Best of 2022 with Performers

On this special episode of Design Matters, we look back at the collective brilliance of the musicians and performers interviewed in 2022. Best of Design Matters 2022 with Jack White, Indigo Girls, Joan As Police Woman, Dylan Marron, and Chris Evert is live!


Jack White:

Yes, I would rather be making music, but my assumption was always, “Oh, we got to gig this week, but probably six months from now, we’re not going to get a gig anymore.” You know what I mean?

Amy Ray:

I hadn’t experienced the effect of singing with someone in harmony like next to you. That’s just a single person. Overtones are created and crazy things that feel so magical.

Speaker 3:

From the TED Audio Collective. This is Design Matters with Debbie Millman. For 18 years, Debbie Millman has been talking with designers and other creative people about what they do, how they got to be who they are, and what they’re thinking about and working on. On this episode to mark the end of 2022, we’re going to hear excerpts from some of the best interviews with performers that Debbie did in the past year.

Joan Wasser:

I literally was like, I will crush you if you fuck with me.

Chris Duffy:

Hi there. I’m Chris Duffy, host of How to Be a Better Human, another TED podcast. Most of us want to be better, but we’re not quite sure where to begin. And our show is here to help on our podcast, you’ll hear from guests and TED speakers who might just make you a better human from standing up for what you believe in to challenging conventional wisdom, embracing rejection, or finding gratitude every day. Our show is your guide to becoming a little less terrible. Not that you’re terrible right now, I think you’re great, but helping me become a little less terrible. And maybe you’ll pick up something along the way. You can find how to be a better human wherever you’re listening to this.

Debbie Millman:

Hello everyone. In 2022, I talked to so many people that to cap off the year, were doing a second episode of excerpts from some of my best episodes. This time I’m going to hear from some of the performers I interviewed, the people who get up and do their magical thing over and over again in front of an audience, musicians, actors, athletes. First up, Jack White. He was in the legendary rock band, the White Stripes and then performed with the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather. And on his own, he’s won many Grammy Awards and three of his albums have reached number one on the billboard charts. He joined me on Design Matters with Ben Jenkins to talk about his involvement with the sports brand Warstic. But before we got into that, I asked Jack about his transition from furniture upholsterer to Rockstar.

Jack White:

When I was 21, I opened my own upholstery shop and if I saw a 21-year-old kid do that now, I’d be like, “Oh my God, man, congratulations. High five, whatever. Do you need any help or whatever?” And I didn’t see a lot of that. I saw a lot of people kind of giving you this kind of look like, “Okay, whatever.” Thinking this is going to fail in a year or something. I don’t know what they were, intent, what they were conveying, but it wasn’t on the back, let’s put it that way.

Debbie Millman:

Well, it’s a little bit obscure-

Jack White:

It is kind of strange, yeah.

Debbie Millman:

… it’s a bit of an old school kind of discipline. My grandfather wasn’t upholsterer, by the way.

Jack White:

No way.

Debbie Millman:

Yes.

Jack White:

Wow.

Debbie Millman:

But it’s not something that I’ve ever heard anyone say, “When I grew up. I want to be an upholsterer.”

Jack White:

No, it’s very niche. And I definitely think that through going to the upholstery supply places when I was coming up, I pretty much determined that I was the only person under 45 doing that trade in the metropolitan Detroit area-

Debbie Millman:

I would say maybe even in the world.

Jack White:

It’s right, there’s not many.

Debbie Millman:

There’s not many.

Jack White:

Yeah.

Debbie Millman:

You began to write notes and poetry inside the furniture, kind of like a message in a bottle. Has anybody found any of the messages over the years and the poetry that you tucked inside the cushions? And…

Jack White:

We did. I don’t think anyone’s found any of my pieces of things that I’ve done in them, but two people found this work I did with Brian Muldoon, who I learned from. We did for his 30th anniversary of his shop, we did a 100 records that we made together. We were a band called The Upholsters, and we made a 100 records and he put them in a 100 pieces that year. So two of those have been found. People have notified us, they found those and they’re keeping them, and they didn’t publicize it or sell them or whatever.

Debbie Millman:

That’s incredible. It’s absolutely incredible. While working at the apprenticeship, you were also a drummer in two different bands. You were recording music in your bedroom as you mentioned, and you also became close friends with Megan White, who you married in 1996 and took her last name. Very forward thinking very ahead of your time. What made you decide to do that? Was it just because it was a cool color?

Jack White:

I don’t have anything to say about that category. Sorry.

Debbie Millman:

While you were doing that, you decided to open your own upholstery shop. As you mentioned, you named your business Third Man Upholstery.

Jack White:

Yes.

Debbie Millman:

The slogan you chose for your business was your, “Furniture’s Not Dead.” And you wrote some of your bills out in crayon. And I was wondering if that was a design decision or if it was more arbitrary, because that was the writing utensil you had nearby.

Jack White:

I see it now when I work on furniture pieces that they’re more sculpture than they are furniture, really. And it’s something that was happening to me in the final year of my upholstery shop, which it was becoming more art than it was a way of sustaining in a business and making money. I didn’t care about the money anymore. I was more interested in the fact that I was wearing a yellow shirt and a black pants with a white belt and delivering it and giving the bill in crayon. And I gotten obsessed with certain artists, and it was just one artist. I can’t remember his name, but he was making counterfeit money. He was hand drawing counterfeit bills one sided and his art was to go buy things with that money. And he wanted to buy the object and they would give him the object and the receipt and the change. And that was part of the artistic transaction. And I got obsessed with this and I started writing my bills in crayon and then all this stuff. And that’s not the way to make business in Detroit doing people’s furniture. It was very…

Debbie Millman:

Performance art.

Jack White:

Yeah, it was bizarre. And I knew I started to get too far. I got this incredible piece, which was a psychiatrist’s chair and couch. This was a great moment. I got to do this. And she didn’t like dealing with me by the end of it, I think it wasn’t serious and commercial enough for her. And I had a guy upstairs from my shop was building a furniture frame. She was the perfect marriage. This guy would build frames and she got another set made and took it to a different upholstery. And I knew I had blown it with this client. And yeah, I think, this is a sign. I think I’m too far into the art side of it, but I’m not selling my taking my pieces and selling that at art galleries either. It’s sort of like this is for nobody but me…

Debbie Millman:

By 1998, you were playing in bands, including The Hentchmen, the Go, Two-Star Tabernacle and the freshly minted White Stripes, which you started with Meg. Did you feel conflicted by pursuing these two very different paths, upholstery and music?

Jack White:

I just always assumed the music part was just going to be a small thing and not anything that would bring in any money or pay bills or be able to have it as a lifestyle or a choice, artistic choice. I always assume that the upholstery part was going to be how I paid the bills. So I didn’t take any of those any more seriously in that. Yes, I would rather be making music, or I’d rather be winking sculpture. But my assumption was always, “Oh, we got to a gig this week, but probably six months from now, we’re not going to get a gig anymore.” You know what I mean?

But those assumptions started to slowly prove wrong, and it became more and more that I was now being taken away from the shop and working on music and making records and the artwork that went into that and trying to get studio time and figure out a way to pay for that. And balancing those two. And yes, slowly the upholstery shop was fading away, but I remember people from the Garage Rock seeing the musicians and friends coming to hang out at my shop while I was working. They coincided for a while there.

Debbie Millman:

That was Jack White. The Indigo Girls hardly need to be introduced. Amy Ray and Emily Saliers were central to the folk-rock scene of the 1980s and ’90s, and they’ve been making award-winning music together ever since. I wanted to know about how and when they first started making music together.

Amy, I read that when you first started singing together, you thought your head was going to explode and realize that Emily was your musical soulmate.

Amy Ray:

Yeah, I think I did write that. Debbie, you love that. Don’t you like smiling so big.

Debbie Millman:

When I read and that you were inconsolable, I read that as well, that you were inconsolable.

Amy Ray:

I was like, this is it for me. I found my path. I don’t think Emily felt the same way, but that’s the way it is. And I was a year younger too, so I was very in all of the older person and Emily disputes this, but she was very popular in high school and maybe I have a romanticized vision, but she disputes that. But there was a certain magnetism already, and so I was like, “Whoa.” And the sound of harmony and someone that could just sing harmony to anything, it was a whole new thing for me because I’d been in church choir and chorus and my sister’s all, and my dad sings and everything. But I hadn’t experienced the effect of singing with someone in harmony next to you. That’s just a single person. It’s a very different sound than a choir. Because in the choir it’s like you could open your mouth and nothing comes out, and the choir can’t tell basically when it’s just you two, it’s like this. Overtones are created and crazy things that feel so magical.

So I think for me, I was like, “Wow, this is it. This is what I want to do. This is the person I’m going to sing with, and I want to do it all the time. And I didn’t care about making money. I was like, I just want to do this.” It wasn’t about fame or… I wasn’t thinking about the way you think now because, so things are so accessible with YouTube and people that become sort of instantly famous. And at the time we didn’t have any of that. So I was just, all I could think about was every day I want to do this, that was the important thing, right? Which I think is good because look at where we are. I think it’s good to have that perspective of something that you just love. That was my response. You’re accurate. I don’t know where you get your info, but it’s good.

Debbie Millman:

Emily, was it the same for you? I kind of got the sense as I was researching your histories together and separately that it wasn’t quite the same epiphany.

Amy Ray:

It’s okay.

Emily Saliers:

No, not the way Amy describes it for her, but what it was the most fun thing I was doing. And we became really good friends in high school. I mean, we used to quote lyrics to each other. We loved The Last Time I Saw Richard by Joni Mitchell, and we did remember Amy, we used to get so heavy into lyrics and…

Amy Ray:

Yeah, sign them in our yearbooks and so-

Emily Saliers:

Sign them in our yearbooks. And so we were best friends at that point in high school, very soul connected, but just playing those songs together was fun. We both picked songs that we liked to do and then we were really encouraged by our AP English teacher, Mr. Lloyd, Ellis Lloyd. And so he set us up with like, “Well, why don’t you learn some songs and you can play for the class.” But I have never in my life sort of Amy’s so in touch with what’s going on. And she has a vision for things, and she always knew what to play next and kind of what to do. And I mean, I’m not trying to be self-deprecating, but I’m a little bit head in the clouds just trying to figure out what’s going on around me. And so for me, it was just like, “Wow, this is really, really fun.” And Amy really propelled us in terms of the next steps to take. But I also, I wanted to be an English teacher.

Debbie Millman:

I know I wanted to talk about that.

Emily Saliers:

And then when I was 11, I was taking classical guitar and I was just into a different kind of music really until I became more co-rooted in the music that Amy was turning me onto. And then when we start, instead of learning a song by the Beatles or Carol King or James Taylor, we would learn a song by Everything But The Girl or maybe Lloyd Cole or something like that. And she just opened my world, but I was never a visionary with what I wanted to do with the rest of my life except this distant thing of being an English teacher. And then we went to different colleges at first, so it was like, “Okay, well, whatever happens, happens.”

Debbie Millman:

That was Amy Ray and Emily Saliers. Joan as Policewoman is the stage name of Joan Wasser. She took on that moniker in 2002, but many years before that, she met someone who would change her life.

Joan, in 1994, the musician Jeff Buckley shared a bill with The Dambuilders, and this was about a month before his debut album Grace came out. The two of you fell in love. Was it love at first sight?

Joan Wasser:

It’s so silly, but it was really mutual. What are you? I don’t even know what love at first sight means because definitely it was very romantic. Later that night after that show, we all went to a late-night eatery place, and this is an Iowa City and there’s a lot of sort of jockey guys around. And I had this crazy humongous hair, big black hair with a big white streak in the front, very cartoon character, very ’90s. And these guys were making fun of me, which whatever. I was so used to that. And Jeff, who was a very slight person, he was little, he went right up to them and said, “You wouldn’t know a woman if she smacks you in the face.” And I was like, “Okay, I love you.”

Debbie Millman:

And that’s what I was thinking.

Joan Wasser:

Yeah. But of course, I was also annoyed that this person thought that they had to defend me. I was like, “I should defend myself.”

Debbie Millman:

Interesting.

Joan Wasser:

Yes.

Debbie Millman:

Interesting.

Joan Wasser:

Now, I would’ve been like, “Oh, I don’t care about that.” But then it was, I literally was like, I will crush you if you fuck with me.

Debbie Millman:

Yeah, absolutely. I’m still like that.

Joan Wasser:

Yes. It was kind of scary. Yeah.

Debbie Millman:

When did you realize that you were going to be a couple?

Joan Wasser:

I mean, I think we both thought it that night again, then it’s payphones.

Debbie Millman:

Right, of course.

Joan Wasser:

Payphone.

Debbie Millman:

Yeah. There weren’t even faxes at that time.

Joan Wasser:

No. Yeah. And we are both touring, so we didn’t know where each other were on the… I mean, it was crazy, but yeah.

Debbie Millman:

It also sounds terribly romantic.

Joan Wasser:

It was terribly romantic. Yeah. We had both been told about each other before that night-

Debbie Millman:

So you’re also waiting for each other too.

Joan Wasser:

Well, my friend said, “Joan, I met this guy named Jeff Buckley.” And I was like, “Hold on, that’s a fake name.” And he was like, “Actually, I don’t think it is. I think it’s actually his given name.” And I was like, “I don’t believe it. Well, you guys are supposed to be together.” And I was like, I total eyeball roll. And I was like, “Okay, right.” And then I saw his name on the tour book that we carried around, and I was like, “Is that guy that Nathan told me about?” I was like, “Eh.” And then it was.

Debbie Millman:

What did you think of his music when you first heard it?

Joan Wasser:

So I mean, I heard it for the first time then because there was nothing was released or if it was, I had never heard it. Maybe that an EP was released, but it was actually he gave… Wow, I forgot that he gave me the EP that night. I’m not even sure that was released yet, anyways.

Debbie Millman:

Wow. He wanted to impress you.

Joan Wasser:

Oh, yes. Oh, he stared at me the entire time he did a show.

Debbie Millman:

Well, that’s not surprising, Joan. I’m staring at you the entire time now.

Joan Wasser:

Wait, but I’m staring at you too. It was very much he, we hit it off. And his music, I mean, I was both unbelievably impressed. He was an extraordinary guitar player. I don’t know. I mean, all he did was practice guitar his whole life. People know him as like a heartthrob. He was an absolute nerd in high school. He was not Jeff Buckley in high school. He was practicing. I was really impressed. And then I was also just like, “Man, whatever just a crooner.”

Debbie Millman:

Yeah.

Joan Wasser:

I was like, the voice, yeah.

Debbie Millman:

You were there as Grace was launched and now is considered one of the greatest albums of all time. What do you think of that now looking back on the release of the music then how it’s become so mythologized?

Joan Wasser:

Well, it was not a success then, and I mean, of course, people knew about it and people loved it and it got a lot of great reviews and some not. It was very different than anything else coming out, a refined voice and a very subtle string arrangement or something that is not what people were going for at that time. So he was really out of style in a certain way. Also, he was so young, he was young in age, but he was very, very young to be a person that was someone that was just practicing in his room and with his other, his bands in LA and stuff. And then all of a sudden, his label really pushed him as This is an incredible talent. And also look at how beautiful he is. He was horrified by that. He was horrified. So I remember when People Magazine shows him as part of their 50 most… Or whatever.

Debbie Millman:

50 most beautiful people in the world.

Joan Wasser:

He, I’ve never seen him more just appalled. We went around to every newsstand within a five-block radius of his apartment, lived in the East Village, and he bought every single one so that no one would see it.

Debbie Millman:

That was Joan Wasser, AKA Joan As Policewoman. Dylan Marron is an actor who is perhaps best known for playing Carlos on Welcome to the Night Vale podcast. He used to make snarky political videos for Seriously.TV, which eventually led to his podcast, Conversations with People Who Hate Me. I asked him how that project came about.

Dylan Marron:

I really felt like it was the 2016 election that was this big wake-up call for me that like, “Oh my God. Here, I was closely monitoring my political tweets as if they were bellwethers for the national election.” And then I learned like, “Oh, I don’t know this country at all.” And I feel like I’m still understanding what happened. And throughout my whole time at Seriously, while I was getting more followers and more likes, I was also getting more hate. And that’s just what happens when you make something big online. And so I started collecting all of those pieces of hate, be they comments or messages in a hate folder or what I called my hate folder all caps. And I think I kind of realized, I was like, “Oh, most of this is coming from conservative people.” I wonder if I actually don’t understand this country and maybe this hate folder is a better representation of this country than I thought.

So it was then that I was like, “I need to do something.” Because the reason I got into this game in the first place, even more important than my eyes going gaga for the metrics rolling in, was I wanted to say something, and I wanted to start conversations in the way that every single word allowed people to see a problem that they didn’t know was a problem before. I wanted to continue that work. Same with sitting in bathrooms with trans people from my earlier time at Seriously. Those were really successful ways of getting messages across. And that’s all I ever wanted to do, was to get those messages across in ways that would actually reach people. And I was wondering if the snarky takedown, the epic takedowns were not the way.

Debbie Millman:

When did you realize that you wanted, rather than take down the haters, that you actually wanted to dialogue with them and talk about the hate?

Dylan Marron:

Yeah. Well, I was at comedy shows when I was invited to do a comedy show. I would kind of scroll through a cross-section of the hate from pieces in the hate folder, and I would make jokes at their expense. And I posted one of those videos online and someone recognized himself in that video, and he’s chosen to go by the name Josh for all of our conversations. So Josh saw himself in the video and he messaged me, and he seemed really hurt by the fact that I was making fun of his message.

Debbie Millman:

Which was making fun of you.

Dylan Marron:

Yeah, making fun of me. He reached out and he was like, “Listen, you brought up some valid points there. I’m wondering if you want to talk.” And so he sent me his number. My mind was reeling in film when they do the zoom in shot while they’re pulling away. And that’s exactly what that moment felt like. And I was so terrified. But at the same time, I had been trying to figure out this way to create conversations with my work, and I was like, oh, that was the light bulb moment of like, oh, maybe these conversations are possible with the hate folder residents that I already have here. And so I took him up on his offer and I called him the next day. And that phone call was this beautiful moment of connection where I felt like all of these lofty goals that I have had of communicating with people was in fact possible by simply calling someone.

It was this very, very, very simple solution to this very complex problem. And we found that we had a lot in common. He was a senior in high school at the time, and he was being bullied, and I was bullied in high school too, right? And I think it’s important to note a lot of people are heart warmed by that common ground we found. And it’s like it is both true that we found that common ground and that common ground doesn’t absolve the hurtful thing he said to me. But we can accept and move forward with both. And I think I started to internalize that on this call. And the success of that call with Josh showed me that maybe this kind of communication was possible with more people who were in my hate folder.

Debbie Millman:

So you decided to start a show, which became a podcast titled Conversations with People Who Hate Me. This is also the title of your brand-new book, why the word hate?

Dylan Marron:

As I started recording the early episodes of Conversations with People Who Hate Me, it didn’t feel fair. And so many of the people, and what I always say is on Conversations with People Who Hate Me, I’m only speaking to people who I feel safe talking to. That means I’m not talking to people who are threatening to kill me. And so many of the people who I spoke to were expressing like, “Oh, I don’t hate you. I’m shocked that you would think that.” And some of them was like, “Well, you said a really cruel thing to me, so that’s why I think you hate me.” But then some of the people in the light of day, you’re like, I don’t know that this extreme word is fair to what you’ve written me. And so I had to kind of wrestle with how fair it was to label all of the negativity hate as I think many of us do.

Debbie Millman:

You also very intentionally did not use or describe the people you were speaking to as trolls. Talk about that decision.

Dylan Marron:

The word troll lulls us into a fantasy. It makes us think that it is this problem enacted by those people over there. They are the trolls, we are the good villagers, and they are this unsightly being that lives under a bridge that torments us. And I think what I kept finding in my conversations was that actually they weren’t these human anomalies. They were us. And it was also the structure of social media that enabled for all this hate to be sent to me, which is not to negate how ferociously, some of them, and I disagree on things, but in this space where the sharpest, zingiest, sometimes most hurtful take is what cuts through and a space where you mix that in, where everyone can feel so insignificant where I can message you and be like, “Oh, Debbie’s never going to see it. I’ll message anything I want.” Those two things, the accessibility to someone and the constant feeling of insignificance merged to make the hate messages being sent a sadly normal thing.

Debbie Millman:

Yes.

Dylan Marron:

That’s why I no longer felt comfortable using the word trolls.

Debbie Millman:

That was Dylan Marron. Chrissie Evert helped transform the world of women’s tennis. First as a champion player and then as a broadcaster on the court. She was famous for her tough mental game and always holding her composure. Here she explains how her dad helped her develop that ability as a very young player.

Chris Evert:

I was practicing, I think he just watched me in practice one day and I like banged my racket or threw it or something, which I did often in practice. And finally, he said to me, he goes, “Chrissie, you got to stay calm. You got to be cool out here.” He goes, “Because you don’t want to let your opponent’s see that you’re upset because they’ll have that aha moment. I’ve got her and they’ll gain more confidence.” And I became known as the poker face after that little Miss Poker face because I would not let my opponent see if I was discouraged or if I was not, was mad, if I was unhappy with the way I was playing. I just had that placid look on my face. And I think that won me a lot of points, a lot of matches, and a lot of Grand Slam titles. Just having that temperament, it really did work because whenever I played a girl and I saw that she was upset and banging her rack and discouraged, I knew I had her. So that’s really sending a message across the net to the other player.

Debbie Millman:

How were you able to manage that? I just was watching the new series, A League of Their Own, and that famous line, there’s no crying in baseball shows up again in this series, which made me really happy. I can’t control when I feel emotional just preparing for a show like today. I can’t imagine being on the world stage and having that kind of pressure and being able to control your emotions. And so few athletes actually can, was there techniques that you used to be able to do that?

Chris Evert:

Well, you said something very important. You said you maybe have tears before the show or whatever. Just during that performance that I’m like placid and I try to turn the emotions off because I’m a firm believer and I tell all my kids that I mentor in tennis, I tell them, when you get too emotional, the mind turns off.

Debbie Millman:

Yeah, I can relate to that.

Chris Evert:

You’re feeling, feeling, feeling but you’re really not thinking. And you have to think when you’re a tennis player. It came easy to me, and I say that not in a boastful way, but in a way that I wasn’t the naturally strong, quick athlete of a Martina Navratilova or a Steffi Graf or a Serena Williams. So I had to compensate and find other ways, other edges, and I realized at a young age that my temperament by being calm and cool on the court, by being present in every single point and trying to win every single point and having just a good mental being, strong mentally, I felt that that was the strength of my game. But trust me, in my personal life, I’m a wreck. So I mean…

Debbie Millman:

It makes me feel a little bit better.

Chris Evert:

Yeah. And then you raise kids, and you go, what the heck? What do I do now? My hands are up in the air all the time. So I think that that was the only place that I could control myself and I could be in control. So I find that the players that have a lot of talent are the ones that somehow don’t always make the right decisions in their game because they have too many choices, or maybe they’re a little too emotional. They’re players that are very talented physically, very talented mentally and very talented emotionally. But it’s great if you can have all three.

Debbie Millman:

And that was Chrissie Evert. Those were some of the performers I interviewed in 2022, to listen to the full interviews. You can scroll back on your podcast player or visit designmattersmedia.com. Next week I’ll be back with a brand-new episode, season 19 of Design Matters includes interviews with the legendary athlete, Megan Rapinoe, musician, King Princess, restaurateur, Will Guidara, scientist and writer, Alexandra Horowitz, tech innovator, Guy Kawasaki, artist, Dario Calmese, and many, many more. This is the 18th year I’ve been doing Design Matters, and I’d like to thank you for listening. And remember, we can talk about making a difference. We can make a difference, or we can do both. I’m Debbie Millman and I look forward to talking with you again soon.

Speaker 3:

(Singing)

Design Matters is produced for the TED Audio Collective by Curtis Fox Productions. The interviews are usually recorded at the Masters in Branding program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, the first and longest running branding program in the world. The editor-in-chief of Design Matters Media is Emily Wyland.

(Singing)