We’ll be getting to today’s post in just a second, but bear with me for a moment while I tell you a little story.
People always ask, “If there was one person you could have a conversation with, who would it be?” Well, there’s been someone I would’ve loved to sit down and talk to for a long time – nearly a decade, in fact.
This person caught my attention years ago with his creative words, his ability to reach out and touch people and his perseverance. (Oh, and he’s a fair hand with an acoustic guitar, too.)
His work and creative career stirred my curiosity. I could see the parallels and similarities between his life and my own – and that of writers, freelancers and bloggers everywhere.
So one day I decided enough is enough. Time to pursue that conversation.
And today, we have something very special for you here at Men with Pens – please enjoy my interview on creative careers with Québecois singer/songwriter Kevin Parent.
Wait, what?! Did you just say, “Who the hell is Kevin Parent?” Wow. Okay, time for an update:
Kevin Parent is one of those English-French blends (like myself) from a small town in the Gaspé region of Québec who chose to pursue a creative career in 1995. He’s been working hard at it ever since, with albums in both languages and nearly 20 years of experience under his belt.
(Oh, here’s my favorite album, Compilation, and here’s another fav of mine, Fangless Wolf Facing Winter – in English!)
His latest self-titled album has been in the top ten for weeks, and he’s been jetting around for television appearances and popping into radio stations all across the land.
It was an honor to speak with him – and now I’d like to share that conversation with you.
You see, celebrity-stardom aside, Kevin Parent is just a guy who lived through many of the same struggles you’ve had (or are having), from pursuing a creative career to building an audience to despairing you won’t make it to rejoicing you will to contemplating giving it all up.
Here’s what he had to say about it all when we sat down to talk. Enjoy.
James:Those of us who make a living as creative professionals often have a really hard time finding a balance between our base needs and our creative selves. For example, you’ve mentioned that you want to be paid for what you do, for the hours that go into your work and exposing yourself so much to your fans. Do you see your work as more art, more business – or something in between? And how do you balance those two desires, art and money?
Kevin Parent: I embrace the business side. I get it over with, because you know what? A lot people out there want to be real, true artists and pure and blah blah blah. But yet, they’ll apply for a grant from the Conseil des Arts, and that’s taxpayers’ money paying for that.
If you really, really want to invest time into creativity, you have to have money coming in from somewhere. You can’t live on thin air.
I may as well put it right up front. “Okay, here’s a show. It’s $30 a pop. Come and see me, sit down and I’ll sing for you all night long – but I have to pay my bread and butter, and I want my kid to go to school.” You get it out of the way, and then you can be yourself and let the creative juice flow.
I have no problem picking up a cheque. I don’t feel guilty that I’m selling my soul. Not at all. No.
Many artists don’t just feel guilty about the paycheck, they feel insecure about putting their work out there at all. What do you say to people who want to be creative but are holding themselves back?
I think it’s good to be insecure. It’s good to question yourself. Not in an egocentric way, but to put your own barrier pretty high up there to make sure of your quality of standard and that you’re freely being honest with yourself.
It’s a big mirror, criticism. It’s a very big mirror. It doesn’t embellish. You see your lines, that you’re tired, you see your grey hairs… Everything is amplified. But when you experience that, I think it’s a great window of opportunity for change and evolution. I think it’s wholesome.
My main concern are the more frustrated authors or singers or songwriters who have public power and who are critics. THOSE are the ones that I’m scared of, because THOSE people can really help you or hurt you.
I understand that they’re filters. Their job is to keep the crop healthy and send away the bad weeds. That’s good.
But I think that’s where we take it personally, when somebody really nails at our work publicly.
Sometimes you really want to grab the guy by the neck and say, “You fucker. Go get laid, come on. This is frustration, this is not called for.“
Does it ever get easier to be publicly tested in that way? You’ve been in the spotlight for over 15 years – does it get better?”
No, you don’t, and it’s good that you don’t get used to it. It’s like stage stress, before walking up on a TV show or a big opening act. It’s good not to get used to it because if you do, you start taking it for granted.
People respond to humans. They don’t respond to machines. They want something to be spontaneous, to be lively, to be spicy. If it’s expected, well what’s the point? “Here’s another singer or here’s another article…” Where’s the spice?
I think the spice comes from not taking it for granted and always wanting to be competitive towards yourself. Not competitive, but you know, to…
Always ask more of yourself.
Yeah! And it’s good. I think that’s what we’re there for.
Many people take advantage of that openness on another level, which is to say we’ve all had trouble with copyright law and keeping our work our own. How do you deal with copyright infringements and people stealing your work?
It’s funny. It’s a contradiction in that we want to use the vehicle to promote ourselves, but that same vehicle is used for piracy. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, you know? It’s complex, and at some point even incestuous.
Here’s a way to compare it. You kneel down on your knees, sow seeds in the ground, work for your crop to grow and then you harvest. Alright, you have a pound of carrots that you can sell for five bucks.
But for bloggers or singers or artists who have digital material, there’s no control. That’s very frustrating. I hope it’s just a phase, and I think we’re just in the “creux de la vague “.
We’re being very hypocritical about it. We want to seduce people, we want to be nice, we want people to like us. If we have that, we’ll have their respect. We try to be low key, we can’t burst out in anger… but we do have frustrations, and god knows our girlfriends and boyfriends and children suffer from that.
I think it’s even worse for bloggers or authors because readers aren’t attached to the person, they’re attached to his way of writing. It must be even more frustrating.
I don’t know what’s going to come out of it, but honestly, no bullshit, it makes me really think about going back to school and finding a real job. If I’m an electrician and work for three hours, then I get paid for my fucking three hours, you know?
You put a lot of yourself in your songs. They’re very intimate. Intimate stories, intimate lyrics, intimate scenarios. Is there a particular reason you do that?
No, that’s venting. That’s self-therapy more than anything else. It’s just a way of making a personal update. Not all my songs are that deep or introspective, but it’s important for me to do that. It’s about fan bases more than project per project, so people grow with you and they grow through you. And you grow through them. It’s generational. And you know, that’s good.
We writers tend to change over time and find our place in the world, our voice. Do feel the flavor of your music has changed over the years you’ve written songs?
I think I played it safe with my last album of eight years ago. I think my next album might have more anger in it, because anger can come from accumulation, from not being able to let it out.
In my personal life, I think I do express myself a bit better than I did. Before, when I hit emotions, I had to channel and catalyze. I had to sit down and say, “Okay, let me get this right. What word could I use to say this? How am I feeling right now?” And I would vent through writing.
Today, if something aggravates me or pisses me off, I voice it. I don’t have to write it. I don’t accumulate as much, and I think my work is affected by that. My certain zenness or happiness or fluidity in my day-to-day life influences my work for sure.
Definitely. I do believe that, and I don’t know why we do that. If there’s a nice paved road, I might take the detour that has thorns and bumps in it just for the fun of seeing how I’m going to get out of here.
If I imagine someone said to me, “Kevin, thank you very much for your services. It’s been a pleasure working with you, but we no longer need you. Here’s your retirement cheque, go build your house, put in a pool, and stay with your girlfriend for the rest of your life,” then I would probably kill myself.
[laughs] You wouldn’t be very happy, eh?
I wouldn’t know how to do that! Stability and emotional stability is something that is unknown. It’s freaky! I need a week, a month, but… It really saddens me, profoundly saddens me, and I’m unhappy to think of that.
I have to keep things going. I have to look out for others. I have to get in there. I gotta get back in the game. I have to be active. I have to be helping somebody else or asking somebody to help me or getting something done.
I have done that – I’ve walked through street after street in a snowstorm, looking for somebody who needs a push!
And yet, you’ve mentioned often, in your songs, in your interviews, that you feel a strong pull to recharge your batteries. Why is this quiet time so important to you?
I get fed up of seeing the same faces. I think it’s good to change, to reconnect and adapt to whatever environment you fall into.
There’s this contradiction that’s really part of us. Just look at our environment: nighttime, no sun, the moon. Daytime, the sun, no moon.
I find that even in a living environment, it’s also good and healthy to both stabilize yourself and then just change. “Okay, this pillow is different. Okay, this bed is like that.”
People tend to be caught up in their own personal image and their persona, and they forget that the water they’re drinking, the food that’s on their table or the table itself comes from elsewhere. When I reconnect with that source, I have a better understanding and a better respect of things in general.
Creative people often have sudden bursts of inspiration, and they often happen at the worst moments – when you’re in the shower, when you’re in the car, in the middle of the night… when do they happen to you?
Right before I wake up in the morning. Oh yeah, right before you open your eyes and your conscious kicks in, that cusp right there. It’s like, “Oooh, I have a symphony in my head and my god are my phrases fluid and connected and I’m so in awe with nature and life and the universe… Oh. Okay, I think I’m sleeping. I don’t think I have the energy to write it down.” It goes so fast, you can’t grasp it!
And when you do get up, then you think. Then your analytic brain kicks in, and you have so many distractions that you just lose that purity.
I think that when we’re writing, we’re trying to emulate that, trying to synthesize the purity we know we don’t have. But we know it does exist. And it’s kind of tough to… You know, if I could ….
Just grasp that moment, eh?
Yeah! Just once in a while…
I find I have those moments as well, and if you’re not right there with the pen or the keyboard, then you’ve lost it. And it feels like you’ve lost it forever.
And it’s kind of sad.
Yeah, but that’s our ego. That’s because we want to say, “Oh, I got it!! Heeyyy, I got it!”
To compare, think as if there’s a few canoes in the river, and the question is, who’s going to catch that salmon? Who’s gonna pull it… “Heeeyy, I got one! Heeeyyy, look at m-… Ahhh I lost it, ahhhh…”
A lot of people fish. Not everybody’s lucky, but the fish are there, and the fish will always be there. They always were there. It’s just a question of luck and of sharing, to each our turn. It all evens out at the end.
You know, some people are really lucky at catching those fish… but they have such twisted lives that it’s like, “Oh, keep it.”
You recently wrote in a medium that’s probably more familiar to our readers: an article about your home in Miguasha that was published in National Geographic Traveler as one of the world’s 50 destinations of a lifetime. That’s pretty impressive!
Well, my agent called me up and asked if I wanted to do that, and I said yes… but I didn’t really know what it was. So I didn’t have the pressure.
If I would’ve realized what we were talking about, I would’ve probably asked for help from others in trying to be clever and sly… But I didn’t, so I’m glad for that. It came from my heart.
My pride was that not many people from my hometown read it, but the people who did felt that it was a great token of appreciation for the region and that it can even help for economical reasons, for tourism.
For environmental purposes, it can be a tool, too, an added, “Okay guys. Don’t forget this nuclear uranium waste dump that you fuckers want to put in Bathhurst, New Brunswick on the Baie des Chaleurs, which is protected by UNESCO.”
You use your work to speak out on things that you feel are unjust, don’t you?
I try! You know, what’s the goal? To be alive, to be out there, to be in contact with people… I don’t write songs just for the purpose of packing time or to furnish empty spaces. I don’t write music for that. I want to write songs that mean something and at least have voice and opinion.
Just art for the beauty? That’s not for me.
How different was it for you to write that article versus writing a song?
I think it was pretty much the same. On my last album, there’s a song called Mon Pays, which is a song of hope I wrote to translate a portrait of how I see through my eyes, how I see my home town. It was good for me to reflect on family and my past, but it was more nostalgic for me to write that article than it was for me to write this song.
Plus, I was writing for people that I don’t think knew who I was, so there was a certain freedom in that. They had no concept of the person writing.
Is it nice to have that pressure off-…
Writers and artists and bloggers often have times when they have to talk to themselves and say, “Don’t give up.” Can you tell me about one of those moments, for you?
Actually, it’s every morning when I wake up. I say thank you, every time… (sigh)…
That’s a tough one, isn’t it?
It is, but… I don’t really know what keeps me going. When I think of my family, that helps a lot. But if not…
You know, writing a song is like paying bills. You get fed up of seeing the bills and the invoices come in and once it’s paid, you feel good about it. You feel… better after. You feel accomplished. The desire of feeling accomplished is what stimulates me to stay alive.
Bloggers and writers have some rigid schedules they have to follow. On our blog, for example, we write three times a week, regularly, religiously. Do you ever burn out?
Yeah, you know what? I’d rather keep it spontaneous. For me, it’s like sex. Same thing. If I have to have it at certain hours in a certain part of the routine, forget about it. I’d rather not do it often, and when I do it, I mean it!
Many of our writers and readers feel it’s a struggle to convince their family that a creative career is a good choice. How supportive of your career choice have your friends and family been… especially during the tough times?
Mm. That’s a good question. I quit school because I wanted to write songs. But I had writing grants that helped me. They’re tough to get, but when you can get one or two, you get a bit of recognition from your friends and family who say, “Oh! Well, that’s good…! You got a grant?”
But you’re still on your own until you make something sustainable that’s worthwhile.
Did anybody ever suggest you give up your dream?
Oh, totally. In the beginning, I remember… [laughs] This guy, this guitar player… I wanted to ask him to gig with me. I didn’t even have time to open my mouth! He said, “Kevin, forget about it. Get a real job.” I could see the frustration and the lines on his face and the deception and all of the downsides.
But I think that when you’re true to yourself and you don’t bullshit yourself, fuck ’em. You gotta do what you gotta to do. It’s like swimming across the lake. If you stop swimming, you’re gonna drown.
But you know… I honestly think sometimes of returning to school and getting a real job.
What job would you take up?
I don’t know. Probably something that gives me the same quality of life, the same balance – even pruning trees. I’d like to do something where I can stay in contact with the public, but have someone say, “Okay, 50 hours? Here’s your cheque.” I’d love that. But… that’s not the way it works.
At the end of the day, I think that there’s a certain beauty and reward of being able to take the pen and put down how you feel, to feel alive through lines. There are people out there who are happy to read you or get pissed off or have a reaction. We exist through writing, and that’s part of the reward.
On my deathbed, maybe I’m going to be glad that at least I gave it a shot. At least I cared. At least life meant something to me and I expressed it.
Because what you write down will live on, and there’s a beauty in sharing and of making part of history, even if it’s a little drop in the ocean. We’re making history when we write. It’s archives, it’s passing it on to another generation.
So it’s worth it to you.
It is. I think so. I do think so. But like I say, “Je peux pas parler pour les autres.” I can only speak for myself.
I just have one more question for you before you go… What’s the one question you’ve always been wanted to be asked?
That’s a tough one…
I really feel that a lot of people just don’t listen. For me, it’s not a particular question. If a question is linked to the present moment and there’s follow-up and interest on the follow-up, I think there are no wrong questions. They’re all good.
But I think there’s a lot of space-filling in what we do – at least, in what I do. And that saddens me a bit too. I feel that sometimes there’s this great, great opportunity to go deeper into certain subjects and to get to know somebody at a deeper level that would be even more comforting for a lot of people.
So whatever little snippets that I can pick up, or if I can find a little window that I can fit in, or reach out and create bonds with other people, I cherish those moments.
Thanks for the conversation, Kevin. Here’s to picking it up again soon.
Special thanks go to Éliane Lévesque of Tandem for her patience and assistance!