That American Life

In 1986 I moved from the U.S. to South Africa with my family. I eventually grew to love South Africa and thought of it as my home. But America always had a kind of mystical quality about it. America represented the good life. America was a place where everyone succeeded. America was where you could do anything you wanted to do and you could have anything you wanted to have. Everything was good in America.

In 2008 I moved back to the States to live. I chose to settle in Nashville, TN without really knowing much about the place. The first few years were both difficult and full of wide eyed wonder for me. They were full of new experiences, and new people. Although I was 31 when I moved, I think of myself during that time as a freshman in college. I was naive and dumb and full of inexplicable hope. 

When my hopes remained unrealized I grew bitter and felt that America had let me down. 

It’s been a decade since then and what I used to see as a grey, ugly city, has begun to feel like home, and has begun to show it’s colors. What I used to think of as “hard times” I now see simply as life. Things that used to seem broken now seem like blessings.

The chorus of “That American Life” says:

“Somebody get me some water, so I can take a bite of this whine.

Somebody paint this paradise with a little bit more sunshine.

Somebody fry me some bacon. Let’s eat it with some apple pie.

Somebody cut me a slice of that American life.”

It’s not a very glamorous self-portrait but I think it describes my former attitude fairly accurately. “Hey my throat is a little dry from all the complaining. Could you get me some water so I can can really tell you about my troubles? While you’re at it, this sub-tropical beach we’re on is a little sandy for my tastes. Can we have something done about that? The sun isn’t shining quite the way I prefer it. I’m hungry bro, but this food in front of me, while perfectly fine and capable of nourishing me, isn’t the tastiest thing I’ve ever put in my mouth. Let’s find something better. Let’s find the most amazing food we can think of and eat it all at the same time. Bro, I am tired of not being the wealthiest bro around. There’s people doing better than me and I think I want some of what they have.”

It’s hard to understand loneliness until you have been lonely. It’s hard to understand love unless you have been loved. If you have been both lonely and loved, you understand both of those conditions better than you would having only experienced one of them. You don’t really know good coffee until you’ve forced down a mug of stale gas station brew. You don’t really know wealth until you’ve experienced poverty.

I didn’t write this song to address inequality. I wrote it as a way of acknowledging that things are never as bad as they may seem. In fact a lot of what feels like difficulty ends up being a path to strength. A lot of what feels like poverty becomes a path to wealth. It’s easy to look back and see the good in situations that didn’t feel good at the time. We all do that. I wrote this to encourage myself to pull those experiences into the present. To remember to highlight the good NOW.

But it’s worth saying that in the current climate of inequality of race and sex, those of us who have known wealth and privilege should search our experience for those moments when things seemed difficult and no-one understood. We should look to the lonely times and the times when we were unloved and the times when we wanted more than we had, not so that we can wallow in our miseries, but because it might breed in us a small measure of compassion. If we can remember what it felt like to be unheard we might be more prone to listen. If we can remember what it felt like to be lonely we might be more prone to reach out. If we can remember what it felt like when we didn’t know how we would get the rent paid, in spite of our best efforts, we might be more willing to help those who need it. 

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I’ve recently discovered podcasts. I mean, I’ve known that they are a thing for a while. I’ve known what they are. I just never listened to them. I was a hold-out on the whole “smart” phone thing. I liked having small phones that made calls and told me what time it was but didn’t do much else. Then I had a series of stupid “smart” phones that for various reasons didn’t do much good so I honestly never bothered to even try to listen to podcasts on them.

But now I can listen to podcasts and I do. I’ve been listening to the Robcast, which is basically Rob Bell, talking to people about spiritual things. In one of his recent series he talks with this guy, Pete Rollins, about love. One of the things they talk about is the idea that humans tend to think that they want certain things. They objectify those things. Maybe it’s a house. Maybe it’s a better job. Maybe it’s someone to love. Maybe it’s something else. But the idea is that there is this fantasy that a person imagines, in which a very specific set of things or circumstances happens which conspire to make them happy. Sometimes they get the very thing or things they are fantasizing about and, of course, they are not happy.

What we really want is the struggle for the thing we are fantasizing about, but we are so convoluted that we have to trick ourselves into struggling. We have to have a prize to strive for or we will just sit on the couch and eat stuff and drink stuff and become slobs while we watch television.

My own fantasy has always been that at some point I will have a life in which I have the freedom to sit in my studio all day long, writing songs and recording them. I will of course take long breaks to go walking in the woods, or maybe go fishing or cycling or some other such thing. I have no financial worries and I have a whole lot of time on my hands.

Mostly, I’ve never had that. I’ve always had a job and responsibilities and other realities of life to contend with. You know…like people.

Years ago when I was convincing myself to pursue music as a career, I did that mental exercise in which you ask yourself, “What would you do if you had millions of bucks and could do with your time whatever you wanted to do?” My answer has always revolved around the making of music. There’s another part to that mental exercise in which you ask yourself, “What activities do you do, in which you can totally get lost?” These days we call it “flow”. There are things that people do in which they reach a state of super productivity and that state is called flow. Time passes and things get done and then you look up are realize you missed lunch and you felt good about it. Again my answers to that question have always revolved around making music in some form.

So when some guy on some podcast said, “The thing we really want is the struggle.” I was skeptical. Obviously I don’t want the struggle. The struggle is the thing I want to avoid. I just want to be able to do what I want when I want to do it and I don’t want anything to stand in my way. Struggle is hard. Struggle is struggle. Why would I want that?

The answer lies in one of the definitions of love. To love something is to give your life to it. To do whatever it needs and wants. To make it happy at the expense of your own comfort and happiness even. In other words, to love something or someone, is to struggle for that thing or person.

The fantasy isn’t real. It probably won’t ever happen. If it did, it wouldn’t be like it is in my brain and even if it was, I would discover that there are things about the fantasy I never considered. Like boredom. Like taking all my time for granted and never actually entering the door to my studio because I have so much time. I think I just want to watch some Netflix. After all…there’s some snacks in the pantry and I’m not feeling very inspired right this second, so….. I’ll just do that another time.
But, as we all well know…The. Struggle. Is. Real. And it’s beautiful! I can’t have my fantasy for real, maybe. But I can have the struggle. In fact I have the struggle. I have it. Now. It’s mine. I get to keep it.

So when I say I love music, all I’m really saying is that I tend to give my life over to the struggle of making it. When I can’t figure out Pro Tools or when I can’t figure out the chords to this song, or when I have nothing to write about, I struggle. Somehow I keep coming back to it and doing it again. I guess I don’t mind the struggle. I guess the struggle really is what I want.

You’re probably done reading and I’m done explaining so I’m not going to tell you how this song relates to this post. You’re just going to have to listen to it and figure it out. You can have that struggle. It’s my gift to you. Just trust me. It relates. It’s the whole thing. It’s just different.

We only get one life. We all have struggles. Struggle is it. Learn to enjoy the struggle. That’s the point.Share on Facebook


Years ago, I used to listen to bands like DC Talk, Audioadrenaline, Nirvana, Tom Petty and Relient K and I loooooved them all. I loved growling guitars, strained vocals, double kick-pedals, soaring choruses and poppy hooks. To be honest I still do. My musical tastes are not sophisticated. I like four-on-the-floor. I like Katy Perry. I can’t help it. I just do.
Playing music and writing songs has expanded my horizons some and I appreciate a lot of music now that I used to turn my nose up at. I can sit and listen to jazz now. I can tell the difference between a great drummer and a good one. I get joy from music that would have left me unmoved twenty years ago.
But to be honest, I still get really happy when I hear a straight forward rock and roll song. I still love a great pop song. I don’t even think about who the artist is when I hear something I like. I don’t think about genre. I don’t wonder where the hook is. I don’t think about how many songwriters and versions the producers went through before the polished, radio-ready version I’m listening to happened. I just hear it and I like it.
In the world of popular music, artists tend to live in their work clothes. The public image is a carefully crafted thing and it includes everything from hair and wardrobe, to personality and attitude. Social media being what it is, the public image has expanded way beyond show-time and the stage. It’s become a 24/7 responsibility and it’s exhausting.
Personally I never thought that much about my public image. I tried a few times but I resist constraints more effectively than I heed the importance of them. Consequently I have no real public image. From a marketing standpoint, I am a disaster. I still can’t quite answer the question, “What kind of music do you play?”
But in spite of my reticence to be any one particular thing, I have tended in my later years to write sombre, folky, acoustic songs. The minor keys always seemed to be where I wanted to dwell. The less energetic, picking and strumming seemed to suit my disposition. So that’s mostly what I created.
But back in the day I really wanted to play happy punk songs or something like that. I wanted to play guitar solos and power chords and I wanted to be singing as loudly as I could when I did it. I wanted it all to appear to be effortless. I wanted the guitar to be an extension of my arms and the melodies to be flawless and I wanted it all to be very loud and happy and fun.
Needless to say that never really happened. But I did write a few songs during that phase, most of which are thankfully stored on a hard drive on my dad’s computer (and possibly on a myspace page) where he can listen to them and love them, but where they are safe from ever being heard by anyone else in the world (barring those few who still visit myspace on the reg). 
Recently I revisited one of those old tunes. Since I had my friends Les Paul at hand and since I didn’t have anything else to do that night, I recorded it. I know it’s a little weird to admit it but I’ve been listening to it consistently over the past couple of months and it’s probably as close as I’ll ever get to the original vision I had for the song…and it’s fun…and it makes me happy. So I’m gonna let you hear it.
This is “Runnin” and the last time I remember playing it live was at Zack’s in Hillcrest, KZN, South Africa sometime around 2004/2005. I played it as loudly as I could on an acoustic guitar, all by myself. 

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IMG_1302Last week I started the first leg of the first solo tour I’ve done in many years. It’s a modest tour of coffee shops, open mics, and pubs. Some shows pay and others don’t. Sometimes I’m playing to 30 people and sometimes it’s closer to 3. I started the tour uncertain of where I’d be sleeping on a few of the nights. I’d left those nights open as a way to build in adventure. I’m not great with uncertainty or adventure or even with meeting new people, something that happens daily on tour. So touring can be a little uncomfortable for me.

After a few days, while running in the rain, on an island just north of Sarasota, Florida, I suddenly realized that although I’d experienced some discomfort already, I felt strong. Only a few consecutive shows in and I felt completely at ease with the idea of being “on the road”. The low grade anxiety I feel in my day to day life, at the thought of the life I am wasting not playing music or writing songs or recording, was gone. It simply wasn’t there.

There were new worries that had taken it’s place, the main one being “Is this tour going to pay for itself?” I don’t know the answer to that yet. If I’m honest, It’s unlikely. But that worry is accompanied by a resolve that I need to finish what I’ve started. I need to see it through. It’s accompanied by the knowledge that something really good is happening every time I play a show. I can’t describe what that is yet. It’s something I feel. Every time I set up my PA system while the coffee drinkers continue their conversations I feel it. Something valuable is happening here. Each repetition changes me just a little.

I’ve had people ask me, after shows, how they can book their own tour. I tell them what little I know and wonder why they think my intel is valuable. I’m no expert. I’ve been doing this for a half a second. But this thing I feel is real.

It sounds really stupid and I don’t want to type the next thing I’m going to type. But here it is: It feels like I fit here. It feels right. It feels like I’m doing something I’m supposed to be doing. Even though the money is crappy and the couches leave me with a sore neck sometimes. Even though I’m not experienced enough at this yet to say anything concrete. Even though it’s a really tiny tour. In the middle of discomfort and uncertainty, both of which I dislike a great deal, I feel right.

All of that leads me to what I really do want to say, which is a thought I had while driving at some point last week. What we DO matters. For years I’ve been scared to book tours. Tours are scary because of uncertainty and because of discomfort and because of how to pay for them. So for years I’ve talked about making music and I’ve written songs and learned how to record them. I’ve played shows here and there of course but it has always been done “when I had time” or “when the money was right”.

I can’t really afford to be on the road right now. It’s not practical. In the middle of the most uncomfortable day so far, I remember thinking to myself, “I can’t be doing this! But I have to be doing this!” Because if I don’t do this, that thing that I feel happening out here will stop happening. If I don’t do this, I’ll go back to feeling that low grade anxiety that I am wasting my life. If I don’t do this, I’ll go back to feeling like I simply don’t fit that well in the place I’m trying to fit. What we DO matters.

That’s all for now.

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Running Into Gold

This year a relationship ended and another one began. Shortly before that, towards the end of 2015, I decided once again to switch career paths and follow my heart to Atlanta, GA. Initially, I was content to just live and I guess I avoided looking for a job right away. So this year I’ve had a luxurious amount of time on my hands and with that time I took up cycling, went to Alaska to play a festival, booked a summer tour, finally finished a book I’ve been writing for the past 5 years, and spent what amounted to, probably, too much time sitting in my little bedroom studio recording and mixing songs for the album, “Running Into Gold”.

This is my fourth self produced album and, based on the performance of the previous three, I had no great expectations of this one at the outset. I wanted to make an album and I hoped that it would be better than the past efforts. Not that I’m being critical of the previous ones, but I always hope that I am improving rather than stagnating or going backwards creatively.

As I finished up the tracks and sent them off to be mastered I felt a little underwhelmed. I felt that maybe the songs needed more work or something. I felt that I was bound to be disappointed by the finished product. I listened to masters as they came back and didn’t really think much of anything. Then I left the songs alone for about two weeks and listened again and that’s when it occurred to me that whatever else these songs may or may not be, they are very personal in every aspect. The great downfall of self-producing is also it’s greatest benefit. Every strength is just the flip side of a weakness usually. In the end, you haven’t had other voices to tell you when you are making “mistakes” or “poor decisions”. You haven’t had other voices to suggest interesting melodic or instrumental ideas, so what you’re left with is something that is unequivocally your own.

There is something about that, that I like very much! As you listen to, “Running Into Gold” you can picture me at a small desk desk in front of a computer, surrounded by a couple of guitars and a very tiny keyboard, probably with a cup of coffee, sloshing around somewhere, very nearly spilling on the mic pre-amp. Creating these songs has been a kind of journal entry for me. Every note and and even every wrong note, is just me working out the details of the life I’m living.

Now that it’s done, my greatest hope for this album, is that you will listen closely and that you will FEEL. I hope you will feel happy, or sad, or pensive, or gushy, or something! I hope that these words and these melodies will make you remember your past or envision your future. I hope that they make you feel.


Here’s are some links so you can find the album on Spotify and iTunes:

Spotify: Running Into Gold by Tim Pepper

iTunes: Running Into Gold by Tim Pepper

Video produced by Anthony Simpkins, resident of Nashville, Tennessee and lover of music, dogs, visual arts, warm fires, and the great outdoors.

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