Utah musicians reflect on toll that tour life takes on mental health

As headliners cancel shows for their mental health, musicians reflect on the challenges of the road.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Blues-soul musician Talia Keys — seen here at a vigil for activist Psarah Johnson on May 2, 2022, at the Utah State Capitol — said many aspects of being a touring musician can be wearing on a person's mental health.

Being a working musician isn’t a typical job, said Utah musician Talia Keys — and the strain on one’s mental health isn’t typical, either.

“It’s not just a 9-to-5,” said Keys, who has been playing professionally for the last 12 years, both as a solo artist and fronting her own band, Talia Keys and The Love. “People don’t realize it’s work. You can’t fully relax when you’re preparing for an upcoming show.”

Keys started touring eight years ago, playing “everything from bars to restaurants to brewpubs to haunted bars, music festivals and everything in between.” she said. The strains from touring, she said, can affect an artist’s mental health.

In recent weeks, two nationally known music acts canceled U.S. tours that had been scheduled to stop in Utah — with the artists in both cases citing their mental health, and the struggles on the road.

On July 14, the alt-rock band Rainbow Kitten Surprise announced it was canceling its summer U.S. tour. That included a concert that night at Salt Lake City’s Gallivan Center, the opening show of the Twilight Concert Series.

(Elektra Records) Alt-rock band Rainbow Kitten Surprise canceled its summer tour, including the opening night of Salt Lake City's Twilight Concert Series at the Gallivan Center on July 14, 2022. Lead singer Ela Melo wrote on social media that "the toll of life on the road has finally reached its breaking point."

“After being off the last couple of years due to the pandemic, we were excited to hit the ground running with touring,” lead singer Ela Melo wrote in a statement, posted on the band’s social media accounts. “As amazing as it has been singing and dancing with you every night, the toll of life on the road has finally reached its breaking point.”

On July 27, pop singer Shawn Mendes told his fans, via his Instagram account, that he was canceling his concert dates in North America, the United Kingdom and Europe. Mendes was scheduled to perform at Salt Lake City’s Vivint Smart Home Arena on Sept. 21.

Mendes also mentioned the pandemic, adding that “the reality was I was not at all ready for how difficult touring would be after this time away. … I need to take the time I’ve never taken personally, to ground myself and come back stronger.”

(Jordan Strauss | The Associated Press) Singer Shawn Mendes, seen here at the Grammys in 2019, canceled his 2022 summer tour, including a stop at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City, saying he needed to "take the time I've never taken personally, to ground myself and come back stronger."

In 2020, MusiCares, a nonprofit arm of the Recording Academy (the Grammy people) that musicians can turn to for all kinds of help, launched the “Wellness in Music” survey. Now performed annually, the survey consists of 61 questions to better understand how they can help musicians when it comes to “well-being and mental health.”

The first round of results, released in February 2021, found that 26% of respondents reported experiencing “moderate to severe levels of depression,” but 53.5% of those same respondents said they didn’t get help because they “could not afford it.”

Money is a major consideration when canceling a tour, because the bulk of an artist’s income comes through touring and merchandise sales. In 2016, before the COVID-19 pandemic, the trade publication Billboard estimated that the top-earning artists in the world make 75% of their money from touring.

A ‘delicate balance’ for local musicians

For local artists, Keys said, canceling shows — or an entire tour — is “unfathomable.”

“[It’s] one of the bravest things an artist can do,” Keys said, noting that it’s not just a choice musicians make for themselves, but also for the hundreds of crew members and freelance workers in each city, relying on the tour for income.

“For local bands, that’s our main source of income, playing shows,” Keys said.

Keys said that she only recently started making money off of Spotify streams for some of her songs. “It’s a couple hundred bucks,” she said. “I can go play a bar show for two or three hours and make twice that.”

A typical day on tour, Keys said, revolves around sleep: Going to bed late, waking up early, and then driving to the next city. For one show, she said, she drove 14 hours to get from Santa Fe, N.M., to Austin, Texas.

“Sleep is so crucial and it’s one of the things that is the hardest to find when you’re on the road,” Keys said. Most artists try to find the cheapest motels, which bring their own worries: Loud noises and thin walls, and the fear of equipment getting stolen from the van outside.

And there’s a “delicate balance,” as Keys put it, of scraping by and still paying for food, gas and supplies. “You’re constantly having to think about your safety and the logistics of it,” Keys said.

As a queer woman on the road, Keys said she deals with another set of circumstances that can take a toll on her mental health — like worrying that some cities may not feel as safe as others. Keys also has Type 1 diabetes, so she also has to worry about her physical health.

“Our brains are part of our bodies,” she said. “So I don’t understand why health insurance doesn’t include your brain. For a lot of people, there’s a financial barrier seeking help.”

Jenessa Smith — a self-described “indie dream pop artist” who performs under the stage name Goldmyth — said she deals with another strain on one’s mental health: She’s married with two children. She describes the balancing act as being a “separate person” on tour as when she’s at home.

As a musician, Smith said, she often is “pressing pause on your life at home and doing things like traveling, playing shows … but your life doesn’t really pause. Suddenly you got a family. … Keeping up with both things at the same time is a challenge.”

Last November, Smith said, Goldmyth opened for indie-pop singer Kacy Hill at Kilby Court, and Hill talked to Smith backstage about feeling burnout and being unable to finish her tour. Right after that show, Hill canceled three gigs — Denver, Omaha and Columbus, Ohio — before returning to the tour nine days later in Chicago. On her Instagram account, Hill admitted to “dealing with daily panic attacks and severe anxiety made worse by being burnt out.”

(Courtesy Kacy Hill) Indie-pop musician Kacy Hill canceled three tour dates in November 2021, just after her performance at Salt Lake City's Kilby Court, saying she was "dealing with daily panic attacks and severe anxiety." She resumed her tour nine days after her Salt Lake City performance.

Smith said, “I think as an artist there is this expectation to be a constant content creator, putting up music, playing shows, showing up in all these ways that aren’t necessarily about what you signed up for.”

Processing mental health on tour

Keys recalled a similar experience in 2015, processing her own mental health.

She was performing a string of shows through the South, then finishing up in Michigan for the Electric Forest Music Festival. She and her band had stopped in South Carolina for a few days — right around June 17, when a gunman entered Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, fired 70 rounds and killed nine people.

“We drove past that same church that morning,” Keys recalled.

Two days later, the band was back on the road, driving through North Carolina with a rainstorm hammering down. Keys said she started bawling in the car. The rain, she said, “felt like it cleansed all this tough stuff we had just experienced.”

The moment inspired her to write the song “Broken Cities,” which she released on her 2018 album “We Are Here.” She said it was something she’ll never forget, when she was able to turn a dark moment into something positive.

The COVID-19 pandemic — which some artists saw as a reprieve from the demands of touring — also had its downside.

Keys, who is immunocompromised, said she enjoyed performing streaming shows for online audiences. “Utahns don’t really care about this virus,” she said, “and it puts artists who are high-risk in a really hard spot.”

As she has returned to live shows, the crowds aren’t there like they were. Performances that she said she expected to feel triumphant were lackluster.

Keys said, “150 people are there now, but before the pandemic, there were 300. It’s a constant comparison game. … That’s self sabotage, your brain being a critic.”

Both Smith and Keys agreed that fans can help their favorite artists by supporting them, in every little way possible, and it can make a world of difference.

The ‘touring lifestyle’

Dr. Arun-Castro works with the Music Industry Therapists Collective, an international group of people from various medical and therapy backgrounds — all of whom have worked in the music industry themselves, in one way or another. Castro is based in London, consulting with people in the industry one-on-one about their physical health.

Arun-Castro, who was trained in family medicine, said he went through his own experience with burnout when he worked as an emergency room doctor. After large music festivals, he was treating local workers in the music industry for finger fractures and other ailments — most of them enduring the problem while still working.

“Why I find this kind of work really interesting is that musicians are really unique and interesting,” Arun-Castro said. “Each is different, with their own quirks, idiosyncrasies and backstory to tell.”

Ten years ago, Arun-Castro said, the word “neurodiversity” was usually not heard outside a neurobiology class, but now most people understand what it means. But the link between creativity and mental health has always been relevant, Arun-Castro said, citing the examples of Mozart and other classical composers who were “outside the norm.”

“This industry is thirsty for energy and effort,” Arun-Castro said. “It gives you purpose, but it’s also relentless.”

One of the main driving factors for musician’s mental health concerns, he said, is “the notion that you’re only as good as your last job, always trying to maintain what they’ve got or prove their self-worth. … It means that the performer is now 24/7 monetized. Where do you draw that boundary? There’s no clear separation between your public persona and your personal identity.”

Other factors that can wear at artists’ mental health, he said, are a drive toward perfectionism, strong sensory input, excessive sound exposure, and the need to keep up with their image. “It’s a hard life,” he said.

And while the “rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle” — as depicted recently in biopics of Elton John (“Rocketman”) and Freddie Mercury (“Bohemian Rhapsody”) — is a stereotype, there is a thread of truth in the idea.

“There’s always been drinking, kind of intertwined as a ‘being cool’ factor, but it’s often a coping mechanism for social anxiety or dealing with change,” Arun-Castro said, noting that he wouldn’t say musicians have addictive personalities.

“Imagine the touring lifestyle: You take a soundcheck in the afternoon, have some dead space time where you’re bored or understimulated, then you’re on stage and overstimulated,” he said.

When a headliner plays a stadium show, with an audience of 50,000 fans or more, that can add up to millions in revenue in a single night, Arun-Castro said. “There’s a ton of pressure on that performer,” he said. And if a musician goes all out, Arun-Castro said, it may take 24 to 48 hours for them to recover fully — something that isn’t always possible if the performer has back-to-back shows booked.

The MITC will be releasing a book later this year, “Touring and Mental Health: The Music Industry Manual,” in which Arun-Castro will contribute a chapter on physical health, focusing on an artist’s circadian rhythm while on tour. It is being edited by the MITC’s founder, Tamsin Embleton, who worked in the industry for 10 years.

The response to burnout is almost always reactive, not proactive, Arun-Castro said, and artists can take care of themselves by talking to someone outside of their “bubble,” taking time to focus on their scheduling and practicing healthy lifestyle choices whenever possible on the road.

Keys offered one piece of advice for fans: Be kind.

“A lot of artists are tender. We put our hearts on our sleeves and do it because we love that connection,” Keys said. “Don’t forget your favorite artist is a human, just like you.”

If you are dealing with anxiety or self-isolation — whether or not you’re a musician — The Music Industry Therapists Collective has a guide on its website, at musicindustrytherapists.com/resources. Musicians can also go to MusiCares, the nonprofit arm of the Recording Academy, for assistance, at musicares.org.

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