The Thing That Keeps You Going

What I want to write about today is probably the biggest source of sleepless nights (besides the drunk hipsters outside the window of my apartment) that I’ve been dealing with lately. I’m putting these thoughts onto paper today, so to speak, because I know that I’m so not alone in this. With each passing year that I try my hand at growing into a fully-formed human, I realize that not all things in life are as they seemed when I was looking at them from a distance through rose-colored glasses. When I was a kid I was told by my parents, bless their kind hearts, that I could do anything I wanted to do and be anyone I wanted to be. I had, and still have, lavish dreams of being an artist. This dream took different forms over the years - pop artist, rockstar guitarist, film scorer, drummer in a metal band, etc - but it always sort of remained the same. Now the truth that I know is that it was easier to commit to this life when I wasn’t yet inside it, and still in a way sheltered from it. Now that I am living within and consumed by “the dream”, I find myself asking more and more why the dream must forsake me so. Why, music, have you made all the things so intricate and painful? All I ever did was love you.

Many of us leave school and go out in the world with our stupid hopes help way high. I laugh to myself when I remember that I dressed up as a “producer” on my last day of high school. We wear uniforms in South Africa, but this specific day we were supposed to dress as our future selves. I smile when I think back on conversations in the Berklee cafeteria about which record label my progressive rock band would decide to sign with and which artists we would be okay with opening for and which we wouldn't be okay opening for. It was all so easy when it was just day-dreaming. The thing is, NO ONE EVER TOLD ME HOW HARD IT WOULD BE TO PAY FOR MY LIFE. I literally just want to yell this right now sitting in this stupid airport. Money is the bane of my existence. I’m a woman of very few needs. I don’t care about rolling in it, but I do care about surviving and being happy and not uncomfortable all the time. I’m really just a huge, obsessive, loner nerd who generally wants to be left alone in my apartment with my instruments so I can write songs about cool things. I think I want to start collecting tapes too, that’s a hobby, right? I also like to knit. So I guess in my lavishly wealthy future I will need enough money to support my knitting and cassette-tape collecting hobbies, and maybe also a puppy.

When I moved to New York City in 2013 I was utterly shocked at how hard it was to survive. My rent was a low (yes, low!) $750 to live in an artist loft building with three other roommates in a shitty part of Brooklyn. This was basically a big room with almost no sunlight, divided up by thin walls to make four tiny artist-prison-cells. In total, we were three musicians and one actress.  We were basically a hilariously dejected TV show that never made any money. The musicians and the actress eventually parted ways because we argued over constant noise (I never realized how terrible musicians are as roommates until then). The basement floor below us was a venue, so I would often fall asleep to awful drum and bass pulsating my twin-sized bed. Our heat went out regularly and my room had no windows. I bought an air purifier so I wouldn’t die, and I sat there all day applying to jobs and writing film scores. After three months of this dark life (literally), I still didn’t have enough money to pay for my rent or my bills. How could this happen?? How could I only have made HALF?! I’ve literally been putting in 12-hour days and eating nothing but rice and beans and PBR and I’m unsuccessful at surviving.  I hate myself. I suck. I still remember that first night the anxiety set in and I realized just how fucking hard this was really going to be. ‘What have I done?’ I remember thinking. "I should’ve studied to be a lawyer like I thought I would for like a month when I was thirteen. I have made a huge mistake (spoken in Gob from Arrested Development's voice)."

Just in the nick of time, as I was losing my mind and day-drinking more than usual, I got a big-girl job. I went on to work for a composer who I very much admired, and this was my first set of musical work that I did that built up my resume and IMDB. I had a regular job, which by the way, in film composer’s terms is 12+ hours a day, 7 days a week, basically on call all the time. "It’s not like someone’s dying and I’m working at a hospital, how can I feel so stressed and sleep-deprived?" I’d often ask myself. The answer was that the film industry is batt-shit crazy and again, NO ONE TOLD ME THIS. I spent about six years of my life studying to work in that industry and no one ever took me aside and was like “listen, this shit is crazy, so get ready. Do you do drugs? You might want to.” I don’t do drugs. They scare me. And I lasted six months in the film and television industry.

Here I was at my first painful career crossroad, which I’ve now come to face over and over since then. My old friend, we meet again - the steady job that pays for my life, but which consumes my entire life. No time for working on my own music, building my own thing, or spending time with my friends. A boyfriend? Forget it. I had one dude end things with me because I could never go on weekend-away trips with him and his buddies. Dude... I'm working here, and I’m way too tired to smoke weed and listen to Zeppelin records with you guys every night. Go graduate college, then maybe you’ll get an idea of how dismal existence really can be. What’s that, I sound bitter? No, definitely not!

So I quit my job. Because I really missed sleeping and I missed my friends. I was working on incredible projects but I was so burned out and unhealthy. So I went into my first “floating” phase. I had enough money saved up for three months of survival. But, I wasn’t certain how to proceed. Do I go work for another composer so I can make money and gain experience? Or do I try work on my own film scores and probably not make enough money? OR, surprise option number 3! Does New Found Glory’s manager contact me via Facebook and tell me she digs my YouTube videos and do I maybe wanna audition for a tour with another band of her’s opening for NFG? It was one of the most liberating moments in my life to go… fuck it! I’m running out of money and what the hell do I have to lose? NFG are tight. Let’s do this tour thing. And I don’t need to explain the rest because it’s March 2016 and I’m sitting at an airport having just finished a show with the newest artist I play for. Touring found me by accident and I fell hard and fast; so in love with all the people I worked with, who I met, and who I played for. I had never felt such a strong sense of purpose as I felt traveling all the time and being on stage almost every night for a year and a half.

If there’s any sort of rock-God out there, I want to thank him for giving me this experience. Because here’s the point I’m making and it took me hot minute to get here, so thanks for reading: I got a taste of what I want to spend my life doing. And that’s enough. I’m starting to think that as a tiny human in this insane world, if you can find that one thing, then you can survive. For some it’ll be art, or a job, or a person, or a baby. But there was nothing that had ever made me as happy as being on the road with a bunch of other weirdo, nerd, loners like myself playing songs we love. And we have a hell of a good time. You mean I can actually be fulfilled as an artist and happy and pay for my life?! Yes, my friend, you can. But it’s tricky to achieve. And if you’re self-employed, it’s fleeting and non-linear and the rules are made up as you go.

Sometimes I sleep in too late on a Sunday and lie in bed cursing myself for being a lazy idiot and I bitterly think why didn’t college help me more? Why didn’t I win the lottery or why didn’t anyone just GIVE me money by now? You gotta be kidding me, this is insane, this is actually my life?! I have to work a job just like anyone else and bust my ass all the time? Yes you do. So get over yourself. Sometimes I can’t look at the whole picture. Sometimes I can only look at today. What can I do today to move one step closer to what I desire? Ask yourself that every day, drink a cup of coffee, and go fucking do it.

So here's my resolve - find that thing you love and never let it go. Everything else will fall into place around it. You will probably have to spend a considerable amount of time doing things - like day-jobs and kissing peoples' asses - that you don’t want to do in order to support the dream. But I’ll be ready to go out for margaritas with you and sing 90’s songs at the top of our lungs so we can forget about that part. The pay-off will be there.

Just keep swimming, or at least treading water.

Sending my love,

Sulene