Isolation Drills: Ron Gallo

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.

Gallo: The question of how COVID has impacted me as an artist nearly broke my brain because to actually sit and think about all the ways it’s had an effect, you realize it’s changed pretty much everything. In a lot of ways, it’s surprisingly better, and in some ways, it’s worse. The real answer is that COVID has been the ultimate artist existential crisis; everything has been put into perspective. And while I don’t think it’s benefitted my actual art, the good news is I think it’s made me better at being a human being.

When the pandemic first hit, I greeted it with a big surge of creativity. Something about not resisting and surrendering to the new reality, as insane and bleak as it was—I got a lot of energy and finished a record, started a digital festival, a clothesline and began connecting with people online regularly. That fuse quickly burned out after some weeks and the reality settled in in a deeper way for all of us, then entered into what has been a really uninspiring time songwriting-wise. I can’t seem to finish songs. Or if I do, I haven’t really loved them.

On a positive, It has changed the way I make recorded music, and I think I’ve become a better musician. It’s made me more self-sufficient and forced me to learn new things about home recording and producing. It’s made me trust myself more to make things without relying on others, and if I do want or need to collaborate, turns out we can do it from anywhere.

This has a huge impact on the music because it’s all coming directly from me and my limitations now; it feels more personal that way. I think I may have learned my process from the pandemic and may not have otherwise. It frees up space to do whatever you want to do. Instead of thinking about what will work live or capturing raw, live energy, it’s more like, “What do I want to put on while I wash dishes?” Very different things. It’s nice to know that I can make records anywhere, with anyone or no one, moving forward.

And then there’s the stillness. Something I was never good at. But this year, I learned how to relax, how to not constantly feel the need to have to be accomplishing something. I learned how to wear sweatpants all day, and lay in my hammock in the living room and watch things. I learned cliches like the beauty of a simplicity and how be grateful for really small, super-important stuff: food, water, house, love. Waking at 5:30 a.m., making coffee and working on music, writing and design until 8 a.m. Have breakfast, lounge, snack, lounge, have lunch, lounge, snack, lounge, have dinner, lounge, snack, bed.

I embraced a lot of nostalgia. I got a PlayStation 1. It felt a lot more like actual living than it did previously.

It’s been an emotional rollercoaster. Sometimes, it’s easy to just lay back, and other times, I’m looking down the barrel of my own ego. And the truth that I don’t know the next time I will play a show for people or that being an artist has been rendered meaningless as we all compete for infinite space on the internet can be dark.

Without that human connection, the internal crisis is all amplified. The beauty in it, though, is that it makes room for being a human first. It levels the playing field in the sense that no one is cool or important or doing anything interesting.

COVID has also exposed that artists do not stand on solid ground with their art alone. It’s exposed a major flaw in the system that record labels and music corporations like Spotify, Amazon, etc., were completely unaffected (or even benefitted) from the pandemic, while artists, without touring, were mostly all terrified on how to survive. This has taught me how to value myself as an artist more. Now that I’m not distracted from the tour grind, I see how fucked up it all is and can’t unsee it.

This has lead me to become pretty combative and direct surrounding unfairness with certain industry pieces I’ve interacted with this year—including my own label, as well as a little Amazon episode where I called them out for not paying artists on their own platform. (Which, ironically, resulted in getting paid). The backward structure in the industry exists everywhere, and I hope after this we can reclaim it. Moving forward, I don’t see myself being taken advantage of anymore.

I miss touring—or do I miss the idea of touring? Being cooped up for this long has made me yearn for touring. But when I think back to being on tour, I remember being very exhausted, burned out and barely able to actually enjoy the beauty of it sometimes. I think when time comes to revisit tour, it’s going to look very different, and it should. After living an entire year, slowly, healthily, eating and sleeping regularly and comfortably, I realized how much sacrifice of basic human necessity tour can be at times. And maybe it doesn’t need to be that way.

I don’t think I want to ever play 150-plus shows a year again and go on month-long tours where we play every night. Why did anyone ever go on at 11 p.m.? I am seeing 5 p.m. doors, 6 p.m. opener, 7 p.m. headliner, bed by 9 p.m. Maybe a couple days spent in each city to absorb the environment, rest and be able to put on the best show. No more of this unnecessary grind that was killing just about everyone I knew.

COVID has allowed me to evaluate life based on just being alive and has made it so my work does not dictate every decision I make. I always could have been anywhere, but I didn’t realize it until this year. In a way, that’s been great. It’s been a huge part of why I am back in Philly. The lockdown allowed Chiara and me to ask ourselves, “Do we even like where we live? Why are we here if we don’t?” And suddenly, we were rapidly making decisions for our own life and mental state rather than our job as artists.

All that being said, this past year may have crushed me into a diamond. And for that, thank you, but I can not wait for this to be over and re-enter into the world, travel, play and make records on my own terms. And never take it for granted.