The artist's life

Cheering So Loud: life lessons and indie music in the era of COVID-19

Water, ball, shin guards – check. Racing to my daughter’s soccer practice, I’m humming our new songs, playing demos on my phone through the car speakers, scared I’ll forget the new parts, the lyrics, the chords. It’s Thursday night, rehearsal night. I got this. No problem. Just have to get Penelope to the pitch on time. Soccer practice for my nine-year-old is sacrosanct, and we wouldn’t dream of missing it – some things we just can’t go without, like sleep. But losing sleep is certainly on the table this night because to make dinner, clean up, get to Penelope’s soccer pitch, pick her back up in time, drive home, then get the gear to the rehearsal space, set up, and get in a meaningful jam session, something has to give. Let it be sleep. I drop off my daughter, and she darts off to join her team, all screams and giggles. She looks taller. She runs faster. And bang, back to racing home, grabbing the gear. Go, go, go. Keep going.

Before the pandemic, there was something to do every night. As a father of two young kids, member of two bands and full-time instructor at a local college, life used to be extremely busy. Before COVID 19, we found a way to make it all fit. Between my wife and I, we were regularly running to the car, from the car, to the store, the dojo, girl guides, soccer, parent-teacher interviews, house renovations, doctor’s appointments, band rehearsals, studio time, photoshoots and gigs. A quick word on the doorstep to cement the pick-up and drop-off plans was all we seemed to say to one another. Did it once occur to us that we could skip this, or that? Every moment was so important because the next “thing’’ was about to start. But as we were to learn sometime in the fretful year 2020, that thing we couldn’t go without, it turns out, we could.

I’m seated at the kitchen table writing this. My wife, a school teacher, sits across from me. Between us sits a pile of kids’ homework tests to be graded. The sound in the house is Pet Sounds on the turntable mixed with my son and daughter running up and down the stairs. We’re eight months into the pandemic with a heavy-hitting second wave here in Toronto. This is a city that is not used to slowing down and has never contemplated outright stopping. Well, it stopped. On the third weekend of March in the very middle of spring break, the Ontario government announced the closure of virtually everything, grocery stores excepted. It felt as if the Earth itself stopped spinning. A strange silence overtook the city. For families, it’s as though we instantly went back in time 60 years to a time when we were staying home and spending time together. For single folks and the elderly, it was truly lonely. Immediately, everyone took to their laptops and devices, but seeking comfort in one’s electronics offered little of it. There was an immediate tinge of anxiety suffusing the air. For us musicians, the question we asked ourselves was, “How do we keep going?”

There’s this great line by Andy Warhol I remember from my art school days: ‘’Don’t think about making art. Just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.’’ I lived by that credo for a long time. Just keep going. Married? Keep going. Kids? Keep making art. House? Don’t stop. Career? Keep at it. Keep going.

The way forward through the pandemic

Could the pandemic be a blessing?

Bars closed down. All gigs were postponed, then outright canceled. I’m the lead singer-songwriter of So Dirty the Flamingos and the guitar player for Countless Numbers, led by my good friend Cary. We are fledgling, original indie bands in South Etobicoke. We both made the difficult decision to shut down all rehearsals and studio recordings. We had parents to think of and health concerns of our own. There was also a sense that the virus could do some serious damage to others, and we didn’t want to be responsible for that. Even so, the timing of lockdown was awful. Countless Numbers was days away from finishing our third EP, Aye, Aye, Aye!. So Dirty the Flamingos had just released our second EP, Unamerican Girl, and we were looking forward to supporting it with live shows around the city. Luckily, the Flamingos single, ‘’Before the Misfits,’’ was picked up on a couple small radio stations and provided some needed buzz. I was interviewed for a local podcast, and an article profiling the band was published. The attention was positive and local, but there is nothing like playing live directly for our listeners and potential new fans. Alas, keep going. But how?

Ultimately, music is our pastime. It’s our hobby. We are nowhere near famous, and we don’t make money from it anyway. But for us, making music doesn’t actually stop. As a songwriter, it doesn’t stop. That’s not how it works. We all then sequestered ourselves into various versions of home studios. Our main rehearsal and recording space, Sodipop Studios, is the basement domain of So Dirty The Flamingos’ bass player Adam. It was, and still is until further notice, off limits. Although we live in this hyper-technological world where we were never out of electronic contact with each other, there are limits to that contact. Aside from drive-by greetings and driveway visits, we could no longer share spaces and play music in the same physical space. This was a very strange new world for us all. Keep at it. Keep going.

So the next natural thing to do was work on this fantastic new record, right? Start a GoFundMe page. Pursue a double album. We all contribute our parts. We hold Zoom meetings to discuss the direction of songs, produce each other’s takes with copious notes and endless hours fiddling on laptops. We release our masterpiece! Isn’t that what Warhol was talking about? It climbs the charts! No. That’s not what happened. But I think what actually happened was better.

We stopped. For the first time in years, I didn’t get together with the Flamingos on Thursday night or Countless Numbers on Monday night, and the family stopped going to Girl Guides, soccer, Beavers, and the dojo three times a week. My wife gave up her intensive kick boxing regimen. The kids were out of school, and she stayed at home with them full-time. No more family visits from out of town. I was still plugging away at the college, but every afternoon I came home to zero plans. The open space was a breath of fresh air. There were moments of silent contemplation, unfamiliar pauses to take in the present. The reasons for having these pauses were not far from my mind, though. When my wife and I turned on the news, we learned of the horrifying death tolls in seniors’ homes and of businesses, locally and worldwide, going under. At this moment in time during the information age, all the information was terrible. America gnashed its teeth, pointed fingers and ripped itself apart. Australia was literally on fire. No school, no work, and a fleeting and grim sense of a future. We turned off the news.

At first, we started walking around the neighbourhood. So worried were we that the kids wouldn’t get enough exercise, we aimed for a few kilometers every day. We discovered a brook not too far away, and long walks down its edge became our new daily ritual. There, while walking or skipping rocks, we started telling each other stories. The kids started asking my wife and I for more stories from our childhoods; they were suddenly fascinated with how their mother and father grew up, with how much our younger years differed from their own.

Conversations got longer under the lockdown, conversations that could breathe, that offered space to reflect. And all the while, my mind started drifting again like when I was a kid. I began opening up to my eight-year-old son more. I realized the majority of my conversations with Ramsay were actually variations of, “Hurry up. Get dressed. Brush your teeth. Clean your room.’’ But now, we could dissect stories he was reading–which he and his sister were doing more of–and I got to know a bit more how his sometimes fantastical mind works. His imagination is endless, itself magical. How did I not explore this more before? We trained with my daughter, Penelope, and she completed a virtual five-kilometre race. We celebrated her victory by ordering in her favourite Chinese food. My wife, Kristi, and I were talking more too.

I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was happening until she explained it to me: New ways of thinking create new brain habits. She said, ‘’Look, you are solving problems in a new way. The time spent together, the new habits and behaviours, are training your brain to create new neural pathways.’’ The walks in nature led to new approaches in how I processed my own thoughts, like little plants sprouting through the fresh earth. I didn’t only notice this change in myself; I saw it in Ramsay as well. He seemed at ease and happier, expressing himself through stories and singing out loud. The whole family’s emotional well-being was greatly improved. At the same time, because fewer cars were on the roads, wildlife ventured out. We were seeing deer, mink, rabbits, new species of birds, right in the city. We were cataloguing these sightings, amazed at the world around us.

I got down to some writing, and songs came out of me like a well. It was never this easy before. I wrote where my imagination led me. One place it brought me to was a fictional account of waking up in Sault Ste. Marie with keys to a car I did not remember owning. I then sped out of town, chased by police. The story reminded me of ones my son made up on the spot, full of abandonment, fun and without limits. I later reworked one of my older songs, ‘’All I See is Gold,’ with this newly earned perspective on life: “I see leaves are falling / All I see is gold / I hear records playing / And all I hear is gold.” Thinking about the song’s break, “Still in love, still in love / And your moonlight is guiding my way,” I feel it is a pretty accurate description of my new awareness. I spoke with Cary, who writes the songs for Countless Numbers, and he told me he felt the same freedom in his writing. I heard some of his new material, and it was the best he’s done.

This lasted a glorious 11 weeks. It was like a vacation from life. By mid-July, it was decided that So Dirty the Flamingos should reconnect to make some music, and to do it safely, we decided on an outdoor jam. Adam had the biggest backyard, and since it was almost like going into the basement like old times, it felt natural that we meet there. The drums were brought out to the patio deck, as well as the small amps. Lanterns were hung as the band started showing up as if arriving to a long-awaited dinner; everyone was all smiles, sporting longer hair and tanned skin. We were buzzing with anticipation to feel that energy again. Music making in a group, playing off each other, is unlike anything else I’ve experienced. With this new-found appreciation of each moment, by taking the time to appreciate time itself, we started in on a shuffle, “Races,” the first song on our first record. I closed my eyes. Devin’s drums started, then the pedal steel and the low E-major of my acoustic guitar, caught by Scott’s organ, and Adam’s bass line started the dancing. Ciara’s voice completed the three-part harmony in the chorus:

‘’You know what it’s like, everything’s so tight.

We’re down, but not out,

Cheering so loud.’’

I opened my eyes, and we were all smiling these big mischievous smiles, like we just got away with something. A neighbour shouted over their fence, “You guys, thank you. That was the best!’’  Our audience of one was good enough for now.

These are lessons learned. We are clouded by the sometimes scary and uncertain future and are less inclined to live in the now. My family and my band needed the break, and we needed to learn how to take a negative atmosphere and make it work with a positive mindset. We also learned that we may need it again in the future. And, finally, we learned that rest is just as important as the sprint, and, yes, to keep going.

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