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!

The Most Important Thing Nobody Talks About

"Gotta keep it together when your friends come by
Always checking the weather but they wanna know why
Even birds of a feather find it hard to fly..." - Aimee Mann, "Goose Snow Cone"

I'm writing this in the midst of packing for a family vacation: the first time in almost nine years I'll get on a plane without my fiddle. It feels weird, like I'm constantly forgetting something, no matter how much I double check. I'm still not sure how I feel about the whole thing, although I'm sure I'll have a fantastic time once I get settled at my destination. The concept of vacation is a strange one among self-employed people, like artists such as myself. When you exist in a world absent many of the benefits of traditional employment (paid sick leave, paid vacation, health insurance, pensions etc.), you often find yourself spending every spare moment focused on work- doing the work you have, or hustling to get more. There's no such thing as "clocking out", shutting the door, and going home for the weekend. There's a constant fear that each phone call, each email that offers work could be the last. Of course there are perks to self employment: a greater degree of flexibility, creative and personal control, not feeling trapped with coworkers you don't get along with, doing work you truly love... I'd wager most of us find the sacrifices in other areas more than worth it in the long run. But there's no real "getting away from it all", and this brings up a darker topic, one that in discussions with other creatively-employed people, as well as my own experience, is quite taboo: depression.

When you work for yourself, especially as a freelancer (where you're not selling goods, but services, aka yourself), you are quite literally responsible for every aspect of your business; its ultimate success or failure. The consequences can often be immediate and direct, and frequently swerve between exhilarating and terrifying with a whiplash-like intensity. In a traditional office, if the accounting department messes up some bookkeeping, it may not directly affect those outside accounting. But if you're self employed, and you mess up some bookkeeping, it may result in the inability to pay your bills, with severe personal consequences. In a traditional employment scenario, if you're ill and unable to come to work for a day, you often can take paid sick leave without seeing any change in your paycheck. If I can't make it to a concert or recording session, however, I don't get paid. (Sometimes I can reschedule, but that can still leave the income side of that month a bit short.)  And the next tour, lesson, or record doesn't happen until someone sets it up: usually the artist (aka Me.) In effect, you're your own sales department. Now imagine being a salesperson where you're only paid if you make a sale, and where the rejection rate can be 80% or more. Combine that rejection rate with the fact that you're selling services that you personally offer, not inanimate goods, and it's not a far jump down the rabbit hole of taking things very personally. (Even when you know you shouldn't! Alas, the logical brain rarely wins in such scenarios.) It's a vulnerable situation to be in on a regular basis. And speaking of escaping the hard-ass boss, or annoying coworker, what is your recourse when those annoying, or abusive voices are the ones in your own head?

Perhaps the most unexpected part of this vicious spiral (Rejection---> Questioning of self-worth---> Fear/real time financial consequences---> Loneliness/Depression---> Lather---> Rinse---> Repeat...) is that no one talks about it. Depression in general is a tough, taboo subject to discuss, still frequently misunderstood as a defect of character, rather than the result of chemistry or circumstance. It's an isolating, lonely experience. What compounds this sense of isolation even further in the freelance life is that "salesperson" element: no one wants to sell or buy "damaged goods." So even when we chat with other artists, or fellow self-employed travelers, the majority of the time we put on a happy face, say we're "Good, busy, can't complain..." We don't want to be the "downer" that no one wants to hire. In short, while our traditionally employed friends may not be able to relate exactly, our comrades in our own industry know that we live and die by word of mouth. We don't want to let anyone see the whites of our eyes, lest the drought become permanent. Which leaves exactly no one left to talk about things with. But that internalizing of stress and fear only serves to feed those hungry, deranged squirrels chattering away in the dark recesses of our minds. Getting it out in the sunlight, remembering we're not alone, that we're not worthless, or unwanted, that we're actually quite brave in risking it all on a daily basis, that we can accomplish and have accomplished and will again accomplish things of worth and value- this is the antidote.

So if your freelance friend seems a bit withdrawn or down, let them know it's OK if they want to talk about it. Especially if you're a fellow independent worker, just having another voice to combat the loneliness can make such a difference, as you probably know by now from your own experience. So lend an ear, remind each other how tough it is, and how much courage it takes to keep putting yourself out there again and again. It helps. And if you don't have any experience with what your friend is going through, just letting them know you're there for them is all you need to do. Don't try to offer solutions, just listen. Sometimes a chance to talk, a hug, and shot of bourbon are all you need to go to bed knowing you can get up and try it all again the next day.

Then keep on keepin' on.

Observations on Being an Artist. And a Woman. At the Same Time. (NSFW)

Welcome to my blog, a collection of random outbursts, recollections, rants, and the odd recipe! Sit down, pull up a chair, and pour yourself a nice glass of single malt. Then pour me one too, please. Neat. OK, here we go...

<WARNING: language throughout parts of this opening salvo may not be suitable for work or children.>

As a lifelong artist (I started studying the craft of my instrument from the age of 4 and never looked back), image and identity are two concepts pretty deeply entwined with artistic endeavors and the definition of "success" in such (I put it in quotes because this is a pretty fluid and bullshit-filled concept particularly in the music world these days.) If you happen to be a woman and you're thinking, "Hmm, sounds familiar...", well, those two concepts are pretty insidiously anchored in society's take on what it means to be female as well.

When I met my childhood country music idol, Clint Black, years ago as a star-struck fan, he gave me some of the only truly excellent career advice I've gotten. "So, you want to be a professional musician?" he asked. "Yes", I said. "Then you better have a thick skin."

Go out into the world as an artist, and you will get reams of unsolicited advice about what material to play, how to dress, what to say, how to market your product, etc. Some of this will be constructive. Most of it will not.

Go out into the world as a female, and you will get reams of the same bullshit. Very little of this, too, will be constructive. Most is so quietly entrenched that you may not even notice until long after the fact- like those snappy comebacks that always come to you right after the offending person has walked away. Much of this sneaks by under the guise of that lurking bastard : "politeness." To be clear, I absolutely, unequivocally support treating each other as fellow human beings worthy of respect and empathy. To me, that is true politeness. But how many times have we as women been encouraged to not be too loud? To not speak up to ask questions? To not take the lead? To not take up too much space? To not take credit for our accomplishments? To not call out the "compliments" that are meant to demean, to possess, to belittle? To say "sorry" rather than "excuse me" as a sentence opener- when we haven't actually done anything to apologize for?

Go out into the world as a female artist and there's a perfect (shit)storm waiting for you to arrive so it can tell you all the ways you could be doing things "better." More "successfully." More "marketably." (This does not take into account the REALLY blatant sexism in music: the "you play as good as a guy" "compliments", or the assumption that you're just the girlfriend of the guitar player etc. That's for another blog!)

But here's the thing: the outside world does not have any justification to dictate what each person's narrative, identity, or experience is. Everyone's personal narrative is different. And if, as true artists, our personal experiences and narratives are what inform our art (as they should in honest art-making), then the only people truly qualified to comment on that are: OURSELVES. The rest of the world needs to just go off somewhere to shut up; whether it be a suggestion to "smile more" (on the street or on the stage), "advice" on what to wear, or more outwardly successful artists telling the up-and-comers what they ought to do. What worked for one person may have no bearing on another, and the business environment is changing so fast that in the words of investment pros themselves: "Past results do not guarantee future performance."

Here's a petty little example:

Why should I wear a sundress and cowboy boots when performing? They were never part of my personal narrative (except the boots, but only when I was actually working in a barn.) Why should they be now- apart from the fact that they look an awful lot like the "uniform" of the chick roots music singer these days. And that's my problem with it- the whole concept of "uniform." It means "sameness." And I'm even less comfortable with that notion that I am with actually wearing the damn dress. (I'm not all that comfortable in anything you can't hike in.) Now I'm not judging other people's fashion choices. It all comes down to the WHY. If you're wearing a dress and boots onstage because you like it and it makes you feel good, great! That's your narrative. If you're doing it because it's a thing that people who play that sort of music do... well, that's a little awkward. Same goes for the skimpy cocktail dresses and skirts and high heels. If you feel naturally happy in those clothes, excellent! (I'm quite jealous of my friends who do! Because they have way better balance in heels than I do.) But you can't pretend the dominant paradigm isn't one that encourages women to market themselves by appearing a certain way. It's a fine line between "hot girl next door" and "slut" and I don't think women are the ones drawing that line most of the time. And that's troubling.

Take enough daily bombardment of this conflicting (and unsolicited) input, and eventually your ability to tolerate it just plain short-circuits.

The day I was "mansplained" to about "artistic responsibility" from someone whose success was due far more to luck and connections than hard work and actual responsibility (after having watched that person abdicate and delegate much of said work and responsibility) was the day I ran out of fucks to give. Because that was when I realized that little gobshite actually had zero authority over the narrative of my life, my inspiration, and my trajectory as an artist. And that's when I realized that the main reason all this input always feels a bit "off", is because the issue here is with THEM, not with ME. THEY would prefer I smile more, or wear a short skirt, or write a certain type of song, or feel bad about myself if I choose not to.

So next time you run into a woman (in music or society at large), consider that perhaps she's not trying to be "cold" or "aloof" or "angry" or "bitchy." We're just out here doing our thing, trying to be authentically ourselves, and have simply run out of fucks to give.