My 15-minute talk from The Makers Series: The Art of Failure

by devonsp

“Hey, wanna come give a talk on the art of failure?”

Not the easiest email invitation to write, but my friend Sam Bush made it funny and sweet, as he does with everything.  It didn’t hurt that the two other people on the bill were David Zahl (Mockingbird) and my pal Lulu Miller (Invisibilia).

So, I worked really hard on this.  Paul edited it marvelously, as he does with almost everything I make.  And the talk ended up feeling like one of the more successful things I’ve done.   Saying it outloud kind of made it all seem ok.

I know only some of you will have time / inclination to read this.  And keep in mind that it wasn’t really meant to be read — except for by me, out loud.  If you do dive in, I really hope something resonates.

Couldn’t do it / not do it without you guys.


Hi, my name is Devon Sproule.  I’m a singer songwriter, guitar player, and I also teach songwriting… Musical mentoring, or as one of my students calls it “song therapy.” And let’s just get the obvious, very important, question out of the way (haha): I write the lyrics first.  Other tools I like to use are a thesaurus and… Or as my seven-year-old student Jack calls it, “ENTERING THE RHYMEZONE!”

My mom recently found an old “Validation Card” from when I was seven… I grew up at this intentional community near here called Twin Oaks.  Instead of Valentine’s day, we had “Validation Day” — for a couple weeks before February 14, we would all make and writing is beautiful handmade cards, full of positive affirmations and validations. My mom saved one from I was 7 and showed it to me the other day.  “I love to hear you sing!” “Can’t wait to see you up on stage, doing your thing!”  So, for better or worse, I’ve had this identity as a musician for a long time.

Being so confident in who I was and what I wanted to do, it wasn’t too far a stretch for me to drop out of Louisa High School a few years later and start busking on the downtown mall.   I still wasn’t actually MAKING a lot of work, writing a lot of songs.  But I was having an adventure.  It was like stepping up on the first rung of this tall, tall ladder.  (GESTURE) I couldn’t even see where it ended, it was so high, but I could see other people up above me, and it looked like they had a nice view.

For the first few years I was teenaged “devon” — one word, lowercase “d” — who was (as many C’ville artists are) — loosely associated with The Dave Matthews Band.  In my case, I had a boyfriend who had an ex-girlfriend who became my friend who then became my manager who’s sister’s husband was their bass player and SHE got HIM to produce one of my records.  Then I toured with them, playing on the small sidestage you have to pass by to refill your beer.

(So I was…climbing that ladder, still not wholly comfortable with my ARTISTIC process, but having a great time)

Since then, I’ve been quirky Devon Sproule, the sort of rootsy, vaguely Canadian woman who is an uncertain amount of famous in Europe. And yeah, I’ve done ok over there!  Looking back, I think my English career peaked in 2007, around the same time that CDs stopped selling (or at least, that’s what I tell myself).  I had the busiest summer of my life, playing cool festivals and then topping it off with an appearance on famous British “tastemaking” TV show in England called Later…With Jools Holland.  I’d just played a whole summer of cool festivals…  I’d been really busy, and really nervous about the show, so of course I got sick just in time for it.  When I’d gotten sick in the past, I’d usually managed to muscle my way through shows using adrenaline.  But something was different this time.  I can barely listen back to the recordings from the show, I get so sad.  So even though this show introduced my music to a shitload of people, for the next few years, I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if I’d been at 100%.  Who knows, maybe my career wouldn’t have started its downward turn, but kept climbing, like it did for those annoyingly cute guys in Vampire Weekend, who also played that night.

My musician friend Carsie Blanton said when she was young, and decided to become a musician, she knew that it meant she could never get married or have kids.  And while I’ve never felt quite THAT extreme about it, up until about five years ago, whenever an artist friend of mine would get a day job, go back to school, or have a kid, I would have this feeling of, “THERE GOES ANOTHER ONE…giving up on their dreams…giving up on their 100% commitment to their art…”

In the spirit of our commitment to our art, my husband and I moved to Europe, hoping to take advantage of the successes we’d had there.  We moved to Berlin in the autumn, bought bikes, took German classes.  But as it turns out, we were too old to start over that fully, especially on the social/community front…It got cold, our cat died, and we hadn’t made any real friends.  It had only been a few months since our big FAREWELL SHOW at the Jefferson Theater, and we were too proud to put our tails between our legs…”we’re back…?”

The music ladder was feeling pretty rickety.

So we moved to Austin, where we already had friends, and where those friends only charged us $500 to live in a tiny apartment in their backyard.

So much happened in Austin.  Our marriage stumbled momentarily. We got therapy.  Paul started suffering from this strange inflammation that continues to prevent him from playing or singing.  We got a dog.  And we made friends, we found a community.

In Austin, I had two kinds of musician friends:

1. The Obsessed Artist:  constantly making incredible art but no good at business

2. The Business-Owning Artist:  people whose work may or may not change the world but they work hard and make a good living.

And this, ladies & gentlemen, is where my deepest middle-of-the-night feelings of failure set in.  The ones I’ve been revisiting all week, leading up to tonight (but also because I have a 6-month-old baby who is flipping over and teething and and and…).

Watching Paul lose the use of his hands and his voice, and subsequently his identity as an artist, I started to re-examine my own identity.  As I’m sure a lot of you know, not always an easy task — as in, it’s scarier coming down the ladder than going up.

So, who am I??

1. I am not a TORTURED ARTIST.  I am not obsessed with making music.  I don’t stay up late at night doing it.  I don’t do it because I NEED to.  I don’t have a really close relationship with my guitar.  I don’t pick it up to relax.  And if I’m not in a mentor or teacher role, I’m terrified to “jam” or improvise with people.  Afraid they’ll discover that I’m actually not a very good guitar player, I’ve just memorized how my own songs go and made up things that SOUND like improvising to include in them.

2. I am not a GOOD BUSINESSPERSON.  And I don’t mean that in a sort of backhanded self-compliment.  This is actually a really really important skill — right now, especially.  And you CAN self-promote in a way that maintains some pretense of cool.  But no, even after years of doing it, I’m still terrible at it:  my to-do list consists of waking up in the middle of the night and writing myself emails with subject lines like “book the flight!”  or “get back to guy on Facebook” or “find anchor date on west coast????”  but then my inbox fills up with messages with myself, so they all get jumbled together, and my solution is to start using all caps in the subject line, “ADD GOLD STRING TO MUSIC PAGE”  “BRAINSTORM FOR MAKERS SERIES!!”

So i wake up, get coffee, and then basically get yelled at by my computer.

– digital horder (I won’t actually delete those emails, after I do the thing, because I like the idea of having a record of what I was doing in a certain month in a certain year

– terrible distractible and hyper multitasker… (One of my friends, upon seeing my 25 Chrome tabs: “Devon!!  Your computer is studying for a test it will never take!”)

So I’m not a true, everyday artist.  I’m not a moving-and-shaking businesswoman.  Who am I?

On BAD DAYS, I think, “It should have been ME who lost the ability to play music…I don’t even play that much…am I even a real musician??”  And not being the one who suffers from anxiety and depression, maybe I could have dealt with it a little better, really been able to move on to other things, totally extricate myself from this dream to see the top of the ladder.

On good days, though, I realized that I was lucky to be able to learn about IDENTITY SHEDDING without having it forced on me.  And slowly, I started exploring other interests I’d had but never let myself spend time on:  I acquired some hobbies!  I went on bird walks.  I took sign language classes.  I got certified as a birth doula.  Then I had a baby of my own.  Living in places like Austin, or now, back in Charlottesville, those things are about as cliche as you can get.

But for ME, letting go of my NEED TO BE AN ARTIST ABOVE ALL THINGS also meant letting go of CONSTANTLY STRIVING TO BE DIFFERENT, forcing uniqueness— it helped relieve some of the pressure of being an artist, and INSTEAD, allowed me to just be a human.  Which, in turn, made me feel less like a failure and more like a successful component of something larger.  I started clueing into these strands of connection and kindness between people — something that many of you also notice, I’m sure.  I don’t know if you have a name for it.  I call it the gold string.

And luckily, I have a lot more good days than bad days.  I have a beautiful community of friends, and I’m enjoying being a parent, although I’ve learned better (I hope) than to lose myself in that identity either.  I’m enjoying being a curious person, having a varied life, not just pouring myself into one thing and trying to be the best at it.

And the silver lining — or in this case, gold — is how that well-roundedness has come back and lit up my experience of my own music.