Dreams Within Her Means: Alyssandra Nighswonger’s “Follow Me Along the Sea” Tour
I began writing this music blog at a time in my own music career- in between albums and right about to turn 30 years old- when I have felt myself changing, growing, and reassessing why I do what I do. My ulterior motive for writing was to get out of my head, my studio, and my everyday life to ask other musicians how they have gotten to where they are and how they have faced whatever struggles they have encountered. I wanted to learn from others further down the road in their careers than me. What I’ve discovered is I am not alone in my experiences- both the highs and lows.
Each of the musicians I have interviewed so far have affirmed how important it is to believe in and pursue your dream for your life’s work. Each expressed how in the beginning, many people questioned their visions for being crazy, unmarketable, or “just a hobby” rather than a career. Pursuing a dream, to quote Bono, can seem like “a mountain as you start out the climb.” But writing this blog has allowed me to learn, from many dreamers, that the long-term payoffs of pursuing your dream far outweigh the short-term “comforts” of staying safe and listening to the naysayers. I recently sat down with Long Beach-based chanteuse and visual artist Alyssandra Nighswonger who knows a thing or two about mountains and pursuing her dreams.
Nighswonger recently completed her month-long “Follow Me Along the Sea” bicycle music tour called down the Pacific Coast from Seattle to Long Beach. Along with several friends, she road her bike with her guitar in tow and played shows along the way. (View Alyssandra’s tour blog here.) Her inspiration for the tour, Nighswonger expressed, was to dream “within my means.” Nighswonger is quiet fire of a talent, with a sweet, almost vintage-style voice that is as at home on a CD as it would have been a victrola record. Her songs are uniquely sweet and delicate reflections on the nature of life and love, seen in her beautiful song “Time and Money”. Also a visual artist, Nighswonger paints her album covers in a symbolic and impressionistic style that fits her sound perfectly. She recently collaborated with visual artist Joshua Bassett to create a charming animated music for her song “Watch Out Nosferatu”.
Her music dances lightly to the ears, and her poignant lyrics find their way straight to the heart. Like her understated, yet deep songs themselves, Nighswonger doesn’t forcefully show off her talent, but rather sweetly sings her truth when her moments to sing arise. Yet, make no mistake, she makes those moments happen by sharing her music with others, who can’t help but take notice. Her easy-going attitude is a lovely reminder to me that true talent is like true love, it just is: it is steady and leaves its mark wherever it is genuinely shared.
Nighswonger’s bike tour is a beautifully clear example of how a dream can be realized if you break it down to doable steps to accomplish one by one. The tour itself became a metaphor for overcoming fears and pushing herself beyond what she ever dreamed she could do. Additionally, some of her feats inspired new songs for her next album like the rousing “Welcome to My Mountain,” which was inspired by getting up an incredibly steep hill in Tacoma, WA.
A poignant life lesson Nighswonger shared with me was inspired by when she got scared while riding down the many windy, steep hills in Oregon. She called her dad for advice and he told her “You can always get off your bike and walk.” Nighswonger said that lesson metaphorically meant so much more than that. When life gets overwhelming, too scary or fast-paced, we can always slow down and reassess our situation. Nighswonger mused that “everybody’s got their own hill to climb, whether it be on a bike or figuratively… We can learn from each other, but no one can ride your bike for you. You’ve got to peddle your own bike, however that needs to be done.”
Musically, Nighswonger likened continually challenging herself to improve her music to Sisyphus rolling a rock up a hill: “I am never going to get over it, because the hill keeps growing.” To Nighswonger, there’s always a way to push her music in new directions, new sound to try, new hills to climb. The best thing about this is that it means we get lots more Alyssandra Nighswonger albums.
One of the many meaningful life lessons Nighswonger’s experience reminded me of was how we all pursue our dreams our own ways, at our own pace. In LA, we can be bombarded with a particular Hollywood image of what success as a musician looks like, but the process of pursuing our dreams takes us through all sorts of unexpected personal challenges. During her bicycle tour, Nighswonger learned that “If you go over the biggest hill on the Pacific Coast, no one is going to say you didn’t do it fast enough or you did it too fast. You made it over.” The path- no matter how bumpy- truly is the goal and an awful lot of beautiful songs get written along the way.
How long was your tour?
I left on May 3rd and we returned on June 9.
Did you ride your bike from here or did you fly up to Seattle?
What we did was we took Southwest airlines to Seattle. With Southwest airlines you can take your bike as checked baggage for $50. What I had done was have a custom rack built on my bike for my guitar and I brought a 3/4 sized baby Taylor guitar. I even have a youtube video about how we carried everything.
Can you tell me more about the process of planning this tour?
The whole process was really interesting. I had this big idea but I am dreaming within my means. It was something I knew I could do. I know I can bike, I know I can play shows, I know I can books shows, I know I can throw a fundraiser show and get some money for it (the tour), I know I can get people to stay with and camp in other places where we don’t have people to stay with. It was a big broad idea but it all breaks down to stuff that is very doable. Something that was very important to me was having my friends with me because everybody had strengths in different areas and different ways of problem solving. One thing I didn’t expect was when you arrive someplace after riding for 6 hours, you’re in this sort of post-cycling haze and then you have to just chill out.
Did you find that you had to rest before you played your shows?
Well I tried to book some shows where I would arrive there one day and play the show the next day, but that didn’t work out sometimes. So, most of my shows I played the day that I got there. It’s funny how fast your body bounces back. If you have a minute to chill and get some food in your body, then playing a show isn’t so big a deal.
Did you play your shows alone or with other musicians?
It was just me. When I played in Portland, my friend Joshua Bassett who lives up there, he sang with me and I sang with his band. But all the other shows, it was just me solo.
I loved that you had your entourage though.
We met all kinds of people along the way. We met a couple who had traveled from Mexico on a tandem bicycle. They were voice actors from New York. They rode with us for a leg of the trip… and traveled with us for a couple days and came to one of my shows. We met this guy from Canada named Glen who had gone to Vancouver for a weekend trip, met some guys from Colorado who were traveling down the coast and he decided to keep going. What was supposed to be a weekend trip, he ended up coming all the way down to Long Beach. We all would sort of sling shot and sure enough you keep running into each other at camp grounds.
Can you talk about any of the challenges you encountered on your tour?
There are some challenges to it. We were really lucky, we had perfect weather the whole trip. We had two days of rain when we got to Seattle but weren’t actually riding and the day we started riding it was sunshine forward… Everyday was the most beautiful day of my life. Everyday I would start riding and it would just be that beautiful morning light and these rolling golden hills, or Washington farmland, or the Oregon cold rocky coast, or the redwood trees… and everyday it was like “this is your life Alyssandra, this is what’s happening.” It was just so inspiring, so beautiful. Even though I am on a bike and going through it slower, you’re just getting a teaser of the Pacific Coast. Everyday the landscape would change.
Did you always want to be a musician since you were little?
When I really little I was more into art and theatre and I was always creative. I didn’t start playing music until I was in later high school like my junior or senior year. I found my mom’s old guitar and I started to teach myself out of an easy Beatles guitar tablature book. But I was a late bloomer as a musician for sure.
Did you ever picture yourself doing this type of tour?
Oh no way… I have always had a big imagination and adventurous spirit, but I don’t know if I ever would have pictured myself on a music tour by bicycle down the coast. In high school I was never even athletic. When I was in high school I ended up not taking enough P.E. classes to graduate and in my senior year they were like “Alyssandra you need to take some P.E. classes” and I had to go to City College to take volleyball and dance classes to make sure I had enough credits to graduate. So I’ve never been a physical person at all. So it’s been really cool to get into cycling in the last few years and being out in the sunshine and moving your body. Giving yourself that time to be in your mind and body centers me. I’m all about it now.
Do you ever need to center yourself before performing?
Oh totally. I am a really nervous person sometimes but I feel really comfortable when i get on stage and hearing my voice through the speakers. There’s something that’s really comforting to me about that. But once I’m in the audience mingling with a bunch of people I get nervous.
Did cycling help you with any performance anxiety?
It helped in life anxiety. It more opened me up in areas where I had become callused or going through the motions. It made me a lot more emotional and in touch with myself. When you’re riding a bike for that long and doing something physical, you’re constantly paying attention to yourself. “Am I hungry? Do I have to poop? Do I need to stop? Do I need to rest? Can I really go another five miles? I have to go another 5 miles. Am I too cold? Do I have to take off a layer? Which way is the wind blowing?…” You’re in constant awareness with every element that’s around you and you have to adjust things within your means to make yourself comfortable within those elements. It’s exhausting to do for so long everyday. There were some parts that were really scary. Once we got off the Oregon Coast, there were a lot of really steep hills with twisty winding roads.
Were there any places you couldn’t bike and needed to walk?
No, actually it was funny. Our first day riding, we were riding from Seattle to Tacoma. Most of the ride was on the inner-urban bicycle trail which was really flat, easy-peasy… We were going to meet our friend that we were going to stay with at the bar she works at called “Top of Tacoma.” So we ride to the border of Tacoma and we see this giant hill, like a cartoon. This is not actually the way we are supposed to ride is it? We checked the map and checked the iPhone, and yep that’s the way we’re supposed to go. and there is this very flat road next to it and we have to go on the one that’s almost vertical. I had to walk my bike up half of this hill because I could not get enough momentum to keep going. All along the way there were little signs written on the pavement for bicyclists like “Welcome to my Mountain… If you curse it’ll only get worse.”(Alyssandra used this as inspiration for a new song titled the same name.) And we made it up and it turned out that “Top of Tacoma” was actually on top of Tacoma. It was so high up, it was ridiculous. My friend took my CD and put it in the jukebox at the bar there, so now I’ve left my mark.
It’s funny, you learn to read the signs, like another friend lived on “Hill Street.” (laughs) Once we got out to the Oregon Coast those were actual mountains and hills with 700, 1000, 2000 foot elevations. Climbing up those hills was really hard, especially if you had head wind or side wind. I would get up those hills and I would ride down. Riding around Southern California is pretty flat and there are a lot of bike paths with good shoulders to ride on. Some of those roads were really tight with lots of traffic and I ended up getting really scared. I ended up psyching myself out and having panic attacks. The first time I cried all the way down this mountain singing “So Long, Marriane” by Leonard Cohen to myself.
That’s not the happiest song to pick.
(laughs) I should have picked the Beach Boys, why did I pick Leonard Cohen?! It was just dramatic and I called my dad. He is just always wonderful and knows the right thing to say to me. He said “Just get off your bike and walk around for a minute and either walk your bike down the hill, reassess the situation, take some deep breaths and take it again. You can always just get off your bike and walk.” It means so much more than that. You can always get off the bike and reassess the situation. I feel like that’s so important to remember. It was one of the biggest lessons I had to learn again and again and again.
It’s all about knowing your limits but also knowing when to push yourself. You’re capable of a lot more than you think you are. That’s something I learned a lot from my friend Sarah on the trip. She had an incredible amount of will-power and endurance. She would get up at like 5 am and get all ready to tear at that road. There were times when she got physically stressed and totally exhausted and she would just keep going until she met that goal. She’s a really powerful woman. It was funny how we had the exact opposite mentality. When i got into a stressed out situation, I need to get off my bike an drake a breather. She was like, “I can take my breather when I get there and I just need to get there.” They both have their place.
It reminds me of Frodo and Sam.
Everything means something. What’s my big life lesson in this, everyday?! On the bike tour, we can learn from each other but no one can ride your bike for you. You’ve got to peddle your own bike, however that needs to be done. You know if you go over the biggest hill on the Pacific Coast, no one is going to say you didn’t do it fast enough or you did it too fast. You made it over. Everybody’s got their own hill to climb, whether it be on a bike or figuratively.
Did you ever feel like your music was a hill to climb, like a challenge for you?
Absolutely. I always feel like with my music I am trying to push myself out of my comfort zone a little bit more every year. This was one way to do it, to take it on a road on a bike. The music on this trip ended up being like my sanity. I didn’t book as many shows as I had hoped on the tour. There was one point where I went over a week without playing a show and I just felt like a mediocre cyclists. But again that’s all mind-games… I made it to the campsite every night. Getting to the campsite and getting on my guitar and practicing songs was so rewarding. It brought everybody’s spirits up. We would all sing “Space Oddity” together or a Beatles song. And then whatever song I was practicing that night, everybody would get stuck in their head the next day. We’d all sing while we were riding to each other, which was really fun. Towards the end of the trip we started rewriting songs to pertain to cycling. I re-wrote “Ghost Riders in the Sky” to be “Ghost Cyclists in the Sky.” Then in Big Sur we were going over some big hills and we were having a really good time, so we started re-writing “My Favorite Things” from the Sound of Music. Music was the light-hearted thing on the tour for sure.
But music is a constant mountain… Ok I made an album; how can I make a better one? Especially being in a community like we are in Long Beach, being around so many really talented, inspiring people. It’s like, “Oh my god, she sings so pretty, I need to go home and practice… or Andrea Walker rips at the guitar, I need learn some scales.” It’s really cool. It inspires me as well as puts me in my place. I always want to grow and get better. It’s like Sisyphus rolling a rock up a hill. I am never going to get over it, because the hill keeps growing.
Free Download of Alyssandra Nighswonger’s song “I’d Rather Be Lonely.”