E.W. Harris is a singer/songwriter who is based in Brooklyn and performs internationally. This interview speaks to the logistics, realities and significance of touring and playing live, both at home and abroad, from a North American perspective.
This blog post is based on an email interview with Emma Webster on 29 November 2017, which was part of the UK Live Music Census project. The report and executive summary, published on 16 February 2018, are available here.
How do you describe yourself as a musician?
I’d say that these days I gravitate towards archetypical singer/songwriter, but that comes from necessity and convenience really. I’m kind of a sci-fi fantasy writer that sings, the musical part is basically whatever I can manage given the situation. As it happens, what I do has been most embraced by the folk singer/songwriter community, so I guess…as much as it pains me in the abstract…I am a folk singer/songwriter.
Tell me about your first ever gig: in what type of venue was it, how did it come about, and what are some of your memories of the gig.
Ha! I don’t know if I can remember my first gig, I’ve been at this since I was about 12 years old, in various forms. My first gig as a grownup though (where being a songwriting kid is no longer cute) was at the Georgia Bar, in Athens Georgia. The GA bar (as the sign reads) isn’t a venue per se, it’s a decrepit watering hole across the street from the rather famous Georgia Theatre. At the time I had just got a job at Wal-Mart, had moved out of my van and into a real apartment, and was busking for change when a guy (my now friend Mark, who co-produced and financed Re-Entry) wanted me to open for a band he played in at this place. I remember the “stage” was just a cleared area in the corner of the bar just before the bathrooms, and the PA system was one of those ludicrously heavy Peavy things from the 80’s, encrusted with years of dust, tobacco tar, and who knows what else. I also remember I got dressed up for the the thing, I bought some slacks at the thrift store and an awful chenille sweater that I thought was really slick at the time. I also had a beat up purple bowler-type hat, that matched the beat up purple ovation guitar I bought with my paperboy money in the 90’s. As I recall the gig was good, and I was paid a percentage of the bar. The thing I remember most though was alternately being mildly electrocuted by the the microphone, and dodging mystery liquids that would drip down from above directly above the stage.
How important to you as a musician is live music (economically, socially, etc.)? How important is live music to your musical career compared, say, to recorded music?
I’d say live music is very important to me as a musician in every way. Economically, it is my principal source of income. It’s an event in a way that listening to a recording is not, and it can be sold that way. Socially, it is important as well. My entire social life is made up of musicians, and people I’ve met through some kind of music related social vector. I wouldn’t have ever even met any of these people were live music not a thing. Live music, particularly showcases and song club type events (though proper gigs do this too), is a bit of a moving marketplace for me where I go for recreation, to meet people, and to do business.
Can you name a venue (in the UK) which has been particularly important to your career, and why?
There’s a few I’d say, and I keep trying to add more. Nice & Sleazy in Glasgow was the nexus by which I solidified all of my Glaswegian connections. The people at The Speculative Bookshop (and Dale & Anna McMullen and Sam Small in particular) have been hugely helpful to me career-wise. They keep close tabs on projects I’m doing and always write about them in tandem with their own activities. We typically do gigs elsewhere (at The Old Hairdressers), but Nice & Sleazy was the launch point (and typically the venue for the afterparty) The Bluebird Cafe in Edinburgh is another one. Kylie McGregor is the proprietor and she puts on incredible shows all the time in that space and others around town. Oporto in Leeds has also been very important for me. The guy who runs that gig Nick Simcock (Dead Young Records) has kind of been the nexus by which I have been able to access the rest of the north of England. Really it’s about the people behind these things rather than the venues that have been important. The people who run the Music Inn house concerts in Oxford, for example, have been consistently been giving me an excuse to come over for years now.
Tell me about touring. For example, how often do you tour and to where?
I try and do one US tour, and one international tour per year if I can manage it. Ideally, I would like to be in a position to tour one month on, three months off consistently. Here is the rubric I use when deciding where to begin. I try to do 60% low risk 30% medium risk and 10% high risk gigs in a given tour. Low risk are things like pub gigs with a negotiated guarantee, established concert series like The Music Inn or the Gaslight Club in Leeds, familiar territory with active fan engagement and dependable local support. Medium risk are ticket gigs with a known quality promoter, somewhat familiar territory, a new venue with a known territory/promoter, an unknown house concert situation (like sofar sounds). Pretty much gigs that are probably going to be good, but could be wrecked by the weather or an surprise Ed Sheeran concert. High risk gigs are anything totally new. Someone’s first house concert, a ticket gig in a new town with an unknown promoter. These are easily the most work for the least immediate gain, but if I didn’t include them I probably wouldn’t be touring at all, let alone expanding my touring area. That distribution is then applied to the route. Low risk gigs can be very far apart, but proximity is the key to loss control as the risk goes up. This last tour for example, our highest risk was a Tuesday ticket gig in Manchester. We got bounced around to various promoters, people kept being added to the bill, and the final promoter got sick on the day of. If it weren’t between two low risk gigs (Oporto in Leeds, and a pub gig in Halifax), we probably wouldn’t have done it. Or if it were even as far as York it probably wouldn’t have made sense. It’s a bit different in the US as the distances are greater, and a car is required, but the principle is pretty much the same.
How important is touring outside the UK to your career?
I’d say very important, as I’m based in the US. In many ways it is much more convenient to tour at home (particularly on the east coast) and I have been doing groundwork here for many years. It is also fairly important to me to tour in Europe as people in many places (like Germany & Ireland) have money they like to spend on minimalist songwriter music. There also seems to be a pretty established circuit of folk clubs and house concerts that is specifically looking for English language indie songwriters.
How does the UK compare to Europe as a touring destination?
For me as a folk music outsider the UK is much better than Europe. The UK seems to have a far more liberal idea of what “Americana” is than Europe does. If played bluegrass, country, jazz, blues, or even Irish Trad, Europe would likely be better. These are all established formats, and (in my experience) European audiences respond better to that, especially coupled with the “myth of authenticity.” I don’t know how many times I’ve been advertised as a bluegrass/jazz/country act much to the disappointment of a German crowd. For me the UK is better, because I just do what I do and people seem to like it. My friend Richard Young is a touring songwriter in the UK, but he loves American songwriters. He says it’s because “American songwriters are writing about the same things but it’s wacked out and mad somehow…I mean we’ve got David Bowie, Richard Thompson and Robin Hitchcock, but that’s about it.” I don’t know how this connects exactly to the question, but it seems to. All in all, I seem to connect to UK audiences/promoters/event organizers better, and with that connection it’s easier to sell records and tickets, so that makes it a better touring destination for me.
How, if at all, have festivals impacted on your musical career?
Pretty much not at all. The only ones I’ve regularly participated in are those in which I had a hand in running. In addition to this I am a notorious “genre jumper” and most intro level festivals are organized around a given genre/community. These things combined with my reticence to pay application fees means my festival experience is limited. When I toured with a rock band, this was much more important, but as a singer/songwriter I have played no festivals of note.
Have your gigs been negatively affected by any external factors such as noise complaints or venue closures (in the UK)?
Most definitely, in the US too. It is most obvious with promoters. They get very nervous about time frames, and as they usually want to load the bill with local support show logistics becomes very complicated very quickly. Luckily none of my favorite venues has closed, and in my current acoustic format getting too loud is rarely a problem, but it does cause the back end people to be more wary about taking risks. It makes sense, the owners feel like they might get fined at any time, which makes them come down on the talent buyers and staff, which makes them come down on the promoters, and then on the artists. My only real complaint is the after gig time (which is the ripest time for sales and networking) almost always gets cut short as people are hustled out due to noise curfews. We try to post up at exits to catch people on the way out, but that doesn’t always work well. Unlike dance acts or heavy metal I don’t really feel the full force of this as acoustic guitars and singing are usually a bit more yuppie friendly.
What do you see as the greatest threats to live music at the current time?
Lack of communication/understanding between venues, and the same thing amongst promoters. They seem to be unwilling to cooperate with one another, get overly cliquish and generally uninterested in maintaining the scene that gives rise to their existence. Without a strong group of promoters and talent buyers working together, going to see live music seems less like a cool event, and more like a thing you do to become a hipster, or to support your boy/girlfriend’s rock and roll fantasy. Unless you’re already a convert, going to live music just doesn’t seem that fun or accessible, so you save up to go to a Coldplay show, kinda hate it, and just listen to the same music you’ve been listening to since high school on spotify.
That seems to be the long term threat. Live music seems rarefied and boutique somehow, even when it’s poppy love songs and that, so people just recycle the hits at home or go see a cover band so long as the gig is at a place they already frequent. I can do the live jukebox with the best of em, but it’s not the most rewarding work and the pay has steadily declined since I started doing it in the late 90’s. Gentrification is a problem as well. Noise complaints and city ordinances are a threat to live music, particularly loud live music in neighborhoods that were made cool by the presence of venues. As ironic as this is, it seems to me that it would sort itself out, the story would continue, another part of town would become cool, new venues would open…if there were more money to go around, but promoters aren’t creating a fertile ground for that. I don’t think live music is ever going to be a profession that Grandma tells you to go into (like computers), but I do think a more consumer accessible, cooperative environment would be better for everyone. Musicians do try this themselves from time to time, but it often feels like an “Artist only club” and falls apart as soon as someone has a kid. That (long windedly) said, the basic problem is the lack of moving capital, money goes in but doesn’t come out, people try something else to make a buck. Folks love music, but they’ve got 500 years of it to choose from and nearly 100 years of that recorded in real time, pretty much all for free, whenever they want it. Only the devotees know how much cooler new, in person, in your face live music actually is.
What do you think government (city council, national and/or UK) could do to improve the live music scene in your hometown or more widely?
As an American, I can’t really shake my first idea (or my distaste for it) which is protective cultural legislation (and of course the funding that accompanies it). This is fine for the more academic ends of music, many interesting musical forms should go into the undead state that the work of Shoenburg finds itself. The thing is that I feel like what would ultimately happen is the same as what has happened to the visual arts in Scandinavia, still clinging to mid 20th century abstract expressionism. I’m really not trying to see a “piece” by Nirvana performed by the Horance Mann middle school grunge band at the Civic Arts Center…not yet anyway. What I think governments should do instead is take a page out of the book of South Street Studios in Ipswich. As I understand it, South Street Studios is an outreach charity organization that is home to recording studios, a full on small venue, and a bar. The place provides low cost resources to musicians (rehearsal space, recording), training for sound engineers, training for lighting techs, training in venue management, and a low cost venue space for would be promoters to try to put on events. When I played there the door was run by a young guy involved in the program who had his own radio station, and he also assisted with the sound setup supervised by an experienced engineer. The lighting tech was a kid who couldn’t have been 17, and the whole thing was kind of passively managed by the one of the guys that started the thing. In addition to that they recorded our performance (unmixed) to be used as a resource for people learning to mix a live show. It was really cool. The engineers got paid, the bands/promoters keep the door, the place keeps the bar sales. I feel like something like this sustains itself, gives kids something to do in the community, creates a familiarity with music and music adjacent professions that makes it accessible, and is creating a foundational environment in which live music can thrive without mucking around with the art form.