Medium (2021)

Music Stars Making A Social Impact: Why & How Singer-Songwriter Jenn Cleary Is Helping To Change Our World

An Interview With Edward Sylvan

Although my health continues to be a daily challenge, the music lifted me back into the world with a mission to bring joy, connection and meaning to others.

This new album, All Together Now! — Rockin’ Songs for Kids of All Ages, is full of joy and fun, with a bit of positive messaging thrown in. I see this as a continuation of one of the missions of my former non-profit: to inspire others to have a positive impact in the world. I want to uplift others through music. And while I’m not the executive director of a charity anymore, I do financially support other charities doing great work out there.

As a part of our series about music stars who are making an important social impact, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Jenn Cleary.
Jenn Cleary is a folk-rock-blues singer-songwriter from Boulder, Colorado, with many years’ experience performing on international stages. Highlight shows include Sundance Film Festival, Colorado Rockies games, opening for Shemekia Copeland, and several European tours. Jenn has released two albums of original songs and one covers album, and she’ll release her first children’s album on June 4th.

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?

I grew up in Sudbury, MA, just outside of Boston. When I was six, I asked Santa Claus for a piano and he really delivered! Well actually, the want-ads delivered four burly brothers and their accordion-toting mother with a big ol’ antique piano that they seemed happy to find a new home for. Somehow, they got that beast of wood and wire through the door and into our family room. They then proceeded to make themselves comfortable and jammed nonstop, with mom belting it out on the accordion. A couple of hours later, off they went, and I was left to find that the immense joy this instrument had given them was soon to be given to me.

I have always loved music. Either the radio was on or I would spin the turntable with my favorite vinyl. I remember my father listening to his record collection (Perry Como, Karen Carpenter, Frank Sinatra) and singing along. He did his best imitations of each performer and made us all laugh. My mother took us to plays and musicals and once we got into high school, one parent or the other would deliver us to rock concerts. My mother tells the story of dropping my friends and me off at a Grateful Dead concert in the late ’70s and starting to question her parental judgment. “Off they went into a sea of tie-dye, cases of beer, and smoke. Oh my, what have I done?” We returned safely to our meeting point some hours later, infused with some incredible rock n’ roll and anxious to find out who we would get to see next.

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

I would love to have developed my piano skills to a higher level. However, I had a piano teacher who was more interested in that horrible little metronome than inspiring a young girl to find her own path in music. I eventually got discouraged, thought that I wasn’t any good at it, and gave up. In middle school, I got excited about the guitar and imagined it would be great fun to sit around a campfire and do sing-alongs. So, I started down that path. Shortly into that experiment, I would be singing with my guitar at home and couldn’t help notice my parents cringing. I couldn’t hold a note and admittedly sounded terrible. My mother went to my school’s music teacher and asked, “What are we going to do with Jennifer’s horrible voice?” The teacher kindly explained to my mother that she should be patient and that my voice would get better in time. Knowing that I didn’t sound all that good left me very insecure. However, I was determined and I loved to sing. So, I continued on and eventually developed my voice in my early 20’s through actually taking voice lessons, something my parents didn’t even consider because they thought that either you had a good voice or you didn’t. It never occurred to them that a voice could be trained.

Now, I just love teaching both voice and guitar to children and adults and helping them find their musical expression and potential.

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

I had just come out with my first album of original music. I didn’t really expect it to be anything more than a calling card of sorts to get my first band into clubs and other venues. I was mostly focused on raising my three children and enjoying my boys’ Little League games. Their Dad and I helped with coaching and loved to take them to see the Colorado Rockies. It was a joyous time of parenting. Then, out of nowhere, I got a call from a friend who said, “Were you just listening to KBCO (a major rock station in Colorado)? The coach of the Rockies, Clint Hurdle, just said in an interview that you are one of Colorado’s biggest up-and-coming artists!” I was in shock, of course, but that didn’t stop me from getting the courage up to call Coach Hurdle to thank him for his kind words. He happily took my call and invited me and my family to a couple of the games and to meet the players. How cool was Mom now? Rock star cool! It was definitely a parenting highlight to be able to share this amazing experience with my boys. Clint Hurdle played my album in the clubhouse and invited my band to perform at Rockies games, which I did for years.

Lesson? Well to not underestimate the potential — when you take risks, really amazing things can happen. Maybe not what you are expecting, but be open to the magic of what may occur.

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

Don’t let any negative feedback get you down. There can be something to be learned from helpful criticism, but if you are passionate about being a performer, then shrug it off and keep going when someone just isn’t into your style of performing. Practice your instrument, take lessons, read books, research online, go to live shows, and surround yourself with positive people. Immerse yourself in what gives you joy.

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

“Don’t give up, no matter what life throws your way.” I was told early on that I had a terrible voice, that my guitar playing was nothing special. I have auto-immune issues that I have been told to treat with harsh chemotherapy and I have had to get steroid injections to keep from losing my vision. Sometimes I just want to curl up in a ball and not go on with the difficulties of life, but I always pick myself back up and move forward the best I can.

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?

Well despite my mother’s doubts about my musical skills in my youth, she is now my biggest fan. She helped me financially with my second album, goes to every show possible, and is my biggest supporter.

My mother lives next door to me now and every morning we walk a mile together. One morning this past summer, she turned to me and said, “With this new album you’re working on, I think you should write a song about caring and sharing with one another because that’s what we’re all about.” I immediately liked the idea and by the time we got home I had the melody in my head. Within a few hours, I had the song written and ready to finalize with my mother. Having lost my father and my brother many years ago, I cherish each moment that I have left with my mother. For her to be able to co-write this song was an amazing gift from the universe. “Love Right Now” is one of my favorites on this new record and I hope that many others experience its beauty.

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?

I co-created a non-profit organization called All Together Now International in 1996 that helped children with severe medical conditions in Nepal, India, Tibet, Africa and the USA for over fourteen years. When I started having health issues, I had to shutter the organization and focus on my health and my own family. While I was resigned to spending more time on the couch in between treatments to save my vision, I started picking up my guitar again and learned to play the blues. True blues. This was an intense time of facing the unknown and who I might be if I went blind. This went on for a while, but what I found is that my songwriting was getting better and better and that my songs had more soul and deeper meaning. Shortly after that, I recorded my first album and was surprised by the strong response. Although my health continues to be a daily challenge, the music lifted me back into the world with a mission to bring joy, connection and meaning to others.

This new album, All Together Now! — Rockin’ Songs for Kids of All Ages, is full of joy and fun, with a bit of positive messaging thrown in. I see this as a continuation of one of the missions of my former non-profit: to inspire others to have a positive impact in the world. I want to uplift others through music. And while I’m not the executive director of a charity anymore, I do financially support other charities doing great work out there.

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

One of the more interesting aspects of my life is the story of my adopted daughter, Dorje Dolma. I was in my third winter of volunteering with street kids in Kathmandu, Nepal. I was working in the Rokpa International medical tent when Dorje’s parents came in with their 10-year-old fatally ill child, after walking a month from their extremely remote village at 13,000 feet in the Himalayas. Dorje had a severe case of scoliosis and had about two years to live. I took her all over Kathmandu trying to find help for her, but medical care for this severe condition did not exist there. One thing led to another, and I was able to bring her to American for several life-saving surgeries. After a couple of years of medical work, her lungs were still too compromised to return to her high-altitude village, so I adopted Dorje and she became part of our family.

With my mother, Margaret Cleary, and my partner, Steven Harrison, I wanted to create a non-profit to help people in need around the world. My father died that year (1996), and we took a bit of his inheritance to start a charity. In the meantime, many people had heard Dorje’s story and were asking if we could help them too. We started All Together Now International and brought over five children from Tibet, India and Nepal for extensive life-saving scoliosis surgeries. It soon became clear that we could not sustain bringing kids to the US and we eventually helped build up a hospital in Kathmandu that can do these life-saving surgeries successfully. All Together Now International worked to make a difference in people’s lives, in a variety of ways, for over fourteen years in the USA, Nepal, India, Tibet and Africa.

When Dorje came to America, she did not speak a word of English and had zero formal education. She had been a yak herder for her family since the age of five, and of course, a successful survivalist. I mostly home-schooled Dorje, using a lot of art and music to communicate with her as she learned the English language, and eventually, she went to school and graduated from the University of Colorado with a degree in Fine Arts. Dorje then worked for eight years in a preschool, much to the delight of the children and their parents. She has an amazing gift of connecting with people of all ages.

Dorje had been making notes on scraps of paper about her past since beginning to learn to write at around age 12. That turned into many sheets of paper and eventually, she put those words into the computer. Our family friend Connie Shaw (co-writer of “Our Wild Family” and owner of Sentient Publications) helped Dorje edit her life story into a captivating book, Yak Girl: Growing Up in the Remote Dolpo Region of Nepal, published in 2018.

Up until the pandemic hit, Dorje was touring all over the world, telling her story, inspiring others, and raising funds to bring desperately needed schools and medical clinics to Dolpo, the region where she grew up. Being home this past year allowed her to get back to her art and music. Dorje co-wrote the song “Families of All Kinds” with me and her artwork “Healing Heart” was used for the CD, website and social media sites. Dorje hopes to soon get back to teaching children and giving her popular talks.

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?

No aha moment. My parents always demonstrated that caring about others is very important in life. They were always doing fundraisers for different charities, taking in foster children and helping others in any way they could. When I was 8, I started to hold annual backyard fundraisers for the Leukemia Society. They started small, but by the end I was raising thousands of dollars with these very festive events. We had clowns, magicians, games, BBQ, a candy store, celebrities and local politicians stumping for their campaigns. And of course, rock bands and other live entertainment that are memorable for the residents of my hometown of Sudbury, MA to this day.

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

In 1993, when I was volunteering in the medical tent in Nepal, I met a street kid named Ram Ballav. His father died when Ram was nine, and when his mother remarried soon thereafter, the new stepfather sent him off to a farm to do hard labor. Ram then ran away with a man who told him that he could make good money in a carpet factory. He was fooled. After several months of being imprisoned at the factory, Ram ran away again — this time to Kathmandu, where he lived on the streets with packs of other children who had similar tragic stories, begging and stealing to survive.

I ended up placing Ram in school through Rokpa International and sponsored him for many years. He worked hard and now owns a guesthouse and café in Kathmandu. Please visit Ram’s Rooms and Ramsterdam Café when you’re next in Nepal!

It’s amazing to go visit him all these years later. I continue to mentor Ram in business, and he feeds and houses me when I’m there. It’s wonderful to see that he has become a generous man who helps others in need himself when he can.

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

  1. Help others, when you can. If you’re moved to help with urgent needs for education and medical care in Dolpo, Nepal, please consider a donation to Altitude Project, an organization that both Dorje and I are happy to support. Dolpo is one of the most remote and poorest regions in the world.
  2. Understand that we are a global community and that we all need to support each other.
  3. Governments working together for the betterment of all is our only hope for long-term survival.

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. “Don’t expect everyone to like your musical expression. It’s ok, we all have different tastes.” There have been shows where I felt nobody cared or was even listening. But at almost every show, somebody comes up to me and says how moved they were by a particular song. So now I never assume that people aren’t listening. And even if it’s just one person in the room who was moved, that’s enough.
  2. “If you keep with it, you might earn a living.” So many people told me I would never make any money with music and that it would always be a hobby. Well true, I haven’t gotten rich off of music, but I do have income that has grown through the years. But what’s most important to me isn’t the money anyway. It’s the connections made, the new friends, the people moved by a moment in a song and, oh, the places that I’ve traveled! It’s the gift that just keeps on giving.
  3. “It’s ok that you aren’t a musical prodigy.” I have always admired great musicians and knew that I was not one of them. Playing instruments never came easily to me, but somewhere along the way I noticed I was getting better and better with lessons and practice. Once that light went on, I felt confident in just forging ahead and doing the best I could with the time I have. And now I’m a true musician, being paid to perform and selling my music. How cool is that?
  4. “Find ways to make practice fun.” I didn’t last long with piano because my teacher didn’t inspire me to enjoy music. I encourage my students to find ways to make practice fun and to understand their goals. It really doesn’t matter if you aren’t good at keeping a beat if you don’t intend to be in a band. If it’s for your own enjoyment, who cares? But if your goal is to perform, especially with a group, then keeping a beat will be very important at some point. Try to play along to your favorite songs, play with friends, sing to your dog and be a goofball. Whatever it takes. If you can imagine what you want to be doing in the end, you will get there with practice.
  5. “Don’t assume that you can’t sing.” Take lessons! Unless you have a physical disability that affects your vocal chords or your hearing, you can learn. You may not have the same abilities as some of the greats, but most people can learn to sing and sing well. Go for it!

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. 🙂

I would start a movement that pairs children with those in need, whether to do a fundraising project or directly engage with people who can use their help. This would instill in children at an early age that yes, we all have our own needs, but others need our help too. We all have something to give, whether it is money, practical assistance, a hug or even a smile — we can all lift each other up. No matter our age, our disabilities, the color of our skin, or our social-economic situation, there are ways we can support each other to get through this challenging life.

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 🙂
Michelle Obama! I have admired her for years and loved reading her autobiography. She is a true inspiration. Despite all odds and pushing aside her own personal desires, she has made an incredible impact in the world by encouraging young girls to succeed, inspiring women of color, educating people about living a healthy life, and supporting her husband while he did his best to have a positive impact on the world.

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

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