I miss my old job sometimes. I used to work in a busy clinic – fielding phone calls, filing, envelope stuffing, adding up long lists of 1s and 2s and making a lot – a lot – of coffees and teas. Before I could officially call myself a full-time musician I was doing my best to make the shifts work around the gigs where possible. Sometimes ultimately, traffic would be against me even in the small hours, or I’d end up locked outside a venue yet trapped inside a very spiky courtyard wall at 5am in Nottingham, or have to power-nap again next to the As and Bs in the corner of the filing room to get through the day. My bosses were supportive of what I was doing and where I was trying to get to. We’d divide up the rota at the start of the month, and by the end of the month a nice chunk of money would land in my bank account and the books would balance out. More importantly, every day in-between was a day that was filled, despite the bustle of the office and its pressure, with human conversation.
It was that which I so looked forward to – the light conversation – though the heavy stuff was never off-limits. Topics were disparate and would chop and change with the unpredictability of a prog rock suite, flitting for example from cardigans to politics then to something more deep and meaningful – sometimes stirred by the Clinic’s open cases and the files on our desks. What’s more, I have never been so often complimented and boosted, or felt the urge to compliment and admire, as much as when I worked in our predominantly female office.
A fly-on-the-wall in any office building or populated workplace wouldn’t need to look very far to find people who genuinely treasure their teams and their relationships with their colleagues. Yet I doubt most of us make a clear distinction between our co-workers and our friends. Perhaps this is because the conversation style is so markedly different. With a friend for you can sit down with a coffee, a biscuit and their undivided attention. You can tell a story that has a start a middle and an end, never in danger of being inappropriate or interrupted by the ear piercing treble of a phone that you’re being paid to answer. Work conversations do have to fit in around ringing telephones and incoming faxes, rants need to be tempered, and gruesome details more creatively conveyed. Talking and typing becomes an absolute must as our multi-tasking skills to rigorous test.
Conversations at work, which aren’t about work but instead about our home lives, our private lives, our feelings, our state of mind are in theory surplus to requirements within the context of the workplace. It’s easy to see however, why we do go the extra social mile. Talking about things other than work can feel more engaging than the task in hand and therefore make for a much happier day at the office. Most of us would say that it’s a nice thing to be interested in each others lives – it shows care and attention – and can strengthen personal relationships which in turn can give us all a better time at work. In short, it’s not hard to understand why we love to chat at work and why in so many cases when our relationships with the people we work with are under par, we don’t feel good about work. In my case, whilst they could rarely be linear or proven useful, and whilst social conventions tell me that I ought not to call my coworkers ‘friends’; office conversations, to me, were very special.
Those micro-sized chats, no matter how fragmented, between me and the broad number of individuals I worked for and alongside – and then accumulated over some five years of working in one place – was equivalent to an enormous chandelier’s worth of different ways to bend the light when you look at the world. I am of the school of thought already; that diversity is good for humanity. At a specifically local level: regular interaction, and a simple even piecemeal connection with others who are similar to us, but not the same, is a really good thing.
I remember my Dad saying to me – in his usual cleverly gentle way whilst chopping up onions or something, when I’d left my job for good and was looking now at a calendar where every day was mine to use – that if I ever didn’t want to be on my own that I could always pop home. I assumed at the time that Dad was just being… a Dad. I should have guessed that he had more insight than I knew.
I don’t remember if my Dad used the ‘L’ word at the time. It’s a careful dance we all do around the idea of being lonely, when it’s a word often saved for those with more extreme hardships to contend with. In some circles even, there is a special roll of the eyes, saved for those to bandy around words other people feel don’t quite fit… for instance, if they live really quite privileged lives. I saw myself staring down the barrel of a new exciting chapter. I discounted the idea that I was somebody who would ever get lonely. Even now i’ll admit, I’m a little wary of the lexicon. Perhaps it’s the threat that someone will roll their eyes at me, that brings out a haughtiness which is comparable to doing a silly dance like a 3 year old who won’t admit she needs a wee… I do however, think I may have found the Kryptonite – in the feeling of ‘un-loneliness.’ That’s a made up word – for being one half of a chat – with somebody else. There’s no photocopier to lean over anymore to moan about all the broken tea-bags in the catering sized bag… In fact don’t know anyone self-employed who could afford their own photocopier… or anyone who buys tea in such abundance. You’ll have to imagine all that. When we stay sociable, the office can be as large as we care to make it. It might just make us feel a whole lot more positive than dwelling on how best to label the way we feel. I think that was what my Dad was getting at.
The positivity in sharing is something that they feed to us as early as childhood. Then we all become adults – bothered by the buzz words and phased by the paradox of a collaboration and independence. Adding fuel to the fire is something I’m loosely calling Musician’s Guilt: remembering that flexible calendar, the pats on the back just for being creative and that one I’ve always found hard to get past – playing the guitar = work. A wise friend of mine once wrote, that the world doesn’t owe you a living just because you want to make music you like. I’ve seen versions of her powerful statement slammed like a heavy book on a the desk of those who are waiting for success to fall into their laps as a matter of course. Her words are engraved in my memory because I never want to cry out ‘why not me’, instead of working to cut my own path. Furthermore, I’m so pleased to say that of all the musicians I have met, the number of cutters far outnumbers the number of cryers. Boom!
So what happens when we take heed of our work-ethic inspiring mantra and a few moves down the track we do find ourselves able to scratch a living solely from music? We might just tell ourselves a new story – and it’s one that comes with an air of caution. Having cracked the code somehow, and done the thing that the odds were against our doing, if ever we should utter a word of complaint or annoyance, struggle or difficulty concerning the above – may God strike us down! I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve confused myself in the past with overzealous, one-size-fits-all rules about what I should and should not talk about. Essentially, mindless moaning about your super-cool job is not the same thing as talking about things you find difficult as a step on the road to making things better. The same guilt tells us we shouldn’t talk about our jobs because we’re working at an end of the the job spectrum which is very different from where teachers and doctors, nurses and care workers are situated. Some would say that we don’t do a job that is anywhere near as useful. Guilt tells us that in pursuing artistic careers we therefore forfeit the right to ever feel negative. Musician Guilt tricks you into keeping your mouth shut.
They haven’t finished building work on that massive skyscraper office block building where all the worlds musicians come to work everyday – taking it in turns to make the tea, doing the admin, crafting the songs and crucially chewing the fat in the hallways and doorways intermittently and freely as they like. What a thought. In the meantime we pass each other on stair steps in the wings of festival stages, and no-doubt up and down the A1 at night. When we stop, we talk shop – we exchange contacts, we ask how it’s all going. We might marvel sometimes at how small the scene really is – and how we’re all connected to each other, albeit in a functional, separate way. It’s all a bit “dry lips when we say goodnight”.
Forgive me if it comes off a little creepy… but I’d like a little bit more than that please. I’d like to know a few fragmented parts of your story. I’d like to understand a little bit of how your work works and how your life works. I’d like to know how you take your tea and what you’re like when you’re just being yourself – so that I can tell when you’re not quite feeling yourself – and I can make you that cup of tea.