returning to Boston after a goodly long time

Wade and me on the marquee screen

Wade and me on the marquee screen

It is really interesting being back in Boston. I lived here a quarter of a century ago, and spent a while studying songwriting in a building only steps away from where I’m staying right now on Boylston Street, overlooking the Common.

I moved to Boston after college with two vague ideas: 1 – I wanted to play my violin, but not in a classical setting, and 2 – I wanted to sing and write songs. I took some courses at Berklee, and then studied for a while with a renegade Berklee professor who taught on his own in the Steinway Building. I didn’t really have any clear idea of what I was doing, and felt like I should have backup plans in case music didn’t work out…and so I tried to keep all possible doors open, staving off the pain and risk of full commitment. The perfect solution to my parents’ worry about my being a musician? Take a job at the Princeton Review, and teach courses for EVERY graduate school admission test: GRE, GMAT and LSAT. At any moment, I could switch gears and apply for grad school (or med school or law school)!

I ended up with an absurd triple life, in addition to the music classes. I simultaneously: held down my first “real” job (as Director of Graduate Programs at the Princeton Review,  I self-importantly carried around a beeper but hardly ever responded to it); played at big suburban rock clubs in a cover band 4-5 nights a week (my big numbers were “Straight Up” by Paula Abdul and “Black Velvet” by Alannah Myles); and dragged my sleep-deprived self to Army National Guard duty one weekend a month (where my main duties as the assigned Fitness Officer were: getting up really really early, writing award letters about people I’d never met, and measuring corpulent soldiers with calipers). I lived in a blur of test scores, big hair and saluting…and it wasn’t until my unit was short-listed for mobilization to the Gulf War that I looked up and realized I needed to make a change. I was perpetually exhausted, unhealthy and going in a million directions at once; and when it turned out my unit was NOT actually being mobilized to Iraq, I realized it was time to leave Boston anyway. I moved home to Virginia to collect myself and figure out my next move.

It has taken me twenty-five years to return to this fascinating city…and now that I’m here with ERNEST SHACKLETON LOVES ME, working on this transformative story of courage and hope in the gorgeous Paramount Theatre at ArtsEmerson, I realize something important. Every time I have held back from following my heart and instead chosen a direction because of fear or worry (e.g. taking a full-time job in test prep JUST IN CASE), I’ve ended up having to rethink my “safe” choice. I knew in my heart when I *first* moved to Boston that I wanted to play violin and write songs – and here I am, doing exactly that all these years later – but I’ve had so many unnecessary existential crises along the way. I think that when I was in my twenties (and thirties), I had this feeling that every decision was FINAL – and so I worried and worried all the time, trying to keep all doors open in case I changed my mind sometime in the future. Now I realize that ALMOST NO decision is final – if you end up making a wrong choice, you can SIMPLY COURSE-CORRECT – and that is incredibly liberating.

Ernest Shackleton knew this – and I think it’s a big reason I’m so drawn to his story. Whenever anything went wrong (like when his ship was crushed in the ice and destroyed), he would simply make a new goal (survival!).

If I could, I would tell my younger self not to worry, not to waste energy on what-ifs and endless backup strategies. As it is, I’m incredibly happy I have had the life I’ve had so far; it’s made me into the person I am now, and I like her just fine.

But now I’m older, and I have a new goal. I’m heading off into the great unknown, and I’m not making any contingency plans.

ERNEST SHACKLETON LOVES ME runs September 20 – October 4 at

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ViolinLikeThat! interview with Ariella Zeitlin-Hoffman

This is a really lovely interview – thanks so much for featuring me, Ariella!


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Love abounds for Ernest!

I’m finally getting a moment to post here: Ernest Shackleton Loves Me is going wonderfully here at the George Street Playhouse. My son Mose (below) was super excited on opening night last Saturday…and the excitement continues as audiences are loving it and critics are piling on board too. Hope you can join us here in New Brunswick! I will be here through May 13, and my wonderful understudy Angel Desai will be going on May 14-17. (More on that shortly.)
Tix & Details:

Valerie Vigoda's photo.
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I’m back. Go see LONG STORY SHORT in NYC, through Mar 29!

Hey there! I’ve just returned from the opening of our musical LONG STORY SHORT in New York City, and critics and audiences are loving it (see below); it’s a funny, heartwarming, moving 90-minute slice of life.

I think that if you like my work with Brendan (like JUST GETTING GOOD or any of our GrooveLily songs), you will definitely like this.

It has a VERY short run – the last performance is on March 29 – but we promise that it’s worth your time. We are very proud of it, and of the superstar Broadway performers (Bryce Ryness of SLEEPING BEAUTY WAKES and Pearl Sun who originated this role in 2008) who are knocking it out of the park every show.

You can use this staff discount code: HOPE

and get 20% off tickets here:

If you’re anywhere near NYC before the end of March, please do come check it out. We wrote the show when we were younger, but we are thrilled that it’s finally grown up and made it to the big city.

“You’d have to be made of unmovable stuff not to be touched “ – New York Theatre Review

“What Milburn and Vigoda have created is nothing short of a dream…Exquisite.” –

“Insightful, moving and joyful…Imaginative and fresh… Stunning.” –

“Superbly cast…very entertaining..” –

“Sometimes touching, sometimes stinging, and sometimes funny.” – Theatre Pizzazz

Phenomenal…They will leave you laughing in some moments and in tears in others, a truly touching and engaging story.” –

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See you soon.

Hi all – this is just to let you know that I am continuing to take a little break from social media. The nonstop work from August to December of 2014 left me pretty exhausted, and Brendan and I are both kind of underwater at the moment. It will take a little while to get back up to speed – but I will be back soon, and very much look forward to catching up and reconnecting then.

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We did it. YOU did it! Thank you!!!

ValJumpingExtremelyHappyMonday, November 17, was a spectacular day.

After our jubilant LA reading/backer’s audition of ERNEST SHACKLETON LOVES ME (the show that inspired “Just Getting Good” in the first place), the day ended with an awe-inspiring sprint to the kickstarter finish. An amazing 74 NEW backers came on board on the final day…and GET THIS:

Not only did we reach our goal and get funded (in spades)… not only did we reach the incredible height of $68,992 on the official kickstarter page… not only will we be able to make this project truly beautiful and make you proud, with the resources to do it to the very best of our abilities and with the most magnificent team we can assemble… BUT: due to that final-day surge, + several people who preferred to pledge the old-fashioned way (e.g. sending us checks in the mail), WE ACTUALLY RAISED OVER $70K!!! (Grand total: $71,342.)

(Check-in-the-mail pledgers Peter Curtiss, Patricia Flannery, Lola & Roland Owens and Sarah Vigoda: You ROCK.)

I’m floored. Thank you doesn’t begin to match the depth of my feelings. But thank you.

And as promised, we will put together a live-looping version of “The Devil Went Down To Georgia.” It might take us some time…so meanwhile, please enjoy the Muppet interpretation:

(thanks to Robert Neblett for reminding us of this terrific version)

So thank you.

But that’s not enough. I’ve been trying to figure out how to convey to you what an enormous difference you’ve just made.

To be supported by 531 backers is amazing. But here’s what that really means to me – over 500 people love my music and will be hearing this album as soon as we finish it.

Here’s one big reason why that’s huge. Let me share how things used to go:

Back in our touring heyday, we played around 150 widely varied shows a year. We were doggedly trying to build an audience, but we tended to average about 5 CDs sold per gig. There were some very fun times, but it was a slog and ultimately we flailed a lot.

Here’s the math of how it used to be:

$15 gross income for each CD
x 5 CDs sold per show on average
x 150 shows per year
= $11,250 from CD sales over an entire year of frankly brutal touring.

So it would take YEARS to make the money back from creating an album, if we ever did.

Cut to today: in one month, we’ve been able to raise almost 650% more through your pledges, AND it hasn’t beaten me down to the point where I want to give up. Just the opposite. Though the kickstarter process has been stressful and exhausting at times, your encouragement has raised my spirits like nothing else in my professional life.

It makes me want to get up every morning and make the album and show amazing for YOU.

And to feel this personal, direct connection with you is phenomenal. It is so wonderful to feel this valued and supported for what I’m doing, I can’t even tell you. There is a new sense of peace, of “all is right with the world,” that feels like a sea change – a subsiding of the low-level panic/anxiety that has been there for so long I haven’t even always been aware of it.

So: with serenity, fearlessness and a beatific sense of calm, I report that we still have a ton of work to do in order to get “Just Getting Good” ready for its premiere on December 11! And I’m going to go set up all my gear and get started.

I am astonished, humbled, and freaking PUMPED to no end about what we are creating together.

More soon… with infinite tendrils of thanks, connectivity and love,


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Love Letter to a steroid

prednisone-tabletsDear Prednisone,

First of all, Happy Veteran’s Day. I hope you are taking this time to celebrate our freedom, particularly the very freedom of speech (and song) that you so generously gave to me yesterday, when what felt like moments before, I had lost it to laryngitis.

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

1 – for acting so quickly

2 – for being so remarkably effective

3 – for not having weird side effects (or if you do, they’re indistinguishable from my normal weirdness)

4 – most crucially, for allowing me to speak and sing and be heard on what was an extraordinarily big day for me with a lot riding on it: our NYC backers’ audition/reading of ERNEST SHACKLETON LOVES ME, followed by a one-song performance at Birdland for the luminary-filled Lilly Awards Cabaret. One of my biggest fears in life is letting people down…and I’m more grateful and happy than I can possibly express that I didn’t let down my collaborators, our producer, the organizers of the Lilly Awards, everyone who has put in SO MUCH effort and countless hours to make these events happen and support us in our creative work.

5 – PS for not being specifically contra-indicated with alcohol – so I could have a celebratory drink after it was all over.

I adore you, stunning steroid…

and after our five days together, I will bid you adieu.

with love and admiration,


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I can’t talk. I try, but nothing comes out. And the timing couldn’t be worse.


I have to learn this lesson over and over again: too much stress + not enough sleep + not enough working out/yoga = getting sick. It is so natural for a type-A person like me to just want to push through, suck it up and do whatever it takes to get it all done on time…and as much as I believe in that kind of work ethic (and as much as I was taught this kind of commitment and perseverance in my Army training – which is where I believe I learned the phrase “suck it up” in the first place), I also realize that I am REALLY BAD at finding balance.

Soldiering through, regardless – I admire that kind of fortitude! I want to be like that! My hero, Ernest Shackleton, didn’t do hot yoga! Balance schmalance – what really matters is what you accomplish, the results you achieve, what you have to show for yourself at the end of the day.


And yet:

The last time I worked this hard (and stopped going to Bikram yoga), I came down with shingles; this I do not recommend to anyone.

Twice before in my life, I’ve been really stressed out and come down with horrible colds and lost my voice; also not fun, and totally counterproductive when one is touring in a band as a singer.

This week, after all the craziness of the NAMT Festival and my kickstarter campaign (during which I was doing no yoga and not eating or sleeping very well), I flew back to NYC to do a few days of rehearsal for our ERNEST SHACKLETON LOVES ME reading, which is happening tomorrow (now today!) – Monday, November 10. The rehearsal schedule was very tight because Lisa (our director) wasn’t available until Friday, and Wade (who plays Shackleton) wasn’t available AFTER Friday due to his five-show weekend performing in WICKED on Broadway…so we only had one day to rehearse the new rewrites all together.

So of course, I spent Thursday feeling worse and worse, steadily losing my voice until by the middle of the night when I got up for water, I could barely make a sound.

Friday’s rehearsal turned into Rachael our company manager’s finding me an ENT doctor (which was quite a feat – apparently everyone in New York is losing their voice!), and my spending the afternoon going to the Upper East Side and having my vocal cords scoped by the genial, bow-tie-wearing Dr. Joshua Levinger of Weill Cornell.

The good news was that I DIDN’T have: cysts, polyps, nodes, hemorrhages or other vocal horrors. But I DID have “remarkable inflammation” and laryngitis. And what one does about that is:

  1. take prednisone for 5 days (steroids, glorious steroids!).
  2. do not sing, talk or whisper.
  3. hydrate like crazy.
  4. continue taking cough meds and inhale lots of steam.

What one does NOT do is soldier on through; and this has been the hardest thing for me to accept. I believe in being really prepared, and this is an important reading – and we haven’t run it through together with our director yet, even once. This gives me hives; and even so, this was the right course of action, the only possibility given the circumstances. (As Shackleton would say, “New goal!” My new goal is to be able to produce some sort of vocal sound tomorrow.)

And so, my friends, I have had a rather lonely but effective couple of days – possibly my most solitary experience ever in New York City – hiding away with my prednisone and my humidifier and my tea with honey and speaking to NO ONE.

No idea whether I can make it through a sound check, rehearsal and TWO performances tomorrow…but I will do my level best.

And I resolve, again again again, to take better care of myself.

As Veterans Day approaches, I am reminded that the incredibly valuable lessons I learned in the Army about discipline and perseverance still hold true – but so do their flip sides, the lessons I am still struggling to learn about balance, easing up and letting go.

I’ll report back after the reading.

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On my mind: multitasking.

With apologies to Allie Brosh, who came up with the original version of this concept. Visit her site here:

With apologies to Allie Brosh, who came up with the original version of this concept. Visit her site here:

In my utopia, I would have an assistant. Or maybe a dozen. And a gal Friday. And a guy Tuesday. And an amanuensis (such a wonderful word, which sounds luxurious and suggestive and always makes me think “Latin massage therapist,” but actually just means someone who writes down what you say).

Sadly, in real life it’s just me and my standing desk in the bedroom. So today I’m going to talk about multitasking; about juggling ALL THE THINGS.

I’m not talking about the kind of multitasking I do while playing violin and singing and looping—that is wonderful and exhilarating—I’m talking about the more macro version, shifting focus between projects and obligations. This larger kind of multitasking isn’t really something I yearn to be good at. (It’s not healthy, experts say; studies show that it keeps you anxious and superficially flitting from one item to the next on a never-ending to-do list, never delving deeply enough into any one thing to achieve the elusive, wonderful feeling of “flow” that all creative humans crave.) What I really yearn for is the ability to do ONE thing at a time, to devote myself and all my work energies with great intensity and focus to a single project for a period of weeks or months…and then to be DONE with it. To live life as interval training—as espoused by the wise studier of athletes Tony Schwartz in his illuminating book “The Power of Full Engagement”—with periods of strenuous effort alternating with periods of REST and RELAXATION! Meet a writing deadline, go to Hawaii. Make an album, take a ski vacation at Whistler. Open a show, rent a house in the woods with a bunch of friends and family.


The reality of this crazy life is, it’s just not that simple. I haven’t had a vacation in years, and rarely have a full day off. The double-edged sword of the current technological explosion is that while we can now accomplish much more and much faster and more connectedly than ever before (YES, indie and DIY everything!!)…we’re now EXPECTED to keep up with it all at a dizzying pace. 

And as I get older, I find that many things now take way LONGER than before. Waking up, for example. I used to have two speeds: on and off. I would go out like a light, be soundly asleep for however long I happened to be horizontal, and then when the alarm went off, I would be instantly ON. Awake, alert, cogent, ready to go.

Now I need half an hour to open my eyes and take a sip of coffee…so that when Mose wakes up at dawn and his first words are, “Ready to tell a story?” I can actually respond with language.

Parenting doesn’t take vacations! And neither do bills.

And you don’t have to be an independent musician/songwriter, married to your partner in your insanely uncertain career, to have way too much to do every day. We all juggle more than we should have to, and most of us yearn for a slower/simpler life.

Since we’re not going to get one anytime soon, what do we do? Well, here are a few things I do. (Or at least TRY to. I definitely don’t succeed at this all the time—but when I do, I am noticeably happier, more chill and less anxiety-ridden.)

  1. Every two weeks, have a big calendar session. It takes about two hours, and Brendan doesn’t like doing it, and we have to because the alternative is to miss deadlines, run out of money, and shrivel into dried-up husks of our former selves. Make big project headlines with each area of responsibility (our latest included: JUST GETTING GOOD, KICKSTARTER, SHACKLETON, BEAUTIFUL POISON, MOSE, HOME) – and then the important things that need to get done in the upcoming weeks for each one. Assign next steps to each person and estimate how many hours each thing will take. Then, since I am routinely horrible at guessing how long things take, I DOUBLE that number of hours and put those into the calendar. (For us, this usually adds up to more hours than we will actually be awake! So then we just put in as many as will fit, and hope for the best.)

    This would make Brendan start to hyperventilate.

    This would make Brendan start to hyperventilate.

  2. Put in yoga and other workouts for each of us. IN THE CALENDAR. This helps a lot; even if we have to cancel sometimes, the default setting is exercise. (This is known as the “default effect” in psychology: we are ALL inherently lazy and will take the default option whenever possible, so the idea is to make the default option the one you actually WANT. Set up routine systems for as much as you can, leaving your feeble, finite willpower/decision-making muscle available for important creative things that actually require decisiveness.)26-bikram-postures
  3. Each evening, put together a short (SHORT!!!) list of the things to be done the following day. This will include the smaller things that didn’t make it into the calendar (grocery shopping, phone calls, specifics of what music to practice, etc.). We like the online task manager Asana ( – because if you use it right, it will keep you OUT of your email as you work on other stuff. This is good and bad; as I write this, I am woefully behind on my email…but the kickstarter is going great guns, and we had an excellent SHACKLETON showcase Monday night. (I keep thinking of something my friend Georgia once joked about having as her epitaph: “Here lies Georgia—she answered a lot of emails”…and I choose to be okay with my priorities.)

    Not really what you want.

    Not really what you want.

  4. Even if you can’t have the BIG intervals (write a musical, go to Hawaii), make sure you have as many SMALL intervals as possible. Sprint instead of marathon: work in short intense bursts of 25 minutes, with a timer, and then take 5-minute breaks. DO NOT FLIT. The unhealthy part of multitasking is the continual veering around from thing to thing (and it is SO TEMPTING to check Facebook or email every five minutes! GAH!); so I do my best to chase the elusive “flow” state even when time is limited…and the only way to get there is to focus single-mindedly until the timer goes off. I try to make work time sacred, not chatting with our housemate or answering the phone or otherwise letting myself be pulled away during those short bursts.
  5. When you’re done working for the day, be DONE. (I am not good at this. I am very very Type A. But I try.)Done

So I guess my philosophy on multitasking comes down to this: if you PRE-PLAN it to allow yourself to dig into each project over several intensely focused short bursts of time, and set up your default options to be in sync with your larger goals, then you’ll be able to switch gears effectively instead of mentally meandering, having to figure out from moment to moment what is important enough to merit your overtaxed attention.

I am far from the poster child for serenity, or cheerful fearless creativity. I am frequently riddled with doubt, panic or decision fatigue (or all three); but I know I’m not alone. Constant multitasking (and my concomitant desire to be a singletasker) is one of the few certainties in this mostly/completely/utterly uncertain, ridiculous, wonderful life. 


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Los Angeles, CA – 11/03/14

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