Creativity in Isolation and a Positive Outlook — Catching Up with NJ Musicians a Year after COVID Lockdown

by Ed Magdziak • April 29, 2021 • Arts & Entertainment, MusicComments (0)229

COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on all facets of life. Many have lost their lives or loved ones’ lives, lost their jobs, struggled with mental health issues, and been separated from those they love. Many industries have been severely decimated due to the pandemic as well. The entertainment industry is no exception and that includes the music scene in New Jersey. Bands whose main source of revenue are shows and tours have lost those options completely. Venues have struggled to keep their doors open or in the worst case scenario have closed.

A few weeks ago Alice and I were guests on the OneMore with Brian Erickson show along with Chris Fox of Ruby Bones. Talking a bit after after the show finished we wondered what the local music scene would look like now that things have slowly begun to open up. Will the scene come back stronger than ever? Will more fans come out to shows that have been starved of live music for so long? I have already seen memes that basically say “I can’t wait to play for the same 15 fans again.” There is a sting of truth to this. Will venues be hesitant to take a chance on a smaller band or would they only work with bands with a strong built-in base. Will there be enough space for everyone who wants to play?

I thought about this for a few days after that show and decided I would reach out to some musicians to see what they have been up to during this time and what they hope for in the coming months. I asked each of them the same 3 questions. The results are fascinating. These creative artists have pivoted and focused in on other areas to take their craft in new directions. Some have a deeper commitment to songwriting, are learning new production techniques, have played lawn shows door-to-door, are writing poetry, or even mastering wood carving. Looking to the future I think the thread that ties all the answers together is a kind of guarded optimism.

I share this optimism and hope to see you at a show in the near future.

The 3 questions are below.

As a musician, how did you adapt your craft during the pandemic?

What do you hope for on the live music scene once things open up closer to normal?

What NJ artist are you most looking forward to seeing live again?

Brian Erickson – The Extensions

In lieu of being able to rehearse with my band, The Extensions, I went ahead and released my first-ever solo recordings. I dumped a bunch of gear and instruments out onto my kitchen table and established one rule: if it doesn’t fit here, it doesn’t go on the album! So the adaptation came by way of self-recording and production. That was something I had only ever done privately before. But now it’s something I really want to do again! I’m very lucky to have been able to do it.

Part of me thinks it’ll be a while before things even out; that venues – in the interest of making back as much money as possible – might actually tighten up and not be willing or able to give new bands as much of a chance. I hope that isn’t true though.

I can’t wait to see Lowlight or Joy on Fire. I also hear Angie Sugrim might un-retire. If she gets back on stage, I’ll take a front row ticket, please!

Photo: Cool Dad Music

Renee Maskin – Lowlight

I took the leap I had been avoiding for many years and began to learn how to record on my own. And it was actually more fun and less frustrating than I thought it would be, although I have looked over a lot of shoulders and been through the process many times since I began writing songs. So I had some idea of what to do going into it.

I just hope things become safe enough to actually get closer to normal sometime soon.  And that the venues we all know and enjoy can weather all of this, and all of our musicians and tech/crew members as well.

I can’t wait to see all of my friends and peers in Asbury Park back in action again. And if Sharon Van Etten were to make an appearance too, I would also be pretty damn psyched.

Laree Cisco

I mean, I don’t get out much, so the whole live streaming thing was the perfect avenue for me to get music out to people. It was fun. I called the series “Laree Sings in Black and White” because I would….well, sing in black and while. Kill the saturation, and crank up the contrast. It was very film noir. Whatever that means. I got to do my annual Nirvana birthday show where I do all Nirvana covers, and the rest of the streams were just my silly songs and random covers. It was great! People seemed to enjoy them.

Man, I just hope the locals can strive like we did before. We’ve lost some great venues due to this pandemic, and I think the scene has a pretty big fight on their hands. That word “normal” will hopefully take shape into something that everyone, fans and bands alike, can find some sort of common ground where we feel safe to get near each other without a precautionary side eye. We’ll pull through. How ever long it takes.

Gosh. SixToEight Mathematics are always a good time. Whatever Jenny Cat is up to, whether it’s Jenny and the Felines or Chiba Neko. I recently did a live stream on BlowUpRadio with Greg McGarvey. I really dig his music. My homie Dennis AKA Son of Dov. Last but not least, me. Because I haven’t played a live show in about 14 years. Maybe I’ll do it with a band. Never mind, I think I just pulled a muscle thinking about the logistics of getting 3 other people in a room together.

Rachel Ana Dobken

The pandemic has presented challenges in multiple ways for all of us. (God bless those who have lost loved ones during this very real and trying time.) As musicians especially we’ve had to re-adjust to the harsh realities of life during Covid. No gigs, no ability to socialize, no ability to tour… it’s been weird. For me personally I have learned to accept and appreciate this time for it’s allowed me to slow down, focus on my mental and physical well-being, and get back to what I love the most about being an artist- CREATING. I’ve taken this time in isolation to hone my craft, practice, push myself as much as I can and write. To be grateful for the little things like time with my family and being able to really focus on writing.  I have been chipping away a new album that I’m very excited to share. It’s been a slow burn for this one.

I am hoping that things can return to the way they were. That we will all be able to see each other out, both as performers and supporters going to see and play with our friends / favorite bands. I’m hoping to see venues up and running again, (I worry about those who may not have made it) not only because they really need the business, but because these places are community/cultural/musical hubs. I know I’m not alone in saying I have certainly missed my friends and basic everyday interactions. You don’t realize how much we need that human connection. The organic nature of meeting / seeing / ending up jamming with so-and-so… this is what we need back and I look forward to.

There are too many to name!! All of the Asbury Park musicians that make this place and the Tri-State Area the magical place it is. I also had recently been playing a bit in Jersey City and NYC prior to Covid and am looking forward to reconnecting with a lot of those musicians as well.

Chris Fox – Ruby Bones

Nobody was asking us to play shows, so we got to go into full on recording mode and wrapped this record that was starting to eat my soul. I also got to write and start recording three other records, some of which you’ve heard! Please don’t put it on Napster or Lars from Metallica is gonna have my ass.

For awful “promoters” to have their hearts grow three sizes like the Grinch and stop wondering why I can’t bring 98 people out on a Tuesday night for my 1:00 am slot in your dive bar. But for real, I hope there are some new kinds of venues that pop up and cultivate a place that people want to go to drink with friends and enjoy the fact that bands are coming in to play. The rat race of places existing ONLY to try and get bands to funnel in people on a $30 ticket to buy overpriced alcohol and scrape by should end. I’d rather play a basement or coffee shop to 20 people than a small venue harassing every act to bring a crowd they can’t get themselves. This is all an effect of late stage capitalism but I don’t have the time to get into it here and nobody wants to read it. Haha.

Positively, an example of a places doing it right are Langosta Lounge and the Wonder Bar in Asbury. Great spaces, cool bars, good bands, not a nightmare to book. That’s the dream, baby!

BRUUUUUUCCCCEEEEE! Is there another acceptable answer to that question? Quality Living is a close second, love that stupid band.

Photo: Cody Cutter

Blaise

As the pandemic started, I was in the process of being in the studio once a week for the last two years creating a follow up to my album Velvet Noir. Suddenly, I was forced to stop and figure out a way to continue my art without having that in person think tank I so loved and needed. What was first thought a nightmare led to some pretty great adaptations to the process. My producer and I started to have “tub sessions”. Once a week I would go into the bathroom (best acoustics), get into the empty tub(fully clothed) and we would have our sessions via Google hangouts. With stay-at-home orders, I was also able to have unlimited time to write and focus on what and how I wanted to evolve sonically and lyrically. What was a very long process ended up hitting into high gear and creating some of the best music of my career. In a tub. Over Google hangouts.

I hope that the music scene falls into place again. Obviously safety is the utmost priority, but I need the stage, I need to sing for people and give a show, that’s when I am fully alive. I also cannot wait to be in the crowd too, watching music with a crowd. I also feel like after this all the people who constantly say “yeah I’ll be at your show , yeah I’ll come out” have had to live without for so long they will actually put in that effort. I know for myself I will be everywhere and perform everywhere possible the minute I am able.

I am most excited to see myself perform live again!!!!! LOL. But if I had to pick from my many many many favorite local acts I am so excited to gods again.

Photo: Jenna Murphy

Natalie Newbold – Well Wisher

Without shows I was struggling to find ways to express myself and to feel connected to the music community. Finding other avenues like live streams and working on my poetry, art and songwriting really helped me refocus my energy and be in a more positive headspace. Last year I put out 6 acoustic songs that really challenged what I thought I was capable of. The band and I have also been demoing and recording new songs with Erik Kase Romero since the summer of 2020. We are looking forward to having new music out in 2021!

It’s been a hard year for everyone in the music industry. It was devastating to watch some of my favorite venues across the country permanently close their doors. I hope that once stuff starts opening up again there will be a greater appreciation for artists and the venues that host them. These spaces, from basements to dive bars to large theaters and venues, are foundational to our music communities and we can’t take them for granted.

Oh man! I can’t wait to see our friends who put out amazing albums this past year like Teenage Halloween, Hit Like a Girl, ManDancing and stillhungry – live and in person!

John Cozz

I feel like not much changed for me in terms of writing songs. I did feel a lack of juice for awhile and got really frustrated trying to write so I spent a lot of time practicing and learning other people’s songs which I never really do. I tried to do the whole live stream thing and it just felt too weird for me, it didn’t scratch the itch of performing that I missed. I did however make a prerecorded live set, then when it streamed on Twitch was a part of a message board and that was a lot of fun.

Three band bills, show ends at 10:00 pm, 25 minute sets, venues with good food. Recipe for a perfect gig IMO. I’m sure the general consensus is “I hope people actually come to shows now” but A. I don’t think that’ll change B. I don’t care. People have freewill to do what they want and most people don’t love live music at local spots.

Umm tough question. So many of my friends put out music through Covid that I haven’t gotten to see live so it’s probably a safe bet to just say them. LKFFCT, Whiner, Skylar Pocket, Tula Vera, Ogbert the Nerd, Shred Flintstone. I just reread this and realized you said artist not artists, you can pick one of those people they’re all good choices.

Photo: Okie Dokie Studio

Katie Miller – Kate Dressed Up

I spent the first few months working hard at trying to become a better musician, just working on the fundamentals. Lots of guitar scales, learning new music theory, vocal exercises. All the things that I never had time to do when I was scrambling every day planning for shows and releases and all the other things that go into being an independent musician. I organized a live video session with the band that’s been sitting in pieces on various computers for the last few months–I’m sure that will see the light of day eventually. I was also blessed with the opportunity to throw a virtual Gurlzilla in November 2020 featuring musicians from Philadelphia and Minnesota. That was a major turning point for me in the sense that I remembered for the first time since well before the pandemic that music is supposed to actually be fun and personally meaningful. I had gotten pretty caught up in conventional notions of success and the last year definitely helped me free myself from those kinds of pressures and limitations. My band was assembled for a 2020 summer tour, and for some reason they still want to make music with me even when we can’t go anywhere or perform very often. They’re the most talented group I’ve had under the Kate Dressed Up umbrella all at the same time, so in a strange way I’ve been having some of the most musically fulfilling moments of the whole Kate Dressed Up saga within this last crazy year.

I hope that all the people who are “on the ground” in the music industry–artists, techs/engineers, and yes even independent promoters and venues–are given the value that they deserve. We’ve all experienced the loss of gathering in an artistic/expressive setting, and so I hope there is a wider understanding now that artists and those involved on the production side at all levels deserve fair compensation for their work. I hope audience members and fans show support to all of us who have been struggling. And then personally, I just want to see some familiar faces and hear about how everyone is doing, maybe even share some hugs. I used to complain about the obligation to socialize at shows, and now there’s nothing I’d rather be doing on a Saturday night. Or any night of the week, for that matter.

In no particular order: Lowlight, ManDancing, Little Hag, The Vaughns, Jeff Linden. All their music is really special and they put on performances that are straight up transcendent. I would also have to throw SZA in the mix if that became an option. I only got to see her perform once for the The Championship Tour in 2019, and her set was far too short for my taste.

Joe Makoviecki & James Black – Jackson Pines

Joe: Not being able to gather without precautions changed everything. We’ve always operated under the conditions of hanging out and being together so often, the music didn’t need to be scheduled. We’d be playing shows so often and hanging in the downtime, so we’d just always be writing and practicing. In the beginning we didn’t see each other from March til about June. That sucked. Our record got pushed back, I was creatively frustrated, but released the single “Half Light” for a good cause with Fred Knettel of Smithsonian Folkways. That helped. Months later, once we got a handle on what to do, how to time quarantine and testing, we planned our new record and everyone learned most of the songs through email. Garageband demos and chord sheets. We decided to do all the quarantining and testing after the holidays, so we recorded in person this past January, once everyone was deemed healthy. So our new single “Anna Lee”, was recorded live in a room, together, like any other record of ours. But all the post-editing and mix/master was done online through Zoom.

Jackson Pines: We hope to get to see all the new upcoming artists and new bands that are coming into their own, during a pandemic nonetheless. Also, we look forward to artists focusing on community and the love of rad music that brings us all together, instead of the Spotify-stream, follower-based, rat-race bullshit.

James: The damn Porchistas!

Photo: David Ross Lawn

Jackie June

It wasn’t easy. A lot of highs and lows. But, I worked on my piano skills quite a bit! I’m still not great, but definitely improved a lot.

I honestly just want to play again, but hope all venues and attendees will follow safety protocols. It would be great to see less shows but more collaboration. It’s much more difficult to draw a crowd nowadays…between losing the momentum you had prior to the pandemic and people who aren’t quite ready to go to shows yet. If we maybe have less shows but more people on the bill to help fill the room, it could be an ideal situation. Helps everyone all around!

Solo- Gina Royale ; Band- The Victory Drive

Max Rauch – LKFFCT and MAUCH

I’ve spent a lot of time writing and jamming by myself. Not being able to meet up with my bandmates and have in-person practices was definitely a huge shock at first but we still managed to throw together a couple of recordings and I’m very thankful for that. I participated in one livestream set but truthfully it felt kind of weird. Happy that the technology exists for this type of thing and that people seem to be enjoying it but for me it doesn’t quite scratch the itch of performing live.

I’d like to see shows w/ fewer acts become normalized. I also think venues/promoters could chill out w/ asking bands to load in at 5pm when the show starts at 9.

Bruce Springsteen

Photo: Mike Forgie

Emily Bornemann – Dentist

In the beginning of the pandemic there was so much free time to just sit and write. We started doing live streams, which is nice but it’s just not the same as playing live music to bodies in front of you. About 6 months in, It all started feeling hopeless. I lost all motivation to write or play because in my mind I thought “what’s the point?” something we all thought would be over in a few weeks was now lasting months with no end in sight. There is this drive in me to make music and it felt like Covid took its big combat boot and crushed it. So I don’t believe I was one of the musicians who adapted well AT ALL. Of course, with cases dropping vaccines in hand it feels like I’ve been given a new life and that sense of hope has returned! Back to writing, recording and doing the thing!

My hope is that people will be a bit more understanding of the musicians’ struggle. Less asking to be on guest lists, pay the cover, buy the merch, support the artist. It’s been a hard year for musicians and show goers and we really need each other more now than ever.

Literally anyone of them! I can not wait to see live shows again!!

Matthew Smith – Hodera & Bravely

I started putting my energy into other art forms, like wood carving. I also just started writing more music, since there was no time for shows or promoting records.

I honestly just hope that shows will be able to go back to normal. I cant imagine a basement or DIY show where people are masked and social distanced. I hope we can get to a place where a maskless pile up is possible again.

 ManDancing

Foxanne

During the pandemic, obviously we couldn’t play shows so I figured out a livestream setup and started trying to locate friends who hosted livestream gigs and other virtual performance opportunities that we might not have even known about otherwise. I also had to seriously change the album release plan as the record was completed amidst the pandemic. So while we otherwise would have been able to have a release show, toured with the record and pitched it to labels/managment, we had to adapt to the quickly changing music industry.

I just hope that I can feel safe and have an audience that feels safe. I am desperate to perform live again but I want to make sure that that happens when everyone will be safe at a show.

I can’t wait to see and play with local artists like Little Hag, Kate Dressed Up and stillhungry again!

Alejandro Ataucusi – Forbidden Tropics

The pandemic gave me more time to write full scores for the songs I’ve composing for Forbidden Tropics. Although writing full scores can be time consuming, it was the most effective way to share what I was working with my bandmates since we couldn’t practice. I also worked on my guitar chops to start doing more solo guitar gigs since I haven’t been able to play shows with a full band.

I hope that without exceeding the limited capacity of music venues, people come and support as much as they can the artists they’ve been following, and also discover more bands that may be starting to perform, and are looking for that one gig to start building a fan base.

There are too many to mention, but if I were to mention a few it would be Bad Blooms, Bryan Hansen Band, Apollo Sonders, and Woke Robot!

Dano

During the pandemic, I used this opportunity to go ALL IN on my craft. It’s actually mind blowing for me to think about this and how much I learned over the past year. First, I knew I needed to learn how to use a DAW. So I took an amazing course (Produce Like a Boss) and learned how to record, produce myself, and use Logic which has been the biggest game changer for me. Second, I knew I needed to hone in on my vocals. I hadn’t seen improvement in my voice for a long time and there were some areas I was stuck on. Once the pandemic settled down a little, I started practicing twice a week at the Jam Room, and a few months ago hired a fabulous vocal coach I found on Tik Tok who has already made a tremendous improvement on my voice. But most importantly, I spent most of this time working on my mindset. I had major, I mean major, issues with self doubt, believing in myself, and being able to write and create freely. This is the area I’ve seen the greatest improvement in by far and it is helping me in literally every other aspect of music and my life as a whole.

I can’t wait to get in there and play! Before the pandemic, I dabbled a little here and there with live shows, but due to the aforementioned self doubt issues I never gave it my all. I would go to shows and watch the amazing talent on stage and think “I wish I could go up there and join them.” Now I’m finally ready to get out there and share music straight from my heart to the listeners ears. I was never comfortable with being so vulnerable and honest before. But now, I’m ready.

Ahhh this is SUCH a tough question! First I definitely have to say The Extensions and Fake Pockets, because they were some of my most favorite shows to go to pre-pandemic. I also really would love to hear Brian Erickson play some songs from his album Little Secrets which kept me sane through the pandemic! But in addition to this, over the course of the year as we lived online I made some really great and genuine friendships with other super talented artists like Rory D’Lasnow, Jackie June, s0ulfood, Foxanne (who’s in LA now but I’m sure will be playing in NJ!), and Kate Dressed Up. I can’t wait until I can rock out at their shows in person!

Darrel Norrell – Quality Living

Very early on, I felt I oughta just record as much music as I could so that we’d be ready with a wave of new stuff when the time came. Good excuse not to livestream, too, which I really didn’t want to do. I had a lot to learn about recording and production, which meant I had a very reliable/productive thing to escape to. By the time the holidays ended, I had completely overhauled my setup and gotten a tiny bit closer to knowing what I’m doing. So, in spite of all the horrors faced and costs incurred … I can say I at least tried to make a bit of lemonade. The writing process evolved a lot for us since then, too. Albert, Danny, and Harrison have been coming by almost weekly to try and make sense of whatever nonsense I’m cooking up. It’s very relaxed. I love it.

Maybe just for things to be fresh and new and different. New places to play, new sounds to hear, new faces and their friends’ faces. If there’s a wave of activity and enthusiasm following the pandemic, my hope is that it lasts.

Many of them, but it’s gotta be John Cozz!

Matt Daniels – Flexiglass

During the start of the pandemic, I felt the deep pain of musicians and concert goers alike, as we entered a period of uncertainty in regards to creativity, artist experience and financial income. This drove me to begin the Flexin Your Front Yard tour, in which I traveled from house to house, playing a mini concert for the people of Asbury Park. Bringing music to people in such a tough time was synergetic not the joy that it brought for each individual involved.

I look forward to a cumulative fellowship with the people I love and deeply care about. I look forward to hosting and attending events that both provide entertainment and advocate for the progression of our social structure.

I highly look forward to seeing Brian Erickson and the Extensions. Their crafty songwriting, catchy tunes and palpable energy are reasons why I can’t wait to see these guys shred again!

Caroline Davidson aka Ghost Harbor

A lot of adapting took place…I moved to Jersey from Brooklyn right at the beginning of the pandemic. Moving away from my friends and artistic circle, I had difficulty writing for a while. My plans to release an EP changed, as did my immediate personal musical efforts overall – I shifted my energy into opening up an arts space in Asbury Park, Ghost Harbor Creative, that would provide other musicians a platform to perform livestream sets during the pandemic. I am so grateful that worked out—I opened the space at the end of September 2020 — as it was incredibly inspiring to meet and try to help local musicians during this time. Meanwhile, I quietly worked on my own music, and released a few singles that were originally part of the EP I intended to promote pre-pandemic. I’m finally writing new songs that I hope to soon perform live and record.

Because artists had to rely so heavily on technology during the past year, the way we collaborate and interact has changed. There are more and more online outlets to promote, play, and meet other musicians, which is fabulous. But honestly, there’s no comparison to actually performing amongst other people, in the flesh, feeding off of one another’s energy. It’s just a simple human-to-human connection that I hope to return to. I’ve never played to huge audiences, and it’ll be okay if I never do. I just look forward to basking in the feelings of shared musical interaction, however large or tiny the platform. Hopefully I’ll be able to share a stage with some of the musicians I met during the pandemic.

I feel very lucky to run an art space because through this I was able to host some amazing New Jersey musician livestreams (including Brian Erickson, Pam Flores, The Well Wish, Jackie June, Rory D’Lasnow, Drew the Recluse, and others). I look forward to seeing some great local acts like Tara Dente, Dentist, and The Extensions. But I’m also a metalhead, so if there were an opportunity to see God Forbid or Incantation again, I’d jump in the pit hella quick. 😉

Chris Gennone – CR and the Nones

Well I began writing new songs and working on this new record during the pandemic. And I think that not really being able to see anyone really forced me to take the reins and not rely so much on others. On past Degenerates records, recording was more collaborative where everyone kind of contributed their own thing to the songs. On my last record, Living in Fear, it was still collaborative since Max Rauch and I wrote several riffs and things together, but it was kind of my first time really focusing on a particular sound and vibe. And for this new record I’m working on, the pandemic has really helped push that to the next level. I’m playing most of the instruments on it, including bass, guitar leads, riffs, and harmonies and it’s been incredibly rewarding. It’s made me a better musician. And I’m excited for what’s next.

I think the biggest thing I’m hoping for is the ability to play shows. I’ve been really optimistic about it but I do feel like booking shows is going to be incredibly competitive and difficult because everyone’s going to want to play, and every venue needs to bounce back financially, so it might be a little tough. But at the same time, everyone wants to go to shows again too so it could be great. I still think it’s going to be a fun summer and there’ll be a ton of live music happening again.

So many. I miss seeing Joy Cleaner. I want to see my friend Andrew Merclean’s new band. Also Tom Barrett, Glazer, and others.

Dave & Tom

DAVE: On of the biggest adaptions that Tom and I made during the pandemic was making the internet our new stage. I was so used to playing live shows, engaging with the audience, and meeting new people. Once that was put on pause, we weren’t sure what to do. But then we started to do our weekly covers, which then turned into shorter TikToks, which we now do with old and new friends. It was tough to navigate at first, but now we’re having a blast doing these videos. Anyone who wants to collab, feel free to message us on Insta!

TOM: During the pandemic, we had a ton of time to write on our own and also collaborate, which wasn’t something I got to focus on much with the hustle and bustle of playing live. We also had the chance to make friends with many new artists we had never met prior to being fully virtually. It allowed me to spend a ton of time accumulating pieces, and converting our practice space into a home recording studio which was nice.

DAVE: I hope, and know, the music scene will come back stronger than ever. I think before the pandemic, people took live shows for granted. Both performers and attendees. Maybe not fully understanding the communal and therapeutic emotions that are shared during those moments. Right now, I yearn for a sweaty, drunken, late night show at the yacht club with friends and family. No ego. Just good music, and good hangs.

TOM: I simply can’t wait to hear what my other favorite songwriters in the scene have created throughout the past 14 months. I’m sure there are some beautiful songs out there.

DAVE & TOM: Oh boy how many are we allowed to list? Lowlight, Brian Erickson, Rory D’Lasnow, Bobby Mahoney, and Olivia Bec, just to name a few.



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