The Gesture of the Modern Musician: Thoughts on Growing Pains & Hard Decisions

The Gesture of the Modern Musician

As a musician, we have naturally self-selected ourselves to live a life several standard deviations from the norm. We don’t have habits of normal people. We were absolutely those kids inside practicing --gasp-- while our peers were outside ‘having fun.’ We meticulously practiced, until everything was in its right place, and we could repeat those gestures with reasonable accuracy and consistency. Allowing ourselves to pursue a career in music means that we’ve essentially headed straight into the forest, completely negating any potential clear path to follow this energy that stirs deeply within us. We’ve got this rhythm that we’ve just got to follow.

All artists are entrepreneurs. No one asked us to write the music we do, play the way we do, communicate our ideas through our chosen medium, etc, but we do. In essence, we each feel compelled to do so because we thought that something was missing and we were driven to make that thing. When you’ve got that spirit, it’s that ‘thing’ that is constantly on your mind. You can’t ever ‘go home’, you just can’t, because it’s the thing. And that thing will sit on your shoulder and follow you wherever you go.

Growing Pains and Hard Decisions

When you live your passion, and be so grateful that you are capable and able bodied to live this experience, you are naturally met with a lot of hard decisions. We can only hope that these decisions we must navigate somehow are ‘the right ones’ that help us move the needle of our career along. You are absolutely going to work your ass off in the music industry, especially at the beginning. Along this journey, collaborators will come and go. Projects will pop up as quickly as others seem to fall apart. Growing pains and shifts in perspective, possibly due to value misalignment, will throw endless monkey wrenches into the mix. I’ve recently made a lot of really hard decisions myself that were all likely born out of a need to make a really hard decision.

I made a decision to take  'a leave of absence’ from my band in Boston Bat House, a project I put every ounce of my existence into for the better part of five years, to pursue another opportunity. That "other opportunity" was as a hired musician for a series of performances with TORRES, a great artist. It was hard for many reasons, but was very beautiful, and ultimately, I’m endlessly excited that I shared in those experiences with the performers and the audiences.

Through that experience with TORRES, I’ve also landed on another important decision. I am shifting the focus of my musical efforts on being a hired gun touring and session musician. No more key member in a band. And, honestly, I’m very okay with this decision, even though, working with and traveling in close quarters with people you’ve never met before is kind of this whole other thing. Stay tuned for my blog post about that! Allowing myself and others to make this series of decisions allows me to wring out this past five years so that we can all fully move onto the next chapter.

Well, what exactly did I do and learn from this project?

With the help of Yitzi Peetluk, my business partner, and the blessings and guidance of my many musical mentors, I learned a lot from working Bat House and had a lot of opportunities to just try shit out, with minimal risk, if it didn’t pan quite as anticipated. I’ve booked six tours, released an EP, a record, some singles, pressed vinyl of our first record with the support of Life on Loop, recorded on Audiotree, Daytrotter, performed all over the continent, ran for my life in an aircast at SXSW, performed on a fancy rooftop next to Fenway park, and sold out multiple rooms in Boston with a project that I started with my college best friends in a rehearsal space that’s down the street from the house I currently reside in. I bought my first minivan that carried us safely all over the country. Fun fact, my dad actually drove this minivan all the way from my parent’s home in Pennsylvania to me in Boston (my parents are the shit)!  I facilitated the band’s singing with Gregg Little and Dell Ressl at New Frontier Touring. I learned how to apply for grants. I tour managed and did PR and had to haggle with shifty club owners in Middle America. I connected with a lot of people from all walks of life and shared in long conversations with fans at shows and persuaded many of them to give me their email address so we could keep in touch with our email newsletter. I handwrote notes and personally mailed out almost every piece of merchandise we have sold online. I stayed awake all night making pitch decks for product mixes and creating visuals for our live performances and rolling and organizing t-shirts the night before a tour. We never lost money, actually started making some from essentially nothing (mind you, psychedelic math rock is not exactly palatable), and we were able to keep it going for a little over five years. I invested a lot of personal money, that I also made sure I made back in full, with no guarantee that I would ever have a return on that investment of time, energy, and sanity. Because it's what you do. And that's everything. You just do everything, because you just have to. You can't and don't go home. Ever. My first business, really. That’s a lot to be proud of. That’s a lot of hardwork and a lot of dedication to put towards something that may or may not have worked out. 

After some weeks of my decision to take a leave of absence, the others made a decision to let go of me. And maybe it was hard for them. That was a really hard experience to live through. Because, well, we were growing up professionally together and, at one time, were very close. We shared a lot of important life experiences throughout our college years together, embarked on weird journeys (some people in the band’s first tours) straight into the unknown together, and lived together for the majority of the band’s existence. Every experience we went through as individuals became group experiences. It was formative and multifaceted and I want nothing but the best for the people who were so incrementally tied to an entire chunk of my life.

And, there’s nothing more heartbreaking than not only seemingly divorcing yourself when you leave your first major artistic project, but also the interpersonal dynamics involved with the whole thing. When you’re creating art with others, you're putting forth an external manifestation of internal values. It can be deeply personal, especially when you don’t leave the ego out of it. Living your passion is eternally uplifting and mind-numbingly heartbreaking. But, I must remember that I’m kind of having it all in a lot of ways. 

Key Reflections on Musical Identity and Finding A Voice

I’ve spent the majority of my musical career thus far trying to unearth my purpose and find my voice. I’ve lived that experience of, ‘Oh, you’re a woman and you can’t possibly play drums,’ that has manifested itself in the core of my very being in a lot of ways and has followed me seemingly everywhere I go. At one of the colleges I auditioned at, the professor hosting the audition (and it’s so problematic that there was only one person hosting this audition) gave me a perfect score in every category, but then rejected me on the spot because I’m a woman and I simply wouldn’t fit in and wouldn’t be able to handle the school. I landed on Berklee College of Music as my pursuit of higher education, which was a total dream come true of mine.

Berklee was actually everything and more opportunity-wise but was also really difficult because, as with every institution of higher learning, there is a cruft of institutional issues at play. This isn't a dig on Berklee, but a glimpse at the perspective and experience from someone who didn't have exactly a great time there. I was harassed for almost the entirety of my education there. I was cornered by my male peers frequently and I could never be alone in the practice spaces without them obnoxiously swarming outside the door. I felt like I could never prove myself enough to gain the true musical acceptance of a lot of them. It was toxic all around. I even had professors that told me I would never make any money in music because I wasn’t good enough. Yeah, I love a good constructive criticism, but holy shit I can't believe I paid that much money to be emotionally and mentally ripped to shreds. I had a few mentors that I deeply respect and look up to that made that venture totally worth it and more. They continually champion me and I am so grateful for that.

Upon being let go of from Bat House, a very essential chapter of my life ended and with that, I have additional very hard decisions to make. I’ve lived and worked in Boston for nearly six years now. And, yes, I have been actively working and making a living from music/music related projects for almost two years now, since graduating from college. I worked at PledgeMusic, Brighton Music Hall, Paradise Rock Club, ZUMIX, edited and created a book "Everything In Its Right Place: How Blockchain Technology Will Lead To A More Transparent Music Industry" with my greatest mentor George Howard, worked with Open Music Initiative and Berklee Institute of Creative Entrepreneurship, helped release other musical projects, booked tours for other artists, recorded drums for other artists, performed on drums live for artists, consulted for artists in various capacities, and taught a whole lot of young people how to play drums freelance and at varying music studios. I cannot emphasize enough how proud I am of this because this road is not an easy one. Everyone who has a successful career in music works their ass off. The decisions one must make to navigate this line of work, especially in the very beginning, are challenging mentally, emotionally, financially, physically, socially, etc. All of it. There is absolutely no schematic to tell you how to go about it when you pursue an entrepreneurial career in an art discipline. You sort of just have to figure it out as you go along, and that’s equal parts beautiful and daunting.

So, now what?

Growing pains and shifts in perspectives naturally lead to value misalignment. And then, everything seemingly goes downhill from there. But, all is not lost. I must think to myself, “I’ve been here before and I know what to do.” Part of this is rooted in taking the time to know myself. My livelihood is literally kicking and hitting things with great ferocity -- it’s my trademark and what I’m known for within my creative circles, and otherwise. It’s physically demanding, so I do yoga nearly every day because I know that’s how I have to center myself, mentally and physically. I’ve learned a lot of hard lessons on the importance of taking the time to know what I need and when I need it and also what I don’t need and when I don’t need it. I’m in this moment making a lot of very hard decisions because that’s what I need right now. I can’t take on more projects and possibly positively impact those around me if I don’t take the time to wring out what isn’t working and isn’t serving me. If I don’t care for myself then I cannot even fathom how I could possibly positively help anyone else.

I have to be honest in that my direct path right now isn't super clear to me. I'm likely going to move on to another city with completely new pursuits. I have a roadmap that's leading me to a life on the road, with no true 'home' because, for me, the 'gig' is home. But I’ve learned that  even the most flushed out roadmap must be flexible because it can change at the drop of a hat. I didn’t foresee needing to get the heck out of dodge in this moment of my life, but that’s exactly what it means to be an entrepreneur. The ability to adapt to changes by way of evaluation and measuring and deciding to change course when the energy pulls you there. It’s risky and it’s awfully lonely. If it's what you have to do for the 'thing,' then it's what you have to do if you are serious about pursuing a career in music. 



Nicole Pompei