Personal reflection is often the reservoir of creativity; it just takes getting into a certain space where your mind can extract it. That’s the place where Michael Compton was able to arrive when he was recording his brand new record Wooden Spoon. The album was born out of a lot of time and rumination on life and current events, as well as personal experiences he was going through at the time. Compton took advantage of the time afforded by the pandemic-related lockdowns to hunker down in his own space and focus on what really matters in his life. The result is a very personal album with songs that will speak to you and lyrics that easily resonate with thoughts and feelings everyone has been having over these last few years.
Wooden Spoon is Compton’s 20th independent release through his label missingrecords. A lot of the content within the songs was inspired by a period in which he was cleaning out his childhood home after his father unexpectedly passed away. This was a house that his parents had lived in for over 30 years, and it took many months to go through everything. As difficult as this was for Compton, it was also therapeutic for him, thinking back to memories of times gone by, thanks to coming upon random objects like a wooden spoon that his father used to use, which inspired the album title.
Compton joins us today for a wonderful guest blog in which he shares some intimate details with us about his life, the circumstances surrounding the recording of Wooden Spoon, how he had to change course because of the pandemic, and how he has emerged from a difficult time, a better musician and a better person.
Reflections, Grief, and Lessons Learned:
“The pandemic was an important driver, but I had actually made the decision before that. I have been hesitant to share these details for a variety of reasons but felt that if I was going to tell this story, it made the most sense to share all the facts. The time feels right for me to share this with V13.
Like a lot of artists, I had time during the pandemic to assess my life and take stock in what is truly important to me. It’s been no surprise to hear stories of people shifting careers or quietly quitting jobs that seem less than meaningful. I know that big moments have a way of re-focusing you. For me, that clarity began a year before the pandemic hit. I went for a colonoscopy following some digestive issues and was shocked when my doctor told me they had found cancer. That moment rocked me in exactly the way you might imagine it would. I was surprised, scared, and forced to immediately face my mortality in more real terms than I ever had before.
I was lucky, though, I caught it early, and my prognosis was good. I’m a survivor now and cancer free, but I know firsthand how cancer can take away loved ones and understand its potential to completely upend everything. Along with the fear that comes with getting diagnosed, there is also an intense clarity that starts to emerge. When you truly contemplate the end of your life, it becomes easier to recognize what’s important.
I’d spent years prior to that day pouring myself into work, and for the most part, I really enjoyed it. I was incredibly fortunate to hold challenging positions focused on creating community, increasing access to arts for underserved populations and supporting artists and creators. I was able to build a resume of leadership roles at city governments in Redmond, Washington, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and West Hollywood, California, and at a top Northwest arts and music producer called One Reel, producer of the amazing Bumbershoot Festival for decades.
Most recently, I worked for the Recording Academy, a well-respected music industry membership organization best known for its GRAMMY Awards. For six years, I led the Pacific Northwest Chapter, which covered a large geographical region serving music creators from Oregon, Washington, B.C., Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Alaska and Hawaii. I was aware of the privilege I had been given to serve in these roles, so it was easy to justify the long hours, stressful work environments, and personal sacrifices I had to make along the way to do these jobs.
Again, I was lucky, and I thought that the best way to express my gratitude was to go the extra mile, and I often put work ahead of everything else happening in my life. It was disconcerting and strange to suddenly view my work life through the lens of my own mortality. I was proud of the work I had done but disappointed with the sacrifices I had made along the way. I couldn’t help but feel that the way I’d been working was ultimately killing me, if not in a literal sense, at least in an emotional one. I knew I had to make changes and place a greater importance on my well-being.
This was about more than just finding a better work/life balance; it was about finding a better way of life and figuring out how work would fit into that. I started this process by focusing on things that meant a lot to me. For me, that was caring for my family and creating music. Those were the things I had in my life that brought me satisfaction and joy. In mid-2019, I decided it was time to leave my job at the Recording Academy. Shortly after leaving, I learned about the sudden passing of one of my close co-workers from cancer. The news shook me but also helped solidify my decision to make real changes in my life. I struggled with survivor’s guilt and ended up withdrawing and isolating rather than celebrating a successful surgery and treatment.
With all that was happening in the world, I felt uneasy about sharing my experience and instead kept it to just a small number of close family members. I admire people who can be open with their challenges, but I wasn’t able to get there at that time. Music became my solace, and I focused my energy on writing and recording what would become my album Wooden Spoon. I utilized a technique that I had developed over the years where I allow the music, words, and thoughts to flow out of me in a stream of consciousness. I’ve found that if I am open and allow the process to work, I not only access my deeper thoughts and emotions but also tap into a shared consciousness that I feel we can all access. Philosopher Carl Jung referred to this phenomenon as the ‘collective unconscious.’ Writing this record was, in some ways, a personal therapy session and, in other ways, a spiritual practice that helped me feel connected to part of something greater than myself.
By the end of 2019, I was getting close to completing the record, and I started to feel emotionally ready to make my way back into the world. I started by releasing volumes two and three in an album series I called Distance. These three albums were a roadmap of the music I had written and recorded over the past 20+ years. I arranged each album in a linear format as a way to hear my songwriting and recording evolution over the years. I recognized that with each project, I learned and grew as a songwriter, musician, and person. I also realized how much each song took me back to a specific time and place with the friends who I had created the music with.
Being able to look back at my own life through music was meaningful, but I couldn’t help but think about how much I would have loved for my music to connect more widely with others. I knew that I would always make music for myself, but I was driven by the challenge of connecting with others on a larger scale. I had years of experience in helping creatives pursue similar goals, and that gave me a good working knowledge of the industry. I also had enough of that knowledge to know just how difficult achieving those goals would be. I’ve known plenty of talented artists who ultimately gave up the pursuit because of the constant grind and the realization that you could do just about everything right and still not find the success you are hoping for. There are very few career paths that require you to put in an incredible amount of time, resources, and emotional, mental, and physical energy just to be considered for the job.
For me, choosing music as a career felt more like something I was compelled to do than something I wanted to do. I admit that there are definitely times when I wish I wasn’t so driven to do this. It feels like there are so many roadblocks and the toll it can take on your mental health to persevere through them is real. In the end, the satisfaction of creating and sharing music is unlike anything else for me, and I crave it. I’m constantly dreaming up new ways to pursue my goals. There is no definitive roadmap to success despite what many will tell you, and I know the odds aren’t in my favour, but I’ve been working on this for so long that I feel like the desire to create/share music has become part of who I am. I don’t think that I was able to ‘choose’ making music as a career until I was able to accept that, and once I did, the choice wasn’t even a choice; it was an inevitable result. Creating music isn’t just my career; it’s the way I live.
As 2020 began, I felt ready to go. I booked a couple of live shows and started planning for the album release that Spring, but it wasn’t long before we were all stopped in our tracks by the global pandemic. I barely recall the way I thought about things at that point; everything was so unpredictable. Once it became clear that a quick end wasn’t coming, I watched the industry I was about to dive headlong into suddenly evaporate. I shifted my focus to caring for my family. My mom had been living in an assisted living facility, and due to the pandemic, access to provide her care became difficult. Shortly after things shut down, she ended up in the hospital with an illness we thought was COVID. We couldn’t visit her and were told to be prepared for the worst.
Back then, it took about four days to get COVID test results back. Thankfully, she ended up not having COVID, but the experience motivated me to help her make a move. I decided it would be best if she moved in with me and my family. Instantly my life became very regimented as I became a daily caregiver for my mom and helped my daughter navigate remote school from home. My wife transitioned to working from home as well. In the few moments I had to myself each day, I typically chose to do one of two things, walk my dog or work on music.
One of the few silver linings of the pandemic for me was that time I had to focus on music. It gave me an opportunity to put more time into mixing my record. Rather than knocking it out all once, my producer Steve Fisk and I went song by song and did a lot more back and forth than we probably would have done normally. We added additional instrumentation and backing vocals to a few songs and generally spent a little more time dialing in each song.
Each month or so, I’d get a final mix from him, and it felt like unwrapping a present on Christmas morning. I can definitely say that being able to work on the record over that time was a huge benefit to my mental health and well-being. It also really cemented for me that creating music is what I wanted to do with my life. I literally had the opportunity to do just about anything, and I chose the things that had always been important to me, caring for my family and creating music.
After a couple of false starts around ‘re-opening,’ I finally made the decision early this year to get back at it. A lot had changed in the music industry, and things were pretty slow in the live space at first. The numbers started to slowly increase, and I decided it was time to prepare for the album launch. It took several months to hire a publicist and get everything together. Despite the changes and the challenges, it felt great to be working toward my goals. For the first time, I felt like I was doing what I was supposed to be doing and living my purpose.
I’m now in the middle of promoting my new record and planning tour dates for early this year. I’ve also been exploring new ways to create a sustainable career path. I’m writing new songs and figuring out how to best care for myself through all of the emotional ups and downs. I experienced a setback when my mom passed away in September after a short illness. It has been difficult to deal with the loss, and I struggled to give my album release the attention it deserved. I’ve been pushing through and have been grateful once again to have music to provide me emotional support.
It’s amazing how this record that I have been working on for years continues to be relevant to my life in such specific ways. That makes me happy because it shows me that I’ve created something with the potential to connect with lots of different people who each might get something different out of it. My ultimate goal for this project has always been to develop real connection with people, and it’s starting to happen. It’s happening slowly, but it is happening, and as long as I am growing and doing what I love, then my I feel like my goals are within reach. This is the life that I was searching for, and I’m grateful now to be pursuing it.
I still have a long way to go but will carry the lessons that I’ve learned over the past several years with me each day. As I develop new goals and work on my career, I will remember to listen and not let my insecurity cause me to second-guess myself. I’ll keep learning and growing and not take the opportunities I’m given for granted. I’ll listen to my mind and body and seek care or rest when I need it. I’ll keep moving forward and not allow others to push me off my path or discourage me from pursuing what I love. I’m not exactly sure where it will ultimately take me, but I’m truly grateful to finally have the courage to follow my heart and become my authentic self.”