A Conversation With Richard Butler (Psychedelic Furs)

Any band that was big in the ’80s has a lot to answer for when it chooses to mount a belated comeback. To their credit, the Psychedelic Furs have gone about it gradually and organically, with an intimate flair that’s made their recent shows somewhat of a throwback revelation. Leader Richard Butler seems rejuvenated—and with his brother Tim still playing bass, the modified six-member version of the Furs feels legit. 

Made Of Rain (Cooking Vinyl), the band’s first album in 29 years, toys with nostalgia without getting mired down in it. It’s no Talk Talk Talk, but it’s certainly a damn sight better better than Midnight To Midnight. For Made Of Rain, the Furs worked with producer Richard Fortus, Butler’s old songwriting partner from Love Spit Love. They’ve equaled the dense theatrical grandeur of those ’90s LSL albums, while providing a suitable platform for Butler’s meatiest lead vocals in decades. The Butler brothers, meanwhile, have surrounded themselves with an impressive supporting cast that includes sax player Mars Williams (Waitresses), guitarist Rich Good (Pleased), keyboardist Amanda Kramer (Information Society) and drummer Paul Garisto (with the Furs since 1986).

An art student in London prior to founding the Furs in 1977, Butler moved to New York in the early ’80s. He eventually found his way to the Hudson Valley, where he continues to do some serious painting, often using his daughter, Maggie, as a subject for his impressionistic portraits. MAGNET connected with Butler at home in the riverside town of Beacon.

How are things in upstate New York during this COVID summer?
I’m very fortunate in that I’ve got a garden, so I can have friends around and have dinner at a distance. It’s not been too bad.

The Psychedelic Furs have been smart about this whole comeback thing, playing smaller venues to give fans an opportunity to really connect with the band again. And you’ve been all smiles onstage.
I think I’m more comfortable onstage now—that’s a big part of it. I’m able to enjoy it more instead being so stressed and introverted about the whole business. I feel confident when I walk out onstage with this band. We’ve been in this consistent lineup for about 10 years, and it’s a pretty solid-sounding band. We never feel like we’re going through the motions up there. Audiences have been getting larger, which has really been a blessing—it’s allowed us to play larger venues. If we’re able to play Royal Albert Hall (on April 27, 2021), that will been the biggest show we’ve ever done in London.

How did the motivation come about to make new music?
From time to time, we’d write a new song, rehearse it and play it. One of them made it onto this album (“Wrong Train”). It felt like the time was right to make a record. There was some downtime between touring, band members started sending me music, and we just started writing. We ended up with 16 or 17 songs to choose from.

The production on Made Of Rain is layered and lush, but with an edge. It’s still the Furs, and it certainly isn’t retro in any sense.
We’re kind of lucky in that we’re a guitar band. The songs that sound more retro are the ones where we delved more into synthesizers—“Ghost In You” perhaps. Richard Fortus is pretty handy in the studio, and he’s toured with the Psychedelic Furs before. He knew pretty well what we were at heart. For a lot of the ’80s albums, there was a good deal more time spent in the studio. This time, there was a lot of preparation in advance, and we got it done fairly quickly in the studio. In a way, it was like recording Talk Talk Talk more than anything else.

You’ve said that you really don’t write topical songs. But is there anything we can take away from the themes on Made Of Rain that might relate to the craziness of our world right now?
I couldn’t have foreseen COVID. But in retrospect, when I listen to something like “You’ll Be Mine,” which is basically a song about death, it seems to be fitting with the mood of the times.

Let’s talk about your singing on this one. You’ve never sounded better.
I think I sound pretty much the same as I always have because I stay pretty comfortably in my range. It’s mostly my natural speaking range—or perhaps when I’m shouting at somebody. On Mirror Moves, I doubled a lot of vocals, which smoothed out a lot of raspiness in my voice. On Made Of Rain, it’s fairly natural.

Are you still painting these days?
Oh, yeah—and songwriting, too. I got back into painting about 30 years ago in New York. Once I started doing it again, I was surprised that I’d ever left it behind.

Is your daughter still your muse?
About 90 percent of the time. I miss her a lot these days. She’s been off in Scotland studying at University of St Andrews. She managed to get back over here about a month ago. She’s staying for about another month before she moves to London, where she’s trying to get herself a job and an apartment.

Now for the mandatory fanboy question: Which ’80s Psychedelic Furs album was the most fun to record, and which were you happiest with once it was all finished?
Talk Talk Talk is still my favorite Furs album. But I remember coming back from recording Forever Now and just being thrilled with what Todd Rundgren had managed to do with our sound. XTC had a really bad time with him—he and Andy Partridge butted heads. We never had any problems with Todd, and he was a funny guy. He’d have to take off at a certain time every night because he was addicted to Hill Street Blues. It was just a great experience with him from the get-go.

—Hobart Rowland

Isolation Drills: Ghösh

Like the majority of you, all of us in the Philadelphia area are staying at home, learning to adapt to our “new normal.” MAGNET is checking in with local musicians to see how and what they’re doing during this unprecedented time. Photos by Chris Sikich.

As a result of the pandemic, we’ve had to re-evaluate our approach to Ghösh, and it’s actually been really exciting! Pre-COVID, we recorded songs that we had intended to release as an EP. As soon as it was clear that the future of live music was indefinitely uncertain, we had to change the plan. We decided to put out multiple small releases instead; that was the first of many.

We’re still figuring out how to adapt to this ever-changing landscape of Corona America. We had really found our performance flow, especially after touring with NAH back in January.  We were very bummed to have to pump the brakes on one of the most exciting aspects of this project. We had to figure out how to transfer that energy using the tools available to us. When we couldn’t see each other, we worked individually. And now that we can meet up again, we’ve begun the process of piecing together our creative approaches to the new world.

In terms of what’s happened in the world—the pandemic, the protests, this being an election year—we’re still processing everything, but it’s put into focus what really matters and given us conviction in the art we’re making and to keep going. Things feel incredibly chaotic and uncertain, yet we remain hopeful and optimistic.

We’re literally on fire. We’re ready to get the world lit.

MAGNET Television: Q&A With Pokey LaFarge

You either see L.A. or you be L.A. Pokey LaFarge chose the latter. His 2018 move from St. Louis to Los Angeles almost killed him. And quickly. So while ​Rock Bottom Rhapsody (New West) was written during his demonic downward spiral in the City Of Angels, the album was recorded the next year in Chicago when LaFarge returned to the heartland of the living. These 13 timeless tunes about a dude dead set on destruction are sung by a wretch who reached redemption. It’s not quite a Hollywood ending, but at least LaFarge will be around to make the sequel.

The Basement Vapes, Volume 13: Take It From Me, Someday We’ll All Be Free

Donny Hathaway sang his greatest song in 1973. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers explains how a personal message of hope and encouragement became an indestructible black anthem. 

The late Donny Hathaway reached a true pinnacle with his recording of “Someday We’ll All Be Free.” High praise, to be sure, since Hathaway’s career had many great musical moments. Still, this particular song stands out. It’s so compassionate, so inclusive and so uplifting that it’s now understood as transformative and inspirational beyond context. Not only was it Hathaway’s own finest hour, but the song has become an enduring message of perseverance delivered by many a heartfelt artist over the decades.

Born in Chicago and raised in St. Louis, Hathaway was a prodigy who, by the age of four, was known as Little Donnie Pitts (“the nation’s youngest gospel singer”). In 1964, he earned a fine-arts scholarship and studied music at Howard University, where he began a friendship with classmate Roberta Flack. He also met Curtis Mayfield when the Impressions performed at the college. Soon after, Hathaway left school and moved to Chicago, where he thrived as a staff producer/arranger for Mayfield’s newly formed Curtom label.

The civil-rights movement was growing and Curtom was an example of black entrepreneurship and activism within the Chicago music business. For a time, Hathaway was an important part of Mayfield’s team and Curtom’s sound. A gifted musician and songwriter, he also often freelanced for other record labels. But it was inevitable that Hathaway would make his own recordings.  

Thanks to musician/producer King Curtis, Hathaway signed a recording contract with Atlantic imprint ATCO in 1970. Over the next three years, he released three fascinating studio albums, a highly acclaimed live recording and a celebrated duet album with Flack. 

Hathaway was a poised auteur on par with geniuses like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, and his solo work revealed both great maturity and great promise. He was a skilled keyboardist with a superb voice and a range of compositional abilities. His bold soul sound was often sanctified gospel, showcasing jazz and classical elements as well. He wrote passionately about love, God and black life, and he inhabited familiar pop tunes with fresh insight and enthusiasm. 

Hathaway’s recording career was limited but still showcased many treasures. His romantic duets with Flack like “Where Is The Love” and “The Closer I Get To You” became huge hits. His interpretation of Nina Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted And Black” rivals her version, and his take on Leon Russell’s “A Song For You” is even better than the original. Hathaway’s own songs often spoke of adversity, identity and faith, with authentic commentary like “Voices Inside (Everything Is Everything),” “The Ghetto,” “Tryin’ Times” and “Little Ghetto Boy.” Even holiday tune “This Christmas” remains a perennial. 

Donny Hathaway “Someday We’ll All Be Free

Hathaway was as confident onstage as he was in the studio. 1972 ‘s Live was recorded at the Troubadour in Los Angeles and The Bitter End in NYC. Opening with Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” and including songs by Carole King and John Lennon as well as his own material, Hathaway revealed himself to be an expressive gospel/soul singer and performer. 

Although he was productive in the early ’70s, Hathaway struggled with severe depression. He was married with children but also had a closeted gay life, which burdened him greatly. Despite this, 1973’s Extension Of A Man still contained hopeful moments, particularly “Someday We’ll All Be Free.” It was right around this time Hathaway was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, and an associate named Edward Howard wrote the song lyrics as a personal message of encouragement to his dear friend. 

Hang on to the world as it spins around
Just don’t let the spin get you down
Things are moving fast
Hold on tight and you will last
Keep your self-respect, your manly pride
Get yourself in gear
Keep your stride
Never mind your fears
Brighter days will soon be here
Take it from me, someday we’ll all be free

Arif Mardin, part of Ahmet Ertegun’s “Turkish mafia” at Atlantic, produced the classic track. Hathaway wrote and arranged the music, and it opens with his celestial-sounding Fender Rhodes piano. Joining him was a small group: guitarists Cornell Dupree and David Spinozza, bassist Willie Weeks, drummer Ray Lucas and trumpeter Marvin Stamm. From the start, Hathaway’s soaring vocal transports us. Strings and horns enter and swell, and Stamm plays an elegant solo before Hathaway lifts his voice and sings the final inspiring verse. They say Hathaway wept when he heard the final mix of his recording. Who could blame him?  

Keep on walking tall
Hold your head up high
Lay your dreams right up to the sky
Sing your greatest song
And you’ll keep going, going on
Take it from me, someday we’ll all be free
Hey, just wait and see, some day we’ll all be free, yeah
Take it from me, someday we’ll all be free
It won’t be long, take it from me, someday we’ll all be free
Take it from me, take it from me, take it from me

Sadly, Hathaway’s mental-health problems continued, and he never made another solo album. He had difficulty staying on his medications and was shuttled in and out of psychiatric institutions. He performed only occasionally in small clubs, and his career floundered. As he suffered from delusions and hallucinations, his personal life unraveled. Hathaway’s behavior in the studio was so unsettling that he lost his close rapport with Flack for years. 

Alicia Keyes “Someday We’ll All Be Free”

By 1979, Hathaway and Flack had reconciled. They were making their second duet album, and Hathaway traveled to Manhattan for sessions with producers Eric Mercury and James Mtume. Hathaway began behaving erratically in the recording studio on January 13. Mtume spoke to him and saw that he was paranoid and extremely delusional. Mercury agreed that Hathaway was in no shape to continue and cancelled the session, sending everybody home. 

It was a Saturday, and Hathaway dined with Flack at her Central Park apartment. Soon after returning to the Essex House hotel, Hathaway plunged to his death from his 15th floor balcony. There had been no visitors, his door was bolted from the inside, and the authorities deemed it a suicide. Besides the psychosis, he was estranged from his wife, and his confusion around his sexuality had worsened his depression. Rev. Jesse Jackson presided over his funeral. Hathaway was 33 years old.

“Someday We’ll All Be Free” may have been Hathaway’s swan song, but the relevance of this inspirational communiqué has only grown stronger over time, evolving from a personal message of hope into an indestructible anthem of encouragement and deliverance. It also speaks to black life like few other songs. Although it was not written as such, the tune became associated with the civil-rights movement. In a sage move, Spike Lee used a stirring version sung by Aretha Franklin at the dramatic conclusion of his 1992 film Malcolm X.

Contemporary culture continues to respond to the song’s poignancy. After the terrorist attacks on September 11, Alicia Keyes gave a moving interpretation on the telethon America: A Tribute To Heroes. The phrase has appeared as the title of a book as well as magazine articles and radio programs. There are many heartfelt interpretations by all sorts of talented musicians.

The song’s dramatic import has more recently been enlisted on television, as Hathaway’s version was used to wrap up a couple of very different season finales. It appeared in The Chi during the season-two finale (“The Scorpion And The Frog”), and it was wonderfully utilized on The Walking Dead at the end of season seven (“The First Day Of The Rest Of Your Life”). The sad commentary on that episode is that the entire song is used to frame a montage in which long-running character Sasha reviews her bittersweet existence as she takes her own life. 

Clearly, the hopeful song has endured, however retrofitted these themes may be. It certainly intersects with our current events and the Black Lives Matter movement, and it can mean something to everyone in the most positive of terms. Donny Hathaway took his own life, but he gave us something that still remains inspirational to hang on to.

The Walking Dead‘s Sasha’s Tribute

Sasha had her reasons, but if you or someone you know is in emotional distress or having a suicidal crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Isolation Drills: Scantron

Like the majority of you, all of us in the Philadelphia area are staying at home, learning to adapt to our “new normal.” MAGNET is checking in with local musicians to see how and what they’re doing during this unprecedented time. Photos by Chris Sikich.

James Everhart (guitar, vocals): I work as a graphic designer in the music and events industry, so when I was temporarily laid off from my job at City Winery, I was forced to get creative. After being a full-time touring musician with Low Cut Connie for six years, being constantly home is wonderful, but I can get start feeling cooped up very quickly. Add a pandemic into the mix, and you have a recipe for acute anxiety. Thankfully, I’ve refused to embrace that negative energy by remaining positive and taking on a host of new projects and freelance clients.

When I’m not playing guitar, I’m writing new songs for the debut album by a new psych/folk project, Cosmic Guilt. Having the ability to access recording equipment has been a wonderful distraction and reason to keep moving and to keep looking forward. As I write this, we are within our 11th week, and I’ve written 14 songs. Suffice to say, I’m happy to have had the time to compose a full-length album, something I always say I’d never do. With the continuing of free time comes the opportunity for new projects, and added to the list is a new puppy and carpentry lessons. That should keep me busy.

I’m determined to come out of this quarantine on top. I look forward to playing music, eating at a bar, traveling and hugging friends. Remaining safe, healthy and vigilant is the only thing that is going to get us through this, and I look forward to the things that lie around the corner.

George M. Murphy (guitar, vocals): In early February, I came back from a short vacation out west with my wife, pretty much directly into quarantine. I think if it hadn’t been for that trip, we both may have lost our minds by now. A few big projects that were on the docket for this year fell through, including scenic design for a major summer tour. Despite how bleak it seemed at first, I feel like we fell into the groove pretty quickly and found the silver lining in being home.

Usually, I spend four or five days a week working out of our office in Newport, Del., with a good hour-and-a-half or more of commuting every day. It’s been nice to trade driving for walking—exploring our neighborhood and getting myself a bit healthier. Normally, March is the height of my seasonal depression, but looking back on it, I feel like this whole situation let me hit the “reset” button a bit. On the other hand, my productivity has been a rollercoaster. Some weeks, I’m through my to-do list by Tuesday. Others have seen me rewrite the same to-do list five days in a row. I’ve come to terms with it and learned to be a bit easier on myself where I can.

I was in a pretty bleak spot for musical creativity in the second half of 2019. We played a lot of Scantron shows last year, which meant we weren’t even practicing all that much—just sorta walking onstage. The shows were some of our best, but I found myself less inclined to pick up an instrument other than to carry it out the door. In late January, after 15 years of searching, I found a Melodigrand apartment piano (a miniature upright with 64 keys) on Craigslist. Having that around has been immensely therapeutic. I’ve spent many mornings learning songs and composing ideas for future projects. I think my neighbors are over it, though.

Interestingly enough, the playing field has been completely leveled without touring. While the livestream bubble is likely going to pop a bit as people start going out again, there’s a huge opportunity to build some habits around connecting with fans across the country, even the world, in ways we haven’t been able to as a band that hits the road very little. We’re working on something very special for Scantron fans, as soon as it becomes a little bit more feasible to be in the same room together.

Isolation Drills: Adam Shumski (Vita And The Woolf)

Like the majority of you, all of us in the Philadelphia area are staying at home, learning to adapt to our “new normal.” MAGNET is checking in with local musicians to see how and what they’re doing during this unprecedented time. Photos by Chris Sikich.

Shumski: I used to play drums for a living. Very quickly, it’s been made clear how even though music is an essential part of so many of our lives, the reality is that living comes first. There are more important existential priorities at hand.

This isolation drill has afforded me the opportunity to consider not only the world’s challenges born from the pandemic, but how it has exacerbated many of our society’s disparities. Black and Latino Americans are three times as likely to become infected—and nearly twice as likely to die—from COVID-19 than white Americans. Only five states in the U.S. have reported testing data by race, a crucial public-health indicator that’s often a primary policy driver to reopening. It’s clear that public health is not only clouded, but threatened, by our country’s perception of race, and this pandemic is no different.

For a much deeper look into the data associated with COVID-19, I recommend reading this article and this statement by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, director of the Antiracist Research And Policy Center at American University. 

And here are some links if you’d like to learn more and take action. 
Antiracist Research And Policy Center
Oshun Family Center: Focusing On Black Maternal Mental Health
Ancient Song: Supporting Community Based Doula Organizations
Philadelphia Bail Fund
Black Lives Matter

Isolation Drill: Eliza Hardy Jones (Grace Potter, Strand Of Oaks, Buried Beds, Nightlands)

Like the majority of you, all of us in the Philadelphia area are staying at home, learning to adapt to our “new normal.” MAGNET is checking in with local musicians to see how and what they’re doing during this unprecedented time. Photos by Chris Sikich.

Jones: On March 11, I flew to Vancouver to start a West Coast tour with Grace Potter. By March 12, the tour was cancelled. Since we were already set up onstage at the Commodore Ballroom, we played for an hour to about a dozen people. And that was it. We packed up the stage and the bus, and we all flew home.

This is the longest stretch of time I’ve been at home in a very long time. And the first time I’ve been out of work in my adult life. I’m trying to appreciate this time as an opportunity for learning. I’ve taken online art-history courses, recommitted to anti-racist work, developed my embroidery stitches, listened to the Movement For Black Lives and honored what has been asked of me, mastered some new quilting techniques, flubbed through new bluegrass guitar licks, watched a thousand Logic tutorials, watched the world rise up against police brutality and systemic racism, practiced my Chopin mazurkas, and started recording a new record.

Having a home recording set-up means that I’ve been able to work on new music of my own and also do some distanced collaborations with far-away friends. Being able to share music making with friends has been a bright spot. Quilting continues to be a meditative space that points an arrow when I feel lost. I’m also lucky to have a car and the ability to drive out of the city to go on long hikes with my husband on unpopulated trails. Our weekly green baths are definitely keeping me from falling off the edge.

I miss my friends. I miss hugging people. I miss tour. I miss singing harmony. I miss traveling. But I have been insulated from the most devastating effects of COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve been working hard on advocating for and organizing for dismantling not just the symbols, but the systems of racism that our country is built on. State violence against Black people, Indigenous people, Trans people and people of Color takes many forms, and I’m working hard to disentangle myself from the many ways that I benefit from this violence as a white cis woman.

I’ve tried to be helpful where I can. I promise to try harder. Everything is strange. Somebody loves you. Black Lives Matter. Register to vote. Wear a mask.

Normal History Vol. 593: The Art Of David Lester

Every week, we’ll be posting a new illustration by David Lester. The Mecca Normal guitarist is visually documenting people, places and events from his band’s 36-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

The way we understand ourselves originates with the family. Typically a microcosm of patriarchy, depending on age and specifics. Children in families are regarded in various ways. In longer ago times, children helped with food production, child rearing and animal husbandry. Some cultures expect offspring to care for elders in twilight years.

Therapists have helped those who can afford their unravelling fees to dissect versions of family as a force in our lives that shapes experience well beyond those 18-25 years we’re clumped together in lunacy. Family. Much milk has been split on the subject.

To understand, dismantle and reconfigure life beyond patriarchy in terms of unjust appropriation of resources and jurisdiction requires similar interest and attention, but for those who continue to benefit (settler types) from the oppression of others this requires empathy. Empathy is a fragment of personality the development of which seems significantly jeopardized by difficult times during the childhood experience.

Empathy is the nose to which injustice is the stench.

“Cultivating an ethic of responsibility begins with non-natives understanding ourselves as beneficiaries of the illegal settlement of Indigenous people’s land and unjust appropriation of Indigenous peoples’ resources and jurisdiction.” —Harsha Walia, an excerpt from her 2012 essay “Moving Beyond A Politics Of Solidarity Towards A Practice Of Decolonization”

Family Swan” from The Family Swan (Kill Rock Stars, 2002) (download):

A Conversation With Jack Gibson (Tenlons Fort)

While rolling through the small town of Waller, Texas, singer/songwriter Jack Gibson watched his hero Daniel Johnston start to fall asleep in the passenger seat. At the wheel was Johnston’s brother and manager, Dick Johnston, who’d just escorted the hungry trio of Texans out for a bite to eat. After that, it was time to relax.

“We’d just had dinner at his favorite Mexican restaurant in Waller,” says Gibson (a.k.a. Tenlons Fort), who was in town working with the lo-fi legend for a few days in June 2018. “We got the extra tortillas and the tall Cokes. After that, Dan started to shut down for the day. His eyes were closing. We were headed over to the hotel where I was staying, but that’s when she called him.”

The “she” calling was the fabled Laurie Allen, Johnston’s longtime crush and muse. Any fan of Johnston’s music knows of this well-documented infatuation saga. “It was a special thing to witness,” says Gibson. “Laurie just happened to call him for the first time in 13 years. I was in the backseat. I heard the conversation, and it was one of the most romantic things in the world. It was the first time since they spoke at the screening of the (Devil & Daniel Johnston) documentary in Austin in 2005. They talked on the phone for about 10 minutes, and it was mind-blowing.”

Understanding the heaviness of the moment, Gibson listened intently to Johnston’s end of the conversation: “Is it really you? Is it really you? Oh, Laurie! You’ve got to save my life. Can you come to Texas? Oh, I love you so much. Are you happy? You doing pretty good? Oh, I’m doing real good, especially now talking to you.”

That bit of sentimental dialog is now cemented in music history thanks to “Hey Dan,” the new Tenlons Fort song dedicated to the late songwriter. The tender and serene track fully channels Johnston’s eccentric spirit.

“Part of the talking bit I’m doing near the end of ‘Hey Dan’ is what he said to Laurie,” says Gibson. “I won’t say everything that was said on the phone—that’s just a little glimpse of what I got to hear. The way he was speaking and his tone was just so romantic and revering after all of that time. It was the most intimate concert of words I’ll probably ever hear in my life. I’ll never forget it.”

When Johnston hung up the phone, he came alive and was inspired to hit the music room.  “After that call, we went back to his house and jammed on the instruments,” says Gibson. “It was the classic, ‘I’m tired—she called me—now I’m awake, let’s write a good song!’ It was beautiful.”

Aside from recording and performing music, Gibson, an Austin-area native, is also an artist and screenwriter. His diverse film resume includes work on television shows, writing and production work on Gus Van Sant films and his own 16mm projects.

Tenlons Fort’s “Hey Dan” was recently issued via LaunchLeft, which will also release Sober October. The forthcoming LP, due October 19, is Gibson’s sixth album and was produced by Larry Crane (Elliott Smith, Sleater-Kinney, Decemberists).

MAGNET recently spoke to Gibson about what he’s been up to this crazy year, sobriety, Gus Van Sant, Elliott Smith and, of course, Daniel Johnston.

Continue reading “A Conversation With Jack Gibson (Tenlons Fort)”

Isolation Drills: Christopher Davis-Shannon

Like the majority of you, all of us in the Philadelphia area are staying at home, learning to adapt to our “new normal.” MAGNET is checking in with local musicians to see how and what they’re doing during this unprecedented time. Photos by Chris Sikich.

Davis-Shannon: Pursuing music as a career, you take the abnormality as solace, the struggle as growth and each day as a simple blessing. This is no different during a global pandemic. I have long been accused of being a blurry-eyed optimist by my peers as we do not do this not out of love but out of necessity. There’s no sense in rueing the things we can not change. What fun would the world be without music, without a haphazardly stitched-together vision for our future?

While I was meant to be on the other side of the country currently playing a string of shows with a rockabilly group, here I sit in Philadelphia with a smile on my face. I couldn’t think of a better place to be stranded or better company than my instruments and a recently reformed street cat. This life always brings uncertainty, although perhaps the current time isn’t one many of us could have ever foreseen, but we make do with the cards we are dealt. 

In a way, I welcomed the breath of the slow down. I’ve been in constant motion for years, from gigs to rehearsals to recordings to writing to teaching, while sheltering in place has given me an opportunity to take a step back from the never-ending work week. That isn’t to say that my work does not continue, but my focus finally has time to redirect. This has given me chance to see which aspects of my life I truly miss.

While my music is my life, it is not everything. Perhaps, stepping back for a moment has made me realize that more than ever. I find myself fortunate enough in this time to be with a partner who shares my passion for the arts and doubles as my favorite ukulele student, as well as a guinea pig for my marginal cooking skills. For that, I count myself very lucky.

I’ve started a new YouTube series and podcast “Checking In” with artists all of the world, and I’m wrapping up writing a new book on the ukulele techniques of George Formby. In addition, I’ve finally been starting to knock out demoes for a new record—something I haven’t found time for in nearly two years.

Yes, gigging is my main source of income, and that loss hurts, but more than that I miss the connection of music. My best friends are my bandmates, and missing the conversations we have in the universal language hurts most of all. We’ve started to jam in parks (with masks, and socially distanced!) recently, and a bit of me had forgotten what it was like to truly play music simply for the joy of playing music. Sometimes a new perspective is a hell of a drug.

Wear your mask, please.