The Difference Between “Making It” and “Losing It”: Musical Mamas on the Road
I’ve heard my dear friend Danny Schmidt – who is also one of contemporary folk music’s most treasured lyricists – say, “Folksingers are dashing and dangerous.” I think that’s true. Traveling the world to sing songs is an often romanticized job with many truly beautiful facets.
You are considered lucky if you “make it.” But I always wonder, what does “making it” really mean? Does it mean you travel in a bus with a driver? Does it mean you get four- to five-figure payouts per show? Or does it mean you are happy with your career and your work? Maybe “making it” just means that you are satisfied with the shape your life has taken as a whole.
I’m sure that every person in every profession can point to ways they would like their story to have turned out differently. Overall, though, I think playing music for people is the greatest job on the planet. I feel like I “made it” the moment I made the decision to pursue a career that brings joy to me and hopefully to others.
Increasingly, touring is the only way to make a living in music. As the recorded song is experiencing a downhill slope in value, musicians and songwriters are finding they need to diversify their skills. Many find the need to commit to a life of travel in order to pay for the houses and apartments they never see. Meanwhile, being a mom to small children has had a huge impact on my ability to continue to tour – not just because of the additional expense, but also because of the insane logistics, wear and tear on the children, and my own physical energy. I’ve turned more and more to writing as a way to bring home the bacon. Other songwriters I know teach classes and workshops while they’re on the road, sell handmade jewelry at the merchandise table, or work for huge companies from their laptops as they travel.
My bass-playing husband Andrew Pressman and I did thousands of miles of road with our first son, often going out for months at a time. When he became mobile and opinionated, at around 18 months, we decided that touring as a family wasn’t working for us anymore. The beauty of the road was overshadowed by our kiddo’s need for routine and playtime with other kids.
I remember a time when Emmett was about nine months old. We had been out for two months already and had a few weeks left before we made it home. I would lean over his car seat and breastfeed him because we never had time to stop and feed him. This was the easiest and most efficient way. Not only is that maneuver incredibly dangerous – flying down the road at 70 miles an hour without a seatbelt, hunched over my child – but it’s also incredibly uncomfortable.
Right before a gig in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, I threw my back out and was unable to walk, let alone play my show. I was out of commission in a dreary hotel room for two days. It was a moment of re-evaluation. Was this working for us? Was this us “making it”? We decided the answer to that was, “No.” So we scaled back and had another baby.
I will start touring again, eventually, but it will look different than what I used to do. I envision touring for a weekend or two a month, as opposed to 35-90 days at a time with one week off in between tours.
That said, I sincerely miss the road and all the strange and beautiful things it provides. I miss the amazing friends in far-off places, whose faces I see much more infrequently now. I miss sampling local food. I miss the muscle memory of playing every night, how everything I needed was packed in two bags. I miss the romance of the open road.
I do not miss learning a new shower every morning, the unclean gas station bathroom, fast food, or the rarity of a private moment. Attaining balance is hard, but for me it means the difference between “making it” and “losing it.”
I will be doing a post or two in the coming weeks with thoughts on the road from other musical mamas.