Nature or Nurture
Open Letter From a Mom In Music
My father-in-law, Norman Mailer, once said to me, “…if I had been a better father, I would not have been as great a writer.” I found myself in the role of devil’s advocate, as I often did with him; I tend to be a contrarian. What did I know? I was a new mom, in my twenties.
I find myself caught between the magnetic poles that Norman referenced. But please don’t think I’m using the word “great” in any self-referential way. It’s the nature of the debate I’m talking about.
I’m a broke singer and songwriter who has to make decisions between family and career every day. Sometimes every hour. It goes like this: a new song, a new album, a series of shows at Rockwood Music Hall in NYC, or piano lessons, summer camp, and life beyond PB&J.
The specter of selfishness looms. But I feel the tug of destiny. Does that sound arrogant? I hope to hell not, but I can’t change it.
My journey into the arts began in a small town in Texas; I started to sing when I was eight. I moved to NYC in 1996 to pursue acting, a love that took over when a chronic condition of shyness forced me to find other ways to express myself. (That my shyness stopped me from singing, but not acting, was and is inexplicable to me. Maybe I was afraid of what I cared about most…)
In 1999 I met someone I fell in love with, got married, did the kid thing, and never looked back.
Until I started singing again in 2008 after my son was born. Something – I’m not sure what – motherhood, thoughts of the future, the interaction of hormones and creativity – clicked, and I decided to write the songs I said I’d never share with the world.
I have done okay, I guess, for an indie. But okay is relative. Far from it; I get paid less than a penny per stream for my music, getting booked at even popular venues means I play for free. I’m lucky to walk away with $100 bucks in tips, which doesn’t even cover the cost of my musicians. (It’s the reason I can’t always afford a bass player; I really miss him).
There are many dirty little secrets about what it means to be a singer-songwriter today. It’s not the romantic life you imagine. I get booking inquiries from managers who are only interested in how much my friends and fans will consume at the bar – and I’m talking about desirable venues who are interested in the gradual destructions of my friends’ livers.
I go along with it all, because the cliché of singing in the shower is too painful, and not singing anywhere is even more painful.
I have two beautiful children, a great husband, a two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn and various freelance jobs that allow me to pay rent. Sometimes I wish I was a social worker or florist, but then again, that’s not exactly high-frequency trading.
Am I doing something of value that my children will one day be proud of when I’m gone? I keep asking that question, and when I think about it too much, I drink and map out a different plan to become something better, something lucrative…something more.
But I don’t. Instead, I go from day to day, but sometimes there’s a crashing moment that truly makes you re-focus.
I had that in August 2010. I was chronically broke and my family and I were pushing hard on a music project that was just one week away from wrapping. I turned my music project into a family affair because summer camp was too expensive. Together, we made a music video. Yes it was challenging as hell, but we all have fond memories – like the time when we had to bribe my four-year-old-daughter with marshmallows just to get her to climb a near thirty-foot tree (Wait, that sounds dangerous. Maybe I should cut this out or the child services people will be up my ass).
Prior to that scene, our DP had fallen down a flight of stairs, spraining his ankle. My husband was the director and stunt coordinator (among other things), which meant our daughter was in good hands, but he couldn’t stop a torrential downpour. Luckily we got a great shot of the storm clouds.
Then the phone call came. Calls, actually. Three of them. Each with overwhelming news. My mother-in-law was in the hospital, her long battle with cancer was turning against her; my grandmother-in-law was in the emergency room; and my own mother was in the hospital for a last-minute quadruple bypass surgery in Texas.
There are choices you make in life that are instantaneous and not entirely sound or fair. (To yourself, to others you love.) Sometimes you just don’t know what to do, because no matter what the decision is, you neglect something else.
We went ahead. It’s the only music video I have today.
Three months later, my mother-in-law passed away, and a few months after that, my grandmother-in-law followed. My own mother recovered from surgery, although she began gradually losing her sight. I had to figure out how I could afford to fly to Texas more frequently. More pressure. And it showed.
My debut album stalled, my performances suffered, and my plans for a release tour and party were shelved. I see my debut album, “Salina Sias,” floating in cyber space with no owner attached to it – even the artwork appears to be ghost-like.
My forthcoming EP will be released this year. This summer I plan to take my children with me on the road when it’s possible – I even lined up a gig at an ice cream parlor/coffeehouse in Albany, NY (Aug 2). And when school starts, I have a few plans up my sleeve (You’ll have to connect with me on social media to find out).
Some friends can’t believe I’m still doing it. Some ex-friends have judged and wondered when I am going to stop. Some worry about my sanity. It reminds me of the time I fell in love.
When I get back from a long trip, I notice that my six-year-old son is suddenly taller than my eight-year-old daughter. I see how excited they get when I walk through the door, exhausted and sleep-deprived from the hard work that goes into touring as a DIY indie (knowing I probably lost money). I mourn missing their art show or recital. And when it’s time to leave again, I find notes from my daughter in my bag:
“Mommy, I know I will miss you and I know you will miss me, but we are always together (even when we’re not). I wonder what you are going to see there in all of those places?”
Will my children be strong and independent and practice perseverance one day when I’m gone?
I wish I could revisit the conversation with Norman today. This time I’d be having it from the perspective of someone living the debate.
At the end of the day, I’m an artist, that’s who I am and I’ll find a way to be that no matter what comes my way. It’s not a vocation so much as a way of being My sound, my voice, will live on, and travel with my children. I hope it will help them deal with their own unanswerable questions, the one that Yeats posed: “The intellect of man is forced to choose perfection of the life, or of the work.”
[Originally published in the Van Wyck Gazette, Summer 2014]
I Love the New Folks at Home! (with apologies to Stephen Foster)
"I just got back from the 26th annual Folk Alliance International (FAI) music conference in Kansas City, MO.
For the purist – and for Pete Seeger who sadly left us a few weeks ago – the phrase “music conference” is likely a scary combination of words. Then add “folk” in front of music and it gets even more frightening. Folk music is the essence of direct, authentic, commercial-free expression and “conferences” makes you think of the boring corporate events full of PowerPoint presentations and a lot of middle-aged, white guys telling bad jokes.
But in today’s world, where artists need every fighting chance they can get, music conferences are an essential tool. They can help us connect with fellow artists from whom we can learn a lot. They can give us advice, guidance and support.
They can also be overwhelming, as I can attest after having just dragged my butt back to Brooklyn from Kansas City.
So, the generous soul that I am, I thought I’d share my experiences and advice after my first trip ever to a “folk-music conference.” Now, I’m one of those people who like to walk into a new situation as organized as I can be; maybe that’s a reaction to having two young children and walking into every day with plans that usually only last about thirty seconds.
However, in this case, my organizational instincts worked against me. If it’s your first time at a music conference such as FAI, in my personal experience, it’s best to forgo an “agenda” and ride the wave wherever it takes you, even if you have one of those cool, new organizing apps, like any.do.
When you get down to the heart of the matter, music conferences are designed for one main reason. Grab a beer and prepare yourself to soak in what it’s really all about:
I came to this now-obvious epiphany on day two of the conference when I was hung over from sleep deprivation (at least that’s what I told my body, although it didn’t really listen).
The conference was about truly connecting with people – not just networking, which can sometimes come across as opportunistic and mechanical and false. Rather, it was about genuinely being in the physical and spiritual presence of people who wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night, (if it’s a night for sleep) thinking about the same things you do.
During FAI, you didn’t need Starbucks to get a mental rush.
Louis Meyers, in his final year as President of FAI and one of four SXSW founders, confirmed my sentiments when I asked him if he had a single piece of advice for first timers. His response was instantaneous,
“You have to observe. That’s all. You meet people. Folk Alliance is about making relationships.”
“…what happens is by the time Saturday rolls around, you will have a whole bunch of new friends and family you didn’t have when you walked in.”
It’s about making relationships and continuing them. During what most would call the wee hours, around 2:30AM, I was happy to have run into a NYC friend, Willie Nile, in the hallway just before one of his performances. Willie ended up echoing the same point in his own Willie-way. “Wow, I’m really diggin’ this Folk Alliance vibe, this is great. Everyone should be here. Pussy Riot should be here!” We all cheered.
The joy spilled out and was uncontainable. Artists from all over the world sang and played everywhere – in the hallways and stairwells, well into the morning. Then they woke up earlier than you would expect – perhaps earlier than they have done all year – and did it all over again.
To give you an idea of the event’s intensity, check out the showcase schedules – for private showcases, three floors of a hotel were turned into mini music venues.
Come for the climate creativity and/or come for the great workshops and panels that are offered –with FAI in particular, there’s even a first timers’ orientation. Folk.org really tries hard to help newbies get a sense of it all – they even have a special letter geared toward first timers on their website.
Of course, even having presented you with this succinct information, musicians aren’t good at following instructions, so, chances are you won’t read it before booking your showcases. Recognizing that – as well as our Twitter-esque attention span – I’ve compiled a personal list of things you might find helpful when attending a music conference, like FAI, for the first time:
- Taking a trip to the local store might save some loot rather than digging deep to pay the hotel’s mark-up for essentials like water, Red Bull, vodka and jujubes.
- Sleep is a great thing when exhausted
- Water is life
- Phone chargers are more important than wallets – tip: hotel concierges have 'em
- Sleep late or take a nap if your showcase is between 1AM and 3AM
- Room service stops serving breakfast at 11AM, but they still make omelets
- Introverts, pretending hard to be extroverts, are everywhere…
- Impromptu collaboration with someone new is like magic
- Things are really bad for makers of consumer junk food if they’re going after broke folk artists
- Sponsors are lurking everywhere. You need them. We need them. Spotify doesn’t pay enough for a wet nap. (see this pic!)
- People who have been attending for 5+ years – they reunite w/ friends
- If there’s one person in the audience, work that much harder
- Volunteering at a conference can save money. e.g. free breakfast and maybe even free registration
- Go to keep learning and learn to keep going
Former Vice President, Al Gore, was even there and he managed to make the most sustainable-friendly audience on the planet: FOLKSINGERS –bored with climate change. I was waiting to hear him tell us about a potentially cool, new marketing strategy that would involve songwriters and a global warming competition, but it didn’t happen.
HOWEVER, I did get inspired to work on crafting a mix tape for him.
Next year, I want to hear Al sing that classic folk song, “When the Ice Worms Nest Again.”
To put it simply: You might just fall in love with music and the folks who create it all over again. It takes patience and time to form, and nurture, relationships along the way; it isn’t going to happen by showing up once. Keep going..."