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OR alternatively, Mortality for Musicians 101

With Jennifer Kingwell
Photography by Greta Punch Imagery


So you wanna be a rock star. Look, I get it. The babes, the parties, the praise and, oh yeah, the music. It’s all fun and games until someone chokes on their own vomit or ends up on Celebrity Big Brother (bonus points if you manage to land both these scenarios at once!)

The 27 Club legend has a lot to answer for. This idea of the life burning so brightly it burns twice as fast or some shit like that. But even Jesus lasted until 33 and with any luck and a bit of nous, so can you (and if you really want to go hard, stick it to Joe Hockey AND Keith Richards at the same time and rock on until you’re 150.
If you want to stick around for a while, both in a literal physical sense and also in terms of your musical career, then this guide is for you.

To be honest, a lot of these tips might not sound muso-specific — there’s some pretty basic stuff here about being-a-human-person 101 and don’t-die-of-unfortunate-cheetoh-incident For Dummies. But for some reason – ego, left brain thinking, etc – we creative types do have a tendency to think that the rules don’t apply to us (hands up if you ever got that old chestnut on a report card), so here they are, from me to you. Disclaimer: quite often it’s clearly a case of do as I say, not as I do, but that is what gives me a certain level of expertise in this area — I tried most of these on tour and at home, so now you don’t have to.

‘Sitting on the dock of a bay’

Yoga, meditation or some variation thereof
If there is one thing that you take away from this article I really hope it’s this one. Find a form of mindfulness that works for you and keep practising it regularly. This could be yoga, meditation, praying, chanting, guided visualisation, sand mandala creating. It could be paying your respects to the flying spaghetti monster with your own personal silent bolognaise ritual. Whatever works for you to help clear your head, detach from your ego and emotional attachment and strengthen your discipline and focus, is what we’re going for here.
This one is particularly important if you suffer from stage fright, and while on tour. Especially so if you’ve recognised that you use alcohol or drugs as a performance crutch and you want to stop doing that — having a mindfulness practice that you can adapt for your dressing room/side of stage/corner of the couch that you’re sharing with five other bandmates can help you get into the zone for performance, as well as help you stay focused as you practice, on top of helping you maintain equilibrium through the relentless emotional ups and downs of a musical life.

There are literally thousands of different methods to choose from, with courses, apps, books, podcasts, CDs and other resources to help get you started. You should absolutely try as many as you can get your hands on and don’t be scared to keep looking until you find a method that works for you. This might be just one thing, or it could be a combination. I highly recommend Kenny Werner’s Effortless Mastery book and meditation exercises as a great starting point, Vipassana retreats for a full reset if and when you’re ready to develop a long term meaningful practice, and yoga in any style that you feel an affinity with. Plus, a regular yoga practice makes you feel supple as fuck, which is exactly how you want to feel while slinking around on stage, is it not?

‘You’re so vain (you probably think this song is about you)’

Remember that old saying ‘be careful how you treat people on the way up, because you’ll meet them on the way back down’? Yeah. It’s all true.
Keeping your ego in check and practicing compassion and empathy for other people is not only, you know, generally the right thing to do, but it is also a particularly powerful form of self-care. Not only may your future self thank you in some life-changing-yet-impossible-to-predict-scenario involving you and the hapless cloakroom attendant at the last shitty dive you played before your big break but studies have found that acting altruistically activates ‘feel good’ parts of our brains — the same ones that light up to tell us chocolate and sex are awesome, and that we in turn should feel awesome.

Plus, no one wants to date a person who acts like a douche towards the bar staff/sound engineer/tour manager, and you don’t want to be that guy when you might end up being that guy once tour is over and your per diems are no longer per usual.

This is also an area that can gain a lot from a solid mindfulness practice (see above). Coming to terms with the limits of your mental and physical capacity through focusing for hours on the patch of skin under your nose, or trying to hold in a fart as you pretzel your way through half pigeon pose, is an excellent remedy for the ego that ails you.

‘Sexercise (feel the burn)’

Find a form of physical exertion that you love (or at least, don’t loathe with a fiery passion) and do it several times a week.
Sorry though, sex doesn’t really count unless you’re Sting. Or Prince (probably). The rest of us will probably have to make do with running, cycling, dancing, prancing, rowing, swimming etc. Try to find at least one form of cardio exercise to increase your aerobic fitness and one form of weight bearing exercise to help you gain strength. Trust me on this one — you might not think that being a gym bunny behooves you as the misunderstood bohemian guitar genius that you are, but this will help you become a better musician and enable you to do it for longer. Being a performer requires stamina and strength and making time to take care of your body is especially important if you’re an artist who lives wholly inside your head for long periods of time at a stretch. And no, playing pool doesn’t count either.

‘Go your own way’

Take the time to figure out your own definitions of ‘making it’ and what you need to feel fulfilled as an artist.
This often has the added benefit of finding out what makes you tick as a person and frees you of the compulsion to hurl heavy objects at the TV whenever Redfoo appears.
Don’t get caught up in other people’s idea of fame or success. This, my friend, will not end well. It is the path to bitterness, self-loathing and constant willful disappointment and even if you are cultivating a stage persona that is the love child of Edith Piaf and Kurt Cobain raised by Nick Cave during his London squat years, this is not attractive to be around and hence you may find it difficult to find people who will actually pay to be around you aka your audience.

(Please note that I am not talking about depression or social anxiety here. Suffering from depression, anxiety and other mental and emotional wellbeing issues are unfortunately all too common among musicians and can have the effect of making you feel as though people don’t want to be around you, that you’re not good enough, that you don’t deserve to be successful… sound familiar? If so, please be gentle with yourself and resist the temptation to read too much into this particular piece of advice.)

If, however, in general you have a pretty healthy opinion of yourself but you just so happen to be engulfed by despair at life’s unswerving unfairness and consumed with jealousy whenever any of your peers (or, even worse, your little sister’s peers) get a big(ger) break, then it might be time to sit yourself down and ask a few heavy questions — what makes you keep on creating in the face of rejection and setbacks? What would it take to make you give up (or keep working towards) your dreams?

A really great piece of advice I heard recently was to turn around the question of what it is you want — but more, ‘what specific kind of pain are you willing to live with, in order to live the life you want?’ Recognise that every path has its price and choose your direction with clear eyes and an open heart.

Enjoy that? Stick around for issue 5; Jen will be back with part 2 of her column.

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