Every sheep needs a shepherd, and in the music world, every shepherd was undoubtedly a sheep at one point in time. What I mean is that everyone seeks the expertise of someone more accomplished, so musical mentors are going to be an inevitable part of your journey.
Unlike our previous roles we’ve discussed, mentors are more of an interpersonal relationship, meaning you’re not going to enter into an official contract with someone who agrees to take on the “mentorship” role. They also probably won’t carry any official title throughout your relationship. Nevertheless, everyone needs guidance from time to time. So don’t be afraid to ask questions from those who have built something to be proud of in their musical merits.
An Important Note:
I’m going to preface this piece with two major points, both of which delineate principles that I vehemently believe.
1. You should only take advice from someone who demonstrates success/has achieved something you are looking to achieve.
2. You can’t fully succeed unless you’re also willing to help someone else succeed in the process.
If you’ve done something great, it’s a healthy and effective gesture to try and relay to others how you did it and how you continue to do it. Offering advice helps you stay grateful, focused, and humble, so why not have a cup of coffee with an aspiring musician who is exactly where you once were?
A Bit About Justine & Mexx
I spoke with a dear friend of mine who I think exemplifies hard work and success more than anyone else I know. Justine Blazer is a Recording Academy, CMA, and ACM member, has appeared on the 64th annual GRAMMY ballot, and still maintains her title as a Recording Academy voter. She recently ventured into the realm of sync licensing and has had five major placements over the past few years. Justine is also an official music mentor through the GRAMMY U program, which focuses on helping young professionals in the music world get their bearings (so yes, she does carry an official “title”).
I also talked to Mexx Heart, a local Nashville musician who’s been working with Justine for a little over a year now through the GRAMMY U program. Mexx accompanies Justine to various events around the city/country and pays close attention to the work they do together in the studio, the songwriting room, and different professional networking workshops. As a composer for Ripp Entertainment Digital, an assistant coordinator at Ten7Teen Studios & Records, and an overall pioneer of all things musical, Mexx humbly seeks out all the advice she can from people like Justine.
What Makes A Good Mentor?
“I think that a good mentor matches the energy of the person they’re working with. If someone’s really motivated, I compliment that with my own motivation, but if someone starts to get complacent – or worse – entitled, I don’t waste my time. Basically, I’m going to push you, but I’m not going to go out of my way to push you any farther than you’re willing to go. There’s also a harsh reality about certain mistakes one could make – sometimes, you don’t get second chances. I try to communicate that to Mexx when we’re working together and a situation like that arises, and she’s always so good about learning and taking things in.”
“A good mentor is someone with not just the knowledge to offer, but the quick curve it takes to be mentor. It’s like being a teacher – you have to know what techniques your mentee or student responds to and go with it. Justine has done so in many ways. I’ve noticed our learning curves are similar, so it wasn’t hard for her to figure out how to coach me in a way I would understand. Working and learning from her has benefitted both of us.”
The two spend a significant amount of time together, and in the midst of it all, they’ve established a platform of synchronicity that makes them an ideal duo. It’s also not uncommon for Mexx to accompany Justine to major events around the country, so the team is a traveling one as well.
Why do you mentor?
“I’m very attracted to go-getters, and when someone shows motivation and enthusiasm, I have a lot of fun with them. It’s a mutual thing that can lead to beautiful relationships, both personal and professional. Plus, you never know who could maybe take off one day. If you were there for them in the beginning or at some other pivotal point, there’s a good chance they’ll remember you and a new opportunity could arise from it.”
I posed the same question to Mexx with a somewhat different phrasing:
What made you seek out a mentor?
“After I moved away from where I started. The motivation to keep going and get further un the music industry mainly helped. It’s not easy either and I got a nice smack in the face with reality when I realized I couldn’t just pick up where I was and keep going. I kind of had to start over and establish myself. That’s when I met Justine.”
I followed up with:
What motivates you to share what you’ve learned?
“Well, the industry is not for the faint of heart. It’s tough, and it kicks your butt sometimes. You have to really want it and really love it. Seeing young people, especially young women, get excited to break molds and want to actually try is motivating enough. We have to make it more accessible to them so they can thrive and teach the next generation and the generations onward. The industry is growing and changing every day, so it’s up to us to stay caught up.”
Whether it’s a matter of paying it forward or it all coming back around or both, everyone helps everyone. It’s what we do.
Who were your original mentors?
“I’m originally from Detroit, so pre-Nashville, I was getting my start up there, and I didn’t really have many skills or opportunities to turn to back then. Really, I had to go it alone for a while, which was tough. But later on, I got linked up with guys like Billy Decker [Nashville mixing engineer], Gene Freeman [aka “Machine,” a producer based out of Austin], and John E. Lawrence, who was my professor back in school. John is a phenomenal jazz guitarist as well who taught me so much. By keeping in touch with people like them, I learned the tricks and trades of producing as well as countless other things. It gave way to a whole network.”
Words of advice to aspiring musicians?
“Think bigger! Always think bigger. You can’t have a small-minded mentality if you hope to take off. This is a competitive and hectic industry, so don’t make the mistake of staying in your comfort zone.”
“You have to go for it. Take risks, and don’t listen to naysayers. Surround yourself with like minded people and people who have your back.”
I think the idea is pretty clear here: comfort zones are killers. Look at someone who you aspire to be like. If they’ve garnered any degree of venerable success, odds are they didn’t take the easy route. While nobody said it was going to be easy, nobody said you’d have to go it alone either. Whether it’s an official GRAMMY U mentor like Justine or someone else you see hopping on and off stages in your local area, ask for guidance. You can bet your strings they did the same thing once upon a time.