Nicole Berke. Photo by Amy Rollo.
The other day, I had a conversation with someone very dear to me about fears. He confessed that he was afraid of heights and asked me if, when I stood on the edge of a cliff or on top of a high building, I ever felt like I would be overtaken with the need to simply jump off. I could have finished his sentence, and yet I had never heard anyone else say this. He was describing a feeling I have experienced over and over again, with heights, with life, with love. The French call it "L’appel du vide,” he said, or the call of the void. An expression which perfectly encapsulates this strange desire: the need, the want, the pull of the unknown; the push, the tug, the itch to step away from the mundane and wander out into the vast white canvas that is a future unwritten. This, he explained, is exactly why, despite his fear of heights, he wanted to go skydiving, why he joined the diving team in high school, why he forced himself to go bungee jumping a few years ago. And this, I agreed, is exactly why, despite my admitted fear of losing the solid ground below my feet, I knew I had to take the leap when asked if I wanted to come live in Beijing for four months.
The second this question was posed, my heart started pounding slowly, more deliberately, a reminder of the uncertainties in life. It was the call, a voice in my head saying "nothing is certain, we could die tomorrow, live each and every day as though it is your last." And although I responded with a businesslike “I’m very interested and will certainly consider it after I am informed of all the details,” my intuition, the drum beating in my chest, told me that I would say yes, and this would happen.
Before I even explain what this opportunity consists of, I should say that never in my life, up until that point, had I ever been so happy and content. The thrill of exploring a new music scene inspired me to move to Portland, Oregon from Boston in 2009, and I fell in love with the city at once. I was able to find a community of like-minded individuals: people with vigor for life, intelligence to be reckoned with, and genuine, to-the-point honesty that keeps me present and grounded whenever I’m with them. I had a job teaching music that I couldn’t get enough of, and my band, with whom I was in the process of recording a long overdue album, is made up of players who are not only incredibly talented musicians, but people I consider to be my family. And of course (because isn’t this the way it always goes?) I had just recently found someone, this aforementioned fear-of-heights character, for whom I’d developed…let’s say…an unusually strong, irresistible adoration.
So although four months away really isn’t such a long time in the context of a whole life span, it grew into the size of forever in my mind, and by the time I had all of my belongings in storage and my entire life packed into two suitcases, I felt split into two. After weeks of preparation and logistics, part of me was basking in the invigorating excitement of new experiences to come while my other half was aching with the painfully inevitable truth that I would be leaving the city and the people I love. And yet the void kept calling, and no matter how nervous or tentative I was, I knew I had to continue forward.
So before I knew it, I found myself in China: stumbling off of a plane, rushing through an ocean of people, fighting the crowds to claim my bags, clinging for dear life onto the man holding a sign with my name on it, collapsing into the car that drove me through the chaotic Beijing night and pulling up next to the five-star hotel which was to become my home for the next four months. Walking through the lobby, I felt as though I had stepped into another world filled with money, glamour and prestige. Enormous chandeliers hung from the high ceiling and beautiful, sharply dressed staff smiled and nodded at businessmen and women in suits hurrying around the lobby. And to my left, I was able to get my first glimpse of Centro, the chic nightclub in which I would be singing six nights a week with a band called The Soulcasters.
The first two weeks were a whirlwind: I arrived on Friday, February 3rd, 2012, rehearsed for six hours on Saturday, had my first performance with The Soulcasters that very night, made an attempt to adjust to the time difference (literally sixteen hours into the future as I had known it), and swam for my life to stay afloat. After that, things started to calm down a bit, but the two most difficult things still remain. The first, missing people, is something that I don’t think will ever go away until I make it back home, although Skype and Facebook have been wonderful ways to remain connected.
The second, having to place my personal songwriting and playing on the back burner, is something that I am currently struggling to work out. The latter aspect is due to the fact that I have been hired to dress up every night and play the role of a singer fronting a soul, jazz and blues cover band, something I had done on occasion but never as a full-time job. This was one facet that I was initially unsure about, but once I arrived here, it didn’t take long to realize how lucky my situation is in a countless number of ways. The guys in the band are amazingly talented musicians and are also hilarious, kindhearted people with whom I get along extremely well. And we have been playing songs which I love: a mix of D’Angelo, Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, Cee-Lo and more.
In addition, the amount of time I have to focus on singing and performing is allowing me to further develop my stage presence and learn a great deal about using my voice as an instrument. In other words, although it is a strange and new thing for me to be on stage night after night without performing a single original song and without a keyboard under my hands, I haven’t for one second regretted my decision to live here in Beijing. Rather, I am trying to focus on how to balance my career-based goals and creative needs with the additional requirements of this job. All of these things, of course, in addition to taking extra time for as much exploration and adventure as possible during the four months of my stay, have allowed me to come upon a kind of fulfillment and happiness that I have never before experienced.
Every day, I marvel at how fortunate I am to be here and have been feeling an increasing sense of inspired awe and humble wonder at the twists and turns life can take. I would be lying if I said it’s all been easy, and it would be unrealistic to say that each and every chance that swings into one’s path is worth a blind jump, but I do believe in the extreme importance of frequently taking a leap into something completely new and unknown. That very principle is the only way I know how to take something blurry and ambiguous, something that may at first seem as frightening as a dark, spinning void, and turn it into a reality filled with the light of new experiences and ongoing connections to people who somehow make the world appear smaller and more approachable.
Someone once told me that regret is something that only results from the chances you don’t take and the adventures you don’t seize wholeheartedly; more and more, I’m finding this to be true. So, for what it’s worth, here is my advice to you, the hardworking musician, the writer, the artist, the creative mind: whatever decision you may be trying to make regarding your life and your career, step out into the void whenever you are able with your eyes, ears and mind open. The importance of having a strong professional and personal support system to guide you through your process is of course invaluable, as is maintaining a careful awareness of your situation at all times. But in the end, if you find yourself sifting through fog and searching for clarity, remember that at the very worst, you’ll stumble out into the other side with the unknown behind you, plenty of material for your artistry, and more than a few stories to tell.
© 2012 Nicole Berke
May Not Be Used Without Permission
ABOUT NICOLE BERKE
Originally from Boston, ASCAP member Nicole Berke is a pianist/singer/songwriter currently based in Portland, Oregon. Berke’s debut EP Frondescence was released in 2008 and in September of 2009 Nicole moved to Portland, where she completed her bachelor’s degree in Social Psychology at Portland State University. Berke appeared at The University of Wyoming twice in 2011 and was also a featured artist on the main stage at The Bite of Oregon Festival. In February of 2012, Berke started her four-month residency as the lead singer for the R&B band, The Soulcasters, in Beijing, China at the Kerry Center Hotel and is anticipating the release of a new full-length album in the fall. For more information, visit www.NicoleBerkeMusic.com.