alt-country

What Is Work, Anyway?

Songwriting (or creating art of any kind) is an existential morass, especially if you’re a self-employed workaholic who really likes checking things off their To Do List.

It’s excruciatingly hard to sit still for an indeterminate amount of time trying to mine your brain for random musical ideas that will hopefully be halfway decent. The ticker tape running in the background goes something like this: “How long will this take/will this even work/shouldn’t I be updating the website/booking gigs/buying groceries/paying bills/doing laundry/working on music for other projects/spending time with friends and family/is this just a waste of time anyway…” On and on and on, in the sort of piercing tones akin to a red squirrel sitting in a tree hollering at the cat that just walked by. (If you’ve never heard a red squirrel, that incessant chattering could cut glass.) To sit still and devote time to a pursuit that may actually yield nothing of immediate use is almost a form of torture.

Being raised on a farm, I grew up equating work with tangible results. Put in X amount of hours = produce X amount of product. That product usually pays the bills, or is very tasty, or both. The only things that could get in the way were acts of nature or breakdowns. You certainly didn’t “work” by sitting very still and staring into space for long periods of time. Work was a form of self worth. There’s no higher compliment than “They’re a good worker.” Work can also be a form of expression or communication (as in working hard for someone is a way to show how much you care, even if you’re not good at using your words for that purpose).

Given that a lot of my creative brain involves wrestling with self doubt, it’s extra difficult for me at least to see what I’m doing as “work” (which of course it is) without any immediate gratification. If I’m not producing something tangible, am I really working? And by that definition of work = self worth, am I even doing something worthwhile? Or am I just a lazy, day-dreaming slacker? And once those questions start rolling, it’s down the squirrel hole I go, as the actual songwriting itself poses a whole new set of terribly unhelpful philosophical questions: Is this melody good? Am I committed to these chords? Are these REALLY the lyrics I want? Am I saying what I mean to say? What do I mean to say anyway? Is what I mean to say even worth saying? I mean, is anything worth saying? Is anything worth anything? What IS anything, anyway?

You’d think at this point I wouldn’t be surprised to remember that songwriting is, hard. Hard work. But either I forget or I’m a very slow learner. Or maybe I can’t retain that knowledge and confidence in the “process” over the insane high pitched scrabblings of the deranged squirrels doing laps around my brain.

“If you love what you do you’ll never work a day in your life.” Um, yeah, not so much. (Doesn’t mean we don’t love what we do! Just means the fella that came up with that pithy saying must not have been in the arts. Or agriculture.)

Ok, enough said. BACK TO WORK!

Cows Don't Float. Neither Do People.

"Houston: We Feel Your Pain. Aug 29, 2011." Those were the words on the lighted sign outside the Rotterdam Junction, NY fire department as I drove from my family's farm in the Mohawk Valley back to my home in the Hudson Valley. From one valley to another. 6 years ago a friend of the family, a fellow farmer, the patriarch of a farm family in the Schoharie and Mohawk Valleys, lost his life driving through standing water to inspect his fields flooded by Hurricane Irene. 6 years ago my brother came home with a look on his face I'll never forget. He spent the day pulling dead cows out of flooded barns. Irene wasn't even a hurricane by the time it got around to knocking on the Northeast's door. That wording didn't matter to the folks in upstate NY, in VT, NH... We were devastated. Six years later you can still see the scars, if you know where to look. And now, the scale of what's happening down south is almost unfathomable, even for those of us who've seen a bit of it before.

This week we announced that Rootstock 2017 will take place on October 1st, right down by the river in Beacon. I've never been prouder of the lineup: this time around, Daisycutter will be joined by The Gibson Brothers, Sloan Wainwright, and The Shockenaw Mountain Boys. I'm honored and humbled to be sharing the stage with such company. The money that we raise will go towards establishing an emergency relief fund for local farmers, to help them keep going in the immediate wake of natural disasters. However, farmers are one big community, joined by our commitment to the land, to growing and feeding our neighbors, and by the soil in our veins. The Northeast farming community knows firsthand the pain and suffering our sisters and brothers in Texas are going through, and our hearts are breaking with them. So in support and solidarity with our fellow farmers in Texas, we're donating at least 10% of this year's net proceeds from the Rootstock festival to flood relief and recovery efforts for Texas farmers. You can get the full details over at www.rootstockfest.org

You can download the song I wrote post-Irene, West of Eden, for free here at Bandcamp. We're also donating all our proceeds from album downloads to Red Cross relief efforts in Texas.


Hang in there, Houston. We know how you feel- and we know how tough farmers (and Texans) are. We're with you, and sending you all our love and support.

West of Eden
- Sara Milonovich c. 2012 (ASCAP)

Driving, dodging the deer and the drunks
Past foundations left in the floodplain so long
Still there waiting where the water put them down
It is just flotsam? Or one more farm gone?

Who do you blame? The corps of engineers?
Or the wind and the rain, the way that they came out of nowhere?
Quench the thirsty downtown- we’ll never know the reason
They left us here West of Eden waiting to drown

Remember the fields in afternoons of amber
Now they’re buried in brown, and I feel like a foreignlander
Not anymore use– just a helpless bystander
Got to stand up for something, better be your neighbor

Neon eye’s focused on wildfires now
Long since forgotten the lead lining inside the clouds
Nothing left to do but wear it with pride as a shroud
It's a bitter drink, just swallow it down

Chorus

The grass has grown up to hide the worst of the scars
The money’s dried up with the mud in the yard
We sang “goodnight” but we’re still waiting for the stars
Could have cut out and run, but we just give up too hard

Chorus
We’re still here West of Eden, waiting to drown.

The Smell of Cow Manure Makes Me Homesick (Life on the Road)

The Smell of Cow Manure Makes Me Homesick (AKA Life on the Road)

"Wow, sounds like you had an AMAZING vacation." I've just run into a friend at the coffee shop and his offhanded comment (echoed by everyone from family members to total strangers) has me torn between bemusement and laughter. Having just come back from a 9 day ("Thunder run") tour of the Netherlands and Germany, I thought it would be a good time to write about what touring (here at home or abroad) is most often like, in my experience. Including (especially) the things that don't make Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter.

THE CLIFF NOTES VERSION:

If you want to simulate how it feels physically, just stay up for at least 24 hours, sit in a really uncomfortable chair for enough time that your back aches and various limbs fall asleep, then borrow a car you've never driven, switch your GPS to a foreign language, and use it to navigate to a place several hours away in a town where you don't know anyone, and try to do your work as usual, preferably with some element of public speaking in there. Eat and drink something you don't usually, then try to sleep in an unfamiliar place. Now get up 2-3 hours earlier than normal and lather, rinse, repeat for at least a week, probably two to three weeks if you can spare it. If 36 hours is all you've got, then just throw a small bucket of cash out the window of that borrowed car, and head home.

THE UP: It can be an inspiring, transformative experience.

Although you don't often have the time to see all the museums, restaurants, cultural attractions and other tourist-type things you'd see on an actual vacation, you do get to hang out with the people who actually live and work in the cities and towns you're playing in- the quickest, easiest way to get a real insider's perspective into what life in those areas is like. Want to know where the music stores, record shops, bookstores, coffee shops, farmers' markets, cool bars are? Easy.

Unexpected experiences can pop up out of nowhere and make your day. An impromptu bike ride to a mill that Van Gogh painted? A hike to a beautiful overlook in the Alps? Finding that cool little farm stand with the local cheeses and smoked salmon just off the Northern CA coast? Spontaneous happenings can easily become highlights of the trip.

It's also really special (domestically or internationally) to get to share your art with interested audiences who may not have known about you before. It can be incredibly rewarding to connect, make new friends, and experience your art through a completely fresh (sometimes unexpected) perspective. This is probably the biggest reason why we do it.

It's a truly mind-broadening experience. Seeing firsthand different lifestyles, different viewpoints, different ways of doing and looking at things, without a comfort zone to fall back on can do incredible things for your empathy, humanity, and imagination. When you're in one place for a while, it's easy to assume that there's only one or two ways to do or look at things. "Get out of Dodge" for a bit, and that gets totally upended. It's cross-ventilation for the mind. I always come back feeling more creative, more nimble, more flexible in my thinking and doing and being.  

THE DOWN: It's physically and mentally really, really hard.

You're exhausted the majority of the time. Most of us are familiar with what a drag jet lag is, but trying to be functional without any recovery time is its own form of hell. Most of the time, you'll arrive and have a show the same night. So you'll hit the ground running that night, then get up and do it again the next day, and the next... At some point jet lag will switch to garden-variety tiredness, but it takes an experienced connoisseur of exhaustion to detect the subtle change. You also spend a lot of time sitting on your bum, in cars, planes, trains etc. Your legs will fall asleep and your butt will become very tired, just like the rest of you.

You probably won't get to see those museums, hip restaurants, galleries, spas, natural, or cultural attractions. You just won't have the time. Most days will either be gig days or travel days. Days off are to be avoided if at all possible, because any day you're not playing, you're losing money. (Sometimes there are exceptions, and I always try to add a few days on to the end of a tour to get to see some of those things I wouldn't have the opportunity to see otherwise.)

Speaking of money, you probably won't make much. Sometimes you'll be in the black, sometimes you'll be in the red, sometimes you'll break even. The overhead required to make it happen in the first place can be overwhelming and take a long time to recoup. Just Google some airfares (either domestic or international) and then multiply by the number of band members you'd like to bring. Add in a car rental, throw in for gas, tolls, lodging on nights the venue doesn't provide a place to stay, meals, and other unexpected expenses, like gear repair, socks, or your 37th replacement iPhone charger.

The weirdest things will make you weep. (Mostly because of the exhaustion- it's not lost on us that sleep deprivation is an interrogation tactic.) For me, it's the smell of cow manure. Or new-mown hay. This puts me in a minority, I know, but whenever we're in farm country, look out. (City-dwellers have other triggers that I know far less about. They always seem to have something to do with the smell of rain on asphalt.) Other weird things will make you laugh. It's trippy.

THE CONCLUSION (IF THERE REALLY IS ONE):

In short (or long), this is what it's like, much of the time. We generally only post the really cool stuff on social media- the awe-inspiring views, the fabulous dinners, the cool venues. Because nobody really wants to see half the band asleep and drooling in the back of the van, or hauling gear up several flights of hotel stairs (no elevator!) at 2 am, or the tiny bed in a hostel in the middle of nowhere where you hit your head on the sloped ceiling in the middle of the night, or the hours you sat in traffic, or the piles of dirty laundry...

Touring is an alternate reality, an enhanced state brought on by completely uprooting yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally. It's strange, inspiring, rewarding, exhausting, exciting, boring, and in the end can serve as a mental brush fire of sorts, forcing you to focus on things that might not be possible in the tedium of everyday. This can be a very useful thing, and I recommend that everyone try it, if possible. It's hard, and you might not come home with a lot of financial reward to show for it. (It's also not for everyone, and for those with small children, I can't even fathom how you do it!) But you get to share art with new friends in new places, and although the road is harder now than it's ever been, there are still a bunch of us crazy fools out there doing it. Maybe we'll be coming to your town soon. Can we do some laundry?