Matt Berninger, Issue 52, Editor’s Letter

Well folks, those of you who’ve read these past seven editor’s letters have followed my foray into pseudonyms, mountain living, pirate radio, and creative impulse – all at the expense of rational behavior. I have affectionately titled it “The Jay Stellar Saga,” and I hope you’ve been enjoying the ride. If you want to get caught up with the story, head back to issue 46 to start at the beginning.

I was having such an absolute blast making a radio show in my garage that it felt almost illegal, or at least irresponsible, to be spending so much of my time pursuing this folly. I was pretty sure a) no one would hear it; b) it would never make any money; and c) it would likely undermine my real job in a real way. But it didn’t much matter – I was having too much fun. And little did I know at the time that I was laying the groundwork for a different approach to my life. For such a long time, I’d listened to this voice in my head that I associated with responsibility and authority. So long, in fact, that I really didn’t know there was any other to be heard. I was in a creative field, but I approached photography more as a business and a discipline than an art form. I was in a bit of a prison in my own mind, and though the walls around me were self-built, I had no idea how to tear them down.

Such was the state of affairs right up until I had the crazy idea to buy a house in the Los Padres National forest. That decision was creating a disturbance in my set ways that was unfamiliar and scary, but ultimately thrilling. I was hearing another voice in my head – the excited, creative youth that I’d squashed for so long in service to becoming a responsible, hardworking adult. Somehow, I’d inadvertently set in motion a plan to let my creative spirit breathe and grow until it could challenge that authoritative taskmaster to a few battles, and win a round or two. My brain felt like some kind of frenetic pinball machine, but I had the sense that something essential was happening to me, so I rode the wave. Instead of buckling down at my computer and working when I felt anxious, I’d put on my motocross gear and go bomb the trails of Gorman on my Honda CRF450. I painted. I played guitar. I got lost in the woods.

That’s how Wednesday morning came to find me taking the right turn from my back porch into the garage instead of heading left to the office. I had a radio show to finish! Late the night before, I’d reached out to my friend Tim Easton, a singer/songwriter I admired, and asked him if he’d be the first guest on Sweetheart of the Radio. He agreed to come over the next day, so now all I had to figure out was how to do a live interview and record songs! Easy, right? I got to work reconfiguring the studio and creating a space where Tim could sit and face me, because I was going to have to engineer the sound, run the board, and interview Tim all at once. Luckily, Tim is a road-tested pro who’s played in just about every kind of situation, and can create a presence and mood with only an acoustic guitar and his voice.

Tim showed up and we did a little sound check. I explained that he should call me “Jay,” (which elicited a bit of a chuckle from him), and settled into my spot in front of my microphone. I introduced Tim and began to interview him, asking how he became a musician and what drew him to songwriting. Listening back now, I hear the beginnings of Off Camera. There I was in a chair, asking an artist how he found his calling, discovered his path, and began his journey. It was a podcast before there were podcasts! Tim told a story about wanting to go on the road like Doc Watson and Townes Van Sant, and regaled old Jay Stellar with his adventures trying to make a living as a street busker in Europe. There we were, in the middle of a cool conversation about his journey, and I was doing something I’d been waiting my whole life to do. I was emulating Joe Benson and Rodney Bingenheimer, DJs I’d grown up listening to, but also being myself and feeling really comfortable doing so. I asked Tim to play a song. He ripped into his composition “Special 20,” and I was happier than a pig in shit. I fiddled a bit with the levels and EQ as he played, but it sounded so sweet in my headphones that I just let myself enjoy the rare moment of complete pleasure and satisfaction that was occurring as this creative event unfolded.

And suddenly it all made sense. I was supposed to be making this radio show that no one would hear, wouldn’t earn money and turn my responsible life (and garage) into a cacophony of CDs, cables, scribbled interview questions, Subway sandwich wrappers and mixing notes. I didn’t know at the time exactly why it was important, or what it would lead to, but something felt right. I belonged right there, right then, honing a craft I couldn’t yet put a name on. I discovered that if something takes up all of your focus, all of your energy, and yet makes you feel like the clock is spinning double time, you are on the right path. I learned that any pursuit that makes you forget to eat, renders you unable to participate in normal conversation without drifting off into anticipatory daydreaming, and gets you up in the morning itching to get started all over again is something worth holding on to. I finally understood the exact meaning of the Dylan lyric, “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” I was alive and ready to dive into an unknown future full of risk and uncertainty. It took buying a peach-colored house in the mountians, nearly killing myself on a motorcycle, communing with birds and creating a fictional alter ego to do it, but I’d finally discovered my creative voice; and I was never going to silence it again. Thank you, Jay Stellar, for showing me the way.

– Sam Jones, January 2016