"We are all very vulnerable and insecure, and people can relate to that. Much more than they can relate to someone who is super super confident."

About John Pippus

Screen Shot 2015-03-18 at 11.10.02 PMFrom sharing a stage with Jackson Browne to playing to small, but appreciative coffee house audiences, John has lived a life filled with music and well-earned stories. SoundProof Magazine has declared him, “…a folk/roots gem”; The Vancouver Province says he’s: “…a refined tunesmith with serious pop hooks”. Earshot Magazine’s Shelley Gummeson says:”He has a gift for making us believe that he’s been down the road and around the block, and is still kickin’ it.”

Favorite venues John has played include: The Bluebird Café (Nashville), The Tractor Tavern (Seattle), The Vogue Theatre (Vancouver), Canon’s Gait (Edinburgh), Bruxelles Bar (Dublin),The Newtown Festival (Wellington, New Zealand), Bluebird North (Vancouver), and The ArtsWells Festival in Wells, BC. John has toured in The Netherlands in May 2012 and again in May/June 2014. In September 2014 he performed on the VIA train from Vancouver to Toronto. He tours regularly on Vancouver Island, BC’s Interior, Ontario, Quebec and overseas.

The interview

1. What is the force that drives you forward? What fuels your ambition?

I have a sense there’s more than one answer. One of them is a sense of mortality. I’m not going to be here forever, and I want to leave something behind – as cliche as that might sound. Because once I’m gone, physically gone, I’d love to leave something behind in this world that was uniquely mine and uniquely me. I find some comfort in that.

Another reason is I can’t help but do it. To write songs is a gift. We’ve all got gifts, and if we choose to not develop, or use, or share our gift… I think that’s a terrible waste and a mistake. It’s not about ego at all. It really makes the world a better place when you share it.

Why do I do what I’m doing? I think back on some of the past performances I’ve done. If I nail it – think of a golfer hitting a ball straight down the fairway. That’s what’s going to bring them back. They’re not going to remember the one where the golfer hooked the ball into the lake. And I’m not going to remember those gigs that were so frustrating when they didn’t come together due to gear failure, or audience failure, bandmate failure… or whatever. No, I’m going to remember those gigs when an audience member came up to me after the show, and said ‘that song really touched me.’ Or those moments when I can just see it in someones eyes that I have that audience member with me.

That’s the force that keeps me going. Putting up with all the furniture moving – when you’re lugging furniture from gig to gig, and you’re dealing with bandmates who are dealing with one thing or another. Hustling gigs… all that hard stuff that gets you to the stage. All that stuff falls away, and you’re left with that performance. And that is the force that keeps me going.

There’s nothing like performing, creating. Working with other people and making something that is really true.

You spoke before about the experience of being the last man standing. Could you talk more on that topic?

The struggle of trying to be successful in an artistic discipline – in my case it’s songwriting and performing — is  really hard. And you’re often tempted to just pack it in. “It’s too hard. Forget it.” But if you can find that something that can keep you going – and it can often be just the smallest thing: someone saying that performance gave me goosebumps or brought me to tears. Or I could have danced all night – those little things can really keep you going.

And I think having that discipline is very admirable, and it should be celebrated. Besides your talent, the thing that keeps you going and puts you in the arena is your own self. It’s the hardest thing sometimes to keep going, and I just want to celebrate it.

2. Can you talk about your greatest “failure”? (something that led to your most significant shift in consciousness, and made you who you are today)

I’m older now. I’m coming at this from someone who has raised kids. And raising kids will humble you. You’ll find out that you are not the centre of the universe. They are. You find out truly what it’s like to want the best for another human being beyond yourself.

When you want to give the bigger slice of pizza to the person you’re with, you know it’s genuine. Because when you’re younger, you want the biggest slice for yourself, and you’re thinking ‘oh! I hope they don’t take it.”

So my biggest failure was that my ego in my twenties was too big. One day it would be a huge ego – ‘I’m amazing! I’m going to be the next biggest thing’ — and the next day it would be these crushing feelings of insignificance – ‘I’m shit, I’m no good.’ You know?

And it was a rough ride. I don’t know if you people in your twenties are going through that now, but I sure did. And as I had kids, and as I got older, I realized that it was’t about me, but it was about the stuff I was creating. It was about making it as good as it could be for it’s own sake. My greatest failure was my ego which prevented me from writing, because I’d think ‘oh this song isn’t the best song ever written so I can’t perform it or I can’t finish it because it’s not as good as it can be.’ Whereas as I got older, I realized: ‘meh. This song is okay.  It’s not great, but it’s finished. It’s done. And now I can move onto the next one. And maybe that one will be better.’

3. Are you happy? What does happiness mean to you?

Yes, I’m happy. I know that it’s fleeting. I’m healthy. I’m alive. So therefore I’m happy. I mean look at me. My limbs are functioning, I have enough money to not worry about it.

But am I happy artistically? I think you find your  happiness as you go, and it can be the smallest things. I mean, I’ve been number one on certain radio charts, and I’ve  been written up in the newspaper with glowing reviews. But I’m learning that those types of things – that feeling of satisfaction – is very fleeting. Within moments, you’re thinking ‘now what?I’ve had enough of that external success to know that yes it’s cool, but it’s not something that will keep me happy for very long.

Happiness comes in such small moments. It’s a glance from a bandmate when you nail a passage. Or it’s having someone comment on your performance. Those are the little moments of success that really contribute to contentment and a knowing that I am on the right path. Along the way I have consistently gotten these little signals that what I’m doing is authentic and good. I know when I’m connecting with an audience, and it makes me happy when that happens.

4. What do you think is your greatest strength?

Screen Shot 2015-03-18 at 11.10.15 PMAgain I think I need to go back to humility. I’ve learned it, and I didn’t have it. My greatest strength is knowing that I’m not the most important person in the room.

I mean, often I’m the band leader. I’m often the only one on the microphone in a large room of people… but what allows me to be in that role is a sense that it’s not all about me. That what I’m doing is a combination of the sharing of an ability to write songs to make the craft better and  the singing lessons that I continue to take to improve my voice – and so there’s technique on top of natural ability. That’s important. The natural and the craft.

So my strength is knowing that it’s not all about me, as cliche as that sounds. There are quite a few people involved in getting me into that position where I can lead the band and deliver to the audience.

On the reverse, can you identify a personal challenge (something you currently struggle with)?

I do tend to say yes a lot. I say yes to people who take up my time with a creative project or something they need… co-writing. I will tend to say yes, because often it leads to something good. My dad was like that. He’d say yes to people…

But then you could end up working with people that aren’t actually challenging you. So my weakness is that I should sometimes say no, and I don’t. I should be more forceful.

And another greatest weakness is being insecure. Which curiously is also a strength, because you have to be vulnerable to get yourself across. We are all very vulnerable and insecure, and people can relate to that. Much more than they can relate to someone who is super super confident. But sometimes it can also be quite crippling and it can stop you from trying something. But I’ve gotten past that mostly.

When I’m prepared, I feel much more confident than when I’m winging it. But the best moment is when I’m winging it.I tell the band: you’ve got to be tight to be loose. When we rehearse, when we get into that moment and someone goes off and we follow them into some sort of improvised section, we’ll be able to land it. You can land the trick, and you do that by doing it over and over again. It can’t all be undisciplined, but some of it can… because you’ve laid the groundwork.

5. When did you first realize that you wanted to be an artist? Can you talk about that moment or time in your life?

I discovered the joys of rock and roll when I was 15, because at the age of 12 – when I got my first guitar – to the age of 15, I was taking lessons every week and learning out of a book. Just reading along and learning the fundamentals of music. And I kept doing it, but I wasn’t sure why. I was pretty nerdy at the time. But I kept doing it because I wanted to.

When I was 15, I went to summer camp  and the counsellor showed me the chords that went E G A C. It was rock and roll. It was freeing.

I realized that you could actually play rock and roll on the guitar. So I was able to take my limited skills, and just turn it around and play stuff that made the girls sit closer. And that’s when the light went on, and I realized that music could be used for impressing girls, That was the start of it. Because girls liked it! I went from being nerdy and sitting in my bedroom, to being popular. And for a 17 year old, that’s pretty big motivation.

Now I’m not doing it for the girls anymore because I am married and that’s all taken care [laughs], but some of that same drive is still there to impress. I want to show off. I want to touch people. I want to touch people because it’s a good human thing to do, but it’s also pretty cool if you can touch people and give them goosebumps. It doesn’t happen all the time. It’s a challenge, and I think it’s a good challenge.

6. Habits, routine, morning rituals — What are the positive things you do daily that have had the most significant impact on your life and work?

I like my routine of waking up, having my morning coffee, and  listening to CBC radio. I like to have my habits – my usual things. But I also like exercise. I like to go out for a run. Or go to the gym. That really helps my creative space.

In terms of writing, I don’t write everyday. I don’t necessarily practice everyday. I mean, I play around with my guitar every day. I guess that’s called practicing? Being playful. If I have the guitar in my hands, I might stumble across a couple of chords that sound good together. And maybe that will lead to a song. So I have a relaxed approach to developing my craft. But those are my habits. I always have the guitar around somewhere, where I can easily reach for it.

And if some ideas aren’t flowing, I’ll learn other songs. It’s always good to go on Youtube and look at stuff. See what other people are playing. And by imitating what they’re doing, it might lead to something else that’s more original. That’s what I do.

7. How do you deal with doubt? Where do you go for support?

Well… sometimes I have to talk to myself. It’s an ongoing inner dialogue that I have with myself.

But I guess it depends on the type of doubt.

If I have doubt in the form of a song, I’ll bounce it off other people. I’ll go to a workshop. I’ll ask a friend to listen to the song and see what they say. That’s the creative doubt.

If I’m doubting the whole thing – the bigger doubt – like should I still be performing anymore? Why am I doing all these cover songs in this dive? – because that’s the gig sometimes. So if I’m having doubt, it’s a combination of talking it out, and talking to myself. Stewing, I suppose. And waiting to find some direction out of it.

I always get through the doubt.

Do you have a mantra that you say to yourself – or anything like – when you feel the doubt coming. Something that you say to yourself to lift yourself out of it.

Nothing’s coming to mind. I think I tend to just stumble along like most people. I don’t really have a mantra or a motto, I just keep going somehow. Sometimes it will be – luckily – a stranger who affirms me. You know ‘hey that song is really good.” And I’m saying oh Thank you!

Happens a lot. Happened last night. I was feeling doubtful about a performance, and someone came up to me on the break and said something quite original or heartfelt about how that song had moved them. When that happens and I’m feeling doubtful, I thank them with so much gratitude. And sometimes, when I know I’ve nailed it and they come up, my response is more like ‘oh, thanks man.’ But I don’t need it. It confirms what I’m thinking.

But there are those times – 1/2 the time, 1/4 of the time –  when I’m thinking: I wasn’t authentic. I blew it. And then someone comes up and… sometimes it’s words, and sometimes it’s just a look. It’s like a lifeline. I wrote a song about it. It’s called “Little Things.”

8. What, in your opinion, are the qualities of someone who is a “great” artist (in whatever discipline)?

Vulnerability. But I guess that first you have to see that they have honed their craft. That they are bringing to the table an immense talent of some sort. If they’re a painter, they’ve figured out the colour palette and they know how to work with colour and brush strokes and lines. If they’re a dancer, they know how to land that leap. If they’re a musician, they know how to play their instrument.

You know that you’re in the hands of somebody who has put the time into it. So that’s the first thing. They’ve got to have the talent.

But then beyond that… you can’t just be technical. There has to be a vulnerability where you know that they’ve been hurt. Or you know that they’ve thought about something deeply, and they’re willing to be vulnerable and share it.

And another element that really works is humour. They know they can laugh at themselves. And that sense of laughter and playfulness really helps.

So within the craft, the talent, the vulnerability, and the humour – I think that’s enough for me to be blown away by it.

9. Any advice for artists on a similar path? (Perhaps advice you wish you’d been given when you were first starting out).

Screen Shot 2015-03-18 at 11.10.33 PMWell. I’m a singer songwriter.

I think a bit of practical advice – you could apply this to other artistic disciplines – is offer something to someone. You could offer a workshop. Working with other people who are doing what you want to be doing. If you’re doing something like that, it could lead to gigs. Who knows.

In my case I run this music night every Friday night at this coffee house (Trees Organic on Granville Street, Vancouver). I’ve been doing it for nine years.  I invested about $900 in mics and a PA. I go to a coffee house, I set it up, and I have my music night. So I’ve become the hub in this community of songwriters. They’re coming to me if they want to play there.

I’ve created my own little business. And it doesn’t take up all my time, because I’m still a singer songwriter. I’m not primarily a booker or a host. But I do that every Friday night, and that does lead to other opportunities. It’s a networking thing. You’re learning from others. If you’re trying to become established in your discipline, find a way to become that service provider.

We’re all dreamers. We’re all dreaming of becoming big and successful. Thinking ‘look at me.’ But if you’re the hub and you’re helping the others achieve something… first of all, you’ll probably make more money.

But then there’s also the follow through – that’s important. The part where you’re following up about an e-mail you sent. It might feel like you’re begging, but sometimes that follow up is what leads to the gig. They respond ”Oh! I didn’t get your e-mail.” Or whatever. It’s happened many times.

Also, surround yourself with good people.

And be business minded… or at least be business minded enough to hire someone who has that skill that you don’t have. You know? To say ‘I’m really talented, and therefore the world is going to present a path for me’ is so rare… that you might as well say it won’t happen. It’s the people that are business minded – the discipline, the follow through, the self-promotion – that are going to be successful.

So don’t say you’re not a business person if you’re an artist. Because that’s going to be the end of your artistic success. You’ve got to say ‘I’m a small business person and my product is myself.’ And when you accept that, that’s when your chances of success will increase.

10. Could you talk a little bit about your relationship with money.

Money’s a huge thing. There’s very little money in the arts for most people, and there’s huge dollars for very few people. So I think, forget about those very few people who are making a huge amount. I mean, it’s great… but it’s so rare. So you have to take the 99% of us who are struggling to make a living from our talent.

There’s two ways to go.

One is to have a day job to pay the bills that allows you to follow your passion. And the other way is to just follow your passion, and go for it that way. Don’t have a plan B. Because they say that if you have a Plan B, you’ll always fall back on it.

I’m in the school of thought that you should have a source of income – however you can get it – that allows you to follow your passion.

I don’t know if it’s the right answer, but it’s the path that I took.

I know people that have gone on the road, and tried to make a living (and have made a living) working as musicians. Went to Nashville. Drive 200 miles a day. And typically they’re divorced, alcoholic, they’re in their forties and they look like they’re in their sixties. It’s a hard, hard, hard life. And it’s not one that I chose, or one that I wanted.

Money’s huge. You want to make enough money. You don’t want to undervalue your art. What do you charge for your band? What happens when you tell them, and they say ‘that’s too much.’? What do you do? Do you turn down the gig, or do you negotiate for the price? I don’t know. I mean if you’re doing it for exposure, yeah take the gig. But make sure it’s for the right reasons. Don’t just undervalue yourself.

I’ve seen so many young musicians just struggling and it’s heart breaking. I think you need to be realistic. Have another source of income. But this is a hard question.

My own path…

In my late teens and early twenties I was trying to make it with music, but it didn’t work out. I tried that six night a week cover thing, and that didn’t really work for me. Like it doesn’t for so many people. So I put music on the back burner. I got married, I raised a family, I worked a straight job. I worked in television. It was creative. It was good. I was editing videos. I worked with famous local celebrities. And then when I finished my day job and the kids were grown, I’d return to my first love which was music.

For 10 years now, that’s what I’ve been doing full time. The mortgage is paid, the bills are paid, I have a low overhead in my own life. I can afford to do this.

A certain amount of money buys you contentment and comfort. If you’re always worried about where you’re money is going to come from, and you’re scrambling…

My son is 30, and it’s a lot harder for him then it is for me. There were better paying jobs back in my time. Our generation – the baby boomers – got a pretty sweet ride.

25% of the reason I’m doing this thing, with the band and everything, is because of my son. He’s part of the band, and I do it for him. To give him that opportunity. So that he can have the opportunity to perform. And as his father, that’s very satisfying.

11.  Ever experience flow/being in the zone? What does it feel like for you, and can you tell us about a time when you experienced it?

Oh yeah! That’s what we’re all seeking. To just be lost in that moment – that performing moment. Or even in the writing moment. If I’m writing a song and it’s just flowing off the pen and onto the page… I don’t want to jinx it by recognizing what’s happening.

John Pippus
photo by Brook Thompson – taken at the Libra Room (Vancouver, BC)

We all love that moment. I’m sure that an athlete is the same.

But a specific moment. I remember this like it was yesterday, but it happened years and years ago. I was playing in this club on Hastings street. We had rehearsed and the club was full. And in the moment, I just ran my finger along all the dials and brought them all up to 10, and the guitar went into this growly feedback thing.

People who were standing close on the dance floor were looking at me, and looking at the amp, and looking at my guitar, and we were all like “WOH!” And I’ll never forget that rock and roll gesture of running my hand along all the dials of my fender amp. That was in the moment. I took that chance. That growl that came out of the amp was pure rock and roll.

I mean, that was years and years and years ago.

But recently, when I was lost in the moment of that flow. It was last weekend at the Fairview. We were the third band up. We didn’t start until 12:30 at night. We did a combination of originals and covers that had people on the dance floor, and we just knew that this entire set was just hitting a home run. And after the gig… people were coming up to us. The management coming up, asking ‘when are you available next?’

We left that gig just feeling like a million bucks. But you know it doesn’t last. The next weekend you could be doing a gig that could end up sucking. So it makes you appreciate and earn that flow.

You can hear that you’re in the pocket. That you’re settled down and relaxed. There are a lot of technical things that have to happen. The stage has to be set up right, the audience has to be right, your bandmates have to be with you. There are a lot of variables. So obviously it can’t happen on demand.

But it’s the glance. You glance over at your bandmate and they give you a look, and you give them a look, and it’s just the sweetest thing. Being in that flow is so good.

On the writing end, you can get there too. It’s a different type of flow. It’s a quiet satisfaction. I love writing. I love being in that creation moment where the words are just coming.

12. What is your favourite book? It could be about your craft, or maybe just an excellent story. 

I guess the quick answer is… I read a lot of biographies and autobiographies.

Sometimes they’re artists, and sometimes they’re not artists. I like reading about people’s lives.

Right now I’m reading Barbara Sinatra’s autobiography. She was married to Frank Sinatra for many years. And he’s an interesting character. He was a troubled guy, and I think he could be quite a bastard. Obviously he was influential as a vocalist. So reading his wife’s story about her life with Sinatra… I find that interesting – to know the quirks and stuff.

I just finished reading Sophia Loren’s autobiography. I know it’s very self- serving. I guess if you’re writing your own biography, it’s probably fairly inaccurate. You’re glossing over things.

I read a lot of biographies by musician’s – rock musicians. Bob Dylan’s Chronicles that he wrote about his life, is another one that is really interesting.

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Website: http://www.johnpippus.com

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John Pippus: I took that chance, and that growl that came out of the amp was pure rock and roll.
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Christine Bissonnette

I'm a spoken word artist and writer originally from Nova Scotia. In addition to my own private writing practice, I also works with adults and teens by facilitating the writing of their own spoken word poetry. Topics which fire me up are voice, perfectionism, and those parts of growth that don't follow a list. You can learn more about me at 9creativelives.com
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