The 5 Best Things I Gained From Outsourcing My Inspiration

"'Running In Borrowed Shoes' belongs to all of us."

In late 2015 I began working on a project. In the beginning, it was merely a nameless idea keeping me awake at night. It was persistent, and I could only take about a week of its pestering before I gave in and accepted the challenge. I had no idea what I was doing, but I leapt blindly into this project because somewhere in my subconscious I knew that it was the idea I'd been waiting for.

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To give you some context, I am a singer-songwriter and I've always been searching for more meaning in my work. For much of my career, I've felt like I have done more taking rather than giving — and I wanted to try to change that.

At the time, I was obsessed (and still am) with the work of Brandon Stanton — the creator of Humans of New York. If you are unfamiliar, Brandon stops strangers on the street to ask them meaningful questions. He transcribes their answers, and pairs them with a beautiful candid photograph he shares on his blog and social media. His work is phenomenal for many reasons: it creates community, it is visually stunning, and perhaps, most importantly, it personalizes everything. Something amazing happens when we see people up close and vulnerable. We see how much we have in common; evidence of our shared humanness. To quote one of my idols, Dr. Brené Brown, "People are hard to hate up close."

leah nobel running in borrowed shoes interviews
Courtesy: Leah Nobel

I started thinking about how I could activate that tender feeling of "shared humanness" in my songwriting. Truthfully, I was already doing it. That's sort of the job description of a songwriter. Write your truth and others will feel it, too — but I was only writing about life from my perspective. Even if I was writing fiction, it was always through my own lens. I also spent most of my time writing about romantic love. Although that's a major player in the human experience, I knew there was more connecting us than just broken hearts and the honeymoon phase. I wanted to write about a more well-rounded human experience and I knew that I needed more than just my perspective to do that. Taking a cue from Mr. Stanton, I decided to outsource my inspiration by interviewing people about their lives. I would explore other perspectives and write songs from that place. Soon my project had a title: Running In Borrowed Shoes.

I interviewed 100 people in the span of 11 months. Some were people I knew — but most were complete strangers. I didn't have any budget for this project, so I used social media and Skype to interview people across the country and around the world. I tried to get the widest landscape of human experience as possible by interviewing people of varying ages, races, religions, and socio-economic backgrounds. I transcribed my interviews and highlighted moments that called out to me. Part of the reason why I chose to interview 100 people was because I needed to interview enough people to witness recurring themes. I wrote 31 songs based on the themes and stories from my interviews that I then narrowed down to 10 for the record.  It's hard to put into words what Running In Borrowed Shoes has meant to me. It has been the best thing I have ever done with my time. It has been a teacher, a healer, and a mirror. If I had to sum it up, here are the five best things I gained from outsourcing my inspiration:

1. How to be a better listener.

One of the most cringe-worthy parts of working on Running In Borrowed Shoes was the process of listening to and transcribing my recorded interviews. Not only could I not stand the sound of my voice and my nervous ticks, but it was then that I learned that I wasn't that great of a listener. I became very aware of how often I interrupted people, tried to "fix" their problems by offering unsolicited advice or a silver lining, or tried to fill needed silence because I couldn't stand the awkwardness. Truthfully, I still do all of these things, but I am much more aware of them now. I learned that one of the biggest gifts you can give someone is simply just listening and saying, "I hear you."

leah nobel good enough running in borrowed shoes
The artwork for Nobel's single "Good Enough." Courtesy: Leah Nobel

2. I made some amazing friends.

Writing an album can be an isolating place if you're someone who prefers to create alone (like me). But thanks to my interviews, I made so many new friends during the making of this album that I never felt lonely. And because we skipped the small talk and went straight to sharing the raw, honest truth of our lives, the connection felt sustaining. Many people that I connected with deeply I wouldn't have met under any other circumstance. Take Jim for example — Jim is in his 80s and I am in my late 20s. I would have missed Jim completely if it weren't for my time spent interviewing people at the senior center. We have an incredible amount of interests in common and, since his interview, we try to get together every month or so for lunch or an adventure.

3. A crash course in empathy.

The more I learn about empathy, the more I believe practicing and endorsing it are the closest we will ever get to finding peace as humans. Empathy requires "emotional traveling." It needs you to step out of your bubble and into someone else's. It is different from simply recognizing someone's pain (sympathy) or wanting to ease it (compassion). It is becoming it. I transcribed all of my interviews in first person, as if everything that had happened in my interviewee's life had happened in my own. Instead of "Karen watched her Dad pass away," it was "I watched my dad pass away." Doing it that way was the only way Running In Borrowed Shoes could be credible. And although it was emotionally draining, it gave my songs the depth and honesty they needed.

leah nobel coffee sunday nyt running in borrowed shoes
The artwork for Nobel's single "Coffee Sunday NYT." Courtesy: Leah Nobel

4. Remembering the value of art.

I used to be concerned that Running In Borrowed Shoes didn't have a home in our current music climate. It's hard not to feel like the artistic bar has been lowered, and that "music for fun" is more appreciated than "music for thought." I think every type of music has a different currency. We need songs for entertainment, dancing, and soundtracks for ads. But we also need songs that make us think and provide healing. I write both types of music, and believe they both deserve a place at the table. The emotional reaction from both my interviewees and listeners reinvigorated my belief that music can transcend boundaries where nothing else can. And that every type of music has a value and a place, regardless of whether or not it garners the attention to match.

5. Shared ownership of my songs.

Before I began this project, the best feeling in the world for me was when someone told me they could relate to something I had written. Now the best feeling is sharing a song with someone that was inspired by their life. It is more satisfying to be a vessel for someone else's experiences or emotions than your own — much like how giving a gift is better than receiving one. Many people I interviewed did not have a creative outlet for their emotions — being able to give that to someone was incredible. Every time I sing these songs, I see the faces of the people that helped me build them. Running In Borrowed Shoes belongs to all of us.

You can follow Leah Nobel on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter. Running in Borrowed Shoes, Part 1 is available now, and you can listen to the new single "Steps" on Spotify and Apple Music.

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