"MAKING IT WORK", A Conversation with Cassi Blum (of Deaf Dog and Summer Cannibals)

We chatted with Cassi Blum (of Deaf Dog, and Summer Cannibals) about life on the road, tour life hacks, the emotional, and physical effects of this career, and why they create. Read on to get the full story. 

Some musicians experience a double bind, where they are touring too much to have a reliable day job yet don’t make enough money solely through their music to get by. Have you been in this position? What did you have to do to make touring feasible for you?

A couple years ago I took a big leap as a studio engineer and decided to quit the job I fucking hated to try freelancing. I never anticipated being a musician full time, for some reason it was never in my realm of consideration that I would ever have the chance to. I bit off a little more than I could chew, but I had the “crazy” enough to push through the intense work and cheap rates that I thought would help get my portfolio off to a good start. I often fell short of where I needed to be to pay my rent and some medical expenses. Through that I learned how to be scrappy- there were lots of little odd jobs that I found in addition to sessions that added up and help me break even for the month, plus I didn’t have to adhere to a schedule. By the time I started touring last year I was pretty used to having very little money. My tour schedule ended up being pretty heavy this year, but having little ways to make some money either while in town or on the road helps cushion my expenses and has even allowed me to have a reasonable savings. 

What’s something you have done to make being a musician work for you? Some friends have donated plasma, lived on boats or signed up for dog walking apps.  

I think aside from odd jobs like writing gear reviews or cleaning airbnbs, learning to live with less has probably helped the most. Income isn’t as consistent as a day job but being more careful with the money I spend and thinking about what is actually necessary vs not helps keep this doable.    

How does touring affect your emotional and physical health during and post tour? 

I find tour pretty taxing. Before the Fall of the last year, I had never toured before. I was hired for a three month run and from there I never really stopped. My life has now become touring, and while that has been the dream, I’ve learned that no privacy or personal time is something that makes me pretty uncomfortable after a few weeks straight. I can manage, but it’s stressful sometimes to keep in check, and adjusting back and forth from real life and tour life can feel like a total mind fuck. I never really relax, I always feel anxious and a little antsy to start the next leg. I pack the few weeks I might have between tours with plans to hang with friends but their lives move at such a different rate than mine and sometimes that makes us fall out of touch. It makes me feel a little out of place and makes home feel a little less like home, but it’s also recently weirdly offered an opportunity to build my community of friends from the ground up again- this time with people I truly connect with instead of just people I work with at a day job. It’s been really fucking special and validating to be seen as this person I’ve grown into, and I wouldn’t have been in this position if I hadn’t toured extensively.

Physically, I have an insatiable sense of urgency when it comes to gigs. I love loading efficiently, I love the consistency and accomplishment of pulling my weight (or more). While it’s a little grueling and soundcheck is always the most boring part, I love feeling myself get stronger, and I really love doing a good job. My mind and my body are two different matters unfortunately. My mind is always ready to go when we arrive but a stomach condition I’ve developed in the past few years has made me prone to days where I feel weak and drained, and when the two aren’t on the same page it can make me feel pretty bummed out. 

How do you deal with the sometimes intense transition from the stimulation of touring to come home to sometimes no commitments? 

Ideally I like to hit the ground running. I love to try to write music from the moment I get back with the hopes that some of the creative ideas and urges I’d had during the last run will somehow manifest into something I like. As the year has gone on, I find it takes me a little bit more time to rest and recuperate. These past few weeks off have hit me a little harder, I’m so close to the end of my touring this year and I’m feeling a little burnt but I know I have to rally. I love to overcommit and have a shit ton of work to do all the time, so I very rarely have no commitments, but I’ve definitely been finding a little more time lately to read books again. I stopped allotting time to have fun (I don’t recommend) when I started freelancing, and having a little space to work my way back to that has actually felt really pleasant.

Why do you choose this life? What do you get out of it?

I kind of feel like it chose me. I taught myself guitar for the most part and started writing songs when I was a young teen. I made videos and put them on YouTube. Then I found an open mic where I could play them live. No amount of fear or failure ever kept me from trying again, and that was very unlike me. I could feel terribly and self-conscious about a sub-par performance but I still did it again. No matter what direction I chose to move in life, music never left. I had always thought it was my hobby and my “passion” but passion didn’t pay the bills so I committed myself to work. Once I decided to pursue it instead, it blossomed into this wild, incredible time of screaming and fuzz pedals in a punk band, a professional studio internship that turned into my livelihood, joining a band I’d loved since moving to Portland, reconnecting with family I hadn’t seen in over half my lifetime because that band tours through Detroit a few times a year now, and an artistic identity that has given me my very own space to exist as I want to.

Do you feel like you’re seen as childish for pursuing music as a career?

I thought I would, but I have yet to see it received that way. That rules.

What are some touring “road hacks” you have developed that help you get through tour?

I’m the biggest proponent of a white noise app I have on my phone. Sharing a hotel room every night with three other people can have its pros and cons, but thankfully I sleep so well (and in peace) with my in-ears and white noise. Everyone in the band uses some variety of headphones or earplugs for bed, it’s awesome. Soylent has also become my saving grace on tour. I have a pretty severe intolerance to onions and dairy, and it can be really challenging to avoid those things entirely while on the road. I have some trouble keeping weight on while we’re out so it’s important I don’t skip meals. Soylent solves all of those problems in one go! And it tastes, like, fine!

What’s your favourite and least favorite thing about tour for you?

I can’t say it enough that from the moment we start the first song, my favorite hour of the day begins. I love playing music, shows are so much fun and so cathartic. While touring is strenuous, it also feels like progress, and that work is worth it in the end. I am so fortunate to have a job that lets me be so loud for a living- I get to smile and dance and rock and that’s better than anything. 

At the moment, my least favorite part is probably that it takes me away from home so often, specifically because right now I’ve been inclined to focus on my mental and physical health and I can’t really do that until I’m in town for a little more time.

What do you want the audience to take away from your live show? 

I am non-binary, but it feels really important to me for womxn, femmes, queers to feel represented in the music they enjoy, and I hope I can do that sometimes. I want people to see me plug in and lose my shit and rock out and feel empowered to do the same. I want them to hear the lyrics about taking your power back and feel like they can and they should. 

How do you deal with writer's block or creative slumps?

I keep writing. I approach writing music like an exercise, it’s never gonna hurt and it’s always gonna make me better. So even if I spend a ton of time feeling blocked and writing a bunch of OK songs, I never feel like I wasted my time. 

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