In May of 2016, during a long stretch of solo touring on the East Coast and the UK, I began to feel vulnerable and homesick. On this particular tour, I had a lot of time to reflect on the very act of touring in a way I hadn't before. These reflective, existential moments would happen in the backseat of our forest green Volkswagen, the tiniest car I had ever squished my body into. (Cars in the U.K. are very small, I learned.) Driving through the anonymous English countryside, I thought, “This makes one really wonder about purpose.” What was mine?
The idea occurred that I didn’t have to just wonder to myself. I could ask other queer, black, brown, nonbinary, and female performers about their own experiences with touring. Why not seek advice and wisdom from my contemporaries? Why not reaffirm my motivations behind why I choose to tour? In a society that values competitiveness and a greater music world that upholds normative notions of success, I hear a lot of folks in DIY talk about the “imposter syndrome” they experience when doing something new or innovative. The first tastes of touring, especially when touring on your own terms, can feel this way, like you aren’t worthy of the attention you are asking people to give you night after night.
As described through the perspectives highlighted here, tour can be a lot of work, risk and forethought-- and it can also be one of the most exhilarating and fulfilling experiences anyone could hope to have in life. Some folks will only pick up on the latter, which is a testament to the work we put in, but also only a fraction of the greater whole, speaking to the often invisible labor involved in touring.
Is touring harder or easier for others? Why do they keep doing it? Is quitting a real thought they have? Does it matter that you might just break even (emotionally, mentally, monetarily, whatever) while doing this shit? This is what I am always hoping to glean from speaking with other artists about their experiences on the road.
Being an active creative comes with a very real built-in risk. It's a life of constantly creating your own systems and work-flow, figuring out the means by which to manifest your passions, defending those said passions and, most importantly, learning as you go. There’s a big learning curve to touring, but we can learn so much from listening to each other.
Kristina is the front person for the Bay Area based band King Women and also makes solo music under the guise Miserable. She just recently relocated to New York, months after King Women finished a US tour with Wax Idols in June 2016. The tour itself had a somewhat tumultuous start, as it first involved dropping off a tour with Pentagram for reasons both bands talked about recently. Here Kristina talks about touring.
Are there things you do or have thought about doing to prepare yourself mentally for a tour? I usually prepare myself for tour by spending a lot of time alone before we leave. I'm hardly able to squeeze in alone time while on tour unless I'm wandering around after sound check. I'm an introvert so I need a lot of personal space.
From your experience, what have been the most mentally and emotionally straining parts of touring? Touring can be so physically exhausting. So much driving, loading heavy gear in and out, on top of performing which takes everything out of me. After I play I always go straight to the merch booth so I can shake hands with everyone who came to the show. I give everything I have every single night. We get out of the venue really late and then have to be up really early the next day to make sound check on time. It's all really draining.
Do the difficult parts of touring or playing shows get easier the more you experience them? I don't think they get easier. I guess it's more about finding a flow that works for you.... or hiring a crew.
What does self-care look like on tour? Very good question. I try to get up before everyone else toand take a really hot shower, process my experiences from the previous night. Get some alone time. Take all of my vitamins. Listen to some music. Journal. Journaling helps me so much. It's hard to stay in touch with reality on tour. Self-care is so important. Oh, WATER. Lots of it.
Have you ever experienced times where you’ve felt way too overwhelmed to finish a tour or thought about leaving a tour early? I've most def have wanted to quit but I wouldn't do so unless I absolutely had to. I honestly love being on tour. Feels more comfortable than home for me.
What is it about touring, playing shows and participating in creating that makes you continue doing it even when the monetary and resource compensation often does not meet the time and expenditures? I love helping people, connecting with people, and encouraging them. I always get in really interesting conversations with fans after shows. I love to travel. I love to perform and it's all so much fun. It's always worth it whether we are making money or not.
Have you been influenced/impressed with folks you’ve toured with before and their ability to handle an array of dynamics? What have you specifically learned and adopted for yourself from your peers? Touring with Sannhet was awesome. They are very professional and I appreciated that. I've learned a lot from Hether of Wax Idols as well. One of the main things I've adopted from her is always performing the same whether there are 5 or 500 people watching you.
What does taking care of others look like on tour? Another very good question! I usually check in with my fellow bandmates throughout the day. Give them hugs and ask them how they are doing or if they need anything. We've had to learn how to communicate and read each other's’ needs. It's very important to know when someone needs space.
Abdu is an extremely energetic, outspoken and moving Baltimore rapper/performer who ascends Baltimore Club to new heights and potentials. I first saw Abdu perform at an Impose Magazine festival in the Summer of 2015 and it was full of life and affirmations of black queerness and hope. Here, Abdu talks about how to maintain on long tours and checking in with your body.
Are there things you do or have thought about doing to prepare yourself mentally for a tour? To mentally prepare for tour for me actually starts with physical conditioning. Trying to eat healthy, working out, and sleeping as much as possible. It helps me physically be together for tour and helps me sustain good mental health while on tour.
From your experience, what have been the most mentally and emotionally straining parts of touring? I am such an executive saint on tour. LOL. I don't turn up, I am not that party musician, I go straight to sleep after the show is over. So sometimes depending who is hosting, or who I am touring with, I get annoyed when people don't understand that I need that time and space after performing. Me getting real silent or stealth after a show is part of my self care upkeep. Performing for me is more of a public service, as if I am a preacher, versus an expressive platform for my ego. I really become vulnerable and give it my all when I perform, so I like to go back to my cave, immediately after I am done.
Do the difficult parts of touring or playing shows get easier the more you experience them? Touring definitely gets easier the more you do it. When you first start touring, your nervous system doesn't get WTF you are going through, because touring is obviously [far different] from normal day to day living. The more you do it, the more your body can get familiar with the process.
What does self-care look like on tour? Self care for touring is getting as much sleep as possible, taking vitamins/herbal supplements, eating what you feel but trying to eat right, and chilling as much as you can.
Have you ever experienced times where you’ve felt way too overwhelmed to finish a tour or thought about leaving a tour early? OMG fuck yea, I’ve thought about not finishing a tour but I never do it. At the end of your tour, you get even more anxious and shit, so you just feel like you want to be home in your own bed. But I would never quit a tour unless it's a serious reason for it.
What is it about touring, playing shows and participating in DIY that makes you continue doing it even when the monetary and resource compensation often does not meet the time and expenditures? I have to do it. I have to perform. I have to tour. And not because it comes with the job of being a musician but literally because my soul needs performance. It's actually a big component of my health and staying healthy. I was born for this and need to do this service for the world in order to feel purposeful.
Have you been influenced/impressed with folks you’ve toured with before and their ability to handle an array of dynamics? What have you specifically learned and adopted for yourself from your peers? All the people I've toured with have definitely impressed me and have had big influence on me as a musician and independent artists. I love to see how serious people are about their work, making me feel like I am not the only one who loves this more than anything. They've helped me understand my self worth, and how to handle venues, promoters, etc. I've definitely learned a lot. What I learned the most was to be assertive about your needs with people while you're on tour or you are going to be miserable and disappointed.
What does taking care of others look like on tour? I love this question because it is very important to not be selfish and empathetic with your touring mates. Making sure you have clear communication with folk and making sure everyone eats and sleeps well is very important as far as taking care of others.
Ashe is a New Orleans DJ originally from Connecticut. I first met her at the punk fest Smash it Dead in 2014, when she played in a three piece grindcore band called Pyka. Last year, Ashe toured with Abdu Ali and talks about that, eating soup and tour essentials.
Are there things you do or have thought about doing to prepare yourself mentally for a tour? I slow down on listening to new music, because I know I’m gonna have hours in a car feeling restless or bored. Recently I had a short tour where I listened to basically all the Silverstein albums twice through. (Except for Short Songs, like ew. Actually the Orchid cover is cool.) I also get super excited when someone has a tape player because one, you can play your iPod through there, and two, it’s a great way to listen to punk tapes loud. (If you’re on a punk tour or with people that like hardcore or whatever.) Even with friends that like a lot of the same music I do, it can feel super rude to have someone in your living room and be like, hang on, put on some blasting goons and obliterate the conversation.
From your experience, what have been the most mentally and emotionally straining parts of touring? I miss my own bed and the ability to opt out of partying. Sometimes I want to crash after a show and that’s hard when there’s lots of people screaming next to the couch you’re trying to sleep on. When I’m at home I can mostly control who I interact with (queers, femmes, other trans women, etc). On tour, especially for punk stuff, I feel like I just get inundated with assholes who either get creepy or just excited about the “girls that grind” factor. I miss my friends < 3
Do the difficult parts of touring or playing shows get easier the more you experience them? Yes! I learn to take space, like breaking away from the band/other people even if we’re doing well together, just to have some personal space. Another thing that makes touring easier is sharing a project. I think I’ve seen as a tour hanger-on and as someone involved in a multi-project tour it can be easier to resolve stuff when you share a more obviously common goal.
What does self-care look like on tour? Plenty of soup! Bringing moisturizer! Calling your partner/friends/whoever as many times as you need! And also being able to say, I can’t text right now I’ve got to be present for whatever’s happening. Also femme stuff. If you have extra money, make your band get their nails done. Also see what your friends need. Is their health okay? Are there resources they’re missing at the moment? Especially if they don’t see themselves in the spaces you are touring. Tour involves levels of labor that people of color, women, poor people, femmes, and disabled people experience that you might never have thought of. Try to be aware of that and proactive in checking in with people.
Have you ever experienced times where you’ve felt way too overwhelmed to finish a tour or thought about leaving a tour early? Not yet! I’ve definitely been in a space where I was counting down the days or shows left, but so far I’ve been pretty confident about staying on.
What is it about touring, playing shows and participating in DIY that makes you continue doing it even when the monetary and resource compensation often does not meet the time and expenditures? Playing music is pretty much the most fun thing I can think of. It makes me feel alive and engaged, I love the chance to find other trans women and femmes who share the same music interests as me, and I love the opportunity to share a close, extended moment with friends. My band Cicada’s touring in the fall and I literally cannot wait.
Have you been influenced/impressed with folks you’ve toured with before and their ability to handle an array of dynamics? What have you specifically learned and adopted for yourself from your peers? Abdu Ali does an awesome job taking care of his body! We’ve toured together twice now, and he does tea, honey, vitamins… Travel is stressful on a number of levels and he is an inspiration for taking care of myself. I remember there being a little ~drama~ when I was touring with Pyka… Mike (who plays drums) told me to be direct about what I was feeling and not let resentment build. Taking his advice made the situation so much more comfortable and I’m grateful for his insights!
Maria is one half of the metal duo Ragana, who got their start in Olympia, WA and is now based out of Oakland, CA. Maria has been in and around music scenes since she was twelve and I first met her while on tour in Olympia while she was living at a show house called Grandma’s House. Later I booked a show for her solo project, Minnow, in San Jose, CA back in 2013. Here Maria talks about how long it can take to get into the groove of touring, how playing for strangers every night can be draining, and the idea of purpose.
Are there things you do or have thought about doing to prepare yourself mentally for a tour? Not really! I think after all the years of touring I’m finally starting to think about it. But in the past it's usually just a shit show of me throwing myself into a van with some clothes just hoping everything goes well! For the next few tours though that I am planning I am starting to think about ways to prepare myself, I think it's important for me to be honest with myself about where I’m at emotionally and how that will affect other people. And Physically! I think getting myself to be in a good place physically is always very important for my mental state because being on tour really really challenges your physical state which challenges your mental state.
From your experience, what have been the most mentally and emotionally straining parts of touring? Everything! Tour is a fucking blast. It can literally be the best thing you’ll ever do and it can also be total hell. Being away from everything you find comforting can be really hard, especially if you're playing your music to strangers every night, and start to feel that insecurity creeping in that tells you your music is worthless and it doesn't matter. You can start to feel crazy that you have to just keep going, that you can’t just go home and take a break. I have a lot of problems with my physical body, on top of mentally. And I’ve had really hard times touring with physical issues, it makes touring close to impossible because you have to talk to so many different people and perform and sleep in weird places and you feel so much pressure to have fun and if you're physically uncomfortable you can feel really isolated and stuck. I get really depressed when I feel like my physical state is holding me back.
Do the difficult parts of touring or playing shows get easier the more you experience them? Yes!...and no… I've been playing shows and touring for about 5 years now and I feel like I'm just barely understanding how to make it easier on myself. Some things about touring and playing shows I think has also gotten harder. The more shows I play I find myself worrying about purpose and getting really caught up on the importance and meaning of everything when earlier it all felt less heavy. In some sense I feel really experienced and like I know what’s going to happen so I feel comfortable playing shows and touring.
What does self-care look like on tour? Self care is good communication. Letting people know what you need and listening to the needs of others. Being willing to take breaks!!! Self care on tour is knowing when you can drop off a show to better yourself, get a hotel to actually have a good night's sleep and stop to find yourself some food that will make your body feel good. If all these things seem impossible, self care can be taking a walk before a show, calling your best friend back home. Drinking more water. Petting a dog, reading in the van, writing a postcard.
Have you ever experienced times where you’ve felt way too overwhelmed to finish a tour or thought about leaving a tour early? Yes. My first tour ever started in Olympia and I wanted to go home in Eugene. I had a horrible allergic reaction to soy and I wanted to do anything but keep going. My first full U.S tour I know my bandmate and I both had times where we daydreamed of being home and ending the tour but I know we're both really happy and proud we didn’t.
What is it about touring, playing shows and participating in DIY that makes you continue doing it even when the monetary and resource compensation often does not meet the time and expenditures? I don’t even know what else I would do. I found this when I was 12 and it’s my everything. It’s how I make friends it’s where I find happiness and it's what holds me down.
What does taking care of others look like on tour? Taking care of others on tour again is listening and being willing to do almost anything they need. If someone can't play a show, don’t push them. Let them know you support them, and you won't be disappointed. Check in, ask how they are often because it’s probably changing all the time. Be willing to sacrifice some things but not everything. If someone needs something specific to eat be willing to help them find that. Have their favorite snacks memorized and give them time in the van alone. Don’t be upset if they have long phone conversations. Take a breath and be willing to listen before getting mad.
This is the first of a two-part series featuring Bean’s interviews with artists about mental health and touring. The second part of the series will appear in issue 74.