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Ron Sexsmith performs at Toronto's Danforth Music Hall on March 29.Madeleine Maitland/Handout

When Luke Doucet was a young guitarist in Winnipeg, carrying his instrument around in public made him feel cool, proud and seven feet tall. After the pandemic-related live-music shutdown, he no longer feels that bravado. Chronically underemployed, his self-worth dipped.

“Where it used to be a badge of honour, now when I’m carrying a guitar case down the street I feel like I’m pushing a grocery cart full of empty beer bottles,” says Doucet, one-half of the Toronto roots-rock duo Whitehorse with his wife, Melissa McClelland. “The last two years have really done a number on my head, and I suspect a lot of us are feeling the same way.”

He’s right. According to statistics provided by the Unison Fund (a Canadian organization that offers counselling referrals and financial relief services to musicians and music workers), mental-health issues in the industry have surged dramatically. Crisis interventions since March, 2020, have more than doubled. Of the more than 600 calls the service has received, 85 were considered urgent, 911-level emergencies.

Melissa McClelland and Luke Doucet, of the duo Whitehorse.Handout

“People were very overwhelmed,” says Unison executive director Amanda Power. “There was an uncertainty as to what was happening in the world, and add to that the concert shutdown that resulted in an immediate loss of income.”

After multiple false starts, the live-music scene is now opening up again in earnest. It’s not as easy as jumping in vans and hitting the stages, though. Musicians were hit hard, not just in the wallet but existentially.

“It’s hard to know what and who we are right now,” Doucet says.

Founded in 2010 as the Unison Benevolent Fund, the nationwide program acts as a safety net for people often making a gig-to-gig living with no paid benefits. The fund provides mental-health support through LifeWorks, a human-resources service based in Toronto.

Unison relies on donations, including support from the philanthropic Slaight Family Foundation and the three major record labels in Canada: Warner Music Canada, Universal Music Canada and Sony Music Entertainment Canada. Last year, for the first time ever, Unison received a government grant – $2-million from Ontario, earmarked for the province’s musicians and music workers in crisis. Unison has disbursed more than $4-million over all since the pandemic began.

“It happened overnight,” Power says of the increased need for counselling and financial assistance. “And it’s been a roller coaster ever since, as the live-music industry opens and closes with each new wave.”

Doucet and the other musicians who spoke to The Globe and Mail for this article have not drawn on Unison’s services. However, they have faced career uncertainty and a questioned sense of purpose.

“It’s been upsetting,” says Juno-winning troubadour Ron Sexsmith. “Two years of working went out the window, but it was more than that. I felt useless.”

Sexsmith, based in Stratford, Ont., has dealt with the stress that is common among his peers. His wife recently built a backyard labyrinth, a source of relaxation for him. “I find walking through it every day, sometimes twice a day, really helps,” he says.

Two years off the road, Sexsmith recently resumed touring. He had gained weight over the past two years and was apprehensive about his appearance on stage. “You don’t look as good as you want to,” the melodic songwriter says. “You feel like you’re letting your audience down.”

At his tour opening show at Dublin’s Liberty Hall Theatre, Sexsmith was nervous but quickly put at ease by the crowd’s warm reaction. “I felt I was receiving a hero’s welcome,” he says. “But I didn’t do anything heroic, except to sit on an airplane getting there.”

After continued concert postponements, not all musicians are heading right back into the grind. Doucet, also a guitarist in Sarah McLachlan’s band, is unsure.

“I see concert dates on our calendar, but I don’t trust it,” Doucet says. “It just doesn’t feel real yet.”

Robin Dann leads the jazz experimental ensemble Bernice.Colin Medley/Handout

For Robin Dann, who leads the jazzy experimental ensemble Bernice, the time off enforced by the COVID-19 lockdowns gave her time to reflect on her identity as a musician.

“I don’t feel this panic to just jump back in,” the Toronto singer-composer says. “I feel like I’m on the outside of things, and gladly so.”

Dann is considering going back to school to study music therapy. She says musician friends of hers are considering careers in everything from law to medicine to computer coding.

“I do see big shifts in people’s lives,” Dann says. “We’re asking ourselves, ‘Who am I if I can’t practise music?’ I mean, we have other interests.”

Then again, it doesn’t have to be an either-or consideration according to Dann.

“It will be interesting to see if when we go back to performing whether we forgot about our other ideas for study or for career changes. Who knows – maybe we’ll just have bigger lives that incorporate both music and those new paths.”

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