A World Without Stages
Talking Quarantine with Robyn Hitchcock, Emma Swift and Helen Gillet.
by Bob Pomeroy
I’ve been watching a lot of streaming performances since I’ve gone into quarantine. Matt Wilson moved his record release party to his living room. Sweet Crude played their record release show from their front porch with the band members social distancing. Neil Young does a live stream from his back yard, playing to his chickens and a stunning mountain view. Twice a week, pianist Jon Cleary does his Quarantini Happy Hour where he plays a few songs; answers viewer questions and tells stories. With touring out of the question, musicians are scrambling to find ways to stay afloat financially and stay connected with their audiences.
I’ve been pretty faithfully logging into Helen Gillet’s Monday night live stream and Robyn Hitchcock and Emma Swift’s Sweet Home Quarantine shows. Helen Gillet is a New Orleans based cellist, singer and improviser. She’s normally streams from her practice room, but has done a few sessions from an art gallery in the French Quarter. Robyn and Emma stream their shows from the living room of their Nashville home. Their cats Tubby and Ringo are popular guest stars. To get a better grasp of how people are adjusting to our locked down world, I traded some emails with the Robyn. Emma and Helen. I’m glad to share their insights with you.
“At first it felt quite strange to sing into a laptop,” Emma Swift said, “but we’ve gotten used to it. I’d rather sing into the computer than not sing at all. It’s also utterly lovely to connect to people from our house. Viewers leave great comments in real time and it’s nice to have that interaction. For us, it’s really the highlight of the week to be able to do this.”
Robyn Hitchcock added, “All the adrenaline of a regular gig floods into us, even with an invisible audience. I still have to change my shirt after every show. And sometimes it takes all night to unwind…”
“[It was] Weird at first to not have applause and have to stare into a little box,” admits Helen Gillet, “but I’ve gotten used to receiving audience feedback in a delayed response kind of a way – after my shows – when I sit down with a glass of wine or tea and read everyone’s comments. It’s become a fun and engaging ritual.”
When I asked how she prepares for her shows, Gillet said, “Good night’s rest, good breakfast, some gardening, practice on either piano or cello, promote, ask ourselves if the internet is working well or should we use 4G network on phone etc., light candles, incense then Lights, Camera, ACTION!”
Robyn and Emma devise themes for their shows. One week it was a selection of Bob Dylan covers, another weeks was all requests from the Robyn Hitchcock songbook. “The first thing we do is ask for song requests from fans,” Emma explains. “After that comes the challenge of rehearsing those requests. Some songs have been in our repertoire for ages, others we’ve never played together before. There are whole sections of Robyn’s back catalog that I had not heard before quarantine. It’s challenging and lovely to try and learn new material. Some songs will always sound better with a band, while others really suit acoustic reinterpretation. Now that we don’t leave the house, we have more than enough time to experiment. Rehearsals are mostly held around the kitchen table. We both like to scribble notes and set lists on hotel stationary we acquired back when hotels were a regular part of our touring life. Robyn plays the guitar, while I summon whatever harmonies are floating in the ether. We squabble over what works and what doesn’t, and then clear the air with a fresh pot of coffee and a joss stick. If that fails, Tubby the cat is on hand to resolve any ongoing disputes.”
“Tubby has a lot of work.” Robyn adds. “All I’d like to add here is how hard Emma has to work to get this show to the outside world. It was her concept, and she alone has the technical know-how to make it happen. We’re constantly striving to improve transmission and sound quality, and reduce the chance of a glitch stalling the show. When I say we, I mean Emma. I’m a 20th Century Luddite with a brain totally un-wired to the practical – for me this kind of thing isn’t just difficult, it’s impossible: so – thank you Emma!”
I asked if the streaming shows were helping with finances. “Absolutely” Hitchcock says. “This show has given us a way to survive in the elastic limbo that has engulfed live music, amongst many other things. And, with no guarantee that this limbo will end: thanks everybody for tuning in – we’ll be here as long as you need us.”
“The shows are our primary source of income at the moment” Swift continues. “We sell merchandise online as well. For many years, playing live has been what sustained us economically, creatively and spiritually and at present we don’t know when it will be safe for us to tour again. We are incredibly grateful that fans are happy to join us and continue to support “live” music, even if it is being beamed remotely.”
For Helen Gillet, “It brings in enough money to still feel like a working musician, which is such a blessing. I’ve been doing steadily well – with repeat audience members who are spreading the word to others. I have also been selling more merch than I thought I would, which is great! I feel that after all this is over, I will be traveling to visit several Covid-times live streaming friends on tour, which has become an invaluable “carrot” to look forward to.”
The Sweet Home Quarantine shows are streamed on the Stageit.com website Stageit hosts many other performers, so it’s a good place to find streaming concerts to check out. The site requires that you purchase a ticket to support the artists. Helen Gillet does an Internet version of busking. Her Monday night shows stream at no cost on YouTube and listeners can drop some coin in the virtual hat.
If you’re looking for streaming concerts, there are a lot of resources out there. If you’re following artists on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook, it’s likely you’ve already seen announcements for streaming events. Websites like Stageit.com and Bandsintown.com can help you find more events to check out. . There are also “virtual venues” that host a lot of different performers. For the jazz and experimental music crowd, I can recommend The Experimental Sound Studio site. They have nightly performances coming at your from around the world Here in the Tampa Bay area, DTSP gives local musicians a forum with their Saved By Streaming sessions.
I’m barely scratching the surface of what’s out there. It’s going to be awhile before it’s safe to get back to the concert halls and bars. I know there are a lot more people doing a lot of creative things these days. If you have any additional resources or favorite performers, please leave a comment. We’re all looking to keep that “live music is better” feeling going.
Helpful links: helengillet.com robynhitchcock.com emmaswift.com bandsintown.com experimentalsoundstudio.org