PNW Musicians on Risky Choices that Became Opportunities

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PNW Musicians on Risky Choices that Became Opportunities

Black Ends’ lead singer Nicolle Swims: “Someone asked if I’d ever move back to Seattle to start a band.”

If you think about it enough, life can seem very depressing right now. I can’t remember the last person (besides my fiancée) who I hugged. I don’t remember the last time I sat beside someone at a bar or restaurant and had a nice, thoughtful conversation. And I certainly haven’t been able to go to a show for longer than I’d ever want to think about. If you’re reading this article, chances are you’re in the same boat. And likely, too, you’re frustrated. 

So, dear reader, that’s exactly why we put this piece together. To bring a little positivity to the environment, we asked a number of Seattle-area musicians a single question: What’s one thing you said ‘Yes’ to that you almost didn’t that turned into a life-changing opportunity? And the artists’ responses, we hope, will inspire your own next best decisions. 


Kathy Moore, Kathy Moore Super Power Trio: I was asked to play a concert with Brad at the Mural Amphitheater — and due to circumstances I had a week to learn all the music. I’m always a little stressed out learning new music in a short period of time. At midnight, I sat down to start transcribing the songs. I picked something up off the table with a lot of force because I thought the object was heavier than it was, and somehow I jammed my thumbnail into my eye and knocked myself out and down— you know that moment of being stunned into a stupor. 

My husband took me to the emergency room and the doctor said, “This will be the most pain you have experienced but this type of injury heals fast – in about two days.” The thing is, for two days I really could not open my eyes, and I questioned whether I should take the gig. I was stressed out that I couldn’t play guitar for two of the few days that I had to transcribe the music. I realized that I could transcribe the songs in my head by listening to them over and over. So that is what I did. 

I got the form down. I saw the notes on the strings in my minds eye using relative pitch. I memorized the words so I knew where all the parts fit together. By the time I went to practice one I knew those songs so well. I learned that listening is practicing and seeing your guitar in your head is practicing. Also that show and the next Brad show I met the majority of the musicians that I play with now.

Julia Massey, Warren Dunes: When I was in the 5th grade, I enrolled in a magnet middle school that offered four areas of focus: computer applications in math and science, performing arts, visual arts and Japanese. Everyone, including myself, expected me to choose performing arts because of my interest in music. After a presentation by the Japanese department, however, I switched to Japanese at the last minute. After three years of language immersion, a trip to Japan and three subsequent years in high school, the fundamental things I learned about a completely different culture, language and people shaped who I am today. It informs my relationships, makes me less fearful and inspires my creativity.

Tomo Nakayama: There was an a capella-themed show I almost said “no” to years ago. Although it was a beautiful event involving a lot of friends, for whatever reason, I was the only POC on the bill (not uncommon in Seattle or Ballard in 2010) and there was a palpably straight, somewhat religious vibe about the whole thing. But something in me said I should do it anyway. So I showed up and sang Judy Garland’s torch song “Man That Got Away,” just to bring a little diversity and drama to the night amidst all the reverent hymns. That ended up being the performance where Lynn Shelton got the idea to cast me in her movie, Touchy Feely, which was a pretty big turning point in my career. I’m glad I said “yes,” and that I listened to my instincts.

Cedric Walker, The Black Tones: Years ago, I received a Seattle Times article that my stepfather, Tony, gave me talking about the Washington Aerospace Training research center. The program announced that it was taking its first students. I had never said “no,” officially, but the article sat in my room for almost a year. But Tony told me that it was something that he thought I would be really good at, so I signed up. Once I finally took the class, I completed the course with flying colors, just as Tony had predicted. A few aerospace jobs later, I find myself recently promoted and working for Amazon Prime Air as a Quality Support Engineer and I have continued my career in aerospace.

Nicolle Swims, Black Ends: I was living in Alabama before I moved to Seattle and someone asked if I’d ever move back to Seattle to start a band (I used to live around here as a kid). I knew I wanted to go but didn’t know how I’d get there. I was starting to question if I could even make it up with no money and not knowing many people in the scene. Alabama didn’t feel right and I knew I couldn’t be there anymore, but my doubts were holding me back. I finally realized that if I didn’t make a move soon, I’d be stuck and regretful, so I finally decided to go for it. If I never made that move, I would have never met the people I know now, my band would have been a lot different and I probably would have still been depressed in Alabama working a job I hate.

Art Lipatan, LYLE: In 2018, I got invited to write a song for the Bushwick Book Club here in Seattle. It’s an organization that asks artists each month to write songs inspired by different books. I took the invitation reluctantly as that’s not a process I usually exercise. I write from personal experience and the idea of telling a story about a story wasn’t one that was particularly appealing; it was out of my comfort zone. But I said “yes” because, as Bowie taught, “Artists do their best work when they’re uncomfortable.” I wrote a song called “We Are Star,” which is based on Octavia Butler’s book, Parable of the Talents, and it turned my view of songwriting upside-down. It taught me a great deal about my own process, my capabilities and limits. And it led me to relationships with artists that I truly adore and have since collaborated with (shouts to Amanda Winterhalter, Debbie Miller, LaVon Hardison, and Reggie Garrett).

Jenn Taranto, Medejin: The first two-plus years after moving to Seattle from the east coast in January 2014 were really hard. The relationship I was in turned into a terrible experience and my mom was terminally diagnosed shortly after my arrival. By January 2016, I wanted to move back and planned to wait until the winter was over. But things – little by little – started to feel better here. I started writing music again and that spring I released my first song as Medejin and formed a band. In November 2016, we had our first show, which was also the same time my good friend introduced me to my now-husband. It wasn’t the obvious decision and my heart will always be torn from being so far away from my parents, but I’m so glad I said “yes” to stay. 


Shaina Shepherd, BEARAXE: I never thought I would be screaming in a rock ‘n’ roll band. I even came to an audition with my now bandmates (and brothers) thinking that it was a horrible mistake as soon as they started thrashing around on garage rock chords. But I’ll never forget that first time we met and our bass player, Jon Lemmon, suggested I shriek, shred, and “just rip it up, man.” That was the beginning of me looking at my voice as a delivery system for my soul as opposed to a delivery system for my ideas. This new way thinking has changed my life in so many ways.

Ian Ketterer, Among Authors: When asked if there has ever been an opportunity that we almost turned down that ended up changing our career for the better, one very important show comes to mind. In 2018 we were asked to perform at the KEXP Gathering Space for an NPR TIny Desk showcase. NPR does a tour with the winner of the NPR Tiny Desk contest every year and when the winner came through Seattle, we were asked to perform that show with him. 

During that time, I was going through one of the roughest parts of my life. My wife and I (who I had been with for 15 years starting when I was 18 years old) were splitting up. It felt like my life was crashing down around me. I had told myself that I was done with music for a long while. I told my bandmates to manage all the social media accounts because I didn’t want to look at them or put any attention towards music when the rest of my life was in such a mess. 

A few weeks after I had a meeting with the band, we got that email from NPR asking us to do that showcase. Every inch of my body wanted to turn that show down. But I thought about the other three members of the band and how hard they had also worked, committing so many hours to Among Authors. I felt it would be extremely unfair to the rest of the band if I didn’t take this show. So we said “yes.” 

Had I not said “yes” to this show, however, we would not have gotten our KEXP In-Studio session, nor would we have been contacted by NPR’s Bob Boilen a few months after the show asking us to come out to DC to do an actual NPR Tiny Desk Concert of our own. That concert also kicked us into gear to figure out how to make a national tour out of the entire thing rather than just flying to DC to do that performance. It changed our career and we’ve met so many amazing people from both the music industry and fans all over the world. 

It’s funny when you’re the one who started the band 12 years prior and you then find yourself in a situation where you’re the one who almost ends your own career, only for it to drastically change for the better because of one decision. Life will always be a rollercoaster, but you should always do your best to recognize great opportunities when they present themselves, you never know where they will lead you.

Jake Uitti

Jake Uitti