>>> Birth of a Phoenix
November 16, 2012
When I logged on to type this blog, I couldn't believe been three years since I blogged on this website. With the advent of social media in the last several years, I think we've gotten spoiled by having constant communication at our fingertips on our smartphones, tablets, laptops, desktops, and smart TVs. It's actually a little crazy to me to think that six years ago, I had a T-Mobile Sidekick and thought it was cool enough to blog about, and now there are gadgets out there that make that thing look ancient and cumbersome. I also didn't have a Facebook because I thought it was too trendy and I am somewhat of a rebel, so I don't like going with the fads, and my MySpace was all I could talk about, and I blogged on there for a while too.
However, with the current construction being done to my website, I realized that my journals were one of the things that actually kept me somewhat normal and functioning in this crazy world, whereas social networks can sometimes change your mood on a whim just by reading someone else's status update or during those moments when you feel the need to share your frustrations with your followers or friends, thereby immortalizing your temporary state of mind into an indelible impression in others' minds. I think social networking can be a little self-serving and unhealthy, sometimes, but yet it does serve to keep everyone connected, so it isn't completely evil. LOL!
I had the opportunity to go back and read old journals from the early 2000s and also during the time period when my first studio album ("FOREVER RED") and my band's live album that followed it ("EXPERIENCE") were in production and were released, and also during the spiritually formative years between 2008 and 2010 when I composed, produced and released my second studio album "MIRRORS AND MEMORIES".
I think somewhere around that point, I fell off the journal map and I also fell off of my own map as well. I'd never admitted it prior to a couple of years ago, and only to a select few people, but despite the successes in my life - having released three albums within the first five years of my solo career, opening for amazing artists like Benatar, being discovered by Benise on YouTube and becoming his tour understudy for my violin idol (Karen Briggs), getting a fantastic part-time job at a wonderful dance studio in Austin, and moving into a really amazing apartment and becoming the owner of two amazing kitties - I had gotten depressed.
This wasn't a depression related to a breakup or a job loss or composer's block. It was completely self-inflicted because I wasn't taking care of my body. I looked back on journals where I talked about getting bitten by the "party bug" and going downtown and tearing up the nightlife with my friends and frankly, I'm ashamed of myself for having even posted that, let alone done it. As a Christian, I was taught to believe and eventually grew to KNOW that my body is a temple. I wasn't eating right (late night fast food after gigs), I was drinking too much (being a good tipper to bartenders at nightclubs gets you a popularity discount, apparently), and I wasn't active at all. Prior to 2006, I had never jogged a day in my life, and I would only go jogging when I felt like my waist was a little tight or my stomach felt full.
I had become so toxic to my body, to myself, and to those around me, especially my loved ones, that I was basically a walking contradiction. I was singing and playing songs with uplifting messages, when in reality all I wanted to do after a concert was pack up my gear and get out of Dodge before people would have a chance to see that I truly didn't want to be talking to anyone. I even recall a moment during my first USA tour with Benise in late 2010 when I was holed up in my dressing room after a show, not wanting to go to a Meet-and-Greet with the rest of the cast because all I could do was cry and feel sorry for myself that I wasn't safe at home in my apartment with my cats, answering phones at a desk, or frolicking around some nightclub with my friends. All I could talk about was how unhappy I was and how I didn't want to play music anymore because I didn't like being on the road and being away from my comfort zone. At that point, I even considered ending my own life.
It's really sad, in hindsight, because I had pushed away some of my most devoted and dedicated band members who didn't want to work with me anymore because of my increasingly negative and selfish attitude. Even more sad, during that period I also alienated someone I loved more than I had ever loved anyone, the "one who got away". I was so selfish and into my own misery that I pushed him away because he was following his dreams and moving away to New York City. And yes, I'm gay. To many of you who already know me, this is a big "DUH!", and to many others, it probably doesn't seem necessary to even mention it. However, the process of change in my life meant that I had to really let go of a lot of fear and uncertainty, and this meant being open about who I was, not because I wanted to wave a flag about it, but because it was part of my ongoing catharsis.
Even though a lot of people already knew (mostly my best friends, my band, and family) or assumed (probably a lot of you out there), I had never really actually "come out", which is probably another reason why I was depressed. I would tell people that I didn't "feel the need" and that it was no one's business but my own, but to tell the truth (since that is what is at stake here), I had been convinced to not say anything about me being gay, because not everyone in my family was completely supportive of it. At one point, I was told that coming out or being honest about myself was going to hurt my career... that maybe my fans would stop liking me or loving my music, maybe clubs and venues wouldn't want to hire me, or maybe other artists wouldn't want to work with me.
In hindsight, I realize that those who told me that were only letting fear and hate of gays blind them into trying to get me to stay in my cage. I think everything combined - my being in the closet, my drinking problem, my bad eating habits - formed a cage of emotions that basically didn't let me let anyone in, or let myself out. It was only when my ex broke up with me in early 2011 that I realized that I couldn't go back down the same road I had during previous breakups. I had to reinvent myself and free myself, and that came first with forgiving myself and forgiving others as well. This is actually a process that is still ongoing, because 33 years of not feeling accepted by your family is something that is somewhat painful to endure. It's like all they wanted to see was the violinist or their Christian son, and not the gay man I was as well.
Moving forward, I also had to free my body of the curse I'd placed on it with drinking alcohol, never exercising, and eating really horrible things in really high quantities. In six years, I had gained 40 pounds and even though people tell me I carried it well at my height, I felt uncomfortable in my body for a long time and I had to take charge of it. So, I started slow and easy with walking on the treadmill, and cutting sodas out of my diet along with alcoholic beverages. Then I started doing intervals with walking and jogging, and took the fast food and late night snacks out of my diet. By the spring of 2011, I had lost 20 pounds and was also feeling the change internally - it's like I had rediscovered the positive exuberance that I'd been known for in my early to mid-20s, and I felt young again. By the summer, I was running outdoors and had lost 15 more pounds, and by the time that the Benise 2011 tour rolled around - a year after that manic episode in the dressing room - I had lost those 40 pounds and was becoming more fit and healthy than I had ever been before. It took me six months of hard work, exercise, healthy eating with an occasional splurge, to get back to a weight that I had been back in high school, and I felt like a new man, inside and out. It was like I was Omar Version 2.0.
When I was younger, in the days before Dreamsound, Forever Red, and Benise, I had been known for doing club performances alongside a local DJ with my red electric violin. The clubgoers called me the "FireFiddler", probably because this is Texas and to a lot of people, the violin is a purely classical instrument, and someone playing anything else on a violin besides Mozart is a fiddler. So there I was, "FireFiddler", with my sparkly red shirts and big clubkid platform boots and spiky hair, and I decided to nickname my violin "Phoenix". Fast forward twelve years, and with this new me having awakened in the latter part of 2011, I decided to become one with my violin's moniker because people had always told me that my instrument was an extenstion of me, and I always felt that the world around me and all of my troubles or frustrations or stressors or distractions would just disappear when I was onstage with "Phoenix". So, I adopted "Phoenix" as my middle name, and I also wrote a song about this journey.
I went back into the studio after the Fall 2011 tour with Benise was over and rejoined Mark Ford, who was my co-producer for the "MIRRORS AND MEMORIES" album, and together we mapped out, arranged, recorded, mixed, and released what is still one of my favorite songs in my repertoire - "PHOENIX". It's probably my most "poppy" song (if there is such a word) because of its lyric-heavy composition and arrangement. In it, I sing about wanting to be reborn in the eyes of someone I've hurt after coming back from the metaphorical ashes of who I had been when I hurt them. I also sing about wanting to come free from a cage that I've set on fire.
The point of writing a blog or keeping a journal is to clear your mind and free yourself, and I know I've taken a risk by sharing a lot of this with you. To many, being gay is contrary to everything that Christianity is, but when I call myself Christian, it refers to a spiritual way of living as opposed to being a part of manmade organization, a.k.a. religion. I have always been spiritual, and at one time I was religious, but I truly believe that God does not make junk and I know that he would not have made me this way just so I could suffer. I believe in a powerful, loving, and forgiving God, and I have never let go of my beliefs or my faith, despite the many things I have gone through in life to get to where I am today, especially in my life as a gay man.
Furthermore, me calling myself "Omar Phoenix" may seem like a contrast and almost pagan in comparison to my Christian beliefs, but the Bible actually has a verse in the New Testament when talking about accepting Christ and becoming like phoenixes, rising from our own ashes. The Phoenix actually exists in many cultures and religions, but aside from that, I felt that adding Phoenix to my name reflected the positive changes I had undergone in my life. We are all phoenixes in a way, because we endure tough situations and overcome obstacles in order to learn and grow, and become stronger as individuals. For my part, I basically had to "die" and let go of a lot of things from my past that were holding me back in order to come back to "life" and start discovering who I really was and become the person and artist that I now know I am destined to be.
>>> The New Band
November 18, 2012
Last Friday night, my band and I performed at the Formula One launch here in Austin on the Austin Creates stage. My friend Mary Shanahan booked us for a 45-minute set, so we pulled out all the stops with some of our best and most energetic material (new and old). It's been two years since I did a downtown street gig like this, and the last time was for SXSW 2010 under the Frost Bank Tower. This year, it's under the Austonian (Austin's tallest building) on 2nd and Congress, so this was kind of like a "homecoming" gig in a way, considering I've been touring steadily with Benise for the past couple of years.
In my last blog about transforming from Omar López into Omar Phoenix, I wrote that my negative attitude and depression had caused me to drive away some of the musicians that had taken care of me during my formative years as a budding solo artist. However, things do come "full circle", and time heals relationships of all kinds, but we also have to make changes to our attitudes and behaviors in order for the healing to be complete and lasting. All these changes in my life are helping me grow into the man and the performing and recording artist I have always felt that God had destined me to be. Of course, there is no growth without risk or sacrifce. This evolution means that I've had to be on the road a lot, putting on really exciting shows with Benise but enduring a lot of trials, obstacles, and really crazy and sometimes stressful situations, and that means I've had to be away from my band.
I've had a blast on tour, but my patience has definitely been tested at times. Still, it's been a rewarding experience because I've gotten to work with some amazing musicians and dancers during my time with Benise, and we've played venues from Beirut to Beijing, and all across the United States. That being said, being on tour and becoming a part of the Benise family has really made miss my own band - my true musical family - especially since a Winter 2011 concert that took place almost a year ago. Before I went to China, I reunited with them at Bethany United Methodist Church to put on what was (at the time) our best concert in the seven years I've been playing as a "solo artist" - well, reunited for the most part.
There were a few new members, but there were also some familiar faces, including my longtime bassist Ryan Redfern and vocalists Rachel Keagy and Kelley Phillips-Glover. That night, my tremendously-talented guitarist Zach Hennig was brand-new to the group, as was drummer Chris Spivey. They replaced Peter Mazzetti, the former guitarist who departed to spend more time with his family, and Reagan Redfern, who played drums during my 2008 concerts before relocating to California. Nic Whitworth, who is musical director at Bethany, sat in on piano and keyboards for that night, and the entire group did a fantastic job at bringing songs from "FOREVER RED" and "MIRRORS AND MEMORIES" back to life, as well as helping me to open the show with "PHOENIX" during its first-ever performance in a live concert.
Since finishing the tour and returning to Austin, the band and I have been joined by two new keyboardists - Robert Coler, who will serve as co-musical director alongside Zach (the guitarist), and Kris "KeyZ" Howell. These two guys are amazing musicians in their own right, with Rob having an extensive knowledge of jazz fusion progressions, scales, and chords while also playing with a very strong contemporary feel and Kris having this soulful R&B and funk style. After our rehearsals earlier this week, I felt confident that tonight's performance would go off without a hitch, and I was right. Ryan, Chris, Zach, Rob, and Kris killed it from start to finish, and even though we only had time to play eight songs (similar to our Benatar opening-act slot back in 2008), the energy onstage was electric and it felt like the city was ours for the taking even for just that fleeting moment, lighting up the night with our "wings of flame". I've posted a set list (just like old times), so you all can see what we performed!
1. Dawn (our favorite opening tune from the "FOREVER RED" days... works great as a soundcheck song!)
2. Phoenix (during longer concerts, we open with this, but for Friday I took out the long intro and launched into it as the second tune)
3. Dangerous Games (a 7/8 rocker from the "MIRRORS AND MEMORIES" album)
4. Mirrors and Memories
5. Titanium (originally by David Guetta, featuring Sia... we did this as an instrumental without vocals, and are recording it for my next album)
6. Palladio / Kashmir (a mash-up of the "diamond commercial song" and the Led Zeppelin classic)
7. Forever Red (this needs no explanation!)
8. Synergy (the song we always close with... it's also the first song on the "MIRRORS AND MEMORIES" album)