In these first couple weeks you’ve set an awfully high bar for drama and excitement. If you plan on tossing me 11 1/2 more months of this kind of insanity… I’m in.
Ringing in the new year in Lakeland, Florida at The Hometeam New Year’s rally was the best possible start I could imagine to this potentially life altering trip around the sun. Sharing the stage and jam circles with some of my favorite humans was life affirming and inspiring. There was a beautiful blend of friends I’ve known and loved for years and brand new connections that feel like the kind of bonds that will eventually grow into rich, meaningful relationships. I felt renewed.
I returned to Georgia with an open heart and faith that I could bring a better attitude and fresh resolve to my daily grind. Things at my day job didn’t settle down the way I had hoped though. My schedule was heavy and thick with difficult clients. I had requested some changes back in November but they had fallen on deaf ears. As something of a resolution, I decided to communicate my needs and boundaries. At the end of my first week back to work I sent Craig and Allison (the owners) a well thought out, professional, firm but pleasant email outlining what was and wasn’t working in regards to my schedule and workload. In response, I received a text asking me to drop off my client keys so they could “rework them and figure out a Plan B.” I sent a screenshot of that text to Arrie. Her reply was “Plan B – you’re fired.” Ha ha. I agreed it was a good possibility. I didn’t let it stress me out. My job at Petmeisters had been growing increasingly tense and stressful over the course of my second year with them, and I had felt things coming to a head recently.
I packed up and drove to North Carolina for the weekend to have a late Christmas with my family. Things were laid-back in Catawba. My parents were getting along. Dad’s health is never going to be good again, but he was feeling alright. Jim had gotten a smoker for Christmas and was excitedly experimenting with different meats. Max had gotten an electric guitar and he was pumped to show it to me, knowing I would appreciate how cool it was. Mom and I played Scrabble, like we always do, downing a bottle of wine and snacking on Christmas dinner leftovers. I would have liked to spend another day relaxing with my family, but I had checked my schedule online and, shockingly, it had been adjusted to show all of the changes I had asked for, so I knew I needed to get back to Georgia for work.
Driving through the night, I got home around 2:30 in the morning, grabbed about five hours of sleep, and then woke up and got ready for work – as always. I sent a text to Craig and Allison thanking them for not only making the changes I had requested, but doing it so quickly. They didn’t respond. I figured they were out walking vacation dogs. I drove to the office, let myself in, and hollered a hello, mentioning that I was just grabbing my keys. Craig was shuffling around through the papers on the table. He didn’t really acknowledge me until he came up with the folded papers he had been searching for. He turned and stood up, making himself big and sort of blocking me from going through the doorway. He held the papers up high and then dropped them in front of my face saying, “Actually, your services are no longer required. Hopefully this letter will shed some light on why.” I let out a short, unamused laugh and stared at him, not yet taking the papers from his hand. My eyes narrowed. I glanced at Allison who had emerged just behind him. She was trying to appear stern but she was unable to maintain eye contact with me when my glare landed on her. Looking back at Craig, I sarcastically thanked him for letting me know before I showed up ready for work. I snatched the papers from his hand and then turned to go. “We’re going to need your office keys and your leashes,” he bellowed. Snapping the keys off my ring, I tossed them at him and walked out of the house. Allison was scurrying after me. “We need those leashes!” I didn’t respond and only half turned to acknowledge her. I reached into my car and emerged with a couple of leashes and collars. I held them out without looking at her. She took them and thanked me, but I was already in the car and closing the door. I was incensed. I was disgusted with them. But I was done. The rage felt like fire, but underneath it was astounding relief. Four little words snuck out of my mouth.
“Fuck them. I’m free.”
And so it goes. Now I’m unemployed, but it’s a sort of blissful unemployment, pregnant with potential. If you’re wondering about the letter they gave me, it was, of course, a steaming load of horseshit. They accused me of manipulating and guilt tripping them and claimed that no other walkers ever complained about any of their dogs. They said I was unreceptive to feedback, and they wrapped it up by expressing hope that this has been a learning experience for me. Well, it has, but probably not in the way they had hoped. What I learned is that I don’t need them. I’ll continue to walk dogs, but from now on, I’m keeping all of the money. Thanks for the lesson.
The week and a half since I was unceremoniously relieved of my duties at Petmeisters have been unequivocally amazing. My days are packed with creative opportunities, and my musical career feels to be in a period of massive expansion. Our professionally printed shirt inventory had dwindled to dangerously low levels, so I got down and dirty with some fancy spray paints and made some dope Ain’t Sisters T-shirts to sell at our Eddie’s Attic show. I’ve started writing one of the books that I’ve been dying to write for years. I was able to put in long practice sessions in preparation for our release party. I immediately found myself spending more time with friends, laughing more, relaxing… Coming back to myself. Getting fired is the best thing that has happened to me in a long while.
Then, it was Saturday, January 12, 2019. After more than three years of recording, editing, mixing, re-recording drums, mixing some more, struggling to get everything mastered, almost breaking up the band, regrouping, slogging through the confusing process of setting up distribution and manufacturing, and at long last, holding the fruits of our prolonged labor in our hands, we ascended upon the hallowed stage at Eddie’s Attic. We were sharing the night with our good friends (and obscenely talented artists) Hannah Zale and Carly Gibson (the Pussywillows).
They put on a positively killer show, and when they finished and we stepped up onto that 8 inch tall platform, one that has held up so many of our heroes before us, we did so in front of an energized, sold out crowd. If any of us had paused too long to take that in, I think we might have crumbled with anxiety. Instead, we set straight to work, flicking on amplifiers and clicking quarter inch cables into direct boxes, tuning our guitars one last time, and laying out our set lists. Thank the goddess for bright stage lights. We weren’t able to see just how massive the crowd was. We could certainly feel their energy though. I was glad we had decided to start with one of Arrie’s songs, grateful for the chance to settle in a bit before having to sing. Nerve-racking as it was, playing our first sold out show in such a prestigious venue, our voices were strong, our playing was clean, and our hits were right on time. We had put in the hard work, and now, on a rainy Saturday night in January, it was all paying off.
The after party at the Square pub was raucous and entertaining – even as we were thoroughly and utterly exhausted from pouring everything we had onto the stage at Eddie’s. Some good friends jumped up and played guest sets (BJ Wilbanks, Bonemeal Baker, Amber Taylor, there was even a comedian). That gave us a chance to kick back a little and eat and mingle. Although, we spent most of our break piled into a booth on the top level of the bar, drinking beers and cutting up with one another, enjoying the high we were riding.
It was a long, beautiful, exhausting night. Boudreau, John, Chris Holland, and I stuck around until close to collect our pay. As tired as I was, part of me didn’t want the magical evening to end, so I lingered for quite a while, circling around and hugging as many necks as I could before finally retreating through the back door, walking slowly through the rain to my car.
An experience like that sets a high bar, one that we will likely fail to surpass for some time. In the absence of a growth mindset, that could be demoralizing. I’m determined, and I think my bandmates share my resolve, to reach, to get better, to ask for bigger gigs, and when we inevitably land one, to rise to the occasion and push the bar higher still.
In the meantime, I making a solo record. It was right around this time last year when I started seriously putting feelers out, trying to find a great collaborator to help bring a collection of some of my very best songs to life. I wanted to work with a big-time producer, someone who could work magic and take my simple acoustic compositions to the next level. Jonny put me in touch with Don. Don had engineered the “Rites of Passage” album for the Indigo Girls back in the 90s. He had also worked with my former boss, Michelle Malone, on “Beneath the Devil Moon.” Sister Hazel, Shawn Mullins, Kristen Hall, Caroline Aiken, his credits were tremendous and the artists he had engineered and produced were some of my heroes. “Rites” and “Devil Moon” were two of my favorite albums ever.
I got fixated. I had to make this happen. Jonny warned me. “It’s not going to be cheap.” I knew. But I would find a way. I started talking about it. I started a Gofundme campaign. I set the goal at $25,000. People donated. Others scoffed. It was insane! I could make a perfectly good record for less than half that amount! True. But I wanted Don. For some reason, I got it in my head that working with him would instantly elevate me to some rarefied echelon of folk rock grandeur. It occurs to me, just now as I’m writing this, that this is a recurring pattern, for me, of seeking shortcuts.
“If only we get to play with this band, if only we get a gig at this venue, if only we work with this hotshot producer, then we’ll have a shot, then we might make it!”
In my life, I’ve rarely encountered a challenge that I couldn’t meet with relative ease. School was easy. Sports came naturally. Art was in me. Poems and prose poured out of me. Only math was somewhat difficult, the formulas and patterns eluded my comprehension, but I muddled through required courses, doing well enough and never really stressing my inadequacies. After all, I was a writer and an athlete, what did it matter if I sucked at math? I’d never use it anyway.
Although the information was presented to me often, and in very plain language, my mind refused, for decades, to acept that:
a.) it was incredibly important for me, as a songwriter, to understand music theory and…
b.) the patterns and formulas of music were intricate and complicated just like the ones in math that had dogged me throughout my formal education, and – for the first time in my life – something that truly mattered to me was going to be exasperatingly difficult for me to master.
Hence, the shortcut problem.
So, that’s why I cried so hard when I read the email. I thought I had explained my budget when we first started talking, but apparently, somewhere along the way, Don and I had ended up on very different pages. The $25,000 Gofundme goal was never going to happen. Not even close. But even with my poor math skills, it wasn’t hard to take the numbers Don had just sent me, perform some basic addition and multiplication, and arrive at an estimated grand total that was – even conservatively – at least $25,000 for a 10 track LP. I couldn’t do it. I was willing to spend every last dime I had in the bank to make this record, but I simply couldn’t rationalize spending twice what I had, selling my car, and potentially ending up homeless again. I was left with two options. I could spend a ridiculous amount of money to record one or two songs with Don, or I could find an affordable engineer who would help me get all 10 songs down on a budget, and hope like hell that the end product was still a solid and professional sounding effort.
As part of what I can now recognize as another piece of my shortcut solution, I had elected to use Jaron Pearlman as my drummer for the project. Jaron had recorded and toured with the Indigo Girls for their release “One Lost Day.”
“If I use the engineer from ‘Rites’ and The drummer from the latest record… Blah, blah… upper echelon… Blah.”
Jaron and I had met, by chance, at a show where I was opening for a guy who was actually a college professor or something. He had hired Jaron to play on a vanity project of sorts. It was an odd, exceedingly random encounter. The bass player, Ben, who also played with the Indigo Girls at the time, had liked my acoustic set and had introduced himself to me, offering up the possibility of him and Jaron providing me with a rhythm section if I ever needed one. I asked who else they played with around town, and when he replied that they weren’t currently booked, but most recently had been with the Shadowboxers and The Indigo Girls, the maniacal shortcut reward center in my brain went crazy. Yep. I was almost definitely going to need them. Thank you.
Although we already had a regular rhythm section, and despite not having anywhere near the caliber of gigs to afford their flat rates, Arrie and I, in what I can now acknowledge was a seriously dick move that was entirely my idea, came out of pocket to hire Ben and Jaron for a big gig at M.O.M.s on Mother’s Day. We were sidelining our dedicated band in order to gain some bragging rights in being able to claim that we had played with – who Jesse and Boudreau not-so-lovingly began to refer to as – the Indigo boys. It was shitty to do, and may have been the first tug at the thread that eventually unraveled our original lineup, however, the rehearsals leading up to that show were when I learned that Jaron had not only been the Indigo Girls’ drummer, he was also a fantastic engineer with a cozy home studio. He had sat at the helm on Amy Ray’s solo record, “Goodnight Tender.” During the rehearsal sessions, Jaron casually mentioned that he had reasonable rates and would work with our budget if we ever wanted to record there. That was in 2015. A seed was planted that day that would take almost 3 years to germinate.
As silly as it may sound, I was dangerously depressed for days, or maybe weeks, after I got the email from Don. I was also still nursing a terribly broken heart, trying to navigate an addiction to a person whose toxicity I simply refused to see. To make matters almost unbearably worse, our drummer for the Ain’t Sisters was beginning to cede from the band, and the remaining members had linked up with another songwriter and the drummer who I was hoping would cover for us if Jesse left. They had formed a new outfit without me. It literally felt like my band had ditched me and Jesse for Mikhail and Richie. This had been brewing for a while, but the potential I saw in making my solo record with Don had provided something of a salve to ease the burning pain of being left behind. Now that dream had collapsed and my despair was exquisite. I was unstable.
Arrie would console me. She would tell me that the Ain’t Sisters was home, that it was her favorite, but I didn’t believe her – especially when the new band, the GMO’s, released an album before we were able to get ours out. Adding insult to injury, they had recorded one of Arrie’s songs, “Changes,” that was also on our frustratingly stalled record. Liz didn’t love me. I felt distanced from my friends and my band. I couldn’t afford Don. Winter was lingering. On top of, or possibly as a result of, the maelstrom of stress and heartache, things at my day job weren’t going well. Whether or not it was true in the grand scheme of things, it certainly seemed like every last piece of my life was shattering. Every day was an epoch of anxiety and dejection. It felt like a monumental tour de force just to wrest myself out of bed and trudge through my fog of melancholy. Life had been reduced to a race in which I was miserably thwarted by my thick depression, as I struggled around the pointless, monotonous, circular track from my bed, out into the world, and, as quickly as humanly possible, back to my bed. Dramatic, I know, but it was like that.
When I called Jaron I did my best not to sound like I was asking my second choice girl to the prom.
“Hi, Janet. Liz said no to me, and you seem, like, pretty single and stuff, so do you want to go to the prom with me? You know, like, as friends?”
In truth, it was nothing like that. Under almost any other circumstance, I would have been giddy and nervous to ask Jaron Pearlman to be my record bae, but crashing down from the ridiculous high of imagined instant relevance had taken all of the spunk out of me. On the phone, Jaron was receptive and warm. He assured me that we could make a great record together. He also assured me that we could do 10 tracks for a fraction of what Don would have charged me. What I heard in his voice triggered a shift in me. He sounded… excited.
It took a week or two to settle into this new reality. I was still poised at the starting line of my first real solo album, I simply had a different relay partner, one who was younger and fresher, if somewhat less acclaimed. It was a tempered transition, but slowly, steadily, I was coming back to myself. Everything else in my life was still a raging dumpster fire, but I liked Jaron, and straight from go he made everything simple, and that was the little spark I needed to make it through to spring.
We started work on my record in late February or early March 2018. At that point, I wasn’t sure if the Ain’t Sisters record would ever see the light of day, so I was eager to attack the solo project aggressively. Jaron would be my drummer as well as my engineer, which meant the first rounds of tracking would be quick and easy since he could work on them in his spare time. This led me to make the bold prediction that we would be done tracking by May with a record in hand by November.
It’s January 18, 2019. Three days ago, Arrie, Carly Gibson, and I had a background vocal session to wrap tracking. Only eight months off. Not bad on musician time. Despite Justin Boudreau’s heroic feat of laying down bass tracks for all 10 songs in one three-hour session, instrumental tracking took much longer than I expected, mostly due to the colossal effort required to coordinate the schedules of multiple musicians and also because Dropbox is hard. Technically, I need to stop by the studio and do about five more vocal double tracks, but Jaron can mix around them for a few days and when I get in there it will take all of 30 minutes. Mixing and mastering will take a month or two or three. At this point I’ve learned not to make precise estimates.
In any case, I should have a finished solo record in hand by May. I had a conversation with Liz just before Christmas. It was immensely painful, but it opened my eyes to several truths that I had been denying, not the least of which was that she didn’t just NOT love me, she felt deep contempt for me, and there is no potential for love where contempt exists. That night I flipped a switch. Liz Card doesn’t live here anymore. She doesn’t get to live rent free in my head. She’s not even allowed to visit. When she shows up unexpectedly I tell her to get out. Prominently, I’m angry with her. That’s not the greatest place to be, but it’s a hell of a lot better than where I was. The Ain’t Sisters feels strong again. The record is getting good reviews. We’re playing bigger venues to bigger crowds. We’re talking about going on tour. We’re plotting a sophomore record. I’m free from my shitty day job (just to be clear, I loved the dogs, just not the company). I’m finally finding time to write, to learn lead guitar and music theory, to be generally creative. It’s ushering me back into my joy. I’m starting to feel genuinely happy again.
This concludes our journey down the rabbit hole of the solo record and through the swampy darkness of my personal dramas.
Scrawled across my bathroom mirror in my chicken scratch, in red dry erase marker are four words:
“Everything is unfolding perfectly.”
Life proves this to me over and over again. Sometimes it feels like the lows get lower each time just to drive home the point. There is no low, no matter how deep it is, that isn’t followed by a high, if only you just hang on.
It all makes sense later.
I’m so grateful that the Ain’t Sisters hit a rough patch. If we hadn’t, I might never have made this solo record.
I’m so grateful that I couldn’t afford Don. That’s the only reason I ended up recording with Jaron, which has been one of the most enjoyable and rewarding experiences of my life.
I’m so grateful that Liz and I didn’t work out and that we had that excruciating conversation in December. Now I’m free. I never want to be with someone who doesn’t love me back. I’m so happy that I’ll be single and receptive when someone comes along who adores me.
I’m so grateful to have worked for, and to have been fired from, Petmeisters. Two years with that company taught me an enormous amount about how to run (and how not to run) a dog care company. Now I’m confident enough to build one of my own.
It’s so hard to believe it when your life is an F5 tornado, but it’s true whether you believe it or not. Everything really is unfolding perfectly.
Just hang on.
Oh yeah, and I’ve come to understand that there are no shortcuts. The only way to ever attain any level of “success” (whatever that means for you) is to put the work in every day so you’re always a little better than you were yesterday.
It’s not about coattails and competition. Only growth.