Beyond the Surface: Berklee College of Music Student and Singer-songwriter Emma Charleston on Following Her Musical Path

To be one’s true self is the goal in life. This blog series would not exist if it werent for a reunion with an old friend who had all the makings of a modern-day Mozart. But at a pivotal fork in the road, he chose the path behind a desk, instead of one behind a keyboard, which would’ve honored his gift - like Mozart did. Now, 20 years later, he’s unrecognizable, this friend who once had music radiating from every cell, especially when singing in random bursts of happiness. The years have taken their toll - not just in the added 20 pounds that don’t belong, but in the heaviness that comes when living someone elses life, and not one’s true purpose. The life you came here to live.

As a writer, this inspired me to highlight the special souls who chose to follow their true path. The tougher path, but one that honors and expresses the powerful gift of music they’ve been given. To live the Mozart life. May some of their words help or inspire you to find your true calling in life.

At a time when seemingly everyone is releasing music online, with the help of things like SoundCloud and other tools previously unavailable, and aspiring to full-time careers in the music industry, even today’s most talented artists consider distinguishing themselves a daunting task. Folk pop singer-songwriter Emma Charleston captures both the angst and the optimism of an extraordinarily gifted musician in an overly saturated market. Based at the prestigious Berklee College of Music, Emma, who plays guitar and piano, delivers dreamy ballads to energetic pop rock, with themes that touch on self-doubt, determination, and individuality. She’s released two singles “Wonderland” and “Falling,” which will appear on her forthcoming EP later this spring.

How do you find inspiration for the music? Is there somewhere deep within where the inspiration comes from? It’s said that when we’re most connected to our true selves - for example, some of the best songs were written in minutes. What’s your take on that, do you feel that in those inspirational moments you’re most connected to your true self? Have any songs come to you in that way, with such ease?

The process is different every time I write a song. Sometimes I come into the song with an idea or feeling, or sometimes since I am a songwriting student at Berklee College of Music, I have to come into class with a finished and done song for an assignment.

When I wrote the song “Falling,” it took me about 10 minutes. That song was not for a class assignment, rather it was a bottled up feeling that I knew I had to get out somehow. The chorus, which is mostly comprised of the word “falling” took me about a minute to write. It surprised me how naturally the melody and the words came out as I sat and played around with ideas. Most of the songs I spend a day writing is usually less strong than the ones that take five minutes to write because I spend so much time on a less-than-strong idea that makes me second guess myself and my intentions. The songs that take less time usually have more emotion and spontaneity and truth.

Do you have a daily musical process?

Every single day I try to spend at least an hour on my instrument or writing for myself personally. Going to a music conservatory, every single day revolves around music so I would like to say that I spend an hour writing for myself and the rest of the day is learning about musical harmony, theory, conducting, or music history. I believe it’s so important in order to be a respected musician that you have at least a brief knowledge of other styles of music and the history and origins. Every day is a musical process because I am learning new things each class I take.

I try to keep up with a technique called “object writing” that has been advised by my teachers at Berklee. The technique is such that you find a single object that inspires you, or doesn’t inspire you, set a timer for 10 minutes, and spend that time just writing everything down that comes to mind about that object. I have found that it boost my creativity for the day and makes me more eager to absorb artistic intentions because my mind is already in the zone of finding the art in everything.

When did you know you had this gift of music and how did it manifest for you? How did you start to do the human discipline it takes to channel your gift, hone it and bring it forth?

When I was four my parents started me on the Suzuki method playing classical violin. When I was five, I expressed to my mother that “Violin is too much of an ‘in’ instrument. I want to play piano because it is an ‘out’ instrument and I am an ‘out’ person.” My mother never lives that one down. I started classical piano lessons with a Russian teacher at Suzuki when I was five. I must say that I completely hated practicing at that age, progressing even into ages six to eight. I was too young to realize how much these lessons would help me later in life. My mother, knowing best, kept me practicing and I am so glad she did. At age six I started taking voice lessons, mostly musical theater training. I kept singing and doing musical theater and working on my performance skills and my craft each show I was in. When I was 12, I stopped taking classical piano lessons and started taking jazz/pop piano which is where I started to find the inspiration to write, and I wrote my first song at age 12. Since then I have continued with piano lessons, voice lessons, musical theater, and pop songwriting.

I can safely say that I was ready to be a musician at age four when I picked up my first violin. I definitely have had some twists and turns along the way, toying with the idea of being a musical theater performer or TV/movie actor - those careers are still on the table, but I am hoping that one day I can do it all. Just recently I really began honing my abilities and getting formal songwriting and lyric writing training at Berklee. I am so thankful for that opportunity because it is giving me all the tools to successfully learn and hone my craft, now and into the future.

There are divine moments of serendipity, where a catalyst opens the door that leads to the path we’re meant to be on, the one where we live out the fullest expression of our true selves. What was that moment for you and how did it happen?

When I was younger, I always knew I wanted to be a performer and creator of art. However, I was so focused on musical theater throughout high school, I believed that that was my path for the future. I auditioned for all musical theater colleges, and to my dismay I didn’t get into a single one. I instead got accepted to Berklee College of Music, and my path was almost chosen for me. At Berklee I was going to study songwriting, which was something I knew I wanted to do, but didn’t realize I could do it in a school setting. I was upset about not getting into any schools for musical theater, and throughout my first year at school I was still upset and bitter about the audition process, and for an entire year at Berklee, I wasn’t able to write a single song I enjoyed- something that was very rare for me and made me even more upset about the whole situation. It wasn’t until I got home from my first year at school, was able to sit down and write three songs in a row that I loved, in the comfort of my own home.

After a whole year of learning about music, which I loved, but being depressed about the situation I was in, I finally learned that I was in the right place for me, and I’m doing the right thing for my future. It took a whole year being immersed in music and harmony, to bring myself to accept that this is the right place for me and that I can do this for a living. I still doubt myself at times since this school is so competitive and there are hundreds of girls just like me who do the same things that I do, but I try to ground myself and push through and learn as much as I can about myself and about being an artist, and hopefully extend my creativity through the school process and into the future.

What inspired this blog series was seeing an old friend who has a special gift of music, but didn’t choose that path, who, 20 years later, isn’t living the life he thought he would live. People who make music and get to travel the world doing so are a rare example of a life where one is able to honor and channel their gift of music. What are your thoughts? And do you feel you’re consciously living the life you thought you would be living?

In all honesty, I knew that I would be doing music in one way or another my entire life. My mother is a musician, (opera singer turned jazz singer) and my grandmother was a classical operatic soprano and is now a very well-respected voice teacher in the Chicago area. I never had the moment where I wanted to be say, a doctor, and decided halfway through medical school that I wanted to be a musician instead. Music has been in my blood since a very young age, but I never knew exactly what I wanted to do within the musical field. It is just very recently that I realized that I can make a living being a performer and singer/songwriter, if I work hard enough for what I want.

I’ve said in that blog post about living the Mozart life, that it may be a tougher road to choose, but you’re fully living your true selves. Do you resonate to that? You did not choose the 9 to 5 path.

It’s funny that this is one of the questions because the other day I was trying to decide what I wanted to do this summer, and I said that I wanted to live in New York City for a few months and work a real job, at a store or a restaurant, and gig at night. I want to be as well-rounded as a person and a musician as possible and I do want to experience the 9-to -5 path at one point in my life, just to say that I’ve done it. Since being a musician is a full time job, without the restricting hours of working in an office, it is hard sometimes to find the time to have a job and make some money of my own, but since I am living off-campus and am trying to fend for myself, I know I need to make some money working a real job.

I am definitely ok with living the tougher road in life because in reality for me it is not the “tougher road.” It is just a part of who I am and I have fully accepted it and am ready for the challenge.

It’s been a tough time for music, losing many of its legends or those we grew up with whose music was our soundtrack. What are your thoughts on time, how it seems to go by faster each year. Perhaps it’s made you reflect on what you want to achieve in the time we’re given here? Do you think about time much and what you want to achieve in the time we have?

I was watching a video online the other day of kids who are 10 to 12 years old, and they were each given a variety of Beatles songs to listen to, and almost none of them knew the classic songs that I grew up listening to, and I am only 10 or so years older than they are. The music industry is so dependent on time and its needs are constantly changing and acclimating to the tastes of the younger generation that the older generations can feel a little lost or not current with the “trendy” music. I think it’s important to create music with integrity, that can stand up to the older more classic artists like Carole King or Joni Mitchell, but bring the new sensibility of what the current music industry wants.

I am in the process of releasing an EP and one of the tracks is called “Volcano” and it is heavily electronically-based. I almost never write electronic music but I know and acknowledge that that is along the tastes and needs of the current music industry. I decided to write this electronic-based song with integrity and the sensibility of a folk singer, with a current track. It was definitely one of the toughest things I’ve ever done but I think it has made me more in touch with the current music tastes of most people my age.

Unlike any time in history, we’re in a overwhelming digital era. There is so much detritus, noise and schadenfreude. What’s your view on that, and how do you find quiet in this era? What do you do to connect with your Higher Self, your true self? Do you have a day you unplug for example? How do you ground yourself, focus on your own life path and purpose?

Honestly, I could be better with this. The music industry has changed so much and being right in the middle of it with emerging musicians just like myself can make every day seem like an impossible battle. There are some days where I don’t feel like even picking up my instrument, because I’m upset about how hard the music industry is to make a career out of it, and there are some days where I have to pick up my instrument to write about that exact problem.

I decorated my room really simply with calming colors, I hung a tapestry on my walls and found some soft lighting. Ambiance when I write or calm myself is ridiculously important to me because I found that when I am in an uninspiring space, my songs are uninspired. I feel like space fosters creativity so I almost always write in front of a window. It calms me down and lets me focus on the bigger picture, which is the most important thing I can do right now since I am so present-oriented.

I’m a firm believer in doing mitzvahs, especially in the tougher times of our lives. To give back, be of service in some way, to use our time most wisely, can only help us in the end. What are your thoughts and do you try to do your own mitzvahs to help others, even in the smallest way?

When I was in high school, I was in a program called “Builders Beyond Borders” where I went to impoverished countries with a group of students my age. We built homes, latrines, gardens, irrigation systems and bridges to benefit the community that did not have the ability to make such things for themselves. We went to Guyana my very first year in the program and we stayed in a village called Wakapau, which we could only get to by bus, boat, bus, and another boat. We spent a week interacting with locals and members of the peace corps, and we built a bridge connecting two small villages to a health and medical center. Living in a hollowed out church in hammocks separated by less than a foot apart with 25 other people was certainly not glamorous, but knowing that we helped improve the lives of the villagers made the experience worthwhile.

This experience has made me more of an empathetic songwriter, artist, and person in general. It is so important to be open minded and generous with help because you never know how impactful your help can be to others, much like with music being able to “heal a broken heart.”

What advice do you have for people who have the gift of music, but don’t know how to start channeling it, to develop that gift and bring it out?

The most important thing that helped me become the musician I am, the musician I am becoming, is to have the basis of piano, or an instrument. If you have the gift and want to pursue it, I would say that having the ability to play an instrument is the most important thing even if you want to be a singer. The years of classical piano I took when I was young has helped me in a way I can’t even begin to explain. If you want to be a songwriter, knowing an instrument is even more important because it is virtually impossible to write something with just voice, and to understand the harmony behind it. Taking lessons once a week for even just a few months will give you a basic understanding of scales, key signatures and the basic elements of composition.

What do you do to help pick yourself up when you’re feeling down, and help you stay the course? Is there a song you play that inspires you when you’re needing some inspiration or to pick yourself up?

Whenever I feel down, I light a candle and I try to just play guitar for fun. I am not a trained guitarist and I mostly play by ear, which makes it so much more fun for me because I am not limited to technique, rather I am inspired by the creativity it takes to write something by ear. Whenever I sit at the piano I tend to play the same thing over and over, with guitar, I find it helps my creativity when I don’t know as much about the instrument. This inspires me so much and fuels a lot of creativity.

One of my favorite songs to play is “I Can’t Make You Love Me” even when I’m not sad, or in the mood to be sad. That song evokes such beautiful emotion and makes me happy to sing and play it even though the content is sad. It’s fun for me to play great songs because they are already so beautifully written that it makes me feel good to sing and play them for myself, even when no one can hear.

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