Jessica Boudreaux on Touring After Illness: “Cancer Made Me Realize I May Never Go Back”

For musician Jessica Boudreaux, her breast cancer diagnosis forever changed the way she looked at being on the road
Credit: Cass Blum

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I spent my twenties on tour. And for the last few years, my band Summer Cannibals and I were consistently spending more time on the road than at home. Over the course of a decade I missed most of my nephews’ birthdays and trips with my family, my relationship was at a breaking point and my mental health was deteriorating due to a life-long anxiety disorder. But when you’re an artist there’s a narrative you’re sold: If you want this bad enough, you’ll do anything to get it.

My band was always lucky to be offered great support slots with incredible musicians, but we never hit a groove with headlining. We never had the critical acclaim or the “buzz” we chased. But we believed we just needed to keep our momentum and things would happen eventually. We were right on the precipice of something bigger, they said. Just one more year. One more album. One more tour… and then COVID happened. 

Suddenly the entire reality I had built for myself and for the band ceased to exist. The adjustment was tough, as it was for literally everyone on the planet, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel some gratitude for the forced time off the road. By July 2020 I’m pretty sure I had spent more time at home that year than I had in the last three combined. I started redecorating my house, gardening and growing vegetables, painting for the first time in eight years. And with the interruption of the write/record/promote/tour cycle I had been running on for the last decade, I started to remember why I did it all in the first place…music.

Then in October of 2020, I found the lump. The lump turned into a scan, and the scan that turned into a biopsy–no–three biopsies. The biopsies turned into a cancer diagnosis. I was 30 years old.

Let me say this bluntly: Cancer’s no fucking joke. 

There was not a corner of my life that it didn’t touch and mutilate. I didn’t just lose my hair and my boobs. I lost any security I had felt inside of my own body. The way I look, the way I see the world, my job, my family, my partner, my art…everything felt different when seen for the first time through the lens of my own mortality. I saw my own unhappiness and discontent from a different perspective and knew, immediately, that I couldn’t allow myself to go back to that place. 

My COVID-enforced hiatus gave me a much-needed break from my ruthless touring schedule, cancer made me realize I may never go back.

Like a toxic relationship, it’s hard to see how bad things are until you take space. That’s how I felt when I looked back at my years of touring. I started seeing how it wore me down, how I had sacrificed my health for a path that never truly gave me anything back. I loved to perform and meet the people who loved our band, who showed us so much support and excitement – they brought about some of the most meaningful times in my life. If I were to ever wish to revisit that time, they are the reasons why. But a new perspective for me meant having the realization that touring was not only unhealthy for me but, at this point, most likely physically impossible due to my ongoing treatment. (I’ll be on some sort of surveillance and preventative medication for at least 10 years.)

I know I’m not alone in my feelings, with COVID surges shutting down tours; we as musicians are being asked to make an entirely new and unimaginable sacrifice to continue to stay out on the road. Gas prices are at astronomical highs and streaming payouts are getting lower. Plus, I think we’ve all just reached an overall lower tolerance for bullshit. Sacrifices are a part of life, but I hope that any touring artist, feeling like I did, can honor their feelings and choose the path that’s right for them rather than their label’s or manager’s or agent’s. Our teams aren’t the ones missing the birthdays, we are. And while live music is life-affirming and necessary, touring as an (actually) independent artist has never been less hospitable than it is now.

In the last couple of years I began feeling out a new path. In years prior I had been dabbling in recording, having tracked and mixed a handful albums for some local Portland bands and also the latest Summer Cannibals album. It was a process I loved deeply but never felt I could truly pursue with my schedule. I realized that just because I was leaving behind touring didn’t mean I had to leave music. In fact, the time that I’ve gained has allowed me to write and produce more in the last couple years than I did in all my twenties. I have the time and space to be creative and make music most days, while also getting to spend the quality time with my family that I craved for so many years on the road. I’m producing music for artists I love, co-writing songs, working on music for various television series and films and still have time to catch my nephews basketball games and grill outside with my family. And while I still feel unsure of my place as a  recording artist without the grind of heavy touring, I feel grateful to get to head to the studio this morning and then in the evening, come home for dinner with my partner and our dogs and talk about it.

 

Jessica Boudreaux is a music producer, songwriter and visual artist currently based in Portland, Oregon. She produces pop music under her own name and has toured and released music with her rock band Summer Cannibals over the last 10 years. She owns and operates Pet Club recording studio in Portland. Her new EP, ‘I Think My Heart Loves to Break,’ will be out June 24. 

 

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