Tattletale Saints’ bass player and singer Vanessa McGowan has previously provided NZM readers with insightful lessons and tips on working with session musicians and being a ‘badass’ backing vocalist. In this article, she shares some basic personal tips around how to keep both body and mind in good health while working hard on the road.
Whether playing bars on the weekend, touring solo in your car, travelling in a van, a tour bus or flying private – being a working musician can be a taxing lifestyle. The best part of our job is the performance every night; the time we all know how lucky we are to do this for a living. But everything in between; travel, nutrition, sleep, maintaining relationships, mental and physical health – staying healthy and happy in this profession – can be a challenge. Here are some tips on how to do that…
It’s pretty widely accepted that we all should drink plenty of water to stay healthy. Specifically for musicians drinking water keeps arms and hand tissue supple and helps prevent strain injuries. Every time a muscle fires it uses water (in your blood), so if you’re dehydrated you’re asking your muscles to work in less than ideal conditions. Dehydrated bodies are at higher risk of repetitive strain injuries, so drink up y’all!
Just like with water, we all know the negative effects of alcohol. Aside from dehydration and bigger health issues, there’s also the risk you’ll get too drunk and mess up the set. Or fall off the stage. (It’s crazy how often I hear about this happening.) It’s so easy to end up drinking each night on tour, and it’s scary how easily you can end up drinking a lot, every night. It can start to feel weird even trying to play a set totally sober. But that’s a slippery slope towards an alcohol problem, so I make a point of taking a night off the bourbon every few days to give my system a break.
Eating well on the road is super important to me and good nutrition will help you stave off the colds and flus that make tour life miserable and can affect your performance. Fast food is often the only option when driving around the country playing shows, but try to choose the healthy option whenever you can. Maybe get the burger but ditch the fries and coke, or choose the salad option sometimes.
Decent healthy snacks from gas stations when you’re on the go include lightly salted popcorn, trail mix, cheese sticks, jerky (for those meat eaters) and pre-made fruit/veggie smoothies.
A jar of low-sugar peanut butter and a bag of green apples or some pretzel sticks is a good thing to grab as you leave home for a trip. Single serve oatmeal packets and a travel bowl and spoon is a super easy, quick (and cheap!) breakfast – all you need to find is hot water. I also avoid sugar as much as possible. It’s a quick energy fix that inevitably leads to an energy crash, crappy skin and weight gain. And who the hell wants that!?
Prioritise it over hanging out as often as you need to stay healthy. I’m absolutely the first to go to bed in most touring situations and have learned to embrace my nana ways. People who want you to stay up late drinking and who make you feel bad for getting your personal rest are most always thinking more about wanting a drinking buddy than what’s best for you. If you need to split and go to bed early so you can get up and exercise in the morning to feel good throughout the day, that’s 100% okay. You do you! Take care of yourself, however, YOU need, so you can be in top shape the next night.
A professional musician often has very little control over the trajectory of their career, and at times it can feel like you’re living on a knife-edge, either flush with gigs or staring down calendar tumbleweeds. Band dynamics and being away from your family and loved ones for long stretches add more stress.
Surviving the unpredictability of a freelance job and staying positive while away from home requires strong mental health, and lots of my musician buddies utilise meditation as a good way to build mental strength and find some calm within the storm. Doing something to reduce adrenaline and cortisol, the stress hormones, and increase the feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and endorphins is really helpful too. Which brings me to….
Cardio exercise is a great way to reduce the stress hormones mentioned above and give yourself a natural, healthy dose of the good ones too. Having taken up running in the last few years I’ve found it a great way to feel good and stay healthy, both in body and mind. Running or walking is something you can truly do anywhere you go on tour – no classes or equipment (other than shoes) required. Yoga or other strengthening exercises are also wonderful for working musicians. We’re carrying gear, travelling for hours and playing physically demanding instruments, so keeping strong core and back muscles is vital for staying strong and injury-free.
If you’re constantly away from home (and don’t have a live-in partner or roomie) having a pet is probably not a brilliant idea. Fluffy needs food and cuddles, and preferably not from the neighbour. Having some live plants can make you feel like you’ve got at least some sense of normality at home, and your spot isn’t a glorified storage unit. That said, plants still need love (water), so get a friend to come over when you’re gone, or try some watering globes and come home to a lush indoor garden!
An existential crisis of varying magnitudes is common after a tour. Post-tour blues seem to affect everyone at some point so, firstly, don’t feel alone. It can be very weird going from a tour where your whole day is mapped out and you have an obvious purpose (the show) to home-life, where you might struggle with planning your days and feeling like you’re achieving anything. Arriving back to an empty calendar can make it even harder, but trust the freelance gods. The phone will ring again!
I try to enjoy the time at home while I have it cos soon enough I know I’ll be back out on the road dreaming of my own pillow again. Be kind to yourself if you need solitude when you first come home, even though you may feel you “should” go out to socialise or network. When you’re away you feel you’re missing out on events at home, but when you get home allow yourself downtime too.
Touring is work, not a vacation, so you might need recovery time in those first few days or even weeks, especially if you’re an introvert/extrovert who needs alone time to recharge.
It’s so easy for music to become your job, your social life, your hobby… your everything. If your whole identity is wrapped up in music, and music doesn’t feel like it’s going so well for a minute, you might feel as though your whole life is tanking. I’ve always felt much healthier when I have other things going on in my life.
If necessary try making an effort to have other things outside music that bring you joy. A sport, gardening, beer brewing, volunteering, book club, continuing education (online or a class if your schedule allows), learn a new language, take up knitting, work on your baking repertoire, train for a marathon – whatever floats your boat. Having other interests outside of music can really help take the pressure off if you’re in a career lull.
Maintaining friendships is harder the longer the tours, and honestly might be the one reason I actually value social media. Touring can be lonely and it’s nice to keep up with what friends are doing and keep them up to date with where you’re at and what you’re seeing, even if only virtually. Picking up the phone is good too and people do love receiving postcards. Don’t let those connections die, when the tour ends you’re still going to want your homies.
Vanessa McGowan is a Fender and Aguilar endorsee originally from New Zealand, currently based in Nashville TN. She plays bass and sings backing vocals for a wide range of touring artists including Brandy Clark and Tattletale Saints.