Words by Valerie Veteto
Photos by Sarah Klearman
“I’ve learned what my flaws are with my social skills and I’ve tried to improve,” Hanlon says. “There’s a magnifying glass on you, so you learn very quickly what your strengths and weaknesses are.”
Sled Island is Canada’s version of Austin’s South By Southwest, thankfully sans the corporate sponsorship brouhaha. Set in dozens of venues across Calgary, Alberta, the promoters spread out an explosion of art over five days: music, film, comedy, a queer-zine fair, an art exhibition in homage to the indigenous Blackfoot population. Academy Award nominee Owen Pallett—who composed the score for Spike Jonez’s HER—played his songs with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, and was followed by Shabazz Palaces rapping in a veteran’s center in front of the Canadian flag. It’s a festival squirreled away in a former cowpoke town, but it’s impossible to feel under stimulated with so many events popping off at once.
Between bouncing from venue to venue, we sat down with both Allie Hanlon of Peach Kelli Pop and Laura King of Bat Fangs to discuss how they stay sane while on tour and the difficulties of being a working musician. We were a little nervous about throwing two strangers into the fire pit of exposed emotions, but there was something about Sled Island’s focus on inclusivity that allowed for a more open conversation.
Adventuring through the open road as a paid musician is a blast, but it’s still a job. Personally, my friends and I have a code word for whenever we’re wandering close to the edge of destructive behavior: self-preservation. In times of hyper adaptivity, a musician’s priority has to be personal well-being. Just like during an emergency crash landing on an airplane, strap on that air mask first, then help others. So, how do Hanlon and King prioritize mental health with so many unknown factors? How do they ensure mid-tour maiming between bandmates never strikes?
“There’s so much melted chocolate in our van,” King laughs [pictured below right]. “Coffee and chocolate are definitely things that I need every day.” She also makes a point to bring her running shoes and workout clothes. And in order to sleep as much as possible and to keep her energy level up, she quit drinking for the last year and a half.
The balancing act is about as effective and graceful as a panda pirouetting along a tightrope. “It’s like, ‘Do I sleep, or do I find food?’ You’re constantly compromising on basic human essentials,” Hanlon explains.
Help Musicians, a music charity based in the UK, polled 2,200 musicians on anxiety and depression last year. A worrying 71 percent reported experiencing high levels of anxiety or anxiety attacks, with 69 percent saying they suffer from depression. But there’s a big difference in how different countries support their artists. The resources are rarely enough for a sustainable career.
Hanlon hails from Ontario, Canada, a country that from 2016 to 2017 doled out grants to over 2,100 Canadian artists and the same number to arts organizations. Canada Council for the Arts makes the process to apply for grants simple: deadlines, forms, and even guides are laid out on the homepage of their website in clear, concise copy. Though she lives in Los Angeles now, Hanlon recently signed to Mint Records, a Canadian label. Through them, she can apply for Canadian grants to supplement her income—grants that allow her to tour with a more stable state of mind.
“Before I signed with them [Mint Records] I was like, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I can’t pay my rent. I have to do something else. Quit music, or do it on the side.’ And I was ready to do that,” Hanlon [pictured left] admits. “All of my friends in the US and myself up until now—we’ve made it work. Some bands can make it work and others can’t. But for me, I knew I couldn’t live in Los Angeles, which is a very expensive city, and keep the band going without help.”
Government aid for the arts is a symbiotic relationship necessary for both parties, despite countries dragging their feet with funding. “If a city doesn’t have culture, it sucks. Musicians bring in tourists, and they completely affect how an entire city works,” Hanlon continues. “It’s nice that Canada has found a way to help touring musicians.”
Rushing to catch soundcheck in a different city every day or every other day stretches you thin, to say the least. Thankfully, both Hanlon and King have noticed their set times have become earlier over the years. “Opening for Hop Along has been great, because we’re playing at 8 p.m. and then done early, usually wrapped up by midnight,” King says. “I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I remember the days when you wouldn’t be done until 2:00 a.m., 2:30 a.m. There used to be four bands per show, and, just, why? I don’t have the stamina for that and neither do my ears.”
Hanlon chimes in, “It also depends on whether you participate in the drinking culture. I don’t, usually. I’ll have a drink sometimes, but I’m working. I can’t lose my stuff, be tired the next day, or get sick.” Basically, if you want to champion a tour, and make it out alive, practice moderation.
Of course, if all you had to worry about was your own wants and needs, touring wouldn’t be quite so tough. Let’s be real, though: there’s no greater intimacy than being crammed in a van with the same group of humans for weeks on end, possibly months. And with intimacy comes tension. Even if you’re lucky enough to be best friends with your bandmates, inevitably someone will be plagued with low blood sugar. (Pro tip: keep a hidden snack stash of granola bars for when they’re hangry.) You’ll know each other’s bowel movements. You’ll watch bandmates snap over nothing. At some point, and this is just how it goes, you’ll want to strangle someone Homer Simpson–style over the most innocuous thing ever.
Think of you and everyone in your traveling van like a Sim from the classic computer game, The Sims. Remember the colored bars at the bottom keeping track of hunger, comfort, fun, environment, bladder? And how the Sims would throw literal temper tantrums, stomping and screaming if too many ran red? That’s you and your lead singer, who has to stop at every gas station to stretch her legs, and your bassist who refuses to sleep on anything less than a bed.
“You only really get to know someone when you’re on tour with them,” Hanlon says.
Like a lot of things in life, open communication helps the most in keeping moods stable. King explains, “We check in with each other every morning. We’re really tight, so we ask, ‘How are you doing today?’ If someone reacts to you the way you don’t feel they should react to you, don’t take it personally. I used to take that shit really personally, but now I realize it isn’t about me. Just give them space, and everything’s fine.”
She continues, “It’s important to respect everybody you’re around, because you’re in really tight quarters. I try be very aware of everyone’s emotional state. I try to be even-keel, but I can have highs and lows I try to hide. I think I’m a shower cryer. I’ll cry in the shower, come out, and then say, ‘Hey guys, what’s up?’”
Despite the ups and downs, or really because of them, touring is a huge opportunity for hyperactive personal growth. “I’ve learned what my flaws are with my social skills, and I’ve tried to improve,” Hanlon says. “There’s a magnifying glass on you, so you learn very quickly what your strengths and weaknesses are.”
“You have to learn how to not immediately react to things, and instead take the time to process emotions,” King agrees. “You have to talk things out. And listen. Maybe put on some Enya to calm down. We’re all just people.”