Singer/songwriter Michaela Anne Neller spoke and performed March 1 as part of the Culver Women’s Celebration weekend. Neller is the daughter of Commandant Mike Neller and Jeni Neller. She told CGA students about her problems growing up as a Navy kid and how that affects her music today. Here are her edited remarks:
When my dad first asked me about coming to perform and speak, he told me about the themes for the weekend. I was really excited to be a part of it primarily because I still very vividly remember my own high school experience and as the saying goes – If I knew then what I know now – I think I could have had a much better experience.
High school revolves around our relationships and as young women, especially in high school, I think it can be easy to overlook our relationship with ourselves for the sake of our relationships with those around us. Unfortunately, for some reason, the expectations and pressures set upon young women can strain our relationships with each other. I have learned that nurturing your relationship and knowledge of yourself and, therefore, building your confidence and understanding, only helps nurture your relationships with others.
Growing up, one could say that I was a victim of bullying. I experienced cruelty, exclusion, isolation, etc. all in the name of girls being girls. And in response I spent a lot of time putting walls up, protecting myself from ‘those girls’ and holding a lot of resentment and hatred towards those who were cruel to me. In a lot of ways I came to expect it from girls. But now, as a 27-year-old woman, I’ve learned that ‘those girls’ who chose to be mean, are just the same as me. They have the same insecurities, desires for friendship, acceptance, achievements, validation. They just chose to act out of fear. They chose to put me down (or whoever it was they were bullying) to try and make themselves feel better.
The thing they didn’t see at the time was that by bullying and trying to damage me, they were damaging and losing themselves as well. The good thing is that most people (hopefully) grow up, mature and outside of the walls of high school, realize that it’s not the best way to treat people or interact. But even if those who bully don’t ever see the error in their ways, it’s your job to not let them take your joy away.
My father was a naval submarine captain. This means that every two years we moved to a new state. By the time I went to college I had lived in 18 different houses and changed schools nine times. As a young girl, I found this extremely challenging. Yes, I made friends pretty easily. But I also heard many times how much I messed things up.
Kids have their cliques and groups of friends they’ve known since kindergarten, their crushes, their boyfriends….a new girl comes to town and changes that dynamic. In an ideal world, everyone should be inclusive and inviting but that’s not always the case.
On top of that, I loved to perform. I sang in choirs, school musicals, jazz bands, I was in plays, dance team, talent shows, you name it, I wanted to do it. And when I was really young, the joy that music and performance and being a part of something brought me was indescribable.
But as I got older and bore the brunt of people’s cruelty of not liking that I was the lead in the musical or was singing the solo, I slowly let them take that joy away. So much so that I stopped singing for some time in high school.
Luckily, I moved away from that particularly mean environment but it’s been and continues to be a long and challenging journey to regain the joy that comes from feeling free enough to be vulnerable and, therefore, free enough to shine.
I truly know that me shining does not take anything away from the person next to me. It actually benefits them. It inspires them to do the same. And when the person next to me is having their shining moment and are fully themselves and free, it doesn’t take anything away from me. It inspires me.
For college, I attended a jazz conservatory in New York City. I didn’t know what I wanted to do musically, so I just ended up there. I didn’t know where else to go. I again found myself in a position where I didn’t feel quite right. No one was mean but it was a community where they had certain ideas of how a singer should sing and what they should sing. And I didn’t feel like I adhered to that. It again took me awhile to understand that just because what felt good to me wasn’t in line with those around me, doesn’t mean that I’m wrong or that they’re wrong. It just means that we’re different.
I was pretty unhappy during the time it took me to figure that out. I was a closeted country music singer in a jazz school. I was certain everyone would make fun of me and hate what I did if I did what felt best for me. But slowly I started finding people who knew about and practiced the music that I loved and I started writing songs that actually felt like they were coming from me, the real deep, natural, authentic me and not some creation I was forcing in order to be accepted.
I started writing songs that were my truth. I started telling my own story. And you know what? People responded. And the more that I wrote, the more I realized that the more honest and open and vulnerable I was, the more people related and connected, and the more my confidence grew.
I used to be terrified for someone to hear what I was saying in my lyrics or for them to even hear my voice. I was terrified that they would think everything in my songs were exact replicas from my life and then what would they think about me and would they judge me and would they think I’m stupid.
But, you know, everyone has shared experiences. Everyone feels loved or not loved or heartbroken or lost or happy or wistful or whatever emotion it is, everyone feels it at some point. So to honestly share things through music, I have found, is not only freeing for me, but is freeing and inspiring for others. And the connections and experiences that have transpired because of the songs that I write and sing, have been life-changing. And I know none of this would have happened if I hadn’t made the choice to be open.
Right out of college, I was offered a job at a record label. Prior to this, I had decided I was going to graduate and babysit or waitress or do whatever I needed to just get by so I could be a musician. I went to college for 5 years and received a BFA in vocal performance and a BA in Sociology and History. My senior year I was taking 20 credits, graduate classes, writing my thesis and planning my recital as well as working three full days a week at the record label.
I was ready to finally put all of my focus on music only. So when the record label offered me the position, I was torn. Ultimately I decided to take it because I thought it would be a huge learning experience and the benefit in having a paycheck and healthcare right after graduation was not lost on me, as well not having to ask Mom and Dad for rent money. But I made a deal with myself. I said I would continue to work on my music and in two years I would re-evaluate.
Well, two years came and I was still conflicted. I loved my job, I loved the people, I loved having the stability, but I knew that it wasn’t what I was meant to be doing. I didn’t thrive. I didn’t feel fulfilled. And I knew if I didn’t try to be a musician full time, if I didn’t go on tour and experience everything I wanted to experience, I would become a bitter person.
So I quit my job. And I went on tour. I booked a two-week tour with a girlfriend of mine who is an incredible singer and songwriter and it was one of the best times of my life. It was my first taste of what life could be, living and doing what I love. That was almost three years ago. And since then, I have been on many more tours, I’ve been super-broke and I’ve been financially comfortable (never rich!). I’ve babysat and waitressed and slowly built my teaching business to the point that now I only teach lessons and workshops and don’t have to babysit or waitress.
I’ve written books for a major publishing company about teaching voice and songwriting, I’ve worked at camps and I have to say that as hard as it gets sometimes, I never ever have regretted quitting my job. And as much of a struggle as it can be, there really is nothing that compares to the feeling of doing what you honestly feel you are alive to do.
And you know, some days you don’t feel that. Some days I wake up and there is three-feet of snow outside in Brooklyn and I can’t dig my car out, so I miss my lessons which means I don’t get paid and I freak out that I’m not going to have enough money. I stand on the street crying, not caring that people are driving by and looking at me like I’m a crazy person and I wonder what I am doing with my life.
Then there are other days that I think, ‘Wow I get to wake up and play songs tonight or record my album or teach a five year old how to play the piano or help a 60 year old learn how to sing and write songs for his own pure enjoyment’ and I think how lucky I am.
I constantly try and stop myself and remember when I was 16, where I was, and what I thought of my future. A few of my young students’ parents are celebrity actors and models. There are days I stop and think ‘If I told my 16-year-old self that in my 20s I would be playing music and living in New York City and chatting away comfortably with an actor who I grew up watching on one of my favorite shows, I would have thought that was the coolest thing in the world.’
So I try to carry that with me every day. That is gratitude. It’s great to be driven and always strive for more, but to always be grateful for what is in the present is a daily challenge and goal.
I want to say something on the value of celebrating other women. I’ve discovered it’s a lifelong journey, challenging this idea that women are competing with each other or that women are catty or jealous and mean to each other. But it really can diminish if you choose to not engage in that behavior and not invite those kinds of people into your life.
I feel really lucky that, especially after feeling like I had a lot of negative experiences with female friends growing up, I now have so many incredibly talented female friends who support each other and help each other out. And, often in my circle of friends, because most of us are musicians, we’re all kind of working towards the same goal in that we’re all performing singers and songwriters but we know that we’re not in competition with each other.
Instead, what dominates is inspiration. Knowing that another person’s moment doesn’t take away from you. And yes it takes work, but you have to believe that we all have our own unique stories and paths, and sharing yours and celebrating others does nothing but bring a positive and encouraging exchange. The more you know someone and the more you let others know the real you, the harder it is to be hateful because really deep down we all feel and want the same things. When you give in to negative feelings and let them inform your actions, it only creates more negativity in your life.
I want to leave you all with a Denis Waitley quote that my mom passed on to me. It is something I definitely can be reminded of every day: “Happiness cannot be traveled to, owned, earned, worn or consumed. Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace and gratitude.”