Friday, January 13, 2017

MARCH 26, 2015

A couple of weeks ago I got a random call from a writer from The New York Times. Full disclosure, it was acclaimed author Ron Lieber, with whom I went to Amherst College.  He was editing a special section of the Times that would include stories about financial turning points and remembered I’d written a Facebook post a little over a year ago about my process of looking into buying a house and having to move.  He invited me to contribute something to this special section. He wrote me, “Maybe an essay….maybe even a song.”  I was in the studio on the day of the release of my newest album, ‘That Kind Of Girl,’ making another record with a side project of mine called Applewood Road (an acoustic trio of three women singer/songwriters) and my first thought was ‘Now? I’m completely exhausted…”  My second thought was ‘THE New York Times? Hell yes!’  You see, a few months ago, maybe even a year ago, I started contemplating a life that had more balance.  A life that included less time wasted in cheap motels in days off in between shows miles away from home. A life that would make space for gardening, time at home with friends, dating, maybe even – gasp – a relationship.  And part of that contemplation involved a lot of meditating and prayer about wanting to write more and tour less. Not just songwriting. Whatever-writing.  A week prior to Lieber’s invitation came another invitation to guest write for a column in the Nashville Scene. So my prayers were being answered, I could see that and be really grateful for it, but the timing was a bit fishy. I was overwhelmed and depleted and didn’t think I could do it.

Knowing that I had to do this, not ‘gun to the head’ kind of have to but a personal mission of ‘I WILL do this’ kind of have to, I called Neilson Hubbard, one of my favorite people and one of my favorite songwriters. I told him the assignment. I said, we have to do this today. He said, ‘I’ll be over at 5.”  That’s the best thing about living here in East Nashville. I am surrounded by people way more talented than I am, way more fluid as songwriters, as musicians.  And we live within a mile or so of each other. We write songs. We record songs. We play guitar or bass or drums or produce or tour. When we are home we are HOME. When we are not, we are in far flung places for a good amount of time.  And when called upon to write a song, we show up and write a song. I have a wonderful group of songwriters I meet with mostly every week to share new songs with, for critique, for the experience of throwing a new idea out to the world. We write all the time. Because our neighbors are writing all the time.  It’s not a competition at all here in any kind of negative way; it’s more of a call to arms to the artist inside. Create! Produce! I love it. I feed on it and being here in the middle of the juice has made me a better writer. 

We wrote a song called “Spent” in about an hour.  It was easy to write once we decided our subject matter was pretty much right next door.  We live in East Nashville, TN, a bohemian neighborhood in Music City right across the Cumberland River from downtown that, for many years, has been home to one of the most diverse populations in this city.  Bisected by Gallatin Pike where an uber-hip coffee shop might sit in between a Discount LIquor Store and a Check Cashing Shop, this area is peppered with quaint cottage homes, that, until just a year ago, were affordable for the Artist Class. 

In the past five years, we’ve seen an explosion here in development downtown, and that has crept across the river to East Nashville, as well, where small, once-affordable homes are being bulldozed to make way for quickly-built condos and larger homes.  The artist class is being pushed out to make way for the nouveau riche hipster. 

A little more than a year ago, the owner of the home I’d been renting for 5 years gave me a month’s notice to buy the place or find someplace new. I started the process of looking into buying a home of my own for the first time, which was daunting.  I am a single woman in my mid 40’s.  I make a living at making music. I do not have a ‘dayjob’. This is my dayjob. And I make a living at my art, which is a dream fulfilled. 

But for many of us working-class musicians, painters, artists, writers, we live a precarious financial existence of our own choosing.

I remember a few years back, a conversation with my father.  He’d been a company man for my entire life. A salesman, then a Regional Manager, then a Vice President, then one of a handful of owners who bought the company they’d worked with for many years.  I remember the year of the buyout well, because my father was able to buy all four of us kids cars – not new ones, used ones, but our own car.  We all got computers. I didn’t have to carry a student loan for my final year of college. My parents’ took us all on an incredibly extravagant vacation where we learned to sail a boat together.  A few years later, though, the owners sold the company to a multi-national, whose executives then turned around and ‘let go’ of the original owners one by one. My father was jobless at an age (and salary) it would be impossible to compete with younger men and women competing in the same field for less money.  My father was out of a job but more than that, he was deprived of the thing he’d been working for all those loyal years: the golden ring at the end of the 1950’s corporate rainbow – the retirement party, the big hoopla over a life well-spent towing the party line.  My Dad did all right on his own, created his own company and consulting business until he chose to retire to volunteer for the Boy Scouts of America and spend more time with his church and with my mother and his grandchildren.  All the time I was in my 20’s and 30’s, working three jobs, trying to ‘make it’ as an actress and then a singer and songwriter, bartending by night, personal assistant or temp-secretary by day, working my way up the artistic food chain until I had a manager, a booking agent, a label, until someone famous recorded a song I’d written and gave me my ‘break’ and I could live very modestly off my artistic work without a support job…all that time my parents held their skeptical tongues. Until one day, my father said to me, looking back upon his own career, “I’m so proud of you. You are your own boss of your own business. You did something you love. That’s the most important thing in the end.”  It was one of the most important conversations I’ve ever had with him.  That he saw me and got it. 

I have a friend who used to say “We don’t make great livings but we have great lives.”

We are the artist class. Some months we make nothing. Some we make $10,000.  It’s the rare one of us who knows how to manage our money.  And it’s the very rare one of us that has a corporate entity like a Major Record Label who pays for all the things we need to make our art.  We are all independent artists in the end. And we rely upon our audience in order to make a life and a living. Whether that be from record sales off the stage, the cost of a ticket to see a live show, or help from Kickstarter or Pledge or any other patronage that may luckily come our way.

I did find a house I could afford and, with the help of a generous friend, we entered into a rent-to-own situation and, for that, I am extremely grateful.  But they are tearing down the small cottage homes nearby to throw up $400,000 homes and changing the aesthetic and social fabric of this little area where a session musician or a non-famous folk singer could once buy a house and a piece of the proverbial Dream. 

(Amy Speace/Neilson Hubbard)
Come take my hand let's walk to the end of this rainbow
Do you think that we'll ever know
Where to find all that gold

Once I heard someone singing a dream we could have and hold
Something of our own
A place to call home

We're head over heels
And in over our heads
We borrow and steal to pay the rent
How we gonna save any money when it's already spent

Years keep rolling the houses keep falling like dominos
They're throwing up condos
The new for the old

It's not enough to hear your own song on the radio
When your credit is far below
What they need for a loan

We're head over heels
And in over our heads
We borrow and steal to pay the rent
How we gonna save any money when it's already spent

Can we stay or do we have to go
Could this be the end of the road
How we gonna save any money...

We're head over heels
And in over our heads
We borrow and steal to pay the rent

How we gonna save any money when it's already spent

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