Phil Robinson of The Bliss Jockeys: “Emphasize what is unique about you”

When I was a teenager obsessively reading interviews with Bruce Springsteen, he would always profess his fervent desire to be ‘of service’ to the larger community, and for his music to have practical value to others. This idea has been a foundational aim for my musical pursuits as well. There’s a ‘strength in numbers and when […]

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When I was a teenager obsessively reading interviews with Bruce Springsteen, he would always profess his fervent desire to be ‘of service’ to the larger community, and for his music to have practical value to others. This idea has been a foundational aim for my musical pursuits as well.

There’s a ‘strength in numbers and when a large group of people comes together, even if ostensibly for a shared cultural experience like a concert, the energetic power of that assembly can be applied to many other aims. In the mid-1980s, for example, for every night on his mammoth-ly successful Born in the USA tour, Bruce Springsteen coupled each concert with a local food bank and raised money specifically for the people in need in that locality. It was a great example that I took to heart and which has served me for my entire career.

As a part of our series about music stars who are making an important social impact, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Phil Robinson.

Phil Robinson is a singer-songwriter and harmonica player based in New York City, whose life has been dedicated to bettering the world through the outlet of his musical pursuits. Having trained as a music therapist and leaving behind a spot at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, Phil believes in the power of culture — and expression — to address the deepest needs of soul and spirit that are often neglected in modern life.

Through his booking & promotion company, Roomful of Sky Music, Phil has organized, performed in, and/or hosted hundreds of live music events throughout the NY area, putting on over 50 events each year and providing opportunities for participation to everyone from seasoned professionals to tentative beginners alike, often coupling these events with effective fundraising efforts for local and national organizations.

As a performer, Phil has filled many of the area’s prestigious venues, either alone or with his band, The Bliss Jockeys, and has recently been named a Lee Oskar Harmonicas “Preferred Player.” He was the release producer of The Collected Lectures of Joseph Campbell for Roomful of Sky Records and is currently preparing his new album, Through The Middle, for release later this year.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit of the ‘backstory’ of how you grew up?

Thanks so much for having me! My childhood was very unusual — I was actually the product of my father’s midlife crisis. My father had already had a first family with three grown children, but then in his fifties, he got married a second time, to a woman almost thirty years younger than he was… my mother. The very fact of my birth was a controversy!

My parents split their time between New Jersey (where my father’s from) and Prague, Czechoslovakia (where my mother’s from), and I was their only child. As they were of completely different countries, social classes, generations, religions, and cultures, much of my early life, through college, had the very strong feeling of having one foot each in two different worlds, without ever fully belonging to either.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

My career path crystallized in a precise moment when I was 15.

My early home life was very emotionally chaotic, which you might expect given the unusual circumstances. There was very little stability, grounding, or a deep sense of belonging and so my basic nature evolved to be in a state of perpetual seeking — of finding ways to transcend the emotional chaos.

When 15-year-old me came across the album Darkness on the Edge of Town, by Bruce Springsteen, it was just the EXACT thing that was able to reach me and make me feel connected to the world. It was a lifeline and offered a positive animating vision that we could each create a life worth living if we brought our full selves to it. I immediately knew that if I could, I’d spend the rest of my life creating music that could serve that same purpose for others in need.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career? What was the lesson or takeaway that you took out of that story?

I came to a pivotal crossroads in the middle of college. I did not have a lot of natural or innate musical ability but I was a very gifted student in the sciences and so the college version of me didn’t think it was realistic to imagine a career in music. I thought I should be pragmatic and play to my strengths so I ‘settled’ for being pre-med.

A series of a thousand unlikely coincidences outside my awareness or control transpired with the end result that I basically won the medical school lottery and was accepted into a medical school very early — halfway through my second year of college. This meant that I could spend the next two-and-a-half years concentrating ONLY on music, which is what I did, practicing five to six hours a day without having to worry about any other responsibilities. This fluke of a circumstance gave me the chance to develop my musical skills to the point where I had confidence choosing music after college and so that’s what I did — I gave away my spot in medical school to someone else.

I have no other rational explanation for what happened other than… ‘divine intervention’, and simply concluded that the Universe wanted to make sure I went into music rather than medicine. My takeaway is that among all the challenging things life hands us, sometimes it gives us a gift — and we honor it by accepting it humbly.

What would you advise a young person who wants to emulate your success?

Young person, you will find your own success by finding your own unique way, by trusting and being honest with yourself as to what feels right to you, on a case-by-case basis. It’s helpful to seek out and learn from the advice and experiences of others who have gone before you, and to a certain extent that can be instructive and helpful, but that ‘certain extent’ is NOT 100%.

Ultimately, you’ll come to realize that other people’s truths are only their opinion and that the reasons you have for forming your own opinions are just as valid. There’s a subtle skill to be developed, to know when to allow new information to change your idea because it’s better, and knowing when to hold on to your original idea because it’s already better than the new information coming in. You’ll have to be extremely honest with yourself to know which is which on a case-by-case basis.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you explain how that was relevant in your life?

“Follow Your Bliss.”

This phrase was coined by my great hero, Joseph Campbell, the twentieth-century teacher of mythology who surveyed the world’s spiritual traditions throughout history and uncovered many of their common threads. Ultimately he boiled much of what he learned down to the phrase, Follow Your Bliss.

How to live your life? Follow your bliss. In other words, make all of your big and little decisions in life around the central idea of: will this put me c’loser to’ are ‘farther away from’ that one thing which is most deeply fulfilling and soul-nourishing?

For me, this has steered me toward living my life in music rather than compromising my ability to create music by settling for the more conventional definitions of success and other social norms.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Robert Walter, the executive director of the Joseph Campbell Foundation, handed me the keys to the kingdom. He was sitting on thousands of hours of recorded Joseph Campbell talks on mythology, looking for a record label to produce and distribute a series of audio titles out of them, for the consumption of the thousands of Joseph Campbell fans out in the world. This was the kind of sought-after ‘product’ that all of the largest audio outlets in the world, such as Audible or Books on Tape, would have been an appropriate fit for.

However, he hired me — basically a random nobody at that point — to produce and release the ‘Joseph Campbell Audio’ collection of titles, on my own fledgling independent record label, Roomful of Sky Records, which I ran with no experience or clout, from my little studio apartment in New York. Prior to that point, I had only put out about four CDs of artists no one had ever heard of yet. He believed in my passion for the material couple with my entrepreneurial flair and concluded that Joseph Campbell himself would have preferred for his legacy to be handled in this narratively-satisfying way — by someone who was ‘Following their bliss’.

This was again, another extremely unlikely circumstance, and it put me and my record label on the map!

Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?

On a local level, I personally volunteer as a performer at a local soup kitchen which regularly sees 70+ volunteers serve unwieldy crowds of over 400 people. Normally, managing this large number of people would be logistical chaos, but with the focal point of live entertainment to occupy people’s attention, the nights go very smoothly. I’ve also been involved with Musicians on Call, providing individualized musical performances on hospital visits to adults and children alike.

Beyond that, my label Roomful of Sky Music cultivates a large and passionate community around live music and puts on 50–60 nights of live music each year around New York City — it’s a valued part of the city’s cultural life.

We’ve often pointed our large musical gatherings in the direction of raising money or awareness for various charities or organizations in need. During the pandemic, our benefit live streams have raised money for local venues such as The Bitter End and Mary O’s to help keep them afloat when they had no other means of income — for example, we helped The Bitter End raise over $24,000 towards its GoFundMe campaign for re-opening costs, with the happy result that they successfully hit their target and will be re-opening on April 9th of this year! We’ve also raised money for other organizations such as NIVA’s #SaveOurStages campaign, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, for racial justice, and ALTSO for children with mobility disabilities.

Can you tell us the backstory about what originally inspired you to feel passionate about this cause and to do something about it?

When I was a teenager obsessively reading interviews with Bruce Springsteen, he would always profess his fervent desire to be ‘of service’ to the larger community, and for his music to have practical value to others. This idea has been a foundational aim for my musical pursuits as well.

There’s a ‘strength in numbers and when a large group of people comes together, even if ostensibly for a shared cultural experience like a concert, the energetic power of that assembly can be applied to many other aims. In the mid-1980s, for example, for every night on his mammoth-ly successful Born in the USA tour, Bruce Springsteen coupled each concert with a local food bank and raised money specifically for the people in need in that locality. It was a great example that I took to heart and which has served me for my entire career.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?

Up until I was around 25, I had massive anxiety about performing in public — I felt that I didn’t have a good enough voice to be a singer. I had cringed many times at performers who believed they were very good but yet were oblivious to the fact that people did not like their singing. I lived in deep, deep fear that I was one of those people — that after I sang, people would say nice things to my face to be polite, but then afterward would speak amongst themselves as to how horrible I actually was. It was mortifying.

But then, at the age of 25, I realized… even if I AM that person… the one who everyone thinks is really bad at it and who laughs at me behind my back… it’s STILL what I would most want to spend my time doing. I reasoned that even if I were doomed to a life of being a failed, bad singer… I would still be much happier in that life than I would be, being successful at anything else that I loved less.

Coming to that conclusion, no longer fearing being ‘bad’ and jumping in fully anyway, was the psychological transition I needed — I moved forward from that point with such conviction that I was actually able to get very good over time. You kind of have to be willing to fail publicly and take those risks — The creative life is not for the faint of heart!

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

There’s a woman who comes to my shows and is a fan of my original songs — she saw early on that my lyrics honestly reflect my life journey of maneuvering through life’s challenges and coming out victorious on the other side.

She told me that she wanted to give a copy of my album to her 13-year-old nephew who was struggling a little bit socially in school — she believed it would be helpful and inspiring to him to hear my music!

That my music-making could make such a connection as THAT… that’s EXACTLY why I picked up the guitar in the first place when I was around her nephew’s age and is living proof that I’m achieving at least some of what I had set out to do.

Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?

1. Recognize the Value of the Non-Practical.

It’s true that the world requires practical skills to be cultivated among each generation — labor, technology, industry, engineering, etc. These are, of course, essential. I’m of the mind that non-practical vocations are equally important. We often hear of the ‘creative’ departments at schools being the first to be slashed when the money runs out, but this is often ultimately to the detriment of the individual and the community. As a population, it’s also necessary to make sure our spirit is healthy!

2. Emphasize Being of Service over Wielding Personal Power.

Many today are cynical about the government, and arguably with good reason — there’s a lot of gesturing toward being ‘of service to the people’, yet in application, many elected officials seem to be motivated mainly to consolidate their personal wealth, power and status. Placing the emphasis back toward the ‘service’, whether that be through campaign finance reform or term limits, would go a great way toward improving the civic enthusiasm of the population.

3. Good Sportsmanship Rather Than Enmity.

Joseph Campbell shares a nugget of wisdom in describing how a ‘hero’ acts while engaging against his opponents — with good sportsmanship. It’s inevitable in life that in individual lives and in the lives of nations, etc., that when two entities arrive at cross purposes and there’s some kind of conflict or contest which determines which side will get their way and which side will not — that it’s possible for the rules of engagement to be mutually respectful such that, whatever the outcome, each opponent can meet at the net afterward, shake hands and say, “Good game.” There’s not really a need to make enemies of those around us whose agendas just happen to be different than ours. We can recognize the difference of perspective yet also respect its validity.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or an example for each.

1. Build & embrace your community of allies.

Even if your work is solitary, make sure you cultivate stable relationships with allies in your field. You’ll find that you earn the support of others by being supportive yourself, and also by doing your part to ensure that your interactions are mutually beneficial for both yourself AND the other person. This is 100% essential — you’ll find that things go much better when you’re not just a ‘team of one’ against the world.

For example, even when I perform solo, there are still countless others (photographers, graphic designers, videographers, venue owners, fans, the girlfriend who drove me to the gig, the other artists sharing the bill with me, the reporter writing the show up for their blog, etc.) who have a LOT of impact on the success of my night. Things are much more likely to go smoothly (and be more fun!) when I’ve nurtured every one of those relationships every step of the way.

2. Always keep yourself (just the right amount) out of your comfort zone.

It’s always important to challenge yourself to try new things you haven’t mastered yet — that’s how you grow. Be willing to take a chance, and maybe even fail a little bit in public. That’s fine! But there’s no need to take it to the extreme. If you challenge yourself too drastically, too quickly, you may just be setting yourself up for something that’s closer to blatant failure than a healthy risk.

If I commit right now to playing a full show tonight (all ten songs) on a new instrument I never even tried before, that sounds like it’s going to be a mess and maybe it’s a bit too much to ask the audience to indulge me in — they’d go home annoyed. If, however, I commit right now to playing MOST of my show on an instrument I already know, and then try only ONE song on the brand new instrument which I’ve never played before… that sounds like a fun challenge and one which the audience would also have fun watching, regardless of the result. In other words…. bite off a little bit more than you could chew…. but not TOO much that you’ll gag on it.

3. Emphasize what is unique about you.

There are a million fish in the sea but there’s only one you. Find and cultivate that aspect of you that’s unique and really develop and emphasize it — It’ll help you stand out from the masses. In my case, after graduating college, I knew there were a million other guys who played guitar and sang, most of whom would have been doing it many more years than I had been and so were probably a lot better than I was. It didn’t seem likely that I’d be able to distinguish myself on the merits of my voice or guitar-playing alone. So, I picked up the harmonica and got very good at playing it on my neck rack while also strumming the guitar. Now my harmonica-playing is my trademark, and the favorite aspect of my music among many of my fans. On a night of ten musicians, I’m often the one that gets noticed because now I’m offering something that most of the other musicians do not also offer, even if they might be much more skilled on the guitar or on vocals than I am.

4. Build in a little time/space to experience joy on a daily basis.

It’s good to have long-term goals and to make sacrifices in the present to obtain them — it’s necessary. However, there’s a balance to be had — if you defer 100% of your happiness to some imagined future moment, to come only after you’ve achieved XYZ goal, you’ll literally never reach that moment. By the time you get there, you’ll only have imagined the NEXT goal after that. You’ll burn yourself out and not be able to sustain that pace. It’s so important to allow yourself to experience joy in the present moment, and even to do so on a daily basis. I give myself the first 45 min of every morning, and the last hour before I go to sleep each night, to just chill out, unwind, and re-charge, with no worry about having to be productive. In this way, I feel continually refreshed on a daily basis, and remain in touch with an energized, optimistic perspective. Make sure you give yourself time & space each day to just be human and to enjoy being in your own skin.

5. Honest effort is never wasted, even when you don’t get the results you want.

In my life, I’ve spent countless hours working towards various outcomes, only to discover that those outcomes didn’t pan out the way I wanted, or wound up being completely unnecessary from a practical standpoint. There can be an impulse to interpret that kind of effort as a waste of time and to regret it. For example, I once rented an apartment that the landlord told me he was going to sell to me when he moved away at the end of the year. Expecting to live there permanently, I invested time building shelves into multiple walls and painting the rooms to my exact specifications. As soon as I was done, however, he notified me he had changed his mind and sold the apartment to someone else, and informed me that I would need to move out, effective immediately.

Was my time spent building those shelves and painting those rooms a waste? It might have seemed so at the time, but ultimately it proved not to be — the skills I learned and the experience I gained served me well on my NEXT apartment, where I got even better results on my home improvement project… only because I had had the opportunity for all that ‘practice’ on the previous apartment. In my experience, we often cannot predict the exact outcomes of our endeavors. But I’ve found that with a flexible, positive attitude, you can pivot so that no past effort ever needs to be interpreted as simply ‘wasted’. It can instead be re-contextualized and interpreted as part of the process which has ultimately brought you to the place where you could achieve your NEXT set of objectives.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

How would I bring the most amount of good to the most people? I would champion the idea of ‘Respectful Dialogue (among Those Who Disagree).’ I know that’s a mouthful to say, but the idea is simple — it’s something that was on my mind a lot during the recent election season when I would see countless arguments online between people of opposing political opinions, etc.

People can tend to be very quick to interpret someone as an enemy to be defeated, or someone whose mind needs to be changed, simply because they hold a different opinion. When people express different opinions, there’s frequently the potential for the discussion to become very tense and/or to escalate into verbal or even physical conflict, as we often feel an innate desire for our own individual truth to be recognized by all others as the one, correct truth

This need not be the case. A helpful shift would be to view an engagement with someone who disagrees with us as an opportunity — not necessarily to prove oneself correct or to change someone else’s mind — but to understand someone’s alternate perspective and gain some insight into what has led them to the conclusion they have come to. In turn, they have the same opportunity to gain some insight into why we’ve come to the conclusions we’ve come to. Both parties can walk away with a little bit more understanding, and while still not necessarily agreeing, there’s a little bit more empathy for the other.

Re-framing such discussions as ‘dialogues’ rather than ‘debates’ (which have a winner and loser) would go a long way toward improving life at every level. I personally believe this kind of communication skill is critically important and would be worthwhile to be cultivated in our school systems.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Politics, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Anyone who has ever met me, or even only read this interview just now, would not be surprised that my answer is, of course, Bruce Springsteen.

I would tell him, “Thank you” (from 15-year-old me)… and then adult me would do my best to try to have a conversation, messy human to messy human, about this weird, hard, fulfilling, rewarding, heart-breaking yet ultimately satisfying life journey we all get to share during our little time on this planet together.

Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was so inspiring, and we wish you continued success!

Thank you so much for this opportunity!

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