SelfMade x MNÁSOME Interview with Jess Kavanagh

Ahead of SelfMade this Friday, we spoke to vocalist Jess Kavanagh, who will be chairing the panel discussion at the event in Third Space, Smithfield. Jess discussed her daily routine, striking a balance, the importance of rest and the many highlights she has experienced and continues to experience in her career…

As a working musician, can you give an example of what your day to day is like?

Get up about 10am-12pm, depending on what time I got home at.

Supplement, breakfast and emails. If it’s a rehearsal day, I usually end up skipping the meditation and morning pages and get wrapped-up in emails/rehearsal prep instead.

Two-three days a week I rehearse with BARQ, which is the band that I write and collaborate with. Between Jan-March the majority of those rehearsals are writing new material and then for the rest of the year, most of our rehearsal time is focused on preparing for gigs. Other days I could be booked in the studio doing session work or rehearsing with other bands for upcoming gigs. If I have no rehearsals or studio work, I find a cafe and catch up on my emails there, do my errands, etc.

In the evening I’m gigging Thursday-Sunday. Evenings off, I try and catch a yoga class and either hang out with my friends or my boyfriend, as I rarely get evenings with them over the weekend. Monday I try to take as a day of rest. I try not to speak to anyone so I can rest my voice and do some light admin from my couch. Then I try and get into the swing of things again by Tuesday.

As you can tell there are multiple factors that vary my day, yet it feels very much like my routine!

How do you balance your day job with your creative work?

I work as a vocalist full-time. So emailing and maintaining websites, managing content for various social media platforms and chasing invoices and promoters is my day job. I also staff many of the pub/club/weddings we do, so depending on who’s available, it’s my job to chase the necessary musicians for their availability, pin them down for the gig and liaise with them to make sure they have all the information for that particular event. I am also responsible for paying the band, majority of the time through my bank account. I assume my bank thinks I’m in organised crime, with the amount of money that comes in and then immediately out again!

As I am self-employed, it can be difficult to change gears from a creative place to a logical place. For me, rest is key. Saying yes to everything and trying to fit everything in can make you feel all over the place and anxious. Then I feel too tense and not optimistic enough to believe anything that would come out of me would be worthwhile. Rest relaxes me and allows me to reset. Know your body, if you have the energy to write in the mornings, don’t answer your phone or check your mail until you’ve gotten a page or two of lyrics down. If you’re a night owl, allocate an evening (and early morning) free for you to do with what you will.

Particularly, in BARQ it can be challenging to have a functioning, creative atmosphere but also discuss the logistics of self-management that can bring up feelings of anxiety and tension. Taking breaks after a busy period to re-charge and coming back to a meeting and discussion, I found really helped us. Knowing that everyone is on the same page moving forward allows the security to dive back into the creative headspace.

Can you tell us about your experience of being a DIY musician on the Irish music scene?

The Irish music scene is incredibly active and it’s super-buzzing. Right now, it’s exciting and really motivating. When you see your pals getting international acclaim and releasing amazing tunes, it feels amazing. I just want to be at a festival this Summer, high-fiving the crap out of my muso-friends at all their wonderful achievements!

The money is not in original music though, so I supplement my income through session-work and weddings. I am lucky enough that we have developed our function bands over multiple years, so they already had a life of their own by the time BARQ gained momentum. It can be difficult though, we sometimes have to say no to a wedding, which would pay us €250 per person for an original music gig that will pay us only our expenses. We were accepting of that in the first year as the value was in getting live experience and the exposure, no matter how small. Now we feel we can be a little more strategic and take the gigs that we know will benefit us and not leave us broke!

I know my experience is very different to other bands. When I started 12 years ago, I would have been expected to try and get Saturday off my retail job, which then would affect other shifts and my income, to attend a gig in Westmeath, including a 4pm soundcheck. This is what a lot of young bands are dealing with now, I don’t think that has changed. Another friend of mine moved to the country for a few years and saved before heading back to the city to try and do music full-time. Some just don’t sleep and work during the day full-time while trying to be a musician full-time in the evening. Taking on music as a career is very much a financial and personal sacrifice, which can really take it’s toll on you. The rewards are significant, though.

What has been a highlight in your career so far? What was involved in reaching this point?

That’s a difficult question, there have been multiple highlights on stage. Performing wonderful gigs with a band I have contributed to creatively (BARQ) has been a life-highlight for me. In particular our Electric Picnic and Body and Soul gigs this year were unreal.

Being able to perform with one of my mother’s favourite bands. To be able to practice harmonies with Mike Scott (Waterboys) and know the harmony I am using is one from a childhood memory, one that my mam used to sing in the car when listening to “Whole Of The Moon” or “Fishermans Blues”.

A highlight is waking up in the morning and not being worried about rent. This is fleeting and will probably not last, but it is such a treat when you are a full-time musician, even for a short time. Waking-up in a warm apartment, surrounded by instruments, books and nice food. Knowing I can start my day with coffee and a record, bang out some emails and prepare some songs. That truly is just the best thing ever and I am so grateful for it.

It involved a lot of self-care and consistency to get to this point. It took years of coming to terms with my self esteem issues, overcoming my anxieties, learning self-care and learning how to promote myself. About 10-15 years of singing and about 5 years of really doing it professionally and full-time. During that time I left about 3 bands because I was unhappy. I was fired from two because they were unhappy with me. A couple of projects just fizzled out. Learning from all those experiences and not letting them fuel a negative, brow-beating narrative was important too. The journey will be full of beautiful moments and full of humiliating and tough ones. Learning from them all and always moving forward is very important.

What women motive and inspire you in your music career?

Erykah Badu is probably my biggest idol. For years I had felt inadequate because I didn’t play an instrument, which is ridiculous. Badu doesn’t have an official secondary instrument, nonetheless the command she has over her band and her music is virtuosic. She is an incredible lyricist, very witty and an amazing performer. A true artist. Grace Jones never took shit from anyone and was true to herself. She really motivates me when I feel I am up against the grain.

My friends inspire me, the women in my life who are being their bad-ass selves everyday. So many of my female friends are very entrepreneurial and ferociously intelligent. They can also handle a wine or five. They’re just the best and they get me through most weeks.

What are your plans for 2018?

BARQ will be doing a lot of writing, I will be collaborating with some other artists and I will be touring with The Waterboys in the UK and Europe. It’s already looking like it’ll be a very fun year!

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