Surprising Life Lessons from Teens

Joshua Turchin, Leah Belle Faser

Welcome to the Quarantine Creatives newsletter, a companion to my podcast of the same name. I hope by now, this newsletter is becoming a part of your weekend routine in some way, whether it’s a quiet way to start your day, or something to read before bed. Either way, if you enjoy what you’re reading, please feel free to share this newsletter with friends and family!

The Future is Bright

This week on the show, I had the joy of speaking with two young teenagers who are on the path to really exciting futures in the entertainment industry. While I was never at a place where I felt that I could go professional at such a young age, I definitely related to their passion.

As a high schooler, my friends and I launched a public access cable show, Neighborhood Freak Show. It was our version of YouTube in the days before digital video. Our school did not teach video courses or have any video-related extra curricular activities like a news channel or video yearbook, so we had to chart our own course. We learned how to operate all of the production gear, editing equipment, and even basic graphics software at the local cable office and produced 32 episodes across two seasons.

It was mostly silly sketch comedy with jokes that didn’t resonate too far outside of my peer group, but it taught us the ropes in a really big way, and two of us from that show went on to professional careers in production. As I think about the lessons that I learned from that experience and listening to the stories of these two teens, I thought about how I parent my own young children. It occurs to me that one of the most important roles for all of us adults, whether as parents, aunts and uncles, teachers, or mentors, is to nurture and guide a child’s natural interests and to let them flourish.

When I interviewed John Tesh last month, we talked about the role that his father had on his upbringing, and it wasn’t especially positive. John’s father was an executive at Hanes and had set John up on a similar career path, although he never felt that passion for textiles. His love at an early age was music, and then later broadcasting. His father’s forcing a career led to years of turmoil, instead of embracing his son’s love of music.

I hope this series of interviews shows that some people have a creative fire inside of them that they need to unleash onto the world, and those of us that have a role in guiding young people can figure out how to tend that fire, add fuel to it, and keep it burning bright and strong.

Episode 52: Joshua Turchin

Do you ever walk away from talking with somebody and feel completely energized and inspired? That was what it was like talking with 14 year old Joshua Turchin on Monday’s show. At his young age, he has already learned the lesson that the most successful people in this world don’t sit back and follow the playbook written by others, they write their own rules. It’s a lesson that I am only beginning to learn myself, and he has figured it out early, which will only set him up for continued success.

For one thing, when Broadway shut down, Joshua figured out a creative outlet that could not only help him, but rally the entire theatre community. He launched The Early Night Show Virtual Edition , which is a digital talk show that he hosts. He told me what inspired him:

“It’s something I started when quarantine first started. I bring on different Broadway guests and I interview them and then I accompany them. I thought, how can I give opportunities to people that are no longer able to work, and how do I keep the art of live performance alive? And I came up with The Early Night Show and it’s been really, really amazing. I’ve done over 70 episodes so far.”

Joshua is not only a host and performer, but he is also a very talented composer. He wrote the musical The Perfect Fit as a way to both give voice and opportunity to young performers. He summarizes the premise of the show this way:

“It’s the period of time when you’re too young to play an adult, but too old to play a child. It’s called the dead zone. I came to New York when I was 8 years old, and ever since I was like 10, they’re like ‘you’re too tall, your voice is going to change.’ It’s sort of this thing of everyone telling you what’s going to happen to you, and you being stuck in this place where you’re not able to get any work. It’s really weird.”

I was really fascinated by how Joshua composes his music. For the full effect, I highly suggest listening to the full interview, as Joshua illustrated some of his points with piano accompaniment and singing. For the purposes of a newsletter, here is how he described his writing process to me:

“Usually I do music first, then lyrics. One of Sondheim’s three rules is ‘content dictates form.’ What that really means is, if you have a happy song, you’re not going to make it sound like it’s like death sentence. If you have a sad song, you’re not going to make it sound upbeat. That’s one of the biggest things when I’m writing because if I’m writing a song for a character in a specific moment that doesn’t fit it, it’s going to seem out of place. Sometimes I come up with some lyrics that I have in my head, but usually it’s either melody or piano first.”

As a multi-hyphenate, I was really curious to know what his path looked like. Where did he start and how did one thing lead to another? Joshua laid it out for me:

“Originally, it was piano first. I played piano since I could first reach the keys. And then my piano teacher said ‘he has a really good ear, maybe he should try singing.’ And then I did singing, and then that went to acting, and then dancing. I’ve always had a love for musical theatre and for composing especially and also performing. So it really came from just that love for Broadway.”

As a composer, Joshua has often been compared to Alan Menken, who wrote the music for many classic films, including The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. Joshua was cast as Flounder in The Little Mermaid: Live at the Hollywood Bowl concert in 2019, and was fortunate enough to meet Alan at that show.

“Alan Menken is someone who I really look up to in the world of composing. I’ve been listening to his music ever since I was super, super young. I grew up with his music. And getting to meet him in person was incredible. He’s so sweet.”

It’s not fully related, but if you’re an Alan Menken fan, you should watch him perform “Part of Your World” during that concert:

Joshua’s musical The Perfect Fit is doing a livestream concert so people at home can experience the joy of live theatre again without having to sit in an audience. It streams TONIGHT (November 15) at 7:00pm EST. For tickets and more information, click here. You can also stream the cast recording, which includes performances by Broadway stars like Laura Benanti and Nikki Renee Daniels and was recorded fully virtually this past summer.

Episode 53: Leah Belle Faser

On Thursday, I had another really fun and inspiring conversation with a young songwriter and performer. At just 16 years old, Atlanta-based Leah Belle Faser’s songs have a maturity and depth well beyond her years.

Her first album Crossing Hermi’s Bridge was released last month. She had studio time booked in Nashville in April to record it, but the shut down caused those sessions to be delayed. She was one of the first artists back in the studio, recording her album in May while much of the country was still in lock down. She described some of the strangeness of recording that early in the pandemic:

“It was a really interesting experience recording with COVID. We had a lot of social distancing rules, everybody wore masks. The only time I didn’t wear a mask was when I was in the vocal booth and I was all alone. But it was really cool to see how you can still make music even during trying times. Nobody got sick and it was kind of like a litmus test just to see if people could go back. It was everybody’s first session back. It went off without a hitch and it was super fun.”

There are lots of kids that are talented musicians, but I feel like being a strong songwriter at a young age is much more difficult. Leah had listened to my interview with Joshua Turchin before I spoke with her, and she saw parallels with his path in her own journey:

“I remember him talking about being in the in-between age, which I thought was really interesting because I remember when I first starting writing very seriously, I was about his age. One of the main reasons I started writing was because I couldn’t sing these cover songs that had these adult lyrics and adult themes, but I also didn’t want to sing these little baby songs. So, I started writing my own music.”

Leah was nervous about writing such honest songs and felt some apprehension about putting them out into the world. She described having to take a leap of faith and learning to trust herself, with the hope that her candor would resonate. She spent some time working with veteran songwriter Phil Barnhart, and he offered her some advice that she took to heart:

“He gave me two very good pieces of advice. One being, ‘not every song is worth writing.’ I think about that a lot when writing, in that, is it going to resonate with people and is it an idea that is meaningful? And then he gave me another piece of advice, which is ‘observe the things around you.’ I only have so much experience as a 16 year old songwriter and I can only write about myself in so many songs. He taught me to look at the world around me and look at other people and what they’re going through. Listen to the booth behind you and watch other people. I thought that was great advice and I use that to this day in my songs.”

Leah not only wrote the music, sang, and played on her album, but she also stars in the music video for the first single “Better Than Mine.” This was a new experience for her, but perhaps even more exciting is that more than 50,000 people have already streamed her music video since it was uploaded to her YouTube channel in September. Leah describes that feeling of watching the number of views climb:

“It’s awesome and it’s very, very gratifying to see that people like the things that I’m putting out because there’s always a risk when you’re producing a record, or putting anything out into the world, you’re kind of a platform for hate and love. It’s awesome to see that people like my music and people like listening to it. I put a lot of hard work into it so it’s very gratifying for sure.”

I was really taken in our conversation with her honesty around these beginning phases of her career. She is putting in hours and hours of work to lay the groundwork for a successful path in music, but she’s not always seeing the immediate fruits of her labors:

“I’m at an awkward stage in my career, where it’s the things that I do now are going to lead to bigger things. I have to do this, I have to put this out on social media even though it doesn’t generate a ton, millions and millions of followers right now, I still do it because I know that these are the steps I’m gonna have to take so eventually I can have that.”

Leah and I compared notes about the nervousness of pouring your soul into a project and not being sure how the world will react or if it will resonate. In her case, it’s music. For me, it’s this podcast and newsletter. But we both agreed that passion is a key motivator, especially when you’re unsure how stable the path in front of you may be:

“I heard from someone that if you don’t have your heart in this, don’t do it. If it’s not a long term thing, don't do it. Because there’s a lot of letdowns, and there’s a lot of criticism, and there’s a lot of things that you could be doing that are not this. So if your whole heart isn’t in it, don’t do it. And for me, my whole heart is in it and it’s something that I want to pursue for the rest of my life. One thing always leads to another. It’s a butterfly effect.”

Leah’s album Crossing Hermi’s Bridge is available to stream now. You can also listen to my full interview with her.

What’s Coming…

I have two new shows next week. On Monday, I am talking to Bay Area musician Brad Brooks, who is unafraid to get political in his music. His newest album covers his battle with throat cancer, inequality, and Black Lives Matter.

Thursday’s guest is scheduled to be Matt Tyrnauer, a documentary producer and director whose new four part docu-series The Reagans premieres tonight on Showtime. He takes a deep dive and a critical look into the legacy of Ronald Reagan, going back to his origins in Hollywood through the end of his presidency. The parallels to today’s politics are unmistakable.

If you have questions, comments, thoughts, ideas, or anything else that you’d like to share, please feel free to email me anytime:

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