I was born a Debbie. I became a Joan.
In 1999, while living in San Diego with my new husband, Jason Hicks, we were playing in a 50’s and 60’s preservationist cover tribute band, the Legends. But we were dying to break out, break away from the corporate, unoriginal Southern California music scene. It was a dead end road and even then, we knew it would take our youth, our opportunities, and our creativity from us and keep us from finding our voices. Though we had just been married in 1998, I was slipping into a foggy depression from the grief from losing my mother just before Christmas 1998. There were a few breaking moments which literally propelled us out from our inertia and complacency and into motion.
Jason was also moonlighting as a sax side man in an all male original band hoping to launch into the LA music scene at the time. They were rehearsing, performing, recording, and bracing themselves for their big break which never came. As I slipped away into my depression, I also helped Jason host parties, rehearsals, and build a recording studio in our new home in North County. For a time, I think I may have convinced myself and others that I was ok. But some weight gain, too many drinks, and a regular crying habit was beginning to break up my facade and soon it would show to most of my friends and family that I was coming unglued at the seams.
So, I began writing. Jason had bought me an acoustic guitar for my birthday in February of 1998. He asked me to close my eyes and hold out my arms. Instinctively, as with most things in our relationship, my closed eyes and an open mind visualized a guitar before it was placed in my trembling arms. When I felt the weight of it there, it felt like home, though I only knew a few chords on it from my high school years when I would tote it around everywhere pretending to be an artist. I opened my eyes, smiled and gasped a breath and laughed at Jason saying “What do you expect me to do with this?” He said “Learn how to play it and write a song.” I think I laughed some more.
I wrote I Ever Never one day while Jason was at his day job as a geotechnical engineer (a fancy way of saying “dirt inspector”). Though it only had a few chords, I played the song which was written for and about Jason and sang it softly that day when he got home. He let a tear drop from his eye and said, “This is what you are supposed be doing.” Then one day he wrote a few chords on the guitar even though he did not even play guitar. He showed me the chords before he went off to work in the early morning traffic of the southern California commute, and when he got home, I’d written With You in Me about my love affair with him. “In you, I see, the me, I believe, the truth, I need, to set me free, in me, you knew, that you would, too, find the truth about you.” These two songs became the start of our first album, Intramission, but it would take several years, more tears, and a few more disappointments to force us into the change that it would take for me to find my true voice.
I’d been a professional singer since the age of 16, but having been in so many cover bands, or playing largely to get noticed in contests and showcases, I’d really continued to be a chameleon and though I had some pipes, for sure, I was aimless and lacking confidence. Though I had won almost every contest I entered, I did not feel like a viable artist. I had a huge voice, but could not tame the beast inside the vocal chords themselves. And a few years of drinking and smoking cigarettes and weed to numb out the physical and psychological pain which threatened my life itself, my voice weakened like my resolve to do anything with it. Having been a svelt 150lbs (small for me) for my wedding, I ballooned up to 200 within a few years of bad diet, little exercise, and depression. The sparkly spandex dresses were too tight and I no longer fit the mold of a San Diego singer, so I just stopped and ran away from my commitments and work by staying at home during the day while Jason worked a bad day job.
I knew I was going down hill. My husband knew it. Probably my family knew it, but having lost my mother to alcoholism and depression and anorexia, no one knew how to help me, except Jason. He knew he had to get me out of the dysfunctional living situation and the destructive San Diego scene which held memories of ex-boyfriends, bad jobs, my failures in Grad School, and my mother. He decided to move me away to the mountains. Anywhere. We went camping over July 4th in 2001 to the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming where he had spent a few years living in his early 20’s and we decided on that trip to move away from So Cal. But we still did not know where we would go and that is another story.
At a friends house while we were smoking a joint one day, we were talking about Jonezin and how hard it was to be attracted to substances like pot, alcohol, food, sex, money, and power, philosophizing about the plight of people under the sway of addictions and how if only there was freedom from that, what would it look like? I said out loud “I wish I was like a spiritual warrior like Trinity in the Matrix only a badass person who could resist the temptations of basic life, walk the talk and overcome the forces of negativity which have captured me and I could transform my suffering into a force for positive change for everyone around me. She would put the Zen in Jonesin. No longer Jonesin for anything but spiritual attainment and musical fulfillment, she would be my inner diva, my alter-ego. Her name would be Joan. Joan Zen.”
When Jason and I finally moved to the Bitterroot Valley of MT, site unseen with a 27-ft U-haul containing all of our belongings and not a clue how we would use the money we’d earned by making a profit on our house, we basically just hung out for a year trying to shake off the remnants of our old lives together and build something new. Though it took a year to do that, during that time, we started writing more songs and recording them for our debut album which we would not release until 2004.
One day while visiting the local pub, The Bitterroot Brewery where we spent most of our idle time hanging out, getting drunk with the locals, Jason boasted about how I was a hot shit singer who would blow everyone away if only they heard me play. The owner of the Brewery, Tim Bozik took him to challenge over it and asked him to bring a band in to perform among the distillation tanks to anyone who might come. It was February, 2003 and I could barely play the guitar. But Jason, having already had his three beers for the day, accepted the invitation and came home to tell me that we had a gig the next month. My voice was rough, I’d continued to gain weight, and my depression was far from gone, but I had a reason to do something about it. That same week, we hooked up with a bass player, Don Maus, and started rehearsing any 3 chord songs that I thought I could get away with playing live.
Tim Bozik called to tell us that a graphics gal in town was gonna make a poster for us and what did we want the band name to be on the ad. I told Jason, it has to be Joan Zen. I designed a graphic in green and purple lettering and sent it off to be printed. The first gig at the Brewery had about 30 people. The next one had about 75 and it grew rapidly from there. But, I had not set out to have a career again in music. I just wanted to get out of bed. And so, Joan Zen was born that year and began the long journey to waking up to herself. I was born in 1969 as a Debbie. But, I had to discover my inner Joan. The story continues.