What’s it like to live on the road? Ask Orit Shimoni
It’s been more than a decade since Orit Shimoni gave up the hallowed walls of academia and teaching for the freedom of a vagabond lifestyle. She began writing, performing, and recording her own music and poetry, all while touring endlessly. She also said goodbye to the four walls of her own place. All this hard work and sacrifice have been rewarded with rave reviews and enough bookings to keep the tour rolling.
This summer, she recorded and released her ninth album, Lost and Found on the Road to Nowhere, just like the others before it, from the comfort of no home. She is a millennial Roger Miller, though she travels by Greyhound bus, not by box car. The bus is her lifeline as Shimoni doesn’t have a driver’s license. It’s difficult enough surfing a different couch every night, trying to manage your career without an office, or desk, or even reliable access to wifi. So when Greyhound Bus Lines ceased all operations in western Canada this October, it seemed her life of touring was over, or at least required a radical adjustment. Fortunately, numerous local and regional carriers have resurrected a number of the main bus routes. So, the Orit Shimoni tour keeps a-rollin’!
With Lost and Found, you are struck by the sheer beauty of where she takes you with simple words strung into poems about the human condition that are part of all our lives, painted by an achingly honest voice on a canvass of gently flowing melodies.
Orit Shimoni has a real way with words, whether in songs or poems, or in conversation, so here is our conversation in full.
RMC: You love words and the written word, and there’s a very prose-like quality, a sophistication to your writing. Tell us more about your connection to literature.
Orit Shimoni: I do love the written word. Writing for me is a synthesizing of truth in the form of a kind of sacred and humble offering – it is a very deliberate and focused labour. It is therapy for a state of internal confusion, a very exciting and engaging act, and when it’s good, or successful, it is transcendent. I have a degree in literature, but it left me cold. You can teach the definition of metaphor, simile, synecdoche, alliteration, and you’ll end up with literary critics, not poets. Nothing in four years of study ever talked about how or why certain pieces were magic, transcendent. I followed the literature degree with a master’s, this time in theology, which was at least a department where the word transcendent got thrown around without feeling the need for a more “scientific” assessment. My thesis was on symbolic language and ethics. I’m fully invested, in other words. I had to figure it out intellectually in order to justify delving into it artistically. But the long and short of it is that I believe very deeply that storytelling, the sharing of narrative or insight, is the key to bridging the gaps between people that create fear and distrust and conflict. So if you work in storytelling or insight-sharing, your duty is to share it in the most accessible way possible. To me, song-writing is that. Figuring out the puzzle of words available to you, to get to the heart of matters as succinctly and powerfully as possible. It’s intentional and accidental every time, though. It comes from within me and outside of me simultaneously. It’s as much a listening as it is an expressing. You just kinda know it when you’ve hit it because it resonates back to you. I’ve written songs since I was fourteen or fifteen, but when I started writing good songs I could definitely feel the difference. They stopped being about me and started being about everybody. They were still of me, but they were not just for me or for one other person. They had the human condition in mind. That’s the power of the written word to me. That’s my love of literature. When it’s good, it captures and inspires a sense of humanity.
RMC: Lost and Found sounds much more like a road album, in that there’s a real overall road feel to it. It’s the central character in every song, rather than playing a supporting role to a collection of songs about life.
OS: I think that’s a testament to what recording an album is all about, because the songs are not all recent. Some were written years ago and just never made it on to other albums. But when you sit down and get to recording, you are recording the vibe of where you’re at that very point. I wouldn’t have chosen those older songs if they didn’t feel true and resonate with me now. And where I am now is as road as it gets, so it’s not surprising to me that it has a real overall road feel. Maybe, more to the point, it was recorded at the point of my road where I began to question how much longer I could be on it, and that made it all the more real. The road’s one thing when you’re digging every second of it with enthusiasm. It’s a whole other thing when you’re struggling with it. So the theme of struggling with meaning and direction that comes up in the songs came from a very authentic place in the recording.
RMC: The album title seems to also be the title of your life; and the songs are real stories, intensely personal. Has being on the road for so long with no permanent residence given you freedom, not only of location, but also of your thoughts? Does it counteract the human desire to suppress feelings of vulnerability, allowing you to open up to yourself and others?
OS: Yes, but all of our lives really. We are all lost and found on the road to nowhere. I like the question of whether freedom of location gives you freedom with thoughts, but I don’t think I was less free with them before I lived on the road. And on the flip-side, being on the road has not entirely freed me from certain stubborn archaic notions I’m still trying to unkink. Perhaps the very fast pace of new human encounters that happens on the road gives you more perspective though, by hearing other people’s stories frequently, and that’s probably the best ticket to freedom of thought – just hearing and learning about other people’s expressions of living. I think the metaphors that the road presents very concretely just really lend themselves to the more intense aspects of being alive. Everything is always a raw experience because it’s intensely vulnerable when you are without your own sanctuary, so to speak, so if you’re philosophical [in] any way, you’ll find plenty of thinking-fuel on the road. As far as “human desire to suppress feelings that make us feel vulnerable” [go], I see no need to suppress my vulnerability. I just see a need to articulate it clearly, verbally, and even rationally, hence the songs. The only thing that has suppressed my ability to dwell on my vulnerability is the fact that I’m busy with touring logistics and trying to come across as a sane-seeming guest in people’s homes. Luckily, I’m neurotic about coming across as a person of composure. And equally luckily, I get a lot of emotion out with my singing and playing, and I can come undone there and with my writing, and with a few “lucky” people whom I’m comfortable enough to cry around. I love a good cry. I’m not a suppresser.
RMC: What keeps you on the road, vagabond style? Do you ever envision a home base? Your own space? How do you make the road your home, like when you’re sick and just want to lay on the couch in pyjamas and watch TV?
OS: What’s kept me on the road has changed over the years. Different things got me on it than have kept me on it, and now it’s become a kind of path of least resistance. I have my touring patterns, and shows get booked, and I want to keep going back and playing in the same places and seeing the same friends, and continuing collaborative projects, so I keep going, and it makes no sense to try to keep a place I’m never going to be in. But do I envision one? Hell, yes! But the truth is that’s only pretty recent, like in the last year or so. The first few years when people asked me that, my answer was honestly, “No. Not really.” I’ve had fleeting internal questions about it, and the biggest one has been, ”
Where on earth would I choose?” Only in the last little while the toll of not having one, or what I might be able to have or get done if I had one, is coming a bit more into focus. Being sick really sucks on the road, and it’s all been about the incredible loving hospitality of all the very dear folks-turned-friends who have hosted me along the way. That exchange has been the most incredible and moving to me. People who let you be sick and in pyjamas on their couch and feel comfortable about it are a special class of angel. I’ve been lucky.
As for how I’ve made the road my home, I’m writing a book about that now!
RMC: Tell us about the moment that you realized that you could tour solely by bus.
OS: Like most creative solutions – sheer necessity. As soon as I came back from a year in Berlin and was tired of waiting for things to line up with other people to tour together (a band, or what have you), I was raring to just go already, and so I found a way. They were my own songs, so I felt I had the right to take them on the road on my own. The bus was literally the only way I could do it. I researched routes on the Greyhound schedules and booked shows in the towns it stopped in, going from Montreal or Toronto westward across Canada.
RMC: How difficult a task is it to book a tour while on tour?
OS: It’s a logistical nightmare in Canada. At least it is for my brain, because I over think everything and then still have to be sensible and organized enough to manage to have shows AND get to them. I’ve had to leave my own shows early to get on the one bus outta there so that I could get to my next night’s gig in the next town on time. And if you don’t find a gig in the next town, the advantage of the Greyhound is that you just keep riding without worrying about how many hours you yourself could drive in a row without needing to stop for the night and find accommodation. The Greyhound’s your vehicle, hotel AND bathroom. What more could you want? Nowadays, I book what I call anchor gigs. Gigs that are good enough to make sure you’re gonna want to get to them, somehow, and then you just fill up the route with whatever you can get and hope for the best. Sounds simple. Ha!
RMC: What does the future hold, transportation-wise, for you?
OS: Well, like all other aspects of my future, I have no idea! Will I learn how to drive before self-driving cars take over anyway? Will climate change force a return of horses and buggies? I’m a take-it-as-it-comes kind of person. I’ll get where I can get, however I can get there, and if I can’t, well then I’ll do something else. Nowadays there are plenty of ways to reach out with music that don’t necessarily require geographically moving. It really remains to be seen, but I suspect I’ll be making small adjustments as I go rather than some massive decision. And I imagine more small regional companies will pop up to pick up where Greyhound is leaving us off. Learning how to drive is something I want to do because I think it’s a skill which adults should have. I just never got around to it, and it’s tricky to get around to it when you don’t stay anywhere long enough to take driving lessons, etc. But since the dire necessity for me to reconsider my transportation is not really upon me yet full blast, I just don’t know yet. I’m more just sad that it’s the end of an era for me and concerned for the demographic that Greyhound’s cancellation hits the hardest. People rely on that service. I’ll be fine, but the broke guys that just got unemployed or the eighty-year-old sisters trying to go visit their brother in the next town – [I’m] not sure what they’re going to do.
As she mentioned briefly, Orit Shimoni is currently writing a book about her non-stop touring lifestyle and playing fewer dates for a while, but she will resume the relentless touring in the new year. Please visit her website, oritshimoni.com, for tour dates, music, merchandise, and many words!