How do you (barely) afford your rock ’n’ roll lifestyle?
Sacramento ain’t getting cheaper. Local artists dish on how they juggle making music and a living.
When the Sacramento band Cake posed the question, the query applied more to the cult of shallow fandom: trend followers who likely forked over plastic instead of cash to stay up on the latest tunes, concerts—and the T-shirts to prove they were there.
When SN&R asked musicians how they afford their rock ’n’ roll lifestyle, however, the question was literal and heartfelt: How, exactly, do you juggle paying the bills with making art?
The answers were as varied as the musicians we interviewed. We found a taxicab driver and a pet groomer, a wine expert and even a tombstone carver.
And while some of the artists profiled here admitted they burn with the drive to move beyond the time clock, others said they were pretty damn happy with the current work-art balance.
Working (wo)man’s blues? You decide.A marker of success
Singer-songwriter Mason Rex carves his musical niche
In some ways, Mason Rex’s day job isn’t that different from his singer-songwriter gig: He spends long hours alone, focused intently on the fusion of craft, skill and raw emotion.
And, much like his songs do, Rex says his work as a tombstone carver helps him connect to others.
“For me, it means something, [and] it means something to other people,” says the Woodland resident.
Rex, who works for a friend’s family business, started chiseling words into stone about eight years ago. Although most gravestone lettering is now computer-cut, the job still requires an eye for intricate design, as well as an intuition for a family’s needs.
“People come in and they have ideas, and you take those ideas and use your expertise to help them,” he says. “You make it something everyone is happy with.”
And, no, Mason Rex isn’t his birth name. Rather the artist, inspired by his stonemasonry trade, adopted his fitting stage name.
“I just thought it sounded good,” he says with a laugh.
Certainly, the job’s become something of a lifestyle for the musician. He spends his days designing and making grave markers, and where some would crave company, Rex says he welcomes the solitude.
“I get to work with my hands, and I have days where I’m completely alone, and I can work at my own pace and even work on my songs.”
Sometimes, he adds, his two crafts overlap.
Once, for example, Rex found himself tasked with making a marker for a 2-year-old girl’s grave.
The thought of a child dying so young weighed heavily on him.
“I just had [her] on my mind,” he says. “Within a day, I’d [written a song] about it, told from the perspective of a higher power about what happens to children after they’ve died.”
The song’s somewhat melancholy ethos fits with the rest of Rex’s catalog. The singer-songwriter, who claims influences such as Dylan, the Beatles, Nirvana and the Cure, writes folk-tinged tunes shot through with poppy melodies and a rough-cut rock sensibility.
There’s no album to speak of yet—just tons of recordings, creative ambition and a drive to get everything right.
“I’m really hard on myself. I’m a perfectionist,” the self-taught musician admits.
In addition to the album in never-ending progress, Rex currently plays shows as part of a rock project with drummer Justin Keith. What exactly the musical future holds, however, he can’t quite say.
“It’s a hard [choice]: Do you follow a career with a future, or do take a chance on the music dream?” he asks.
Whatever the answer, Rex says he knows that wealth and fame aren’t really factors in any decision he makes.
“There’s also personal success,” Rex says. “If I’m happy, who cares where I am?”
—Rachel LeibrockTake this job and love it
Indie musician Jocelyn Noir reaps the fruits of her labor, artistic and otherwise
The wind is startlingly strong on this chilly October evening, but Jocelyn Noir doesn’t mind, because she’s finally home from a hectic workday. It’s the busiest time of year at Boeger Winery in Placerville, where she’s the assistant tasting-room manager, but it’s also been a busy season for the 27-year-old musician, whose indie electro-pop projects—her solo act Alak and band Biosexual—both dropped new releases in October. On this day, Noir says 400 people came to taste the fermented fruits of Boeger’s scenic, undulating vineyards in the foothills—nearly twice as many as a normal Sunday—and she was on hand to guide them through it.
“A lot of people don’t know very much about wine, but they want the [wine-tasting] experience, and so you need to help them along the way, so they can get a wine that they like,” she says. “I have always enjoyed wine, but I didn’t know wine language; I couldn’t tell why which ones were different, and memorizing the varietals and what a blend was,” she says. “I’ve really learned a lot since I started working there.”
Noir has been clocking in at the winery for the past seven months, and until last month, was the events coordinator at Cosmic Café & Pub, also in Placerville, for about five years.
“I decided it would be easier to stick to one job instead of two jobs, ’cause it’s been really intense doing work from home, and then going [to the winery] and trying to do other things, like raise my daughter and have a music career,” she says.
Although Noir says she loves working in the tasting room, ideally, she wants her music to be her full-time occupation.
Alak’s new five-track EP, Guardian Petted, recently had a limited release on cassette, via the Kaleidoscope label, and sold out in the first 10 minutes (but it’s available for free download online at http://bit.ly/19kiks6).
The sound is a compote of etherealness, synthesizer and driving beats, with her soft voice guiding the listener’s ear into the valleys and over the peaks of the surreal sonic landscape she’s constructed. And a new eponymous release of angular, experimental electro-pop by her band Biosexual—which includes her brother Michael RJ Saalman and boyfriend Zac Nelson—has been receiving favorable reviews, including Redefine magazine’s Jason Simpson citing the record has “moments of true pop genius.”
Or, as Noir said, it’s “weird music.” She admits she has been discouraged to share her creative output with those at her place of employment in the past because she found it difficult to explain her experimental sound.
“But now, what I’m doing with Biosexual, it’s … more accessible for people. I’ve been sharing that a lot more,” she says. “It’s been a long process. It’s been, like, almost 10 years of working really hard on music and not a lot of fruition.”
Still, Noir remains excited about the possibilities. And, for now, she’s grateful to be punching her time card at the winery, even though she gets frustrated when some folks won’t put down their iPhones and enjoy the “magical place.”
“As a ’real world’ job, this is my fantasy job. It’s the best I could ask for,” Noir says. And although she’s wiped out from the frenzied day at work, she reveals her work isn’t over yet.
“I have to wear a black bodysuit and mask and walk around in the dark.” She’s shooting a scene for a Biosexual video later in the evening.
“No matter how tired I am, I’m going to follow through,” she says.
That’s good, because the band is scheduled to shoot yet another video the following night.
—ShokaDriving for change
Steven Payan's 12-hour taxicab shift drives home beats, activism and high-speed chases
In some ways, Steven Payan’s job as a Woodland taxi driver helps move his music career. During his 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift, for example, he gets enough downtime to write lyrics. The Woodland native also bumps tunes by his hip-hop group, Mentes Diferentes, through the taxi’s speakers—it’s an easy way to have his music heard by a captive audience, and, he says, people often give him positive feedback, or start conversations about it.
But then there are the darker times. Like when Payan has to pick up people who appear to be on drugs, or the one time he had to make a high-speed escape:
“It [was] 5 o’clock in the morning, and a guy comes out of a store dressed in an all-black trench coat, cowboy hat, 6-foot-3 or 6-foot-4, looking like a villain from an old Western flick: gray, grimy beard and walking with a limp and a cane,” says Payan.
“A feeling came over me, like, ’Man, I better not look at this guy directly in the eyes.’”
After entering the freeway, the villainous-looking man told Payan that people in several cars behind the taxi were trying to kill him. Payan had no choice but to take him seriously, so he hit the gas pedal, and a few cars followed in a high-speed pursuit. He eventually evaded them by driving through roads near the Sacramento International Airport and performing a quick U-turn through a gas station. This thrilling ride earned him just $50. But, hey, at least he walked away with a crazy story to tell.
Onstage, Payan goes by the stage name Chaotic Itilii. Mentes Diferentes, formed circa 2008, is rounded out by Vicious V and Reckless Reaction (who also comprise the group Desperados), plus Kest, Horizon, J-loco, Chuco, Lil’ Joker, Nikki, Kron and DJ Roots.
With lyrics in English and “Spanglish”—as well as a Chicano perspective on the streets, activism and gang violence—the group often gets compared to Cypress Hill, Wu-Tang Clan and Immortal Technique, says Payan.
But if you were to bump into Payan at a party, he wouldn’t necessarily introduce himself as just an emcee—or just a taxi driver either, for that matter.
Those are simply things he does.
“I’m a community organizer, and what that encompasses is that I address issues through music and art and activism,” says Payan. “I like to say I try to reflect street culture through hip-hop, through Mentes Diferentes: I’ll go out there doing music, graffiti, teaching workshops on how to do stencil bombing with a political message, how to organize, how to know your rights.”
And much of that community organization happens during his taxi shift.
In addition to being an administrator for the Mentes Diferentes Facebook page, he also regularly posts as an admin on Facebook pages for Occupy Sacramento, the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement and the Peace and Freedom Party (Yolo County chapter).
Just not when there’s high-speed chase, of course.
—Jonathan MendickA daily grind, the bigger picture
Emcee Spittlez juggles a cashier job, school and life onstage
“It came from two words,” Tonya “Spittlez” Wright says of her artist pseudonym.
“The word ’spittle,’ it’s a drop of spit, and from Skittles, because I didn’t want to put myself in a box, to be one kind of artist. I do pop, I do R&B, I do rock, I do techno—I make all that music. So I spit, and I’m flavorish—I can do any kind of music.”
Perhaps. But don’t let her petite frame and girlish giggle fool you. Spittlez means business.
When she’s not behind the mic, for instance, Spittlez studies sound engineering at Pinnacle College. And to pay the bills, she works as a cashier at a gas station in Natomas.
Not exactly the life of a glamorous rapper, but Spittlez says she’s one to value hard work over glitz. Indeed, the artist’s been performing music for more than a decade, drawing comparisons to the likes of Eve and MC Lyte—mixed in with a bit of Missy Elliott.
Locally, she’s worked with artists such as Century Got Bars, DJ Quik, T-Nutty and Marvaless. She’s also been recording her own music since she was 18 under her own label, Spitfire Entertainment, and, in June, she signed on with Marvaless Muzic, a label founded by the rapper.
Such deals may push Spittlez more squarely into the spotlight, but the artist knows there’s still plenty of hard work ahead.
Not to mention endless hours logged behind the cash register.
“It’s not the awesomest job ever,” she says of her work, “but I am blessed to have a job to support my family and my music. Music does support, but it does not pay all the bills, so I need to make sure I can take care of my family and make sure I am keeping up with my music financially.”
Spittlez has been working at this particular gas station for two months. Before that, she pursued music full time. Now, even though she has to devote 30 hours of her week to ringing up purchases, Spittlez says she uses the time to network and work on her music.
“I don’t really take the … gas station serious, because I know I’m not going to be there, probably [beyond] this year. I have other goals that will have me elsewhere soon.”
Goals that college is helping her meet. Spittlez says she’s utilizing the 18-month engineering program to learn sound production and how to better run her business.
“I’ve been doing music for so long, school is teaching me how to focus, especially with the business,” she says. “Before school, I was recording by myself, but to actually know what I’m doing is pretty cool.”
So, for now, while her life consists of the daily grind of school, a job and a few precious hours to work on her music, Spittlez embodies the message of her music—to stay positive and uplifted—because she knows this is only a temporary pit stop before she reaches her goals.
“I plan on not [having to] work in the next two years, [and] make this music crack,” Spittlez says. “The end goal is to be stable and make sure my music can live on forever.”
—Jessica RineFeed the soul
Singer-songwriter Carly DuHain eats a lot of ramen—and loves it
For starters, there’s that one time that, desperate to figure out a way to pay her rent for the month, blues-rock singer-songwriter Carly DuHain sold her Harmony acoustic guitar.
Sometimes the measures needed to get by aren’t quite so extreme.
DuHain, who also has a roommate to help keep down costs, knows how to spice up a mean bowl of ramen, for example, and isn’t afraid to eat freezer-burned meat.
Hey, don’t let anything go to waste, right?
For DuHain, it’s all just another day in the life of a musician trying to balance—much less afford—making art with paying the bills.
Currently, DuHain works as a dog groomer at local pet-supply store and dog wash in West Sacramento. With 13 years logged in the grooming industry—and three of those years spent working as a veterinary technician and assistant—DuHain’s experienced it all. She’s separated plasma from blood, been peed on by a dog and even performed CPR on an animal that suffered from a heart attack.
Still, through all the urine and stressful moments, DuHain says she loves her job.
“I like animals because they’re the best examples of unconditional love. I think that’s something that a lot of people that I’ve cared for deeply have lacked,” says DuHain.
With three cats to feed at home—Phillip; Uhura, also known as “Rocket Cat”; and Maple—DuHain says she’d rather starve then let her pets go hungry. In other words, she lives and dies by cheap eats.
Sometimes her diet consists of, as she most eloquently words it, “cheap-ass Old Tavern bar food.” But when money is tight, DuHain turns to her coin jar and offers these helpful rock ’n’ roll-worthy tips to spice up any flavor of ramen.
“Crystal Hot Sauce, throw an egg in there, all the veggies in your house, cilantro, and if you have any meat … throw that in there, too,” says DuHain. “I had beef liver frozen for days, and it got super freezer-burned, [but] I tried to make the Top Ramen as much like pho as possible—it was pretty good.”
Whatever the flavor, she adds, music will always take precedence over nourishment.
“If you have to choose between eating really well or buying a new pair of strings or new cables because you’re like me and you lose them all the time, [then] you forgo the food,” DuHain says. “You stock up on frozen corn, and you accept it.”