Blair Vail is one of those oddball writer/singer types. She began popping up here and there with friends or just a guitar, stunning various people, and disappearing without much fanfare in her early teens in her hometown of Rochester, NY. She’s been doing much the same in Portland, OR and in transcontinental tours and misadventures since 2002. She can be found playing solo or with friends under the name Rebel Without Consequence.
S&TG: Do you use the word artist, poet, etc. to describe yourself? Do you feel like you don’t “deserve” to call yourself that because you’re not paid, published, etc. or famous? Have you always thought of yourself as an artist?
B: I call myself a singer because that’s the part of what I do that I’ve put the most work into and emphasis on. I’m not really a musician’s musician, so I don’t really use that word. Artist? Poet? I’ve always thought those have a bit of a pretentious ring, regardless of whether or not you get paid for your art. Most artists I know will self-describe with a more specific term (eg. “photographer”). And most of the poets I know (myself included) have a bit of a willfully pretentious bent, and will self-describe as such only as a nod to that. It’s almost a self-deprecating label.
S&TG: And what does it mean to you to be an artist, poet, etc? And have you always thought of yourself as one? If not, when did you?
B: At this point, my various artistic endeavors are the most meaningful things I do. I actually love my day job, but ultimately music and writing are more personally important. I really started out with that point of view, but spent many years trying to “outgrow” it based on the prevalent idea that artist types are not taken seriously as responsible practical adults. Prioritizing the more “honest” realms of career, religion, marriage and family ultimately just made me miserable and insincere, so I’m not fighting it anymore. Which is not to say I don’t treat my work and personal relationships with great care and respect, just that making “art” is what ties my life together and makes me feel like it’s marginally worthwhile.
S&TG: How long have you been making art?
B: I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t.
S&TG: Why is your art important to you? Why do you spend time creating when you could be doing something completely different and no one else would stop you?
B: Most of the time, there’s nothing I’d rather be doing. If there’s something I want to do more, I do it.
S&TG: What does it feel like to create? No, seriously, what does it feel like?
Sneezing, taking a shit, putting a puzzle together, jumping on a trampoline, banging my head against a wall, finding a long lost friend, striking someone, and breaking my own heart over and over again.
S&TG: What kind of art do you make? What excites you as an artist?
Singing and writing are the things I resonate with the most, though far from the only things I do. As far as writing goes, songs are the most exciting, particularly if a set of them makes something greater, like a well-conceived album. I’ve written two rock operas that are the things I’m both most proud of and most protective of. But poetry is very cathartic for me, and I like that about it. I can write poetry in a more sincere way, whereas the point of a song in my mind is to be a good story, whether or not it’s true or I even approve of what happens in it.
S&TG: What’s your creative process? Do you follow a routine?
Not really. Fairly often the piece starts scribbled in a notebook, but I’ve also just sat down with the guitar and composed songs on the spot. When I wrote my first rock opera, I actually started with a novel, then decided music would be a better medium, made an outline, and wrote all the songs very deliberately to tell the story. And sometimes things get Frankenstiened together out of discarded scrap of writing that I rediscover or can’t seem to shake in the first place.
S&TG: Are there habits or places that help you create or get you inspired?
Listening to plenty of new music is good for my output. So is going to poetry readings. I really love hearing other people’s work, especially in venues where how I’m supposed to regard it is not proscribed. I think open mics are a great equalizer that way. I try to keep my life wacky and interesting too. Having good stories to draw from never hurts.
S&TG: What have you learned about your art that’s surprised you?
Somebody recently called my act “precise”. After many years of drawing on sloppy passion, and getting compared to the Violent Femmes and folk-punk, that was surprising. I suppose I just got sick of wincing at the performance mistakes in recordings of me.
S&TG: Who are your creative heroes?
Leonard Cohen, Diamanda Galas, Andy Kaufman, Tom Waits, Kurt Weill, Cory McAbee.
S&TG: What are your dreams?
To a great extent, I’m living the dream. I work for myself, keep odd hours, live in a garrett, spend as much time on creative pursuits as I want, and am starting up some exciting collaborations. I have daydreams of being more of a frontman and having a band, gaining a cult following, touring more – maybe in Europe, but I don’t know if any of those things would actually make me happier than I am now.
S&TG: What kind of support system do you have?
S&TG: What’s the most important lesson that you want to share with a beginning artist about how to be creative?
Don’t worry about how it comes out at first, just start doing things. Spend as much time as you can actually doing what you do.
Making a living
S&TG: How do you pay your bills? Etc.
I’m a licensed massage therapist. I have my own practice in injury and chronic pain treatment.
S&TG: How does the way you make a living right now either support or complicate making art?
It’s great that I get to make my own schedule. It’s also nice to have something straightforward and practical and analytical to do as a counterpoint to the chaos of the creative worlds.
S&TG: What’s the most important lesson you want to share with an artist about how to make a living?
Figure out where your priorities are, and what the most practical way to put food on the table while keeping them straight actually is. There’s no shame in having a day job, and there’s no shame in actually making money on your art.
S&TG: Do you hope to make a living doing your art one day?
It might be nice. I’ve tried a couple times and found it heartbreakingly difficult, but it’s an idea I go back to periodically.
S&TG: Do you feel having to make money limits your creative life?
Not at this point. Though working 40 hour weeks at a minimum wage job did. I just didn’t have enough energy at the end of the day to do anything. Now it all feels pretty well-balanced.