|SELF-CARE ON THE ROAD|
Artists discuss mental health and touring
A two-part interview series / by Bean Tupou
Ed. note-- This is the second installment of a two-part interview series by Bean Tupou on mental health and touring. In the introduction to the first installment, Bean reflected on a May 2016 tour where they began vulnerable and homesick, questioning their sense of purpose with regards to music and touring. They wrote: "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 the first part of the series, which you can read here, Bean spoke with Abdu Ali, Kristina Esfandiari, Ashe Kilbourne, and Maria Stoke. Here, they interview Tierney Carter, Shawna Scroggins, Roxy Brennan and Maryn Jones.
Tierney is the mastermind behind the musical project Wizard Apprentice and strives to document her community through a video web-series called U.R.L. G.U.R.L. One of her latest live efforts is an art performance collaboration entitled “Blank Map” with Bay Area artists Tasha Cyan, Keyon Gaskin, Adee Roberson of Black Salt Collective and Brontez Purnell of the Younger Lovers in Summer 2016. She’s also toured with Bestfriend Grrlfriend, the band that Shawna Scroggins (who is interviewed in this series) is in.
Are there things you do or have thought about doing to prepare yourself mentally for a tour? I try to have my live show planned out. I like for my live performance to involve elements other than just me singing because I get more nervous that way. So having a projector image or some other theatrical element that can decentralize me a little bit and add more layers to the show helps me feel less pressure when performing. Having a live show that I feel proud of makes tour a lot easier than if I disliked what I was delivering each night.
From your experience, what have been the most mentally and emotionally straining parts of touring? The most mentally/emotionally straining aspects of touring that I’ve experienced have been group dynamics. Most of the tours I’ve been on have been pretty easy but there have been some moments where communication styles were not aligned. There’s often group decision making that has to happen so it becomes an unavoidable tension that can be incredibly stressful.
What does self-care look like on tour? Self-care looks like being mindful of how I eat on tour. I try to have a serious commitment to eating in ways that are harm reductive. It can be really easy to eat fast food and convenience store snacks but that stuff fucks my blood sugar, hormones and emotional stability ALLLL the way up. Tour is already kind of destabilizing so I try to save hardcore snack attacks for when I get home. Bringing a blender on tour has been really helpful for making fast snacks and meals, like smoothies. Also, going to grocery stores and eating canned tuna, fruits, veggies and fiber-filled crackers helps. If we stop somewhere and there’s nothing but fast food, I’ll try to get something like a grilled chicken salad. Or just french fries instead of a whole meal deal.
Other self-care strategies:
1. Planning tours that have breaks built in. Especially during or after long stretches of driving. That way I can use those off days to catch up with myself, sleep in, etc.
2. Washing my clothes regularly at hosts’ houses or laundromats. Having fresh clothes makes me feel reenergized.
3. Getting pedicures (a trick learned from Bestfriend Grrlfriend).
Have you ever experienced times where you’ve felt way too overwhelmed to finish a tour or thought about leaving a tour early? No. I think because I’m a super sensitive, high maintenance person who knows I’m finnin’ to fall apart if I don’t get sleep, downtime, and some kind of proper nutrition that makes me able to keep up momentum. I’ve also had no traumatic events happen on tour or in my life during tour. Also, to be fair, I don’t have a driver’s license and have been on U.S. tours and not had to drive which has meant less strain for me. P.S. I’m very close to getting a license, FYI. So hopefully I can help drive next tour.
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? It is a rare opportunity to practice and refine my live performance skills. I make a lot of stuff in bedroom which gives me a lot of time and space to plan, prepare, and be calculative. When on tour I have to figure out how to translate that bedroom work into a more public version. It’s an exciting and scary challenge that makes me feel like I’m fully developing my songs and their delivery.
What does taking care of others look like on tour? Taking care of others on tour has looked like having brief daily check-ins. Accessing our moods and needs helps to accommodate them. For example, if someone needs to be to themselves then I won’t start conversations with them. Or if someone is hoping to get to the next city at a particular time, we’ll work towards getting there at that time. It’s been helpful to try to have a clear sense of each other’s expectations from day to day.
Photo by Julia Leiby
Maryn is the songwriting mind behind the Philadelphia-via-Columbus band, All Dogs. She also tours frequently in Saintseneca. In our interview, she describes her experiences with emotional work, homesickness, larger tours and compromise.
Are there things you do or have thought about doing to prepare yourself mentally for a tour? I always try to make sure I have all the things I need and more for being on tour, especially the things that make me feel like myself or make me feel at home/safe. I used to try to pack as little for tour as possible, but I've learned over time that the extra space is not worth missing those things or not being able to have them around if I'm feeling bad. Some examples include: my pillow, which is sort of like a security blanket to me now because it is one of the only constants left in my life of pretty much always being on tour. It's always the same and it's always there, and it smells like me which is also helpful. Another thing is clothes. I have a lot of personal self-esteem and anxiety stuff tied into feeling confident, and if I don't have a lot of choices in how I present myself, I can start to feel a little claustrophobic or stuck. I allow myself to bring as much clothing as I want pretty much, ha.
From your experience, what have been the most mentally and emotionally straining parts of touring? The hardest times I've had are when I've felt isolated or alone even when surrounded by my tour-mates. This generally is a result of being upset or angry, acting out, and then my friends just not really wanting to talk to me or have fun with me anymore. Feeling lonely or disliked in a group of people you love is really shitty. This can lead to a cycle of more self-hatred and self-doubt, and in my experience is best remedied by talking to them about it. That's not to mention the sheer repetitive nature of everything, the poor or lack of sleep, the substance abuse, the long hours spent sitting down in a moving vehicle, the hours spent looking at a tiny screen, the hours spent on social media, the hours spent in dark bars. All of these things can really all just pile up and that's when things get hard.
Do the difficult parts of touring or playing shows get easier the more you experience them? Honestly, it depends on the tour and where I am in my life, but overall in my experience, yes. Well, it's kind of like a wave. When you first start touring, especially if you're playing house shows that your friends have booked, and you're like really tired but really grateful and mostly having fun and everyone is so friendly and inviting and hospitable; that is great. Then after a while, and maybe if you start playing in clubs and getting used to that schedule/vibe, it can really feel cold and unwelcoming and can really suck. That was the hardest part for me. Maybe like the first year of playing venues and touring pretty regularly. But then, if you're like me and it starts to feel more "normal" to be away from home, and you've figured out how to stay sane and cope better on tour, and everything kind of just falls into its place, then that's when things get easier. Not *always* and it's still not perfect, but just having a chance to work on/practice those skills and then feel like you've got them down feels great and makes a huge difference.
What does self-care look like on tour? For me, it's just ways of trying to stay calm and trying to stay patient and not let my emotions take me to a place I don't want to be mentally. Some of the things I do are:
-Put on headphones. If I can feel myself getting tired of hearing people talk, or even if I just don't really like the music playing, I pop my headphones in and zone out. This is also a really good way to keep yourself from looking at your phone. Listening to music and looking out the window is one of the most calming things you can do and is also a great time to just *think* about stuff.
-Speak your truth. Speak your needs. I personally know that sometimes this part of my self care drives my tour mates up the wall, but it's just super important to me that my needs or what I want in any situation is heard. It feels better for me to say what I want even if I don't get it than to sit there and feel anxious because I'm in a situation I don't want want to be in and kicking myself for not saying something or knowing I could have prevented it. So people will get annoyed with you. So what? Be honest and be true to yourself.
-Have alone time or "go rogue". This is so important. Not feeling like I need to be doing every single thing my tour mates are doing every single minute of every day has helped me immensely over the years. If you don't feel like waiting for everyone to be ready to go, just go, if you can. If you don't want to do what they're doing and you have the chance to have some alone time somewhere else, just do it! This especially can be a great time to blow off some steam if you're feeling built up frustration or a great time to call someone you love who you know can help you feel happy.
-Have someone on the tour you can talk to. If I don't have at least one person on the tour that I can go on a "date" with and have a chat that is not good. Totally crucial to be able to hash stuff out and maybe gain some perspective so I'm not stuck in my head. This can be a trusty person who you can call whenever also, but it helps to feel solidarity with at least one person in your close vicinity.
Have you ever experienced times where you’ve felt way too overwhelmed to finish a tour or thought about leaving a tour early? I can't even count the amount of times I've wanted to throw in the towel and quit. Homesickness, tension between friends, endless crappy shows, personal stuff back home, or just plain old depression have been some of the things that have made it seem impossible to go on. I'm happy to say, though, that I've always been able to pull through and make it til the end.
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 unfortunately don't play as many DIY shows as I'd like to anymore, but when I do, there is a marked difference. The vibe and feel of everything is for the most part supportive, excited, and nourishing in a way that shows put on by promoters and venues rarely ever are. This is why I make music and why I started playing in bands in the first place. And I know it's what keeps people in bands going. It's hard for me to describe how it feels and why it's different. It's just there and always has been since I went to my first house show.
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? I am always impressed with friends in bands who would go on ridiculously long tours and were still able to stay on good terms with each other. I think seeing this happen made some things in my brain click. Like, maybe the most important thing is being able to co-exist with the people you're going to be so close with for so long. It inspired me to come up with ways that I could be less of a stress on the people I was traveling with. If I'm calm, they're either calm too, or I have the mental space and emotional capacity to help them feel okay too.
What does taking care of others look like on tour? Like I said, my goal is always to be a source of the least amount of stress as possible to my friends on tour. I'm not always great at it, and sometimes they're a source of stress for me, but I think this is the most helpful thing I can try to do for them. Also just being there for people when they're having trouble is important, if that's what they want. Giving people space is important too, though. Talking with your tour mates honestly and finding out what their wants and needs are is also really important. Compromising what you want sometimes is also a very crucial part of being caring towards your friends on tour. It's cool to say what you want and need, but if you don't get it, that's ok too. Trying to balance everyone's wants and needs can be hard, but that's what compromise is all about. It can be a tricky skill to get down, but it pays off. Also, as cheesy as it sounds, trying to ~learn to appreciate the things you don't love~ about your tour mates can be incredibly helpful and a very loving thing to do for them. Just remember there's a reason you wanted to hang out with these people and create cool things with them!
Shawna is one of the organizers behind Bay Area Girls Rock Camp, an organization that works towards empower girls through music and collaboration. She is currently in a three piece Bay Area punk band comprised of all women of color called Ugly and was half of the duo Bestfriend Grrlfriend and did a tour with Wizard Apprentice in the Summer of 2014.
Are there things you do or have thought about doing to prepare yourself mentally for a tour? I'm not really good at that... yet :P
From your experience, what have been the most mentally and emotionally straining parts of touring? I think the prep beforehand can be really intense for people like myself that don't always have a lot of extra money. Just like signing up for food stamps, getting a sub-letter, cleaning your room, recording, packaging tapes and CDs, screening tees -- doing all that merch shit ourselves, along with the logistical shit, usually happens the last few days before tour so there's no sleep. Another thing is having conflicts or feeling misunderstood by band members or travel mates. It can feel like you have no place to go. Because you don't. But it's good to have some agreements beforehand and accept and expect that there may be some conflict and that's normal and okay.
Do the difficult parts of touring or playing shows get easier the more you experience them? I would definitely say so. One thing that gets easier is playing the type of shows you wanna play. After going on tour a few times, I've been able to connect with a lot of queer, POC, Black, and just hella cool people across the country. So now, I'm less likely to play on a bill with all straight white dudes.
Roxy is one of the lead vocalists in Joanna Gruesome. She also plays guitar in the post-punk trio Towel. I recently met Roxy during a sixteen day U.K. solo tour we did together in May of 2016. She was gracious enough to book the tour and getting to watch her solo project Two White Cranes every night was amazing.
Are there things you do or have thought about doing to prepare yourself mentally for a tour? I much prefer being involved in the planning of a tour - knowing where we're going, where we're staying, how much we're getting paid. I can't imagine going on tour and not knowing that stuff and feeling comfortable. So yeah mentally I prepare myself by knowing all of that, and also resting and eating well (eating well just means eating a lot, by the way, not eating anything in particular) before I go.
From your experience, what have been the most mentally and emotionally straining parts of touring? I think lack of sleep and having to talk to strangers a lot - I don't have all that much chat in me so I can get very tired of that. And then with some bands (so when I toured with Joanna Gruesome) I find the fact that lots of people are looking at me every night is very mentally and emotionally draining. I don't take much control over my appearance, for lots of reasons I never have, and that means on tour my appearance becomes really unkempt and my clothes get weirder and my hair gets messier and I don't have any makeup or anything, which I think could help lots of people to feel more together. Usually on all the smaller DIY tours I've been on this has been part of what I love about it - because I feel my body and myself becoming less self conscious - because tour is a weird state where you can not wash and not brush your hair and feel beautiful. But then when I played Joanna Gruesome shows, for the first time I felt bad that I didn't look better or more attractive - mainly I think because it’s a slightly higher profile band and there were lots more pictures and I just didn't look like what I imagined I looked like in any of them.
Do the difficult parts of touring or playing shows get easier the more you experience them? Yes 100%. The more you tour and the more shows you play the better you get. Things you once found scary, like being on stage or talking on stage or asking the promoter for money, become super routine and not scary at all and that is a really exciting thing.
What does self-care look like on tour? My self-care involves taking vitamins (although I don't know if that works) and trying to sleep. I drink loads more water than usual and I try not to drink alcohol every night. (This is hard because you mostly get paid in alcohol.)
Have you ever experienced times where you’ve felt way too overwhelmed to finish a tour or thought about leaving a tour early? The only tour when I kind of thought about wanting to stop is the three week American tour with Joanna gruesome. It was so long and strange and I didn't feel very good for most of it. But I suppose because I was in America I didn't really think about stopping because I had no way to get home. And playing the shows was definitely the best bit - like the moment of release. It was all the travelling that made it tough.
I mostly prioritise tour over everything else in my life and sometimes I definitely question how healthy that is. More than once I've continued a tour when a family member has been sick because not finishing the tour seems so weird. It’s hard to tell whether this prioritising comes from loving music or from stupid capitalist notions of needing to work more than needing to care for people. Or maybe its because I'm afraid if I don't play a show people will forget about me or be annoyed, I'm not sure.
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? Hmmm very good question. I do it because it's absolutely the most fulfilling part of my life. The skills I learn and the people I meet doing it are completely what have shaped me as a person. In the last year I have shifted from thinking of it as a very draining hobby to a part time job which I think has been quite a healthy mental shift. My other jobs in the last year or so have also been very fulfilling (I've been working within a charity and at a vegan co-operative). I spend a lot of time thinking about how music fits in with these jobs - what's similar and different in terms of payment for time, skills learned, support offered.
The main thing that I think is lacking in music isn't so much the money (although obviously it would be ideal if people could be paid fairly for working as a musician) but the support. In good workplaces, the wellbeing of your employees and colleagues is paramount, but when you're in a band on tour having the emotional resources to support your bandmates can be difficult. I would like this to be a bigger part of DIY culture though, and maybe more formalised. As DIY is run on a voluntary basis essentially everyone needs support to continue the valuable work that they do. Musicians/promoters/artists - we all need more support and I feel we could probably all offer more support if we were more in the habit of it.
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? I've learnt a lot from my friends The Jelas who are a band from Bristol. They have a very close dynamic as they've been playing together for about ten years I think, since they were at school. They share equipment, time, energy, support and advice with so many people across the DIY scene, always with the absolute best sense of humour and never with any ounce of drama or self-importance. I try to bring the same attitude to my tours and shows - being helpful and hilarious or something.
I like it when bands are self sufficient, organised and friendly. I think this is 100% the way for bands to best influence the people around them - to promote music as a place that is welcoming and not a bullshit macho culture where being aggressive and possessive over your gear is normal.
What does taking care of others look like on tour? Giving people space, doing things for them if they need it, letting them do things for you in return, sharing, lending, asking questions, learning and having a sense of humour. I suppose an important thing is that it doesn't have to be "emotional labour" (a term I find very useful to think about) so trying to help people through emotions, worrying about whether they are okay, etc. It can mean doing very unemotional things to ensure that all of you are sharing space in a positive way that doesn't drain each other.
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