Happy people don’t write. When you are happy, you eat ice cream. You sip coffee with friends. You watch your children sleep. You make music. Only when the world pitches violently starboard and you watch your cherished possessions slide off deck into the storm-tossed sea do you make a buoy of your pen. Maybe, you think, if I can write the world back into order, I might survive. There are worse strategies.
I spent the larger part of a year not writing. Because I was busy being happy. Happiness for me means, working. I was Working On a Project. That project was Thousand Springs, born almost three years ago; it was the axis upon which I aligned my energies on a monthly, weekly, daily basis. It was also a huge undertaking. Even coming up with the concept took more than a few months of writing down ideas (fly a band to Idaho? Record an album in the wilderness?) until I settled on one. Then I did a kickstarter, which – don’t let anyone say otherwise – is the single most terrifying thing you can do as a creative person. I made it through that by the skin of my teeth and then spent the next six months actually making the record. There were many set backs along the way, and it ended up costing twice what I thought it would, but it was never not fun. Making music is a beatitudo perfecta.
This time last year I was spending seven, eight hours a day editing drums, fiddles, electric guitars. Editing drums is boring, but it’s a happy kind of boring. I was making an album of music exactly the way I wanted to, in a way no one ever had before. I was convinced of the merit of what I was doing, the execution of which provided a set of challenges which consumed all my attention. That is happiness.
The Thousand Springs project owned me completely, and while it took shape, a new set of hopes and dreams took shape around it.
Late last year, I finished it. It was mixed, mastered. I shot the album cover myself. I arranged the layout for the whole album and I don’t even know photoshop that well. It was a big pain in the ass, and a total joy.
Then, somehow, the record got signed to a label, which doesn’t really happen anymore – at least not to forty year olds who have never sold more than 3,000 albums a year.
But it did, and that was February, and so I got to spend another three months setting the table for the release. I booked a national tour. I acquired an interested and well-connected publicist and found money to pay him. There was a radio campaign. Long story short, I did everything within my power to make this album count. I believed in it with all my heart, each song, each moment on each song. I made the whole damn thing from beginning to end – every mouse click and instrument was my choice – so it was even more personal a statement than had I used an outside producer and recorded at a time-tested studio. Plus, when the record was signed, it was signed on it artistic merits (the label loved it) over and against my commercial track record, so I was very hopeful that its auspicious reception would carry over and that, once released, the world would fall in love with my record as the label had. I had great hopes: hence, great happiness.
I spent the summer on tour. It was my longest tour ever – eleven weeks spent playing shows, fielding interviews, handling the constant emails while driving myself from show to show to show (yes sometimes I emailed and drove. I’m not proud of it). I got on and off planes, lugging instruments and merch, sleeping in 70 different beds in as many days. I engaged socially, daily, with the people who came out to see me – not out of some sense of obligation, but sheer gratitude. These were the people who actually carved some time out of their busy lives to spend a few hours with me, listening to whatever came out of my head, heart, mouth. I mean, in this world of Katy Perry and Taylor Swift and money money fucking money, anyone who deigns to spend time sitting in a stranger’s living room or in a mostly empty club listening to someone sing, someone whose photo on their instagram feed will elicit envy or admiration in exactly zero of their followers – that person is an angel and a miracle and maybe a unicorn.
Anyway, it was for the release of the album as it was for its making: I was all in, soaking wet, holding my breath for as long as I could. And it was a true and unmitigated happiness. Because I had something to do and I was full of hope that the something I did might, after 7 albums and twenty years, finally matter.
It was late August when I had to concede that the album was going to be a total commercial failure. It was like it never happened. My friends and fans supported me, and to each of them I am so grateful. I’ve had people write me and say which song meant a lot and why, and I’m so grateful they took the time. Because time is the most valuable thing we have. But the radio campaign came and went. The press campaign the same. Not one national press outlet cared enough to even review the record. Hahahahahha not one!
And the monthly reports from the label would make me laugh were I not so embarrassed. Its a terrible feeling when you watch someone who not only believes in you, but ponies up the cash, lose their shirt in the wager. The metrics are pretty bad. I still have songs from the album on Spotify that have the dreaded < 1000 next to them. Meaning there’s seven billion people in the world and less then a thousand of them have heard my song.
I’m not writing this to say poor me. No one has the right to expect their art to matter to someone else. Also the freedom to make art in the first place is permitted to about .0001 percent of the worlds population. I’m a lucky duck and I get that.
What I’m trying to say is, the happiness of that project, and the hope that came with it, is gone.
I have to find something else.
Unhappiness is not knowing what to do with yourself.
Unhappiness is not having a sense of hope in the future.
The two ways I can address this are to give up, or figure out what’s next. The temptation to give up is so strong, but then what would that look like? You either kill yourself and someone else has to clean up your mess or you stop paying your bills until the sheriff escorts you out of your house and into a box under a bridge somewhere. That seems rude, both cases.
So instead I’ll write. I’ll just say what I think and feel, as plainly as I know how, so that I can stop dwelling on it and start working on whatever’s next.
The storm came and washed my happiness out to sea. I watched it go. But I’m still here. And somehow, the boat still floats. I’ve just got to point it somewhere.