It’s possible you’ve considered an artsy career at some point. Whether that moment lasted 20 minutes or is still going, you’ll know that the arts industry is a high-risk business with more wannabes than success stories. Justin Heazlewood (aka The Bedroom Philosopher) is a successful comedy musician, but not in the glamorous, Hollywood way he’d hoped. After 10 years of scoring hits with his funny, irreverent ballads (you might remember Songs from the 86 Tram), he suddenly found himself broke and disillusioned. So he wrote a book, and called it Funemployed.
Funemployed is a searingly honest look at what it’s like to be an artist in Australia. Heazlewood starts with his childhood in Burnie, Tasmania and moves through his career, one stepping stone at a time and gathering advice from more than 100 other creatives along the way. In chapter one, Gotye recommends obsessively focusing on your craft over doing casual jobs, while John Safran believes the best way to start making movies is to not waste time writing pitches.
The book follows Heazlewood’s own career. He discusses fame, selling out and, ultimately, depression. The book is funny and sad in equal measures, but it’s the lack of ego that makes it fresh.
“I just wanted to blow up the facade,” says Heazlewood. “I wanted to be a literary terrorist dropping a truth bomb on what’s supposed to be a glamorous industry. I was hanging around in my Thornbury apartment, wondering what I was doing with my life. And I realised the best thing I could do was turn a disaster into art.”
For Heazlewood the disaster happened in 2012. He’d entered a difficult middle-career phase – his early Triple J days and his Hottest 100 hits behind him. (You might remember he was one of the first to lampoon hipsters with the hit Northcote (So Hungover) in 2010). He found he was working and trying harder than ever and taking increasingly audacious risks, one of which was a self-produced $26,000 musical. After paying wages and costs he was left around $20,000 out of pocket, with no manager, no income and according to him, “So much anger inside that it all but snapped my hope in two.”
“Writing it all down was obviously cathartic,” he says, “but I also had it in my mind that it could help others. I think being creative often isn’t a choice. It’s much closer to a belief system than a job, so you can’t just go and do something else. I wish I’d had something like this along the way. It might have offered some short cuts.”
So now, looking back at the journey, what has he learned? How much is talent and how much is just hard work? “Well, I don’t think either of those are enough,” he says. “I know really talented people are still struggling and it’s because they don’t embrace the business side. Pure talent isn’t enough. You need that plus hard work and a moon of luck orbiting in your favour.” According to him, the other trick is to work deliberately. When he started out he thought success looked like a non-descript mansion with gold awards on a shelf. He now knows that’s just a one-size-fits-all teenage dream, not concrete enough to describe achievement. “If I had to distil it all to a single idea, it’d be to check in with yourself. Revaluate your goals as you go, otherwise you end up working too hard for something that you’re unlikely to get.”
Heazlewood chuckles at the idea that this book was the ultimate goal he’d never had, but he happily admits he’d like to write another. “I’d like to do a series of erotic 3D cookbooks set in space, either that or the great, sad-child memoir. I haven’t decided yet. I might need to revaluate my goals when the book comes out.”
Funemployed is out this week.