The First Six Months: Thoughts from the Road

2016-10-23 15.51.43Paul and I have been on the road touring full-time for the past 6 months now – I have performed and/or spoken at 125 events since October and we’ve traveled to over half the US states so far… 34 is the current total, to be exact!

I feel so grateful for all the beautiful landscapes we have seen, the experiences we have had, and the wonderful people we have met along our journey. I have played at a wide variety of venues, from intimate coffee shops to packed clubs to elementary schools to disability rights organizations. Each event has been memorable, fun and rewarding in some way. I am so glad that I have been able to take this journey with the man who I love and care about so deeply, my husband Paul. It has been a dream come true for us to travel around the country (and the world!) together.

I knew this year was going to be a big transition and that I might not fully digest everything right away. I’m sure I am still processing it as we speak… I mean, Paul and I left our jobs, sold the house, bought a van, and basically said goodbye to our life as we knew it. So my brain probably has some catching up to do!

The past 6 months have been extremely fulfilling, exciting, tedious, frustrating, exhausting, scary, touching, and fun. There seems to be no middle ground on the road – it’s a constant roller-coaster. You’re working so hard and sometimes it seems like you can’t catch up or take a break… but then you remember that you’re working for yourself and your art and the people who support you – and that makes it all worth it. Paul and I both agreed awhile back that even though touring is a grind, we feel like the positives far outweigh the negatives. So as long as that is the case, we will keep going.

I thought that the lessons of the road would hit me sooner, like a ton of bricks, in the form of some grand epiphany about music or travel or marriage or the nature of life. But truthfully, we have been so busy that I haven’t had a lot of time for pondering. It seems the last 6 months were more for action and receiving information – and that all my processing must have been happening underground, in my subconscious.

Just this week, a theme of our tour slowly began to surface in my mind – about community and the arts community in particular. Looking back, the most remarkable thing I have witnessed again and again during these 6 months is the absolute kindness and generosity of people in the music community – both from the artists themselves and those who support creative types.

170403_151930_COLLAGE-1I think about Martin Atkins, one of the first people I met after the Tiny Desk Contest, who freely offered up his hard-won knowledge to us touring newbies and proceeded to facilitate two of the most memorable performances of my career to date – the CD Baby Conference and the Pigface 25th Anniversary Reunion Show – in his home base of Chicago.

I think about Warren Defever from His Name is Alive, who graciously opened for me at my show in Detroit and then let us crash at his apartment. He probably doesn’t know this, but the conversation we had over a cup of coffee the next morning provided me with a sense of clarity about what I want to do in my future recordings and I often find myself replaying his words in my head.

I think about Alan Sparhawk, who took me under his wing in our duo The Murder of Crows 6 years ago and introduced me to the looping pedal and played beside me as I sang my first-ever original song in public – and in addition to all of those tremendously meaningful contributions – who invited me to open for Low in Ireland during my first tour overseas in December. He didn’t have to do any of these things, but because of his kindness my world has been permanently altered. I am so grateful for him.

I think about Bob Boilen, whose voice I found on the other end of the line on February 26th, 2016 when I received a call from NPR telling me I had won the Tiny Desk Contest. After getting to know him better in the past year I can say that he is truly motivated by his love of music and that he genuinely cares about nurturing, supporting and guiding artists along their journeys. I had half-expected our paths to disconnect after my series of shows with NPR ended last May, but he has done a beautiful job of keeping in touch and popping in, not unlike Gandalf from Lord of the Rings, always bringing with him a boost of encouragement.

170403_151921_COLLAGE-1These pivotal moments clearly stand out to me, but what is most remarkable is that we have been on the receiving end of kindness and generosity from so, so many people during our tour… There’s no way I could write about all the goodness we have seen over the past six months.

As a touring musician, every single day you meet people who want to see you succeed and are more than happy to help you if they are able. People have opened up their homes to us as a place to rest or as a house concert venue. People have helped us spread the word about our tour dates, helped set up new shows, and sent me recommendations of future places to play. And this Fall, 142 people amazingly contributed $8,000 to our GoFundMe campaign so that Paul and Leah and I could tour in Europe. Some people stick around after shows to share a meal and others send their encouragement over the internet. Musicians and promoters and other road warriors have shared their stories and tremendously useful life lessons with us freely, helping us to learn more about this new life we find ourselves navigating.

We absolutely wouldn’t be where we are today if it weren’t for the support and positive energy and kindness of others. We have made friends in so many cities… the world seems much smaller and a bit less scary than it did when we first started this journey.

If all I learned from the last six months was to be grateful, I would be content with that. After all, I truly believe that gratitude is the seed of happiness.

But the more I ponder the kindness we’ve witnessed, the more I realize that there is another lesson to be learned beneath it all. And the lesson is this – we all rise together or we all sink together. So it is our task to help each other rise.

I think in my past, I was unwittingly fed a lie that only a select few “make it” in music and so everyone has to fend for themselves. I bought into the idea of scarcity without ever really admitting it. Sometimes I felt like I was fighting an uphill battle against all the other musicians out there. In my mind, we had to metaphorically duke it out over a limited number of fans who would either attend our show that night or go to someone else’s… The victor was the band with the biggest crowd.

In this unhealthy state I would sometimes find myself fighting off emotions like jealousy and impatience and entitlement. I am not proud of these feelings, but in my darker moments they were definitely real. I have always enjoyed playing, but competitive thoughts like these were a sure-fire way to suffocate that joy.

Now it is 100% true that the Tiny Desk Contest was a huge boon and I would be naive to think that it didn’t alter my musical path dramatically. But nonetheless, a lot of the artists I have met on the road this year didn’t get that kind of a lucky break. Instead they made the choice to start playing out, then they started touring, and over the years they built up their career piece by piece.

Regardless of how anyone got started touring, the people I most respect and enjoy spending time with on the road are not tripped up by the idea of competition. Instead, what I discovered was this beautiful network of individuals who are not sizing each other up, but are in fact helping each other out whenever possible – giving tips on venues or playing shows together or offering up a place to stay or helping to plan a show in their hometown or even just grabbing a beer together and trading stories at the end of the night. It seems one of the greatest joys of being a touring musician is connecting with other artists — indeed, other people in general! It’s truly about connection.

170403_151904_COLLAGE-1When artists support each other, build each other up, truly care for each other and root for each other’s success, we all do better. None of us do well if the arts are not valued or if the community is stale, insular, or stagnant. People are drawn to art precisely because it is vibrant, expansive and evolving. Promoting the arts in general not only helps every artist do better, but also has a more lasting impact than just our own fleeting success. When we realize this truth our focus changes and the whole world feels a little lighter. When we connect our art to a message that has a greater purpose, such as raising awareness or funds for a social justice movement, that light joins forces with determination and altruism. When we remember that we are interconnected to all of humanity, our main goal in life becomes love and not outward measures of success. In the broadest sense possible, we all rise together.

Just as I have received so much wonderful advice and kindness on the road, I want to be an ally and a helper and a source of encouragement to other artists I meet along the way. If this realization seems blatantly obvious to you, have compassion on me. We are just starting out on this touring journey and it’s a steep learning curve. I know we still have a lot to discover and that my views will continue to evolve… But I am so grateful for what we have witnessed so far. The world is complicated to be sure, but there is light in the darkness. And we can bring that light to each other with compassion, altruism and a desire to see each other succeed. We can and do rise together.

Author: violinscratches

Gaelynn Lea is a musician and public speaker from Duluth, MN. She is passionate about disability advocacy, personal growth, and authentic living. She was the winner of NPR Music's Tiny Desk Contest in March 2016.