journal entry about their likes, dislikes, history, fears, hopes, etc.; or an interview with them. Another thing that helps me is casting the characters. For some reason, when I pick an actor (or just a random photo of someone) who looks right to me, it really helps bring the character to life. It may be because I can better picture how they might move and talk, and I can notice details of their physical appearance, features I might not have thought about when the character was just an amorphous being in my head. Pinterest boards have proven excellent for this exercise!

PS: Having written as many books as you have (seven published works), has your writing process changed from when you started? What do you know now that you didn’t know when you started?

MR: By now I’ve learned that sometimes it works better for me to outline first, but I also know that sometimes it doesn’t. That is, I’m neither wholly a “plotter” nor a “pantser,” but somewhere in between on the spectrum, and that’s okay.

Also, I used to need several more revisions than I need now. I’ve gotten better at targeting what needs fixing, so that I can do the major (and minor) edits in just a few pass-throughs. When I was younger the revision process was kind of a long, ongoing, aimless mess. Now I’m more organized.

I’ve also gotten a lot better at telling myself, during the first draft, “It’s all right, it doesn’t have to be great, just keep going and we’ll fix the clunky parts later.” And I’m better at listening to myself when I say that. So that’s usually what I tell people when they want advice about how to write a book: just write the book, and let the first draft suck, because you’ll fix it later. And only by finishing a draft do you even know what the whole book needs, anyway.

Find Molly at her website, on Goodreads, at Facebook, and on Twitter!

 

 

Also published at my Huffington Post blog.


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Evocative, Emotive, Inspirational: Q&A with Richard Bangs, the Father of Modern Adventure Travel

If you’ve linked to this page from the story at the Huffington Post, click here to find where the Q&A left off.

 

"The Father of Modern Adventure Travel," Richard Bangs. Photo: Richard Bangs.
“The Father of Modern Adventure Travel,” Richard Bangs. Photo: Richard Bangs.

Ages ago, when I first got cable TV, I got it for one reason: the Travel channel.

If you’ve watched the Travel channel over the years, you know it has … well, evolved. Or maybe “devolved” is a better way to say it.

This is one of the reasons I love public TV—PBS—so much. The travel adventures we are introduced to on PBS are pure, unadulterated, real. Untarnished by commercial interests. Authentic.

This includes Richard Bangs’ Quest series, which currently airs on the “Create” channel of my local PBS station (hi, KCTS!). Richard travels all over the world, but it was his exploration of Switzerland—my ancestral homeland—that made me think, “I need to interview this man!” His way with words is mesmerizing, almost putting viewers into a travel trance. You come away from his shows feeling you truly have, somehow, been transported along with him, traveling and exploring far away in some distant land.

Richard Bangs has often been called the father of modern adventure travel, having spent more than 30 years as an explorer and communicator, pioneering “virtual” expeditions on the World Wide Web and leading first descents of 35 rivers around the world. Richard has authored over 19 books, 1000s of magazine articles, produced a score of documentaries, and currently produces and hosts a series of public TV specials. He also is a regular contributer to the Huffington Post.

Thank you, Richard, for your time!

Richard in Qatar. Photo: Didrik Johnck
Richard in Qatar. Photo by Didrik Johnck (flickr.com/deetrak)

Pam Stucky: I am a big planner when it comes to travel, but I know people who look down their noses at that, thinking nothing beats spontaneity while on the road. What’s your philosophy on that debate?

Richard Bangs: Looking down noses is not polite. I think the answer to this is personal, and depends on how each individual approaches the travel experience. There are many who enjoy the research phase as much as the actual experience, and research is in itself a cerebral exploratory. There are others who prefer the “Man from Mars” approach, and do no pre-research so it is as though they have dropped in from outer space, and the experience is entirely personal, unfiltered through previous eyes and interpretations. I am a bit of a hybrid in that I prefer the freshness and surprise that comes from not knowing or expecting too much….imagine rounding a corner and seeing the Taj Mahal for the first time never having seen a published image…Wow!  That would knock you back…same with Angkor Wat, the Pyramids of Giza, Machu Picchu, Victoria Falls, The Great Wall, etc., etc. Instead, because we have all been so overexposed to these icons, the actual experience is usually disappointing, as we witness the actual thing in less than the optimum photo rendition….it is harshly midday; it is crowed with tourists; hazed with pollution; it’s buggy, humid, and hawkers are hustling.

So, I prefer to parachute into a place with minimal background research, and few expectations, and I find I am almost always delighted and awed, and even if some place has been seen and dissected by millions before, it feels like my own discovery. I am not swayed by brochure copy, by overly vivid travel writers, or even well-filtered Instagram.

However, when I return, notebook full of my own impressions, emotions and conversations, then I usually go into research phase, diving into volumes that touch upon what I found interesting, and seeking answers to the questions raised through my travels. It allows me a deeper understanding of what I experienced, and it gives me the chance to make the journey a second time.

Climbing Cotopaxi. Photo: Richard Bangs.
Climbing Cotopaxi. Photo: Richard Bangs.

PS: Having reached midlife, I’ve lately been reading a lot of books about happiness and midlife and the like. One thing that stands out is that every researcher points to “purpose” as one of the keys to wellbeing and a good life. Therefore, the title of your show Adventures with Purpose is especially intriguing to me. What was the “purpose” you intended to highlight in the title?

RB: I spent the early part of my career exploring the hidden crooks of the wilderness world, and was delighted to share the magic of these special places uncovered…but over time as I returned I couldn’t help but notice how these extraordinary spaces had been degraded, dammed, diluted, desiccated, or outright destroyed…I also knew that when folks found a personal connection with these places, they then treated them as though family, and would fight for preservation and integrity…..but, visitation numbers would always be low…figures inversely related to remoteness….so, I set out to reach a broader, influential audience, PBS, and moved forward with a series of specials that hopefully celebrate a destination, but also tells its stories in an evocative, emotive way, one that elicits connectivity, inspiration to visit, and to become involved….I believe it’s working.

First descent of the Awash River in Ethiopia, with Lew Greenwald. Photo: Richard Bangs.
First descent of the Awash River in Ethiopia, with Lew Greenwald. Photo: Richard Bangs.

PS: Clarify for me: what is the difference between your Adventures with Purpose series and your Quest series?

RB: I made the first descent of the Omo River in Ethiopia in 1973, and decided we should record the effort with the tools available, including 16 mm movie film. The result, The Omo River Expedition, ended up on PBS, so that began a long relationship. The current series is called Richard Bangs’ Quests, and is an evolution from Richard Bangs’ Adventures with Purpose, though the underlying mission remains the same….a quest to understand and celebrate the assets of a destination, and extract what lessons might be learned and applied elsewhere, from pioneering environmental practices to progressive policies to the unsung heroes who make a difference. I also, at the core, believe the best way to preserve a wilderness or threatened culture is through visitation, as then the place and its issues become personal, an emotional attachment is knotted, and a constituency is formed which will invest the time, monies, and resources to save that which is meaningful. I think this is achieved in a couple ways with the PBS series (and all media with which I am involved) in that I hope to inspire viewers to actually come and visit a place featured; and if they can’t, then at least I hope I can impart enough of the wonder and beauty virtually to entice support when the inevitable time comes.

Richard in Sumatra at the Bahorok Orangutans Center. Says Richard: "Turning point in my career. I decided not to live with orangutans and instead write for a living."
Richard in Sumatra at the Bahorok Orangutans Center. Says Richard: “Turning point in my career. I decided not to live with orangutans and instead write for a living.”

PS: Why do you travel? What are you seeking when you travel? What do you find?

RB: I was inspired by  the mythopoetics a generation before me. Once a province of the improbable, “adventure travel” was something seen in the pages of National Geographic, not available to the average Jane or Joe. The only adventure travel on Main Street was when a well-planned vacation went wrong. Then the likes of Edmund Hillary, Tensing Norgay, Jacques Cousteau, Thor Heyerdahl and others of that ilk changed it all by showing it was possible, accessible, and with enough passion, practice, and will, it could be undertaken, and relished. I was a beneficiary of these pioneers, and enjoyed the confluence of airline deregulation, political borders smoking away, and a period of relative affluence which allowed a new generation to seek and delight in adventure travel. I started Sobek at this magical intersection, and, with alacrity, began to chronicle our explorations. What a magnificent ride it has been.

Richard at the Zanskar River. Photo: Richard Bangs.
Richard at the Zanskar River. Photo: Richard Bangs.
If you’re joining this post linked from the Huffington Post article, start here!

(Sorry about that! I hate breaking up posts but it was too long for HP.)

PS: Water shows up again and again in your travels and your writing. You are clearly deeply passionate about water. Tell me more.

RB: Here’s a story of how water crashed into my consciousness: My father never really cared much for the outdoors. He preferred a cozy chair and a fat book, a night at the movies, maybe a ball game on TV, certainly restaurant food. But one weekend when I was a small boy he took me camping. I don’t remember where he took me, but it was by a river, a swift-flowing stream, clear and crisp. I have a faint memory now that my dad had a difficult time setting up the tent, but somehow worked it out and he was proud of the task. With some soda pop and our fishing poles, we went down to the river to have one of those seminal father-son bonding experiences.

The air told me first that we were someplace special. It whooshed, delivering the cool message of a fast river on a hot summer day. Then a muffled sound came from behind, back at camp, and we turned around and could see through the trees that the tent had collapsed. My dad said something under his breath and started up the hill, then turned back to me and said, “Don’t go in the river!”

They were the wrong words.

At first I put my hand in the water to swish it around and was fascinated by the vitality, the power that coursed through my arm, into my chest, and up into my brain. I looked in the middle of the stream, where tiny waves burst into a million gems and then disappeared. It was magic, pure magic. I stepped into the river to my waist and felt the water wrap around and hug me and then tug at me like a dog pulling a blanket. Another step and the water reached my chest and pulled me down wholly into its vigorous embrace. I was being washed downstream.

Effortlessly, the current was carrying me away from confinement, toward new and unknown adventures. I looked down and watched as a color wheel of pebbles passed beneath me like a cascade of hard candy. After a few seconds I kicked my way to shore perhaps a hundred yards downstream. When I crawled back to land I had changed. My little trip down the river had been the most exhilarating experience of my life. I felt charged with energy, giddy, cleansed, and fresh, more alive than I could remember. I practically skipped back to the fishing poles and sat down with a whole new attitude, and secret.

When my father came back, he never noticed anything different. And I didn’t volunteer anything. The August sun had dried my shorts and hair, and I was holding my pole as though it had grown as an extension of my arm since he left. Only my smile was different—larger, knowing. I grew in that little trip, like corn in the night.

Photo: Richard Bangs.
Photo: Laura Hubber.

PS: You have a masters degree in journalism. What are some of the key lessons you learned that help you today in travel writing?

RB: I might say that the key lesson is that rather than report for someone else, or even do the bidding of an assignment,  you should pursue your own passion, and along the way step on the cobblestones of understanding. I set out quite young, with few resources, to experience the world with a vengeance, a never-ending hunt for unwinding the unknowingness that always pricks at me. I found early on that chronicling  these experiences gave me a double hit of enjoyment and enlightenment….I would experience the experience, and then sit down to distill it all and hopefully reach some deeper meaning and joy. That continues to this day.

First descent of the Tatshenshini River, 1978. Photo: Richard Bangs.
First descent of the Tatshenshini River, 1978. Photo: Richard Bangs.

PS: We are now a short-attention-span, sound-bite culture, but you tell stories in a way that demand attention and savoring. Do you think your way of unrolling a travel story is a lost art?

RB: Life and travel are richer than 140 characters.

I do like to share stories with depth and meaning, and though they may not be “snackable,” they are, I would like to believe, worth the time for the right audience, and the medium of the internet can certainly be a powerful platform.

With its power to break the tyranny of geography, to allow people anywhere in the world to virtually travel to wild places through the portals of their screens, and its capacity for information exchange and communications, the Internet can be a more effective tool than anything yet devised to preserve the wilderness through multi-media story-telling. The ledger is long of wilderness areas gone down because there wasn’t a constituency to do battle. Arizona’s and Utah’s Glen Canyon, entombed beneath one of the largest artificial lakes in the world, is the poster child. A basic problem is that wilderness areas are hard to get to, and the numbers who see them, experience them, fall in love with them, are too often too small to make a difference. That’s where the Net could be the instrument of awareness, appreciation and activism that no oversized nature book ever could. For the first time we can showcase the beauty and magic of a wild place to a global audience, and millions can participate in a journey through it, without ever breaking a branch or stepping on cryptobiotic soil. To a degree National Geographic has done this for over a century; and Discovery and others have done this on television and video. But those were passive receiver experiences, where a publisher, editor or producer added his or her own vision to the primary experience, passing it along to a quiescent audience. Now, for the first time, a worldwide audience can receive the data unfiltered from the primary reporter, in all its raw and brutal honesty. And members of that same audience can become players, become active on some levels, participating in the experience by asking questions, suggesting ideas, and sharing information.

The internet is the most powerful intercommunications tool yet, one that tears down the media power towers, erases the information filters of middlemen, and allows anyone to jump into the thick of things and asseverate a voice and opinion. I’m convinced that when the time comes for a call to action to stop the compromising of sacred and magic places, the patronage for preservation will be that much greater for the Web. A few years ago we lost a fight to save Chile’s crown jewel of a wild river, the Bio-Bio, from the concrete slug of a private big dam; but then only a few thousand had ever seen the river. Now more people than visit all the parks in the world, regardless of wallet size, physical abilities, age or weight, can be introduced to a far-away wilderness in a more immediate way, and that means that many more who can fall in love with a wild place, grasp its issues, and perhaps lend a hand when it needs many.

Richard with a new friend. Photo: Richard Bangs.
Richard with a new friend. Photo: Richard Bangs.

PS: I’m also particularly interested in the idea of “failure.” I think we’ve become too failure-averse, and therefore I’m interested in talking with successful people about their thoughts on failure. What’s your perspective on the topic? What is failure? What is success?

RB: I agree that we are, as a society, too failure-averse, and I see it especially in our schools and among parents who over-protect and over-reward their children. It is through risk and failure that we learn and evolve. I worked at Microsoft for a while in the 90s (helping to create travel products, including Expedia), and I absolutely loved Bill Gates’s mandate and the culture he created around it…it was to take risks, and not be afraid of botching up. Most companies punish failure, and that inhibits creativity and entrepreneurship. But back then, Bill encouraged us to try new things, and not be put off by the consequences of failure, because by trying, we all learned, and sometimes we made bold breakthroughs and discoveries. If a ship’s primary concern is to avoid failure, it would never leave port.

I’ve had many failures in my career, some catastrophic. One was an attempt to make the first descent of the Baro River in Ethiopia. A young man drowned, and it haunted me to the degree I almost left the field. But then I recognized a hard truth…that it is better to go forward and be in the ring and perhaps suffer the consequences than to never step at all and die on the inside.

In Edmund Burke’s 1757 essay, Of the Sublime and Beautiful, he posits that terror “is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”

If there is a common element to the code of adventure it is the frisson that comes from touching the maw. At the moment of plunge into a giant rapid we are febrile but also unlocked in a way that never happens in the comfort zone, so that the slightest tap makes us shiver to the bottom of our beings. It is then that we make our greatest discoveries about ourselves.

In Hemingway’s classic story, The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, a milquetoast of a man finds an instant of bliss as he fearlessly (and fatally) faces a charging buffalo. I believe that pursuing your passion, tacking adventure, embracing risk, allows a lifetime deep and rich and connected, if only for a flash, and that it is better than the shelter and security of a dull and deadly existence.

Richard Bangs
Photo by Didrik Johnck (flickr.com/deetrak)

Thank you, Richard! If you haven’t already discovered Richard’s shows on your local PBS station, be sure to check the schedule to find when he’s on air next!

Find Richard at his website, on Twitter, and on Facebook
And be sure to check out his fabulous contributions to the Huffington Post.

Also published at my Huffington Post blog.


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The Lies We Tell Ourselves: Limiting Beliefs vs. Liberating Truths

Never lie to yourself

Recently I saw the above Paulo Coelho quote: “If you want to be successful, you must respect one rule: NEVER LIE TO YOURSELF.”

Initially, I thought of the simple lies we tell ourselves:

  • Binge-watching nine seasons of The X-Files isn’t affecting my productivity.
  • I don’t use social media / online games / other internet distractions too much.
  • I’ll just have one drink tonight.
  • I’ll do it tomorrow, definitely, for sure, no excuses.
  • Two large slices of pizza is probably somewhere around 200 calories.

Those sorts of lies. The simple, obvious lies: the ones we know are lies, and that we know we know, and which we really plan to do something about, one day. Really.

I briefly pondered the quote, and then moved on.

But after initially seeing the quote, clearly my brain kept working on the idea, because two or three days later, out of nowhere, I had this thought:

What if those aren’t the kinds of lies that really matter?

What if the lies we have to stop telling ourselves are the more insidious ones, the more soul-crushing ones, the more life-suffocating ones?

The lies we tell ourselves because they let us stay small and safe. The lies that act as cushiony couches, keeping us deep inside our comfort zones. The lies that allow us to stay within snug, danger-free boundaries, and not try for more.

Things like:

  • I am not good enough, I’m not [pretty, important, smart, talented, young, old, etc. etc. etc.] enough. I am not enough.
  • I’m not worth the effort.
  • My dreams don’t really matter. Everyone else’s dreams are more important.
  • I don’t have what it takes.
  • I’m too [old, young, dumb, unimportant, lazy, etc.] to change.
  • If I try and fail, I’ll be devastated and humiliated.
  • Nothing I do makes a difference.

These are the lies that limit our lives. They are our limiting beliefs.

They are the lies that underlie the simpler lies. These lies are the why that underlie the what:

  • Because I’m not worth the effort and my dreams don’t matter, I’m going to numb myself with a non-stop Friends marathon.
  • Because nothing I do makes a difference, it really doesn’t matter if I make an effort today or put it off until tomorrow. Bring on Candy Crush!
  • Because I don’t have what it takes, I may as well keep drinking.

These lies crush us, they crush our spirits, and they crush our lives.

We need, instead, to start telling ourselves our liberating truths:

  • I am enough.
  • It’s worth a try.
  • I deserve better.
  • I want more.
  • If I try and fail, I can just try again.
  • I am strong enough to survive a fall.
  • I matter.

We hold ourselves back far more than anyone outside us does. It all comes back, again and again, to fear of failure, fear of rejection. We need instead to start believing in our resilience and our worthiness.

There’s that saying: “What would you try if you knew you could not fail?”

I like to put a different twist on it: “What is worth trying, even if you fail?”

Any lies we tell ourselves—whether small or large—are not useful. They don’t help us move forward or reach our goals. But it’s the deeper, underlying beliefs that really hold us back. They keep us safe from scary, painful, difficult things like change, growth, and failure. But in the end, more than that, they keep us from really living.

After all, the juiciness of life is not in the final destination, or on the sidelines, watching from afar. It’s in the journey we take along the way. It’s in embracing all of life’s messiness, the struggles, the failures, the trials and errors, the joy of being in the game. It’s in redefining “success” to include the triumph of effort.

It’s time to start telling ourselves the truth.

Dear reader: You are worth the effort. You are enough.

 

Also published at my Huffington Post blog.


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Marta Dusseldorp on the Australian Crime Drama Janet King and the Changing Landscape of Television

If you’ve linked to this page from the story at the Huffington Post, click here to find where the Q&A left off.

 

Marta Dusseldorp as Janet King in Janet King. Photo courtesy Acorn TV. Photo by Ben Timony.
Marta Dusseldorp as Janet King in Janet King. Photo courtesy Acorn TV. Photo by Ben Timony.

 

After I did my last interview with Marta Dusseldorp, star of A Place to Call Home, the people at Acorn TV sent me the DVDs of one of Marta’s other shows, Janet King. For a while, I set the DVDs aside. After all, if you’ve read the intro to my Pam on the Map books, you know I’m a woman of integrity: I won’t be bribed or bought! And furthermore, I’m not really a reviewer. I’m not good at capturing the nuances of a show that might or might not delight audiences, and I don’t watch enough shows to make apt comparisons. I know that my opinion of a show has little to do with whether someone else will or won’t like it. It’s all so subjective.

However, one night I was looking for something to watch, and my eyes lit on the Janet King DVDs. Why not? I thought, and next thing you know I was three hours into the eight-hour season. The storyline of Janet King (a crime drama; eight episodes in season 1) is compelling, and the show is well-written. The acting is excellent, the cinematography is intriguing (which is, I’m sure, a challenge, as most of the show takes place in an office or court room). There are red herrings and suspense and twists and turns. I stayed up too late watching it two nights in a row. I loved it.

What’s more, I love Marta. You wouldn’t know in talking to her that she’s one of Australia’s busiest actors. In speaking with her, you get the feeling she has all the time in the world for you. She’s present and with you in every moment; there’s nothing else she needs to be doing, nowhere else she needs to be. Whether that’s the truth, or she has mastered the art of mindfulness, I don’t know. But after watching a few episodes of Janet King, I was hooked. I emailed Marta to see if she’d do another Q&A with me, and of course, being the fabulous person she is, she said yes.

From the Acorn publicity materials: “The 8-part Australian series focuses on the life of Janet King, a senior crown prosecutor. Determined to prove she still has her edge, Janet returns from maternity leave to find her workplace even more demanding than when she left. She quickly becomes involved in a high-profile and controversial case, making several enemies throughout her search for the truth – enemies that will threaten her career, family, and ultimately her life.”

All episodes of Janet King are now available online at Acorn TV, which is good, because this show is eminently binge-worthy!

Here’s our Q&A, edited some for time and because my audio recording of our conversation turned out to be not so great. Any errors in fact or transcription are mine, not Marta’s, with my apologies. If anyone has a recommendation for a quality, inexpensive way to record outgoing international calls, let me know!

As always, my deep gratitude to Marta for her time!

 

Hamish Michael as Richard, Marta Dusseldorp as Janet, and Vince Colosimo as Jack in Janet King. Photo courtesy Acorn TV. Photo by Ben Timony.
Hamish Michael as Richard, Marta Dusseldorp as Janet, and Vince Colosimo as Jack in Janet King. Photo courtesy Acorn TV. Photo by Ben Timony.

 

Pam Stucky: I’ve watched all of seasons 1 through 3 of A Place to Call Home, and season 1 of Janet King. I’ve noticed, there are some pretty intense storylines involved in both of them. Does that ever weigh you down? There’s the pedophilia and the murder and the Holocaust, just to name a few. How do you keep from bringing that home, and how do you keep that from infiltrating your personal life and your mind?

Marta Dusseldorp: Well, season 3 of A Place Called Home I did with my real-life husband [Ben Winspear], who played Rene, my husband on the show. So I found that quite easy, and then when he died on the show, it was quite difficult. We would talk a lot about that at home–well not too much, but enough that it was a very comfortable place for both of us and something that I found really special. And then when he died [on the show], I had a moment that I thought, oh, this is a bit too hard. And then you do another take, and you get through it, and it was fine. And then Janet King season 1, I think the hardest part about that was it was a spin-off from another show and I wasn’t sure it was going to work. I had never been that kind of a lead character, and I was very nervous that I didn’t have what it took. So that took a lot of my emotional energy at the beginning, and then slowly I started getting into it, and I had a ball being able to do almost everything and work with everyone on the set.

PS: Did it start airing while you were still filming?

MD: No, it was a whole year, for some reason, before they put it to air on ABC [Australian Broadcasting Corporation], so I had a long time between shooting it and it going to air. By the time it went to air I had kind of moved away from it, so it was really joyful watching it, because I couldn’t feel it in my body anymore. It was a real pleasure, actually. And people just loved it here, so that allayed my fears that it hadn’t worked. But emotionally, I have to say that I’m like everyone. Some days, I’m at my wit’s end and I just want to curl up in a ball, and I have other days where I’m really proud and very excited, and it’s usually to do with the people around me. I don’t believe you ever do anything, really, in my job, in isolation. So if everyone around me is prepared–and they usually are unbelievably prepared and open and generous–and then I have a great time. We have pretty great crews in this country, I have to say. I think they’re the hardest working–not that I’ve worked with many overseas, but they’re just fabulous people [here] and that really helps, too, because everyone comes, actually, with a smile on their face, they really do the best that they can, so that really helps.

 

Damian Walshe-Howling as Owen Mitchell and Marta Dusseldorp as Janet King in Janet King. Photo courtesy Acorn TV. Photo by Simon Cardwell.
Damian Walshe-Howling as Owen Mitchell and Marta Dusseldorp as Janet King in Janet King. Photo courtesy Acorn TV. Photo by Simon Cardwell.

 

PS: That does help. You mentioned another show which Janet King spun off from, which I know was Crownies. For people that have not seen Crownies, can you give us a brief history of the show, and of your role in the show? Is there anything a person would need to know to get caught up on that before starting in on Janet King?

MD: Not really. I thought they did a really great job making that transfer. Crownieswas about the younger assistants to the Crown Prosecutors, the ones who do all the grunt work, and the Crown Prosecutors are sort of the front people. That’s what that show was angled toward, and I think it was an attempt at bringing in a younger demographic to ABC. It went to 22 episodes [as opposed to Janet King‘s eight]; it was much sexier, in the sense of people falling in love, and having sex on desks in the office. It had serious stories, you know, but it was also geared toward the quirkier, funnier side of the office. And Janet [the character] was kind of this stalwart who stood in the middle and said, “Stop laughing, stop smiling, and get on the job!” That was kind of her role in regards to the 22-episode arc.

And at the same time she has this relationship with a woman, Ash, her partner, and she underwent IVF [in vitro fertilization]. And she got more and more and more pregnant through the series, through the 22 episodes. So what happened was there was this funny sort of banging out between her seriousness, and her lack of sense of humor, and her becoming like a beached whale, and trying to be taken seriously as she became more and more pregnant with twins. That was that show. And then I think at the end of it, ABC, I think I read somewhere that they heard the audience felt like they identified more with the Janet character. So they decided to try a spin-off that goes up to the senior Crown Prosecutor level. A lot more serious and dangerous and more of the thriller genre. And then they shortened it, of course, to the eight-parter. Yeah, the audience numbers show that ABC made a good decision at that point, at that stage. And television has changed so fast, people’s appetites, what they want to see, how long they want to sit and watch, and when they want to watch it. I find all networks are now negotiating that.

PS: Yes, like, I don’t know if you’ve ever watched The X-Files …

MD: Yes, that’s right.

PS: They came back for six episodes, and now they’re saying they might do more seasons if they could just have a short season. But those actors don’t want to do the full 22-episode seasons anymore. 

MD: I think audiences don’t want to watch 22 episodes anymore, either. I think it has to have hiatus, like The Walking Dead, and then watch the next 12 episodes in six month’s time. It’s interesting, isn’t it? Because Jack Irish, which was always telemovies–we did three telemovies, based on the Australian books by Peter Temple, straight out of the books, actually, with a little bit of change. And then the ABC said, we would like to make it into a six-parter. Would Guy [Pearce] be interested? Would you be interested? And they said yes. So they took the fourth book and morphed it into more fiction on top of fiction. So that’s how that came about.

PS: Were you involved in all three of those telemovies as well as the series?

MD: Yeah. My character was introduced at the beginning of the first telemovie, and then they kept her in there throughout, which I think is great, because, it’s portraying a character completely different from the other two [Sarah Adams on A Place to Call Home and Janet King on Janet King]. And I got to work with Guy, which taught me a lot, as well. His breadth of experience and generosity as an actor taught me a lot.

PS: What kinds of things did you learn from him?

MD: He’s got an incredible stamina. I’m going back now to the first telemovie, this is before I was on Janet King or A Place to Call Home. He’s so focused on set, and he’s totally dedicated to detail and nuance. It made me realize that my sort of spectrum was okay, but that really focusing on the little things you could make it better and better, rather than dealing with the sweeping things, which I think you can deal with quite quickly. And then you get into the nitty gritty, and that’s where the audience are more interested, which is in the quick changes inside of the character. The emotional journey. He’s really great at that, if you watch him. And then, after the take’s over, he’s super relaxed and charming and fun to be with, and that’s my favorite type of co-worker. Someone who works really hard when you have to, and when you’re not, is relaxed in real life, and serious but not too serious.

If you’re joining this post linked from the Huffington Post article, start here!

(Sorry about that! I hate breaking up posts but it was too long for HP.)

PS: Janet King season 1 told a story over the course of the eight episodes (as opposed to standalone episodes), subtitled The Enemy Within. There are some major twists and turns and red herrings in the season! Do you, as actors, have a chance to read the full season’s scripts before you start?

MD: Yes, in the sense that I sit down with the head story person, Greg Haddrick; he and a woman, Jane Allen, were on season 1. And so I would sit down with them and they would take me through my arc, so I knew exactly where it was going. The scripts aren’t written before you start. That’s something I would love, but it’s sometimes not possible for that to happen. So I had a fair idea [of what was going to happen]. For season 2, which is on air now in Australia, I was in the writer’s room from the very beginning this time, because I felt I needed to catch up with things in season 1, and that took a lot of energy, so I asked to be in from the very beginning of season 2, before—while they were talking. So I was completely embedded in the story and the twists and turns, so I didn’t have to do as much work when I was shooting, to keep up with where the story was going and changing, if you know what I mean. And that had a profound effect on me, because in season 2, it was so inside me that I had to barely think about it. And all the things that make up the spectacle of Janet, that was completely effortless for me, because I’d been there from the very beginning. It was like seeing a baby born and just being so connected to that child. It became much easier to work. I feel very lucky on Janet that if we were to do it again that would be the process, and so I’d be as close to the material, and it would mean as much to me. Because there’s nothing like being in the room when an idea hits the table and everyone realizes: that’s it, that should be part of the series. And actually, everyone gasps, in the room. That does happen! They all go, “(gasp)! That’s it!” And then when we’re shooting the scene, in season 2, I’m thinking, “It worked!” It added a whole level. In season 1, a lot of times I was going, “So, who’s that? Right. And I’m? … okay. So, do I find out … ?”

PS: So that’s my question. You have characters who are not always who they seem to be … I don’t want to give anything away. Does it help to know in advance if someone is going to turn out to be someone other than they seem? Or does that hinder you?

MD: It’s fine. I think it’s important to know. You have to have the ability to go against it. In season 1, when I found out who [the villain] was, then I was able to play it up, get incredibly close to that person in the scene, so that the audience goes, “Oh no!” So you can actually manipulate it, so that it’s better. You focus on the friendship more, you put your confidence in them, or share something you shouldn’t, or … yeah, I like playing with that, actually.

PS: As far as Janet King, the character, what do you love most about playing Janet?

MD: I like the directness, and I like that she doesn’t always say and do the right things. I love that she can be misinterpreted, and the audience can hate her for a minute, and then realize she’s doing it for the greater good…. I love that she’s in a same-sex relationship with a woman that she loves dearly, and they’re in a functioning marriage that’s kind of, you know, a little bit boring and a little bit strained, and a little bit unsexy, which, after nine years and the nine-month-old twins, that’s what we all are. I wanted that to be really based in the reality that everyone experiences. But I also love that she doesn’t define herself in relation to men. I think she’s not a man-hater; she just wants everyone to treat everyone as they should be treated. And when she doesn’t get that respect, then she’ll arc up, man or woman, it doesn’t matter to her. I love that there’s a lead woman on screen …. It’s unusual [in Australia] and I like that, I like being part of that push. Although that’s changing, the more I think about it, there’s lots of great women in the country are leading in beautiful ways. That’s changed since I started with Janet.

PS: Is there a season 3 planned?

MD: I hope so. Season 2 is going really well; it’s been overwhelming, actually, how much people have loved it. As I said, it’s a changing landscape. But I hope so; I’d love to do another one. I guess we’ll find out soon!

PS: Okay, random question: Have you ever done any comedy? Your shows are all so intense that I can’t help but wonder!

MD: Not really. I’m not very funny, Pam. I mean, I’d be happy to try. Occasionally I do try to throw in funny bits into my scenes, and they usually fall flat, which means they’re laughing at me, which I guess is okay, too; that seems to be what clowns do. Yeah, I’d love to!

PS: I think you should have a goal for one funny scene per episode. Don’t overwhelm yourself.

MD: Exactly!

PS: Occasionally when we’re talking—you say you’re not funny, but occasionally, something funny will pop out, and I’ll think, “Oh, that was funny!” So I think we should investigate this.

MD: The Reluctant Comedian.

PS: And there would have to be a Jack. You could have you, and three characters named Jack. [Because every show Marta is in has a Jack!] I can write it for you!

MD: Yes!

PS: Last time we talked you said you were working on doing more of your own projects. What are you working on these days; has anything moved forward? I know you’ve been busy.

MD: Yeah, I’m still talking to people about various projects. In the break that I had we went on family holiday, and then I made it to LA. I found my visit to LA really invigorating. I talked to some extraordinary people, and I just felt really excited about the possibilities of coming there. So I’ve added that to the list of things I want to prioritize and aim toward once these shows are finished. So I’m balancing that out. But I’m still talking to people, trying to come up with ideas. One of the projects I think I was talking about with you before, we’re still developing, still pushing forward, and we’ve brought on a producer to that. And I’m still working on my own story, but that’s in the background. I’ve got management now in America, and I think there is a possibility to come over there and do something there as well. There’s a lot to think about. I think they are great ideas, and very different, and important stories. There’s a lot going on right now, but I’m excited about changing the landscape. Maybe end of next year.

PS: So you’re currently working on season 4 for A Place to Call Home, how long does that go, and then what’s next?

MD: It goes until August, and then I’m doing a play.

PS: Oh? What play?

MD: I’m doing an Australian play written by Benedict Andrews. I worked with him at the Sydney Theatre Company. He’s written a fabulous play called Gloria, and that will be late this year.

PS: Fantastic! Well, is there anything else you’d like to tell us about Janet King, or Jack Irish, or anything else?

MD: I think we’ve about covered it!

PS: Thank you so much, Marta! Please keep in touch about all your projects!

MD: Thank you, Pam! Take care!

You can find Marta on Twitter.

Also published at my Huffington Post blog.


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‘Life Is All About Connecting’: Q&A with Damian McGinty of Glee and Celtic Thunder

 

Irish singer and actor Damian McGinty. Photo: provided.
Irish singer and actor Damian McGinty. Photo: provided.

Damian McGinty, talented singer and actor, and star of GleeThe Glee Project, and Celtic Thunder, is headed to Australia, joining his old group as a Special Guest for his first tour Down Under! I caught up with him earlier this week for a quick Q&A to chat about the upcoming tour, his career, and his views on life.

Pam Stucky: The first time you were scheduled to be in Australia was March 2011, but you didn’t make it. Just to clarify for the people, what happened? The excuse given was that you had to study harder, but what was the reality?

Damian McGinty: Yes. The word at the time was that I had to study harder. But really what was happening was I was shooting a show called The Glee Project, which I’m sure a lot of people are familiar with. Obviously we had signed a lot of contracts and everything had to be a secret, as we shot the show in advance of it being aired. It was being aired in June, and we shot it in January, February, March, April, for like 12 or 13 weeks, over a three-month process. So, yeah, I was scheduled to go to Australia with Celtic Thunder, and sadly it ended up being a scheduling conflict, so I had to unfortunately pull out of that. I was in Los Angeles filming, but the producers of Celtic Thunder had to tell the world the reason I’d gone missing was because I was not doing well in school, and had to study more and do exams. Which actually wasn’t true. So I’ll just put that out, clear that up, five years later. I actually did pass all my exams.

 

Damian in 2011. Photo: provided.
Damian in 2011. Photo: provided.

 

PS: And now, finally, you’re headed to Australia and you’re excited!

DMcG: Yeah, absolutely! I’ve always wanted to go. It’s always been on my young bucket list. But I always promised myself I wouldn’t go there until work took me there. Finally, at the ripe old age of 23, it has.

 

australia tour
Damian’s Australian tour route. Find out more about the Australian tour dates and cities at Damian’s website.

 

PS: This is your first tour in Australia, but your ninth tour overall. You’ve already traveled more than a quarter of a million miles over the course of your career, meeting thousands of people. Traveling the world and meeting so many people of all walks of life, all backgrounds, all political leanings, you’ve already had the opportunity to talk to far more people than most of us ever will. What has meeting and spending time with such a wide variety of people taught you about humans and humanity?

DMcG: Being fortunate enough to get the opportunity to travel so much at such a young age, I have been fortunate to meet a lot of people, and I’ve been very fortunate to have heard a lot of people’s stories. Whether it be a sad one, or whether it be an encouraging one, or whether it be a challenging one or a traumatizing one or a happy one, you know, you hear stories from all walks of life. I actually think that really helped me in my growing up process, hearing other people’s experiences, and seeing first-hand through other people the sorts of scenarios that the world and life can offer up, conjure up, the different challenges and the different rewards and the different routes that are all possible in life. Meeting so many different people from so many different places with so many stories sort of helped me grow up, in a weird way. It made me thankful for meeting all those people; it made me thankful for the life I have, for the friends and family I have. It gave me a bit of wisdom, I guess, and a better understanding of life itself, which is such a complicated, precious thing. It’s always nice, as well, traveling and hearing the good things, but it’s encouraging hearing the bad things and seeing people get through those bad things, and seeing them reach the other side. Hearing them say that maybe the reason they did that is because of my music or Celtic Thunder’s music or whatever, hearing those stories is encouraging to me.

It’s very obvious that I’m now doing this as a career. This is my life, this is my career. Therefore, I make a living out of it. But primarily the reason I’ve always wanted to tour and always wanted to sing and always wanted to sell records is to really reach out to people, and connect to people. Because I think outside of the obvious need to make money to live day-to-day and function in the real world, I think outside of that, primarily life is all about connecting with different people, and hearing stories, and trying to encourage people, and all that good stuff. That makes all the miles worth it. If it is a quarter of a million miles, that is a lot of miles. I think before this year ends I add about another 50,000 to that! So I can’t wait.

 

Damian in 2011. Photo: provided.
Damian in 2011. Photo: provided.

 

PS: This question overlaps with your answer on that last one, but I’ll ask anyway: What do you hope people get out of attending one of your performances? What impact do you hope you have on a person’s day?

DMcG: Yeah, pretty much, what I just touched on. Attending a performance, first of all, I hope they have a good time. I hope it gives them an experience they won’t forget, that takes them away from the day-to-day routine. I think that’s why we all go to see concerts. That’s why I go see concerts. I go see concerts because I love the artist, because I want two or three hours of just bliss of something I really love and appreciate. For people coming to our show, in Australia or in North America, that’s what you always want to offer up. You want to offer an experience–vocally, yes, but also visually, a performance that they’re not going to forget. Something that touches people, and something that encourages people. And that gives them a good time.

PS: On the flip side of that: What do you get out of performing? What does it bring to your life? How does who you are impact how you perform?

DMcG: I think one thing that I’ve always done–and this was not on purpose or planned, ever–I think something I’ve always brought to my own performances specifically is a relatability. When I’m performing, I’m very much myself. A lot of people perform and become this different thing. Look at Lady Gaga: she’s very clearly different in real life than what she is on stage. I sort of pride myself on the fact that I love putting on a performance, and yes, of course, the performer is technically different than the person. But there are huge elements of my performance that are just genuine, that are just me, as a person. I try to be relatable, and I try to be myself as much as I can, and hope that people can relate to that. It’s sort of interesting, because I think without really knowing it, that is what helped me win The Glee Project, that aspect of my performance.

PS: Being yourself. 

DMcG: Being myself. Yeah. A lot of people talk about it. In the day and the world we live in, it’s easy to get persuaded, or it’s easy to get swayed by things that are going on, whether it be technology, or whether it be things we’re watching on television, or whether it be movies, whatever. It’s easy to let your character sway toward that a little bit. I personally believe trying to be yourself is the most important thing. Understanding that everybody is different, being yourself is a great thing. That’s what I try to bring into a performance. I try to let them know Damian a little bit more, even though I’m up on stage and I am still performing, but I try to let them in a little bit, and tell them stories, and make it as relatable as possible.

 

Damian in 2007, about to steal millions of hearts. Photo: provided.
Damian in 2007, about to steal millions of hearts. Photo: provided.

 

PS: You were 14 when Celtic Thunder filmed its first show at The Helix in Dublin in August 2007; 15 when the show first hit the air in the US on PBS in February 2008; and you turned 16 just before your first tour in the fall of 2008. If you could go back, what advice would you give yourself? What would you tell yourself about what was to come in the next eight years and beyond?

DMcG: First of all, I certainly wouldn’t change anything. That’s for sure. I would tell the 14-year-old me that “Your voice is going to change as soon as you record ‘Puppy Love.'” I would probably give myself a heads-up on that, because that happened quite suddenly. I would try to tell myself a little earlier that I would have to be very, very focused at a very young age, and be very disciplined throughout my career. Because this career, a musician’s career, a performer’s career, is very different from a 9-to-5 career. In a 9-to-5, you know what you’re going to do, and you go in every day, and obviously you’ve got a job to do. But in my career, there are times when I’m working for seven months, then there’s times where I’ll have three months where it’s a little less busy, but I still have to keep myself disciplined. I still have to try to create things. I still have to try to keep building a brand, which is obviously the long-term target of my career, to build a really strong Damian McGinty brand.

I sort of knew back then, anyway, but I would tell myself that it is going to take a lot of hard work and take a lot of discipline. I guess what my dad always told me is that there are going to be things that come your way in life, particularly when you’re in this business, the music business, and you’re living in LA, and just remember that no matter what, you have a choice. I don’t need to go back and tell myself that because my dad instilled that in me, and that’s something I’ll never forget. And it’s really stood to me. Because, yeah, you face different challenges, within LA, within life in general. Everyone does. Any challenge I’ve ever faced, whether it be positive, negative, difficult, easy, it’s always been in my head: “You always have a choice.” So I always try to make a good choice.

 

Photo: provided.
Photo: provided.

 

PS: I happen to know you’re a pretty wise soul. At your ripe old age of 23, what have you come to believe about life and living in the world? What matters? How should we live?

DMcG: I can only speak from personal experience, my own side of things. The thing I would say, I think the most obvious thing, is the people. You can meet a lot of people, but really you go through life and you have this core group of people who are very important to you, who you have a connection with, and you can’t … it takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of nurturing and growing within any relationship. And I think that connection with certain people is really what it’s all about. We can all try to be successful, and we can all try to do as good as we can, whether it be building brands, whether it be getting a promotion, whether it be getting a raise, we can all do that. Meanwhile, when it’s all said and done, that’s not really that relevant in the bigger picture.

I think traveling a lot, as well, I guess I’m sort of fortunate and unfortunate. Fortunate because it makes me realize a lot more about the people I miss back home, and about how great they are, and how difficult it is being away from them, and how fortunate I am to have them. I guess I’m unfortunate because of the same reasons. Because I amaway from them, and I do miss them. But life is not always daffodils and roses. It can be challenging. You always face the unexpected, and your situation is maybe never what you’d like it painted to be. If it was up to me, I’d love to live back home, and see my family and my parents every single day, and see my best friends that I grew up with, I would love to see them every day, and still do what I love. But sometimes, you know, that’s not possible, and you need to make sacrifices. That’s just life.

[At this point our call was dropped so we re-connected and continued.]

DMcG: It’s about relationships, and about connection with different people. Obviously different people are going to think different things, but that’s what I think, and that’s what I’ve learned so far. That’s certainly what is most important to me outside of business and all that stuff.

 

Photo: provided.
Photo: provided.

 

PS: You’ve been posting some teasers about a big project you’ve got going on right now. Anything you can announce just yet?

DMcG: There’s going to be news on it very soon. It’s something I’m excited about. It’s something that is actually leading to a bigger project, which is going to be next year, and I know that is doubly weird and secretive. But yeah, there is going to be an announcement very soon. It’s about a themed record that will be released in the near future. Take from that what you want.

[To be sure to stay up to date with Damian’s work, sign up for his newsletter and follow him on social media. See links at the end of this article.]

PS: We will definitely stay tuned. What’s next, after Australia?

DMcG: We’re mastering and finishing the record we’re working on, and then I’m going to have a lot of touring in the autumn, and I’m working on a bigger project for 2017. There’s a lot going on right now, but it’s exciting. There’s going to be a lot of news coming out in the near future, in the next few months. Despite all the touring in the last few years and being really busy and performing–we just had a new Celtic Thunder number-one record, which is great–I’ve really been behind the scenes trying to create a lot, and trying to get a lot of work done for the future. And now those efforts are bearing fruit and I’m excited about that. Yeah, people are going to see results of a lot of hard work, very soon. I really hope they like it.

PS: Anything else you want to add?

DMcG: I can’t wait to get to Australia. It’s going to be great. I’m going home for a few days tomorrow, and then I fly to Sydney next week, so I’m excited. It’s going to be a great time.

PS: How long is that flight to Sydney? 

DMcG: Way too long. Dublin to Sydney is like eight hours to Dubai, then like 14 hours to Sydney or something like that. Something that is not pleasant, and I am honestly not that thrilled about it, but you know, sometimes to get to great things you have to go through challenging times. Being on an airplane for 22 hours fits in that category.

PS: I hope it goes well. I know you’ll have a fantastic tour. Thanks so much for your time, Damian!

DMcG: Thanks, Pam!

See Damian’s new cover of the Bee Gees hit “How Deep is Your Love” below or at this link!

Follow Damian online:
Official Website • Facebook • Twitter • Instagram • YouTube  • iTunes • Soundcloud

Also published at my Huffington Post blog.


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“It’s Just a Dance”: On Jodie Sweetin and Living a Fuller Life

success

Last Monday on Dancing with the StarsFull House (and now Fuller House) star Jodie Sweetin performed what judges said was her best dance ever—one week after one of her worst nights of the season. Host Tom Bergeron asked her, “You got so rattled last week. What did you do to not be rattled?”

“I had fun … it’s just a dance!” Jodie exclaimed with the full excitement of the moment. “It’s just a dance!”

I could imagine some of the producers and dancers and executives on the show thinking, “JUST A DANCE? Are you kidding? We have a multi-million-dollar brand built on JUST A DANCE. This is not JUST A DANCE!

But she was one hundred percent right. It’s not life and death. It’s a celebration. It’s fun. It’s release and joy. If she goes out and dances badly, who cares? It’s just a dance.

We’ve all been there. Whether something big or small, whether something important or relatively insignificant, there are things we attempt that rattle us. Maybe they rattle us so much that we don’t try again. Maybe just the thought of trying is so rattling that we don’t even start.

We—so many of us—have become so risk-averse in our lives. We have forgotten that mistakes and failure are nothing more than steps to success, data points on the journey to improvement, inextricable from progress. We cannot succeed without swimming through failure.

But we put so much pressure on ourselves to do things right that we end up not doing things.

We let fear drive our paths.

And our lives shrink.

And then we shrink, convincing ourselves that the small lives we have are the small lives we’re worthy of.

“It’s just a dance.”

This is a woman who has made her way through the horrible pain of addiction and the intense humiliation of public scrutiny.

This is a woman who knows how to survive.

I think her words are worth listening to.

We need to start a new conversation around the concept of “failure.” We need to take the stigma away, take the fear away.

There is no innovation, no creativity, no growth, without failure.

I remind myself of this every time I write a blog post, every time I’m about to publish a book. The fear wells up and I want to shrink and stay safe in my cocoon, not risking, not trying, and certainly not failing. But it’s just a blog post. It’s just a book. It’s just a dance.

The opposite of success is not failure. The opposite of success is not trying.

What are we not doing because we’re afraid we might fail?

What’s worth trying even if we don’t get it right the first time, or the tenth time, or ever?

Whether it’s a blog post or a book, a dance or a painting, going on a date or attending an event, joining a club or making a call, entering a competition or learning a new skill, all those things we want to try but which also terrify us—it’s just a dance.

And at the same time, it’s not just a dance: It’s living. It’s life.

Or, if I may bring the Sweetin conversation full circle, it’s about leading a Full Life. Or a Fuller Life, one might even say.

Let’s get out there and dance.

 

Also published at my Huffington Post blog.


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5 Things I Learned from a 50-Day Meditation Streak

My 50-day meditation streak, happily quantified by the Calm app.
My 50-day meditation streak, happily quantified by the Calm app.

Like so many of us, I’m an overthinker. My mind whirrs mercilessly, day and night. Therefore, for years I’ve been saying, “I really should start meditating.” I “knew” it would benefit me, but the thought of trying to get rid of my thoughts for 20 minutes a day was far too daunting. So I never really made much of an effort.

Then, a couple of months ago, I was reading Kelly McGonigal’s excellent book, The Willpower Instinct. In it, she states: “Just three hours of meditation practice led to improved attention and self-control. After eleven hours, researchers could see those changes in the brain.” And: “Another study found that eight weeks of daily meditation practice led to increased self-awareness in everyday life, as well as increased gray matter in corresponding areas of the brain.” Improved attention and self control? Increased self-awareness and gray matter? Who wouldn’t want these results?

At the same time, I’d recently become reacquainted with the Calm meditation app I’d downloaded a year or more ago. With mind whirring, I decided to give meditation another try.

I meditated sporadically for a while before attempting a long meditation streak. Having finally committed to trying something longer, I’ve just reached the 50-day mark, meditating every day for the last 50 days. One thing I know for sure is that every day is different. Some days I feel like I’m becoming a meditation professional; other days, I’m lucky if I have 10 “good” seconds in a 10-minute meditation.

But it’s not about perfection, and that’s one of the most important things I’ve learned so far on this meditation journey. Here are five more lessons I’ve learned along the way.

1. Five minutes is enough.

This is not the first time I’ve tried meditation, but it’s definitely the first time I’ve had much success. I’d say quite possibly the number one reason I never succeeded before is because I always thought I had to do at least 20 minutes a day for it to “work” (whatever that might mean).

But then one day I was looking through the timed options on the Calm app, and there they were: options not just for 20 minutes, an hour, eight hours, but also … 10 minutes. Five minutes. One minute.

Wait, I thought. If those are options included in the app, does that mean a five-minute meditation is … acceptable?

So I started with five minutes. And that, I believe, has made all the difference.

Would I have had greater or quicker “results” (whatever that might mean) from doing longer meditations? Highly possible. Would I have stayed with it for 50 days if I’d started out trying to do 20 minutes a day? I wouldn’t have lasted a week.

No, five minutes was enough. I wasn’t meditating so much as I was building a practice, a habit. I needed to start with something I simply could not justify not doing.

After maybe a month, I finally had formed enough of a habit that I decided to change it up: three 5-minute sessions a day, morning, noonish, and night. One benefit of this schedule is that it refocuses me throughout the day. Another benefit is that if I miss a session, I still have at least one or two short sessions completed.

I’ve continued to play around with how many sessions I do each day, and for how long. It’s ever-changing, and I expect it will continue to be. This flexibility has been key to my success. Which leads me to:

2. There’s no “right” or “wrong” way to do it.

Oh, I’m sure some hard-core meditators might disagree with me here, but one thing I told myself when I started this effort was that the effort, in and of itself, was the goal. I don’t worry about “right” or “wrong.”

When people find out I’m meditating, they always ask how I do it. Sometimes, if I’m feeling worried or anxious or upset about an interaction, for example, I’ll focus on whatever positive affirmation will provide a counterbalance to the day. Other times, if my brain is whirring along at a million miles an hour, I’ll spend my time letting thoughts float by, working to clear my mind and focusing on the app’s nature sounds. (I’m partial to the Calm app’s “Foggy Stream” scene, which has enough birds chirping and water running to help keep my mind on the meditation rather than all my other thoughts.) When I meditate three times in a day, I try to have at least one session be a “clear mind” session (focusing on letting go of thoughts), but I have firmly told myself there is no wrong way.

This “no judgment” mindset is especially important when the specter of comparison appears. The Calm Twitter account will often retweet people’s posts on which they share their streaks. Once, I saw a guy who had a 100-day streak. His total number of hours meditated for a 100-day streak was several times what mine will be when I get there. For a moment I thought, “I could just set the app to run for two hours while I do something else…” But that would be pointless. It’s not a competition. It’s life, it’s a habit. There’s no judgment. Do what works for you.

3. Small rewards matter.

Each day when I finish the first meditation of the day, the Calm app puts a lovely bright green dot on my calendar. It may seem silly, but when I began, just knowing I would get a new dot on my meditation streak calendar was enough incentive to get me started each new day (especially since I knew I only had to do five minutes).

My 50-day streak started on February 5, but that’s not the day I started meditating. In fact, I tried the Calm app long ago, but didn’t stick with it. Last December I started using it again, on and off, but I didn’t log in to the app, and so it didn’t record my progress. It wasn’t until late January that I finally logged in and started getting the little green reward dots. I did pretty well at the end of January, but I skipped February 4 before picking it up again. As I went on, day after day, seeing that naked little 4 on the calendar, no green reward dot surrounding it, made me realize that if I’d just done five minutes that day I could have had a “perfect” month. Did “perfection” matter? Not really. On the other hand, it made me happy, those little green dots.

Even more motivating is the fact that the app keeps track of how many days in a row I’ve meditated—e.g. a 50-day streak. (I assume most meditation apps have a similar feature. If you’re using another meditation app, please feel free to let us know in the comments how it works.) Every day, the number climbs, and all I have to do is sit still for five minutes, letting go of thoughts. As accomplishments go, it’s a pretty easy one to earn!

Now, you might ask, did the desire for a reward lead to the temptation to cheat? I’ll admit it: Yes, on occasion, yes it did. Somewhere around the 10- to 20-day-streak range, I probably was tempted two or three times to just turn on the app and let it run without my actually meditating. It’s at that point that the importance of setting a smaller, manageable five-minute goal became clear. “Come on, Pam,” I’d tell myself. “Five minutes. It is ridiculous to cheat to get a reward when all it takes is five minutes.” And that worked. Every time, I just gave in and did the five minutes. I didn’t cheat once, and now I no longer even want to.

4. There’s hope.

As is the case with so many people, my brain feels sometimes like it’s going non-stop. The moments in meditation where I actually manage to get my brain clear are most often followed by, “Oh look! My brain is clear! I’m doing such a great job! …” and then off I’ll go, drafting an email or an article or thinking about who I need to call before realizing that moment of clarity was quite brief and is now long gone. It’s okay. I just bring my brain back (the sensation is almost physical, the halting of thoughts), and try again.

The proof in the pudding: about five weeks into my 50-day streak I was sitting in my living room, not meditating. As happens all the time, a worrying thought started to seep into my head. And do you know what happened? I let the thought go. Just like I practice all the time in meditation! I let the worrying thought go!

I’d love to say I’ve managed to do that every time since, but I haven’t. But the thing is, there is hope.

5. “Showing up” is a core value.

I’ve done enough of this self-work that if you’d asked me any time over the the last few years to list my core values, I could have easily rattled them off: courage, connection, compassion. Quite unexpectedly, though, through meditation, and more specifically through thinking about what I’ve learned from meditation, I’ve recognized another core value: showing up.

I say all the time that people worry too much about “doing it right” and not enough about whether they’re doing it at all. Turns out the same is true with meditation. Just as in life, it’s not about “getting it right.” No, it’s about showing up and putting in the time, making the effort, day in and day out.

Recognizing showing up as a core value was a truly powerful realization, and it is providing me with another guiding star. I’m not concerned with perfection, either in meditation or in life. What I want to know, whether at the end of my life of the end of my day, is, did I show up? In my life and in my relationships, for myself and for others? Was I there, in the game, in the arena, on the field? I may not come in first. I may fall; I may be bruised and battered. I may play to an empty house. I may say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, look like a fool, feel like an idiot. I may have 10 seconds of clarity in a 10-minute meditation. But was I there, making the effort?

The seeds of this core value can be seen in the Personal Manifesto I created for myself a few years ago, which includes the phrases, “There’s no such thing as bad dancing, so long as you’re dancing,” and “You don’t have to know the exact path to or location of your dream. You just have to start walking.” I’d never worded it as simply as “show up,” but that’s pretty much what it comes down to.

Having crystalized the core value of showing up reminds me to look at everyday life through the same lens. “Did I win a Pulitzer, write the best book ever written, sell billions of copies? No. Did I write some good books that many people have enjoyed? Yes. And did I have fun, and learn, and grow from it? Absolutely yes.”

So. Do I have it all figured out now? Definitely not, and I doubt you’ll ever hear me claim that I do. But I’m getting the hang of meditation, and I’m starting to even crave it. I’m seeing other emerging trends, as well, positive and exciting potential trends and benefits. It’s too soon now to talk about them, but come back in 50 more days for my 100-day report!

Some notes on apps: I use the free version of the Calm app, but there are several apps out there for both phone and desktop. A lot of people use Headspace or other apps. Most apps have free trials, as well as free versions post-trial. I recommend trying out several to see what works for you!

 

Also published at my Huffington Post blog.


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