Embrace the butterflies — At this point in my career, I have performed thousands of times and the pre-show nerves that often leave my stomach muscles twitching and my teeth chattering have never quite gone away. It doesn’t matter how many stages I’ve stood on, I know I can count on what amounts to a mini-panic attack for the 30 or so minutes leading up to show time. I have come to embrace this feeling and understand that it is a natural manifestation of my passion for what I do, but this leads to the next thing.
As a part of our series about creating a successful career in theatre, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing John Kim Faye.
John Kim Faye (www.johnfaye.com), author of The Yin and the Yang of It All: Rock ’N’ Roll Memories from the Cusp, as Told By a Mix-Up, Mix-Race Kid, is a music “lifer” whose career spans four decades and counting. As a recording artist, producer, mentor, open mic host, and recently retired songwriting professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Faye has seen the music industry from every conceivable angle. His various musical iterations — the Caulfields, John Faye Power Trip, IKE, John & Brittany, and his solo works — have yielded over eight hours of recorded music, song placements in film and television, and substantial commercial and satellite radio airplay.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I was born out of wedlock in 1966 to a 40-year-old Korean mother and a 62-year-old Irish father. It’s a pretty safe bet to say I was not “planned.” I was born in Philadelphia but grew up in Delaware — one of 16 states in the country that still had laws forbidding interracial marriage until 1967. I lost my father to cancer when I was 6, so as a kid without a father figure navigating the post-Vietnam era, I dealt with more than my share of what I like to call “ethno-disparagement” as a little kid. Being mixed race made life all the more confusing. I was half Korean and half Irish but I didn’t feel any connection to either half.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific musical career path?
I think my entry point into music is a little different than a lot of people. As a kid and a budding music fan, it provided me an escape and a fantasy world where the things I was dealing with in my actual daily life — racism and the loss of my dad — would disappear. I think I became a discerning music listener at an earlier age than most because it was such an escape hatch for me. Listening to my older sisters’ record collection, which they kept in the rattiest cardboard box known to man, was the start of what became a lifelong love affair. It was a slow but powerful progression from that early fandom into the inkling that I might be able to make my own music, and that progression has never stopped.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
I’ve had a lot of support along the way, but no one comes close to the importance of my mom. She grew up in Korea and came to America with literally zero knowledge of what pop music was. So, I know that my career path concerned her, because she had no context for what I was doing, but she always supported my choices in her own way.
Can you share a story about that?
At a very pivotal crossroads in the late 90’s — just after my band the Caulfields lost our major label record deal — she gave me an unexpected pep talk that basically told me I had to keep going. This was in the midst of most of the other people in my life telling me to “go back to school” or “get a real job.” I felt like my mom gave me permission to unapologetically be myself. With that permission, I took a career that could have ended after the proverbial “15 minutes” and instead I went on to make 15 records and feel a tremendous sense of connection and community with my various pursuits.
You probably have a lot of fascinating experiences. Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Wow, where to begin?! My career is filled with crazy experiences, many of which are chronicled in The Yin and the Yang of it All, but I think one that I found over the years to gain resonance was a dinner that the Caulfields had with Apollonia Kotero — of Apollonia 6 in Purple Rain. Our A&R person was considering signing her to a new deal and let the band tag along to the meeting. As we were saying our goodbyes, she said something I’ll never forget: “Remember fellas… there’s plenty of room at the top for all of us.” Over time, I have come to interpret her words not as simply referring to the “top of the charts” or being the most famous or popular. I see it as there being room for all of us to make and define our own success. We can all create a space where our own particular narrative and unique path to that success is valid.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Well, if you get something out of it — was it really a mistake? I’ve confronted a lot of humorous consequences for many of my choices to be sure. One that comes to mind is this: The Caulfields were on a national tour in 1995 and we were playing a big alternative rock festival in New Orleans called Zephyrfest in front of about 20,000 people. It was the kind of show where the crowd surfing and moshing was just constant and you could tell the crowd was.. volatile. At one point, someone threw a full water bottle at my head and I caught it right before it hit my face. And instead of diffusing the situation, I screamed into the mic “You’re gonna have to do a lot better than that, motherfuckers!” And hurled the bottle back into the crowd. Of course, within seconds, hundreds of water bottles were flying at the stage. It was comical — our manager made a human shield of himself and used his experience as a hockey goalie to swat down every last bottle flying at me for the rest of the show. Now.. is there a lesson there? Life has taught me that with every situation you have a choice as to your level of reactivity. Could I have reacted in a way that would have yielded a different result? Absolutely. But if I had, I wouldn’t have that story. And I’m really glad I have that story.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
The most exciting thing I’m working on now is taking the themes and experiences in my memoir and adapting them into live “songs and stories” performances, which are part rock show, part book reading, part beat poetry. I have musicians onstage with me playing semi-improvised music beds beneath my story telling. It’s theatrical in many ways, but not completely scripted, so things can breathe in different ways, which is an exhilarating feeling as a performer. It’s the first time in a long time I feel like I’m going without a net. I am also taking “songs and stories” into educational, DEI, and business spaces and finding that it really resonates with those audiences.
You have been blessed with success in a career path that can be challenging. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of rejection, lack of support, or failure?
A big part of what I like to share with musicians aspiring to make a career for themselves is to do your best to extricate yourself away from the idea that outside validation is what makes or breaks us. We all like being validated, but I wholeheartedly reject the notion that we are defined by clicks, likes, followers, any of that mess. If you believe down to your deepest core in what you are doing, and you put in the work required to be the best version of yourself you can be, then you can’t be swayed.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in the live performance industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I would say that after more than thirty years doing live performances, it really becomes a question of learning to say “no” to situations that don’t serve you. I think I’m still able to perform at a level I’m happy with because I am very intentional about not letting my work become a grind, or feel rote in any way. I try to make each performance its own unique experience for myself and my audience, and that keeps me motivated.
Thank you for all that.
This is the main question of our interview. “What are your 5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career in Broadway, Theater or Live Performances” and why? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
I can only speak to my thoughts on live performance but here are five things that have helped me:
1. Embrace the butterflies
At this point in my career, I have performed thousands of times and the pre-show nerves that often leave my stomach muscles twitching and my teeth chattering have never quite gone away. It doesn’t matter how many stages I’ve stood on, I know I can count on what amounts to a mini-panic attack for the 30 or so minutes leading up to show time. I have come to embrace this feeling and understand that it is a natural manifestation of my passion for what I do, but this leads to the next thing..
2. Prepare, then let go
Don’t underestimate the amount of time you know that has to go into preparing for a performance. You obviously have to know and rehearse your material and do all your pre-show warm-ups and vocal hacks (lip trills and lots of pineapple chunks for me), but at a certain point, it’s important to trust that preparation and try to let go of any urges to continue prepping too close to show time, like you’re cramming for an exam. You know you put in the time and the work — try to clear your mind in the last few minutes leading up to the performance.
3. Keep it fresh
For me, the key to longevity in live performing has been to avoid complacency. I proactively seek out situations that guarantee that I will feel a perpetual sense of possibility, renewal, and challenge. I treat every performance as its own experience that I want to make as unique as possible, both for me and whomever is watching or listening. For a songwriter like me, changing up the set list in some way every show, even when you know something “works,” is a good way to do that. I also enjoy performing in unusual spaces and situations from time to time. Sure, the sold-out show at a traditional concert venue is great, but I’m also someone who says “yes” to playing a house concert or doing a hybrid music and speaking event in front of a conference of executive coaches, or singing the national anthem at a roller derby.
4. Learn to say “no”
Even though I’ll often say “yes” to offers I consider to be more “for the experience,” I have had to learn to say “no” to things that don’t work for me. I have come to see my career as a series of performances that I get to curate. Being particular about what I will and won’t do is a big part of that.
5. Forge connection
One of the main reasons I became a performing musician was to forge and feed off of connection with an audience, in part because I felt so isolated and marginalized as a kid. Every performance is an opportunity to touch someone’s life in a way that perhaps they didn’t expect. When my memoir The Yin and the Yang of it All came out recently, the release show was billed as “Songs and Stories,” which allowed me to use my broader narrative to give greater context to my songs and present it all in a way that was new for me and most everyone in attendance. I was floored by how many people told me how much closer they felt to me and how much better they felt they knew me after the performance. Feeling that connection as a performer can go a long way in sustaining your drive and your career.
For the benefit of our readers, could you describe how the skill-sets you need in a live performance are different than the skill-sets you need for TV or film?
Again, I can only speak from the one perspective, but I do feel that the ability to “roll with” the unexpected in a situation is a very key part of live performance. I’m more than willing to let a show take a detour or go on a tangent. When you think about it, it’s much more memorable for an audience if a show doesn’t go off precisely as it may have been planned. I embrace that.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would replace the pledge of allegiance with The Four Agreements.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Everyone is someone else’s weirdo.”
When I was in high school, one of my best friend’s father had drawn a little cartoon and placed it on their refrigerator door. That was the caption. It always stuck with me and I took it to mean: You’re never going to please everybody, so don’t live your life based on outside validation.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Definitely Paul McCartney. Go big or go home 🙂
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This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!