Now and Zen with Steve Vai: “We’re Here to Express Our Uniqueness, Our Diversity, and Our Creativity”

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As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 9 – Autumn 2019 – Ladies of Metal

When Steve Vai was approached by album producer Brad Tolinski about releasing the compilation She Rocks, Volume 1 on his Favored Nations label, he immediately agreed. The project caught his interest because of his obvious love for guitar music and, he says, “I’ve been seeing this emergence of female guitar players for quite some time and it’s very exciting.” Presented with the opportunity to help promote talent, he was onboard. “The statistic a year or so ago that the sale of guitars is proportionately higher for women to men is a huge message of the evolution of women playing guitar,” he says. “So I’m glad that I was able to work with Brad and She Rocks on creating that record. It’s a great smattering of the various contributions that women are making right now.”

When Vai spoke with Guitar Girl, he was moments away from the release of a new Generation Axe album, The Guitars That Destroyed The World (Live In China). Joining him in that touring collective are Yngwie Malmsteen, Zakk Wylde, Nuno Bettencourt, and Tosin Abasi.

What began as a scheduled half-hour interview, during which Steve Vai would discuss the She Rocks album and women guitarists, detoured and expanded into a two-and-a-half-hour conversation that covered much more and went much deeper — from the music he listened to as an adolescent, to his battle with depression, thoughts of suicide, the long road he traveled as he searched for inner peace, and his words of encouragement for young people, and all people, who are struggling.

Following is an edited version of his interview.

Given the current climate, did you have to think carefully about how to promote She Rocks? Yes, it’s an album of women guitarists, but with men at the helm, a man put it together, a man is releasing it, and men are promoting it. You want to be an “ally,” sure, but at the same time, you don’t want to appear patronizing.

For me, not even a little bit, because what I want in life is peace, and the only way you can have that peace is when you examine the thoughts you’re having. Any thought that creates that kind of separation is going to create suffering. It’s so much easier to not look at the differences and only look at a person based on their creative gifts because the soul is not male or female. Who we really, truly are is not male or female. This is the way I see things and approach things because this is my comfort zone.

We can sit and talk endlessly of the opinions and should-haves that people have in their minds, but I don’t pay attention to any of them because they create separation, and that’s not where we should be headed. I understand that those opinions are important on some level to help foster the change that’s necessary. But if somebody comes to me and says, “I think your record should have been produced by a woman because it’s showing women’s rights and women’s support,” I respect that perspective, but I don’t buy into it at all, because what I’m looking for in a record like this, first and foremost, is inspired music by people who have something to say. That’s number one. Who are the best people to bring that together?

Not once, in any of my conversations with Brad, did I feel that there was a concern of how we should promote this because there’s a movement happening. It was like, yes, there is a movement, and we will respect that and we will contribute to it. There are great female producers — I’ve worked with many of them — but you just look for the best people for the best job, and I think where we came together is in wanting to make a compilation of female guitar players, and I love that we did that. I cannot speak for the people who have ideas on what we should have done, but I can assure you that we were as respectful as we could be with those opinions without compromising the creative integrity of the project.

There will be many people having opinions. My answer to them is I can assure you that I love everybody. I really do. I love people. That’s one of my greatest blessings in this life. All anybody wants is to be accepted for who and what they are, and when you allow that, you become a blessing in their life. But I do understand that a lot of people, including myself on certain subjects, are caught in the egoist perspective of being separate, and those are the people that will complain about anything. It doesn’t matter what I say. I can say that I love people, and somebody will complain about that. But you can’t be concerned, because why? If you’re concerned, if you’re insulted, that means you’re not confident in the way you feel. Now, somebody’s going to say, “You’re full of s**t, Vai. You’re just saying that because you’re being interviewed and you want everybody to love you.” OK, fair enough, it’s fine that you feel that way. It doesn’t disturb me at all, because I have nothing to prove. I know how I feel.

In the world of guitar heroes and guitar players, who was the first woman to capture your attention?

Jennifer Batten, and she’s as fine a player as anybody. When I listen to guitar music, it doesn’t matter if the fingers are male or female. I listen with the same ears, and Jennifer had all the goods. She’s creative, and she did interesting and unique things. The way she hammers, her technique, she’s obviously completed suited for the role of being a virtuoso guitar player. And she’s able to take that and apply theater to it, and image, with her work with Michael Jackson. So there’s a beautiful package there, and it was inspirational to so many female guitar players, and then you started seeing all these things happening.

One of the paradigm shifts for me was I was playing a show many years ago in Australia. I’m walking into the venue, I hear the opening act, it’s this incredible guitar playing, and I’m thinking, They’re not supposed to hire people better than me! I walk in and there’s this little girl on the stage. It was Orianthi. She was, like, 14 years old, and she’s ripping it up to this backing track. I met her after the show, and again the next day with her parents, and for years after that, we stayed in communication. She would send me music, I would send her stuff, I helped her get some gear, and she was obviously one of those people that was bitten by the instrumental guitar bug. I watched her progress through the years, and when she finally moved to America and got her first record deal, it seemed like a very organic evolution. She’s such a great player. She’s a guitar player from head to toe.

People like Jennifer and Orianthi and all the people on that record, one of the things I like about it, if I was to delineate a difference between the male energy and the female energy — because we all have both of these energies, they’re exclusive of our sexuality — there’s feminine energies and characteristics such as compassion, patience, and the motherly kind of attitude that is just sort of in the DNA, and then there’s the masculine energy, which is more the hunter-gatherer, competition, seek, and whatever. We all have different balances of that, regardless of whether we’re in a male or female body, and it doesn’t have anything to do with our sexuality or sexual preferences. It’s just energy. When the female energy starts entering that creative zone of electric rock guitar playing, there’s something that flows into it that’s of a different dimension than when a guy is doing it. There’s something there, I really love seeing it, and I think we’re going to see a lot more of it, and a lot more of the evolution of the confidence in women to pick up a guitar and play.

You named Jennifer Batten as the first woman to get your attention. You came of age during the 1970s. Were you aware of Nancy Wilson? Heart released Dreamboat Annie in [the U.S.] 1976, and I’d point to that album, and seeing her on stage and out front, as a turning point for many young women. What about for young men?

You know what? I am remiss. What you’re mentioning is now bringing me back. I forgot about Heart at that moment, but yeah, man, Nancy was just kicking it. She had such a powerful sense of confidence, and this is so cool because that’s what you want to see in a guitar player. That confidence and that sound — you hit the nail on the head. The Runaways were another one. The records on my turntable at the time were Al Di Meola and Allan Holdsworth and Jeff Beck, and these guys were guitar heroes, so when I heard The Runaways, I didn’t equate Lita Ford in the same league as those accomplished guitar players, but I absolutely was thrilled to feel that energy and that whole vibe.

Let’s look at the new Generation Axe album and tie it into this topic. The stereotype, and certainly I’m guilty of using it, is that in the sea of folded arms, one finds the occasional woman who was dragged along by her boyfriend or husband. Who do you see in the audience, and does that vary in different parts of the world?

You’re entirely correct. Throughout my career … well, in the Dave Roth days, I would say perhaps the majority of the audience was women, but that was the big ’80s rock thing. When I went out to do solo stuff, you might hear someone say, “Hey, did you see the one girl in the back who was dragged here by her boyfriend?” But it started to shift because there are women who like guitar playing, and every now and then you’d get someone that defied convention, was completely enamored with the guitar and loved what I did.

As I got older, and as the climate for female guitar players was changing, more and more would come to the shows. In various parts of the world, absolutely the balance shifts. If you go to the Netherlands and northern Europe, there’s more of a balance of women. Latin countries, in the early days, it was very rare that women were in the audience. But that was the early days. And as the young male guitar players that came to the shows got older, they got girlfriends and they started coming as couples, and then they’d have families and bring their kids, and the line started to blur. Right now I would say it’s still predominantly male, but it’s shifting dramatically. But you have to understand — I’m an acquired taste with my music!

Do you foresee a Generation Axe tour that isn’t all men?

When I first wrote up the list for Generation Axe, my first four choices were the guys that made the tour. My fifth choice was Orianthi. When there was a chance that one of the guys couldn’t do it, we reached out to her, but at that time she was doing a record with Richie [Sambora], so she couldn’t do the tour, but it all worked out because it opened the door for somebody else. When I choose the Generation Axe lineup, it’s based on the contribution that person made to the instrument. The end. I look for people who can do the right job.

My first manager, Ruta Sepetys, was my manager for 21 years. She was a young girl when she started managing me, and she was the best manager anyone could have ever had. Twenty-one years, and the only reason why she had to stop was that she wrote a book [Between Shades of Gray] that became a tremendous hit, and then she started to pursue a career as an author. All of her books are wild successes. My accountants are women. Two of my attorneys, for years and years and still today, are women. I don’t say, “I’m going to hire a woman because …” I say, “I need a really good attorney.” I didn’t say, “Oh, I have a woman attorney,” or “I have a female manager.” I didn’t think of those things. I was looking for the connection with the person.

Something I would like to address, which is not related to this album or Generation Axe or guitars, is the message in some of your clinics. I wanted to discuss these topics because depression and suicide are at an all-time high for young women, young people in general, and certainly young people in the LGBTQ community. These are our readers, these are your fans, and we are losing them. So I want to look at two things. Here is the first. During the 2010 Guitar Center Sessions, you said — and I reference this video often because it is so inspiring — “I don’t work on my weaknesses. I ignore them, and I cultivate my strengths.” I was hoping you would expound on that a bit because it is so easy to forget that we have strengths, to feel that we have only weaknesses, to let “society” make us feel weak and less than, especially when we are in any way different or told that we are different. I would like for you to apply that philosophy to our readers, because your words affected me as an adult, and I wish I’d heard them and been able to bookmark them as an adolescent.

Oh my god. Thank you. First, anything I say is based on my perspective. So I would like to say one thing to anybody who feels the kind of psychological suffering that could induce thoughts of suicide and depression, and that’s this: The only reason why you feel that way is because you’re allowing the opinion of others to create in you a victim mentality, and it’s unnecessary. It is completely unnecessary.

There are two kinds of suffering in the world. There’s physical pain, and we all know what that is, and there’s psychological pain, which can also be called hell because that’s what hell is: mental angst. You are the only one who is capable of creating psychological pain in yourself, and when you blame the outside world for it, you are doing yourself a tremendous injustice because you are not recognizing your actual freedom. There’s nothing that you can say or do or believe that can even remotely compromise the freedom that you actually have underneath the beliefs that you have about yourself. So when you listen to the outside world, other people’s opinions of what you should do, the way you should be, the way you need to act, what you shouldn’t have done, what you need to do, you have to remember that you’re listening to somebody else’s fear. You are being indoctrinated into the conditioning of somebody else’s fear, and if you buy into it, you’re only going to suffer, and it’s unnecessary.

I know this might be extraordinary to believe, but everybody is perfect exactly the way they are. Inside of themselves, they have instincts and impulses that are unique to them that need to be expressed, because we’re here to express our uniqueness, our diversity, and our creativity. Those three things are your powerful tools in this world. Your uniqueness — and that means any kind of sexuality that you feel is right for you and comfortable for you; it doesn’t f**king matter — and also your uniquely creative gifts. You have them. Everybody does. You may not see them when you’re covered with the pain that you’re creating in your own mind by the fear conditioning of others, but I am telling you, beyond the shadow of a doubt: you are unique, you have uniquely creative skills, and you’re here to express those with joy and expansion and to work with others who flow with you, because none of us can do anything without everybody else. That’s your function in life. That’s your purpose. Your purpose in life is to be yourself, with no excuses, and that means not buying into the opinions of others.

Now, when I say that, of course, people may have opinions that can be helpful for you in certain things, creative things, but you know when your sense of freedom is being compromised. Everybody knows that. And you know what? It doesn’t work. It never works, and it never will work. The moment that a human’s sense of freedom is compromised, you go off the rails. That’s what every simple argument, family argument, friendly argument, or brutality that’s produced in the world is based on: the perspective that “My way is the right way.” And I would like to add: Your way is the right way — for you. And the right way for everybody else can benefit you when you come together on a creative level. So you are already free, you are already wildly creative, and you’re unique, and when you embrace that uniqueness, it’s so delicious that it doesn’t matter what anybody else says or feels about you. This is freedom. This is your birthright. And when you find that and embrace it, you’re very comfortable being yourself. And then the creativity flows, and that’s joy.

The other thing is a 2012 interview with FaceCulture where you discussed your battle with a “deep, deep depression” when you were 22. You said, “Our identity is forged by the way we view our past experiences, and we’re all prisoners of that shit. You’re 5 years old and somebody says, ‘What’s wrong with you? What are you, stupid?’ You’ll question yourself for the rest of your life, if you don’t find independence.”

Of course, because you’re buying into the fear of somebody else, and you’re believing them. It creates an identity in your head, and it sounds something like this: “This happened to me when I was young, and I’m damaged, so that means that I can’t do this and I can’t do that, and I’m not good enough. Or maybe I can. I’ve got a great idea and I’m going to do this. But you know what, it’s going to fail, because everything fails for me.” You have to understand that these are just thoughts that you’re believing that are not true.

But when you believe them, they become your reality, and that’s what you’ll see in the world. You will always feel beaten down, you will always feel like a loser, and you will be 80 years old, looking in the mirror, and wondering, “When does life start?” F**k that. Do it right now. Make life start right now by finding your independence. You can. You don’t have to wait for the future. It’s not going to happen in the future, because when you’re always looking for the future, it never comes. So to find it right now is liberation, because there’s nothing better than feeling comfortable in your own skin, and you’re worthy of that.

It just requires you to look at the quality of the thoughts you’re thinking about yourself, and to realize they’re just not true. That’s your ego lying to you. “I’m damaged.” That’s a lie. And someone may say, “What are you talking about, Steve? Don’t you know what some people have gone through in their lives? How would you feel if it were you?” Yes, these things happen in life and they can hold a person prisoner, but in most cases, they’re not happening right now. So anybody who is carrying around a mental perspective of who they are, based on things that happened in the past, is creating a limited identity for themselves now.

Horrible things may have happened, and it can be a terrible, painful memory, and an incident that created in you such pain and such mental suffering that you see yourself as unworthy of anything — unworthy of love, unworthy of a relationship, unworthy of comfort, of things that you are allowed to enjoy in life. That unworthiness becomes so heavy and painful that it has a built-in self-destruct mechanism that at some point you’re either going to say, “I am done suffering, I’m finished, I don’t want this anymore, now I’m finding my life,” or you continue until it gets so heavy that you may kill yourself. It’s important for you to know that the potential for you to rise above these things that happened to you in the past is there, and you can do it right now, because right now those things aren’t happening. Right now you are independent and making any decision you want about any part of your life.

And when I say “you,” I’m talking to all those people who are suffering because they think their difference is something wrong. I’m talking to those people that may be born into a body that doesn’t feel quite right, or their environment doesn’t feel quite right, or people that like to wear a particular style of clothes that isn’t conventional, people that are attracted to various things that are maybe not considered the norm. We need you to be true to yourself, because the way you truly are is necessary for you to create something in the world. We all benefit from your unique creativity, and that contributes to everybody else’s creativity, and you will not find that when you’re wallowing in the false impression that because you’re different, you’re bad, or that there’s something wrong with you. It’s just not f**king true!

Now, somebody can read that and say, “You don’t know how I feel,” “You don’t know what I’ve been through,” and “You don’t know what people do to me.” I totally get that. But I’m just here to tell you that it really doesn’t matter what you think about what the world is doing to you. What matters is you connecting with your own clarity of your unique creative expressions. That’s the important thing. And that requires you to embrace who you are, whoever that is. And remember that we need that! We need you to get creative and comfortable in your skin, because that’s how you change the world.

When did you come to that realization? In that video interview, you say that when you were in that deep depression, you were just praying to find some truth.

You mentioned that you understand this, and I think a lot of the readers who are suffering from depression can understand this. When you’re in that state, you feel like you’re alone, no one else understands, no one can understand, and that your whole life has been like that. You actually believe that your whole life has been miserable. The reason why is because of the thoughts that you’re entertaining in your head. They’re really hard to kick because they get their claws in you. That suffering, in and of itself, becomes so heavy that — and this is what happened to me — when you’re in a state of depression, you create an identity on your suffering and your woes. That was it for me. I held on to it, held on to it, and all that holding on is the perspective that you know better, your way is the right way, the world sucks, and it creates a hostile world in your mind.

So for me, I couldn’t let go of that perspective. I was drowning in this feeling of “the world sucks, everybody’s an idiot, and this is all insane,” and it got so hard that at one point I was contemplating oblivion, because that seemed like the only relief. But something said to me — and it wasn’t like a voice; it was an instinctual understanding — that suicide isn’t the answer. I heard myself saying, “I don’t know what’s going on here. I really don’t. I want to know. That’s all I want, more than anything.”

I started to imagine, What do I really want in life? To be rich and famous and adored and wealthy and all this stuff? I realized that’s not it. What I really wanted was the same thing that everybody on the planet wants in their heart of hearts: peace. I want peace. I want to feel good. I want to feel happy. I want to enjoy all the things that I do. I want to know the real, deep answers to life. I want that more than anything. That’s the first step in anybody’s healing process. The very first step is the desire for peace. It’s an easy thing to say, but it’s a hard thing to do, and you’ll only know that when the time is right and you’re ready for it. When you decide that what you want in life is peace, the very moment that you make that decision, that’s the beginning of the waking-up process.

I don’t ask this lightly: How have you survived the music industry?

I changed my perspective of it when I realized that my old perspective was a very painful one. After I’d gone through that depression, I started to wake up a little bit — and it wasn’t something that happened overnight. I’m still a work in progress. But there was one phrase that I kept telling myself, and I didn’t even believe it at first, and that was, “I’m becoming happier and healthier every day.” That became my go-to thought whenever I was suffering.

When you’re a young musician in the music business and you feel very passionate about your work, it’s almost like a curse for an artist that they want other people to experience the joy that they feel when they’re making their art. The ego grabs that and says, “Because it’s better than everybody else.” After I’d gone through the depression, all of a sudden I hit the scene and things started happening. I started making a lot of money, I was on the cover of all the magazines, I was winning Grammys, I was winning every poll, I was being retired from polls because I was winning too much. People are writing you letters, showing you tattoos of you on their bodies, your heroes are saying great things about you in the press, and there was a period in the ’90s when that started to happen to me. And the ego came right back. You don’t even realize when it’s overcoming you.

When the scene started to change in the ’90s, and the music climate changed, the thing that I was doing had reached its peak with me and my peers. There was a big backlash and that’s when grunge came along. I suddenly became a poster boy for everything that was bad and wrong about playing the guitar. This is just the ebb and flow of the way the press works, but I didn’t recognize it. I took it very personally and it hurt my ego, and I started to realize that I was getting feelings like the old days, when I was depressed. Not the same kind of helpless depression, but I was getting trapped in a perspective that wasn’t doing me any good, and a lot of it was obviously projected at the music business.

So I decided I had to change what I believe about the music business, because whatever you believe is going to be your reality. I started to say, “I like the music business,” and I actually do. It’s a wonderful business. It’s filled with very creative people that you can work with and learn from. This is all absolutely true. It gives me a creative outlet that makes me feel great. I love when I’m working with these producers who are just amazing and I’m learning things. I love Generation Axe — that was a blessing because I came together with these guys. The music business has so many creative aspects to it. You can be a video editor, an engineer, a producer, a music company executive, a music attorney, a musician, a songwriter, a lyric writer, you can become an agent for film composers. That’s how I changed my perspective of the music business. That flows into everything you do, and you find all the things you’re believing. I realized I’ve always had everything I ever needed, that this is a great existence, and it’s all based on my desire to make a change in my perspective.

Do you still have moments when you feel the darkness coming back?

No, because the depths of that kind of depression have never touched me since those days. But my exercise all day long is to try to be present and to see the thoughts that I’m entertaining, because then I can examine them and see if they’re true or not. But that took a lot of practice. I’m talking thousands of hours of meditation and soul-searching and reading the teachings of brilliant people whose work changed my life. They’re truths that have been around for thousands of years that are really good to hear again.

It’s also the source. We can hear it from friends, relatives, professionals, whoever, but sometimes the source can make the difference. For someone who loves your music, you may be that life-changing source.

If I say something that feels true to you, it’s because it’s the truth and it’s in you too. A book was written called Dear Me: A Letter To My Sixteen-Year-Old Self [Joseph Galliano, 2011], and they asked celebrities to participate. It’s a beautiful book, and all these people wrote heartfelt, inspiring letters to their younger selves. They asked me to write a letter, and mine consisted of three words: “You’re doing fine.” That’s it. Because that’s what I needed to hear when I was 16 that nobody was telling me.

I want to share this message with readers too: You are doing fine. Really fine. You are. You have no need to question your past mistakes. Just embrace where you are now, live life, and have fun. That’s all you need to know. And ignore your weaknesses and cultivate your strengths! It’s beautiful that you see my statement that way, because there were many perspectives on that. I’m very grateful for you asking these questions and that I’ve actually had this much time to answer them. See? The universe provides.



Photo provided by management and used with permission


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