Isolation Drills: Presages

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.

Angel Ocana: My situation is slightly different than most. During the day, I’m a head supply chain manager for Jefferson Health System Magee Rehabilitation Hospital. It’s a physical rehab hospital located in Center City Philadelphia. The days are isolated but in a different way, I guess. With the current COVID situation, my days are long and pretty intense trying to supply our hospital with all types of medical supplies and PPE materials to protect our patient population and staff.

The musician side of me is definitely missing my Presages bandmates and creating music with them. We had to cancel our tour dates and rehearsals, and that reality has been very difficult to accept. On weekends, I usually take time to decompress and create demos for Presages. Ironically, I isolate in the bathroom playing my guitar for better acoustics, then practice playing to an empty street with the Philadelphia skyline from my window. Though this process has been lonely, I believe it has challenged me compositionally in a positive way.

I think as artists, we are great at learning new ways to adapt and connect. I see a lot of locals on social media doing that, and it makes me happy to know we will always find the light in any situation. 

Isolation Drills: Ross Bellenoit

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.

Bellenoit: Firstly, it’s almost impossible to write this, given that every day presents new challenges, new frustrations, new joys. By the time someone reads this, things may have changed. But, for the moment, the future is uncertain.

I woke up March 12 in Dortmund, Germany, having played a fun, yet ill-attended solo gig in one of my favorite venues over there. It was 5 a.m., and I couldn’t sleep. I checked my phone, and saw the breaking headline concerning a vague “travel ban” for the U.S. There were no details yet concerning U.S. citizens, due to our frighteningly incompetent federal administration. I bolted to my rental car and drove for five hours back to Berlin, spending the entire time on hold with United trying to get on an earlier flight for the next day. I was successful and canceled the rest of my tour.

After that, the dominoes started falling. My band, Muscle Tough, was about to tour for a few opening gigs that would have been an incredibly opportunity for us. We had to cancel everything for the foreseeable future, due to all venues shutting down and a ban on public gatherings. Turtle Studios, my record production home (and where I make a good half of my income), is also closed. ASCAP, my royalties collection agency, has seemingly putting a halt on monthly distributions. 

The only thing I have left is my one teaching job for a university, which has moved its entire platform online. But once the semester is over, I will have no regular source of income. That federal stimulus check is nowhere to be seen, and the state of Pennsylvania seems to believe that I am unable to qualify for both regular Unemployment Compensation and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. (As of April 20, there’s a glitch in the system that is apparently being worked on).

With music streaming platforms like Spotify seemingly unable to distribute royalties fairly to the creators of their content (i.e., hard-working musicians), artists are forced to live stream concerts from their homes, perform to a blank nothingness and hope someone throws a buck in a virtual tip jar. Some people can do this, and they are making it work, and I applaud their tenacity and willingness to adapt. Perhaps, with time, I’ll be able to get over myself and jump on this train. However, at this moment, I’m having a hard time finding the platform to get on board. 

In a time when music, the very magic that we all try to conjure and connect with, the very essence of what keeps our collective humanity in balance, the very thing that stops us in our tracks and moves us to tears of joy or sadness, has become so devalued (in a monetary sense) and reduced to ones, zeros and even $00.0001s, it’s difficult for me to see a way into this new, albeit temporary, reality.

And while my situation seems to be somewhat tense and uncertain, the biggest thing that breaks my heart is knowing that there are millions of people who have it way worse off than I do. There are so many real heroes and real tragedies happening during this pandemic, I think to myself “boy, do I sound like a whiny, privileged twerp” while writing all of this. But my reality is no less real than someone else’s reality, and we are all going through a collective trauma as a nation, and as a world.

But I have to continue to create. Perhaps not on a public platform, but I am writing music for a new record in a way that I’ve never done before. I have a document called “Projects That I Still Want To Do,” and I’m slowly putting some time into these ideas. (Electro Nick Drake project! Retro Beatles style record of all McCartney/Costello songs! Next jazz record! “Songs That Kill Me” covers project!)

My plan for this spring was to release a new record of songs that I had written over the last few years. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I’m so incredibly proud of this record, that my original plan was to put it out on vinyl and do a proper campaign for it: hiring publicists, booking agents, etc. With all of that seemingly out the window, I have decided to make it available on Bandcamp (the last music outlet that delivers the majority of its revenue back to the artist). It will be released on May 1. It’s called Where Does The Light Go?, and I’m sitting here, still wondering, hoping for an answer.

Isolation Drills: Jesse Gimbel

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.

Gimbel: In mid-March, we confirmed a summer date for a release show at World Cafe Live for an album I’ve been picking away at between gigs for years. A week later, the world started to shut down. I’m not sure what will happen at this point—I’ve heard all the conjecture about live shows, but with so much uncertainty, we just have to let things fall where they may and see what happens.

Similarly, I’m not sure about the festivals we were planning on playing, or attending. The folk music community has been devastated by the loss of folk legends John Prine (who was slated to headline the Philadelphia Folk Fest this year) and Gene Shay (who helped found the festival in 1957). We don’t know yet if it’ll still happen this year. Everyone is stuck in this dichotomy, both being prepared to snap into action whenever the time comes with little preparation, and mourning possible loss.

Without the emotional outlet of playing shows, I’ve been taking time where I can to keep my head on straight and lose daylight in music. I’ve finished up the last of the songs I’ve been pushing on, and now I’ve moved on to recording them in my home studio set up, which people affectionately refer to as “Jesse Gimbel’s Basement.” I’ve also found some unexpected relief in the livestreaming world. Since everyone is home, there seems to be a huge surge of people watching livestreams who never have before. I’ve been streaming a couple times a week on Facebook, and I’ve been amazed at the response, especially in the Delco Quarantine Open Mic group, which has managed to gain more than 12,000 members in a month. It’s awkward while we all figure out the best way to stream, but at this point, it really feels a lot like playing a show, with the ability to reach new people who otherwise may not have seen us live. We’ve made a lot of new friends, and made headway in looking for some additional musicians to tour with us once this is all over. Getting to play for all these people and interact with them has done a huge part to lift some of the weight on musicians’ shoulders right now.

This is a good time to make sure you’re considering people outside of yourself and what they’re dealing with under these circumstances. Some are stressed finding new ways to work from home, with spouses and kids around 24/7, while others are in full desperation, potentially losing their entire business almost overnight. I’m so fortunate to have a roof over my head and be able to do mixing and mastering work remotely, but since all of my potential clients are affected, the risk isn’t alleviated even with the ability to work remotely. We’re in a time when the casual choices you make under normal circumstance—choosing who you hire for a job, taking a gig away, supporting a large corporation vs. a small business—can literally be choosing who is in business when this all finally ends. It’s heavy, but the reality is we can make a difference by being conscientious about where our money is being spent.

Isolation Drills: Great Time

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.

Jill Ryan (vocals): Other than some cancelled shows, we are doing a lot of the same before the quarantine began. I feel for all our peers who had album releases and tours scheduled right now. I’m proud of them for all their beautiful work and love seeing fans support them by listening, buying merch, not getting refunds on show tickets and sending love! We didn’t have a major tour scheduled, although our show with Lawrence at the TLA was rescheduled for October. We all teach lessons on the side and have been lucky enough to continue teaching a majority of them via Zoom. I’m extremely grateful that we all live together in our studio. The first week of the stay-at-home order, we mostly kept to ourselves, felt all the feels, but then came back together and started creating again. We’re making new things and also working on our next album. It’s nice to have all this time, but I also experience bouts of sadness, anxiety and fear, which I think we’re all feeling. My mom works as a nurse in California, and I worry about her health and safety and that of all of the essential workers putting their lives on the line right now and always to help the rest of the world! I am thankful to have music not only as a means to express myself but also as a way process the feelings I have regarding such a tumultuous time in our lives. 

Donnie Spackman (drums): Much of what we do in the studio hasn’t changed as a result of the current outside circumstances. I am generally one to stay home/in the studio for days at a time, although there are now obvious reasons why it’s important to adopt these kinds of practices. I know we all feel lucky to have the studio at a time like this as a place to direct our creative energy, and I feel for artists who are without the means to create during this time of self-isolation. It’s inspiring to see how the restrictions of quarantine have invigorated a widespread push toward streaming/virtual events and that the general response to this pandemic seems to be one of support and a desire to connect. I hope that this mentality continues after this global event has finished and we can all walk away with a greater awareness of how important it is to show up for one another.

Zack Hartman (bass): Luckily, we had planned to be in the studio for the first part of 2020 and only missed out on a few shows. I tend to stay home a lot anyway, and since we have our studio here, there’s no shortage of things to do. It’s unfortunate that a situation like this is happening, though I think all we can do is make the most of it and continue working as hard as we can. I find myself spending a lot more time outside—we live in the middle of nowhere; no people around—and generally having a few more hours in the day to pursue whichever hobbies/projects I’m feeling. Besides the tragic circumstances that I’m fortunate enough to avoid, I am definitely drawn to this type of lifestyle and do believe it has its benefits. We’re being forced to modernize in ways that perhaps we’ve been putting off in favor of the “old way” of doing things. That isn’t to say that things are better now—quite the opposite—though I think we’ll learn some valuable lessons that can be applied to “normal” life—whatever that means—when this is all over.

Isolation Drills: Cliff Hillis

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.

Hillis: It’s crazy how the world changed so quickly right in front of my eyes. When the news started to break about COVID-19 spreading in the U.S., I was in Florida doing some gigs. And washing my hands more than ever before. By the time I returned to Pennsylvania a few days later, I immediately self-quarantined and have been sheltering in place ever since.

All of my immediate gigs have been canceled, including a couple that I was really looking forward to with Rhett Miller from the Old 97’s. Like everyone else, I’m not sure what the future holds for live gigs, so I’m working on a few things I can do when I’m housebound.

I knew I wasn’t the only person affected by a loss of work and income, so in an effort to entertain and help out, I decided to do a Facebook Live show every Sunday where I donate half of all tips I get to a different local charity each week. It has gone over really well, so I decided to make it a regular event, 12:30 p.m. every Sunday.

I’m also using this time working on my own music and have been writing and recording songs for an alter-ego project I have called the Inside Passenger

Luckily, since I have a small studio at my house, I’ve been able to finish some ongoing mixing and mastering projects, including a new record for a fantastic singer/songwriter from Minneapolis: Hayley Lewis and her band Corzine. Check her out! I have some other projects that I can do remotely, so that helps, too.