Discover more from The Isolation Journals with Suleika Jaouad
Transcript: A Creative Heart-to-Heart
with Jon Batiste and Suleika Jaouad
Suleika Jaouad: Hello, my name is Suleika Jaouad—
Jon Batiste: I knew that’s what happened. You pressed those buttons?
SJ: Yeah, by accident.
JB: Those buttons dramatically changed the sound.
JB: Okay. Thank gosh, I was like what did I? Speak—
SJ: Thank you, Lord!
JB: Oh my goodness! You hear the difference?
SJ: Yeah, I do.
JB: My gosh! I was like, what did I do wrong? I’m supposed to be cool like this... Alright, speak, speak.
SJ: Hello, my name is Terry Gross.
JB: See you hear how you sound? Don’t press them buttons. I was like what happened to the thing?
SJ: Okay, I got you.
JB: Okay, ooh, this is fantastic. Let me see. Hello, hello everyone. My name is Jeffery. Not Dahmer. Okay.
SJ: [laughs] Okay, time for us to start.
My name is Suleika Jaouad, and I’m the author of the memoir Between Two Kingdoms and the founder of the Isolation Journals, a newsletter and community where we transform life’s interruptions into creative grist.
SJ: [laughs] That too. Creative grits.
JB: Grits. Y’all making grits?
SJ: Welcome to a very special conversation with my better half, Jon Jaouad Batiste.
JB: Jaouad, from the west side. Yeah, bro.
SJ: My husband is extremely famous and the smartest man on the planet. [laughs] That’s a fact. And just to give you a glimpse of what these last two to three years have been like, for him—he won an Oscar, he won best Album of the Year for his most recent masterpiece, We Are. And in addition to being a truly brilliant individual, he’s also one of the wisest, funniest, kindest humans I know. Today, we’re doing something we haven’t done in a very, very long time. We’re having a conversation about life and the creative process, fueled by the community’s questions, and I am so excited. So without further ado, I’d like to welcome Jon. Hi, Jon.
SJ: How’s it going?
SJ: Okay, so to start, and this is one of my favorite things to talk about, a lot of people had questions about rituals or routines, which I think is something that’s on all of our minds around the New Year. And this particular question comes from a community member named Dodie. She writes, “I struggle with transitioning between my creative mindset or space and my life’s practical space. I imagine flowing between them more than I do, but often they seem far apart. Do you and Jon have rituals or suggestions and how to bridge that gap more easily?”
JB: Practice is a form of editing. Creative practice is a form of editing. So when you’re walking around, you have to find these different ways of documenting the things that you want to edit out of your work to make it better. So for me a voice note on the phone, whether it’s a note to myself, or a sketch of something, whether it’s the idea that is being born in that moment, and I want to capture it, and I’m in the middle of doing something practical, like washing the dishes, or if I’m, you know, on a walk, and I’m not in front of the instrument or a notepad. Finding different things to capture these ideas and make note of the edits that I want to make carrying around a little notebook. If you don’t want to use your phone, it’s something that I recommend. Some folks I know have tape recorders that they carry around because they like the practice of putting it in a tape recorder and listening to a cassette. There’s other ways that you can find integration of your focused creative work with your practical life. And it’s just about finding those little methods of chronicling. That’s how I just stay in a flow state.
And I don’t force it when it doesn’t come. That’s another thing about editing. You can overthink something. Sometimes it has to be unfinished or incomplete for a while before it’s complete. Something might have to happen in your life. Which is why I think is all one. The practice of being creative is not just about focusing in your, your study, or in your studio, or in wherever your ritual space is where you create. It’s about living through the practical and the mundane, and allowing those epiphanies of the edit to emerge, and developing methods to capture those epiphanies. And you realize, "Oh, this is what I have to do when I get back to the studio."
SJ: I love that use the word integrated, because that’s exactly what comes to mind when I think of you. There really isn’t a separation between your creative practice and your everyday life. Everything can and does become creative for you. You’re not a precious artist who needs a perfectly curated desk. For a lot of people, it feels like you need permission, like you need to check certain boxes before you can actually get to the work.
JB: It’s important to know what triggers your creative flow. And what triggers your creative flow doesn’t have to be something that is neatly delineated. Doesn’t even need to be something that’s tangible, that you can clearly articulate. It can be a feeling, it can be an essence of something. You could feel a certain way that makes you want to create. You could be looking for that, you know. I know some artists who look for that, you know—a friend of mine called trying to find the wave. They’ll go to different parts of the world, searching for that creative wave. So really it’s less about not needing a creative space, and more about defining what my creative triggers are. So that I have more things in my toolkit, and I can access the creative in different ways that are not restricted, you know. And maybe your creative trigger is to have an empty room. And that’s the only thing that will get you there. And if that’s the case, if you know that, I bet you you’ll be able to create that empty room in more places than just the empty room.
SJ: I love that. And so can you share a little bit about what gets you into that mood? What gets you on the wave?
JB: Being at home. I like being at home with you. I like being in the in the kitchen. I like eating. I like, you know, my privacy. I go places, and I’m grateful that people are very, very moved by my work. And there’s a lot of attention and a lot of incredible community that is always something that shocks me and gives me a lot of... a sense of humility and a sense of responsibility to continue. But I like my personal space. And as things become more and more of a intense environment on the outside, this feels like my cocoon. So for me to be here with you and with my thoughts in the prayer room, you know, that’s important. Or even just the idea of having the possibility of creating, having a workspace and not doing it is inspiring. Because it’s not always about doing it. It’s about knowing that when it hits you you have the environment set up to capture it. And then you don’t feel so rushed about trying to make it happen.
SJ: And will you share with us what your ideal creative routine looks like these days?
JB: No routine. I think a routine is something that for me is overrated. I think a routine is important in terms of consistency, and consistency is important in achieving goals, meeting deadlines and also cultivating a skill or craft. But creativity is mysterious. Creativity has something to do with craft, but it also has more to do with life. Creativity is something that is a steady stream, in the subconscious realm, in the realm of the spirit. And if you tap into it and you’re blessed enough to have something come from that stream into reality and manifest on your desk, it’s not because of anything other than that’s what God wanted to be so. So I think when I create, and I’m consistent, that gives me more of a shot of that being bestowed upon me in the people I’m working with. But I think the act of forcing the creative through a routine and thinking that that’s the way, versus being open to it, and being responsible with the craft, but not forcing that routine. I think it’s overrated, the thing that the routine is gonna get you there.
SJ: Yeah, I really appreciate that distinction. And I’m reminded of our dear friend Liz Gilbert’s TED talk on “Your Elusive Creative Genius.” And we’ll link to it in the show notes.
So a lot of people had this next question. And it’s something that I find myself thinking about a lot, which is that forever lesson of how we hold both hope and sorrow, and how we stay positive when things are spiraling down, which is something we got a master class in in the last year of our lives. And Cristen, a high school teacher, writes, “I tend to be hyper-aware of all the sadness, pain and general selfishness in the world. I try to focus on the good, but it can be challenging, especially if I read the news. How do the two of you cultivate joy in the face of so much that runs counter to it?”
JB: Joy is something that you practice. And that’s more of a routine than the creative process. I don’t think anybody is joyous all the time, and I don’t think it’s possible or realistic to want to be joyous all the time, there’s a season for everything. There’s a time and place for every emotion. But I think there’s an underlying sense of joy that you can have in every situation. And that is spiritual to me. I think you can speak to a practice of cultivating that, which for me is through my faith and my friendships. Christ, Christianity, in the way that I see it, in the way that I’ve learned to practice is about tapping into underlying joy and love.
I also think that people in your life, when you seek them out, and when you pull yourself a little bit out of a hole that you’re in, they’ll do a lot of the rest of the work with you and on your behalf. But most of the time, we don’t reach out to each other. We don’t check in on each other. We don’t want to step into awkward conversation. And you’re so good at that. I’ve seen you cultivate that practice and it’s natural for you in a sense of being a force of building community as present in the Isolation Journals. That’s something that we all can do on In our small or large scale, you know. It’s just about reaching out and connecting, letting the community that you have cultivated—and could be strangers too—lift you up. And that creates joy. That’s a practice of joy.
SJ: I also feel like in our culture, we think of joy or positivity and sorrow or suffering as being at odds with each other. It’s like you’re either happy, or you’re sad, you know. You’ve either have hope, or you feel despair. And what I’ve observed is that for us, the creative process is really where we get to marry those things, and where we get to experience them alongside one another.
And I was thinking about this in the context of what happened a year ago, when we were in the bone marrow transplant unit, after we received the news of my relapse, and it was a really difficult time, right? And it was made all the more difficult by the fact that we didn’t get to physically be in the same space for large chunks of time, because you were working on an a late night TV show, and the exposure risk was too high. And instead of kind of wallowing in that sense of isolation, or in that sense of loneliness or despair, you came up with a really creative solution, which was to compose lullabies for me. And I think you found joy in the making of those lullabies, I certainly found so much comfort and companionship and getting to listen to them. But what it made me realize is that, you know, a big part of the creative process is integrating to bring it back to the word integration, those two things without, you know, glossing over one, or the other.
And yet, there are some things that are awful, that make it feel impossible to get into a creative state. There are difficult passages that it seems like you’ve just can’t wrench yourself out of. And as someone who struggles with depression and anxiety, I know that place well. And so I want to talk about the pressure to remain positive and the tyranny of always having to put a sunny spin on things. We have a question from Cheryl on this very topic, and it’s, “When you’re living in the frumpy dump and life has been bleak for so long, how do you re-energize? How do you create during moments where it’s just hard surviving?” I also want to credit Cheryl with the expression frumpy dump, which I’ll be stealing from this point forward.
JB: Frumpy dump.
SJ: Frumpy dump.
JB: Frumpy dump sounds so joyous. Frumpy dumpy—that’s a person with joy in them. The pressure view and things as joyous, even if they’re not, is a frame that I would reject. There should never be any pressure put on joy. Joy is not something that allows for any sort of repression, or any sort of force in manifesting it. Joy emerges. And you need the clouds and the rain. In order to have the sunshine of joy. It’s a real resurrection. It’s a rebirth. It’s a form of rising from the ashes and you have to allow for things to run their course. There’s no pressure on joy.
You have a way of moving through life, Suleika, that has a natural joy. It’s not a pressured joy. The darkest things can be happening and you can have a very realistic perspective on them. But you can see that there’s no reason to ever be defeated. The resilience of the human soul, the promise of things to come, and even if you don’t believe that—the sense that there’s something bigger than us, some that I know we’ve all felt at some moment. I don’t accept the frame of that statement. There’s no pressure on joy.
SJ: I believe that so deeply as a culture, we think of sadness as a bad thing, discomfort as a bad thing. There’s nothing wrong with being uncomfortable. There’s nothing wrong with being sad. My natural orientation is one of joy. But I’ve also spent large chunks of my life working through really difficult passages. And the only way that I know how to move through those difficult passages is to confront what’s most difficult. To write into the sadness, to write about it, to write through it, to integrate it into your experience, rather than papering over it or numbing yourself. I think there’s a joy that can come from the very act of allowing yourself to feel sad. And so I think, you know, it’s a fine line between allowing ourselves space to feel hard things and staying stuck in them, I really believe that the way of striking that balance is by engaging and really kind of figuring out a way to alchemize it or to transform it.
JB: Yes, the transformation is key. I’d also want us to reframe the way that we think about joy versus sadness. Joy is nuanced, just as much as hardship. It’s like nature. It is akin to the world someone is born at the same time as someone is passing away. On the axis of joy, there’s always hardship. On the other side. Joy is always bittersweet. When you you feel hardship, you reach for joy, and you’re reaching to connect to the other, the polarity you’re reaching, but when you in joy many times, is anchored by the hardship that we came out of. You have this realization, at all times, that it’s all connected. Everything is everything.
SJ: I mean, that’s so so beautifully said. And I want to make sure that we answer Cheryl’s second part of the question, which was about how we create during moments, where it’s just hard surviving.
JB: Spirit can withstand all things. And if you look at it as an opportunity to speak to the richness of the depression, the richness of the darkness, when you are in the light, when you cross over, it will do wonders for how you perceive the darkness while you’re in it.
SJ: The other thing I want to add is that surviving in and of itself requires creativity. And the moments, this year, when I’ve been most sick, and unable to really do anything other than lay in bed, you know, the temptation was for me to say, I’m not doing anything. You know, I’m not writing, I’m not painting, not seeing friends. But navigating survival requires creativity. What I’ve found to be true is that, you know, with the passage of time, I realize how much I learned from those moments or experiences or even long stretches of time. And while it may not feel like you’re working in a creative capacity, the very act of having to negotiate how you’re going to keep yourself alive informs every part of the creative process.
JB: Pray, God will answer your prayers. Maybe ain’t talked to him in awhile.
SJ: Or her.
JB: It’s okay. God defies all of that.
SJ: So perfect segue to Pia’s question, "Where does your faith stand and all of this?" You’ve been alluding to it, you know, throughout our conversation, but I’m curious, you know, how you see faith in the creative context of your work and your life.
JB: For me, faith is not separate from anything that I do. It’s the foundation for all that I do. And it’s what I aspire to be. It is my perspective on the world and humanity. My worldview is shaped by my belief that God is real. And he came as a human being. And Jesus was that human. My faith has taught me a lot about sharing, and a lot about accepting and loving authentically. It’s taught me a lot about being a person who lives in the world and takes responsibility for myself and my actions and takes responsibility for my family. And that really is the foundation of what allows me to be a creative force.
SJ: I remember Nadia Bolz-Weber saying something like the most powerful prayers are the ones made from a place of despair. I really believe that.
JB: Thank you, Pia. I love questions about faith.
SJ: Okay, so somehow, we are running out of time. But we have a couple of quick rapid fire questions. Are you game for that?
SJ: “Have you sung while Jon played the piano? Are you guys planning music together?” The short answer is no. I do not sing. I don’t think even Jon has ever heard me sing. I have a terrible, terrible singing voice.
JB: It’s in there.
SJ: Okay. We’ll work on that later today. And the next part of the question is, “Are you guys planning music together?”
JB: Sure. We did music together for the audio book of Between Two Kingdoms. If you listen to it, you will hear this incredible bass, this incredible arco bass with the bow going into the heavens of sonic glory. You gotta check it out. She’s doing great on it.
SJ: Thank you for that advertisement. Okay, next question. Thoughts on getting started, when you’re a newbie from a mostly not creative field? You take this one.
JB: Just start and revel in being lousy.
SJ: And love that. And I’ll just add, keep the stakes low.
JB: And by the way, when I say won’t be good, and you make the stakes low, like Suleika’s saying, what ends up happening is that it becomes good because it’s you and you’re uninhibited. But I didn’t want to give away that one. So act like you didn’t hear me.
SJ: I love that. Okay, next question. “What’s a touch point or phrase that helps you reset on the hardest days?”
JB: Be still and know that I am God. You could do a meditation. It can be one word is taken away every time and then it’s “Be still and know.” And then it’s “Be still and,” and then breathe. And then “Be still.” And then “Be” and then you just breathe and are one with the universe and the expression, being in nature and all these things that always there. But you just have to be still and know.
SJ: Okay, so one last thing, as is our habit at the Isolation Journals, we like to wrap things up with a little creative assignment for anyone who’s listening to carry forward.
JB: What’s the question?
SJ: Creative assignment.
JB: Oh, I wasn’t... wait. Creative assignment?
SJ: A little creative assignment to leave people with.
JB: Notes from my phone or from the computer. That’s what you just said?
JB: Compooter. Explain what you’re talking about when you talk about the compooter.
SJ: What do you mean? Isn’t that when it’s called, the compooter?
JB: No, it’s not compooter. Who pooed. From them creative grits?
SJ: Yeah, exactly. We’re gonna have to go compooter after those creative grits.
JB: Yeah, the compost is kaput.
SJ: The computer is kaput.
JB: The computer is kaput.
SJ: Hello. I’m Terry Gross.
JB: I’m Jerry Gross.
SJ: What’s happening?
JB: Creative assignment to leave people with is to call somebody who you haven’t spoken to in a while. Maybe you haven’t spoken to them because of some distance. Maybe there’s been a change in career or change in lifestyle. Maybe y’all had a disagreement. As long as it’s not problematic, give them a call, have that conversation. And then afterwards, journal about, not what you were saying or what they were saying or what the conversation consisted of, but journal about how it made you feel. If you can’t get in touch with him, journal in the form of a prayer, read what you wrote, and create a gift to give to a loved one.
SJ: You brought us right back to the beginning, which is the importance of our relationships in our community, and of showing up for each other.
JB: So everyone out there, this is Jerry Gross.
SJ: And Terry Gross.
JB: We are grateful for your presence on this planet. And the Isolation Journals welcomes you and your family and your friends, and your community, to be a part of this wonderful community and to express all of the beauty and incredible creativity that lies within every one of you. Thank you for your leadership for all that you’ve done to bring the light.
SJ: Thank you, Jon. I love you. And if you’re listening, thank you too. As Jon likes to say, we love you even if we don’t know you.
JB: Oh yeah, somebody’s calling your phone. I guess that means it’s done.