It’s 7:30 a.m., and we’re still at the Edmonton Ramada hotel. We should have left half an hour ago. Johan, my husband and manager, was wearing out the carpets in the hallways from 5 a.m. till five minutes ago, pacing back and forth with our baby strapped to his chest, so I could rest. Alma’s not yet sleeping through the night, and we only settled into our hotel room at 1 a.m., after I’d finished playing a two-set, evening show.
Now Johan is loading the van with microphones; cables; a keyboard amp; boxes of CDs; suitcases; a cooler full of purees, grapes and baby carrots; a stroller and two diaper bags. I'm still frantically trying to fold the peapod—a baby-sized camping tent. It’s not cooperating. I’m in tears. In my current state of sleep deprivation, the crumpled green mass on the floor seems like cosmic retribution for my decision to take two kids under six across the country on an album launch tour.
I’m a singer-songwriter—a jazz chanteuse with a love of dance music and soul—and I live in Montreal with Johan, and our two girls: Sanna (5) and Alma (7 months). We spend about three and half months of the year on the road in our two-vehicle caravan—one van for my quartet band and one for my family of four. We’ve toured across Canada, Europe, Mexico and the US with Sanna, and just recently we’ve started taking our baby to out-of-town gigs too.
A typical day on tour involves getting up at dawn, then setting off on what's usually a seven to nine-hour drive from one venue to the next. We stop to grab a bite whenever possible, which along the Trans-Canada generally means way too much Tim Hortons.
We usually arrive at a venue just in time for sound check, around 4 p.m.—and then possibly for an interview or two with local media. We set up the peapod for our youngest to keep her safe and contained, while our eldest scopes out the lay of the land, familiarizing herself with the green room, change rooms, snack situation, and back stage—all of which is a giant indoor playground to her.
Around 6 p.m., we scarf down some dinner before the gig begins at 7:30 or 8 p.m. Often its provided by the theatre, who dutifully serves something off of our rider (fish or vegetarian options for the grown-ups, pasta for the kids, loads of snacks for in between sets, and a glass of wine for Johan and me to take the edge off a long day on the road). We then put up the bed and pull out some toys to convert whatever space we’ve been given—whether that’s a green room or a ticket office—into a nursery-cum-baby-sleep-chamber.
I’ll do two sets with my band, then sell and sign CDs, before we pack up, settle up with the venue manager, then get to our hotel at about 12:30 or 1 a.m. for a late check-in and much-needed rest.
During the show, my eldest will generally start out full of curiosity and sit through the first two or three songs, before retreating to the green room, with regular check-ins from Dad, who has the Alma strapped to his chest until our baby dozes off—at which point he stealthily transfers her to the pea pod). To reward my eldest for being such a trooper, I always end my shows with the same up-tempo tune, and I invite her to join us on stage to demonstrate her latest dance moves and end the night on a playful note. It's the highlight of most everyone’s night.
Some audience members fuel my doubts about this way of life by commenting if they spot Sanna with me at the CD table, still awake after a show. “My ... she’s still up! Don’t kids need regular bedtimes?” (They do; and believe me, it wasn't for lack of trying—sometimes even the most enticing crib, complete with noise machine and dim lights, can't change the fact that it isn't a nursery, but a ticket office.) But then you’ll have people like the woman in Red Deer who pulled Sanna close after the show, winked at me, and then told my daughter how lucky she is to have a mom who gives her the gift of travel while pursuing her dreams. Both types of commentary bring tears to my eyes.
We find the energy we need when we need it, and I do what it takes to keep the children thriving, like snagging a 30-minutes pit-stop at a park just off the highway en route to our next destination, or pausing for 20 minutes so I can breastfeed my baby, right before I go on stage.
Our family pace has slowed, and both my husband and I have learned to accept the limitations of touring with two kids, so that trip from Edmonton to Saskatoon may take three hours longer than anticipated and involve six stops along the way. And if ever there's a lull in the mood as we drive, we can always count on my firstborn to convince the whole family to sing Paul McCartney's “Temporary Secretary” or Ella and Louis’ version of “They Can't Take That Away From Me” (eclectic taste starts early).
Singers are notoriously diligent about vocal health, but I've learned to let go and give in to my new sleepless reality. I’ve played countless shows over the past five years either sick with a cold (courtesy of my daughter's preschool germ pool), or on less than five hours sleep. Between the stubborn mommy pouch and the occasional leaky breast on stage, I combat feeling like a less sexier version of myself since becoming a mom with the reassurance that my voice has gained that sultry je ne sais quoi that younger, responsibility-free singers can only aspire to.
Still touring with kids can be gruelling work. There was that sleepless overnight train ride across Sweden with no running water, making diaper changes a nightmare. That time we flew to the wrong airport in Germany only to learn the next bus to the town of our gig would arrive after our show started. Or that night we spent Googling “toddler + broken teeth” after Sanna took a tumble in Mexico City.
So why do we do it?
Well, in the sea of emotions I had around pregnancy, one that kept resurfacing for me was the fear of disappearing. I was haunted by the thought of people in my industry saying:
“Whatever happened to Elizabeth Shepherd?” “Oh, she became a mom.”
I needed to know that on the other side of motherhood, there would be some piece of my identity as a musician to ground and sustain me.
And there was simple necessity, too. When Sanna was born, Johan and I were still living in Ontario, where there’s no parental leave for the self-employed and the arts are not valued as they are in our new home province, Quebec. I make 80 per cent of my annual income doing live gigs, and if our little family enterprise had stopped touring for a year, that would have meant next to no household income.
Beyond those factors was the burning desire to let my girls see how people in other places eat, speak, think, dress and live, and how—in spite of all the differences—human beings are all connected by a love of music, children, and life. No amount of bedtimes stories could fully illustrate that.
And thankfully life on the road with kids is not all uncooperative baby camp beds, missed flights and medical emergencies.
There was also that time I stood on the stage at the Vancouver Jazz Festival, watching one of Canada’s best drummers, Mark Kelso, teach Sanna how to set up cymbals. There was that time when I overheard Sanna singing “Lullabye of Birdland” with Norah Jones’ guitar player, Kevin Breit. And that time I came off stage at Massey Hall to find headliner Molly Johnson reading bedtime stories to my girl in the green room.
My eldest daughter has already toured in 12 countries, and the stage is her second home. For her, the world is a big, wonderful place, graced with all sorts of kind souls.
I’ve said I’m throwing in the towel more times than I can count, and when Sanna starts Grade school, we’ll have to scale back and book tours around school vacations, but I know that soon enough, I’ll pack up my family, in all its chaos and glory, and hit the road again.
Maybe my insatiably curious 5-year-old and blessedly Zen baby understand on some deep level what it is our family needs. Or maybe it's some wonderful combination of nature and nurture that has allowed me to keep doing what I love, with the people I love. Either way, we'll continue touring with our girls for as long as we can. And who knows—maybe sometime soon you’ll bump into us at 5 a.m., pacing the carpeted hallways of your local Ramada.