Jetty Rae Rolls In
After three years crisscrossing North America in a tiny camper with her family, folk singer Jetty Rae might be settling down.
By Patrick Sullivan | June 1, 2019
For three years, folk singer Jetty Rae, her husband, Jason Stewart, their three children— Beck, Rowin, and Jude — and their pug, Otis, have logged tens of thousands of miles traveling the United States, Mexico, and Canada, while towing their home, a 1970 Airstream camper.
Rae said she and her family have gotten to know America.
“I feel like I have a pretty good idea of the lay of the land,” she said. “‘Oh, this state looks like that, this is over there, this is the kind of vibe in this area’ — it’s been really amazing. And to show our kids, too. We’ve done a ton of national parks, so they’ve learned a lot.”
In May, the clan pulled into a lot behind a relative’s business in Traverse City. Rae and Stewart decided that this time, they might not pull back out. They’re looking for a house, but debating where. Rae would like one in town; Stewart wants to be in the country.
Northern Express sat down with Rae at her family’s temporary campsite. Rae — whose dozen-plus-year singing/songwriting career has spanned from a Lilith Fair stage to Nashville recording studios to concerts across the country — reflected on making a career as a folk singer, life on the road, tiny living, and when it’s time to pull over and settle down.
Northern Express: Wow. This is great. What’s it been like living in this Airstream camper for the last three years?
Jetty Rae: The first two years, I would say, were really amazing, and it was definitely a very welcome change. We had a house in Charlevoix that we were just renting, but it was a pretty big house. It was a lot to keep up with, and we had seen the tiny house documentary on Netflix and just felt something stirring in our soul, so we decided that we are going to try this. I’d always loved the idea of Airstreams.
Express: That’s a big step. It would be hard for most people to decide they were going to live on the road indefinitely.
Rae: I was on the road a lot. I was doing college tours. And then I had my son, and it just got a lot harder to do what I loved, with kids coming into the picture and not having a space for them [as I traveled]. So, it was really kind of born out of a necessity of wanting to downsize, but also to have a house on wheels, wherever my music takes us.
Express: You needed your home to be mobile so you could take your family with you.
Rae: Yes. Exactly. Because that was the only option for me, to bring everybody with us. And I’m thankful that I’ve been able to do that because Jason has had remote work, so he’s been able to work from the road. He works in the music industry. He works for a licensing company.
Express: Let’s go back to the beginning. Tell me about setting out to become a folk musician.
Rae: Well, after high school, actually, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I’ve always loved music, but, honestly, if I could go back and tell myself where I am today, I never would have believed it, because that wasn’t on my radar, what I’m doing now.
Express: You didn’t foresee a future where you would be able to make a living playing music.
Rae: No. Uh-uh. I didn’t. I didn’t think that it was really possible because when I started in the indie scene, I went through the school of hard knocks with the music, not knowing exactly like, ‘Okay, this is the path.’ A lot of other jobs you can take, there’s a very clear path: You go to college for four years, you get a degree, and you’re sometimes guaranteed this kind of work. For what I do, it’s very much make-your-own-path. So, I had to be a trailblazer in my own way and find what worked for me. I always tell people I’m a blue-collar musician. I just started off with a very ‘work-hard’ ethic, taking any kind of gig that I could, doing my own booking …
Express: You’ve got to have guts in order to make it.
Rae: Yeah. Yeah. And just persistence. And the right doors opening up. And a lot of it does seem like, oh, it’s just luck, you happen to be at the right place at the right time. Or somebody happens to hear you. It’s just hard work and sticking with it.
Express: Where did you grow up?
Express: So even though you’re a nomad right now, with this trailer, you’re somehow rooted to northern Michigan, it seems.
Rae: Yeah. We always come back in the summers, because we can’t really imagine being anywhere else. All of our family is here. We’re kind of like in a weird transition where we’re like, “This space has been amazing, but for full-time living, I don’t think we’re going to continue on. We need to find a bigger space.”
Express: Your children are getting older. They’re going to start to need more space.
Rae: Even just a five-year-old boy in this space, him jumping, bouncing off the walls, it’s been amazing, but it’s like, it’s very clear: “OK, this has been great, we’re going to keep the trailer, obviously, and still travel, but it’s time for him to have his own room and stuff.” So, we’re trying to figure out our lives now and where we’re going to go and what we’re going to do. It’s either northern Michigan or Nashville. It’s hard, because I’m like a complete wuss when it comes to wintertime. I’ve spent like three winters away, and it’s amazing to come back in the summer. I know winter is good for art, because you get so depressed. [laughs] But it’s bad for life, because you get so depressed.
Express: Tell me what it’s like living as a family of five in a place that measures 147 square feet.
Rae: It’s difficult, I would say, to paint a very accurate picture.
Express: You are sacrificing your comfort for the ability to go where ever you want.
Rae: Yes. That’s true. The freedom is amazing. We’re in Traverse City so we can be looking at houses, and we’re like, ‘Oh, we can test it out and see if we like living here.’ That’s kind of cool. We can test out anywhere we want and just see — ‘Would we want to live here?’
Express: Have you lived in Traverse City before?
Rae: No, we haven’t. My husband is from Suttons Bay. We have family here. We’re always passing through Traverse City.
Express: What about your kids? What do they think of living in a camper?
Rae: They love it. Which is definitely a relief to me. It’s made all of us close. Especially working with my husband, and then us living in such close proximity. There is no other option but to be really close, otherwise you’re just going to go crazy, because you’re in such a small space.
Express: You don’t have much room to store toys here.
Rae: No. We don’t. So, when people ask us, grandparents or something, ‘We want to get them something,’we’ve had to say, like, ‘Hey, we love that you guys want to do that, but here are the things that they need, and that’s it. Otherwise we’re going to have to be getting rid of a lot of stuff.’
Express: Do the kids notice that they’re not getting as many toys?
Rae: I don’t think they’ve noticed that. I will say they are just like anybody else’s kids — when you go play with toys that aren’t your own, they’re more fun. When we go to people’s houses, they love it, it’s so amazing for them. But there are certain toys that are just mainstays for us, like Matchbox cars, and we have a rule: If something comes in, something else is going to have to go out. So, if Beck gets another Matchbox car, we need to go through and see if there are some that are broken, or one to donate. We donate a lot of stuff. One crazy thing is that we continue to purge. It’s the American way to amass stuff. I don’t know how we do it, but we do.
Express: Do you find purging satisfying?
Rae: I find it satisfying, but I also find it wasteful. I’m like, ‘Why did I buy this? Why do we have this extra stuff?’ It’s taken me three years to break some very bad habits, like a shopaholic’s habit. After three years,I am realizingI can do without so much.
Express: That’s a great lesson, but I don’t know how you learn that without putting yourself in the situation you’ve put yourself in.
Rae: Yeah, I mean, I don’t think I would have learned it any other way. And it’s crazy. It has changed me so much. I don’t buy shampoo. I don’t buy conditioner. I use Dr. Bronner’s for everything. That has simplified my life. Which is cool, because I don’t spend extra time in the shampoo aisle. Which is one of the reasons we did this, which was to spend more time together as a family, and less time doing things that really aren’t important in life. Like standing in the shampoo aisle, trying to figure out what to get.
Express: What have you learned about living in a tiny house that you would tell people who were considering trying to do it themselves?
Rae: You won’t miss your stuff. Which is really great. When you get rid of it, you seriously will not give it a second thought. I try to surround myself with things that are really important to me. That’s one of the things that’s really appealing about tiny living, which is that you don’t have a lot, but the things that you have are things that actually have sentimental, emotional value, instead of just stuff to fill a space, which is kind of how I was living before, because I had a big house, so what do you do? Well, you go to TJ Maxx, you go to Marshalls, you just buy a lot of random knick-knack crap that doesn’t mean anything, just so it looks good in your space. When you downsize, it feels really good to get rid of a lot of your stuff.
Express: So how do you decide what to buy and what not to buy?
Rae: You have to be super intentional about what you do buy, because it’s not necessarily, ‘Can you afford it?’ it’s, ‘Can you fit it?’ So it changes your whole process of being a consumer. You know, I don’t just thoughtlessly go out and buy something, because I always have to have a space for it.
Express: It seems like there is a value lesson in that.
Rea: Definitely. It’s not just buying stuff because you’re bored. You’re buying stuff because you really, really need it. It can be economical to live in a tiny space. I will say that when you’re moving a lot, then the costs go up, because you’re towing. You’re paying for camping sites. Everything. But that is one thing that I love about this lifestyle, being able to change the view from your window any day that you want.
Express: I imagine part of the calculation in deciding to look for a permanent home is that you’ve looked at the ages of your kids, and you’ve decided that homeschooling them on the road would add another layer of complication.
Rae: Yup, definitely, and not having the best space for it. You don’t need a ton of space, but … That was one thing that now that we’re looking, we’ve realized —we don’t need a lot to make us happy. After tiny living in a trailer, a long hot shower is luxury to me. It’s just really nice. There are certain things I will not take for granted any more. Like running water. We always have to conserve our tanks when we’re boondocking [camping off the grid]. We have running water, and we have a shower, but it’s going to run out.
Express: What do you imagine would be the ideal square footage for a house for you right now?
Rae: Probably like 1,000. We’ve really gotten into the whole shipping container home thing. We may end up building because it’s very hard to find something that’s low-maintenance. I think we’re probably moving in that direction because we’ve been looking for a couple of months.
Express: What impact do you think settling down will have on your career?
Rae: We won’t be doing as much traveling. We’ll be way more picky about where we go and when we go and for how long we go. I am excited about having a space that I can create in. It’s hard not to be able to close a door, pick up my guitar, and write something. It’s such a private process for me. It’s been a huge challenge for me. I have a ton of [Apple]Voice Memos. I’ll get my guitar down, and I’ll start writing, and sometimes and my kids will be here, because when inspiration strikes, you just have to take it. If you have an idea, strum it out. And I’ve got Voice Memos with the kids screaming in the background. So, I am excited about having a dedicated space to be creative in. I’ll probably be recording more.
Express: What do you think of the northern Michigan music scene?
Rae: Honestly, I think it’s really amazing. I don’t think I have a super good idea of what exactly is going on here right now. I have a few people that I’ve always kept up with, like The Accidentals, I know that they are always on tour. There’s a few people that I have always kept up with. Miriam Pico is really amazing. I don’t feel like I know a ton of musicians in this area, because I’m kind of like an outsider traveling through all of the time. So I’m excited to be able to check it out this summer and see what the scene is like.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.