[From left]: Bartees Strange, Anjimile and Jordana Nye. Photos courtesy of Julia Leiby, Maren Celest & Grand Jury Music
Bartees Strange, Anjimile & More On What It's Like To Release A Debut Album In A Pandemic
Video-chatting through her phone, Wichita-based singer/songwriter Jordana Nye shows me a tattoo she recently got on her right forearm. Written in small red ink is a single word: "numb." "I feel like I've just been kind of numb throughout the whole thing—like my tattoo," she says. Laughing at herself, almost as an aside, she quickly adds, "The decisions you make when you're in quarantine."
The "whole thing" Nye is referencing is of course the increasingly fragile state of the music industry as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, a global health crisis that has in just a few short months forced the closure of concert venues across the country, the cancelation of festivals and tours, and manifested an overwhelming sense of uncertainty for the untold number of musical artists that make recording and performing songs their livelihood. While established, high-profile acts such as Bruce Springsteen, Lady Gaga, and BTS are fully capable of releasing a new album in the middle of a volatile and complicated environment and experience little to no impact on their financial bottom line and cultural cachet, those like Nye, who only just made her first steps into the industry with the release of her debut album Classical Notions of Happiness in March, are finding themselves mentally and professionally hobbled at the exact moment they are trying to introduce themselves to the greater music listening community.
In addition to Nye (who has followed Classical Notions of Happiness with the EP Something to Say and has a second EP … To You scheduled for release in December), a variety of rising artists, including Christian Lee Hutson (Beginners), Anjimile (Giver Taker), Bartees Strange's Bartees Cox Jr. (Live Forever), and Nation of Language frontman Ian Devaney (introduction, Prescence) all sat down to discuss the unusual and inopportune circumstances of releasing a debut record during COVID, and what it takes to make the best of an impossible situation.
The Initial Shock
Jordana Nye: I kind of went through like the worst depression. I mean, you just gotta keep swimming. It's hard to sometimes. But you get medicine, get therapy, talk about stuff. That's what I did, and it helped a lot. I couldn't even do anything for maybe three months straight. It was the worst.
Ian Devaney: It was kind of disbelief, especially when I realized how long it would go on and I realized what that would do to small and mid-sized venues. I was like, even when we do come back from this, the landscape is just gonna be so totally different. What does this mean as far as these businesses as independent hubs in the community? But my brain also just zoomed out to the corporate consolidation of touring above the D.I.Y. level basically. Are the only people who are going to be able to keep their venues open the ones who aren't as artist-friendly?
Bartees Cox Jr.: After we released my EP Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy, it was crazy. We got invited to play this WNYC soundcheck live show thing on March 12. And then we also had a show in New York on March 13. And this was when the shit was really going down in New York. And we were there, we played the thing, and we were all like, "Dang, this looks like it's gonna get really serious." And then after the EP came out, my team and I were like, "Well, do we just not do anything for a year and a half? We have momentum now. We should just ride this and keep writing." And that was just it, let's just follow the wave. It's working right now. So why why stop, you know?
The Road Is Closed
Christian Lee Hutson: Just from my perspective, the thing that seems to help debut artists the most is supporting other artists on tour, and that element has been completely taken out of the picture. Having your name tied to whatever the act is you're opening for and getting a chance to be in front of new people that might not have heard you on whatever streaming playlist, that aspect is probably the most damaging.
Ian Devaney: I've always been someone who feels like Nation of Language captures more people through the live show. And so when it became clear that we weren't going to be touring for a long time, I was like, "Oh, I guess we're doomed. I guess we'll put these things out and maybe some people listen to them, and then it will just fade away and we'll get on with the next thing and wait. But I was very shocked and flattered that the record started doing much better than I ever thought. That was very exciting. I feel very grateful for that.
Bartees Cox Jr.: I'm glad that we put Live Forever out now, instead of right at the beginning of the pandemic, because I don't think people knew what the f**k was going on in March. I saw some bands, put some records out that were really good in February and January who had huge tours booked all summer. I feel like this really hit them in the chest. That just takes so much like gas and energy out of you.
Ian Devaney: We were three shows into a tour, when they were like, "OK, everyone has to go home." It wasn't just disbelief that a dangerous thing was happening, but disbelief from the whiplash of the fact that we were about to be on the road for a month. But now, I'm back in my apartment. There was confusion and then, yeah, just real sadness of not knowing when I'm gonna get to do this again.
Christian Lee Hutson: Doing my first real headline tour, that was supposed to happen. I was supposed to on it right now, actually. In June I was also going to tour with one of my favorite bands, The Magnetic Fields. I was excited to spend a month with them. Those are two things I feel like, "Oh, man, those would have been cool." And hopefully, in a world where we're safer, those things can still happen.
Ian Devaney: I was really looking forward to playing the Seattle show on our canceled tour. KEXP seemed like the first radio station that consistently was reaching out to us and playing us on a regular basis, and we kind of developed a close relationship with them. And to me they've always been sort of one of the gatekeepers of like, "Oh, I'm in this level now. KEXP knows about my band." And so, them just being excited for us to come and us getting the sense that people just driving around in their cars during the day were hearing our music—and that being such a strange thing to wrap our heads around—it felt like we were gonna show up and be like, "We've arrived."
Jordana Nye: I was going on my first tour. I felt unprepared. I was also really nervous. And then when the COVID stuff started, there was a surreal moment where I was like, "What? I was just about to do something that could impact my life in such a big way and now it's gone." I was told there was gonna be hotels.
Christian Lee Hutson: Not touring is a huge change in my life in general. I've been touring with other people or just on my own for the last 11 years in my life. So to not do it at the one time I've finally released an album and not be doing it feels hilarious.
Bartees Cox Jr.: I keep telling myself, "It's just delayed. You will get to play the record for years. It will always exist." It won't be the same, but I also think when shows open up, people are gonna be really hyped to go to shows. The bottom line is, it'll be okay. Again, I have no choice. It's hard to like dwell on that. I knew that would be the case, before I put it out.
Anjimile: I would describe it as not an ideal time, but I also have never monetized like my music career in a major way. It's not like, "Oh, no, all this money I usually make is gone!" [Laughs.]
Christian Lee Hutson: My wife and I are both living on unemployment and savings right now and just kind of hold on as long as we can, just hoping that touring can come back before we're in a crippling amount of debt.
Ian Devaney: The unemployment insurance is currently supporting me. When we left for tour the restaurant I was working at I said, "I understand if you won't have a space to me when I get back," but they were like, "We I think we'll be able to work the schedule," and I thought, "Perfect." But then the reason we came back was because everything was shutting down. And so I got an email suggesting we should all file for an appointment, and we'll see what happens.
Jordana Nye: At least I have my job back in Wichita. I work at a brewing company called Norton's. They're super involved in live music and it's a great place. I was like a barback during the summer. And now I'm a dishwasher. It's humbling.
Team Building and Content Alternatives
Bartees Cox Jr.: I just feel sometimes [as a new artist] you're the only one that knows that you have something special, and you just gotta build around it. And then all of a sudden people just show up around you. You have a team and you have a plan. But you got to make the first step.
Anjimile: It definitely changed the scope and nature of the promotional cycle. When it became apparent that touring was not happening I was like, "OK, so I guess we'll have to get creative and do other things to generate and maintain interest in this record."
Christian Lee Hutson: I think everyone was just flying by the seat of their pants, like, "We'll do the best that we can do and we're just gonna do everything that we can as we think of it." Those were really the kind of conversations that were had. The funny thing about all of this is all you can do is throw your hands up and just do it, surrender yourself to it. And I feel like everyone has a label and Phoebe and me and my management, everyone has been pretty good at just being like, "Alright, we're just gonna roll with it."
Anjimile: I'm also working on building a team. I now have a booking agent. And I'm talking with managers for the first time and that's super exciting. I'm doing all these behind the scenes team building stuff.
Ian Devaney: We've actually, in the middle of the pandemic, gotten booking agents. And they were like, "This is weird, but we an tell people about the band for when things open back up. We can get your name into circulation of who's being considered for what." You can get the sense that they are ready to just throw us intensely on the road, and we are ready to do that as well.
Bartees Cox Jr.: Will Yip, who runs memory music, was just like, "This thing is super fresh. It's good no matter what. You got to just trust us." I was the most apprehensive because no one's ever cared about my music or anything I've ever done. So I was like, "Well, OK, if this is what you think, I trust you guys." And they were all just so passionate about it and they just worked so f**king hard. My publicist Jamie and manager Tim, they just really pushed the record really, really hard. Teams are so important. I didn't know how important they were until really this year, how much how much it helps to have a label and a manager and a publicist that love you and love your record, and are going to put in extra hours and go the extra mile. That was the difference-maker. I think that's why it didn't matter what was happening around us because yes, it's an election year, yes the world was literally ending, yeah there's a pandemic. But this record is f**king good. And it's not the first time a great record has come out when things are really bad.
Anjimile: I got hit up by a U.K. booking agency first, and they were like, "Hey, obviously, there's no touring happening right now, but we love your sound and we're looking into the future to see where you would fit in certain clubs, and we just want you on the team." The same thing happened with my new U.S. booking agent. She was like, "We've been following you for a couple years, seen your name everywhere. Booking doesn't really exists, but I want to work with you and get you on the team and we can talk about slowly building what a live Anjimile thing looks like."
Ian Devaney: I think part of it is letting fans know that we're not stopping. It often helps me emotionally invest in a band if I can believe that the band is really in it to keep moving. I don't know if that makes sense. People will email us or reach out through Bandcamp and things like that. And it's always just really nice to hear people's stories of how they've enjoyed the record.
Jordana Nye: My team taught me to just try to keep working and keep busy until we get a sense of what the hell is going to happen—and just release music because it's really all you can do. Anything you can do, you just have to do it.
Anjimile: I think the main idea for me is just galvanizing and continually engaging my social media presence. My social media numbers have climbed substantially as a result of this release, which is exciting. And not to sound like a f**king music industry business guy, but content is helpful, and so I'm just trying to create chill content without losing my mind. We're about to have a contest. We've got a video coming out. Hopefully people can sit at home and watch. I want to try and create content that folks can engage with at home. Part of our merch is boxers. We were like, "What about hats?" "Well, nobody's gonna see the hat." "What about fanny packs?" "Nobody's going anywhere." "OK. Boxers. People will be at home wearing them." We're just trying to be as creative as possible.
Jordana Nye: I've got some music video stuff in the works. There's a new one coming out that was filmed in my home of Wichita for "I Guess This is Life," and my best friend is in it with me. It's very, very sweet. And I can't wait for it to be out. But I'm also shooting a music video out here in L.A. for the track "Reason." It’s going to feature me walking an invisible dog on a leash. I'm f**king excited for that. I can't wait.
Ian Devaney: Our manager has been really kind of fantastic and diligent. In his mind there's still people who don't know the record. And so just because it came out in May, doesn't mean we're not going to keep working it as though everyone knows it, because they don't.
Mental Health Whiplash
Christian Lee Hutson: It's like, for debut artists, what do you have to compare it to?
Bartees Cox Jr.: I almost feel like more people are listening to music now than they were before, like really listening through albums, and really interacting with them.
Christian Lee Hutson: I think it would make me crazy to sit around and just be like, "Damn it, I spent all this time on this and of course when my record comes out, this is what happens." I mean, I'm actually kind of encouraged by the response to the album just in general, because I feel like it's such a weird time for music to come out and I'm happy that anyone has found it at all considering it's come out in the most turbulent year in recent memory. That aspect I feel positive about, like it was weirdly worth it, even though I'm not doing all of the things that I thought I would be doing a year ago.
Bartees Cox Jr.: I mean I've never had fans like I do now, and I'm doing all this during a pandemic.
Ian Devaney: In a strange way, I'm glad we're putting music out now. I feel like we are, as much as anyone can, engaging with the madness and sort of being defiant in the face of the madness and not giving up on trying to be creative and trying to dream big about what we can do in the future.
Anjimile: It feels surreal, but at the same time I've released music locally in Boston over the years. And nothing has ever come of that. And so releasing an album nationally with a label, I think my expectations were actually pretty low. Usually when I put out music nobody cares, you know? Why should they really care? And this time some people cared, and I was like, "Holy f**k." Even that that was beyond my expectations. And so I don't know, I'm just kind of trying to go with it. Because even though things feel weird, and at times, unfair and strange I don't know what is going to happen in the next three months, six months, nine months, right? I'm just cautiously cautiously optimistic about what will happen next. Because I do think that so far, things have actually happened right on time. Even though shit is really weird right now, and I don't know what's going to happen next, maybe something positive in my career will occur. Who knows?
Bartees Cox Jr.: I was talking to a friend about this. You look at these areas in music, or in America, like Vietnam War era music or these other big social phenomenon and the music that came from it, I think that one day people will look back on this quarantine pandemic era and think, "All these records came out during this weird ass time are interesting because of it."
What Comes Next
Bartees Cox Jr.: I was thinking that bigger artists that need bigger studios are gonna kind of be hamstrung by this where more D.I.Y. people can just be like, "Yeah, I'll write another record."
Jordana Nye: Going on tour, getting experienced would have helped my career a lot in way. But working on new music is also helping it.
Ian Devaney: For Nation of Language, we're planning on putting out a seven inch either like, December or January. So we've been working on two songs, as well as songs for the second record.
Anjimile: At this point, in the year, I have a lot of songs written, some which I think might be good. And so I'm just stacking up demos at the moment, trying to make sure I have like the juiciest tunes available.
Jordana Nye: I'm still just making music and content, and it kind of tells me that I can pretty much do anything that I set my mind to, which is comforting, especially in dire times when I feel like I'm not doing anything at all, and I feel like I'm a loser. People are digging the new stuff so I'm super excited for that, and makes me want to do more with different genres and just play around with them.
Bartees Cox Jr.: I'm gonna really take my time. I put out two records this year. I don't feel like I gotta like, hustle. I just gonna just keep working try to make some money and hold it down.
Christian Lee Hutson: I'm honestly just writing a lot and I am recording a lot of stuff at home. Early on in quarantine, I was just like, "Alright, in order to tell the days apart, I'm gonna record a different cover song for fun every day." So I did that for a while until I got bored of that. And now I'm just demoing and recording new stuff. It's the only thing I really know how to do. And I'm grateful that there's a lot of time to do it. Something I noticed observing other friends' album cycles in the pre-COVID world is the amount of time that they had to actually write and follow up their debuts is actually pretty slim, which I feel like I have a lot of time to accomplish that.