Isolation Drills: Greg McGarvey

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.

I’m sitting in the backyard in one of two freshly trash-picked rocking chairs. I bought my ticket for the neighborhood birds’ daily free jazz concert. I slept poorly, but I should find some relief drinking a cappuccino, eating oatmeal with cinnamon and banana, and listening to the forest. If I keep my laptop from sliding off my pajama pants and into the lawn, I’ll call that a win, too. 

Having lost my mom in February (and dad only a year-and-a-half before that), my 2020 was already destined to have a strange and unfamiliar atmosphere. On the day of mom’s death, I’d been shooting footage for my forthcoming debut album, Count The Colors, at Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens. We got to her bedside just in time to say goodbye and play her one last tune on my guitar. I realized how lucky we were to have been there at the moment that she crossed over. Once COVID-19 hit, though, I realized just how lucky we were to be there, given that we wouldn’t have been permitted to visit her had she died just weeks later. 

Living with a girlfriend who has a science background, I’d already been hearing about COVID-19 for many weeks by the time society started shutting down. My March schedule was packed, and I looked forward to letting off some steam by singing and sweating and drinking with my friends. Grieving through work. But 2020 said nope. 

I did my first Facebook Live concert with Righteous Jolly on St. Patrick’s Day, and starting the following weekend, I decided to make it a habit. I knew I wouldn’t allow myself to become rusty in quarantine, so I got to work putting more online concerts together.  The process of learning and relearning songs by musical heroes like Robyn Hitchcock, R.E.M., the Beatles and the Everly Brothers was so much fun. I also played most of the 60-odd self-penned songs that I plan to release. I like to play my songs alongside the classics and see how they hold up. If the song doesn’t give the same feeling of unbridled excitement that my favorite cover songs do, I throw it out. I figure the world has enough songs.

Having previously played mostly evening shows, I started playing every Sunday afternoon once I noticed that I had viewers ranging from California to Ireland, including some brand-new fans. At these gigs, we’ve made more than $1,600 for organizations like Philabundance, the Obama Foundation and Philadelphia Bail Fund. I’ve also been part of online music festivals like Music For The Movement. I learned to appreciate the post-song “like” and “love” emoji as much as I appreciate actual applause. I am good at adapting. 2020 is a good year for that. Meanwhile, up in the New Hope, Pa., area, my friend Pier is putting the finishing touches on Count The Colors.

I’m catching up on every project I can do at home. I’ve developed my fine-art website and picked out about 200 photographs from the past 12 years. These images from places like New Orleans, Berlin, Los Angeles, New England and the Outer Banks make me feel anxious to get on the road again, as well as a sense of gratitude for all that I have experienced thus far. 

I’ve also launched a new music website with a new essay about my musical roots. I’ve written seven new songs. I’ve written to my penpal. I’ve spent time improvising noisy music on my Jazzmaster. I’ve marched. I’ve watched my girlfriend paint one brilliant landscape after another. I’ve found my favorite social-distance-friendly neighborhood walking route and walked it most days. I’ve found the same in a local forest. Really, I’ve done just about everything but clean the tub. Ugh. 

Lately, I’m shifting my focus from the personal to the global, learning more about how I might use my privilege to help others. There is some positive momentum in my country right now, and I’m happy to be a small part of it. 

The bird concert is winding down. I’m grateful that I got a chance to listen again. Time to clean the tub.