Life’s what happens when you make other plans
In 2007, a friend of mine moved continents to be with her new man. We talked for hours about her new life, as she began selling off her stuff, sorting out work and brushing up her language skills, and as I was getting excited for her, I kept thinking ‘I want to do this too’. I’d lived in the south of France for a semester at uni, and spent months at a time living in Chicago with my old job – my feet were itching for more travel.
Soul Ambition was about 6 months old, and whilst I sometimes coached people at home or in cafés, I coached many clients via phone or Skype. I started reading ex-pat blogs and forums, and started thinking I could move abroad and coach ex-pats through the realities and challenges of their new lives and businesses abroad, and coach people in Ireland/UK via Skype.
I was considering Nice; I’d lived in Pau at the foot of the Pyrénées, but I’m a sea lover, and started day-dreaming about coaching in a wee flat overlooking the sea, or some lovely café down by the port. The Belfast property market was still rocketing, and my team of workmen had done a fantastic job with my house. I’d bought a rental apartment in Tallinn, as a replacement for a pension, and thought I could sell both properties and buy myself a small apartment on the Riviera.
One day in summer an ezine from the BBC landed in my inbox, with an interesting line at the bottom. “Are you thinking of moving to the sea? Fantasy Homes by the Sea are looking for people to feature in upcoming episodes”. Impulsively, I emailed the address given, telling them my plans. The producers emailed back saying they’d wanted to feature Nice, and could I send in a video of me talking about why I’d like to move there. I quickly got one together with my friend Lynsey. Fast forward to September and we’re being shown around apartments in Nice for the programme, me talking away about my plans and hamming up my reactions to the views for producer Laura; Lynsey giving opinions on which flat would be best for when she came to visit.
We headed back (tearfully) to Belfast, promising to let Laura know when my house sold, for a follow-up segment. But the housing market in Belfast was dropping fast. Months passed, and the prophetically-named show finally aired in February with a “Tracy’s still waiting for her house in Belfast to sell, but she’s got a bottle of champagne on ice for when it happens” voiceover on the end credits. I’d drunk that bottle the previous November.
Then Tallinn’s property bubble burst, and my apartment was repossessed. I’d made a bad investment – I’d made the mistake of looking only for proof that it was a good idea, rather than proof it was a bad idea, to test it. It became clear that even if I could sell in Belfast, there’d be no big nest egg for an emigration (I later did, and there wasn’t). This was early 2008.
An alternative goal
Whilst I dealt with the financial fall-out from that situation, I applied a coaching approach of looking for the core values in the ‘failed’ plan (the France move) and thinking about how I could get similar results from something different. I’d wanted adventure, a challenge, and a chance to brush up on old skills (French). I thought, “well, playing music’s something else I’ve neglected for years”. Luckily for me, Belfast’s music scene was flourishing, with venues like the Black Box opening and putting on fantastic events, people like Paddy Glasgow of Glasgowbury staging wonderful grassroots festivals, and the rise of social media making it easier for artists to find fans and vice versa.
I got involved with a brilliant diversity charity Beyond Skin, who use music to overcome racial intolerance in Northern Ireland by bringing musicians who’d immigrated there together with local musicians to run “interactive music experiences” in schools and community groups. During these events, participants could ask ‘taboo’ questions and have real discussions about immigration. Thanks to the encouragement of the charity’s founder, Darren Ferguson, I got to play workshops and festivals, record some tracks in Shabby Road Studios, and even co-wrote and recorded a track for UN Women. I was invited by Charlotte Dryden to play some charity gigs for Love Music, Hate Racism NI at the Oh Yeah Centre, which was great experience for a great cause.
Walking through Belfast’s Ormeau Park one day, I heard drumming, and, thinking it might be the Beyond Skin crew, went over to investigate. It was actually Beat Carnival‘s BEATnDRUM samba band, whose infectious Brazilian beats had gathered a bit of a crowd around them in the Sunday sunshine. I signed up straight away, and enjoyed playing with them in public, private and international events (like the BelBoBru collaboration, below) over the next few years. Carnival is good for the soul! (I’m eternally grateful to both charities, who have inspired my thesis project on music and wellbeing – subscribe for the results!)
With Soul Ambition, I began doing talks and coaching events for musicians, running a music clinic for musicians and co-organising the first Unconvention event outside of Salford, bringing music industry speakers to Belfast for panels and workshops followed by local artist showcases.
In 2009, I went to the MIDEM music industry conference in Cannes with ever-inspirational Derek Sivers, founder and former owner of CDBaby, who I’d become friends with since commenting on one of his blog posts where he talked about coaching for musicians. Well, I didn’t actually attend the conference sessions – way too expensive, plus I was recovering from a strep infection and was exhausted – but lounged about Cannes reading ‘The Watchmen’ during the day and went to parties like the TopSpin after-party in the evening, where Derek introduced me to people from TopSpin, Warner Music, CD Baby and Reverbnation. (Lou Plaia of Reverbnation kindly gave me a free pass to New Music Seminar in New York, the following year – but that’s another story.) Top tip: if you can’t afford a conference (music or otherwise), travel to the city and go to the after-parties! Most of the business is conducted there anyway. (In Belfast, it seems to be done outside the Duke of York…)
Sitting at lunch one day with Andrew Ferris of Small Town America and Sandra Gourley, then of the Northern Ireland Music Industry Commission, Sandra asked me to compere the NI music showcase that night. Since it was just as a mark of courtesy – no-one was expecting perfect French from me – I said yes, and rushed off to Zara to buy a frock before racing back to the hotel to get ready. Waiting for a taxi downstairs, I’d got chatting to the concierge, and told him I’d had trouble finding the right vocabulary for translating the promotional materials into French. “What eez it you need? I used to work in ze music industry.” “Really? Brilliant! What’s “showcase”?” “Well, “le showcase!” “Oh, ha! And what’s “record label”?” “”Le label”!”) And so I ended up introducing Duke Special, Fighting With Wire and General Fiasco in rusty French and English, like some culchie Eurovision contest hostess. I became friends with the stage manager Matthieu, and later went to visit him and his friend Chris – in Nice! Matt’s flat was even in the background of some of the photos I’d taken a couple of years earlier, filming the property show. They recorded me butchering Matt’s French poetry over a drone-rock track, for their band Mueros – hint of an Aghadowey accent, but it was très cool to do.
A couple of years later, having moved into a rental place with very high ceilings, and using it to host an art showing by talented local artist, Tommy Ball, I had the idea of running cabaret nights in my new living room. Inspired in part by the Jools Holland Show, a musician on MySpace who was asking people to host his gigs in their living rooms, and John McGurgan’s beautiful Carousel nights in the Black Box, I brought together musicians, artists, poets and others to share their work in an ‘in the round’ gig, with me performing a song or two over the evening as a way of building experience. I called these events the Sofa Sessions, and tried to include visiting artists to help them and local artists network together. I brought Chris over from Nice to perform at the first.
After the MIDEM compering gig, a friend who’d seen me post about it on Facebook put my name forward to Roisin Whyte, at the Ulster Hall, who needed someone to compere some talks on the Hall’s history. She hired me for the job and we stayed in touch. In 2012 when she was moving on from that role, she set up a meeting between ourselves and the girl taking over from her, Jan Carson. Roisin had heard about the Sofa Sessions and thought Jan would be keen to get involved – thankfully, she was right! Jan completely got what I was trying to do, and invited me to bring the Sofa Sessions to the prestigious Ulster Hall, for their 150th Festival. I am very grateful she did. It was a beautiful night – and at the start of it, I pointed out the extra sofa in the audience area (we had two on the stage), and said I was designating it as the “courtin’ sofa”, saying that with such a magical night ahead of us, someone was bound to fall in love. Conor Scullion and Conn Smyth, who were playing as members of Katie and the Carnival that night, were sitting on the sofa while I spoke, and pantomimed getting closer as we laughed.
Shortly after the gig, Conor messaged me and my friend/his bandmate Suzy Coyle (aka Suitcase Suzy) to see if we’d be interested in a “musical project” for the summer. (It wasn’t a band, he told us.) By this stage, I’d moved out of Belfast, and had begun an application to go teach English in Japan for a year – thinking I could run my Sofa Sessions there and then apply for a US artist’s visa and move to New York. I thought a summer project with these two excellent musicians would be a brilliant last musical Irish fling, so enthusiastically said yes. A few weeks later, we got together to work on the first song of our new band, You, Me & the Sea (project, pah – we convinced him). Conor had written the first verse of a song he’d called Analogue Heart in a Digital World, and said he thought we could each add our own verse. I asked if it should be autobiographical, saying my mum had been fretting about me putting relationships on hold to go traveling, but I’d no interest in relationships; so I’d write a verse about having a “travelling heart”.
Until Suzy and I had our verses written, we just practiced singing Conor’s in turn. One evening, I looked up whilst singing to see Conor looking at me intently, came over all shy (yes, me) and drove home wondering what had just happened. Cue some frantic texting with Suzy about this new turn – teenage dreams, eh! I finally wrote my verse – “I have a hurricane heart / and it’s staying that way / I know all the rules / It’s just that I don’t want to play / So if you can’t keep up / Then maybe you’d best stay away / ‘Cos I’ll always say what I feel / And I’ll mean what I say”. I train people in assertiveness, like; I have to walk the walk.
I sent the verse to the two of them, and at next rehearsal, Conor said he really liked it. Grinning, I said it was a challenge to Northern Irish men. (Really, I just meant him.) I said that a male friend had said to me once on a night out that I was “too confident” and would “scare guys off”, but that I saw that as part of a selection process. If they were put off, we’d not get on! I said that (generalisation as it is) with Northern Irish men, you often have to show a bit of interest and then back the flip away while they recover, before sidling up to them again – like a Northern-Irish-Man-whisperer, if you will. Conor laughed, and I took heart. A few weeks later he invited me round for pizza; a few days later, he went off to the studio for the weekend. I retreated to my friend Nick’s flat and wrote my first song, Breathe, essentially asking Conor not to freak out about this sudden and intense turn of events.
New version of an old plan – with company
Well, much as we loved our wee home amongst the peacocks, horses, lovely grounds and Game of Thrones filming (the barn behind our house was the Inn on the Kingsroad), it turned out Conor was as keen on travelling as I was. There was still a big world we wanted to explore, and we considered many options, including Canada and New York. One day, reading some blog post, I discovered some European countries offer free university education. I’d slowed down with Soul Ambition work to focus on the band, on consultancy work with a couple of great local organisations, and on just enjoying our great new romance, so I’d no budget for hefty uni fees. (If your heart has just leapt, check out http://mastersportal.eu and http://bachelorsportal.eu.) Conor said he’d often thought of doing a master’s in music therapy; I’d have been happy to do a music or a psychology course. The only place where a master’s in music therapy is taught, free, in English, is in Jyväskylä, Finland – and its sister programme is a master’s in music psychology and technology. Bingo!
…So here we are. (Well, right now, we’re back in Co. Down after our first year, but we’ll be back there soon.) It’s been a great experience – I’ve learned lots so far, have got to work beside many talented researchers, study and play with many lovely new international buddies (missing them!), discover that cardamom makes pretty much anything more delicious, discover I’m pretty good (for a beginner) at skiing – but ridiculously bad at walking uphill in skiis. Or indeed in just walking, some of the time. (I have faceplanted on a few of Finland’s pavements.) We’ve seen a bear:
Just kidding! The wildest wildlife we’ve seen is our friendly (aka greedy) squirrels, taking the place of our beloved Redhall peacocks and chickens. Like those chancer birds, the squirrels have come dandering indoors in search of food too, to Conor’s dismay. (I quite enjoy these incursions.)
For next year, we’re planning a move to Spain, where I can indulge my love of carnival with Cádiz’s famous yearly event, and make use of all the flamenco classes I’ve enjoyed with lovely MT at FlamencoNI over the years. Not to mention the tapas, the vino tinto, the sunshine, el mar…
So, whilst there have been many twists, mistakes and failed plans in my journey so far, I’m very glad for all of those ‘learning opportunities’ – because I’m having an amazing adventure with the best person I could have it with. Plans are good to get you moving, but life sometimes has better ideas.
Never gloating, always grateful.
PS We’re going to suss out Cádiz the first week in September, if you’ve any contacts there, please feel free to put them in touch! My LinkedIn profile is here. ¡Gracias!
[A shortened version of this article first appeared in the Irish Sunday Mirror in April 2015]
Photos mostly my own, except for: