Suffering a success

Tom Wasinger on the past, the present and the pain of winning a Grammy

Tom Wasinger noodles on a Weissenborn, a guitar with a hollow neck that can be played in the lap with a steel slide.

Sitting in Tom Wasinger’s studio, surrounded by tens of thousands of dollars of guitars and other stringed delights, his three Grammys gathering dust on a shelf near the entrance, we talk as much about psychology as we do about music.

Wasinger’s interest in the mind started in the mid-’70s, when the teenaged musician from Oklahoma City finally decided college just wasn’t high enough on his list of things to do in life. He’d already moved out to Colorado and had a fairly successful jaunt playing in a couple of bands that toured heavily in the ski towns of the West, mostly playing country rock but also dabbling in the emerging punk and new wave sounds that eventually infiltrated American airwaves.

He’d taught himself to play guitar (with a teacher thrown in for good measure on a couple of occasions when he was around 9 or 10) so he guessed it was time to teach himself more.

“So I studied music more,” he says. “I taught myself to read music for guitar — not well, but I could do it — and I ended up studying things like Carl Jung and psychology.”

Jung’s work in analytical psychology is a well chronicled catalyst for creative minds across the arts: Herman Hesse, Jackson Pollock, David Bowie, the Beatles, Tool, Stanley Kubric and Federico Fellini have all called Jung a muse of sorts, feeding off of the connections Jung made between psychology, philosophy, anthropology and religion.

With Wasinger, Jung comes up immediately as we talk about his new album, A Mended Soul, his first solo work in more than 30 years.

“[Jung] saw, especially from observing people with mental illness, that people had big splits within them, pieces of their personality that were not even integrated so that someone who was in trouble, for example someone who was schizophrenic, would have literally different personalities that would show up. That was an extreme version. Everyone has little bits and pieces of that.

“That idea of a mended soul, what he described as kind of healing all those splits and bringing all those pieces of yourself into consciousness, into the part of yourself that lives everyday, he called that individuation. I always felt like that would be a way of mending yourself.”

An entirely instrumental album, A Mended Soul traverses Wasinger’s 32-year career, and it chronicles his own healing process, his individuation, from the stillbirth of his middle child to the fond memories of family vacations in British Columbia. It’s an album that speaks to the complexity of the human experience, no words necessary.

It was also recorded at the request of an old friend, Vian Izak (née Zaayman). Wasinger took Izak under his wing when Izak was just a 16-year-old at Fairview High School, teaching the teenager everything he knew about audio engineering and recording. Wasinger helped Izak and his brother Hein record their first album as Orange Free State (a reference to the brothers’ native South Africa). Over the years, Izak and Wasinger have kept in contact as Izak has built his career in the recording industry. Today, at just 27, Izak is at the helm of his own record company, Vohnic Music in Nashville, Tennessee, with a small but growing stable of artists. In building his business, Izak watched trends in streaming music, looking for the secret of making money in this day and age. According to Wasinger, Izak seems to have found at least part of the magic formula: instrumental music.

So around November of last year, Izak called his mentor to see if he’d be interested in laying down some instrumental tracks for the Vohnic Music label.

Tom Wasinger in his home studio. Susan France

“And I thought, wow, yeah,” Wasinger says. “Because I have material that I wrote when I was his age and younger, solo guitar stuff, stuff I’d never really recorded and released.”

And the result is the seven-track A Mended Soul. Though instrumental, the songs are memorable, catchy and narrative in their wordless way. A song without a hook, Wasinger says, is like a body with no spine.

And Wasinger knows a thing or two about how to make a song stand on its own two feet, so to speak. He’s won three Grammys for his work as a producer of Native American music. And while that first win was “exhilarating,” it turned into “a kind of psychological crisis.”

“Since we were talking about psychology earlier, I guess we’ll continue,” Wasinger says, placing a dusty Grammy in my hands.

“So Carl Jung had a little saying he coined, ‘You’ve suffered a success.’ Often people would come into his office just a mess and really struggling psychologically and he would say, ‘Have you had any great accolade or great success in business?’ And he said nine times out of 10 they would say, ‘How did you know?’ He saw the human psyche that operates in a compensatory fashion. It’s sort of the Buddhist analogy of yin and yang.” In other words, the psyche compensates for a huge high by sending you careening into an equally epic low.

“So I even knew about this,” Wasinger says. “I’d read about the phenomenon and it didn’t stop it from happening to me. My family almost threw me out. Every morning I woke up and the world was just black. I’m sure that some deep, deep piece of me said, ‘If I’m ever standing on a stage accepting one of those I will have arrived.’ And of course it arrives in a box and there it is and then OK, this is cool. And you’re the same jerk ball you’ve always been. You still get crabby and say mean things to the people you love and it doesn’t change you at your core and so it was, I think, the realization of the fact that no, this is not where it stops.”

But time did its thing and Wasinger found his way into the light and back on that stage accepting another Grammy a few years later. His family and friends finally had the party Wasinger wouldn’t let them throw when he won his first Grammy. He shows a picture of himself at the party — young and smiling — with the two Grammys hanging from a yoke over his neck; the burden of success.   

At 61, Wasinger is running out of room on his studio walls to hang more guitars, and he’s collected just about everything he feels like he needs in his musical toolbox. He’s working on a Chopin piece on the piano, says it’s the hardest thing he’s ever tried to learn, but it keeps his brain “alive.”

And that’s what music is for Wasinger: It’s life. It’s religion.

“I’m not involved in organized religion in any way, but for me, religion is tied into music. Jung used to say, when people would come in who were really having a psychological crisis, he would often ask, ‘What religion were you raised in?’ He would tell them to go back to church and embrace this set of spiritual ideas. It would be kind of like they were drowning in the ocean and suddenly they had a boat. It would give them a sort of structure to reorient them to the world. And so my structure, my religion, is music.”

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