Hey Little Mama: Trains, Refrains, and Growing Pains
“That was a good show, Mom… I think you forgot the words a few times,” my 7 year old son said, clacking a lollipop against his teeth, planted next to my guitar case on the floor of the Winnipeg train station. He would continue to offer sweet support and gentle criticisms over the course of our 4 day musical journey, keeping my rock star ego in check as we chugged through the Canadian Rockies, heading towards Vancouver.
Then, in 2015 I decided to try it as a solo performer and single parent. I made the trip in May with my 11 year old daughter on The Canadian (Toronto to Vancouver) and again in August with my 9 year old son.
In an increasingly precarious music industry, centered on late-night gigs or non stop opportunities for “exposure,” growing as a musician through touring is a tough go —it is especially tough for those balancing care or family obligations.
As a single parent, I have struggled to find the time and financing to merge travel, music and kids (often re-evaluating what it means to be a musician). VIA Rail’s Artist on Board offered me a rare opportunity to do exactly that.
The Artist on Board program invites Canadian musicians to apply for free travel in exchange for performing original and Canadian classics to passengers on the Ocean (Montreal to Halifax) or The Canadian (Toronto to Vancouver) lines.
The VIA gig is fun, and it is hard work.
in exchange for a cozy sleeper cabin, excellent meals and free passage across the country, Canadian musicians play 3 or 4 times a day (approximately 3 hours a day). More than just a series of shows, though, you are living with your audience for up to 4 days at a time. Part of the gig involves: hobnobbing with strangers; fielding song requests over dinner; playing in a red bar car — heating vent over head, drying out your vocal cords; being thrown to and fro as The Ocean chases twisted rails through Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. All the while, keeping spirits up, prepared for unexpected performances during long layovers as the train idles quietly in the middle of the Canadian Shield, waiting for a 4 km long freight train to snake past.
Making Your Connections
The VIA gig provides a welcoming space to work on strengthening solo skills, where kids are already part of the audience and performance, which makes it different from traditional musical ‘stomping grounds’.
Let’s be honest: Open mics tend to be sausage-fests, in part because it is difficult for single parents (who are typically women, but not always) to get out to a late night bar gig when we have parenting priorities.
Also, it is hardly news to report that the live music scene continues to have a gender problem, although there certainly is movement among the younger generations to make more room for women, non-binary folks, and people of colour (thanks young folks). And, in spite of all the the brouhaha, poster revisions and similar tactics aimed at pressuring festivals and venue to be more inclusive, change is slow.
Oh I know my ‘fame’ days are long past — I choose to do music because it’s what I do. And, finding creative and collaborative spaces where one can grow as a musician through community engagement can be difficult when the community largely meets at bars after 9pm.
I acknowledge that being an older white woman insulates and privileges me, but I do believe the Artists on Board adventure offers a safer performance space and playful place for Canadian musicians who are rarely represented at mainstream industry events, songwriting circles, jams and open mics.
I liken the Artist on Board gig to a cross between busking and a corporate gig. VIA gives musicians a fairly wide berth for musicians to play their original compositions, and there is also an expectation that musicians are well versed in entertaining a wide variety of passengers. Being good at entertaining with kids in the mix seems to be a transferable skill that many of us single parents literally rock at.
The Beg, Busk and Barter Economy
A dear friend, Geoff Johnson, who devoted his far-too-short life supporting local musicians and working on his own craft, took great issue with the term ‘gig economy’ , particularly as it applied to local musicians working somewhere between coffee house gigs and festival stages. Few bars and venues pay musicians a set (living wage) fee for playing a gig these days. Most bars rely on artists to charge and collect a cover or use a ‘pass the hat’ model of payment. These are tough times for music venues too. Forget about raising kids on it (although I am confident there are exceptional musical parents out there making it work; the Young Novelists have spoken about parenting and performing at the 2015 Folk Music Ontario conference).
I have raised 4 kids as a single mom (the eldest twins are grown up now and off doing awesome things). I love and live with my life and music partner’s 3 children (that is 5 kids in-house, for those keeping count). If Allain and I want to play music, we really have to do it for the love of it. Because there are so few ways to make money as a musician these days, you need to be intentional and strategic in deciding where and when to play.
The VIA gig is not a paying gig, in the traditional sense; however, these performance opportunities have provided me a qualitatively better audience reach and impact than playing in traditional venues (hey, I was once recognized on the San Francisco waterfront by a couple who saw me play on VIA in Alberta!)
Given what you get in exchange (excellent food, travel and a literally captive audience), the VIA gig is a barter worth serious benefits, especially if late night bar gigs are a rare exception on your tour schedule.
Merging Tracks, Kids and Music
If you asked my son what he remembers most about his time on the train, he will recall how a couple from South Africa befriended us by asking him to tell them all about raccoons! They, in exchange, explained how giraffes were as common in their backyard as deer were in ours. My daughter made a friend with another young girl of the same age. One of my favourite pictures from that adventure was sent to me by her mom: the two girls are sticking out candy stained tongues to the camera after visiting the train-themed sweets in Winnipeg. Both of my kids remember falling asleep in the top bunk of a moving train, and seeing mountains rise and fall as we chased the Fraser Valley River into Vancouver.
Kids don’t prevent you from doing anything. They are the thing. I offer this in the spirit of my dad’s oft used phrases: “You are not stuck in traffic, you are traffic.”[As an aside: I support all women’s choices to have children or not. Having children does not make one’s life more or less meaningful: it is just different].
If you do have kids, and you are a musician, gigs like VIA’s Artist on Board program are one of those sweet ways you can gather your loves as you tour. These experiences — in tandem with parenting experiences — have introduced me to so many other musicians and music lovers, while expanding my artistic desires.
In early 2019, I will be embarking on a new adventure, tracking the stories and songs born out of musician’s experiences with programs, such as VIAs Artist on Board, in my new project Canada Via Music (CVM). I’m excited to connect with a wide range of musicians who count themselves as being Artist on Board alumni and who have similarly funny or interesting stories to tell about performing and racing through mountains over plains and past pines, towards the oceans that bookend this great country.
As my kids and I raced through this vast land together, taking in our first 4 am Saskatchewan sunrise, I realized how familiar this train gig was to the single parenting gig.
You develop an ear for creating music collaboratively when you play in a band: you share responsibility and control in order to truly enjoy the chaos of collaboration.
You develop coping strategies that rely on other band members. When you play solo, your ‘band’ coping strategies are laid bare: you are playing without a net.
As a single mom, this is a familiar place.
If I was going to start the song in the wrong key, well… it was up to me to figure out how I was gonna resolve that problem before I got to that high note… in front of an audience.
Sometimes it even worked out!
Performing on the train provided opportunities for my kids to witness and accompany me through my own growing pains, making mistakes, and trying not to take myself so seriously that it paralyzed my willingness to be scared and play anyways.