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Devoted musician overcomes struggles to pursue passion

Michelle Ma

One quiet spring morning, a 29-year-old senior enters the chapel. Colorful tattoos adorn both biceps: a splash of foliage wreathed with musical notes, a pair of vivid, stylized songbirds. A single leaf decorates her right scapula. But her eyes are the most striking thing about her: electric and blue.

There’s an old piano in the chapel, black and chipped, with yellowing keys, but serviceable. Sunlight pours in through the skylight and illuminates the sycamores outside. She sits, straightening her skirt, and starts plinking the keys one-handed. But her voice is her real instrument. When Vanessa Beggs sings, nothing else matters. When she sings, “You’re all right,” everything really is going to be all right.

“What I thought right away was that she had a fantastic voice,” said Marchant Professor in Music Fred Frith. “What I also thought – which is less normal, because a lot of people come here with fantastic voices – was that she had a fantastic stage presence.”

Beggs is humble about her skill; she introduced her project at the 6 Sound on April 13 as still being incomplete: “I don’t know them very well yet,” she said, ducking her head, abashed. Put an instrument in her hands, and everything changes: she closes her eyes, she becomes absorbed, she becomes the music.

Beggs has always been a performer. As a child, she dressed up, danced and sang in front of the mirror; at elementary school, she pranced on benches and asked the other children if they would come witness her performance by the monkey bars.

Other than music, however, Beggs was generally a poor student. Perhaps as the result of an undiagnosed learning disorder, she always felt overwhelmed.

She attended Diablo Valley College and several other community colleges, but never transferred those credits anywhere. What she wanted to do was make music, and what she did was work low-paying jobs that gave her the time and money to pursue it. She worked as a nanny, at a bank, as a receptionist, and at a bakery – and she was always singing.

“It was always the same thing,” she says. “Everywhere I worked, everyone knew I was a musician. I pretty much had sung or performed for everyone at work.”

When she worked as a receptionist, her desk was littered with scraps of lyrics, and she tried to avoid being caught hunched over the phone, whispering a melody into her answering machine. Typical musician behavior, she says.

“Music was always there, even if I didn’t have the majority of the day to work on it,” she said.

Then, in her late 20s, Beggs hit a critical point.

“I realized, I’m not becoming a professional musician,” Beggs recalls. “Am I gonna give up and get a ‘real job?'”

She didn’t have a lot of motivation, nor did she want to move to Los Angeles and join in schmoozing with producers in an attempt to be “discovered.”

When she enrolled in a jazz class in Berkeley, one of her classmates casually mentioned that she had applied to Mills College, which had a great experimental music program. Beggs decided to apply as well, though she didn’t think Mills would accept her. Now she is the first person in her family to have a degree.

“One of the best things I ever did,” says Beggs. “I feel like it saved me.”

Beggs was filled with insecurities at first. She was older than many of the other students. She was expected to play with students with prior musical training. Beggs didn’t even know how to read music, and the only instrument she knew how to play was guitar, which she taught herself.

But now, Beggs plays the guitar, piano, a little bit of bass, and is currently learning the drums. She won a music award on April 23.

Then, last spring, Beggs had another crisis.

Always prone to extreme mood swings, Beggs experienced an extreme “up” during the fall semester that plummeted into a deep “low” at the beginning of winter break, when she broke up with her girlfriend. The timing was poor; she was unable to see her regular counselor at Mills and without classes there simply wasn’t enough for her to do. So instead, she painted, drank, and binged on junk food. Sometimes she simply sat on the kitchen floor for hours, unable to motivate herself to move. This continued even after classes started.

During the third week, she had a panic attack while waiting for her counselor. She told her counselor: “I wish I could just go somewhere and be safe and be helped.” That day, she was checked into Alta Bates Herrick Hospital, their psychiatric ward. There, she was free of decisions, depression, and insecurities. Her room was a mothering cocoon. It was safe, and it was easy.
Six days in, she started performing again.

“I knew it was time to leave the hospital when I was entertaining everyone,” Beggs says with a grin. Doctors and nurses brought their patients to listen to Beggs sing.

After 10 days, Beggs began to get restless. From within the great white incubator of the hospital room, she could see the world outside her window. It was so colorful out there. She could see the sun rise over the Berkeley Hills.

She saw that staying there was the easy way out; when Beggs checked out, it was a decision not to die: not a physical death, but an emotional and spiritual death.

Beggs is on medication now and still sees a psychiatrist. She still thinks of going back there, when things get hard, but “it would just be a cop-out.” “I know I’ve already got what I needed from that, and I don’t need to return.”

When she returned to Mills, her counselor treated her for bipolar disorder, a mental illness characterized by severe mood swings.

Now, Beggs lives in a house near Mills with her amiable, soft-spoken boyfriend/producer, Neal Skacel, and two cats, Olio and Pilar. Her partnership with Skacel is either coincidence or fate: he moved here from Pennsylvania in search of someone to produce, just as Beggs was thinking that she needed a producer.

They’ve converted the garage into a recording studio. There’s a drum set, two guitars, and eight microphones. Cables hang on a plywood board that covers the window, and foam is stapled to the ceiling to reduce reverberation. A small room off to the side, probably once used for storage or a tool shed, now holds speakers and recording equipment.

Does their constant playing bother the neighbors? No, though they’re not certain why; the drums can be heard all the way down the street.

Beggs and Skacel are working on recording an album now, which they hope to have out before Christmas. Then there will be a band name, a Web site, and a MySpace profile.

Her music ranges from the relatively simple “Chapel Songs” she performed at the 6 Sound to the hard rock “Song and Myself” with flamenco and multiple voices in the background to slower, more melancholy ballads.

“There’s some insecurity and doubt, but I’m getting closer to believing that I have to do this, it’s what I’m supposed to do,” she says. “I’m finally believing myself enough to follow through. Mills has been a huge part of that.”