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Pandemic Portraits: Musicians Dream & Stream

Pandemic Portraits: Musicians Dream & Stream

By Shari Ulrich


As the months of the “Great What Have You,” as Chris Thiele dubbed it in a Nickel Creek concert, have dragged on, I have been increasingly curious about how other artists have weathered the unprecedented break in the normal pattern of their lives and careers: write, record, release, promote, plan, tour…rinse and repeat. For many, this has been their life for decades.

Each of those phases represents thousands of demanding hours peppered with moments of creative breakthroughs, incomparable camaraderie with musicians and engineers, sleeplessness, self-doubt, anticipation, and the big pay-off – live concerts. So how the hell are artists faring?  What fears and anxieties have been worming their way into those sleepless nights? How has this time changed us and informed our thoughts on the future?

As someone built of Pollyanna stock, I haven’t allowed myself to surrender to the existential dread that could easily take root if I gave it a chance. I just keep moving, metaphorically and literally, playing occasional live streams, writing, taking on long-neglected household tasks, shuffling furniture around (aware of the deck-chairs-on-the-Titanic analogy), walking in the woods, and endeavouring to hold my breath until it’s over. At the same time, I had no idea how much I loved being home until I had no choice but to stay in one place. In 48 years as a touring musician, it has never occurred to me to take a real break.

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What? Stop? Unthinkable.

There is a relentless drive in our DNA that compels us to keep our foot on the gas, likely fed by simmering anxiety that if we were to slow down, let alone stop, we would quickly be left behind in the dust. Survival. We never imagined anything could bench all of us at the same time.

What happens when that entire framework falls away? Though few say it out loud, touring allows musicians and artists an escape from spouses, kids, household chores, and the more tedious features of everyday life, as well as the parts of our inner selves we’d rather not have time to explore. We are also bringing in income and feeling guilt for the extra burden on our households created by our absence. So it’s pretty much a domestic minefield. I would imagine many of us are feeling the past year to be a confusing mixture of blessings and curses.

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I’m happily solo so there is no spouse with whom I have to navigate this dramatic change of being home for months on end. And trust me, I would get on anyone’s nerves in due time. There’s no shortage of family members and exes who could testify to that. Solitude has always suited me well. For me, it’s key to writing music.  

I reached out to several fellow travellers, asking them to share their experiences and thoughts about the future. What happens when such a tectonic shift occurs in the world of performing artists?  

Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy says, “I assumed at the beginning of the lockdown that it would be short-lived and I would be back to playing live in a month or two. We have a little country place north of the city, so I went there during the week to write songs. These songs ended up being a lot about escaping to a simpler life.

Maybe that was what I was already living. I have not stayed in one place for any length of time for 35 years. I got very used to never settling anywhere and always staying packed and ready to leave. It was interesting to be grounded, removing the stress of moving all the time. Being in the country and watching the seasons change was a gift. Really good for the soul.

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I felt for the first time that I was comfortable not needing to go anywhere. Granted, my wife and I have had to adjust to my being around all the time, which has not been without some road bumps, but thankfully has worked out well.”

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Both Jann Arden & Barney Bentall echo Jim’s appreciation for a simpler life. Barney and I both live on the same small island near Vancouver. Barney explains: “I am very lucky to divide my time between our island home and a small ranch in the Cariboo region of BC. I suppose they both share an element of isolation and yet community (small “c”) that co-exist in a way that suits my temperament. 

I find looking out at the sea or the mountains and trees is a great pathway to creativity that so often works for me. Less so at the ranch, but that is only because there is always a never ending and forever expanding list of things to look after there. I remember once reading an interview with Pete Seeger when he was in his 90s.

He was talking about the benefit of work and looking after a place. Raking the driveway, he said, was good for the soul and the creative process. With each passing year, I know more what he meant, and I want to be that guy!”

Jann Arden appreciates her rural roots west of Calgary: “My folks moved us out to this area in 1970 and I’ve never left. I think travelling as much as I did was made possible because I knew that I would be coming back here. I am backed onto a river, which is basically a wildlife highway. Never a dull moment. It’s been a super creative time for sure; lots of ideas floating around and of course, the time to flush them out of my heart and head.

I know I was going too fast and too hard. I am going to slow down a lot. I thought being on the move 250 days a year was normal. It really isn’t. I like being home! I know I have to find a balance that is better for my soul.”

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I started my life as a songwriter living alone in a tiny oceanside cabin on Salt Spring Island, so I’m convinced that nature and solitude can play unrivalled inspiring roles in our creativity. If you are forced to be grounded, being so in a place where you can see the natural world out the window and access it out the front door can make this strange chapter easier to bear.

Bill Henderson of Chilliwack fame settled on Salt Spring Island 28 years ago, “… probably because of a formative seven pre-teen years in Yellowpoint on Vancouver Island. The island has always been a touchstone of peace and beauty.  By the time I moved here I wasn’t touring anymore, but then I started again. The business model was: only plum gigs; only in Canada; fly in, fly out. I hate flying but I like the ferry rides. And I love the community here. A gathering of like-minded people. Lots of not-like-minded people too, bless them, but I certainly don't feel isolated.

And what has Bill learned during this protracted time off the road? “What has surprised me has been how susceptible I am to depression. I actually believed the bluster I created over the last many years that let me ride over and pay no attention to the bumps in the road. Now I explore them. My cocoon of music had shielded me for a long time. But I'm starting to learn how to digest distress and move on. Perhaps late in life, but I'm really glad about that.”

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Fellow Salt Spring Islander and perennial folksinger Valdy says, “My sails were full for decades, pushing my career back and forth across Canada, Europe and Australasia. I aimed at 200 dates a year, getting close most years. Then came Covid. Now the winds have shifted, blowing me upward into the ether, along with almost all performers, producers, teachers and consumers.

Embracing this new approach allows me a show every Sunday on Facebook. Although the sudden lack of revenue was tough, and I miss the connection with audiences, I will continue to present what I love doing.”

Though I’ve heard many artists echo my own experience of being slow to fulfill the expectation that we’d all just hunker down and start writing our little hearts out, many have moved past that paralysis.

For Jim Cuddy, the arc of his writing reflected the extended lockdown. “As time went on, my songs got a little more desperate as I guess my psyche got a little more stressed. Again, not by design but by following my mindset.

The effects of the struggle have come over me more gradually. I have always written music to be performed. Now for a year I have written music to be recorded. I have been more at sea with my process than ever before. However, it has produced some very satisfying results in recorded songs for both my own solo band and for Blue Rodeo. As to my future as a touring artist, I have tried hard not to neglect my skills and have kept singing and playing every day to keep the muscles toned. Not that easy without the objective of a concert but I have done a number of online shows and that has been enough."

2021’s CFMA Solo Artist of the Year Julian Taylor reflects what has been the experience of countless parents of young children during this time: “Most of my time has been spent with my child who's been going to school online. Because it’s just us at home, I haven’t found a ton of time to write or produce music. I have had writer’s block this past year but it seems to be slowly clearing. I’ve kept quite busy, to be honest. Besides being a father, this past year I released an album called The Ridge and have been working hard to get the word out. I do the afternoon drive show on Toronto’s ELMNT FM. And I recently mowed my lawn!”

Some artists have expanded their creative scope to embrace new ways of expressing their music and a wider range of media. Triumph’s Rik Emmett is releasing a book of poetry.Emm Gryner completed and is publishing a book called The Healing Power of Singing: Raise Your Voice, Change Your Life (What Touring with David Bowie, Single Parenting and Ditching the Music Business Taught Me in 25 Easy Steps). Tom Wilson & Marc Jordan have been busy with their visual art, which conveniently does not require a live audience!

Marc Jordan says: “I did a lot of painting but also trying to write my next CD which is now in the works. So I kept busy, but I have to say, not playing live really was a bummer. I realized that, yes, we write because we are compelled to do so, but the interaction with an audience is part of the process”

But what of our future?  We are all grateful we have had a virtual way to put music out into the world, affording us some income and a connection with our audience. But it seems we’re increasingly experiencing a saturation point since, in essence, every artist is appearing in the same venue, performing to the same audience pool on any given day.

We are all getting screen-weary. And though the paradox of increased intimacy on a livestream might be enjoyable for both audiences and artists, the fact that many of the platforms were designed for meetings makes the audio quality for music a constant challenge.

Our adaptability has been impressive. Most of us have embraced virtual performance as best we can. Many have realized the benefits of a farther reach to parts of the world we may not have had access to in the past. As Julian Taylor says, “I’ve pretty much only toured within Canada and when the pandemic hit,

I was surprised to be able to find shows and opportunities outside of Canada. I was invited to do virtual shows in the UK and south of the border in the US. I think in the future a combination of in-person and online shows might be the way to go. That way you can reach folks up close and personal and others from around the globe.  But the production value has to be spot on. Truthfully, I am itching to do a show and perform to an audience. I really miss it. It fuels my soul and that’s taken a bit of a toll on me and I hope that soon I can resolve that sadness. I know that a lot of my friends feel the same.”

Bill Henderson is taking a long view of the environmental viability of touring: “Things are tough for live performances and travel now, and they could be much worse in the future. We can no longer credibly deny that possibility. All this isn't muting my desire to get out and play with other musicians and play for a live audience that can respond and interact with us. But of course, it's frustrated. So, my mind turns to other options like just being outside and interacting with other beings.

Without the buzz of business, I can hear the buzz of other creatures. I see them trying to survive; some of their strategies. I see some succeed and some fail. I think the future will be a continually increasing level of challenge that will take everything we have including a lot we didn't know we had to get through; continuing on through our kids and grandkids. The planet has had enough of power-drunk homo sapiens.”

Barney Bentall has a similar perspective: “I have been surprised by how little I have missed the road over this last year. I’ve missed the magical alchemy that we strive for and sometimes achieve on a stage with fellow musicians and I’ve missed the hang and humour of being with those same folks.  But… the airports and hotels… I have yet to experience any kind of pang of longing for those aspects. I’ve enjoyed being able to sit in one place for greater lengths of time. I am intrigued to see where the entertainment world lands.  I know that I will suck it up and get on planes and go through security lines (likely with some type of vaccine passport), but I hope we change things.  Perhaps play more closer to home, use less jet fuel and play some intimate community-based shows.”

The adaptability, tenacity, patience and resourcefulness of our community in finding ways to put music out into the world have been admirable. Like water, music will always find its way. And the future? I confess that my commute downstairs to my studio to play a show has been a delightful convenience as well as a break for the planet. I have been pondering the comparative value of performing virtually for a potentially unlimited worldwide audience (a girl can dream) versus a live show to limited audiences, town by town, city by city. Both have their value and their place going forward.

But where I’ve landed in looking to the future is unrelated to a career path or strategy. It is about something deeper - the quality and value of the human experience of being present with the art, the artists and the audience.

I liken it to those moments in nature with its breathtaking array of infinite beauty that constantly leaves me swooning and reaching for my camera to capture it. But my attempts never fail to pale, because its real power comes ­­­­from being present with it. And such is the way with music.

Being in the same room with our audience, the musicians, the sound waves, and the gratitude—the audience’s and our own—as the music is being created is what begets the profound shared experience that’s impossible to replace. My Pollyanna heart says, it may take some time to find our way to a new normal, but we’ll get there.

And it’s going to feel damn good. 

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