When Tina from the Trad Music Forum asked if Findlay and I could write a blog post on how two self-employed folk musicians juggle the music work with being parents I automatically, said “sure, no problem!” Two weeks later, we are still working on it!
At breakfast the other morning, one of the few times a day when we sit together and attempt to talk about everything we need to do (whilst being interrupted constantly by a five year old who has just started school and has A LOT to share), we realise although we are in it together our experiences of being freelance musicians and parents are actually quite different.
We decided to write our own perspectives on it and put them here side by side for all to see. I’m hoping Findlay will at least let me cast an eye over his post before it goes public!
Here’s a brief bit of background for those who don’t know us. I’m Gillian (Frame) and I moved to Glasgow from Arran in 1998 to start the very new Scottish Music degree at the RSAMD (now RCS). I met lots of lovely young trad musicians from all over Scotland, one of whom was Findlay Napier, a Scots singer from Grantown on Spey who was in the third year of the course. In 2000 along with Findlay’s younger brother Hamish and a second year piper Simon McKerrell, I started a band called Back of the Moon. In 2001 we got Findlay in on the action. We toured for seven years, with Ali Hutton replacing Simon in 2005 and won various awards including Best Up and Coming Act followed by Best Folk Band at the Scots Trad Music Awards. A great run for the band which sadly came to an end in 2008.
So what to do now? I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next musically and felt like I needed a bit of time to recharge. Findlay was keen to do more with his song writing so formed the Bar Room Mountaineers. This was great for me as I got to have much more of a back seat and enjoyed a new challenge of adding fiddle and backing vocals to Findlay’s more contemporary, original songs.
I guess I was at a bit of a hiatus at this point in terms of my own music making and thought this would be a perfect time to think about starting a family. In hindsight I think it was perhaps not! It is hard enough to get new projects off the ground at the best of times, never mind when you are adjusting to being a mum, are the most sleep deprived you have ever been and are tied to nap and feeding times!
In 2013 and I was working as a music instructor for North Ayrshire Council and took six months unpaid maternity leave. I did get a small state maternity allowance but was only allowed to work ten days whilst claiming that so I had to choose carefully! I remember playing at Speyfest when our wee girl was four weeks old. She waited in the trailer back stage with Findlay’s mum and dad while we did our set. Throughout the whole gig I was praying she didn’t wake up hungry and I kept thinking I could hear her crying. She slept through the whole show; it was all my imagination.
When she was seven weeks old I was teaching at Splore in Aberdeen and Fin kept the week clear so he and the wee one could come with me. Luckily as I was group teaching with Jenn Butterworth, Angus Lyon and Steve Fyvie and they didn’t mind when Findlay knocked on the door with a hungry baby looking for her mum.
Those are the times when it worked doing both. It was definitely easier when she was very wee, not mobile and a little less aware. There was that time when I played a gig in a café when she was two-ish and she kept shouting, “come here mummy!” And “get off that stage mummy!” I was mortified.
Now she is five, taking her to work is becoming easier. She was with us recently in the studio and was a great engineer’s assistant and, of course, wanted to add in her own backing vocals to one of the songs… think Yoko Ono.
For those few years in the middle I found it quite stressful gigging and having a toddler in tow. I wasn’t that keen on being away for long stretches, instead I chose to be at home more. This meant Findlay taking on more work, often jobs he was not particularly enjoying, which led to him being away more. This is something we both found hard which he’ll talk more about in his piece. I eventually worked out that even if I wasn’t working as much, I still needed to be playing and singing to be happy.
I remember a day early on, Findlay returned home after his fourth consecutive day teaching ukulele to 10 year olds in Dumfries and Galloway to find me having a bit of a melt down. When he asked what was wrong I told him I just hadn’t expected it to be like this. I had expected it to be more equal. He asked me (completely genuinely) if I would like to swap? We could bottle feed the baby, he could stay at home and I could do the teaching. The answer was no, I didn’t….. but what did I want?
As I touched on in a recent blog for Hands Up for Trad (https:// projects.handsupfortrad.scot/handsupfortrad/a-life-in-trad-music/) this for me was the hardest bit. I wanted to devote a lot of time to being a mum but also hang on to my own identity as a professional musician. Getting the balance right is not easy and it takes lots of compromise and flexibility.
An up to date shared on-line calendar is essential but not fool proof (as Findlay will explain later). In addition to the GoogleCal we also have an academic planner for the year and a White Board of Ultimate Truth for the fortnight placed strategically in the kitchen. As well as putting in your work commitments it’s so important to actually lock out time for things which keep you healthy and feed the soul; walks, exercise, going to sessions, going to gigs, hanging out with friends. In order to do this you will probably need to do something that doesn’t come easy to most of us… asking for help. If you are lucky enough to have family nearby hopefully they will lend a hand. You’ll be amazed at how many of your friends take great pleasure in hanging out in the park with a sugar fuelled toddler or sitting on the couch eating pop corn and watching The Incredibles with a snotty five year old.
I am really proud of all that Findlay and I have achieved in amongst what has felt like chaos at times: Findlay’s VIP and Glasgow albums, my own solo album Pendulum, the setting up of the Glasgow Song Writing Festival, to name a few highlights.
We are very excited to be starting a new recording project called The Ledger. Produced by the fantastic Mike Vass, the album will feature songs which Findlay’s grandfather cut out from the Scotsman newspaper in the 50s and pasted into a ledger book. The cuttings were from a weekly column by Norman Buchan which we believe went on to become The Wee Red Book and eventually The Scottish Folksinger.
So there you go. There have been lows for sure but there have also been lots of highs which make it all worthwhile.
In a lot of ways we are lucky. I can’t imagine what it would be like touring without iPhones and FaceTime–the incredible affordable inventions that allow us homesick musicians to be ignored by our children from almost anywhere in the world.
I think Gillian’s right. Although we work together we have seen two very different sides of being musical parents. Around the time Gillian got pregnant (I hate the term ‘we got pregnant’) I secured mentoring funding from Creative Scotland to work with Boo Hewerdine. Both of these things happening simultaneously sharpened my resolve to make music work for me and for my family.
I’m not saying I wasn’t working hard before that point. I wasn’t saying no and I was taking on everything I could to get by. As soon as Lucy was born it became evident that some of the work would have to go.
For example I loved running the open mic at Bar Bloc but working from nine at night on a Sunday till 3am Monday morning wiped out most of Monday. Even if I didn’t drink and drove home I would be lucky to be in my bed by 3:45am. Apart from being a paid job Bloc’s open mic was a big part of my social life, a place where I could see new acts coming through the Glasgow scene and a space to break in my new songs. It hurt to let go of these poorly paid but fun gigs. Learning to say no was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. I know that I upset a lot of people because I was unwilling to sacrifice a night at home with my family for an unpaid opening slot or last-minute teaching job miles away for twenty quid with no travel expenses. The Musician’s Union “Work Not Play” campaign flowchart was a sanity saver. [Link: https://www.musiciansunion.org.uk/Files/Guides/MU_ShouldIWorkForFree_A4_3 ]
A year or two later I realised quitting Bloc was nowhere near as hard as letting go of the reasonably paid uninspiring work that ate away at my time and gnawed at my soul. One voice proclaims “You must do this to feed your family.” While the other voice says “You’re only doing this for the cash. You’re knackered. You’re bad tempered. You’re resentful and you know deep down if you gave this up something more suitable will come in.” It’s interesting to note that something better always comes in. It might not be the job I want but often it’s the job I need. The job that leads to the amazing job which leads to the job I wanted in the first place.
Using a shared calendar online has been fantastic but technology is only as good as the people operating it. You have to regularly check the calendar and regularly update it. There have been a few occasions when we’ve found ourselves double booked without childcare at the last moment. My speciality is forgetting to put in a travel day. You can’t finish a gig in Penzance at midnight and be in Glasgow for 7:30am the next morning without a private jet. You think we’d learn from these mistakes but they still crop up from time to time. We are lucky that we have a network of family and friends nearby who are always willing to help us out. We couldn’t manage without those folks.
“You’re off on tour. Fantastic. That’ll be a nice break for you.” Says one of the mums at toddler group. Of course there are great parts to touring – I love playing shows, meeting new folk and catching up with friends. Many peoples concept of touring has been coloured somewhat by the media. Sex and drugs and rock and roll… more like short interrupted sleeps, caffeine, just-a-half-pint-cos-I’m-driving and pre-packed overpriced sandwiches from that awful service station north of Birmingham. “I can’t believe Gillian’s letting you go away again.” she continues. It doesn’t matter how many times I remind myself of Jim Malcom’s sage advice, “Imagine you’re a deep sea fisherman and you’re going away to fish. When you come home weeks later from that trip you’re bringing home the money to feed and clothe your family.” It’s a simple analogy but it doesn’t stop me feeling guilty when I call home to complain that I’m a bit lonely and/or tired to find that Gill’s been up all night looking after our sick child.
Then, when I do get home, I find it hard to allow myself time to play guitar and write songs. That bit of my job is so much fun it doesn’t feel like work and often childcare and admin take priority. The ridiculous thing about this is without new songs there wont be any work to do any admin for. Five and a bit years later and it’s still hard to come to terms with that simple concept.
Working your own hours has its benefits. Before the days of nursery and school if it wasn’t raining we could go to the park whenever we wanted. Now school has started we make an effort to both do school drop off and pick up. These luxuries are out of reach to people with so called ‘normal jobs’ and we try to make them most of them when we can.
We’ll finish with Gillian and I’s collective (and unsolicited) advice to any musicians who are thinking about becoming parents:
1) It’s not possible to do everything. Find the joy in what you are doing at that moment, rather than flicking through social media and thinking of all the things you’re not doing. We found looking at perfectly curated and beautifully shot Facebook feeds of our friends hanging out at that festival, touring in that exotic location or on that big night out put us in a really bad place. Remember to pat yourself on the back for what you are doing, no matter how small or for what you have achieved no matter how long ago it was.
2) Don’t wait for the right time. There’s a quote in Andy Nyman’s Golden Rules for Actors book which says it way better than we can, “Do not put your life on hold for a time when you are successful – that time may never come, and if it does, you’ll be too busy or it may be too late to do the other stuff. Live your life to the full.”
We’re worried we’ve painted a bleak picture here. One thing we’ve learned from parenting books (and music conferences) is that people always accentuate the positive while conspiring to underplay the negatives in order to avoid upsetting people. Believe us when we say that becoming parents is the best thing we have ever done in our lives. We both wish we had started a family sooner. It helped us realise what was important in our lives. It forced us to make hard decisions about our work which continue to benefit us… And we like being woken up by a five year old bellowing Copperhead Road and thrashing on a 1/4 size snot green electric guitar at 6:50am.