Musician and Artist Self Care: Holiday Edition featuring the Dissonance "Unhappy Holidays" event and exclusive interviews with two talented Minnesota musicians

Happy Holidays to you and yours! It is so hard to believe it is already the middle of December, when it seems like just weeks ago, we were hiking through the trails in 50 degree weather. Ahhh, Minnesota! To be quite honest, I am feeling pretty exhausted and wiped out just thinking about all of the family expectations and musical obligations that are coming up. I don't know about you, but there is such a huge part of me that just wants to snuggle up with my Shih Tzu and a cozy blanket, light some S'mores scented candles and turn up my new David Bowie vinyl album ("Heroes") on my record player and sleep until April. My body feels like it is in hibernation mode as the cold, frosty snow chills me down to the bones. Cardiovascular exercise and moderate free-weight lifting is a must for me in the winter months because it keeps me strong, warm and mentally fit.

On an exciting programming note: I am so honored and thrilled to have been asked to set up a table with information about my specialty therapy services (musicians/artists) at the Dissonance: Music and Mental Health "Unhappy Holidays" event on Thursday, December 15th. Dissonance is a non-profit organization that helps support Minnesota musicians and artists through education and mental health resources. The event has sold out and there will be a limited amount of tickets at the door.

Guest speakers/performers: Davina Sowers, Nora McInerny, Katy Vernon

Guest speakers/performers: Davina Sowers, Nora McInerny, Katy Vernon

Here is an event description:

"There's an image presented to us all of a happy, warm holiday season full of dinners with family and festive parties and gatherings around an open fire.

But for many of us, the Norman Rockwell, Hallmark image is a myth, and the season is a long, dark one that can be difficult to navigate. Whether we struggle to stay sober at the marathon of parties, are without loved ones to spend time with, or are dealing with pain that the constant carols and romantic comedies just make more pronounced, the holidays can be anything but bright.

Join us for a lively and engaged conversation and performance on navigating these challenging times, and hear from creative community members as we gather to say 'Hey, we're all in this together.'"

- Nora McInerny Purmort- author of "It's Okay to Laugh (Crying Is Cool Too)" and host of "Terrible, Thanks for Asking"
- Katy Vernon - Musician, Singer of Sad Songs on A Happy Instrument
- Davina Sowers - Musician, Davina and The Vagabonds
Hosts: David Campbell (Hazelden) and Sarah Souder-Johnson (Sentier Psychotherapy/Dissonance)
6:00pm Doors – Refreshments, non-alcoholic beverages, light appetizers provided
6:30 - 7:30pm Program – Panel discussion, readings and performances
7:30 - 8:00 Q&A
This program is hosted by Dissonance and Milkweed Editions in partnership with Open Book.

Once again, it has been an absolute honor to be able to interview two more of Minnesota's very own musicians who live and work in this frigid tundra we call 'home'. This is a very special Holiday edition of my series of musician interviews and as I did, I hope you find their answers as poignant, straight-forward and brutally honest.

Without further adieu, I now present to you the brave and amazingly talented Minnesota musicians who took time out of their busy recording, teaching, booking and gigging schedules to answer my 10 Questions about their journey as a musician and their personal stories of self care and survival.

Hannah von der Hoff is currently recording a new Soul/Roots/Rock album, is the booking agent and server extraordinaire at the Aster Cafe and has also done some fashion modeling in her career. She answers the questions with her complete mind, body and soul. Like a true artist expanding on a riff with crescendo that leaves you wanting more. After reading her answers, I was inspired to read John Legend's "4 Steps To Maximize Your Creativity" article where he describes placing boundaries around his schedule so he can work and create without distractions.

Hannah has a show tonight, Thursday, December 15th, at St. Paul's very own Vieux Carre, with Ashley Groves, so if you can't get tickets to the Dissonance "Unhappy Holidays" event, I encourage you to get your booties down to downtown St. Paul so you can 'get down'!

Hannah von der Hoff

Hannah von der Hoff


Q: When did you first realize you were a musician?
Lincoln Elementary music class. We played beat patterns with red sticks. Castanets. The recorder. Autoharp. Choir. I loved every second. I signed up for band and got the saxophone... either because all the other instruments were chosen or I had Lisa Simpson on the brain. In middle school I took a keyboard class and wrote my first song.  Coming from a rather musical family, tunes were always blaring in the house, and I had a dad and brothers who played guitar, and a mom and sister who loved to sing and dance. The youngest of them all, I had a natural inclination for music. By the first year of high school, I was teaching myself guitar using tablature from the web and playing in the bathroom before class to take advantage of the natural reverb. I signed up for talent shows, and would get special permission to turn in music projects to fulfill an assignment. The first year out of high school I knew I wanted to pursue music as a career option... but wasn’t exactly sure how or what it would look like.

Q: What are some healthy ways that you maintain a "work/life" balance? You're currently recording a new album. Can you tell us a little about how you are taking care of yourself while under the pressures of recording?
Honestly, in this balls-to-the-wall mode, I can’t feel in control and sane unless I’m exercising and giving my body organic nutrition every day. It helps keep my morale up. I’ve also adopted a reflex of gratitude. It takes conscious effort at first - building those neurological pathways, training your brain to think appreciative thoughts by an intentional offering of thanks as often as I can remember. Whenever something good happens... meeting a new acquaintance, learning something, a productive rehearsal or songwriting session... or on a Meta level, merely being alive, breathing, being in a position of opportunity... I say thank you in my heart and mind constantly. This is especially helpful when I’m feeling defeated or undervalued. To be gracious you must be humble - and that's a good square one to return to. Checking in. Being grateful for the moment in the first place. Reward follows the ethic. Just keep it up. Keep knocking. Keep trying. Do. Be.

Truth of the matter is I don’t feel very balanced at all right now. I’m burning both ends of the stick pretty hard between my job and my music - but, my personality type is such that that's just how it goes. I get immersed, but in a pretty unorganized way... I kind of feel like a pinball bouncing around between tasks - but I get it done somehow. I need the deadline, and then I barrel through and there isn’t much down time. But taking at least an hour on most days, to let my mind quiet by focusing on physical exertion or breath provides some necessary relief.

Q: How important is it for your music or songs to be "perfect?" I know there is pressure from record labels, fans & band mates to make the music "just right." When do you know when a song or album is complete?
This is exactly why I’ve waited to get in the studio. I’ve been writing songs for almost two decades - I could have recorded a couple times over by now but waiting is the best thing I could have done, giving myself time to mature in my songwriting and performance skill. If I had captured anything up until recently, I would have been trying to make up for a mediocre first impression. As I’ve performed over the years, developing a modest fan base, the pressure has been the opposite, ‘Just put it out there!’. If I had followed that advice, I feel like I’d be providing a caveat anytime I sent someone to listen to my music… I already do this with the mere scratch songs that I have available online, most of which are years old.

If I’m putting myself on the map with a debut record, a ‘coming out’ so to speak, it's going to be a professional album that I’m super confident about. This is who I am as an artist. The first impression has to be on point and moving as hell. Enough time has passed that I finally feel like I’m ready to throw down. My guitar and singing chops are up to speed. I’ve developed a sensibility for dynamics, knowing when to utilize restraint, or when to go for the full blown belly moans. My songwriting has grown too - soul music and classic roots and rock have influenced my writing so that the songs are more accessible and universal. I’m excited by what I hear. It feels like all the pieces are there. Knowing a song or body of work is ready is such a visceral determination, and finally I’ve reached a place artistically that I’m confident this record will turn heads.

Q: How do you practice self-care, and is there anything you would change about your routines?
I keep fairly disciplined about my physical activity and about what I eat. Again, it makes me feel like I’m in control, and I know a healthy body is reflective of a healthy spirit and mind. It helps me beat depression and is a good way to practice mind over matter.

Sleep is a tough department. I have insomnia many nights - I just can’t get my internal dialogue to shut off. I have to jot down my thoughts to provide relief. Or I’ll be on some creative kick and stay up til sunrise, or down a metaphysical research rabbit hole. If only I could develop better sleeping habits. I also want to develop a regular schedule for when I go to my practice space - pick certain days/times and get into a rehearsal routine so I can become the bad-ass guitar player I see in myself being.

Q: What are some of your musical inspirations?
I’m so into Old School Country and Roots right now... but I’ve always loved the Blues and that's the foundation for all modern music as we know it. Last year was the Classic Soul and R&B hits. Growing up, it was Classic Rock, Folk and Jazz. All of these influences will be heard on this upcoming record.

The music I live for are those songs that cast a lip-biting, loin shaking hoodoo over you. It gets you in your gut and makes you feel dark and dirty in the best way. This summer I saw Grace Potter open for Willie Nelson and she was full on dripping sexual energy onto the stage. It seriously felt like she wanted to fuck everyone in the audience. Last time I felt that kind of tension and rawness was Allison Mosshart during a Dead Weather performance at First Avenue a couple years ago. Seeing people perform this way is so bad-ass. So unbridled. And the most inspiring thing ever. It's exactly how I see myself making music. But until recently, I haven’t really let my guard down. This summer I started experimenting with ‘going there’ during rehearsal - seeing what comes out of me. Sometimes it's crazy. Sometimes is moving as hell. But not caring is the key. And now my favorite way to play shows is by just letting go. Its undeniably powerful and feels good and therapeutic. I’m excited to explore this territory more.

Q: Do you have another job or career? If so, is your employer understanding of your music career and schedule?
Rock & Roll lifestyles and 7am Board meetings do not mix for me. Years ago I had administrative jobs that were soulless, and I was looking to get out, especially after joining my first bands and really falling in love with music. The service industry appeared to be much more conducive to my creative pursuits with its flexible schedule, so I sought it out... and one day I got a push from the Universe when I was hired for the serving position I’d interviewed for in the same day I was fired from the corporate gig. Thankfully, 6 years later I’m still serving at this intimate venue called the Aster Cafe, and have been entrusted with the live music programming. Not only does this booking role directly inform the business aspect of my career path, and provide valuable networking opportunities, but the owner is a musician himself and has understanding and respect for my pursuits. My goal is to flourish with gigging/touring and music booking alone within two years time, and phase out the serving. I need to save my hands and wrists for playing guitar, not carrying trays. But I’m lucky as hell to have the job that I do. I don’t think I could have one more well suited for my goals right now.

Q: If you have formal school education, how important or influential is it to your current career as a musician?
I went to school for one semester, studying Agricultural Education at the U of M. When it came time to take out loans to continue, I came face to face with the prospect of student debt and decided it would hurt my pursuits more than help them. I didn’t want to be financially tied down in any way. Freedom felt like the most valuable thing. So instead, I got started on real world experience and now I’m in a position where I’m free to take time off and not have to worry about how to meet a never ending monthly payment.

Q: Does your family and/or spouse/partner support you as an artist? If so, what are some of the best ways your loved ones support you?
I’m very blessed with family and friends who are curious about and supportive of my career - they ask questions about what’s next, regularly come to shows, and offer me ideas from things they see other people doing that I might be able to apply.

Q: Do you ever struggle with songwriting or ever experience "writer's block?" If so, what gets you through to be able to create or write music?
I used to wait for inspiration to hit, and then would get down on myself for not being a more prolific writer. I’d write two songs a year with that ‘writers block’ mentality... then I finally understood the intrinsic problem. I began to apply the notion that songwriting is a muscle you either work out, or let atrophy. That’s not to say every song will be great, but the exercise itself is what seems to be key. Within the last 6 months, I’ve written more songs than ever before and its product of work ethic. Jam on a riff. Take the snippet that sounds good. Scat a melody. Choose a theme, or an opening line, and dedicate a session to fleshing it out a while, consistently coming back to it until a solid skeleton is formed.

Q: Why are you a musician? I hear it's a pretty rough gig!
I feel like a conduit. It comes out of me. Rhythm. Lyrics. Melody. I feel responsible to it - a sense of duty to this natural gift. I’m very grateful for it and I believe it is the most universal spiritual medium we have. To me it is Medicine and my calling.

Ben Johnston is a musician and drummer of the Minneapolis "math rock" trio, Self-Evident. He also is the drummer in a band called Lovely Dark, a psychedelic folk influenced indie rock band. I met Ben through his wife Jessica Ellison, who is also a therapist and owner of J. Ellison & Associates in the Twin Cities who specializes in helping teens! I was really excited to interview Ben, knowing that his wife is also a therapist, and he did not disappoint! Check it out and make sure to catch Ben's CD Release Party with Self-Evident this Saturday, December 17th at the 331 Club!

Ben Johnston

Ben Johnston

Q: When did you first know you were a musician?
A: I grew up with music (specifically drums) being an ever-present backdrop to my life. My dad is a drummer and has been playing in rock bands since the late 60's. He started me young and I’ve just always played and been surrounded by other musicians (my parent’s friends). It wasn’t really a question I ever had to ask myself or a choice I really remember making. Drumming has always been something I’ve done as part of my life and has over time, just shifted into a career.

Q: What are some healthy ways that you maintain a "work/life" balance? Can you tell us a little about how you take care of yourself while under the pressures of recording/touring?
A: I struggle, like most of us, to maintain a balance. In my case, it’s a bit tricky because my work and life are so intertwined. I’m currently teaching drums, am writing a column for a drum magazine, promoting my drum books, rehearsing, promoting and booking my band Self-Evident and in some of my free time I need to practice. Good thing I love what I do right? I try to do my best to check out of “musician mode” when spending time with my family. Vacations are a must because it’s the only way I can escape my drums (and even then, I’ll end up looking for a music store or open mic to check out). Tour is tough because I’m away from family, so I get a bit home sick. I do love it though. It can be a challenge to stay healthy because of all the late nights, the couch surfing and the van riding. It takes a few shows to get into “tour mode.” I always end up having a blast but am completely exhausted when I return. Recording is all together a different animal. I really don’t feel pressure in the studio any more. I’ve recorded enough that I know I’m going to be well rehearsed and ready so, I can just sit back and enjoy the process.

Q: You are in 2 different bands [Self Evident and Lovely Dark]. How do you prioritize both groups and keep it all together?
A: Since joining Self-Evident in 2006 it has stayed as my main focus. Any other projects I do fall under the category of “side projects,” at least in my mind. I think Lovely Dark is that way for the majority of its members. We’re all busy with other stuff and don’t really get together that often (even though we have a new record in the can). I’ve never been one to join a ton of groups all at the same time. I like to have a main gig and then if something interests me I can safely make time to contribute.

Q: How important is it for your music or songs to be "perfect?" There can be pressure from record labels, fans & band mates to make the music "just right." How do YOU know when a song or album is complete?
A: We rehearse or asses off until we can play all of our material confidently in the studio and live. If we’re not absolutely sure we can kill a song, then we don’t play it out and we defiantly won’t record it. If it’s not happening in one or two takes in the studio, then something is wrong and we need to step away. Honestly, we pride ourselves on our ability to perform. Most of what you hear on our recordings (other than overdubs) is a single take and we rarely “fix” anything in post-production unless it’s really insignificant.

Q: Who are some of your past & present musical inspirations?
A: My dad was my first inspiration. He was my first teacher. Later I really enjoyed going to music school and gained a ton of inspiration from the wonderful staff at McNally Smith. My students inspire me too. I wouldn’t be the drummer I am today had I not decided to teach. There is so much to learn on the instrument and I really didn’t grasp the complexities until I needed to explain them in simple terms. Learning and teaching are the same for me. It’s all part of one process.

Q: If you have formal school education, how important or influential is it to your current career as a musician?
A: I studied percussion performance at McNally Smith and Recording and Production at IPR. I got a lot out of school and had a really positive experience especially in the drum program at McNally. The teachers over there are top notch and I still keep in touch with some of them. As for helping my career, I suppose having an education or even name dropping some of my instructors has gotten my foot into a few doors, but what was really valuable was how working with such a great staff really influenced the way that I approach my own teaching practice. Having so many diverse instructors and a wide variety of course material made it easier to jump into teaching private lessons with confidence.

Q: What are some of the best ways your loved ones support you?
A: My parents have supported my pursuit of being a professional drummer since the beginning. Even at time when I wasn’t sure I had what it took they were there to tell me to keep on going. My wife is always giving me positive reinforcement and helping me through the tough times. I couldn’t do it without her. She keeps me in check and saves me from myself on a daily basis.

Q: Do you ever struggle with songwriting or experience "writer's block?" If so, what pushes you through to be able to create or write music?
A: Sometimes, but I’m always playing, teaching and learning so I almost always have fresh material to draw from. I think “writer’s block” is more likely to happen if you’re not constantly moving forward. If you have no “new” experiences, then it’s hard to be inspired to create something that sounds fresh.

Q: How important is self-confidence and self-esteem in your musical career? What are some ways you protect yourself from feeling too down or low?
A: Confidence is huge. The hardest moments of being a musician have been experienced in my moments where I was feeling the least confidant. Whether it be while performing, teaching, writing or recording, if you are not feeling confident then it’s really hard to perform well. You get stuck in your own head and self-doubt just creates a downward spiral. My cure for improving my self-esteem is to practice, practice, practice. If you know the material and are well rehearsed you can focus your attention outward. You can escape your own head.

Q: Why are you a musician? I hear it's a pretty rough gig?
A: No choice. If I didn’t play I’d be an awful person. Music saves my life every day.

Thanks so much again to Hannah and Ben for their time, talent and vulnerability in sharing their musician self care journeys with us. Make sure to check them out at an upcoming show and that you are thinking of all the wonderful ways that you can care for yourself over the Holidays!

If you or someone you know who is a musician and is struggling with self care this Holiday season, please call me at 952-892-8433 for a free 15 minute phone consultation to see if we may be a good fit. I am in network with most major insurances except for Health Partners and UCare.