Thursday, 4 January 2018

2017 Tour Summary

At Sally & Isaac's, Madison, Wisconsin

It's New Year's Eve and I'm sitting in a rocker in my parents' old house on Daisy Hill, by the sea. Now that I'm back from tour, my father's 100th birthday is over, and we return to the cold and quiet of winter on Cape Cod, I feel like I've finally begun my new life here.

After my big tours, I usually send out a summary of the highlights. This time I want to do something more thoughtful, open, and honest, to tell a fuller story. Because while in most respects it was a great tour, there were also painful parts, things that made me reconsider what I'm doing, questions I'm still grappling with, undercurrents that feel important, but can't be summarized as simply "good" or "bad."

As always, I'm full of gratitude for everyone who let me play at their home – new friends like Christine in South Haven, Michigan; Derek in River Falls, Wisconsin; and Liesbeth in Leuven, Belgium, who'd never hosted a concert before, and old ones like Doug in Salem, Patrick in Berlin, and Amy & Ian in Pittsburgh, who've had me repeatedly, and with whom I grow closer each tour. (Full itinerary here.)

I really feel that every house, crowd, and performance was great. We gave our all – hosts in heart-full preparation, audiences in open participation, and I pushing myself to be truer than ever to my creative impulses, following the flow wherever it went. Perhaps more than on any previous tour, people told me how inspired they were by the shows.

I attribute that inspiration to house culture itself as much as to my own music. When you gather people for any creative activity in the coziness of home, it is almost always magical. Some of my hosts are already quite involved with house culture. Maren Cooke of Pittsburgh runs a monthly salon combining food, music, and conversations on sustainability. Wouter and Kristien Wuyts of Wezemaal, Belgium host concerts and talks; a week after my show there, they had a theatre play. And Johanna Domokos and Marcus Kracht of Werther, Germany have hosted all kinds of events, recently including an avant-garde cello concert that utilized every room of their enormous house.

Wouter and Kristien's

I called this year's trip the Neighbourhood Culture Tour, with the idea that living room concerts are a great way to build community in your neighbourhood. My friend Ken and his daughter Marissa in Southfield, Michigan created this flyer for hosts to put in mailboxes on their street: 



I do want to share some highlights of the tour. One was my first-ever house concerts with my Canadian band The Kids, at Eric's in Toronto and Cassandra's in Barrie, Ontario. 

With Don Kerr and Peter Murray of The Kids.

Another was the big cuddle-puddle of fourteen year-old boys that happened at Vanessa and Brant's house in South Orange, New Jersey, when I sang my song about nonsexual male affection, Brother Let's Touch. I found myself playing that song at a lot of the shows, and was surprised by how openly it was received. More than once, it prompted a man came up and hug me right there in the middle of my set.


I had my first solo foray into Minneapolis, a show that left hosts Lynn and Louisa excited to organize yoga parties and other events in their apartment. L&L, let me know if you do something!

Some particularly adventuresome house culture happened in England with my long-time friend Cath Brown, a theatre artist. We revised a play we'd co-written a couple years ago, and performed it at five living rooms in Bristol, Oxford, London, and Ashburton. These shows also featured my solo set, and sometimes a third act – the Toronto songwriter Erik Sedore. Home theatre opens up all kinds of creative possibilities for audience interaction, and the play was a big success. Cath, Erik, and I also played at Catweazle in Oxford, the amazing, intimate, no-microphones performance gathering that inspired me to co-found a similar event three years ago in Toronto.

With Cath Brown at Catweazle

After England, I had my fullest-ever Belgian run – ten shows in eleven days. I'm so grateful for how many Flemish people have responded to my music and invited me to play in their homes over the last few years!

My most interesting destination was certainly Riga, Latvia, where I provided closing entertainment for an international cognitive science symposium, in the Great Hall of the University of Latvia. The theme of the conference was  "impacts of visual-spacial skills on learning." Wondering how I could tie my show in with that topic, I was struck at the last minute by inspiration to perform in two very contrasting ways. I began at the big stage, as a normal pop concert would go, with bright lights, loud PA speakers, a cool attitude, and the audience spread out in the dark, cavernous venue. Then after two songs, I suddenly left the microphones behind, moved right up to the audience, invited it to move right up to me, had warm lights brought up on all of us, engaged the people in friendly conversation, and played for them as if we were in a living room, with lots of eye contact, interaction, and participation. Based on the response I got, it was a clear demonstration of the positive impacts of visual-spacial intimacy on musical connection.

Another highlight, also in Latvia, was meeting Ingus Ulmanis, a musician and TV personality who lent me a guitar for my show, and his wife Silvija Kalnins, a government minister. Together they founded Nature Concert Hall, one of the coolest environmentalist projects I've ever heard of. Each year, scientists and artists collaborate in a different wilderness location to create an immersive weekend, in which the public learns deeply about a humble element of nature – a single plant, animal, or feature of the landscape – that year's "Hero." Thousands flock from across Europe for hands-on, family-friendly workshops and activities, and are finally treated to a high-tech, live performance telling the Hero's story through integrated video art, dance, poetry, and music.

In the small town of Tranås, Sweden, I participated (for my second time) in an artists' residency called Kultivera. I worked on my book about creating a culture of more meaningful engagement with music, and had fun hanging out with the other residents – three artists from Turkey, Poland, and Italy. They were busy with a pilot project introducing local art students to more creative approaches to being an artist. It was a real success, and I hope to be involved with it myself in the future.

The community centre housing Kultivera

But the tour wasn't all light and easy. Behind the scenes, I was working with some difficult issues. 

One of them was how I relate to women. Since my last romantic partnership ended in 2012, I've spent a lot of time scrutinizing my attitudes and behaviours towards women, usually telling myself that I'm doing it wrong. I've interpreted my attractions as objectifying, my communications as manipulative, my sexuality as wounded, my boundaries as poor, and even my platonic and artistic relationships with women as excessively intimate. I've also been lonely, though not all the time. On the other hand, I've felt good about my willingness to listen to women's assessments of my conduct, examine the ways in which I may be sexist, explore alternative (and even radical) ways of relating, and strive to be a healthier, more loving man. And I'm grateful for the feminist education I've received from many women, most notably, my former wife Cora.

On my first several solo tours, I thought a lot about meeting and impressing women, both during and between the shows. I experienced it as an obsession that really interfered with enjoying of the moment. This time around, I resolved to practice allowing myself to be attracted to women without objectifying them. I made a list of tools I could use to help myself see them as more than just as potential sexual partners, such as saying to myself, "what am I really feeling on a deeper level, as I look at this woman?" or "I have faith that I'll find a great long term relationship when the time is right." As the tour progressed, I didn't feel nearly so woman-crazy, and I think my affirmations helped. 

Another pattern I came to believe I had, both on and off the road, was having intimate conversations with women in order to feel admired by them, even when I wasn't interested romantically. I saw this as creating some very messy dynamics, with confusion for all of us. So on this tour, I resolved to refrain from deep, one-on-one talks with women in whom I wasn't interested. I didn't stick to this dogmatically, but did, overall, maintain pretty careful boundaries, and didn't get into a lot of situations that felt complicated.

Yet I did have some difficult experiences. The play I did with Cath in England was fun for us, and loved by the audiences. But offstage, our two weeks of living, working, and touring together were, for me, an extremely challenging roller coaster of emotions. We had some intense fights, and when it was time for me to take off for the Continent, I told her I didn't want to collaborate or even communicate again. 

Parting like that cast a painful shadow over me four countries long. Except during my shows, I was in a dark mood and sick with a bad cold for the next three weeks in Belgium, Latvia, Germany, and Denmark. For my first time in 37 years of performing, illness took away my voice, and I had to do three concerts without singing. I finally reached out to some close friends for advice, which led to my getting back in touch with Cath to try and reestablish good terms. I found her open and compassionate, while at the same time clearly stating that the way I'd ended our time in England wasn't ok with her.

Another interesting issue that came up was spiritual in nature. In Copenhagen, I played at the yoga and meditation centre run by Ananda Marga, an international spiritual community. The place is lovely, and I've always been curious about the life of devotion shared by the students, monks, and teachers surrounding it. Whenever I play there, I tell myself "I should commit myself to an enlightenment path like this."

Due to a change in plans, I stayed an extra day, giving me an unforeseen opportunity to really learn something about the Ananda Marga way. I had a a beautiful connection with a very devoted monk there, who answered all the questions that were on my mind. I came to believe that after years of meditation, he is now able to stay at length in ecstatic states of oneness with the universe that I've only experienced fleetingly. I joined him and others for my longest-ever sitting meditations – two hours at night, and then again at 4 AM the next morning. It was a good experience, yet I ultimately felt clear that simply following my spontaneous inspirations through each day is still the best course for me. And for now, those inspirations lead me more to music than to meditation.

Pre-concert dinner at Ananda Marga

Having started the process of making up with Cath, my sickness and blues lifted, just in time for my residency in Sweden. There I found myself quite attracted to one of the artists I was living and working alongside. I had conflicting feelings about it, due, among other things, to her being about half my age. After an evening of nervously trying to impress her, and experiencing a mounting inner tension about the situation, I finally told her of my attraction.

Declaring such feelings to the wrong person, in the wrong way, or at the wrong time, is one of the "negative patterns with women" I've diagnosed in myself. This time, it didn't lead to the kind of pain and confusion it has seemed to in the past. Although I liked Laura as a person, I was able to distinguish between the attraction I was feeling, and actually wanting to pursue something sexual or romantic, and I was clear with her about that. We ended up having some good talks about relationships and many other topics, maintaining the boundaries we wanted, and starting a friendship that may continue.   

Then a different kind of challenge happened. I had a gig one night at Plan B, a club in the community centre where the residency was housed. It was the only commercial venue on this tour. The audience consisted of artists and others associated with the residency, sitting all together to my left, and a group of thirty public school cooks, mostly women, who were having their Christmas party, on my right.

I had everyone's attention for the first couple songs. Then I felt inspired to play some Jazz – All Blues by Miles Davis. I began in a groovy, accessible way, and felt the audience with me. Then at one point, I found myself playing a bit more "outside" (a Jazz term for challenging or unusual). While the artists and musicians on my left clearly enjoyed what I was doing, I noticed the cooks starting to talk amongst themselves. I reacted to their disengagement by going in an even stranger direction. At the peak of it, I was standing up, playing dissonant notes in one hand with a weird effect on the keyboard, singing along in a nasty, childish voice, and with my other hand, twirling my sustain pedal around my head in great loops through the air. 

I came back to Earth, finished the tune, and continued with more "normal" music. But for the rest of the show, while the artsy contingent was enthusiastically engaged, the cooks were mostly continuing their separate conversations and getting drunk. At one point I said, "Hey, I'd like to sing something very quiet and beautiful now. How about everyone pays attention for just one more song?" But no one stopped talking.

Later that night, I found myself quite upset about the show. I could have easily written off the blue-collar cafeteria workers as uncultured and rude. But I've done enough house concerts to know that if you take a group of almost any demographic, and put it in a cozy living room without encouraging heavy drinking, you'll get a very rapt audience.

So I could have blamed the club setting for my failure to connect with two-thirds of the crowd. But they really listened to my first two songs. So why, when being weird repelled them, did I just act weirder? I felt it was a "fuck you" to the cooks for disliking my experimental Jazz. And as a musician claiming to be flexibly diverse and to embrace every kind of audience, that was disturbing to me. I saw within that show the whole history of alienation between artists and the mainstream public. When things went a bit awry, instead of trying to make a human connection, I snubbed the cooks and backed into the niche of my own subculture. Is that really how I want to behave? I spent much of the next day thinking and writing about it – lots of good material for my book, which is, after all, about creating more meaningful public engagement with music.

Even donning my chef's hat for a song about the food service industry, I failed to win back the cooks.

After Sweden, I flew back to the States and picked up my tour in Georgia. I found myself listening voraciously to the car radio, hoping for news about the MeToo movement, which was having a big impact on U.S. politics. I was tired from over two months on the road, but continued to the end, with many more great house concerts.

When finally home in Cape Cod, I had a troubling feeling of dissatisfaction. I sat with it for many days, unable to understand where it came from. There'd been almost sixty shows, mostly good in terms of size, albums sold, and money made – and except for Plan B, all fantastic in terms of audience rapport and musical creativity. Yet I felt a strange emptiness that I wasn't used to after a tour. 

I began to realize that while the shows, and the crowds I met there, were great individually, I had little sense of connection between them. Night after night, I'd feel a beautiful link with a new group of people, many of whom would tell me how inspired they were by the experience. But I saw no link between that group and the groups that came before and after it. Even within audiences, people just seemed so different from one another. I was left thinking that while everyone has their own life and is into their own things, there are few shared loves, goals, dreams, and role models. The Western, industrialized world I have been touring for over 25 years suddenly occurred to me as a deeply fractured society, with no cultural consensus, no commonly celebrated value system, no community that joins us all. 

Why didn't this bother me before? For years, I'd been seeking intimacy with individual audiences. It was very fulfilling to finally find it through house concerts. But maybe the feeling of connectedness I experienced at single house concerts made me miss it in our wider culture. And maybe our societal disjointedness has been getting even worse, as specialization and technology take over daily life. So now more than ever, a person who travels and meets people all over North America and Europe can really feel a lack of cohesion.

One small example of the separateness I'm speaking of is how I have no real communication between tours with the people who've responded to my music, and I doubt they have any with each other. The shows often seem transcendent, yet after each one, people seem to just go back to their lives, their jobs, their devices, their niche interests, and I go back to being just one of the million culture-makers to whom everyone now has instant access. We're all lost in an onslaught of information, entertainment, and work. 

I thought my Neighborhood Culture Tour could at least inspire people to make some new connections in their local community. But few hosts took the risk of inviting people they didn't already know into their homes.

Failing to see a shared conversation in our society leaves me frustrated, given how many common crises we face – like the epidemic rise of chronic diseases and addictions, the risk of global economic collapse, and climate change. I often think it's insane that we Earthlings don't speak at every gathering about the threat of climate change to our very survival. 

But if our culture is indeed as splintered as I've come to see it, maybe our fear of these big crises is the very reason. They're so overwhelming that we all retreat to our individual concerns, while increasing economic insecurity focuses many of us on just staying afloat. That strikes me as good for corporate interests (like the fossil fuel industry) that profit from the status quo while getting away with harming the environment, blowing our debt-based economy up into an unsustainable bubble, and widening the income gap to the point of mass misery. It serves them well for the public to be wrapped up in endless, separate focuses, rather than coming together to talk about the forces impacting us all.

One of my first house tours was in support of the Transition Towns movement, an effort to unify local communities around the cause of environmental (as well as social, economic, and spiritual) sustainability. I played for thirty-five Transition groups across Europe, hoping to find them really bringing neighbours together. It was an inspiring tour, in which I did sense connection between the different audiences. On the other hand, many of the groups I visited were small, and struggling to find people in their communities with time or inclination to work on sustainability.

I have some intense, new songs about the crises I believe are converging on our world, and I thought I should play them every night on this tour. But for some reason I didn't, and even when I did, I had no way to know if they provoked any conversation beyond the shows.

I think all of this is why I was so drawn to the MeToo movement when I got back from Europe. For one thing, it is a common reference point, something I believe is important that many people are talking about. It made me feel less alone in my personal struggle to respect women, and it seemed to validate my promotion of tenderness between men. Although I may have my own share of sexism, I see the oppression of women, and the closed-ness of men, as deeply connected to all the major crises of our time. I think the cultural negation of "feminine" values could be one of the linchpins holding up a global system of blind economic growth, violence toward those we perceive as "other," and environmental callousness that may prove suicidal. Since getting back home, I've resolved to start or join a support group exploring relationships, gender, and sexuality.

I long for more togetherness in our world. It's why I'm trying to discover genuine, non-patriarchal relationships in the midst of the patriarchy. It's why I'm attracted to spiritual community. It's why I'm so disturbed when I see "countercultural" artists like myself fail to connect with "ordinary" working people like the cooks in Tranås. 

I long for a powerful social movement. Something that involves people everywhere, that I can throw my support behind as a musician. Something that addresses the real problems in society, and offers positive alternatives to inspire us. Something to give new meaning to my work and my tours. 

I don't know if MeToo will grow or merge with other causes into a movement that all-encompassing. But I do know that I want more connection with you, the people who have responded to my music. I need to know if what I'm doing has any impact beyond individual shows, and if not, what I could do differently. So: 

  • If my music plays a role in your life, please let me know. What does it do for you? How do you use it? 
  • If you listen to one of my recordings and have a reaction to it – positive, negative, or otherwise – please tell me. You'd be surprised how rarely people respond to any music with a question or comment. When they do, it means a lot to any artist.
  • If you feel that we share values, are on the same team, please get in touch. I'd love to feel that solidarity with you. 
  • Or drop me a line for any other reason. All my contact info is below.
  • If you are so inspired, join facebook.com/groups/michaelholtstuff, where I periodically post songs, blogs, and news. 
  • Feel free to post there any thoughts that are relevant to the music I make, and the things I talk about – like house concerts, other ways to engage closely with music, ways to change our culture, community building, passion following, intimate sharing, sacred circles, men's issues, slow food, sustainable living, alternative economics, Charles Eisenstein, and cuddling. I prefer your own words, so if you post a link, please say something personal about it.
  • Post or send me any pix or vids you have from the tour.
  • Let me know in which format I should release my forthcoming album (18 songs with full band)! What would be most useful to you? What would you want to buy? A double CD? Double vinyl? A download code? A booklet with lyrics, pictures, and info plus a download code? Something else?
  • Let me know how I can better serve you on tour, and between tours. 
  • Come visit me and my parents in Cape Cod!

Thanks again, and may you realize all your inspirations in the coming year!

Michael 

(508) 349-2120 (landline – no text)
Mail: Box 1087, Truro, MA, USA, 02666
Visit: 3 Daisy Lane, Truro, Cape Cod, MA


Book cover by Vanessa McGann

6 comments:

  1. Michael, as the host of the first show on your tour, let me congratulate you on making it past the last show. It sounds like it was a roller coaster ride, but one taken with all the poetry and passion that you seem to bring to everything.
    My initial two thoughts to the many thought-provoking observations here are these: first, being attracted to a woman isn’t the same as “objectifying” her, whereas you almost seem to conflate the two. Second: if only a tenth of us humans put the energy you do into connecting us and saving us from ourselves, we’d be in fine shape. Thank you for your music and your spirit.

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    1. Thanks so much for being one of the only people to ever reply to a blog of mine! I intellectually know that there's a distinction from objectifying someone and simply experiencing an attraction to them, yet in practice, the two are still quite entangled in me. I think I need help with the untangling, and am planning to join or create a men's support group this month - I hope that will help!

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  2. I was blessed seing you at Erik's house in Stockholm, November. I loved it and you are so right about that the atmosphere is different in a home compared to in an establishment. I can really understand what happened by the cooks in Tranås. They were very glad to have a Christmas party but not really valuing you.

    Your song about men touching men is beautiful and saying the obvious. We should just take care of each others more and be nicer and softer.

    I read your blog this morning and got really inspired and also a little jealous that you do so much fun thing, you spread so much fun! This is really admirable to do that. I also think I have too little meetings with people I didn't know from the beginning.

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    1. thank you so much for replying! you'd be surprised how rarely people respond to my blogs. it means a lot to me to see what came across to you at the concert at erik's.

      i'm sorry you felt jealous about the social aspect of my touring. it's true that i meet a lot of people on the road. still, when i'm back home, i spend so much time by myself on the computer, not being with people! i'm trying to have faith that when the right moment comes to socialize, and go out and meet people here in my new home of Cape Cod, I will feel inspired and do it.

      You said that reading my blog also inspired you. I wonder what you mean by that - in what way did it inspire you, rather than make you feel jealous? those are two very different feelings!

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  3. I think envious is better word than jealous. Yes, inspiring that you want people to meet and that you really are after the cosy atmosphere in a home when you play your music. You make choices that are in accordance with your conviction. You reflect over yourself and try to change. I ask myself many questions right now and would like to increase the amount of joy in my life. And you also finish your blog post that you wish that all our inspirations will be realized.

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    1. My definition of inspiration is when an image or idea pops into my head, and when I take a look at that image or idea, I realize that I want to make it real, bring it into the world through some kind of action. (Or at least it is something that feels right to do, it feels like I'm really meant to do it, even if it might be scary or uncomfortable.)

      It could be as tiny as seeing a glass of water in my imagination, and when I discover that picture is there, I realize that I am thirsty, and would like to drink. So I stop what I'm doing, and go get some water in the real world. Once I've done that, I've followed my inspiration.

      Or it could be as big as a theme for an entire tour, like "neighbourhood culture." Or knowing what I want to do with the next few years of my life. I see it in my head, it falls into place and feels right.

      Sometimes it is obvious what put the image or idea into my head. But usually it just pops in like a flash, seemingly out of nowhere.

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