Leading up to the release of their sharp and spirited album Kiku, The Parlor has been up and down the East Coast, taking part in the most organic and essential aspect of musicianship: touring. Ahead, Jen O’Connor brings us along on the pair’s latest adventure, cracking open the most intimate moments of living life on the road and sharing art.
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Tour is strange and beautiful. Exciting and boring. Relaxing and amplifying. Exhausting and rejuvenating. One night in Asheville I was so tired I fell asleep standing up with my eyes open. My earplugs were shoved in deep, bass thudding through my chest. When I woke up I snuck outside to our car and popped five chocolate covered coffee beans before our set (I am hardcore) because while I don’t think it’s possible to fall asleep while you’re playing music, I don’t like to gamble.
After all the sets were over, gear packed up, all the hands shaken, we exchanged music with the bands we played with. You come home from tour with a glove box full of music. Tapes and CDRs. You promise show swaps up North if they ever want to venture to this cold place. The best part about tour is the people you meet on the road, and the feeling of exhaustion completely subsuming you so that all the things you’ve been worrying and wondering and stressing about fall away because you are now just trying to stay awake and alive and move from one city to another and make it there in time for your set.
I melt into bed and don’t move all night. In Asheville (the night I fell asleep standing up) I woke up in the middle of the night and had no idea where I was. I love when this happens. This is when I know I’ve cracked my tightly controlled grip on life and I’ve finally given in to the wildness of the road. I got up to go to the bathroom and walked into a wall. “I’ve made it,” I thought to myself.
All day long we drive, stopping every couple of hours to get gas, go to the bathroom, fill up our Ball jars with water, and switch drivers. We graze all day on almonds and curried cashews, dried figs, and dried mangos. If you eat a handful of peanuts with a dried prune it tastes like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. This is our lunch every day. Every once in a while we buy beef jerky because no matter how many fake peanut butter and jelly sandwiches we eat on the road we are craving meat, even though we rarely eat it at home.
We only stop at Love’s or Pilot’s or Flying J’s. If you stop anywhere else you are playing a dangerous game. We learned a long time ago that being a musician is very similar to being a truck driver and any place that treats a truck driver right is going to be the best place for a musician. We’ve never used their showers or bunked in their rooms, but just knowing they’re there puts our mind at ease. The bathrooms are the cleanest and their potable tap water the coldest. The place is full of people who respect the road weary.
Halfway through tour Eric was fighting a cold he got from either: a) a fishy smelling mic (why do they always smell like fish?) b) our cousins, aged 2-6, who were dripping with snot when we stopped in to see them on our way to Chicago c) a gas station bathroom. He sneezed a lot and had a sore throat every morning and probably gave all the musicians from Athens to Richmond his cold. All of the sound guys commended me for bringing my own mic, acknowledging how much healthier that is when you’re touring. I wasn’t doing it for health reasons, but it was a benefit. The only illness I had on tour was this weird thing going on with my right eye where it was leaking nonstop which was terribly inconvenient and annoying and made driving and playing music slightly more complicated.
In Chicago there were some intense strobe lights during our set. While I found them to have a nice effect as they danced across the faces of the other bands when they played, I hate them so much when I’m playing. There is already so much to think about up on stage. So many distractions and variables. Remember your lyrics, remember your notes, change settings, trigger samples, song structures, listen to the sounds coming out and try to play with them. Don’t sound stupid, thank the venue, thank the bands, tell people who you are and where you come from, say you have merch without sounding like you’re desperate, don’t get too nervous, don’t be too relaxed. Then there are the unexpected variables –broken monitors, bad mixes, instruments stop working, broken strings, tuning problems. On top of it you add strobe lights and now I’m closing my eyes because I feel like I’m going to have a seizure, but the stage is bouncy and Eric moves a lot when he’s playing so I’m losing my balance and now it’s time to sing and I’ve smashed my teeth into the microphone (play it cool).
We got into a conversation with a girl in Richmond about Southern hospitality. She was a storybook stereotype of a Southern girl: grew up on a melon farm in rural Georgia, near a swamp where as a kid she looked for gators and rode her bicycle down dirt roads past corn fields. “Did you live near anything?” Eric asked her. “Farms, fields, more farms.” She was proud of the South, telling us how when she went up North she just started talking to strangers who looked at her funny. “People don’t talk to strangers in the North,” she said. I told her our car had broken down in Central New York on our first day of tour. Not 20 seconds passed and a stranger hopped out of his car in 20 degree temperatures and biting wind to help push our car to the side of the road. Then the sheriff pulled up and called us a tow truck and stood on the side of the road with us for 15 minutes chatting while we waited. It was the tow truck driver’s day off but he happened to be in the shop when the call came in. He hopped in his rig because all the other tow trucks were out. When we got to the mechanic they heard we were musicians trying to get to a show so they all hurried to get our car fixed before the end of the day. “People are friendly everywhere,” I said. “It’s just a different kind of friendly.”
Touring on this record is exhausting in a completely different way than usual. This album is deep and heavy and personal and emotional. There are nights when we are packed into a dingy dive bar, when I’m the only woman that will be on stage, and Eric and I are the oldest people in the bar aside from the bartender and maybe the sound guy. Singing lyrics about miscarriage feels gritty in the most uncomfortable way. It’s bad ass in a way that no one in the audience understands. The other bands are singing about break-ups and crushes. They’re singing about things I can no longer relate to. And they can’t relate to me either. But I have to continually enter this dark place in my mind, I have to relive these feelings and sing these words that some of these people can’t even fathom is a thing that happens to women. It adds to the exhaustion. But it’s important. At least it feels like it is.
A friend told me that being an artist is like living in the center of the Venn diagram of “crushing self-doubt” and “complete self-confidence”. This is the place where tour lives too. Some nights the room is packed and people dance and cheer. There are strangers who come up to you and tell you that you’ve changed their life. They have tears in their eyes. They ask if they can hug you. They buy your merch and later they come back and hand you more money because they want to support what you’re doing and they believe in you. You’ll most likely never see this person again but it reminds you why you make art. You are reminded of the powerful feeling of when someone else made art and it moved you. You must hang on to these moments and stuff them in a bottle and carry it around with you, opening it when you start to veer toward the “crippling self-doubt”.
Other nights you play to nearly empty rooms. People seem friendly, but you’re afraid it’s only because they feel like they should be, and because you drove all this way. They don’t really get what you’re doing and they don’t seem to care. You are reminded just how many musicians exist in this world: last night was a sold out show and tomorrow will be too, but tonight is the first warm night of the season and everyone’s hanging out on their porches instead of coming out to a show. We still play as if there are a hundred people in the audience. The ones who did come out (mostly just the other bands) tell us that we were awesome, but part of us doesn’t believe it. The sound was rough on stage and we weren’t as tight as we usually are – we were too busy getting into our own heads.
Doing this is important, not just for the art but for your concept of self. It’s like walking around in a funhouse mirror. After a while, you’re not sure what’s real anymore and sometimes that’s ok.
When you come home everything looks different. The house that you live in, your bedroom, your kitchen – while you were gone the walls got straighter. It’s a nice place to live. A nice place to leave. Although you wanted sleep so badly, now you can’t fall asleep. It feels strange not playing a show. For lunch, we eat dried fruit and nuts even though we could eat anything. I’m having coffee withdrawal. I wash my clothes. I check the news. I wish I hadn’t. Nothing has changed.
— Jen O’Connor