Advice for the early-career artist
This winter I have had the privilege of teaching two songwriter courses in Wakefield and Chelsea, QC. The first group of students comprises seasoned performers, some of them accomplished songwriters who have performed at a regional level and have CDs released. The second group is a group of teenagers who have come together under the auspices of Ottawa’s CityFolk and Bluesfest organizations.
Last week one of the teenagers asked me how I got started and what it took to carve out a career. While some would maintain that I clearly did not do enough, it caused me to think about that time a lifetime ago. This article then contains some suggestions based on what I did and what I think is still important to beginning life as a musician and songwriter.
Find your tribe
I think one of the most important aspects of starting out in a music career is to surround yourself with “kindred spirits,” as Anne of Green Gables would say. I was so fortunate when I moved from Peterborough to Ottawa in the early ‘70s. One of the first things I did was to seek out a group of fellow players and kindred spirits. Some were not necessarily part of the music world but were supportive and tangential to it. My fellow musicians were essential to my lifeline. They supported me as I did them. They pushed me to be better. They challenged me with their own work. They listened to different music. I was surrounded by the likes of Bob Soucy, Bob Stark, Peter Chapin, Robin McNeill, Cyndela Whitney, Kim Erickson, Andrea Karam, Michael O’Reilly, Karl Mathers and many others. All were playing locally. We all jammed and played with each other and attended the same sessions that happened at the University of Ottawa, Rooster’s at Carleton, Le Hibou coffeehouse and the Jack Purcell Community Centre. We played these gigs every week until the “fern” bars emerged in Ottawa. Some of these musicians were far more accomplished than me, and playing up to their level was definitely part of my learning process. Each one of these people knew someone else who was a fan and supporter of acoustic songwriter music and musicians. Included in this group were artists, actors, playwrights and directors. Soon we were cooking up plans and dreaming bigger schemes. Though the coin was very thin during this period, I think we held each other up and came up with ideas that went beyond our own worlds. In two specific cases, this expansion of ideas ended up with presentations at the National Arts Centre: The Dream Children, and in the case of Sneezy Waters, Hank Williams: The Show He never Gave, which toured North America for several years and was made into a film. As a group, we were able to open doors that maybe one musician could not easily do alone. For this, I am ever grateful to producers like Dawn Harwood Jones and Barb Lysnes for their creative energy. These and other projects came from a gang of people who, for the most part, enjoyed each other’s company and possessed a collective fire. We had no managers, no agents and no website hosts. I think it remains essential that young songwriters find groups of like minds that they can associate with and from whom they can seek comfort, shelter and support. Though hungry, we had each other’s backs. Many of those mentioned in this piece are still vital members of the music community.
Find a mentor
At this time in Ottawa’s musical history, the early to mid ‘70’s, a generation of acoustic stars had moved away or disappeared. The generation that included Bruce Cockburn, Bill Hawkins, Sandy Crawley, David Wiffen, Brent Titcomb, and Susan Janes, to name a few, had moved to Toronto or were in hibernation. Even the rockers like Five Man Electrical Band had sought greener pastures. At that time the rockers and songwriters were different tribes anyway. That was about to change. There was one guy who returned to Ottawa from his tours of Japan and Newfoundland and the Acadian world, accompanying Edith Butler. His name was Peter Hodgson – better known as Sneezy Waters. Sneezy was a great picker, especially in the country and bluegrass vein. And he was a “house on fire.” Sneezy became our mentor. He was in another league all together, and he remains my mentor and hero to this day. His knowledge of folk and left-of-centre pop tunes was encyclopedic, and his energy, enthusiasm and generosity were infectious. Part of his talent and contribution was that he included us juniors in the firm. Soon Bob Soucy and Peter Chapin were playing with his band, and he took on several of my songs to sing in his concerts. Sneezy singing my songs was like someone posting a bond for me. He was basically endorsing my work, and so gave an audience permission to say in a most Canadian way, “I guess he’s not so bad!” So, as much as we learned from Sneezy from his performances, his musicianship and sheer enthusiasm, it was his inclusion that helped bring us up as well. When I later played in Kingston, audiences had already heard my tunes through Sneezy and were in the seats because of him. He did that for so many Canadian songwriters. Sneezy also hired the hottest players in town from both the rock and folk world when he presented his “excellent” band. He became an institution. What is more, he set up a studio space in an old school and took over the basement. He brought in set designers, sound engineers, lighting designers, and costume designers – all part of the Sneezy Waters ensemble. He did this all on his own but it became a tribe in itself, which included our group as well. Sneezy also had a strong union association and became a part-time stagehand at the National Arts Centre. This association brought other experts into the fold as we watched and learned. In many ways Sneezy burned like magnesium during this time. He burned for his audience every time out, and we were all caught in the light of his flame. He was and continues to be the perfect mentor. Find one.
Get a discipline
When I came to Ottawa, I had written a few hundred songs, produced an album and toured North America, but I knew I was just starting. I also knew from those two hundred songs that I was not a “natural” songwriter like Tim Hardin, Jerry Jeff Walker, James Taylor, Laura Nyro or Joni Mitchell for that matter. I knew that I would have to work hard to get better at song-writing. At times during this period, when I heard someone like Randy Newman or Bruce Springsteen, I felt like quitting, but I was saved or cursed by stubbornness and desire. I also loved writing songs. And so I set up a discipline. I had already figured out that if I was to be a touring singer-songwriter, I had to do that exclusively. I thought my pen would be sharper if my work was attached to some necessity to survive. I did not and do not think that you can be a hobbyist and hope to make a career of it. I have been proven wrong several times in this regard. I was aided by a very generous and kind partner, Amanda Shaughnessy, and we lived in a very modest cottage with very low rent. I don’t think I could have survived without these advantages. We lived in that cottage for 23 years.
I set up a discipline of writing from 8:30 a.m. to noon each day. Often, I would face nothing on the page. Sometimes I would get inspiration from Peter Gzowski and his guests on the radio. Other times, I would ride the muse of a Joni Mitchell or John Martyn record in the other room. I had a Sony home reel-to-reel, and when I got enough songs I would record and listen to them over and over. By recording the songs, I could listen and look at them in a different way. Obviously, I didn’t and don’t have the best voice, but I was able to hear myself and edit out the farts and affectations that came along with me singing. In the afternoon, I would often look over what I had done in the morning and, using the other side of my brain, edit the work I had done in the morning. Usually by mid-afternoon I was baked. I did this for the first 15 years of my creative life, and I came to understand that, at some point, a muse-driven song can become indistinguishable from a song driven by craft with the help of the muse. Eventually one of these tapes ended up in the hands and ears of Sylvia Tyson at CBC Toronto. She liked one of my songs, and she sang “Long Lost French Cafe” on her television show. Another bond posted, and thanks given. Get a discipline, and record on your phone or Zoom recorder.
Of course, I could not survive on just being the folk singer, and the times had changed. I had started my career around the same year that the drinking age was lowered. Audiences drifted toward the bars, and I closed any number of coffee houses across Canada. I worked at a local gas station for a while. I was known as the singing gas jockey. And I taught teenagers ski racing at Camp Fortune Ski Club. But I kept up the discipline, and neither gig distracted me from my primary focus.
Trace your fragile tangent
As I gained confidence and audiences my circuit expanded. Montreal, Kingston, Belleville, Peterborough, Toronto, London, and Guelph became regular stops. The circle of friends then expanded to north and northwestern Ontario. Soon I got word through Ken Hamm that there was a Northern B.C. Music Circuit organized by Karen Borsato. With gigs in Vancouver and Vancouver Island, I could be on the road for up to three months playing night after night for $100!
To this day, elements of that fragile tangent still exist, though at times the loss of one organizer like Karen could and can jeopardize a whole part of the country that you might never visit again.
Nowadays, I think the fragile tangent has been augmented in part by Home Routes, Side Door and the Festival of Small Halls, and for new performers, this may be the new road to travel. Get a roadworthy vehicle.
Maintain physical and mental health
Take care of yourself from the outset of your career. These very pages are filled with the names of people whose careers were shortened by lives lead. The career of a musician and songwriter can be a minefield of bad habits, poor diet and mental illness. I am in the twilight of my career, and I have been blessed with a very tough hide, but I suspect my development a few years ago of type two diabetes is a result of some poor choices I made along the way. This care applies to all parts of your body: throat, heart, hands, stomach – take care of them with a disciplined lifestyle!
The musician’s lifestyle is notoriously fraught with bad choices, late nights, alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, and ill-considered sexual interactions that can lead to addiction, dependency, health issues and premature death. Take care of yourself and watch that these monkeys do not climb up on your back. You can ask any one of those mentioned in this article (if they are still alive) the veracity of these remarks. Listen to them.
Watch out for your mental health. Many of you who come to song-writing as a career can be sensitive to mental health issues in the first place, and this career choice can kick the stuffing out of you. At times, the world of the songwriter and musician can be a very lonely and desperate path, and this too can lead one to choices that ultimately will amplify your problems. The most dangerous time for a song-writing musician is the time after a gig and before the next one. I know many have begun speaking about the issue of mental and physical health on the road, and their words should be considered. I would take it very seriously if you want to run the long distance. I miss my friends who fell along the way.
Keep a positive attitude, and remember your passion
It is very easy on the road you have taken to get beat up along the way. Never mind the difficulty in getting your work recognized and accepted; the roadside can be littered with lost hopes and forgotten dreams. It is important to remember what originally sparked your dreams and it is important to maintain a positive attitude towards your work and career choice. All these things spoken about above are part of that maintenance. Good health, a good lifestyle, discipline, mentors, and the comfort of a good friend can help you maintain a healthy attitude toward the work you are doing and the lifestyle you have chosen. Be careful with your own mythology because, as someone like Tom Wilson will attest, it can be difficult to survive the myth you have created for yourself. There will be times when the vision can be obscured and darkened. During these times it is important to reach out, and sometimes that might not be to those closest to you but to professional help. Sometimes you can’t burden your friends or partners with the weight you might be carrying. This advice comes from Joni Mitchell.
If pessimism and cynicism weigh on you, and your attitude towards the path you have taken strays beyond the normal ups and downs, it might be time to take a break to consider the map. Often there may be an event or dark period that has affected you, a breakdown or mistaken turn on the road, to continue the analogy. How you redirect your course is the subject of a thousand self-help books but if redirection and adjustment of attitude is what you need, get it before cynicism seeps into your bones. I know that one, and I know how hard it is to shed that skin, to get out of that ditch.