Nick Jaina is a writer and musician living in Portland, Oregon. In addition to recording and performing, he co-founded the Satellite Ballet Collective in New York City. His newest album Brutal Lives is available on iTunes, Spotify and digital outlets. His book Get It While You Can was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award.
I went on a long book tour. A very long book tour. Possibly the longest book tour ever. An author on tour will usually do readings at bookstores in seven or eight important cities, stay at a few Holiday Inn Expresses, fly around, and wrap it all up after about two weeks so that they can get started on their next book. My book tour lasted eighteen months and featured almost no bookstores or hotels.
I went on this very long book tour because I care so much about the book I wrote, Get It While You Can, which was published by Perfect Day Publishing in January of 2015. It’s a memoir of heartbreak, structured around my participation in a ten-day silent meditation retreat to cure my addiction to impossible love. Throughout the book are a dozen unsent love letters — genuine letters I wrote to someone I wanted to talk to, but who wouldn’t want to hear what I had to say. I spent three months in Medellin, Colombia, working on the book because it was a place where I wouldn’t have to spend much money or deal with any distractions.
I’ve spent most of my life as a musician, touring the country as the leader of my own band, so when I finished writing this book, I didn’t want to just do one reading in my hometown of Portland, Oregon, and wait for online reviews to lead to a slow trickle of sales.
It wouldn’t work to play somewhere where people were talking during my reading.
My goal was to perform the book, creating my own soundtrack with guitar and a loop pedal, and find intimate spaces in which to perform it. If I could have sat in people’s laps and read to them, I would have done that. It wouldn’t work to play somewhere where people were talking during my reading.
The bigger a band, the longer a tour tends to last — up to eighteen months when a big international band like Death Cab for Cutie puts out an album. My friend Dave Depper plays guitar for that band, and, by coincidence, their first show for their new album Kintsugi was at the Crocodile in Seattle the same night I had my first book reading in the same city at Elliott Bay Books. A few people came to my reading and bought books, but because the store had already purchased the books from my publisher beforehand, I walked out with no money that night. I ran across town to see Death Cab’s sold-out secret show, wondering how I could make a tour work.
My publisher would have been fine if I had left it at that, but I believed that there were people throughout the country who would understand what I was talking about in my book. I decided that living rooms would be a better place for me than bookstores. I asked around until I found friends of friends in cities across America who were willing to host me in their house. I would show up at their door never having met them, and by the end of the night we’d be doing the dishes together, talking about how nice it was to have twenty or so people sit quietly in a room while I read them love letters.
The next night I played in a living room, standing in front of a television with a tablecloth over it while twelve people listened.
Halfway through my tour, I happened to be in the same town as Death Cab again. This time it was Manchester, New Hampshire. I watched Dave play on a big arena stage and walked with him afterward down the wide hallways full of autographed pictures of Willie Nelson and Fleetwood Mac — then I went to sleep in my car. The next night I played in a living room, standing in front of a television with a tablecloth over it while twelve people listened.
When I first told people I was going to take a pause from music to write a book, they said, “Leaving one dying industry for another, huh?” Maybe the industries need to die for the art to have any chance of living. If the only chance of surviving at art is to win the fame lottery, the art is in trouble. I knew I could make some money touring the country, so I just had to lower my expenses and question what I needed in order to live, then eliminate what wasn’t essential.
I played a show in a little town in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California in a room that was long and slim like a rail car. There was no microphone, just a little stage in front of thirty metal folding chairs. I told the audience that I felt like I was an Old West preacher, asking the congregation to see beyond the hardships of the present, to dream of the world we could all build. At the end of the set, I stepped off the stage and walked around the room while reading a list of my favorite things about the world, then I sat in the one empty seat in the back row as everyone kept facing forward, listening as my words filled the room. “The breathy, reedy sound of a saxophone played quietly. A songbird, who sings the same five notes his entire life.”
Over a year into my book tour, I was in the middle of the country, wondering what I was doing wrong.
The way forward for me is to get smaller: learn how to do every aspect of the business myself, get a car with better gas mileage, stay with friends, play shows with low overhead. If I expect to get twelve people out to a show in Phoenix, then I want to play in a room that fits eleven people. I’ll play in a broom closet, play in a teacup. What I am looking for every night is that one-on-one connection.
Over a year into my book tour, I was in the middle of the country, wondering what I was doing wrong. I had just had a week of shows that didn’t seem to connect with anyone. I thought maybe it was time to wrap up the endless tour, maybe even leave it in the middle of a string of shows. I found a last-minute house show through a friend of a friend in Wichita Falls, Texas. It was hosted by a nice man who used to be a caterer in New York City and now lives back in Texas and goes to Alcoholics Anonymous. His house was immaculate. He had silver trays of handmade sushi, little jars of chocolate mousse. Almost everyone in the audience was a recovering alcoholic, which made them all very willing to listen to stories and offer their support at the end. It was a strange type of show in a town where no record label or publisher would ever send me.
Afterwards a woman talked to me for ten minutes about how she had been dealing with the loss of her son who died in a car accident and she didn’t know how to grieve, and she was happy to hear me talk about loss to a roomful of strangers. I hugged her and thought to myself how glad I was that I hadn’t stopped before getting to that town.