What It's Like to Sing Lullabies to Sleepy People for a Living
Professional luller Ariana Lenarsky's new podcast, 'Dream City,' deals with her former career.
I struggle with sleep. Ever since I was a little kid, making noise during preschool nap-time, I just had no interest in drifting off. In college, I started to realize that even when I desperately needed sleep, I just couldn’t turn off, and my life spiraled out of control. I have a better grip on it today, but that doesn’t mean I’m not always eyeing quick-fixes to see if they will help. Just last night, I took a shot of an anti-energy drink called “Dream Water” that I ordered online. I never even looked at the ingredients because, if it works, I don’t want to know at what cost. That’s how much I need sleep.
What I had never considered was hiring a professional lullabye singer to come into my bedroom, tuck me in, ask me about my day, and then sing to me until I fell asleep. I never considered it, because it sounds like borderline sex work and certainly this couldn’t be a real thing?
It is. It’s called lulling, and I’m suddenly very concerned that I need it in my life.
Ariana Lenarsky, a staple performer of the L.A. comedy scene since 2011, has worked this job for a couple of years. Today she launches a new podcast called Dream City, where she explores the stories and themes of her experiences in this line of work. She sat down with me last night (not by the side of my bed) to answer all of my questions about the traveling musicians aiming to become your personal Mr. Sandman.
Tell me about your musical upbringing.
My mother played the flute professionally. My father was an amateur baritone saxophone player. My brother plays piano and can sing clear as a bell. I was given a guitar for Chanukah when I was 15. My parents divorced bitterly when I was quite young. Everyone in the family screamed at each other, but on the bright side, everyone also had a deep appreciation for music, and a very nice singing voice. Music always seemed to be the one thing we could all broker peace on.
What came next, that led to this?
Dream City I’ve been thinking about for maybe a year and a half, following my real short stint as a lullabyist. I grew up in Los Angeles and went to school in Burbank, where “blue collar” means you’re a key grip for a sitcom. Jay Leno was a regular appearance at my elementary school, gleaning from innocent children for laughs. Everyone who grows up in the suburbs of Hollywood understands the mechanics of magic at a very young age, and can also quickly determine what a weirdo wants from them. You also just accept what feels like “real” magic, where moments feel very charged and everything feels like a movie and you can’t believe this incredible thing is happening to you. There is a lot of real wonder to be had. I want Dream City to be reverent to the kind of real wonder L.A. can afford, but also tell the story of a confused woman who knows better than to get caught up in the crazy dreams all these non-L.A. transplants have, but can’t help but be sideswiped by her own delusions too. Like the delusion that getting paid to sing people to sleep will be a good and healthy idea.
Who influenced your style?
Joni Mitchell, vocally. I think Joanna Newsom is a perfect musician. John Lurie. I majored in classical voice in college, where I learned a lot of strange, sad French and German melodies. I think Death and Grief personified also are a big influence. Is that fine? I think about them sitting in my bedroom a lot.
So … lullabies. Tell me all about this line of work and tell me how you even found it?
I was deeply unemployed, like living in my stepmother’s laundry room unemployed. One day I picked up a guitar at a friend’s house while he lay next to me on the couch and started humming and singing while he napped. Afterwards, he said, “I would honestly pay you to sing me to sleep like that every night.” That’s when the lightbulb went off. I could start my own business.
What was your first gig like?
Beyond awkward, even though I knew the person. It was way later than I had envisioned. For some reason I had thought I would be arriving at dusk. No, Ariana, adults fall asleep around 11 p.m., at the earliest. So I was exhausted, and it was late, it was intense, intimate, emotionally exhausting. It’s emotionally exhausting to perform a show anyway, so I don’t know why I thought guiding someone else’s emotional energy into unconsciousness would be an emotional walk in the park. Of course it’s not. And I’m not a chill person. I was overwhelmed. But it was, at many points, very nice. I sang him old lullabies, and I sang him a song I had written just for him, and about 15 minutes into the set, he rolled over in this nice way in bed where I knew he was getting comfortable because he was falling asleep. I felt triumphant in that moment. But I was so nervous I forgot my purse after I left. So I had to go back and get my purse. From the house of the person I was supposed to have sung to sleep.
What was the best gig?
Actually, my favorite was creating a lullaby for someone who was out of town and sending it to them and knowing they would listen to it on the road. That’s what would have been a more sustainable idea, creating lullabies at home, safely in my room, not out in the world doing a very intense intimate thing.
What was the weirdest experience?
The weirdest experience was the first moment I would walk into my client’s bedroom, because only then did it finally occur to me that I was walking into someone’s bedroom to perform a service. I felt exactly like a sex worker, which was not what I signed up for, even though if I had thought about it clearly, of course I should have known that’s exactly what I was signing up for, but I was in total denial that it would feel so intimate. That one moment was when I felt the most like, “What the fuck am I doing?”
You mentioned this seemed like a lifestyle choice for someone who is very lonely. Do you think this gig made you lonelier?
It made me feel even lonelier, yes. I loved asking people about their day, and hearing about their worries and fears and happy moments, but I felt strangely abandoned to be entering this peaceful state with my client and not be able to share my own feelings or fall asleep in bed with them. It was a one-way street, which, again, I set it up to be this way, so I don’t know why I was surprised or hurt by it. I realized what I was doing was therapy, and that I was absolutely not a therapist. It just became so blatantly obvious that I was such a surrogate for an actual girlfriend or friend or mother, and that maybe I was even trying to have this arranged intimacy for myself, so that I wouldn’t have to handle the actual mechanics of a relationship, and could just walk out at the end of the night with a little money in my pocket.
You’ve met me. Should I try professional lulling?
Yes. There is no greater comfort than a 6’7” man standing over your bed staring down at you as you fall asleep.
Why did you leave?
The profession?! It was too weird. Too weird. But I kept thinking about it. And then I thought, well, maybe I can continue to explore it as a story. That seems safe. Still weird, but not emotionally troubling.
What’s the aim of this podcast?
I don’t even know if I would call it a podcast, the format harkens back to maybe like an old radio show. I feel like the hook of this show is:
“What do you do for a living?”
“I’m a professional lullabyist. I sing people to sleep for a living.”
“Is that some kind of sex thing?”
“No, I hate sex.”
I mean, come on, that’s pretty interesting, right?
Follow Ariana on Twitter and check out the first episode of the Dream City podcast right here: