Everyday Icon: Rachel Demy, Music & Portrait Photographer

This Seattle-based photographer has spent years on the road, shooting (and coordinating) tours for bands like The National, Death Cab for Cutie and St. Vincent. Below, she shares the "secret" to her success, tips for getting along with wide-ranging personalities and how she prioritizes her personal needs while traveling.
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There's a strong chance Rachel Demy has captured close-up portraits of your favorite band or musician, whether you're preferential to The Shins or The Postal Service. Though she's based in Clementine's home city of Seattle, Rachel has spent years traveling around the world to document intimate moments, meaningful memories and powerfully honest portrayals of the artists we know and love, all while coordinating complex concert logistics. We sat down with this creative force to discuss her work, favorite globetrotting stories and the keys to her success, but she shared much more wisdom than we could have asked for, including her refreshing take on self-care negotiations, personal confidence and staying grounded. 

In our experience, the phrase "when you put your mind to it" was created for you. You have a unique and inspiring creative path, and it feels like you have manifested every step. Can you tell us a bit about how you got started in the music industry?

I grew up just outside Portland, Oregon and began going to shows as a teenager. I started interning for a local promoter at 18, then got a job doing box office for him in college. After I graduated, I was connected with a booking agent who had just moved from New York. I spent more than a year assisting him in booking tours, while booking bands of my own. I had a few offers at that point to go on tour, and when I realized I wasn't happy sitting behind a desk, I decided to hit the road. My first tour was with an artist we booked at the time, Richard Swift, who is still a very dear friend of mine. A few months after, another dear friend, Nadin Brendel, helped me get a job doing merch for Broken Social Scene. The tours just started rolling in after that.

And while I'm really flattered by the compliment of self-sufficiency and determination, I often don't identify as such because I've had so much help along the way. In many ways, I, too, love the myth of the self-made person. It's the stuff of the American Dream. But I believe this story creates a prescriptive expectation — that this is how it should be — that we should strive to do everything on our own and if we don't (or can't), we are less than or incomplete. I think it's important to say I would never have gotten my start in the music industry if not for the people who helped me by taking a chance on a young, barely experienced woman. My work ethic and my love of the job are components to my success but not the entirety. I credit the rest to my support network.

You have worn many hats and worked with a lot of different people, which means a lot of varied personalities. What is the key to being cohesive in environments that transition every three, six or nine months?

It's not always easy, but I think the most salient tip I can offer is to draw clear boundaries between your shit and other people's shit. More eloquently, it's easier to keep a cool head and deal with a lot of different personalities in a changing environment when you don't take things too personally. It's stressful out on the road, and people deal with stress differently — they retreat, they howl at the moon, they sleep, they drink, whatever. We're a team out there, but it's also every man and woman for themselves. 

I used to have a real problem with spreading myself too thin, trying to minimize everyone's pain and not making time to tend to my own needs. A few years in, I had this big epiphany. Simply, it's the universal truth of acceptance that there are things beyond my control. It's just hard out there. It's never not going to be hard out there. We are all grown adults. I'll do my best to make sure there is food, a clean shower and that the show runs smoothly. Beyond that, we all have to tend to our own needs because relegating that to someone else takes away one's power in any situation.

Now that I think about it, this is probably good advice for any relationship, romantic, familial or otherwise.

What is your favorite part of being on tour? What did you find most challenging?

My favorite part of being on tour is the camaraderie. When you have an amazing crew and band and everyone gets along, man, you can do ANYTHING. I look back on a lot of the more insane tours I've done and I wonder how we ever pulled them off. Flying from Europe to Australia to Tokyo to San Francisco, doing four shows in nine days? I think the only thing keeping me alive through that was the support of my team. Being able to commiserate and celebrate the highs and lows together. Being able to laugh at the absurd and our limitations as humans. And maybe a few milligrams of Valium. It's hard to say for sure...

The most challenging part of tour for me is being forced to make choices between necessary biological needs due to lack of time or space. Like, if I have 30 minutes, do I eat or do I shower? Do I sleep or do I go for a run? Do I take some quiet time or call someone back home? In my every day life at home, I don't have to make these choices. I get to do all the things. I once heard you can only make so many decisions in a day and on tour, mine are all small negotiations in how best to take care of myself in that moment. It's exhausting! Maintaining balance and getting into a routine is hard out there.

You have traveled the globe. Do you have a favorite place or specific location? Is there somewhere you think everyone should try to see in their lifetime, if possible?

My favorite places are the places I've been to many times. Traveling as frequently (and quickly) as I do, I have managed to carve out little pieces of home everywhere. My love of certain places has everything to do with finding that little coffee shop or bar or quiet place where I am able to take respite from the stress of my job. I probably have at least one in every major American and European city. One of my happy places is Torvhallerne in Copenhagen — a food market I visit multiple times a year. Another is the pool bar at the Memmo Alfama in Lisbon. I've had dreams about the Reedsee in the Austrian alps, a glacial lake above Bad Gastein, where I ran/hiked by myself because I was dealing with anxiety and needed to prove to myself that I was, in fact, going to be okay. Would I recommend that everyone go to these places? Yes! Would I expect you to love them as much as I do? Maybe not.

There are a lot of good corners of the world and they might not all resonate with you. You create your own meaning in places and it's not always at the Louvre or the Great Wall or the places people tell you are historically important. The places that become a part of you are the ones you are open to when you're there, the ones that surprise you, the ones that help you see yourself within a greater context. I've been in so many amazing places where I haven't cared to go see anything because the only place I wanted to be in that moment was home. It's difficult to be graceful with myself when I feel that way. I recognize I am incredibly fortunate to have seen so much of the world and be paid to do so. But home gives me the perspective and energy I need to be out in the world and if I never see home, all the places begin to look like a sad excuse for where I really need to be.

That said, everyone should go to Mexico City. It's large and beautiful and terrifying and exhilarating. There is definitely magic in those mountains.

In addition to managing the minutiae of various aspects of major tours, you are also a talented photographer. How did photography become integrated into your work and career? What has it brought to your life?

I've been taking photographs since I was a kid and I always had my camera at shows when I was a teenager. When I started touring, I hadn't done THAT much traveling so it seemed like a good excuse to bring my camera — to remember things I have never seen. The more tours I did and the more insane my schedule became, photography became synonymous with wearing a wristwatch or writing on a calendar. It became a creative tool for me to simply remember where I was, what day it was, who I was with. After a while, places, especially venues, begin to look the same so I started looking for quieter, smaller moments, all the stuff that people might overlook in the loud, busy nature of what we do. It was the very minutiae I was managing that made me a better photographer.

Many people I know say that taking photographs takes them out of the moment but it's quite the opposite for me. Photography has made me so aware, so engaged; it has put me so far inside the moment that I come out fearing I've cheapened the experience by trying to capture something impossible or unknowable. But sometimes I do get the thing I'm looking for and those photographs make all the pain and the trepidation worth it. For a moment, I feel truly at peace. I feel happy. I feel capable. And then more moments happen and I'm back trying to wrestle with those.

We know you as a strong, dynamic renaissance woman. It feels there are few things you cannot do. Were you always this confident? And, if not, can you name an experience or time that was instrumental in building your sense of self?

Ha! I'm not sure I would call myself confident most of the time. I mean, I'm not really intimidated by people so it's not hard for me to walk into a room and start talking to someone. I suppose that's a kind of confidence. Touring has given me a different kind of confidence boost over the last 10 years. Successfully pulling off the logistics involved in getting people from one city or country to another for a few weeks or months at a time makes me feel capable in ways no other job or hobby has. 

A lot of my so-called "renaissance woman" skills were cultivated by taking leaps of faith, quitting jobs I hated with no plan, to begin working for myself. I was reckless at times but it was also total self-preservation. For reasons I can't explain, I would always rather be broke than let my creativity die a slow death working a job I hate. Don't get me wrong: I was not rich growing up. This way of existing got me into paralyzing debt in my 20's, which I've only just now recovered from and do not recommend to anyone. Despite being surrounded by successful people who took the conventional corporate route, I've never really believed in job security. I don't feel secure with someone else telling me what I'm worth and doling that out in 2-week increments. It's probably not rational but it feels true for me. I enjoy moving on my own timeline, pursuing my own ideas at a pace that makes sense for me. I can't really do it any other way at this point. I'm a full-time employer's nightmare and a contract employer's dream.

Transitioning to being home more, identifying more as a photographer than a roadie, has shaken my confidence. There's a lot more time to question who I am when I'm not moving constantly. I'd say a little too much time. Honestly, 33 was a tough year emotionally, psychologically and physically, but I also know this work is necessary. If I don't do it now, I'll have to reckon with this "who am I now? who do I want to be?" stuff later. I'm grateful to have the time and resources to do this at 34. I wrestle daily with feeling grateful that I'm relatively young to be doing this work, while often thinking I'm too old to be questioning the things I thought I'd answered when I was 24. And in the social media age, it is way too easy to compare who you think you are to who everyone else appears to be. It's not a very healthy lens! I've had so many days where I have to say, "Rachel, put your phone down and go outside. Just walk away."

How do you stay centered and grounded?

I discovered running about nine years ago and as I've gotten more serious about it these last five years, I've grown tremendously. I think the relationship between the mind and body is endlessly fascinating, as they both push each other and prove each other wrong constantly. Anytime I've imposed a mental limit on myself, my body has shown me that I can always move past that limit. Anytime my brain has gotten overly confident, my body reminds me that I'm a finite human being. It's a healthy balance but it's also maddening. I ran a 25K in January of 2015 and after I finished I was convinced I'd never be able to do a 50K. Eight months later, I ran a 50K. Two months after that, paralyzed by chronic fatigue, I could barely run five miles without wanting to go fetal. It's a rollercoaster. Being present in that physical discomfort keeps me from spinning out of orbit and reminds me that I'm lucky to have a body that allows me to run. Not everyone can. It's a privilege.

Do you have any personal mottos or mantras that help with the process?

Show up, be honest and do the work. Trying to avoid the work doesn't make it go away. Overthinking it or feeling guilty just wastes time and energy. Mincing words or lying about how you feel forces those around you to go through an exhausting translation process. Speak honestly, with compassion and be prepared for someone to feel differently than you. Deal with things while they're in front of you, whether it be a to-do list or a problem with a friend. Ask questions. Give honest answers. You might not have another opportunity or the energy to get to it later and neglect, no matter how benign, can be very corrosive. These mantras are not always easy for me but they get reinforced every single time I ignore them. They beat me over the head nearly every day.

What are five everyday items you cannot live without?

Ah! Finally an easy question.

1. My Leica M240.

2. Uncle Harry’s Herbal Coconut Oil.

3. My Moleskine yearly planner. I use iCal as well, but writing down my plans/duties for the week makes me feel grounded.

4. Eggs fried in ghee.

5. A good white t-shirt.

p.s. Have you met this skincare maven with her own inspiring personal story?