Why Should A Mom With Two Kids Be in the F***ing Crazy Music Business, Anyway?

(Originally published in the Van Wyck Gazette, Summer 2014. Photo by Hilary McHone)

My father-in-law, Norman Mailer, once said to me, “…if I had been a better father, I would not have been as great a writer.” I found myself in the role of devil’s advocate, as I often did with him; I tend to be a contrarian. What did I know? I was a new mom, in my twenties.

Flash forward:

I find myself caught between the magnetic poles that Norman referenced. But please don’t think I’m using the word “great” in any self-referential way. It’s the nature of the debate I’m talking about.

I’m a broke singer and songwriter who has to make decisions between family and career every day. Sometimes every hour. It goes like this: a new song, a new album, a series of shows at Rockwood Music Hall in NYC, or piano lessons, summer camp, and life beyond PB&J.

The specter of selfishness looms. But I feel the tug of destiny. Does that sound arrogant? I hope to hell not, but I can’t change it.

My journey into the arts began in a small town in Texas; I started to sing when I was eight. I moved to NYC in 1996 to pursue acting, a love that took over when a chronic condition of shyness forced me to find other ways to express myself. (That my shyness stopped me from singing, but not acting, was and is inexplicable to me. Maybe I was afraid of what I cared about most…)

In 1999 I met someone I fell in love with, got married, did the kid thing, and never looked back.

Until I started singing again in 2008 after my son was born. Something – I’m not sure what – motherhood, thoughts of the future, the interaction of hormones and creativity – clicked, and I decided to write the songs I said I’d never share with the world.

I have done okay, I guess, for an indie. But okay is relative. Far from it; I get paid less than a penny per stream for my music, getting booked at even popular venues means I play for free. I’m lucky to walk away with $100 bucks in tips, which doesn’t even cover the cost of my musicians. (It’s the reason I can’t always afford a bass player; I really miss him).

There are many dirty little secrets about what it means to be a singer-songwriter today. It’s not the romantic life you imagine. I get booking inquiries from managers who are only interested in how much my friends and fans will consume at the bar – and I’m talking about desirable venues who are interested in the gradual destructions of my friends’ livers.

I go along with it all, because the cliché of singing in the shower is too painful, and not singing anywhere is even more painful.

I have two beautiful children, a great husband, a two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn and various freelance jobs that allow me to pay rent. Sometimes I wish I was a social worker or florist, but then again, that’s not exactly high-frequency trading.

Am I doing something of value that my children will one day be proud of when I’m gone? I keep asking that question, and when I think about it too much, I drink and map out a different plan to become something better, something lucrative…something more.

But I don’t. Instead, I go from day to day, but sometimes there’s a crashing moment that truly makes you re-focus.

I had that in August 2010. I was chronically broke and my family and I were pushing hard on a music project that was just one week away from wrapping. I turned my music project into a family affair because summer camp was too expensive. Together, we made a music video. Yes it was challenging as hell, but we all have fond memories – like the time when we had to bribe my four-year-old-daughter with marshmallows just to get her to climb a near thirty-foot tree (Wait, that sounds dangerous. Maybe I should cut this out or the child services people will be up my ass).

Prior to that scene, our DP had fallen down a flight of stairs, spraining his ankle. My husband was the director and stunt coordinator (among other things), which meant our daughter was in good hands, but he couldn’t stop a torrential downpour. Luckily we got a great shot of the storm clouds.

Then the phone call came. Calls, actually. Three of them. Each with overwhelming news. My mother-in-law was in the hospital, her long battle with cancer was turning against her; my grandmother-in-law was in the emergency room; and my own mother was in the hospital for a last-minute quadruple bypass surgery in Texas.

There are choices you make in life that are instantaneous and not entirely sound or fair. (To yourself, to others you love.) Sometimes you just don’t know what to do, because no matter what the decision is, you neglect something else.

We went ahead. It’s the only music video I have today: Up In The Trees Music Video

Three months later, my mother-in-law passed away, and a few months after that, my grandmother-in-law followed. My own mother recovered from surgery, although she began gradually losing her sight. I had to figure out how I could afford to fly to Texas more frequently. More pressure. And it showed.

My debut album stalled, my performances suffered, and my plans for a release tour and party were shelved. I see my debut album, “Salina Sias,” floating in cyber space with no owner attached to it – even the artwork appears to be ghost-like.

My forthcoming EP will be released this year. This summer I plan to take my children with me on the road when it’s possible – I even lined up a gig at an ice cream parlor/coffeehouse in Albany, NY. And when school starts, I have a few plans up my sleeve (You’ll have to connect with me on social media to find out).

Some friends can’t believe I’m still doing it. Some ex-friends have judged and wondered when I am going to stop. Some worry about my sanity. It reminds me of the time I fell in love.

When I get back from a long trip, I notice that my six-year-old son is suddenly taller than my eight-year-old daughter. I see how excited they get when I walk through the door, exhausted and sleep-deprived from the hard work that goes into touring as a DIY indie (knowing I probably lost money). I mourn missing their art show or recital. And when it’s time to leave again, I find notes from my daughter in my bag:

“Mommy, I know I will miss you and I know you will miss me, but we are always together (even when we’re not). I wonder what you are going to see there in all of those places?”

Will my children be strong and independent and practice perseverance one day when I’m gone?

I wish I could revisit the conversation with Norman today. This time I’d be having it from the perspective of someone living the debate.

At the end of the day, I’m an artist, that’s who I am and I’ll find a way to be that no matter what comes my way. It’s not a vocation so much as a way of being. My sound, my voice, will live on, and travel with my children. I hope it will help them deal with their own unanswerable questions, the one that Yeats posed: “The intellect of man is forced to choose perfection of the life, or of the work.”

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