As the hour approaches to let rip onstage, blues-rocker Jocelyn Arndt has found herself freaking out in backstage bathrooms, her heartbeat accelerating as pre-performance anxiety spirals towards panic.
To pull back, the singer with Jocelyn & Chris, the acclaimed band she fronts with her brother (twenty bucks if you can guess his name), has learnt to strap on a Fitbit.
“It has built-in breath exercises, and you can actually watch your heartbeat which is really useful,” Arndt tells SPIN. “I watch that little number go down.”
The pulse-monitoring gizmo is one of a range of paths back to control that Arndt takes. “I have habits and rituals,” she says. “Certain things that ground me. That stop the spiral.”
Another useful calmness tool is a Sharpie, says the Albany, New York, based singer.
“Before every show I take a Sharpie marker and I write out the set list by hand for everybody in the band. It’ll be like four or five copies depending on what we’re doing,” says Arndt. “It’s the little things like that that I really feel help me center myself. Just focus on the show, focus on the songs I’m gonna be performing, and how, ‘Hey, you’ve done this a million times and this is your thing. This is a thing you love to do, so don’t let your brain get in the way of that,’” says Arndt.
The singer and her brother are both Harvard graduates. She studied English lit, while her guitar-slinging little bro took computer science. Arndt credits Harvard with “rewiring how I approach problems and how I think analytically about things,” but says the best part of attending the powerhouse university was how supportive people were of students doing their own thing.
“As long as you’re totally 100 percent committed to doing that thing, whatever your thing is, as long as you’re committed to doing that thing, the people around you are gonna understand that and they’re gonna support that,” says Arndt.
Harvard’s culture of support for doing-your-thing worked a treat for the siblings, Arndt says. “We had a crazy schedule where I would have classes Monday to Thursday, and I try not to schedule anything on Fridays, because Fridays I’d hop on the T to go to the airport to go to South by Southwest, and then come back on Sunday night.”
“I’d tell my friends like I gotta go do a show. And they’d be like, ‘Oh that’s cool. That’s your thing. We’ll see you on Sunday.’ It was cool. It was very supportive,” says Arndt.
In terms of Harvard’s formal education, Arndt says studying children’s lit made the biggest impression. “It’s a totally underappreciated segment of literature. People discount those books. They forget about them because they were on the shelf when you were sitting cross-legged on the rug in kindergarten.”
Studying at America’s oldest institution of higher education revived and enriched her appreciation of kids’ books. “If you pick those books up, they’re gonna kind of inform [you of] something new every time you read them.”
Arndt singles out the work of the multitalented Shel Silverstein, whose work ranged from cartooning at Playboy to contributing to Stars and Stripes to writing “A Boy Named Sue”, the song that Johnny Cash made famous and performed at San Quentin State Prison – a show that was recorded for Cash’s At San Quentin album (recorded and released in 1969).
Silverstein did not write down to kids, Arndt says. “He doesn’t treat kids like they’re dumb, cuz kids are not dumb. Kids are really freaking smart. And he knew that more than a lot of other people. I just think that’s amazing. Those books, they ring true. You still read ’em and you still get, you still get deep meaning out of them.”
Silverstein’s ability to write from a kid’s perspective appeals to Arndt, 28, who says she has struggled with anxiety since her childhood in the upstate-New York town of Fort Plain.
The combination of high anxiety and doing live performance is quite a combo, she says. “I’ve described myself as the world’s most introverted extrovert, or the world’s most extroverted introvert. I don’t know which one is more true.”
Jocelyn & Chris have released a semi acoustic version of a new track, “Someone Else’s Blood,” which is available in fully-amped form on March 3.