Sintija Grigorjeva on her will to keep going
«Just that girl on the bass» who wants to carry on music to the next level
During the first semester at Berklee (Berklee College of Music) I was searching for myself — wanted to go everywhere and be in time, trying to manage things and fail. No time for practice, workshops everywhere, have to skip lessons, have to decide — attending Victor Wooten or John Patitucci. Every time it seemed the most important choice in your life. Time passes, and you learn it isn’t what it seems, there are a lot of opportunities, and that environment has an access to all those resources even apart from workshops. You have to realise you cannot be in time for everything, you have to define who you are as a musician, what direction you are moving to, what else keeps you interested. You cannot survive in the modern music industry just as a bassist or a guitarist — America puts a huge emphasis on it, every teacher speaks about it.
For two years in a row on Saturdays and Sundays I play at a gospel church, and I’m fully immersed in it. In Boston many youngsters play at huge churches, and can pay all their bills thanks to that. Some treat it as a concert — churches need professional musicians, and they are mostly searching for them at Berklee. My case was different — at my first semester there one guy invited me to a jam session. In the beginning I was quite unsure, I went to that club for the first time, everyone was black there except me, everyone stared. It appeared to be a freestyle rap night, after three months the guy called me, so I got my first gig in Boston, then we began talking, playing together. Then we found out we were born on the same day on the same year, so we were laughing — we’re twins. We’re still good friends and play together.
At the church I got a vision on relationship and on the main things in the music sphere — human relationships instead of professional ones. I kept sitting within my four walls, couldn’t understand what I was doing, my dream was going to Berklee, but I was depressed, couldn’t go anywhere, take my instrument, it seemed I wasn’t capable of anything. The thing every human being believes in can be called different names, but to me it’s God. And then I asked this musician — do you play at any church, gospel? I want to hear it live. He replied he does indeed, and by the way they don’t have a bassist. The next day I went to church, everyone was black there, everyone kept asking me why I was there. And my only reply was — I want to play to God, that’s it. I didn’t mention money. They have a small church, but the level of their musicians, human support is huge — I came there and it immediately felt like home. I have never played that kind of music, or seen those people, but it immediately felt right. The fact I was in America didn’t mean I was better than those who stayed in Latvia or anywhere else. In America I’ve also seen teachers who don’t play at all, who prepare for their lessons at home, then go teach, then go cook a dinner — but their level is so huge you simply cannot understand it. And then I decided I’ll be thankful for everything that keeps happening in my life, for the power, for the opportunities, I’ll go and play at the church for free. I know I have to fight, I could go to another church, earn some money, and I’d have everything sorted out with my bills, but I decided I wanted this one. Now every Saturday and Sunday I go there, without exceptions. So the week begins and never ends.
It’s difficult. Sometimes no sleep. I don’t want to let anyone down — I have a full scholarship for studies, I have to keep my level up. I had to realise one thing — you cannot be good to everybody, and you also don’t have to do that — you just have to do your job. The worst reason to think you’re there is to be a good student. Then at the end you wake up without realising who you are, and what is that music you want to do. Berklee has its sound they want their musicians to be good at, they have their system, but the main thing is not to lose yourself in that tornado.
Speaking of my daily routines, it’s school and work. I work at a concert hall, and my working day is quite uncertain, I don’t have specific hours every week. Every week I decide when I can put those hours in the evenings. At school the lectures are every day from Monday to Friday, and each semester you choose your schedule yourself, pick up appropriate teachers. Semesters went on, and I learned to schedule my week a bit differently. Earlier on I couldn’t meet anyone or even come for an interview — I didn’t have time, had to do my things. Now I pay attention to other people, because that’s so important. Sometimes in your future that’ll matter — people would want to work with you because they’ll know you’re trustworthy, it feels good to be together with you. Also helping yourself — you cannot conquer everything on your own. Sometimes it seemed that there was no way out, and you need someone. Maybe at some point someone needs you, and you cannot just take it for granted all the time, you have to learn to give.
I have always wanted to sing, and I just couldn’t do it for years. Every single day for two hours at Riga Dome Choir School I’ve tried without any results. I went to America, did the same — I just cannot quit. I took vocals as an extra subject at school, and after the first time felt a tiny progress. It’s important to create some kind of a contact for me, I cannot fully immerse in the thing I do if I don’t feel free with the person. I have established a close contact with the teacher, but I didn’t have enough money for private lessons, so I went to school administration saying — I have a full scholarship, I have free credit points, could I spend those credits for private vocal lessons. The administration told me no, you don’t have it in your plan, so we’re not interested. They just make money, business is all they’re interested in. I wrote my teacher on Facebook — told her what music means to me, asked her how much do lessons cost. She told me — I usually ask for way more, but could you pay 40 euros for a private lesson? I know that normally one hour of her time costs 160 euros. Then she told me — if you can’t pay that much, I can go lower. I was sitting there with tears in my eyes — that meant so much to me! I told her I wouldn’t come to you for any lower price, I respect your time. In America you sometimes have to decide whether you’ll buy yourself some food, things, or put that money to a private lesson. At the end of the year I couldn’t pay even those 40, I didn’t want to tell her, but I’ll definitely return and try again. My progress was phenomenal compared to all my previous experience.
A son of John Coltrane’s bassist, Matthew Garrison, was the one who inspired me to go to Berklee. I have always had that thought in me that I’ll study at the best school in the world. I’ve never seen the webpage, or the teachers, or any other details. One evening I was sitting at home, and I noticed I have a friend request from Matthew on Facebook, he was teaching at Berklee at that time. I was up at 2 a.m., so surprised. I’ve started describing him that music means everything to me, I was writing how much I was ready to do and how much I’m already doing, I wrote him “you’ll never ever read this message, but I’ll send you that in any case, here are 6 of my recordings”. He replied me the next day — he listened to every recording, being on tour, he was living in New York, having a family, he was playing with Coltrane’s son, and he still had time to listen. I asked him — what do you think, does my level correspond, do I have a chance. He told me — you already are ahead of the game, ahead of all of them. He encouraged me and started to talk in long messages to me every single day, and I was in shock. So huge and so famous in the whole world. Then he told me — maybe we once could make a video call and jam together, I could take some ideas from you and you could take mine, and I was flying at that time. That was my reason for it — he told me I could make it. It opened my eyes to a human aspect. I had an opinion I had to be cold, strive to your goal, not telling anything to anyone, just moving ahead. And at that point everything has changed, and that turn has helped my successful life in music later on.
Then I made it to Berklee, got my e-mail about a full scholarship, was very happy, crying, thankful. But how am I going to live there? And the stress has begun again. But I knew I usually am stressing without any solid reason, I knew I won’t quit and will solve everything. I won’t go to sleep without knowing I’m not doing anything for the sake of my dream. We were searching for sponsors, then the guys got accepted, we came to America, didn’t know where we’re going to sleep, and American Latvians accommodated us for two months. Rihards (Kolmanis) and Pēteris (Žīle) stayed at one house of theirs, and I stayed at another one, we had to spend 2 hours on the road one direction and 2 hours the other one, waking up at 5.30 a.m. because the man who got us a ride with his car until the bus stop (we were out of the city) went to work this early. I knew I’ll go to sleep at 2 a.m. because I needed to practise more, and at 5.30 I needed to be up because at 6 he’ll be sitting in his car. We were extremely tired. But if you want it, you’re ready to suffer. You know it yourself — it’s rarely different in here.
I have released my very own single this year — the sketch for it was created in Riga. That pianist and producer I’m playing at the church with has heard it and told me some of the ideas are childish, but you can do something with them and it’s on. And then I thought — alright, why am I sitting here, not doing anything of my own, thinking I’m not ready yet. If I could turn back time, that’s the one thing I would have done differently. Doing and not overthinking it. That’s from the Latvian times — everyone keeps going on his own, and there’s no sharing at all. You don’t have to be scared someone steals something from you. Actually if you share, the job becomes better! Most of the competition is based on fear. There are many phenomenal musicians in Latvia, but we don’t have an environment for sharing. We usually see the bad competition — people are scared.
Everyone keeps looking at me, coming from Berklee, just as if I’m guilty of the fact I got lucky to be here. Nobody knows what happens behind the scenes. There are many versions created in people’s heads, and they live on to their versions. “You are coming from America, very wise, right?”. Yes, you cannot put everyone in the same bag, and I cannot stop telling how much I appreciate the fact we have phenomenal musicians and phenomenal teachers in Latvia. And there’s so few of them, that’s also difficult — whom are you going to share with, if you have noone to share. Stay, do your thing. Everyone keeps fighting on his own — I don’t need a community, I know what I want to do. I know I didn’t have a healthy competition as well, being here. So I went there — and everything turned upside down.
The music in every century has reflected humankind’s passions. Soul fervors. If you’re listening to “oh yeah, I’m in the club, grab my booty, sexy girls” all the time, it degrades you. Music is a powerful weapon. You have to think of what you’re writing. In my opinion, it’s extremely important to think why we do music. We’re just showing off, but we have to also keep in mind how huge is the power that the music has, what do people listen to when they go to work, in their headphones. Your music influences their thoughts, so it’s very important to talk about it more among musicians.
You have to use the fact that you have a voice. The moment you’re recognized at least in your own country they’ll listen to the things you’ll tell. It would be nice if people talked about the things they are worried about on the cultural level, not just about beautiful things, but about ugly things as well. Our teachers — not only loud at the meetings, but also one on one with their students, emphasise — take a look on where the music has gone nowadays and what happens in the world. You have to realise you have a very important role right now. They won’t tell it loud, they will tell it from their heart. Use your voice.
The more things you can do as an artist, the better. I, for example, during the last 2 years have been studying jazz dance and hip hop. We have the best teachers from Boston conservatory, that united with Berklee, so we have an opportunity to take the lessons with their teachers. In the future, thinking of larger shows, I could use that skill. Nowadays you don’t have to dive into 40s or 50s. Robert Glasper once had a workshop at Berklee, and he told us «People in the 40s played jazz of the 40s, people in the 50s played jazz of the 50s. In the 60s — the 60s jazz. And suddenly in the 20th century people get stuck: jazz was only the privilege of the 40s or 50s. Don’t be scared! You live in the 21st century. Put everything together!» You need to have knowledge about that music, but you don’t have to live the history now, you have a task as a musician to carry it to the next level. Nowadays there’s so much opportunities in technology, effects, electronics, you cannot skip it. It can make everything more powerful.
If you’re asking me what I want to do in the future — of course, there are many things I will have to do to survive as a musician, what I develop right now — production, arranging, composing, maybe I’ll write songs to someone. In nowadays music industry you don’t earn money with albums and recordings. The bad news is that financially musicians have to try more, and they cannot be just musicians. The good news is that you have to be a high class professional because you’ll earn money just with a stage life, and everyone around you will be high class professional as well. So I study dance, am interested in art, things that happen in the world right now, to be able to deliver a message later on, tell things I want to tell with my art as effectively as I can. To make as many people more positive as I can.
The thing I am trying to give to the world is some positive light, love, not delusions, opening eyes to some things people keep hiding from us, wasting our time on shows, advertisements, so that we stopped thinking. I know somewhere deep inside I’ll do things not only in music, but thanks to the power and the authority the music will give me, I’ll do great things in the other spheres. My voice won’t be just one of many voices, it’ll be louder. My aim right now is to slowly try getting out, so that I could speak to more and more people, carry on more changes, realization of things that happen in the world. We as musicians can reach people’s hearts, minds, souls through a powerful instrument — music — that’s our job.
All humankind gets stuck in a wheel. People go to work, earn money, buy things, then go to work again, earn money, buy things, and quarrel about the money, and quarrel about the things, and slave to the higher institutions that control their minds, that control what you’re watching and listening to. Popular music sings about your bigger ego, clothes, bodies, but they need to bring on positivity, joy, good emotions through the things they’re doing. A sad song can bring beauty, make an emotional part stand out. You can sing about simple things. You don’t have to do extraordinary things to show how people love. You can write a simple song with a simple message about a humanly affectionate thing. The only way we can stay free is living a sincere life from the inside, in the heart, in the soul.
Of course, I want to stay in America right now, and one of the reasons is the fact that it’s so difficult to change something from the inside, especially here. I have seen many people like you who are trying, but the old ones don’t let anyone in. I study at Berklee, and before that nobody was interested in how I play, I spend a year at Berklee, returned here, and suddenly everyone gets interested, what would I say. The more work you put in, the more you improve yourself, the more famous you get, the more things you can change. My goal is to get a voice and use it for good and useful aims, to make the world a better place.
Unfortunately the financial side is very important in this world. If you don’t have enough money, you’re powerless. Especially in Latvia, knowing our financial situation and seeing things that happen here. I come home and see how my parents live — they could never even imagine the life I’m living now. I come back and see how they work from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. working and not earning much. Just like the most of this country. So it gets extremely difficult to do things, because nobody gives much money to culture as well. I didn’t ask my country for anything, but I know many who did, and realised they won’t get any help from here, they’ll have to search it outside. So it would be amazingly beautiful, if I would at any point in my life get financially stable and to help others.
Berklee features people from all over the world, and when you get there, you get to know people from all parts of the planet, get to learn how beautiful, clever, and amazing they are. Coming back, starting to talk about it with my relatives, I realise that they understand it only up to some certain limit, start telling those rasist sayings, share stereotypes. The things we hear about people from another nationalities only shows how low the humankind has gotten. In America this problem is really huge — I learned it from closest friends from all possible nations — I cannot just sit and observe this injustice. The humankind got crazy in this. In the beginning it was quite hard for me to understand what I’m representing, but when I got there, I realised why people are angry with white people. I had to understand I have a huge role in it. People will listen to me because I’m white myself. Of course, there is always resistance, it isn’t that easy, and you’ll always have your enemies, but you just have to keep it in mind.
In the beginning that was a huge problem — I couldn’t accept the fact that everyone was looking at me not like at a musician, but as at a girl with a bass. It seemed that in the beginning everyone asked me to play just because I was a girl with a bass. Of course, I heard some jokes in the beginning — well, what is that girl going to play. Once we’ve played with Justina Lee Brown, a musician from America, we were just her side musicians, and then she saw me, very stressed, she told me that only after the show — she thought that girl isn’t going to play blues quite well.
At one point, when it really offended me, I’ve learned you know what? I’ve realised it’s so good that I do music, so good that I’m putting so much work in it every single day. When you put your work in it, you get self confidence. I was going towards that goal, I knew where I wanted to arrive in the future, I wasn’t interested in the opinion of anybody else, I was just doing my thing, even still offended a lot. You can laugh at me as much as you wish, but just look at how I’m doing it. I just put work in it. At one moment I’ve even realised I had to start using the fact that I’m a girl with the bass, not being angry with it. Yes, I am a girl who plays the bass, there’s not a lot like me, that is an advantage, I get more opportunities just because of that. I started using it at my own advantage, not getting this angry anymore, using it for my future.
I can do the things I love, and be in the place I want to be — in America. The music that’s closer to my heart, the dreams I’m dreaming couldn’t be reached here, but they can be reached there. That is a huge impulse that makes me happy. I wake up in the morning — sometimes everything’s bad, but I still have that feeling of gratitude. Gratitude I can be here, even if I want to complain from time to time. You know, there’s a saying — «if you’re hungry, go to the place where there’s food». The other people can’t get there, they don’t have such an opportunity, but I have an option to go where my food is, so I have that feeling of gratitude. I have people who love me, and there are people whom I love. There were such in Latvia, there are such in America, and that is the greatest support — when you fall, you are not alone anymore, you don’t have to be alone. You can be in music, go to your goals, and there are people who will hold you up, and then you become unstoppable. That is the period in life, in which I currently feel the strongest. I have survived many quite hard things in life, overcame a lot of thick walls inside of me, It was difficult. And now I have to keep on working. Step by step. Happiness in little things every single day.
I wish the jazz musicians wouldn’t give up. Don’t give up on your dreams. Keep on dreaming. Nowadays we have a free Latvia, we have internet, all borders in the world are open, and even if the money we don’t have can let us down or stop us from achieving our dreams, one thing that’s true is that money always is somewhere. There are rich people, the money exists. A musician has to think about music. You have to reach more people, you have to achieve more, never letting money stop you. If you’ll do the thing you have to do, strive for your dreams. Never give up. Never. I know how much that sounds like a hippie saying — you can do everything — but that’s true. Whatever the reality you’re in, everything you have to do is just make a move. Whatever the cost. Maybe you’ll have to sacrifice some things. But in the end it will all be worth it.