From Frontman To Solitarian

Douglas Balmain
May 1 · 14 min read
The State Theater, Northern California. 2013

The rising sun beamed through the valley below, setting the Alpine peaks in dramatic contrast to the black shadows that stretched out from behind their sunlit faces.

I sat in the centuries-old living room—built of hand-hewn beams on the side of a much older mountain—eating my slice of dark rye with a slab of cured bacon, washing it down with the region’s local lager.

Cell service, data, Wifi, my phone, my laptop—all were out of sight and out of mind. They had no place there.

Despite myself, my mind flashed back to my world, my real world—the world I would, theoretically, be returning to:

Pitching, marketing, emails, phone calls, photo shoots, press releases, social media—grow the numbers, grow the engagement, land shows, promote shows, cut records, promote records…


My stomach turned sour.

Douglas Balmain, press-package photoshoot. 2013

Truthfully, I wouldn’t have thought that — a few years after the fact — I would still be getting asked why I left the music industry and if (more often posed as ‘when’) I will be returning…

…but, I do still get asked those questions, quite regularly in fact…

…and I always do a poor job of providing a coherent and/or accurate answer. This marks the first time I’ve truly attempted to articulate why I left.

Even now, with no one looking me in the eyes, no one waiting for a response, having all the time I need to privately formulate and type out the why of my decision, I find myself stumbling over my words.

How do we speak about the decisions that aren’t intellectual? — the decisions that exist beyond even the conscious-awareness of feeling, or the interpretations of feelings?

How do we communicate the knowledge that we just “know”?—how do we speak of the something within us, we know not what, that communicates to ourselves our most personal truths?

Music came out of nowhere. At the time of writing my first song, I had no ambitions of becoming a singer/songwriter; the whole thing was an accident, a random event that took on its own energy and both wildly and rapidly altered the course of my life.

I entered a relationship with music under the most unadulterated of circumstances. I was working as a wrangler near Moran, Wyoming — living in a shared bunkhouse and pulling in just-over minimum wage—when I unwittingly wrote the lyrics to my first song.

Radio plays, distribution, fans, touring, recording — none of these things existed in my thoughts. I simply had energies inside of me that needed releasing, situations that needed to be coped with, ideas that needed to be explored; but, in day-to-day life, I did not possess the capacity/ability to address the internal forces that were acting on my being.

My subconscious took over, acting to counter my deficiencies, and I started writing songs.

Photo by Douglas Balmain.

Writing and playing music felt like progress-made. If I was able to write a song, to sing it, and thereby release the soulful energies inside of me that were demanding recognition and expression—that was my reward.

My early performances were products of unrestrained passions, emotions, and intensity. When I sang, I sang too hard — I played my guitar too violently, I strained, I sweat, I bled. Playing music was an exorcism: I wasn’t performing for an audience, I was facing down my demons and downfalls.

From “Nowhere To Hide.” Photo by Tyler J Schwab.

The act of making music, and my relationship to music itself, experienced a profound change when I turned the corner from being a “strong local-effort,” to a truly professional entity working to find his place within the industry.

It was quickly made abundantly clear to me that no one [as it related to industry professionals] gave a shit about “my work.” They cared about revenue and/or the potential to monetize my brand.

“For a performing musician…if you have a free hour, you spend it practicing. But, if you’re a rockstar and you’ve got a free hour, you know what you do? PR.” -Roger McNamee

If you don’t need to sell your own music — if you can just play and perform — you have the luxury of giving your time to music itself. But, when it’s your music, if you’re selling your name—as the industry demands—you’ve got to spend all of your time off-stage running and promoting your business.

While it would be easy for me to write about [see: blame] the music industry itself, that’s not what this is/was truly about.

It’s true that the industry puts corrupting pressures and constraints on artists, it’s true that it’s an unhealthy environment—but, the industry itself did not force me away from my work.

Many cramped nights were passed in the back of vehicles.

I got off to a rocky start in the music biz. I was all dogged determination and ambition but was devoid of wherewithal and direction.

Most artists study, work, and hone their craft for many years [as I should have] before attempting anything like a public debut. I gave it a shot after a few months, not because I was cocky, I was simply ignorant and impassioned.

I floundered; my early ambitions only worked to set me back. It took years and a great many mistakes [both public and private] before I started to figure it out.

Recording in Nashville, Tennessee.

The work, the hustle, was incessant and unrelenting. I’d dropped several inches off of my waist size, sleep was a rarity; I was fully immersed — entangled in the grind — I couldn’t see out, there was no other world, it was just the pursuit of the career.

Years had gone by without anything like a break and my clothes had started to hang off of my slimmer frame. When people who had known me before the days of music would run into me, I’d inevitably field the questions — after a pause:

“Are you okay? How have you been doing? Are you eating? Are you sleeping? Are you happy?”

What was I supposed to say?

What does anybody say when asked if they’re okay? What does anyone do when they’re under-nourished and over-leveraged?

How does anyone act when they’re so overwhelmed and engulfed by their circumstances that they possess no perspective other than their own view of their pursuit?

They say they’re fine, they put their heads down, and they continue digging their holes deeper.

Then, in 2014, we recorded the Burnin’ Both Ends EP and my work began to catch a bit of traction. The EP got some good press, helped me land a few notable shows, and even reached the top of the “Rock” chart and made it into the Top 3 most-downloaded records on the independent Noisetrade charts for a couple of weeks.

Burnin’ Both Ends. Released March 3rd, 2015.

While Burnin’ Both Ends didn’t break into the mainstream, I was happy for every bit of success and recognition that it got.

“Amidst hipster folk and indie rock projects, Balmain has emerged with an album that sounds like it could have come out of Detroit in the early-1970s or Muscle Shoals in the late-1970s. It’s a vibrant and rich mix of rock and soul that has all of the swagger of the feel-good decade. From the opening notes of the EP, listeners can almost see the warm glow of fat tube amps pouring out of their speakers onto shag carpeting. The rocking blues-soaked title track sets the stage, but Balmain manages in only six songs to shift between soulful slow tunes like the exquisite “Home” to sing along anthems like ‘Meet Me.’” -Marquee Magazine

“Soulful and rockin’, the EP has a musical diversity and eclectic range from Shoals to Motown with his melodic vocal range from crooner to belter, the songs tug hard between the heart and head.” -No Depression

“Burnin’ Both Ends” music video shoot; Los Angeles, California. Photo by Douglas Balmain.

“When looking up Denver artist Doug Balmain, the words ‘rock & roll’ and ‘soul’ come up often. However, after listening to his latest EP, “Burnin’ Both Ends,” I don’t believe those words alone do his music justice. Every track on the album sounds as though he placed a piece of his own soul in it. It feels reflective, like an autobiography in a more poetic form. It will almost have you feeling like your speakers are confiding in you.” -Bucketlist Music

At this point in time, I had not yet attained what could have been accurately described as a “career” in music. I was struggling; the numbers weren’t adding up — I was scraping and clawing for each and every opportunity that I earned.

I did experience some successes and I do believe that The Lockdown [my band at the time] was capable of gaining enough popularity, and the industry relations we had begun to foster were capable generating enough opportunity, for us to build a stable career…

…but, we weren’t there yet.

Sometime in 2015, my dad got a hold of me and said he wanted to go see the Alps on a motorcycle—he wanted to know if I was in.

At first, the idea of taking off for a few weeks to ride motorcycles and look at mountains seemed impossible. It’d be great, no doubt, but how could I? In the past four years I hadn’t walked away from the grind for 24 hours, let alone 3 or 4 weeks.

But, somewhere inside of me, I knew I needed a break—I knew I needed to step away for a bit. I committed to the trip; shortly thereafter I was boarding a Lufthansa A359 flying direct to Munich, checking a motorcycle helmet rather than a guitar case.

Album art by Drew Doorn.

When I first arrived in Germany, my mind remained overactive. Despite “being on vacation,” I was thinking of industry contacts in the area, of touring possibilities, radio spots, etc…

What was the name of that Germany/Euro booking agency the [BAND NAME’s] tour-manager was telling me about?—Maybe I should pop into their office…Which broadcasting company is it that’s been playing my record, maybe I could call them up and schedule an in-studio interview?—That’d be a good photo-op for social media content…

This way of thinking/existing was not a conscious effort, it was automatic, it had become my norm, my “resting state.” There was no such thing as off-the-clock; if I wanted to make it—if I wanted merely to be able to keep going—I could not afford to take time off, I could not afford missed opportunities.

The Lockdown performing live in 2015.

Rather than relief, rather than the sensation of experiencing a victory, I found that with every new success I earned, there came another mountain of work and renewed pressures that only took me further and further away from my music, from my art.

Musicians and songwriters have to work tirelessly to create their art [the product], the product then gets consumed en masse, but nobody buys the product, and the creator never gets paid.

Since songs no longer actually sell, you can’t treat music as a normal business. i.e. Create a product, sell a product.

Professional singer/songwriters have to become “entities” — we have to market our lives as a whole, we have to commoditize our Selves to support the creation of our art.

Music itself became something I squeezed in when I could.

The better it got, the worse it got.

Pre-show warm up and soundcheck.

I could’ve found a way to handle those constraints…

…if it weren’t for the new apprehensions that had been gaining energy inside of me.

My subconscious drill sergeant wasn’t yelling his fight anthem with the same vigor he once had, and a new voice inside of me began to make itself known. A voice that asked difficult questions:

You can keep going, if you do you might even make it—but—is that what you want? Do you want to be a frontman? Do you want to be a ‘name’ in the entertainment industry? Do you want to market your life? Do you want to be a public figure?

While I can sometimes be outgoing of my own volition, I am a private person; it became clear to me that I’m not made for interviews and photo shoots, I do not want to be an entertainer or crowd pleaser, I don’t want to see my face on a billboard — I don’t want to be recognized, I don’t want to be dressed up and packaged for the masses.

Turning my work into performance and marketing was eating me up.

The Lockdown; Press photo shoot, 2015.

A couple of weeks had passed in the European Alps, the mountains were beautiful, being back on a motorcycle was proving to be great fun, the strudel and schnapps were excellent—and, incrementally, my mind began to return to myself and my own experience. I turned my phone off, I forgot all about my laptop, and I stopped logging in to the band’s social media accounts.

I began to see the mountains not as a photo-op, but as mountains to be appreciated simply for being mountains.

As my mind cleared, I experienced a contradiction of feeling. I felt both increasingly good and increasingly poor.

Good because my mind was clearing, I was seeing a view that I had obstructed and forgotten was there.

Poor because, with each passing day, the dread of returning to the environment I had created for myself grew stronger.

Dad & I; Grossglockner Pass, Austria.

Writing, my process of creating, was [and is] intensely private. Taking that process and the work it created, then feeding it into a dispassionate, commercial machine felt like a corruption — a degradation — of my Self.

This, of course, does not make me unique; many artists share these same feelings.

The best, most powerful music is/was born under the most intensely private and starkly honest of circumstances; there are many inspiring and successful artists who have been able to work alongside [or, “in spite of”] the industry while still remaining true to their art and delivering their best work to the people who value and support their music.

But, me — I had had enough. I loved the music itself, I loved creating, but I could not commoditize my life in the way that the industry demanded.

Live at the Marquis Theater.

When I landed back in the states, there was one last show on the books for 2015, it was a big show the week before Christmas — we were opening for Booker T. Jones at the Oriental Theatre.

The band and I hit it hard, tightening up our set and getting ready to bring the working-year to a strong close.

It was the perfect crowd. After gifting us their enthusiastic applause, whistles, and various yells-of-appreciation, the crowd would quickly fall silent again in between songs.

They were waiting, they were watching, and listening—they wanted to absorb the experience. They weren’t focusing on carrying out shout-conversations with their friends over the top of the music, they weren’t there to drink too much and lose themselves to the intoxication; they were there to experience live music.

We played well, our set burned by in what seemed like mere minutes, the crowd cheered, and we hustled our equipment off-stage so we could give it over to the real star of the night.

We were approached after the show by what felt like the entire audience; they went out of their way to tell us how much they enjoyed the show. Our PR agent was ecstatic, the guys were buzzing, merch was selling, our fan-list was growing. We were on our way, we were doing good things—there was a certain “nothing’s going to stop us” energy radiating through the room.

Little did anyone know, I was on my way out.

What better night to say goodbye? What better time to take my proverbial bow?

I took a few weeks to think it over, to make sure I was making the right decision; then, in January of 2016, I submitted my formal resignation from the band and dissolved our professional relationships.

Booker T. Jones and I, post show. Left back: Lead guitar, Josh Skelton. Middle back: Perfectly executed photobomb by our #1 supporter/honorary band member Miss Taylor.

Leaving the industry was effortless and freeing.

Leaving our incredible band, “The Lockdown” —

— that was a tremendously difficult act to carry out.

Those guys were [are] awesome, I loved playing with them, I loved creating with them; the energy we all had when we were together was truly special.

Leaving a band like that, walking away from my own music, it felt like leaving a partnership with someone who you still love for no other reason than because you’ve realized that your lives must go in separate directions.

The Lockdown; press photoshoot. 2015

I once stated with the utmost certainty and confidence that I’d never be anything other than a singer/songwriter, I stated that I had—unequivocally—found my path.

Alas, my youthful ignorance and enthusiasms have been the catalyst for many of my apostasies.

We do not have the luxury of traveling along one chosen path. We move alongside time, greeting and responding to the unknown and unknowable in each new moment. Only in hindsight can we link our tangled, fragmented routes together to call them a path.

I still believe whole-heartedly in my music, and I still want that music to be shared, listened to, and appreciated. It stands alone.

Douglas Balmain, “Nowhere To Hide” press photoshoot. 2014.

But—now—as I sit and attempt to sing and play the songs I once wrote—I find that I’m no longer there. The notes, the words, the sounds—they all arrive, but the feeling, the soulful presence does not. My work with these songs is done.

Perhaps that’s the real truth of it…

…perhaps my spirit to continue left me after I had accomplished all that I had needed to accomplish for myself through music?

I felt it, I saw it, I learned about myself, I learned to face the things I didn’t know how to face — I demystified the experience.

My ‘betterment’ [for lack of a better term] came at a great cost, but it also delivered a powerful reward—one that I’m still unpacking and beginning to better understand.

Now, it is again time for me to change directions. Prose comes to me in the same manner that lyrics once did — I write feverishly, compulsively, and constantly. It is through this form of creativity that I feel I can best serve my new ambitions and, I must say, I’m much happier pursuing this more private, quiet, and focused medium.

This year has already proven to be rewarding: I have multiple short-stories completed and submitted for publishing and I’ve been awarded a private artist residency to continue work on my debut novel, which I began writing last December.

My days of creation are not behind me, they’re just finding a new groove. I’m looking forward to the future and whatever unforeseen changes may come my way.

© Douglas Balmain. 2019.

Douglas Balmain

Written by

Author, Essayist, Advocate for Non-Human Species, Ex-Recording Artist:

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