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OR alternatively, Mortality for Musicians 101

With Jennifer Kingwell
Photography by Greta Punch Imagery

Chances are, you are some semblance of a well-rounded human being who, despite your rehearsal studio-side swagger, does not wholly exist to eat, breathe and create music 24/7. This is a good thing! Making music is an incredible gift to yourself and others but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, nor should it. These are some (hopefully) helpful tips for those who want to stick around for a while, both in a literal physical sense and also in terms of your musical career.

‘Check yo self before you wreck yo self’
Moderation in all things. Including moderation.
In the intro to part 1 of this guide we talked about the myth of the 27 Club — those preternaturally talented musical unicorns who left an incredible musical legacy despite passing tragically away at the early age of 27, often with some sort of toxic cocktail implicated in their deaths. Kurt, Janis, Jimi, Amy, even the big daddy of musical conspiracy theories, the Faustian Robert Johnson. As much as we can recognise that dying from a drug overdose at any age is not exactly a lofty life ambition, there is no doubt that the tragic nature of their early deaths, among many other factors, has contributed to a culture of romanticising addiction among musicians.

Part of the allure of drugs and alcohol are similar to the allure of playing music — the feeling of challenging conventions, transcending everyday consciousness, feeling liberated and connected at the same time. And look, if you’re a musician, there’s a pretty high probability that you’re fairly sensitive and temperamental with a hedonistic bent, working in environments literally awash with temptation and coping under significant pressures, both internal and external. While not every musician is a raging alcoholic or clinically addicted, it’s no wonder that many of us struggle with substance overuse or abuse at some stage.

It’s all too easy to fall into unhealthy patterns of consumption that can really compromise your health, your performance and yours and your bandmates’ sanity. If you find yourself relying on a crutch such as a drink (or three) before you play or even while you’re onstage, or you unwind by throwing after parties rivaling an Andrew W-K at a Roman Bacchanalia, try dialing back your excesses for a while to recalibrate your head and your liver. If you’re really struggling, you might want to consider seeking out professional help (see below).

‘Digging in the dirt (stay with me I need support)’
Recognise when you need help and go get it
While we may joke about songwriting and performing as a form of therapy – and sometimes it really may feel that way – there really is no substitute for professional support when things get too much for you to handle on your own. There is absolutely no shame in seeking out help from a counselor or therapist and trust me when I say you have literally everything to gain by doing so.

This also goes for recognising when those close to you, including friends, family, lovers and band mates, might be danger of going under. Look out for uncharacteristic behaviours in yourself and others such as always feeling exhausted, using drink or drugs to self-medicate, not taking interest in things that you used to enjoy, and/or feeling anxious, sad or angry all the time.

‘You gotta fight for your right to party’
Live your values
Think about your favourite musician of all time. The one who still makes your hair stand on end whenever you see or hear them play, whose every album and bio you pored over religiously, whose moves you practiced in the mirror, who is an indelible part of your creative DNA. Now ask yourself – apart from the ‘surface’ stuff – how they sound, how they look — how do they make you feel? What marks them out as godlike in your eyes? What hold do they have over their audience? What makes people love them? And – tellingly – what makes people hate them?

What I’m getting at here is that we are drawn to people who share our values, who stand for what we also believe in. And when it comes to musicians, those who reach legendary status rarely get there purely on their musical abilities alone – although that’s an essential part of it – they get there because of what they represent. They are a conduit for their beliefs, whether that’s the importance of awareness and peace and that they are part of an Angel race from Saturn to, yes, your right to party.

So what does this have to do with self care and not joining that big jam session in the sky before your time? Well, like we looked at before, you are a human being, not a musical automaton.

In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, authenticity and morality sit right up there with creativity as the self-actualisation cherry on top of the human fulfillment banana split. To go full mental analogy on you, think of the base needs for survival as the banana – these are your physiological requirements of food, water, shelter and sleep. Security of body, family and resources are your scoop of safety-flavoured ice cream; physical intimacy and feeling of belonging your dollop of chocolate love-sauce, a sprinkle of confidence and respect your esteem nuts with the afore-mentioned self-actualisation cherry sitting pretty on top.

Figure out what you believe in and use your creativity to express authenticity and explore your moral paradigm. You don’t need to become Michael Franti (Please, God, no), but you do gotta have a code.
Give your band, your fans and most of all yourself a reason to keep showing up night after night. Your soul will thank you, your peers will respect you and your community will support you.

And finally…

‘Don’t u miss the feeling music gave ya back in the day?’
Remember why you started this
When you step onstage or into the practice room, how do you feel? Excited? Nervous? Numb? If it’s the latter or too much of the former, you may need to take time to check in with yourself and learn to recognise the warning signs of burn out. These can creep up on you and could be related to performance anxiety, the grind of eking out an existence from either a full time musician’s wages or moonlighting while keeping down a day job, keeping on top of the seemingly endless admin and promotional tasks involved with getting your music ‘out there’, the cumulative sleep loss caused by touring and late night shows, constantly defending your lifestyle/career choices to your baffled extended family…. The list goes on.

Every so often, make a point of reconnecting with what brought you to music in the first place. You could do this in the form of weekly ‘artist dates’ as recommended by Julia Cameron in her much-loved creative guide The Artist’s Way, or take yourself on a songwriting sabbatical, or pick up an entirely new instrument and begin playing it as you would when you were a child — convinced that you’re a born genius and without the critical filter that so many of us grow like a scab over our natural creative flow.

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