Being an artist the hardest thing, but most fun

HE'S released three albums, had more than 500,000 YouTube views, and - as of last month - penned two books. And while he's "not quite famous", Burnie comedian Justin Heazlewood takes comfort in at least being a share-household name.

The 34-year-old Bedroom Philosopher, renowned for hipster-bashing tune Northcote (So Hungover), has spent the past two years writing about life as an artist.

The result is Funemployed - a tome which explores the dark corners of the arts, from starting out to giving up; running a business to burning out; the trappings of fame to the advantages of failure; the obstacles and opportunities.

Funemployed includes interviews with more than 100 artists including Gotye (Wally De Backer), Clare Bowditch, John Safran, Tony Martin, Amanda Palmer, Christos Tsiolkas, Tim Rogers, Adam Elliot and Benjamin Law.

Heazlewood spoke with The Sunday Examiner's ALEX DRUCE this week about life as a creator.

Hey Justin. Where are you writing these answers from? Home? Cafe? Workstation? Can you describe it to me?

I just moved into my own unit in Thornbury. It's a swinging bachelor pad meets two-star hotel. It overlooks a park. It's like a real-life screen saver where people are just drifting by.

It's one of the quietest streets in Melbourne, which I'm extremely grateful for. The older I get the more sensitive I am to the many noises of the world.

Leaf blowers are a statement of all that is wrong with modern society. They only move the problem on.

So Funemployed has just been released. Can you talk to me about its origins? I read somewhere that the idea could be traced back to 2010?

In 2012 I was down and out. I was thousands of dollars in debt from an overly ambitious Melbourne Comedy Festival campaign.

I was bitter and burnt out and hadn't been enjoying live performance for a couple of years. I was suffering social media anxiety and felt resentfully self-conscious on trams.

I was having coffee with Martin Hughes from Affirm, the one publisher who had taken particular interest in my self-published book, The Bedroom Philosopher Diaries, when he said, 'So . . . do you have any ideas for another book'?

Grey-faced and slouched, I replied, 'Someone should write about what it's like to be an artist in Australia'.

And there you go. As I say in the introduction, I needed to do an emotional audit and travel back in time via writing and deduce at what stage I let the business of my art ruin the pleasure of creating it.

I unleashed my black box recorder, with jokes. I spent a few months working on it full-time, and soon got into a 9 to 5 rhythm. I read everything I could and interviewed as many people as possible.

My first two drafts were ripped to shreds (damn cat) and also by my editor ('Why am I reading this'?) - so that was a big learning curve.

I was happy to listen to my editor's advice as I'd never written a book like this one before. I nailed it (and myself) on the third draft by warming up the tone and being a bit less cynical and abrasive.

There's nothing like sitting in a small room with your editor while the publisher says, 'I know the author is in the room, but how would you describe their voice - would you say they are likeable'?

And you were also gigging a lot at the same time you were writing? Have you recovered from the creative process?

I'm learning about the dangers of stress. Stress damages the body in profound ways. I was stressed because I was trying to write a book and perform and make station IDs for ABC2 while being my own manager and being thousands of dollars in debt.

I lost eight kilograms and for nine months have suffered from a chronic stomach condition, which means I can't digest food properly. It's not fun. I'm still in recovery. The problem with my life (and many full-time artists') lives is that I can't afford a holiday, so I can't stop working.

(For the record, I'm not on the Dole anymore, I earn enough to support myself - I also pay taxes).

What were the most important lessons you learnt while creating Funemployed?

I'm not alone. I have to take care of my own backyard - ie - my own business - rather than worrying so much about what everyone else is doing.

To survive you have to be smart about your finances and astute with your time management.

Don't pay off the first credit card with a second one. Manage your expectations - know what it is you want to achieve. I can't tell you any more unless you buy the book.

My paywall just kicked in. (It has a cliffhanger ending - who will save me?)

You interviewed-collaborated with some pretty cool people during this project, including Amanda Palmer, Tim Rogers and Ben Law. Who gave you the most surprising content?

Tim Rogers said most of his busy schedule is to keep himself occupied and stave off depression. That was refreshingly honest.

Clare Bowditch revealed that she lost $20,000 on a tour after taking a full band around Australia. That was comforting. She ended up interviewing me. It was like a counselling session.

She's an earth mother. Adam Elliot reminded me that an Oscar doesn't have any cash prize. He makes more from talking about movies than the movies themselves, which is how this industry works.

What advice would you give to aspiring Tasmanian artists? Has Funemployed changed the advice you would have previously given?

Travel. Anywhere. Get life experience. Work on your art at least 20 hours a week, especially in the first few years. Choose it and commit to it and it will reward you.

I think it's good to stay in your local scene and build up a name and experience and make work, and Launnie and Hobart have healthy, supportive scenes - but after a couple of years if you're serious about it you're going to have to leave the state.

Tasmanian musician Charles Du Cane, who I interviewed for the book, says he wished he'd moved to Melbourne sooner.

It's nothing personal against Tasmania - it's business. You have to go where the industry is. It's not for everyone.

It's really important that you work out your goals and expectations. What is it you actually want to achieve?

You can't achieve success if you don't know what that is in the first place. "To be rich and famous" is too vague - break it down. Perhaps it's to release an EP and tour it up the east coast and get a review in street press.

Perhaps it's to rock out at the Wynyard show.

 You were in Hobart in July for the Funemployed tour. How has the book-EP been received here in Tassie? Good feedback?

Small but appreciative crowds who bought books. I had a loyal following of middle-aged women who work in mental health appreciating my chapter on depression. I think artists are the most suitable ambassadors for mental illness. They spin shit into gold.

I was at MONA reading out a chapter on fame and how it's ruined my life while asking small children not to play table tennis in the room I was sharing. How do you think that went down?

I had to win them back by playing Craig McLachlan's Mona.

What do your family think of Funemployed?

Mum likes it. She's learning a lot about the industry that I couldn't explain to her over the phone. Friends are only reading their bits and wishing they had more bits in it.

What about the next few months-year? What's on the agenda? Any plans to gig in Burnie or Launceston?

A I'm writing a childhood memoir - I'll see you in three years.

At end of the post Life Story - 2013 on your website, you write that "I have a feeling next year will be better. Lighter. More fun"? Has that been the case?

I just broke up with the love of my life, so - no. I got a job with Radio National making a series based on Funemployed, which will air in November, so - yes. I can't complain, but by God I will. The moral of the story is being an artist is the hardest thing you'll ever do and the most fun you'll ever have. It's totally worth it. (Convenient, considering I am not fit for any other occupation.)

Justin Heazlewood's Funemployment (Affirm Press, $24.99) is available at good bookstores.


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