When a painter or sculptor or writer or musician or dancer or actor or whatever decides their life is going to be about their art, they often face this pervasive attitude in our society that suggests full-time artists have some kind of scam going on, that what they’re doing is something other than work, because it involves making a living doing things most people would do just for fun. Pretty much anyone who’s tried to make a run at being a full-time artist, unless they’d started their career sitting on a financial endowment, will tell you that’s not true — simply sustaining oneself through creative expression almost always requires a work ethic most people don’t have. To be successful, artists must either fall upon exceptionally good fortune or work as often as they can, because of everything they make, only some of it will be good, and only some of it will be desirable to patrons. And on top of that, when self-sustaining artists get paid, no one automatically sends some of their money to the IRS, some to a retirement plan and some to a health insurance plan. If you’re an artist and want those trappings of a “straight” life, without which a lot of us in the U.S. in 2013 would at least consider themselves totally screwed, you’ll have to figure it out.
I’ve thought a lot lately about how sheer work relates to the life of any artist worth his or her salt, and waking up this morning to the news that songwriter Jason Molina had died on Saturday at the age of 39 humanized a lot of those issues I’d been mulling over. A prolific artist by any metric, Molina recorded music with many other players and under many different names, most notably his own name, the Songs: Ohia moniker and that of his band Magnolia Electric Co. Depending on how you count it, he wrote and recorded at least 12 original albums (though it was probably more like 15 to 20, when you count all his out-of-print recordings), plus maybe 20 EPs and singles, between his work with his flagship acts and one-off collaborations. Molina did most of that work between the point when Secretly Canadian Records offered to release the first Songs: Ohia album in 1997 and the point in 2009 when his alcoholism seriously impeded his output. During that 12-year period, he toured incessantly. That’s work, whatever way you shake it. It’s a more demanding gig, physically and intellectually, than your average cubicle-riding job.
Jason Molina is a great example both of what a successful artist actually looks like, and of how fragile that success can be when one becomes unable to work. He wasn’t famous, but he had an audience, and while he was a fair amount of people’s favorite songwriter, my mom wouldn’t know who he was. He began his professional music career as a talented songwriter and singer, if not necessarily a great one. Even his early work was often very good, but to my ear, he didn’t find his distinct voice right away and seemed to owe a lot to both his influences and his peers (the contemporaneous work of Will Oldham comes to mind). But through exceptional dedication to his craft, he became a master, and by 2003, he had found his place as an artist and was making music that was as transcendent and affecting as rock’n’roll can ever be. Anyone familiar with Molina’s music could easily recognize he had his own demons — he both wrote and sang like a haunted man — but the pace at which he recorded and performed disguised how unwell his health was becoming. After the effects of alcoholism forced him off the road, he spent three years and change trying to clean up, enrolling in a series of rehab programs he had neither the insurance to cover nor the savings to afford. Unreleased recordings were finally released to help pay for his recovery. Secretly Canadian announced his death along with information for anyone who might want to contribute a donation to his family to help overcome the debts he’d accrued during the years when he was trying to get sober. I don’t know what Molina’s finances were actually like, but the details around his death indicate he was probably like all the other full-time artists whose only sense of financial security comes from the promise that they will continue to be able to create more work.
It’s not uncommon to be moved by a song, a theater performance, a painting, and think of the person who created it, “Man, they must have the life, doing this for pay.” But they’re also doing this without a pension, and often without health insurance or even a paycheck after the next paycheck, and always without overtime. Do you have the discipline to do what they do?