It was only 9 p.m. and the black circles under Spencer's eyes were both a result of allergies and the more obvious sleep deprivation. We were in the midst of a 12 day trip to Nashville and Atlanta, and I was coughing non-stop and starting to get chills. From the 38 hours straight without sleep that started the trip, until eight days later, and more sleepless nights than I care to admit, the wear and tear on our mind and body was evident. Meals were somewhat an afterthought, while gummy worms, twizzlers and the occasional tangerine became the short burst of energy to keep us moving. Beds that were either hard as a rock or worn out to someone else's body shape made relaxing into a deep sleep nearly impossible. Add to all of this the roller coaster of emotions experienced with each day's activities and possibilities, it didn't leave much for mental rest either.
This is life on the road.
Puffy bags shouldn't be visible under a 17-year-olds eyes, but when we're slamming the highway and pulling 18 hour days for long periods of time, it has a way of leaving its mark on a face. It's a bittersweet reality. On one hand, I'm thankful that something Spencer enjoys doing is creating opportunities to stay so busy and involved, but there is a need for a healthy balance.
I recall my early adult life when building my own career in sales and marketing. I traveled the world. I'd spend weeks on the road and living without sleep or consistent meals. It was simply the byproduct of the career I had chosen. When I did eat, it was at the best restaurants in the country I visited because clients wanted to give me a taste of their culture and cuisine. Many times, I avoided the local favorite dish because I simply couldn't stomach the thought of eating the ingredients they explained. Enough said about that.
In 1994, I went on an around the world trip which started in Europe, went on to the Middle East and then to Asia. I flew out over the East Coast and returned six weeks later via the West Coast of the U.S. During that time, I lost 45 pounds because of stress, disgust for food choices and simply little to no rest. Although I look back at that time and envy the weight loss, I also realize it was the worst possible health scenario. Thank God my young body was strong enough to handle the extreme that time.
As I witness the headlines in the entertainment business today, I see representations of those who can't handle the treadmill of public life and experience overdoses or rehab clinics. Some simply get hospitalized from exhaustion. There are also those who focus heavily on maintaining their health so they can function within the schedules they keep.
I never want to diminish the rigorous routine of those outside the entertainment industry. Frankly, I grew up in a household where my parents (neither in the entertainment industry) spent each week handling what averaged to be 100 hours of work each, plus somehow trying to manage a household. I witnessed them doze off to sleep after five minutes of sitting down when arriving home. I saw the hands of my father become bony and reveal the scars of years of abuse at his job. I have watched my own mother experience heart bypass surgery at a young age, and now dealing with major medical complications in her early 70s because of a life spent running the rat-race to build a career. So there's no shortage of evidence all around me that most people must deal with a rugged path when trying to build a career. But even after living out my own journey of traveling around the world and watching my family and friends grind it out in their chosen path, there's something about the music business lifestyle that makes having a healthy focus seemingly more important.
For the simplicity of this brain dump in the form of a blog, I wanted to share some of the realities we're learning about life on the road and being ready for a music career.
There are three primary areas of health to be concerned about in all of life, but especially in the music business. These are physical, mental and spiritual.
This breaks down into three primary areas; eating right, proper rest and exercise.
Captain Kangaroo, Sesame Street, and Mr. Rogers preached it when I was growing up. Eat right, get rest and exercise. Pretty simple concept.
However, after what I've witnessed and come to understand about life on the road, physical health is more of an urgent necessity than even when Spencer was training for basketball and baseball. It's too easier to get lost in the excitement and energy of the experiences on the road, than having an intentional focus on physical health.
The convenience of a fast meal (or hunger pang stopper) is efficient. But the toll it takes on sustainable energy and physical appearance is not a desired result. On the other hand, to get a good, healthy meal in a short time span is nearly impossible without some organized forethought. Plus, the expense of a healthy meal versus the dollar menu at a drive through make it hard to not give in to convenience over health.
I like to call this the fork-and-knife-principle. We strive to find times where we are required to eat with utensils. This may seem silly, but if you think about it, the fast-paced life we all live today is only compounded on the road and to actually sit and eat a meal with silverware is a rare occasion (I don't count sporks as silverware). Two days during this trip were spent so focused on creative production in a studio, that breaks for meals were nonexistent. It's just hard to stop the flow of creativity when you're in the midst of it. You may feel hungry at moments, but the passion to create overrides that squeal from under our sternum.
It's easy to spend $15-18 each to ensure you're eating right. Multiply that by three meals a day (if you can get that many in) and now we're talking nearly $100 a day just for food for two people. Do the math over 12 days, and not include hotel costs and fuel; now we're talking a serious hit to finances just to make sure we're eating right. Thank God we have hosts and friends in a lot of these places we go because they can take the time to prepare a healthy meal and force us to slow down long enough to eat at a table.
We have a few simple rules we try to follow about eating. No processed sugars or sodas and high levels of proteins. I know it's common sense, but it really makes a difference when you're trying to last on a trip.
A facet of physical health that takes its toll is the lack of proper sleep or rest. This is difficult when moving from hotel to hotel or private home guest bedrooms where the mattress may be either brand new and not broken in, or a hand-me-down pre-molded to another body. This makes getting good rest nearly impossible. The environment also makes a difference. Cool, warm, moist, dry, noisy, too quiet -- all are ingredients in whether proper rest can be achieved. Add to that the inconsistent hours, depending on various schedules needing kept, and it can be nearly impossible to fully realize a good night's rest. I personally have to rely on sleeping aides. It's no wonder many artists are likely to use alcohol, sleeping pills or other forms of chemical aides to mitigate their energy or rest needs while on the road.
In our specific situation, many times we are faced with sharing a bed.
Now, when Spencer was a wee-tike, and a snuggle bunny, it was a parent's joy losing sleep in exchange for that tiny breath or sweaty pajama body invading your space. But when his body is longer, hairier and his breath more atrocious than words can describe, it makes for an unpleasant experience. Spencer is both a sleep talker and constant wiggler. At times, when he's dealing with allergies, his sinus snoring is unbearable. Frankly, most sleepless nights for me are a direct result of this giant child of mine acting like a prehistorically large caterpillar spinning a cocoon with our common bed sheet. Argh! To be fair, he has been annoyingly awakened to my chainsaw impersonations, as he put it. And I won't even get into the details of methane related incidents which bring about the need for sudden evacuations of the bed in the middle of the night. "Let's go to Taco Bell at 1 a.m.," he said. "It'll be awesome," he said.
Finally, rest isn't just about sleeping, it's also about down-time. Taking a rest from the grind is equally important. We purposely try to go to a movie or cruise through a mall to disengage from the intensity. It's not always possible to hang with others on a trip if it's a city we've not visited, but on the destinations where we have developed good relationships, we try to find ways to socialize and not talk shop. This is good rest.
Exercising and ensuring good cardio workouts is so important to a musician. Especially when the artist dances on a stage during a performance. In a recent show in Cincinnati, the set was only 20 minutes, but when Spencer came off stage, his head was soaked, his face flush and his shirt drenched from the aerobic level workout while trying to sing. It's nearly impossible to explain the other aspect of performing that drains you physically, because it's all about the rush that comes from the energy in the room. When fans are engaged and provide energy to the artist, it adds an endorphin-like burst of energy that is only realized when the crash occurs afterward. There is a literal coma-like result that happens after a show which the body so graciously forgets to warn you about ahead of time. Many of Spencer's mentors have made a huge deal about making sure he stays in shape when not on the road so when he hits the road, he won't crash.
I struggle most when slugging gear on the road for his live shows. Thankfully Spencer and a few of his dancers have carried the lion's share of the gear on and off stage, but the simple running (and I mean actually running) at a venue to work out technical matters between the stage and sound booth has literally exhausted me to the point of trance-like silence that night.
When Spencer is still at home, he maintains a daily workout to keep his cardio up and muscles toned. Otherwise, he quickly runs out of energy when trying to maintain the hours and rigor on the road. Me, however, I'm torn between despising the intense exhaustion I feel trying to be a roady with him, versus the knowing we can't afford a road manager at this point, so I have to do it.
The vast input of fan and industry feedback, and scenario playing that happens in your mind is very hard to bear at times. If anything, the fact that the music industry is so rapidly changing from day to day and the opportunities show up and disappear overnight can take its toll on your mind. Handling publicity and all the pressures related can be quite taxing on a young mind, let alone this aging man. I don't do nearly as much physical activity as Spencer does on and off the road, but my mind is exhausted from just juggling the management details I do each day. It really is exhausting.
You wake up early to go to your job, and you're called in the boss' office to be told you're doing great, and they'd like to talk to you about a big promotion. They lay out the opportunity and how you'd need to move to another city, and how you'll see some new benefits and income. Your job will pretty much be doing what you've been doing, but at a bigger part of the company. Then, they thank you for visiting with them and send you back to your current job. Days and weeks pass, and you never hear anything more from them. They simply don't call you back or even tell you that someone else got the promotion. You're just left wondering.
This is exactly how the music business works. You work hard and get interviewed by a lot of "promotion" opportunities. You play out what it would be like. You mentally start packing your bags for a move. You start envisioning leaving your friends and family for this next phase of your life. You disconnect some relationships because you know they're short term. You avoid making deeper connections locally because you know you'll inevitably be moving away. You start preparing yourself (again, mentally) for the new opportunity. You start building on the relationships you believe are part of your future because all indications are they will be a big part of your future. All this takes it's toll on your mind.
Or, for instance, the job you're doing is being monitored by the public and, while you're aware of their presence and signed up for being publicly scrutinized, your best efforts are being harshly judged or criticized by passersby who are great at insults and cruelty, and simply hurl them with no hesitation.
Imagine being 17 and wondering what your friends are doing while you're trapped inside a car driving to the next "thing" you have to do. Imagine scrolling through social media and seeing prom photos of your classmates and knowing you didn't get to participate because you had a "thing" going on in your career. Imagine wanting to simply go out on a date and, for whatever reason (schedules, geography, etc.) you can't.
I know that every career has it's price. Every career has its potential rewards. But at 17, the mental stress can be overwhelming at times.
I try very hard to help Spencer have "normal" teen times to allow his mind to relax and find some balance. Even the routine of going to school and sitting in a classroom can be mentally helpful to Spencer, since it provides a change of pace to his spontaneous career schedule that seems to occur each week.
The hype and glamor that many think is attached to being in the entertainment business is not what it seems. For the few moments of shine an artist may experience at a concert or during a media interview, there are hundreds and hundreds of hours of grueling mental and physical tolls they've gone through to get there. The payoff is seldom as satisfying as the intense stress that can mentally occur.
My favorite phrase to explain how to maintain mental health in the music business has been "managing expectations." This two-word cliché seems to be the most appropriate aspect of maintaing mental health. Don't allow your mind to role-play exquisite outcomes or even worse-case scenarios. It will drive you nuts. Trying to remain even keeled from an exciting phone call or email opportunity, or not taking to heart the negative comment or review received on your hard work. Both extremes are just very difficult to mentally handle and not allow you to stress about.
I believe we have tried to mitigate information sharing with Spencer when possible. I personally avoid sharing a lot of inquiries until I feel they are potential reality. His managers in Nashville also bypass sharing too much information about opportunities because they recognize and have experienced the mental toll it takes on an artist who prematurely attaches themselves to it. It's a game we have to play to manage mental health.
I'm sure that some don't ascribe to a spiritual element of health, but at some core level of every human, I believe there lies a metaphysical realm of philosophy that yearns to be in balance with our mind and body. This is why there are so many flavors of religion existing in our planet. What I call religion is not relegated solely to the traditional mainstream schools of thought like Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism or Hinduism. There are certainly other philosophically based planes of focus that could fall under the spiritual health of a human, but not necessarily one which necessitates the need for setting up a church or religion to house it.
We, my family, are Christians. That is our chosen spiritual philosophy. For us, it is the most essential health to maintain. Without it being front and center, Spencer and my wife and I are all out of balance in a bad way.
Spencer is a Christian who is in the entertainment business. He is much like any other Christian who has a career. His happens to be in the music industry at this point. His music and lyrics crossover into the Christian genre from time to time, but his culture is born out of the Christian lifestyle based on the bible. We make choices and plans based on our Christian world view and it has kept Spencer healthy in his pursuit of a life in the music business.
Having a moral and ethical foundation has kept him from seeking inappropriate attention from adoring fangirls. It has helped him avoid relationships that are based solely on wealth and fame. Honestly, it is the primary reason he is able to still respect his parents and mentors along the way. He has been taught to respect authority, even though the world in which he is maneuvering is so full of rebellion. His Christianity has been a strong fragrance for many fans to appreciate his career thus far. It has encouraged other young people to be comfortable and confident in their moral beliefs. This, in turn, continues to inspire Spencer to push on in the pursuit of a life in music. It's a circular motivation that is a healthy spiritual experience.
But most important, having an intimate relationship with God at a young age has helped Spencer know how to handle the stress that comes with the path he has chosen for a career. We pray as a family. He prays on his own. He relies on his Christian family for encouragement and guidance along the way. It's the girding of his mental health to have his faith be so influential in his life. He doesn't flaunt it religiously with others, but is also not ashamed to boldly display it when the time presents itself.
He prays for those who attack him verbally. He prays for answers to adversity. He prays for fans that reach out in desperation because they are in dire straights. It helps him to maintain perspective when it's so easy to only be worried about himself in our narcissistic society. His spiritual health is the centerpiece to fending off the temptations that are so prevalent in the music business.
But he isn't without struggle in this area. The pace of life in the music business doesn't afford regular or consistent fellowship with like-minded Christians and it can become a weary path when you're relying on small doses of bible studies and community to charge your spiritual batteries. Mind you, having a direct connection to God is fine, but being connected to other believers is equally important. When you're on the road, that part isn't as easy.
Spencer and I are often engaged in deep spiritual conversations in the long car rides. I share biblical stories and principles so he can view circumstances from a spiritual perspective. Additionally, I try to reveal my own challenges as a young man pursuing a dream, as I did the past 30 years of my career. We pray together in those moments to hopefully remind us both that we are dependent on God for everything. That is a sampling of our attempt at maintaining spiritual health when our schedule doesn't facilitate the traditional routine many Christians undertake.
REALIZING IT'S A PROCESS
Life on and off the road in the music business has health risks in any of these categories. Developing a process to handle those risks has been both trial and error as well as adhering to the advice of mentors we've been blessed with getting to know. There may be simple formulas to write down and applaud on paper, but when in the midst of the marathon, they aren't always as easy to fulfill.
Whenever I return from a road trip with Spencer, the first two days back are spent recuperating in the man cave. As I sit in my red-eyed, comatose state, I'm reminded of the jet lag I overcame in the early days of my career. Conversations are a fog, I drift in and out of consciousness for short naps, and I avoid conversation due to mental exhaustion. These recurring times have inspired this blog entry.
Perhaps instead of preaching to Spencer the list given by his mentors, I should spend more time finding ways to follow it myself. I'm sure the man in the mirror wouldn't mind a visit with that 180 pound figure of days gone by who would run circles around this 45 year old young-person-wannabe.
* Spencer Kane is the son of the author of this blog.