Last week I released my second album, Sky Stacked Full. It felt simultaneously huge, but also very small. I wrote some of the songs on the album a full decade ago, although many are more recent than that.
In November 2014, I received a Toronto Arts Council grant to record. I hadn’t made an album in five years, and I was elated. The same day the letter arrived, my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
The next seven months were a blur of caregiving, recording and coping, essentially. My siblings were all around, so I certainly wasn’t solely responsible for my mother’s care, and for that I am very grateful. I also have an incredible group of friends.
But I knew I couldn’t sustain everything in my life on top of my mother’s illness, so I decided to refrain from playing shows, the first time I’d done that consciously in over a decade. I continued to freelance, since it is my livelihood, but I stopped almost all other performing. I also stopped trying to propel my career forward, stopped doing much social media, stopped applying for grants, booking tours.
At first, I did so hesitantly. I hadn’t realized how attached I was to myself as a songwriter and performer.
I just relaxed. Completely. Even though my life was filled with very stressful and emotional things, this very deep part of me relaxed. Perhaps for the first time since I began envisioning my career as a singer songwriter.
There was an expansion. A deep breath. And then — something I can only describe as curiosity revealed itself to me.
And, then I thought this : perhaps only in the absence of anxiety can we be curious.
I began reading voraciously, something I don’t recall doing much of since I was a kid. I read A Brief History Of Everything by Bill Bryson, Where The Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists by Kay Larsen, a ton of poetry by Mary Oliver and many others. I began listening to podcasts : On Being, Audio Dharma, Radiolab and Astronomy Cast. I felt like I’d been starving for knowledge all of those years, finally noticed it and had the ability to satisfy it.
My work turned very internal. My goals became to be available for my family, to make the best album possible, and to trust myself fully in the process. I made sure to sleep and eat well. I exercised regularly.
I started to notice all the ways in which I was not doing so well. I have always suffered from anxiety and depression in varying degrees, and though I had found ways of coping in a general sense, I had never stepped back far enough to examine exactly what was going on, which beliefs or behaviours might be feeding into those states, what they could reveal to me if I just paid a little more attention. I was able to look at my performance anxiety, my lack of physical confidence and how that affected my live performance. I was flooded with ideas daily, merely because I could finally pay attention.
My mother died on June 19th, 2015. I went back to the studio to record the last bit of the album in August.
It is terrifying for artists to take time away from their public lives. Many of us forgo vacations, even if we can afford them. We rarely take breaks of any kind, or if we take a physical break, we cannot free up our minds. I’ve often felt I was balancing a very unstable stack of connections, opportunities, interest, relationships that might tumble down if I leave it for even a second.
I suppose it did come tumbling down for me. I stopped getting certain kinds of calls. I said no to enough things that I felt pretty forgotten, out of the loop. But I’m coming to realize that it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
I found myself with all this time and energy. I began going to the gym more, focusing on getting stronger. That practice eventually evolved into training in Olympic style weightlifting, which I now do three times a week. (I will write more about that in a later post).
Losing my mum, who was my last surviving parent, called into question my ideas about approval and success. I noticed my tendency to look to others for acceptance, to show me what kind of art I should make, to tell me what success looked like. I have a lot of really smart, helpful, well meaning people in my life. But I think I was missing the crucial self trust and knowledge that, ultimately, the only person whose opinion really mattered was my own.
So now it feels a bit as if I’m starting over. It feels daunting. Two years out of the loop feels like a very long time.
But I think of all the things I learned along the way. All of the ways in which I am much healthier and stronger, both physically (I can now squat 86 kilos and dead lift 92!) and mentally.
And, another shift happened, which was that instead of wanting to be successful, I have begun trying to figure out how to not be miserable. That may sound like a low bar. But there have been times in my life when I have been successful in an outward sense, but completely miserable.
I decided that if the path to not being miserable didn’t involve playing shows or writing music, I’d be okay with that. I have enough income as a freelance musician that I don’t need to be pursuing a creative career on top of that.
I’ve recently started playing shows again. And I’ve enjoyed it. To my surprise, it feels very different, and much better than before. Perhaps stronger, perhaps more direct. Perhaps more grounded. I’m not sure. But it feels good. So I’m going to keep doing it.