Dancing with Fear

 

October – 2015 

In one week I’ll be somewhere in America, standing on a stage in front of hundreds of strangers telling them the kinds of secrets I’m supposed to keep close to my chest, held within tight fists or locked behind a cage of rib bones.

I remember delivering talks to my class in school. I’d be talking about the diet of humpback whales or the population of Africa and I would be shaking like a leaf. Talking so quickly it all would become just one nervous, incomprehensible sound. I’m not a natural. Each day I question if I’m insane for saying yes to this job – but of course I said yes. I said yes because life is richer when I face my fears.

I Skype my father in London, who has built his career on being a storyteller. He tells me the story of the time he was pulled onto the stage at the Opera House and gave a spontaneous speech to a quarter of a million people. “Were you nervous?” I ask. He just laughs. I was not born with his unshakable confidence.

One week and all I have is a knot in my stomach and a mess of notes. A great big block of stone that I’m supposed to carve something inspiring from. Not only that, I also have hundreds of images to finish from the tour I just returned from. Bee promises he’ll help and he does. He takes the whole week off work to help me.

Each long night of working becomes morning before my eyes. A few hours after I’ve curled up in bed Bee wakes with Alba. He makes her breakfast, gets her ready for the day and plays with her until I’m awake. Each day he cleans, cooks and listens to my talk over and over. He is my hero and I love him, I love him, I love him.

I pause often to join them. To play monsters or read stories or paint. Before Bee came along I didn’t play imaginary so much, now I play every day. One day I’m a lost princess, the next I’m a hungry lion. Alba is usually some variation of a magic rainbow glitter unicorn with superpowers. Bee is everything and anything and I suspect he enjoys playtime the most of all.

After fifty hours of travel I am finally in North Carolina. I’m supposed to be taken to the convention where I’ll speak and teach, but there is a hurricane travelling this way and no one can get me. Weather warnings play over the radio on the shuttle ride to the airport hotel.

A clean empty hotel room. It always thrills me. My little yellow suitcase parked by the door. Long showers with soft towels. Clean, crisp white linen. How luxurious a bed feels after sleeping like a pretzel in an airplane seat or on the cold floors of foreign airports. With such stillness I’d never guess there was a hurricane at all.

There is a twelve hour time difference but I don’t have time to adjust. In a few days I will be travelling all the way home again.

The drive is spectacular. Hours pass through lush forests, vines that swallow entire trees, wooden cabins set into mountains. Landscapes lifted out of fairytales. As an Australian child I romanticised American culture. I devoured it in films and in books and now I find myself swallowed up by it.

The creative convention is hosted at a retreat on a mountain. The air is cold and wet, like I could drink it. I wear the coat I bought in NYC as a sixteen year old who’d never known winter. I also wear a sign around my neck. It reads speaker. People stare at me. They are probably thinking I’m a lot more impressive than I really am.

When I’m alone I listen to the recording I made of my talk. It’s an hour long. I watch the other speakers and they are all so confident and effortless, like they’ve been doing this all their lives. But not me, I feel like I’m just pretending and someone is going to catch me out soon. Maybe when I get up there I’ll be so terrible that people will leave. Maybe my throat will seize up and I won’t be able to speak.

Beneath all my worries and nerves there is an underlying sense of peace. I know that whatever happens on that stage I will come out of it alive, having not let my fears dictate my life. That is my kind of success.

Something profound happens to me here. As I listen to the other speakers share their passions, I feeling like I’m reconnecting with the parts of me who began creating in the first place. I came here expected to inspire and I am surprised at how inspired I feel. I’m asking myself again and again, what sets me on fire? What will I do with the time that is mine? From age thirteen it was photography, now that is just one of the many ways I tell stories.

I spend a lot of time daydreaming. One of my dreams is myself on a stage (just a little one, perhaps at a bookstore or a market) wearing a white dress and velvet flares, cradling an old guitar and singing songs I have written. Maybe people stop to listen, maybe they don’t. But I am there, bare and unafraid. Another dream is passing a bookstore and seeing a book I have written in the window.

I teach a workshop on shooting portraits and there is some confusion over how little equipment I use and how the sun is my only lighting. As a teenager I started shooting with so little, simplicity has become my way. It’s less about what you use and more about how you see.

Then it’s time to speak and there is no way to stop time, no way to back out; this is it now Nirrimi. As an introvert, I feel really heavy. Like I’m carrying the weight of a million eyes on me as I walk onto the stage. Every hour of sleep I’ve missed seems to be rushing up to catch me.

I clutch my notebook, notes scribbled like a map so I won’t lose my way. My life as a story. The abuse, the loss, the passion, the growth. The lessons I have learned about being an artist. Everyone promised me once I was up there it would be easy. It is never easy. I struggle and want to stop many times but I keep on going.

Even though I stumble, the stories and honesty are enough. Countless people thank me. They wrap their arms around me. They whisper into my ear that my stories changed them. They cry. They look at me like they love me. Like in an hour of vulnerability I’ve become someone dear to them. As the convention ends, Brooke Shaden, goddess and founder of Promoting Passion, cuts her long hair off on stage in an act of letting go.

Then, a glow. Within it I call Bee and talk to him for the first time since I left. I call Alba. Tears tumble down my cheeks. Everything feels big and bright and beautiful. I’ve done it. I can breathe out. I can go home to my family now.

Our friends Nicole and Jack come to live with us a while. We all get on like mad. We take turns cooking dinner each night, share riddles, watch documentaries and go on roadtrips. One afternoon I get up so quickly that my head spins. I fall back against our big, soft bed in a rush of bliss and when my reality settles I am still grinning. That night Bee bakes Jack a birthday cake and we all sing happy birthday out of key. Alba shouts “Hip hip!” and we shout, “Hooray!”

One night we go the beach. It’s only a five minute drive from our house and the waves are wild, crashing loud onto the moonlit sand. It’s too loud to think out here, that’s one of the reasons I like the sea so much. Nicole sits in Jack’s lap and kisses him like they’re teenagers. They’ve been dating eight years now but you’d never know. “Let’s always be crazy in love.” Bee says. “Let’s make out even when we’re really old.” I say.

Bee & I start hosting creative adventures on Sundays. We spend the first at the top of a waterfall. Fifteen of us sinking into the cool little pools formed by rock; sharing picnic food, taking photos and playing music. We watch the sun melt into the distant sea as the world beneath lights up with streetlights. We talk and talk until we can no longer ignore the cold wind or the mosquitos biting our toes. How sweet it feels to be able to do this, to create a community.

The house is quiet when Jack & Nicole leave. It’s just our little family again. Before I know it, it is time to board another plane to another country to give another talk. Only this time I’m not so afraid.

Puzzles

September – 2015 

I’m talking to Alba’s Papa. The intense relationship we used to have now feels like a dream I’ve almost forgotten. I’m telling him about my longing for home. For family, for the Queensland sun, for tropical fruit, for rainforests. “Let’s do it,” he says excitedly.

I call across to Bee, who is playing with Alba. “Do you want to move to the Sunshine Coast next year?” I shout. He shrugs and grins, “Why not!”

I am so happy in the knowledge that we’re moving to the place I always longed to raise my children. Days pass by so sweetly. I feel like a good Mama, a good lover, a good artist. The future spills over with light. One of those rare times where everything feels almost just like I dreamt it would.

The more I experience in life, the more I begin to see signs. The moon is full when I’m filled to the brim, a friend calls just as I’m thinking about them, I get a gig just when I’m worrying how I’ll make ends meet.

I’ve found myself becoming superstitious after years of being a skeptic of anything I couldn’t prove. But what is the point, even if it isn’t scientifically true, of taking the magic out of life? I’m returning to the way I used to think as a child.

It seems to me that as tragic as my move to this city felt when it happened, it was meant to happen to meet Bee. To me, his very existence proves my kind of magic exists.

I’m going on my last photo tour for a long time. We fly to Melbourne and rent a little car. We drive under grey skies and heavy rain. Ready for the madness. We stay at the same house where my year began, a spectacular mansion in Fitzroy where we watch the water running down the window panes. Crossed fingers. Rain, rain go away.

I realise that this entire trip is a puzzle for Bee to put together piece by piece. As he puts it together my stories will have colour and detail they never had before. They will tangle with his own stories with the characters and places from mine.

Somewhere between our first shoots we’re driving to a location we’ve just discovered is closed for the day, the weather is terrible and Bee is panicking. I may be playing up my hopelessness for dramatic effect. “This is mad!” He says, “is this what touring is always like for you?!”

I shoot in the forest surrounding the closed gardens and the portraits are beautiful, light softened by menacing clouds and only a little rain. On the drive back Bee says, “you know what you’re doing, huh.” And I give him a look to say, I’ve been playing this game for ten years now.

I’ve organised vegetarian picnics in every city we’re passing. The first is on a friend’s balcony, sheltered from the rain. On the ride some of my friends are in the back of our car giggling and I’m fretting that no one will come. I am wrong.

The balcony is lit by countless candles and fairy lights, there are people stretched out on couches and cushions and there is a table covered in delicious homemade food. I fall into some kind of vegan brownie high. It’s 1am before we’re home, alarms set for a sunrise shoot, sharing gratefuls like every single night.

It’s a ten hour drive to Sydney. Perhaps it would seem intimidating to drive it in a day but after having a toddler it seems like a piece of cake on our own. While Bee drives I sit in the back and work on the talk and workshop I am giving next month in the US. I stop often because it makes me feel carsick but I can’t stop, I have so much to do and it feels like time is slipping through my fingers like water. I’m not ready.

I stop on a street corner in Manly, Sydney. “This is where I spoke to you on the phone and you asked me about a hundred questions about my childhood, remember?” I stop in the middle of a supermarket, “This is where you called me on your big road trip and I accidentally bought millet instead of rice because I was so distracted.” Piece by piece.

We have a shoot in the Blue Mountains. There’s a moment where I’m not shooting, where I’m watching Bee put my lens back into my camera bag and I am struck down with gratitude. He didn’t have to come on this tour with me; to drive ridiculous hours, spend his free time doing my selects and running around after me on every shoot. But he does without a single shade of complaint or expectation. It is who he is.

On the drive back I point out the train I used to catch when I was pregnant and the fruit market where I’d shop with Alba & her Papa. That’s another thing I’m grateful for. While I can’t bear to hear about his past romances, he loves my love stories.

I have my next picnic in a Newtown Park. A little city of rugs and yummy food and laughing people. Bee whispers to me, “You looks so lovely Nirrimi Joy, honestly. If I didn’t know you I’d be flirting with you like crazy right now.”

Laura joins us and I’m so glad to have her fiery self making us laugh from the backseat. We all drive to Wollongong to visit my family. From their house on the hill we watch the sky change from colours to stars. “This is where I spoke to you every night, just after we’d met.” It feels so long ago now.

There’s a big fire and we all tell stories into the night. Laura tells us the story of her cousin who was kidnapped and murdered, whose murderer joined the search party when she was declared missing. My skin crawls. Nicky tells us the story of her little brother’s tenth birthday party, where he drove his mother’s car with his friends and crashed it. Their mother was passed out drunk and Nicky had to explain to furious parents why their children were injured. Bee tells us stories of his travels. I drink up all the tales; collecting them like I used to collect shells.

11 hours to Byron Bay. It’s past midnight when we arrive. Another sunrise shoot. Breakfast at a cafe by the beach. A text from Nicky that says she loves Bee and the way his eyes light up when he talks about Alba. Such joy. Bookstores. Another whole day driving to Brisbane, binging on podcasts.

We have dinner with my grandparents and all the time I can see how nervous Bee is. All those silly questions like what do you do and what did you study, but his goodness shines through the stream of formalities.

In the Sunshine Coast we sleep in the truck I used to call home. On the bed is a basket full of more chocolate than I can possibly eat and a belated birthday card from Georgia and Laura. We spend the morning with our toes dipped in an icy creek. The kids hang off Bee and when it’s time to leave Theo cries for him all the way home.

Little things go wrong sometimes – for one thing we’re constantly getting lost – but mostly life is too full and busy and easy to be sad.

I am sitting in a motel pool at Golden Beach with my cousins swimming around me. I run my fingers through their hair as they cuddle up to me. Sommer looks just like I used to. Will I ever feel like the grown up I’m supposed to be? Or a mother? I miss my girl. Bee does too. When we speak to her on the phone we savour everything she says.

In Brisbane we have the best pizza of our lives. We wander down an alleyway and get so swept up in a bustling night market we nearly miss our flight. Next year this place will be a little roadtrip away, what a wonderful thought.

As the plane touches down in my hometown the pilot announces passionately over the loudspeaker, “The Cowboys won!” And a moment later the plane is in uproar, people yelping and applauding. It’s like the very plane is shaking. “Welcome to Townsville,” I tell Bee, as he stares at me in disbelief.

In the taxi we pass my public high school. I tell stories of the days I walked these streets late at night with a gang of other kids, looking for fights or playing spin the bottle in the dim light of somebody’s garage. We pass the shopping centre where I’d walk aimlessly with boyfriends or eat McDonalds with my best friend each Thursday night. Worlds away.

At my mum’s house my little brother leads me through the hallway and shows me a baby sleeping in my sister’s bed. “I’ve had a baby since I saw you last,” he tells me, stone-faced. “You have not,” I say, “where’s the mother?”

“I’m a single dad, she couldn’t handle it.” I’m asking my sister and my mum where the mother is and they just shake their heads, trying to keep straight faces. The baby stirs and as Zake soothes her just like a father would he tells me it’s his housemate’s baby, she’s a young single mum and he spends a lot of time looking after her baby.

The loving way he holds her makes me proud. Just years ago he was little more than a ghost, without the slightest hint of empathy for another human. I’d walk into his bedroom and try to speak to him and it was like I didn’t exist. For years we lived in the same house and I didn’t even know him. I don’t think he knew himself. But that’s a story for another time.

And so, that’s how we ended up with an unrelated baby on our family holiday to Magnetic Island. Sun shining, ocean calling. Surrounded by my nearest family and my love. My sister played her guitar and sung on the beach and I pretended not to pay attention to how beautiful she sounded. We challenged my mum to bananagrams and lost devastatingly every time. I forget all deadlines and expectations and I’m simply there.

On the flight home I look over at Bee fast asleep, he is so familiar to me now. I realise how profoundly my idea of love has changed since he came into my life. I long to go back in time and tell my young self that love doesn’t need to suffocate. I long to go back to tell my mother and my aunts they deserve more. I long to tell every woman in every painful relationship that it doesn’t need to hurt. That love can be good and they deserve good love that nourishes them, not poisons them. We all do.


Coming Home

August – 2015 

I’m back on Australian soil. Bee has come to the airport to get me and he sees me before I do. His arms wrap tight around me and I’m so surprised that I accidentally hit an old lady in the side and I’m apologising to her while he’s trying not to laugh and I’m thinking that this is the moment I’ve imagined for so long and of course it happens like this. Of course.

Six weeks apart and here he is. Tall and grinning and real. All those letters and the longing and the endless thoughts and this is it. He picks up a big box and hands it to me. It is filled with gifts, each wrapped carefully, tied with string.

I unwrap them as he drives. Among them is a polaroid camera and a little purple key. “That’s your key to the house,” he tells me. Purple is my favourite colour.

We stop by his house to pick up some things. Before I left for America I’d put up a hundred post-it notes with the things I loved about him on his wall. He’s added a hundred more with things he loves about me. I sit on his bed and I read them. I’m floating but what I really want is to sink deep down into this moment. Maybe I’m jetlagged.

We drive to mine. This is where I’ll be living and I’ve never seen it before now. It’s so much nicer than I imagined. There’s a big bathtub in my bathroom that is perfect for Alba. He walks me through the house until we get to the door that leads to the garage. “There’s one more thing I want to show you.” He opens the door and there in front of me is a new shiny purple bicycle with a wicker basket.

In bed we find our places again in the shapes of one another. I wake at sunrise overflowing with unbridled happiness, the potential of life exploding just like it did when I was a child. I wake Bee and cry with joy into his shoulder as he kisses me over and over. I’m not floating any more, I’m here, feet in the earth.

We go to Fremantle to get Alba. Every single time there’s an element of shock in how beautiful she is. How sweet her voice sounds. How whole it feels to have her back. She’s a real living person and she’s running into my arms, to me, to her mama.

We all play at a park together. There’s a moment where Alba asks her papa to push Bee on the swing and the image looks so absurd to me it makes me laugh out loud. Sometimes I think of myself years ago and I wonder what I’d make of my life now.

We buy Alba a little wooden camera and she spends the entire afternoon running around town taking pictures of flowers, of strangers, of graffiti. Not only does she have two parents who are photographers, but now a step-dad too. No wonder that camera looks at home in her hands. Bee asks me seriously, “How soon can I give Alba her own film camera?” And I’m laughing.

For a few days being home and being part of my little family again is perfect. Sunlight filtering through the trees as Bee and Alba play on the grass, baths lit by candles, all of us cosy on the couch watching films – that kind of perfect.

But then the lows come. And though I expected them after the transition of touring to parenthood, they take my breath away. It’s impossible to fully comprehend how dark the shadows are when you’re standing in the light.

The hopelessness rushes in and over every thought. Little things grow big. I spill hot tea down my hand and all of a sudden my tears are spilling too and there is Bee, steady as ever. I hold onto him tightly, like he is a rock and I’m desperate to not be pulled away by my torrents of emotions. Sometimes I hurt the people I love when I’m like this but if I’m ever looking for some kind of negative reaction from him to fuel my mood, nothing but love ever comes.

His Mother tells me, “I see you as fire and Bee as water.” And I wonder if she knows just how right she is.

I grow tired of feeling so much. Maybe it seems poetic in retrospect but in the moment it’s just ugly and exhausting. So much frustration lies in the senselessness of my sadness.

But luckily, as effortlessly as rain clearing, the darkness lifts. Suddenly life is full of promise again and the shadows feel so far away. How easy it is to forget they were ever there.

What has happened to my easy, happy little baby? I was unprepared for the tumult of toddlerhood. I’m in the middle of a hard phase and it’s breaking me. Mostly it breaks my heart because I know she is feeling so much and there’s little I can do but be there for her.

I had so many ideas of who I’d be as a mama. I would always be strong, calm and gentle. Full of energy to play all day long. Who is this girl raising her voice, bursting into tears and putting on a disney film just for some peace? Imperfect through and through, but loving, always.

“All I want is for her to be happy,” I cry to Bee when Alba is finally asleep. There is comfort in having someone to share all of this with. Before it was just me and the rough patches were brutal. When Bee reassures me I’m a good Mama, Alba is okay and this will pass, I believe him.

And it does pass, just like my own did. She is back to her affectionate, bubbly and happy self. God it feels good.

She’ll be okay. And I’ll be okay too. This life thing is quite a whirlwind and I’m just glad we’re there to hold each other’s hands through it all.

I’m turning twenty-three tomorrow. I have a little party, just a few of my friends and my failed bubble tea cocktails that end up poured down the sink. By 9pm it’s just Bee & I. I’m not feeling so good about this whole birthday thing.

At times life and love is as cinematic and romantic as I want it to be, but mostly it’s just moment after moment. I so wanted this birthday to be more than a moment.

The next morning I’m just wishing this day would just pass. Bee asks me to pack a bag for the night. I spend most of the three hour drive looking out the car window thinking about how old I’m getting and how I should have done more by now. What a joy I am to be around sometimes, I’m ridiculous.

We arrive in the middle of nowhere. Bee takes my hand and leads me through a valley. I’m still uselessly fighting to stay sad, but out here that fight doesn’t last long.

There are hundreds of big white lilies growing all around us. The petals are so smooth they look like they belong to another planet. We walk until the dirt turns red and the earth becomes rock and the tree cover becomes bright blue sky. Bee helps me down to a cliff edge where we have a picnic.

“Feeling better?” Bee asks. I’m smiling, I can’t help myself. Below I can see the shore and the sea. We trek down to the sand and we stand in icy tidal pools and kiss. In that kiss there is only our love. The sun disappears into the sea.

We eat dinner in Margaret River and as we’re both sitting there in the stillness that comes from being truly comfortable with someone, I have to admit it is all panning out quite wonderfully.

Bee tells me we’re sleeping in sleeping bags in the forest and I am up for anything, really. We drive in the darkness for an hour before stopping. I open my door and find myself beside a sweet little cottage in the woods. “So I lied… we’re not really staying on a forest floor tonight.”

Bee lights the fireplace, we share chocolate and peppermint tea and play games until late. We can watch the stars from our bed and we make love and laugh and talk for hours. With the heaviest eyelids of all I whisper, “This was the best birthday ever.” And Bee replies, “There’s still more to come Nirrimi Joy.” Of course there is.

The next morning we are descending from the glaring light of the sun into the pitch black of a deep cave. The railings are wet and cold beneath my fingers and the deeper I go the more I am overcome with an emotion I’ve never felt before. I have to stop and breathe. The stillness is piercing and the blackness is absolute.

I feel such a powerful connection to my indigenous ancestors and to this Earth. I feel in my body where I have come from and the generations before me. How different this country was not so long ago. How deep the history hurts when I let it.

We crouch beneath a low wall of stalagmites and go deeper into the black. We turn off our torches until there is only the sound of water dripping and our slow breathing. I am twenty-three and I am still afraid of the dark. I wonder if there are Bunyips (Aboriginal dreamtime monsters) in this cave until I can’t bear it anymore and turn on my light.

On our way out the light is falling in sheets, like entire galaxies are contained in those beams. I wave my hand through them and watch the particles dance around me. When I climb out of the dark cave after hours it is like seeing colour for the first time.

We drive to a place called Sugarloaf Rock. I lay back against a smooth flat rock and watch transfixed as rocks as tall as houses are engulfed by violent waves. Sugarloaf looks like a mountain rising from the sea. I could watch for hours, but the sun sets in all of it’s glorious colours and it is time to make the journey home.

I write until it is so late it’s almost early and then climb into my bed with Bee, whispering “I love you,” to which he replies softly in his sleep, “I love you, Nirrimi Joy.”

First Aid Kit

{watch me in high definition}

Last July I went on tour with my favourite band across America. Above is a montage of our adventures,
& below is the photo series I captured on the road. This is the story. The beauty in all the little moments.

Minutes before the first show of the American tour.
Johanna & her little brother sinking into a motel pool in the heat of the Deep South.
Signing endless autographs.
A little girl recognises the sisters on the street.
Klara getting ready for a show under fairylight-strung trees in Austin, Texas.
Johanna fills a bath with fruit loops and milk.
A little studio set up outside the Artist’s Lounge at a festival in Birmingham, Alabama.
Klara sleeping in after we spent the night drinking in a dive bar and singing karaoke.
Little feathers stuck to the wall in a festival trailer.
The sisters dancing and playing around backstage.
Embracing green after the grey of so many cities.
Crossing a river outside the Wolf Trap Theatre.
Johanna’s Mama helping her with her dress.
Pre-Show ritual.
Post-show buzz.
Johanna watching unfamiliar places pass through the tour bus window.
Festival crowds like colourful seas of people.
Klara writes lyrics on her hand so she won’t forget them at the Newport Folk Festival.
Playing in a water fountain in Columbus, Ohio.
Home.
Sound-check.
Headlining in Detroit, singing along with the crowd.
Exploring another city.
The girl’s Mama & Papa, sometimes the family joins their tour.
The stillness that sets in just before walking on stage.
Matching tattoos. Johanna, Klara, Mama.
Playing for the CBS morning show.
Our little capsule beds on the bus.
Magic in the pre-show madness.
Playing the summer stage in Central Park.
Getting lost in New York City.
Catching the subway on our way to the biggest camera store I’ve ever seen.
Johanna at sound check.
Klara at soundcheck.
The dressing room in Detroit.
The fans that wait all night to meet the girls.
Klara looking out of another hotel window at another glittering city.
Riding in buggies around Lollapalooza, Chicago.
Sisterhood.

Waking in New Cities

How can I ever tell you the story of the time I toured with my favourite band across America with all the joy and beautiful madness it contained?

It’s the night before I leave to go on tour with First Aid Kit. It’s just me now and I am curling up cold in my lover’s empty bed, as I have many times before. He’s on a mountain somewhere in Tasmania. I speak to him on the phone beneath the covers and moan about how early I have to wake to catch my flight. He laughs and says, “Well I would love to wake you up.”

So he does. In the freezing cold 4am darkness he drives into town just to call me. Just to say, “Good morning Nirrimi Joy, I love you.” While I mumble some sleepy silly thing that reminds him of what it’s like to wake up beside me.

And with that little token of love the adventure begins.

It will take two days of travel to get to Austin, Texas. Walking through the airport with my backpack makes me feel like me again. My mind is full of what’s to come. It’s like I’ve fallen away from reality and into a story.

I’m walking through the streets of Austin with Antonio, dipping in and out of the sounds of live music playing at the bars we pass. I’ve known his work for years but never met him. He’s in town to watch First Aid Kit play. Funny how paths cross over like that.

I didn’t know a thing about this city before today but I’m quickly falling for it. I get a burrito from a row of food trucks. We find a candlelit bar behind a bookcase with great big red leather couches. Antonio introduces me to whiskey sours. I’m back in a place where strangers actually talk to one another and it feels good.

I get back to the hostel late and notice Bee is online. The little messages after days of travelling feel so big. Tomorrow it all begins and I should sleep but of course I don’t, love is a drug. Then the sun is rising and I’m feeling that sick and panicky feeling I get when I’m overtired.

I get to the venue as Klara and Johanna are doing soundcheck. They are real and I am here. Klara catches my eye and grins. I go backstage and meet their mama and brother but everything is a haze and I can’t keep my eyes open so I nap.

That night I try to photograph them playing but I realise it’s not what I need to capture. I need to capture the things others don’t see. The connection of sisterhood, what happens off stage and life on the road.

A fan of mine called Eleanor has come from hours away and bought a ticket to tonight’s show to meet me. We find a quiet place to talk. Her eyes are wide and she’s nervous. I hug her like she’s my little sister and she thanks me over and over for meeting her but really I want to thank her because she (and everyone like her) makes all the work I put into sharing worth it.

When everything is packed up we head to the tour bus. It’s huge inside. There are three rooms and in the middle room are our beds, all squeezed on top of each other like little capsules. Mine is one on the very bottom. This is home for the next three weeks and it’s perfect.

We make our way through the deep south. We stop in Jackson, Louisiana where the heat burns my feet. The water in the motel pool is like a bath. Everything feels so big and spread out here. So different to back home. Like even the sun shines different.

Klara and I go to the cinema. We come in late and walk through the darkness hoping we don’t stumble into anyone. When the film ends and the lights come on we see with absolute glee that the entire cinema is empty besides us. We run through the aisles like kids.

We go out for meals together; the sisters, their family and I. They speak Swedish a bit and I don’t mind so much but it seems to highlight the way I don’t belong here. Like I’m just an extra in a film, not really a part of the story but there anyway.

The girls are playing at a festival in Birmingham. Wherever we go I wear a band around my wrist that reads ‘artist.’ It’s my ticket to everywhere but I’m not really playing. I’m just a small girl with a camera who no one knows. I feel like the crew don’t understand why I’m here.

I’ve never felt this way. On commercial and fashion shoots my job is to lead and my vision is important. But here I am shooting photojournalism and as a photographer, my place in the heirachy of the music world is much different to the fashion world.

I have to be a ghost here. To step into the shadows or to step on toes to get the images I need. Often people will talk to the girls but never meet my eye. The camera around my neck is a cloak of invisibility.

But when I’m just with the girls things are different. We’re equals. Eventually I begin to find comfort in the invisibility and the lack of pressure. Grateful for the way I can wander around a festival unseen where they would be swarmed by fans.

Apart from the silent battle with my ego, life feels so good here. In the loud moments it’s exciting and fascinating and in the quiet moments I dream of coming home to Alba and Bee. I daydream about everyday life beside them. Going grocery shopping, running baths for Alba, baking, late night conversations, park trips and being home. These mundane things excite me like nothing else.

They play Forecastle Festival. I wander through crowds melting under the sun until I’m near the front. I watch the girls play up on the big stage and Johanna sees me and grins. I grin back. The girl beside me screams over the music to her friend, “Oh my god, oh my god, Johanna just smiled at me, did you see that?!” And while they’re freaking out I’m giggling.

We’re at the hotel lobby drinking cocktails and Christian (from The Tallest Man on Earth) is asking Klara & I how we met. Klara tells him she followed my blog for five years before she invited me to a show. She says when I replied it was a big deal. I might feel small sometimes here, but I know to Klara I’m not.

We go to a dive bar with the band. It’s rough and drinks are cheap, it’s perfect. Klara is singing along to the songs she’s chosen on the jukebox and says we should go to a karaoke bar after this.

When she steps onto stage I look around at everyone. No one is really watching and I’m smiling because I know in a second they will be. Klara belts out Adele and the room gets loud as everyone cheers.

But then I have to follow her up and my cheeks are burning and I’m wondering what kind of insane person does karaoke with the lead singer of their favourite band anyway? But actually it’s just Klara and she’d love me regardless. So I get up there and sing a love song I used to sing as a teenager. When I finish she tells me, “Nirrimi! You need to sing!” and I take it to heart.

We go to another bar and when boys come up to us while we’re dancing we pretend we’re engaged to each other. We get back to our hotel room at 4am and when we’re in bed and the lights are off I tell Klara I love her and I mean it.

It’s midnight in Columbus and we’re hungry. We walk through a big park with old streetlights talking about how we’ve hurt the people we love. We bring home lucky charms and almond milk and eat cereal in our hotel bed watching American talkshows. I write in my journal, “I am so fucking happy. Every single day. I can’t even remember what it’s like to be sad. I want to bottle up this joy to keep forever.”

They play a show in a big theatre in the forest. The air smells so good I want to run out into the trees and soak it all in. I watch from the very front and centre. My hair is messy and I’m wearing the same clothes as yesterday but it doesn’t matter. There are hundreds of people behind me and yet it feels like it’s only us.

I’m growing used to life on the road. I’m home in the feeling of the bus moving at night, accustomed to the rhythm of packing and unpacking my backpack. The back of the bus feels like my writing space and I write with a blanket draped around me until late. I write blog posts, short stories and a script for a -short film- my friend is directing.

I’m a part of the Söderberg family now. I call their parents mama and papa and I kiss their little brother on the head as though he’s my little brother. I’m not an extra any longer, now I’ve found my place in this story.

We’re staying in a tiny motel in Salem, Virginia when Johanna tells us she wants to take photos in a bath full of fruit loops. It’s so silly and slimy that we all end up laughing and in that rainbow mess of a moment I almost never want to go.

In Floyd the girls are doing a radio interview. They’re asked about the times they played for Patti Smith, Paul Simon and Emmylou Harris. They act like it’s not much of anything, they always do. Their feet seem so firmly planted on the earth they are knee deep in the dirt.

One minute we’re telling bad jokes in Southern accents and acting out goofy scenes and the next the girls are playing in front of so many people it’s hard to tell where they end. Like ordinary girls playing the parts of superstars and dreaming of home.

Things aren’t always good. Johanna loses her voice, some equipment breaks, the girls argue, things go wrong. When I’m telling someone about Alba I find myself in tears in the middle of a sentence. But life is moving too fast to get caught up in negativity.

We fall asleep in one city and wake up in another.

I’m in Camden, New Jersey. I can see Philadelphia’s skyline across the river. Nylon magazine are interviewing the girls. “What’s the wildest thing that’s happened so far on this tour?” they ask. Klara looks to me smirking and says, “Nirrimi, what’s the craziest thing that’s happened?”
We both know we have no hedonistic tales of hotel destruction or drug-fuelled rockstar parties. “One night we had lucky charms for dinner!” I laugh.

When I sit at the table in the festival dressing room my arm gets caught in my camera strap and it falls to the ground. The sound it makes as it hits the tiles makes me sick. My lens is smashed just months after getting it fixed and it’s the only lens I have with me. I cry at the table. A child holding a broken toy.

I think this means it’s over. I don’t have the money to fix it or buy another. I put a post on instagram about it. Within half an hour a girl going to tomorrow’s festival in Newport offers me her lens and another photographer offers me lenses to use from NYC to Chicago. I can breathe. My online community caught me again and I love them.

The Newport Folk Festival is all kinds of wonderful. I watch the girls play from high up where I can see the grounds covered in people like a multicoloured ocean, and then beyond I see water with dozens of little white boats. The image is so poignant to me that I’m desperate to not take it for granted.

Later Klara plays a Bob Dylan cover with Hozier. When I watch her on the big screen I feel so proud. I know this girl now. I saw her write the lyrics across her palm so she wouldn’t forget them, I felt her nervous energy before she stepped on stage. This girl is goofy and loving and always thinks of others before she thinks of herself. There she is in front of thousands and she’s killing it.

At dusk I walk alone down to the river and watch the city lights reflect like bokeh in the water. Life stops for me for a moment so I can catch my breath. I begin another letter to Bee in my head. Later in the tour bus I will switch international roaming on, even though I know it will cost me a fortune, and I will sew together all the pieces of my day and my love into a letter. Just like every night.

We’re driving around New York City in a van and I’m recognising the streets I walked at sixteen and feeling so many worlds away from that me. Maybe in a few years time I’ll be back and feeling distant from this me too. I seem to grow and change so fast. The girls play for CBS morning TV and I come along to the studios with them.

Klara tells me she wants to buy a camera so we take the subway to the biggest camera store I’ve ever seen. There are tracks on the roof where packages are being moved to different counters like little trains. My sentences all run into each other in excitement and we decide on a Canon 7D.

It’s the hottest day of the year and they’re playing a show in Central Park. Catering has great big pizzas that remind me of late night New York City adventures as a teenager. At the after party there are people everywhere, even Meryl Streep is here. I’m swept up again in this feeling of not belonging to this world, I know it’s stupid but I can’t help it. I’m worrying too that I’m not getting the images I need.

Klara senses that I’m down and says, “I’m bored. Let’s go back to the hotel.” We drop off our things and walk the city streets in search of a psychic, but since it’s too late we settle for having pretend lesbian feuds in the street instead. We’re yelling and crying until the urge to laugh is too much that we can’t keep our characters up. New York feels like the only place we can get away with this madness.

In Detroit the air is so hot and so thick I feel like I can barely breathe when I’m walking down the streets. The buildings are mostly boarded up but there is a charm here that I wish I could know. One of the harder parts of touring is we hardly get to know the cities we’re in. Sometimes we’re not even sure what city we are in.

This is the second last show. That realisation makes it hard for me to watch them play at all. But I shrug off the sadness and I go down into the thick of the audience. It’s sweaty and loud and absolutely brilliant. First Aid Kit are headlining. It’s different watching from down here, the energy of all the people dancing and singing around me is contagious.

Johanna is so magical up on stage, all her tenderness and wonder translates into her presence. She throws her long blonde hair into the air as she dances. Klara is full of power. I put down my camera and record it all to memory. This show is my favourite of the entire tour.

Hours later we’re sitting backstage and we look out the window and see all the fans waiting on the street, guitars and records waiting to be signed. “Someone has a ‘marry me Klara’ sign and a tee shirt with your face on it, Klara!” I say in mock-horror.

I stand outside our bus with the two other band members, Scott and Mel. Fans get photographs and autographs from the girls and I watch their faces lit by the endless flashes of cameras. They’re always in the shadows and perhaps that doesn’t bother them, but it makes me feel a great tenderness towards them. It’s maybe 3am when we finally leave.

We’re at Lollapalooza in Chicago. We are driven around the festival in buggies through crowds and crazy little lanes going so fast we’re all clinging onto the sides. Chicago is beautiful. I’m walking in the city with Klara and someone mistakes me for Johanna and it seems so absurd and funny we play along.

When the girls play the last show I am here for, I dance with their mama at the side of the stage. Even after so many shows I’m not tired of hearing them play. I don’t think I could ever be.

Lucidity grips me as it does when chapters finish. The sky is deep blue and buzzing with dragonflies. The city skyline is outlined in bright lights. Klara and Johanna keep giving me these looks and I know they’re feeling the finality like I am. Johanna tells me she misses me already and I wish she wouldn’t because it reminds me that I miss her already. Their mama says, “I feel like I have four children now.”

We watch Paul McCartney play and sing along to ‘Hey Jude’ with the tens of thousands of people spilled out over the lawns. I find a bare spot on the grass and sit, writing letters to these people I’ve come to love. Fire shoots up and lights the stage and then fireworks; a navy sky painted in purples and pinks and yellow shooting stars. The first time I watch it through my camera but the second time I’m there. The sight burned into my memory forever.

When I’m back in the bus I realise this is it. It’s all over. I’m caught between Klara and Johanna and they’re not letting go of me. “Touring won’t be the same without you,” they say. Their mama opens the door and when she sees me she begins to cry. Isak asks me to stay. This is one of the hardest goodbyes of my life.

I jump down from the bus. It’s a movement I’ve grown so used to now. As I walk away Klara and Johanna come out and they yell to me. Things like I love you and I miss you. They’re waving and shouting and I keep looking back to these two girls who feel like my sisters amidst a convoy of tour buses. Then they are gone and I’m left with just the silence of myself and the soundscape of Chicago.

The moment I get into my hotel room I drop my backpack to the floor and all my walls fall down too. It is like I’m living the last three weeks all at once. I am laughing hysterically, shouting, crying, jumping on the bed. I can’t believe it, I can’t believe any of it. Their love still hangs onto me like they never let go. I thought I was sad when I left but now I feel so much closer to Alba and Bee and I am happy. So happy.

I look out the plane window and the sky is bright with stars. They are like little holes poked in the black fabric of the world. It reminds me that I am small. I am just a tiny speck and out there down below are two other tiny specks who wait for me and love me. The greatest little specks I’ve ever known. And I’ll land and be wrapped back up in them all over again. I’m coming home.

 

(These are outtakes from the tour. Full photo series & film coming next.)