THE LONG HAUL: Self-Care and The Joy of Missing Out on Tour
Rachel Baiman and her sleeping bag on New Year's Eve in Otago, New Zealand.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the debut “The Long Haul” column from singer-songwriter and fiddle player Rachel Baiman. Each month, Rachel will bring us dispatches from the road and the life of a working roots musician.
A little after 10 p.m. on New Year’s Day, I was at a festival in the far south of New Zealand, just outside Dunedin. To many people, this probably sounds like a dream vacation, a bucket list experience, and for good reason; New Zealand is an exquisitely beautiful country. But on this particular evening I was curled up in a sleeping bag in an unheated four-bunk room watching a terrible documentary on Netflix (there’s no internet and it was all that I had downloaded), wearing noise-canceling headphones, sweatpants, and two pairs of socks and trying to convince myself I didn’t have to make the trek outside to the bathroom blocks to pee. Meanwhile, the party was raging on around me, and truly, I’d never been happier to miss it.
Being on tour is not a vacation. Being on tour is an amazing, rewarding, educational, inspiring, 24-hour-a-day job. I rarely get to do any of the touristy or exploratory things I want to do in any given place, and often I don’t do much at all aside from play a show and maybe visit a nice coffee shop or see a pretty view from the car.
It’s still extremely rewarding to travel in this way. You get to interact with different cultures from the perspective of a normal, working human. You get to know a lot of people whom you might otherwise pass by in the street and never talk to. Sometimes you stay in really beautiful places that you could never otherwise afford and eat delicious food, but those are the boring stories. Sometimes you have a gig in Quebec on the coldest night of the year, and it’s too dangerous to drive in the -37 degree weather, so you stay in a crazy farmhouse full of terrifying dolls, garbage, 3-month-old dishes, and cat poo in the sink. You never have any idea what might happen, but you can count on it being interesting.
I’ve been touring for almost 10 years now, and in that time I’ve gone through a lot of phases in my approach to the job. Once I accepted that touring will always be a part of my life, it forced me to work out how I could make it a sustainable mode of living. I’ve developed a few self-care strategies that work for me, and I thought I might share them in case they could inspire others. After all, if touring were a little bit easier, maybe some of our favorite bands would still be doing it!
1. I don’t beat myself up for not being creative. If I don’t have my space, and I’m not feeling inspired, it just isn’t going to happen, and that’s okay. I try to focus on doing what I need to do to have the energy for performing. Sometimes I have a song idea, or a chance to practice, and that’s great. But feeling bad about that not happening just leads to a negative spiral of self-loathing and existentialism (i.e., what am I even doing out here? Am I an artist or a professional driver?). Once I let that stress go and focus on feeling physically and mentally good on a day-to-day basis while traveling, my shows tend to improve dramatically.
2. I exercise every other day for at least 30 minutes. I find that every day isn’t possible amid crazy travel, but every other day is just about possible with good planning. The trick to this is finding forms of exercise that don’t require many tools or a specific schedule, and making your routine easy to accomplish. No matter where, no matter when, no matter if I can’t shower before the show, no matter if people think I’m insane or antisocial, I will leave a jam or a meal with a host to go for a run. If I don’t do this, I go crazy. The other awesome thing I learned from touring with my friends Shelby and Cy is to pack a travel yoga mat in my suitcase. It folds into squares and is super light. I like to do yoga classes off of YouTube (my favorite is Yoga With Tim), and having a mat with me makes it much easier to practice anywhere. Without exercise, the long travel starts to feel unbearable and my mood declines rapidly, so I try to get creative about moving my body.
3. I try to use my phone thoughtfully. We all spend too much time on social media and we know it. But on tour there is so much hurry-up-and-wait that it’s hard to avoid killing time on my phone. It’s also a nice way to keep up with friends when I’m away from home all the time. So I try to have some strategy surrounding phone usage. Self-promotion is important on tour, but as I constantly remind myself, fans, not my musician friends, are my target audience. So, If I’m feeling negative about my career or last night’s show, I operate on a “post, don’t scroll” mentality. I try not to look through everyone else’s better attended, cooler, better paid, more successful, better photographed social media posts. This will lead to spiraling anxiety. One thing I’ve found that really helps is re-routing the phone addiction to other apps: learning Spanish on Duolingo, or practicing brain games on the Elevate app, even watching a relaxing Netflix show. Anything that allows me to kill time without feeling bad about myself is great. When used carefully, the phone is actually an amazing tool for feeling good and learning new things while on tour.
4. I really have to enforce my alone time. The more I tour, the more I realize how much of an introvert I am. Beyond just going for a walk by myself, I use headphones to maintain peace and tranquility in the van. Nobody will enjoy one another’s company after chatting 8 hours straight every day for two months. Touring together is in many ways more intense than being in a romantic relationship, and these might not even be people that you like very much, let alone love. Being alone in a room or vehicle together is a valuable skill to develop among bandmates. Additionally, skipping the party, outing, or really any unnecessary socialization on tour is one of the best things I can do to recharge. Some people feel energized from conversation and big groups. I’m not one of those people! I hit empty FAST, and then I need to find a way to lock myself in some room to read or watch TV or listen to music until I’m recharged. This really requires strategic planning, especially if somebody is hosting you in their home. I’ve learned to be really assertive with my “I’m feeling really tired so I think I’m going to head to bed” speech, and to not feel bad about it.
Back to New Zealand: After ringing in the new year with a lot of wine and playing for a square dance, my hangover had hit full swing. Any small desire I had to appreciate and learn from other (most likely very good) bands performing that night was quickly outweighed by the dread of having to speak to anyone at all, let alone answer one more question about whether this is “really what I do for a living” or what Nashville is like, or, God forbid, what do I think about my crazy president. In these moments, I have to turn to my self-care strategies, and remember to get myself back on track with feeling good. Performing to me is about bringing my full energy to the stage and inspiring and uplifting the audience. How can I expect to do that for other people if I don’t first do it for myself?