SongWriter is a podcast of stories and “answer songs,” featuring performances by Roxane Gay, Joyce Carol Oates, Ted Leo, Susan Orlean, Toshi Reagon, and Michael Ian Black. You can hear an exclusive preview of the episode featuring Lou Barrett and Michelle Gaw at Noisetrade.
When the first season of SongWriter came out I wasn’t sure how to let folks know about it, and being a middle-aged dumb person I did what I’ve always done when promoting a record, which was to book a tour. Touring for most indie musicians has always been a bravado shell game, each one born in the hope that someday the numbers will work. Exceedingly few indie artists make money touring. Musicians do get paid—which is more than most authors on book tours can say—but the balance sheet of the road is merciless. Income from albums, T-shirts, and venues is quickly absorbed by flights, hotels, gas, food, and health insurance, and too often liened against time away from a day gig. God forbid your vehicle breaks down.
Still, showing up in a town earns an instantly credible pitch to local media, especially radio stations, and if you can share your work with 5,000—or in a large market even 20,000—listeners, that’s a good day of art-flogging. In fact, for indies like me the math has slowly shifted, so that the radio and local press have become the primary reason to go to a town, with the gig as a welcome after-thought.
All of which explains how I ended up in Cleveland, Ohio, last year, scheduled to play a house concert with local songwriter Michelle Gaw. Michelle gigs in Cleveland both as a solo artist and in the band Mimi Arden, and she was kind enough to not only help me pull together a gig, but to find an extraordinary storyteller, Lou Barrett, to inspire new songs from both of us.
Lou is a they/them femme and an essayist, poet, and blogger, and a founder of Purpled Palm Press. Lou told a story about falling in love with their best friend in high school, and the striking fluidity of kinship and identity they experienced. Lou told me that, unlike many LGBTQ folks, they feel their identity has an element of choice. “Some people are like, ‘This isn’t a choice for me,’ and I think that’s just as valid and interesting of an experience as someone like me, who’s saying, ‘No, I think I’m choosing some of this.’”
Michelle wrote a song called “What Makes a Friend,” in response. She said that, like Lou, she has experienced profound intimacy with friends, and in ways that at times felt deeper than sexual intimacy. “There are people I’ve seen naked that I don’t know anything about,” she said.
As it turned out, I wasn’t able to talk my way onto any Cleveland radio stations, but that night at the show with Lou and Michelle the audience hung on every note. I was reminded (again) that my favorite part of touring isn’t the accumulation of impressions, but the palpable emotional synthesis of humans in a room, together.
Listen to the latest episode of SongWriter at Noisetrade.