I had no intention of becoming a performer, and yet under miraculous circumstances I was brought into the music industry fold. If divine powers hadn't intervened, I'd still be living in China working in some area of Sino-American comparative law.
One of my favorite albums in the world is Bruce Springsteen's 'Nebraska.' Each song has this very distinct character who has something profound to say.
I've moved around so much my whole life, and I've gotten so used to being the Other in situations - the foreigner, the outsider. The first time I've ever felt like there was no separation between me and the other elements was in music.
I sang in a reggae band. And then there was a soul band where I sang back-up vocals and some lead. And I was also in a women's a capella group. And I was in the gospel choir at school. Actually, I've always been in choirs. Or some kind of group. Just because I love singing so much. But I truthfully never thought of it as a career.
'Halo' I wrote with my grandpa in his nursing home. When I went to visit him, he'd often comment on my halo. But of course, I couldn't see. And he always - he had pictures of Jesus with these beautiful halos. And so I asked him if he'd write a song with me about Jesus' halo.
I was born in Evanston, Illinois. I spent my elementary and part of my junior high school years in a D.C. suburb. And then I spent my high school years in Minnesota. And then I spent my college years in Colorado. And then I spent some time living in China. And then I spent three years in Vermont before moving down to Nashville.
In some ways, in the U.S. we don't know how to be. I think in a lot of ways America is about liberation and about change and progressive human relations. And because of that, I feel like that we're confused about who we're supposed to be and what it is that's supposed to satisfy us and make us feel fulfilled.
My whole drive is to make sure that music is a common space where we search for beauty and share it. It needs to be louder than any conversation. That's where we have to go as a human race.
As a child, I went to peace and ERA marches on the back of my mom and grandmother. Through them I learned that I wanted to find a way to make the world a more kind, compassionate place.
When I first started playing the banjo and miraculously fell into a record deal in Nashville, TN, there was a period when I didn't go to China. It hurt. Like a pain in my gut... that pain you feel when you know it's time to connect with your parents or your God or your child or your past or your future... and you don't do it.
Whenever I visited China in the past, the relationships always felt superficial; there was no time where I felt those moments of conflict and delight that make you feel close to another person. But since I started touring there in 2004, I would always collaborate with local musicians, and that opened up a new level of intimacy.
I believe in the old, because it shows us where we come from - where our souls have risen from. And I believe in the new, because it gives us the opportunity to create who we are becoming.
I have a general sense of mission, and I intuitively know when something is influencing that mission. I think this is what I'm supposed to be doing. Doors keep opening. In the end, it's the best use of my skills. I've finally consented to the idea that I'm an artist.
I'm no ethnomusicologist. There is a connection between the five-note scale used both in traditional Chinese music and the blues, but I don't really understand it. All I know is, whenever I play with Chinese musicians, we seem to belong to the same musical gene pool.
In China, I realized that if you visit often enough and learn the language, you will be assimilated, but you'll still be kept at arm's length; you'll always be looked on as a foreigner.
In some ways, my most comfortable feeling has been that of being an outsider coming in, but over the years I've tired of that and I'm ready to feel at home. That's what music gives me: a feeling of absolute home.
I do see music as complete refuge. It's a universal home, complete common ground between everyone; it comes from a place that has no nation and no boundaries around it.