Interview: What Did We Learn? Lee Coulter
Encinitas, California’s Australian-born musician Lee Coulter reflects on lessons of trust, idealism, culture, and what really motivates him to promote positivity through his music.
What Did We Learn? is a series of interviews featuring Southern California musicians and industry professionals, discussing their journey of transformation over the past year as a result of the music industry shut down due to Covid-19.
This segment’s interview features Lee Coulter — an Encinitas, CA-based singer-songwriter, music producer, filmmaker, and children’s book author who frequently brings a hopeful, zoom-out perspective to universal themes in large part thanks to his multiracial, multicultural, multinational life. With a #1 single on iTunes Australia, Lee has opened for notable acts such as Chuck Berry, Tom Jones, Griffin House, and Martin Sexton.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How would you describe your experience over the past year, personally and professionally?
LC: When we first heard that Coronavirus was out on U.S. soil to when we actually had a mandate like mid-March, it was really confusing for me, because where I’m from [Australia] I’m from the train of thought that general society is on the same page when it comes to something urgent. I was still playing shows that were booked and not canceled yet. This thing was out there, and I’m still playing but being super cautious because I’m listening to what the experts are saying. I’m assuming everyone’s heard about this by now, but it seemed that people weren’t caring so I was really confused.
What I learned is that everyone’s got a different value system. I thought everyone was very similar because we’re all Americans. I live in America, I know the American value system, I know it’s a very complex country, but that we generally get what we’re supposed to do in a crisis. It showed me what happens when we’re thrown on pause and we all have our own bits of information that came in from all these different places, and we all have different values. I didn’t realize the impact of this so it made me confused. I felt scared because I’m hearing that we can get sick and potentially die. I felt like our neighbors, my own neighbors did not care about this. I think it was kind of like an existential crisis that I was in. Even though the whole time I knew there were amazing people doing stuff to help others, and I saw it, I couldn’t override and look past my own shock and surprise.
Do you think you had that outlook coming from Australia? Because it seemed like Australians had the same belief — they shut down and that’s how they operated.
Yeah. I think a lot of it has to do with being from a different country. I think Americans who grew up born and raised in America have an American perspective. Australia is quite a progressive country that for the most part, likes to think of themselves as pretty good at looking after their neighbor kind of thing, and doing the right thing. It’s very hard to see outside your own perspective, so that’s why I was confused. I thought that even though cultures are quite different, some of those fundamentals are the same.
Part of this is my Australianism’s, part is idealism and naivete in general. In relation to the Black Lives Matter movement, I have been delving into my own race stuff, and have been looking at my own past history of how I’ve dealt with racism, and how I’ve belittled the magnitude of it. So there were all these things that showed me the underbelly of what I was feeling idealistic about. Like, America is the hero who saves other countries. I’m not totally naive, as far as the racism that’s going on in this country, but I was definitely more naive than I should have been. It just kind of highlighted the same thing. Maybe we don’t always….we want to present ourselves as caring for a neighbor…but maybe we don’t always do that. That was the lesson there — and trying to come to terms with that. No one said it should be the way I want it to be. It was a crisis of stop expecting it to be the way I want it to be, and accept the way it is.
Q: Going back to when we first shut down — what was your internal process once things really started to shut down and we were at home?
When we had to stop playing it was chaos…chaos in my mind, chaos in reaching out to people, figuring out what your friends are doing, what are you doing, what’s the plan… and also, the kind of music that I make — I’m not just a musician, I see myself as someone that brings positivity, so I’m not just worried about how I’m going to get my music out, but I’ve got these messages of positivity and keep the hope in your heart even when things look dark. How do I get that message out more so than ever into people’s ears? We all felt separated, we all felt scared…so I wanted to get that music out as soon as possible. It was then figuring out how to do it through live streams.
And, I was totally in fear emotionally. All my gigs for the year were canceled, and it is my only source of income. I don’t have a day job, and I barely had any savings in the bank. So that triggered a whole bunch of personal stuff that I didn’t know was sitting there. As soon as I saw my calendar getting wiped out, my mind told me “that’s right, no one has your back at this moment, people are gonna let you fail.” That’s what I told myself, because of my own trust issues I needed to deal with. I’m telling myself “look, this country, this world doesn’t have your back.”
The reason why I didn’t fall into this perspective completely was that there were people — who I had no reason to trust — who kept on showing up to my live streams I was playing twice a week and tipping me. And then I said, “Hey I’m struggling, I need to sell a guitar.” All of a sudden I’m selling guitars that aren’t worth as much as I’m selling them for. I’m saying, “they’re mine I’ve been playing this for years. If you like my music, this is worth something to me.” And people go “yeah, here’s $3,000 for that guitar” — and they didn’t need to do that.
So in that process, I built back, or I built for the first time maybe, some trust that I never really had. I started to believe in the idea that as an adult, I created an art form that made people want to love me, made people want to support me, and make sure that I had the things that I needed. That was that part was beautiful. When I was feeling really sad, people gave me the opposite energy — just going, “Hey man, it’s all good — you’re gonna be fine.” That was the part of America that I thought it was — but I was telling myself “no it’s not happening, that’s never going to happen,” because I got triggered. The thing is if you’re adding something to the world and if you’re stepping forward and saying this is my true self, people are gonna recognize it.
How did you realize that you were faced with trust issues?
The fear. The fear was just constant and debilitating, and I could see how irrational and unnecessarily it was. I wanted to lie in bed all day. Then I realized no one’s attacking me right now, the fact is I still have a roof over my head, and I can probably pay rent next month, so I’ve got 30 days to figure out how to make rent, the next months after that, and that’s more than a lot of people. Me laying there with the fear of ‘no one’s got my back’ isn’t true. I could pay my rent because people had my back. People went here’s $10, here’s $20, here’s $30, here’s $50, sometimes people would tip $100 just for a half an hour of playing. People did have my back — and I’m constantly in fear going ‘look at the world, look at the news, people don’t have each others’ back.’ Yet they kept on showing that love, and so that’s how I knew it was irrational and that it was deeper than people just don’t care about Lee’s music (laughs). My reaction was way too knee-jerk.
Q: What were some of the other lessons that you had over the last year?
So many. You know what I said about how we’re all on a different level of our value/belief systems— which totally makes sense. There shouldn’t be a uniform value system of what it is to be American, and there isn’t, but I just learned how different so many of us are. That was a big lesson.
Some of the work I want to do with my art now is toward being truthful to ourselves as a culture, whether it’s about race, or indigenous Americans, or anything like just activism-wise. Race matters in America are on a scale that I don’t think we’ve ever seen before. I’ve always stood for equality, considered myself a feminist, for gay rights, and obviously against racism, but it’s deeper ingrained. I want to unweave and have fun with that, from the perspective I have because I feel neutral — like Geneva or Switzerland. I’m multiracial from another country, even though I live in America and I know the American experience, I’ve been here 17 years from another country as a multiracial non-black —and I’m not really white. So I feel like it is a bit of responsibility and excitement, honestly, because I think it’s all working towards healing. I feel when people come out with this message they often feel like they’ve been attacked, but the way I see it is like, I’m just trying to work towards everyone feeling a bit more comfortable in their country.
The other lesson I learned was about isolation, and humanity, and just the importance of cultivating actual real-life networks. I’ve been terrible at that my whole life. I found my place in my art, and I feel comfortable there — I can say what I want to say, I can put it out there and feel fulfilled almost in a manic way. Interactions from gigs and from interviews and what else fulfilled my social needs. But as soon as we were locked inside of the house I realized I haven’t actually got a really good tight-knit group of friends. Everything I’ve got is professional. Now I’m going through stuff where I need to talk to people/friends I can vent to. I’m like, oh man when we get back to reality I’ve got to stop relying on the fact that I can do everything on my laptop and get it out there and just go to my friend’s house and chat with them. Just chat.
One of the little lessons is that we’ve tried to outsmart our needs as animals with all this technology. But if you’re not satisfying those fundamental emotional necessities that we have, none of it means anything. So just getting back to humans in real life face-to-face, one on one, even if it’s just one or two friends to really connect deeper with. I just need more of that in my life because I missed the audiences, I missed the people working in bars, I missed people so badly. Even though I always kind of saw myself as kind of antisocial, I just missed everybody.
I’ve always had gratitude every time I played a gig. It doesn’t matter how lame the gig seems if I get to play music and someone is paying money, I’m going to play my heart out and be grateful. But this past month since I’ve been playing again, almost every time it brings me to tears, and I’m playing like I’m playing Madison Square Garden. Even if it’s just three people in the corner of a restaurant, I am singing my heart out. I suppose it’s a deeper level of like every moment has gotta count — because those moments got taken away for a year. So there’s definitely a lot of gratitude, a lot of undoing of taking things for granted or taking life for granted.
Q: Was there any sense of loss you may have had or felt over the past year?
Yeah, I would say further idealism. I think the older you get, the more idealism you lose. I went through a divorce five years ago, that killed my idealism. And the pandemic did that on a more social level. I lost the sense that goodness and idealistic scenarios are guaranteed. Things are gonna work out in the end, but we all got to work with each other to make sure things work out for ourselves.
Q: What do you think you learned most about yourself?
I think the biggest thing I learned about myself is that there was a lot more to me than I thought there was, and there were things about my mindset that I didn’t know were there. That there was work I needed to do that I didn’t know I needed. I thought I was more on top of my emotions and more on top of my fears than I was.
I’ve learned I need to align my reality with my perspective of what my life looked like. People who have felt the way I did, but actually couldn’t sell a guitar, or do a live stream and get tips for a live stream. Those are the people that to me were rationally feeling the way I was feeling. That’s when I learned that I’m acting like I’m on survival all the time. It’s like I was talking about before, I never made any childhood friends due to a rough, emotionally unsupportive childhood. I was always looking for emotional support and that came through art.
I’ve learned that I’ve stayed most of my life in a hustle, survival mode, and that’s how I’ve been until the pandemic hit. I was telling myself, “See, that’s why I’m in survival mode because stuff like this happens!” You don’t have to be such a survivalist. I needed to learn that my version of reality was a bit more doomsday, which is why I write songs about, hey, let’s make it good because I’m a little worried about things, so let’s make things better. It does come from a space that if I thought everything was fine and dandy, I probably wouldn’t feel the need to sing songs about, hey, let’s love each other, let’s get along.
Q: Looking ahead, what lessons are you going to take forward with you?
So the biggest thing would be that I have to keep reminding myself that I have worked hard enough, and built enough for myself that I have a network and can continue on. Which for me personally is motivation, and motivation is key for me because if I feel anxiety, or feel down about things — like sometimes I feel like there are not enough people that like my music, and why am I doing this…and that’s just a story I tell myself. The thing is, I’ve paid my bills for 17 years, so let’s keep doing this. The fact is I’ve got a network now that has proven itself to carry me, is a huge kind of safety net of hope and luxury and privilege. I can make art from a place that isn’t in survival, and that we can live in a place that isn’t in fear all the time. That’s going to affect how I live, that’s going to help how I make art and how I do everything, so that’s probably the biggest thing for me personally. I shouldn’t be as fearful as I am in my mind.
Secondly is that we need each other. Humans need each other. And I knew that, but I think I know more realistic, how to deliver that way. It’s a bit less hippie and a bit more honest, is what it feels like. It’s what I was doing before — like everyone get together and love each other — but now there is a deeper understanding of how everyone’s hurt and afraid.
It’s shined a light on defensiveness, and the fact that we all need mental health. We all need to look at our spiritual makeup and see where are we dealing with reality, where are we not dealing with history, where are we not dealing with education. I see the people doing the work that I want to support, like the scientists, the caretakers, the teachers, the historians, and the journalists. I want to support them because I know more than ever, how important they are.
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