© Kristie Muller
The Artists' Tribune

DIANA’s Carmen Elle: “Music is Not Enough”

October 30, 2017

The Toronto artist interrogates the rockstar myth and breaks down the realities of making a living as a musician.

Artists should be involved in the conversation, not just the subjects of it. That’s where The Artists’ Tribune comes in — we’re giving your favourite singers, songwriters and rappers the platform to talk about whatever they want, however they want, completely unfiltered.

I grew up in a musical household. My father built guitars, so it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with the instrument. By the time I was twelve, I was playing circles around the boys in my class. Unfortunately, by the time I was twelve I had also been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. This was the beginning of a seventeen year long (and still ongoing) struggle between myself as a musician, and myself as an anxiety sufferer. Two identities and sides of myself that carry an equally strong presence, and couldn’t be more different.

By the age of fourteen I started  recording the hundreds of songs that I just couldn’t stop writing. At fifteen, a producer approached me, wanting to help to develop me as an artist. I started booking shows with the help of a manager who had me performing in front of thousands of people at sixteen. I also dropped out of school; not to pursue any dreams of becoming a rock star, but because I had grown so afraid of germs and bacteria that I was struggling to leave the house to go to school. I couldn’t touch doorknobs, or eat, or use the washrooms at my high school. My grades were crashing and I fell weeks, and then months behind in all my classes.

Slowly, I made progress. I went on medication, I started taking workshops through the hospital to learn some coping strategies, I went to therapy, I kept playing shows. Some of the bands I was in started to get more popular and we were offered touring opportunities. Unfortunately, one of my main anxiety triggers, aside from getting sick, has always been travel. The lack of control, the complete unknowns, the homesickness — none of it appealed to me. In fact, it absolutely terrified me. I looked at the impossibility of my situation; of being so afraid of the thing that I wanted that it made me feel physically weak. And I thought, “I don’t want to say that fear is the reason I didn’t give this a real shot”, so I started to tour.

“Tour is an experience that exists on many levels for different people. Sure, for some it is really fun. For some it is an escape. But for others still it is isolating, stressful, and difficult.”

I went on tours for about eight years. If you ask a career touring musician how much I toured, I’m sure they will say “barely,” but I went to Europe 3 or 4 times, sometimes for over a month at a time; I went across North America in detailed and broad strokes for weeks and weeks again and again; I played shorter runs in Canada frequently, and even a festival in Iceland. There were times when it felt impossible. There were times when I almost didn’t make it. Once or twice I didn’t show up, and then turned on myself cruelly for failing to honour my commitment. For letting other people down. There were moments of shame, crushing depression, malnourishment and panic. I cried and fought through nearly a decade hoping for a moment of pure catharsis where I could look around at my life and say, “Well I really overcame something.”

It didn’t happen like that for me. This isn’t that kind of story.

After my last tour this summer I began to notice I was dreading being asked about it. People wanted highlights. They wanted me to have had a nice time, for the shows to have been good, to have seen cool things and met nice people. I hated the idea of lying so I decided to be honest and say that it was a really hard tour. What happened next was really fascinating to me because no one liked my answer.

Some people actually disagreed with me.

“What do you mean? You got to travel with your friends and play music every night! That’s awesome!”

I want to be very clear here: Touring is so much more than that.

Tour is an experience that exists on many levels for different people. Sure, for some it is really fun. For some it is an escape. But for others still it is isolating, stressful, and difficult. It can be really difficult to stay healthy while traveling. It can be hard to be away from partners, children, family, and friends. It can be financially devastating. It can mean unfettered access to substances that one may not want to use, but feels obligated to, or resorts to as a means of coping. It can mean depression.

“We aren’t drunk rock stars partying on a bus somewhere. Many of us are real people just trying to do a job we love, despite the impossibilities of the broken system.”

What makes all that more difficult is how challenging it can be to talk about.

There are so many stereotypes and misconceptions associated with being a musician that are more harmful than helpful (the image of the hotel trashing rock star comes to mind). We are people working in a competitive field. The hours are long, the travel schedule is exhausting. Our industry has been demonetized. We don’t make much money, we carry debt, we have a lot of overhead. As artists, we must work jobs on the side to make ends meet, but the constant instability takes a toll. So we can regard things like touring, or recording, as “fun,” but to me that’s an oversimplification. I can no longer have that conversation, but there doesn’t seem to be an acceptable alternative.

What I do know is that for myself and for many others, music is not enough. We can’t always tour and feel bolstered by our love of playing music. Some people have terrible stage fright and every show for them is a fight just to appear onstage. Some people have new families and it’s devastating to be away from them for months and months. Some people have sick loved ones. Or themselves have chronic illness. We aren’t drunk rock stars partying on a bus somewhere. Many of us are real people just trying to do a job we love, despite the impossibilities of the broken system.

Think about the fact that the music industry still functions on the same model as decades before when the cost of living was drastically lower. Gas and hotel prices have nearly doubled since I started touring, yet the guarantees remain the same. Granted, more successful musicians get paid better, but you still need to grind it out on long exhausting tours for years to get there. A music publicist I spoke to recently told me with a tone of unnerving levity that being a touring musician is for “those who accept it as a vow of poverty, of the psychotically ambitious.”

Our poverty has been normalized, and that’s pretty scary.

This to me is a big part of the problem: those who labour on the “business” side of the music business have accepted our fate for us. They are fine with us spending months away. They book us on tours that criss-cross countries in mind bending ways that result in more driving than playing, they take large cuts of our income, they draft contracts that keeps us in their pocket and in debt for…well, ever.

I’m not saying that touring is bad. I just believe that the industry has failed us and continues to fail us. I’ve been told there’s no fixing it, but I’ve yet to see anyone try. I hear Spotify would shut down if they paid proper royalties out to musicians. I’ve heard the same of Apple Music. I’ve been in conversations after SOCAN pays out quarterly royalties where we all laugh at our $13 checks. Our poverty has been normalized, and that’s pretty scary.

I sat down to write this because of how many musicians struggle with mental health. Because of my struggle with mental health. Because the pressures and struggles of being a musician often go unnoticed through society’s collective fetishization of celebrities. We are all of us just trying to do what we love, and get by.

whatever they want, however they want, completely unfiltered.

Carmen Elle is a musician/songwriter from Toronto. She began writing music, playing shows and recording albums in her teens and for the past decade has played in several bands, most notably: DIANA, Army Girls and Austra. Carmen has opened for Tegan and Sara, Iron and Wine and Cocorosie, performed at SXSW, Iceland Airwaves and The Great Escape in the UK. In 2014, DIANA’s debut full length “Perpetual Surrender” was long listed for the Polaris Music Prize.

In addition to working as a musician, Carmen has written and spoken about her experiences with Anxiety and Depression. She has been featured in Nylon Magazine, Vice, MTV and the Toronto Star speaking out on behalf of musicians who struggle with mental health.

In the fall of 2017 Carmen opened a small music venue in Toronto called “Less Bar” with an inclusive mandate aimed to prioritize Queer, BIPOC, female identified musicians, DJ’s and performers.

Exclusive videos, interviews, contests & more.

sign up for the a.side newsletter

sign up