Interview: Cassie Shankman, Composer

In recent months I’ve become fascinated by the routines and day-to-day practices of creative people, in an effort to understand how they actually get things done. Hence, a new series of interviews where creators talk about how they accomplish anything at all in this busy life.  

Cassie Shankman is a composer, DJ, pianist and one of the busiest, friendliest people I know. Not only does she create compositions with The Movement Tracks Project which uses brain-based movement technology and music to help people walk again, she's also the co-founder and head of marketing for Picardy Learning, an online platform that helps develop musicianship and music theory skills. Additionally she plays with Austin-based band Russel Taine Jr. and DJs under the name Cass&Ra. Her commitment to doing what she loves, as well as her ability to balance so many different projects is both inspired and inspiring. 

How do you deal with the continual ebb and flow of “success” as an artist?
I think the life of an artist is cool because you don’t know what to expect. I believe that that constant ebb and flow of success is what keeps me going – it’s what keeps me striving to be the best and outdoing my last goal. I learn to just embrace the low moments and push harder to get to those higher moments. They essentially motivate me to do better.

When is a time you felt really successful? Or a time you felt like you failed?

Both the time when I felt really successful and the time that I felt like I failed basically happened at the same time. It was a Monday and I was walking into an office downtown starting a marketing contract job because I had run out of money. As I was walking in, I received an email notification that a project I had been working on for a while was accepted into SXSW as a panel! This is when I knew that things were looking up. Don’t get me wrong, it was tough and I had been working about 85+ hours a week working five jobs, but I knew that the harder I worked, the closer I’d get to do what I loved. The money I saved from the marketing job gave me the freedom to try becoming a musician full-time. Once I had stopped working on a non-music job, I found I had more successes come my way when I was more open to them.

What is your biggest struggle as an artist?
Doubt. Doubt is my absolute biggest struggle. I am constantly fearing that I am not as good as the person next to me and constantly doubt myself as an artist. I think a lot of artists feel this way, too. However, I believe that doubt is the one thing that also helps make me work harder!

What is your daily routine? Your weekend routine?

Right now it’s waking up around 8AM and either going for a walk/working out or reading the New York Times. I also write down small goals that I set everyday. This helps me reach the bigger goals. Then I head into the Center for Music Therapy (my full-time job) to work on some projects, head home to continue composing music in my studio, and then try to spend time with friends by enjoying cultural experiences whether it be music, a show, a movie, books, art… I’m also a DJ and a synth/keyboard player in a band, so most of my free time is also spent rehearsing for those gigs! My weekend routine I keep pretty much the same, except I try to have a new experience each weekend. Lately I’ve been really busy, so I haven’t really had a “weekend.” But, work is fun for me, so I don’t really need vacation away from it.  

How do you motivate yourself to actually get things done?

I have always been a procrastinator, so due dates are my motivation! Like I mentioned, I write down small goals that I set everyday to achieve, which make some of the harder projects not so daunting. I also think back to working a 9-5PM corporate job, and that’s enough motivation for me to get things done!

Especially given that it’s unusually expensive to make things, how do you afford to be an artist financially? Do you have a day job?

It is expensive to be an artist. There’s that saying that “a musician is someone who loads their $5000 gear to drive 500 miles to a gig that pays $50.” That’s so true. You don’t do it for the money, you do it because you love it. And then, hopefully, the money follows after! In order to keep up with the new technologies, and afford music equipment, instruments, and software, I did have to take up a full-time marketing job when I got out of college. Then after a while, I was able to afford living as an artist self-sufficient. Now my full-time job is writing music for a new medical project, so that’s technically my “day job.”

How do you manage the stress/anxiety that’s inevitable with putting yourself out there?
Taking gigs that are out of my comfort zone just improve me as an artist. I believe that life is really valuable, and that it can be taken away at any moment. So putting yourself out there and taking opportunities that you otherwise wouldn’t take is what life's all about. At the end you are the sum of all of the memories and good or bad experiences that you had. I used to have a lot of fear with putting myself out there until I started thinking like that.

How do you know when it’s time to rest?

Unfortunately, I don’t until it’s too late! I get sick pretty often because I commit to too many awesome things. Then when I’m sick I rest. But, I’m trying to get better about managing my time and saying no to things that I just don’t have time for, which will ultimately make time for myself.

How do you manage the internet/social media?

Internet/social media is a stress in itself, but I view it as just a part of the job of being a musician/artist. I find it kind of fun and a way to connect with people whom I don’t interact with daily. I am constantly letting my friends/followers know what I’m up to. I try to keep most of my personal life out of my social media and focus it on what I’m doing as a musician. I will say social media has helped me get most of my gigs and collaborations. So I’m thankful to the internet!

What’s your collaborative process like? And how is it easy or difficult compared to working on your own?

I love collaborating. I used to hate group projects back in school, but now I have learned to love them. I find I learn a lot more when I’m collaborating, whether it’s with a filmmaker, a therapist, or another musician. We’re able to bounce ideas off each other and make the best piece of art possible. Sometimes I get stuck or get caught in my head about something, or even doubt myself, but collaborating makes those roadblocks go away a lot quicker. Ultimately life is about collaborating. It’s about sharing and experiencing together. So, that’s what I try to do in my own work. Sometimes I get projects that I just end up working on on my own, but they’re not as fun as the collaborative ones!

What’s your big dream? Do you have one? How do you set goals/set yourself up to achieve?

When I was in high-school I’d create a goal sheet every new year. It’d start with the biggest dream/goal of mine and then filter down into smaller and even smaller more achievable goals to help me reach that goal. I do something similar today, but I keep in mind that goals and dreams change, and that’s okay. My ultimate goal has always been to help people through music, and whether that was through my original dream of being a full-time Hollywood film composer or with my current project as a lead composer of original brain-based music, I feel as if I am already beginning to live my dream. I get to see my music help people walk again, and that’s the coolest thing in the world! My biggest goal is to reach more people in the world through this project.