Passion, Fear & Drive with Hilary Gardner

 For a little over a year now, I’ve been writing a series on this blog called “Our Creative Lives,” which is an examination of the creative experience and a tender look at some of the things that we encounter along the path of our creative pursuits, both in our own psyches and also in the outside world. The response has been extremely positive and I think it’s high time to open up the conversation to include other voices. As such, I am super excited to present “Passion, Fear & Drive,” a new variation on the exploration of creativity,  featuring interviews with artists of multiple disciplines. I chose this topic because these three forces seem to be core to the creative experience for many people. Each artist will be presented with the same six questions and I’m certain that their individual insights and experiences will inspire us all. “Passion, Fear & Drive,” will be a regular feature along with “Our Creative Lives,” and I’m thrilled to kick things off with New York vocalist and writer Hilary Gardner.

 Since arriving in the Big Apple in 2003, Hilary Gardner has built a solid career and her resume is dizzying. She made her Broadway debut in Twyla Tharp’s musical “Come Fly Away” and received rave reviews. She was a member of the jazz cabaret group West 73rd , whose debut CD “The Kurt Weill Project” was nominated as “Best Jazz Recording of 2008” by the MAC.  Hilary is a regular featured vocalist with the George Gee Swing Orchestra and also sings with the Brooklyn-based country band Shotgun Wedding, of which she is a founding member. Hilary is a self-avowed foodie and an elegant and engaging writer. She describes her blog Ad Alta Voce as a “New York singer’s thoughts on the creative life, food, and occasionally, the subway.” Hilary is excited to be going into the studio next week to begin work on her brand new CD.




1. Define or describe passion as you understand/experience it.

Endless curiosity.  Perpetual interest.  The desire – and continual effort – to constantly go deeper, become better, know more.  Unwavering enthusiasm.


2. What are you passionate about?

As a singer, I am passionate about learning how to sing, which is a lifelong endeavor.  The glorious, brilliant Nova Thomas has been my teacher for almost ten years now, and our work together is always a source of inspiration.  I completely geek out about things like pharyngeal space, vowel shapes, and registrational coordination.  Whether I’m fronting an 80-piece orchestra in a floor-length gown or belting out a Loretta Lynn song in a shitty bar (I’ve done both this summer), I am always fascinated by the integration of technical excellence and stylistic integrity.

I am also passionate about language, which, like music, is by turns rhythmical, percussive, and lyrical.  “Communication” these days too often means 140-character tweets and non-punctuated text messages laden with abbreviations and acronyms.  Snooki has a book deal, for Christ’s sake.  I think that now, more than ever, it’s especially important to remember that words matter.

Finally, I’m passionate about food.  I love the way that the food on our table mirrors the changing seasons; right now my husband and I are loving summer’s stone fruits, tomatoes, and basil, but I’m already dreaming of the quiet comfort of autumn’s root vegetables and slow braises.  Food writers like MFK Fisher, Marlena de Blasi, and Diana Henry remind me that, whether enjoying a well-prepared dinner in solitude or breaking bread with people we love, mealtimes are about much more than the food we eat.


3. How does fear show up in your creative process?

Fear shows up in many forms, the most insidious of which are Resistance and Thinking Small.  Steven Pressfield wrote a book about Resistance called The War of Art; I cannot recommend it highly enough.  When I’m in the throes of Resistance, I don’t feel up to practicing, I’m easily overwhelmed, and I become overtaken by the urge to alphabetize our takeout menus.  Resistance is a daily battle.

Thinking Small is a dangerous temptation: “I can’t fail if I aim low, right?”  The thing is, we’re all capable of far more than we realize, although our limitations may feel very comfortable.  Dreaming big is an act of courage.


4. How do you work with fear?

I have made friends with my fear.  In fact, I view fear as a key component of success.  Under the best of circumstances, fear is an excellent compass: it guides me toward new horizons and bigger opportunities.  Fear heightens my senses and helps me focus.  My most exciting, inspired performances happen when the stakes are high.

In terms of Resistance, I find that doing anything creative—regardless of how small or trivial—can instill confidence and lead to more creativity.  If I don’t feel like practicing for a gig, I know that I can at least do twenty minutes of vocalizing.  If I’m resistant to working on songwriting, I know that I can at least make a set list for that evening’s gig.  Sometimes switching disciplines helps, too; if writing feels like torture, maybe making soup will help.

Thinking Small can be remedied by asking myself one simple question: why not me?  It’s important to remember that success is oftentimes less about talent than audacity.  Like I said, Snooki has a book deal.


5. Define drive.

“Drive” is the willingness to go all in.  It’s the unrelenting conviction that one’s own standards of success are the only ones that count.  I don’t care how anyone else defines success; for me, success means making a living doing exactly what I want to do, on my own terms.

When I was a teenager, I read a Rolling Stone interview with rapper Busta Rhymes that became a lifelong touchstone for how I approach my career.  When asked how he achieved hip-hop stardom, Busta Rhymes replied (I’m paraphrasing), “I am successful because I had to be.  There was no Plan B, so it was Plan A or nothing.”  That’s “drive.”


6. What keeps you in the game, inspires you to continue creating and keeps you moving forward, even through periods of fear, trepidation or malaise?

Well, I think it helps to remember that feelings of fear, trepidation, and malaise are not to be avoided; rather, they’re essential ingredients for a creative life.  Creatives choose, every single day, to do what most people spend their lives avoiding: we leave our comfort zone; we willingly subject ourselves to criticism; we stumble and fall, oftentimes doing so in public.  If fear, trepidation, and malaise don’t enter the picture once in a while, something’s wrong.

Very often, we are taught that inspiration is a fickle and capricious muse who visits only a select few artistic souls.  Bullshit.  Quiet as it’s kept, the truth is that we can do good work whether or not we’re inspired.  When I’m feeling discouraged, I think of something that W. Somerset Maugham once said: “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”   Then I get my ass into the practice room and get busy, because there is no greater privilege than that of making my living doing what I love the most.


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