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 Mike Veve and Johnny Leitera at Noisetrade.
The dirty secret of indie rock is that most musicians have day jobs. Vanishingly few can pay the bills with gigs, recording sessions and tours, and those few will tell you that the best-paying gigs are often terrible. The digital revolution has only exacerbated the problem, and ever-mounting pressure on the music economy means that if your music isn’t terrible you can hire truly epic players for about $200. Insanely, this is what session players were paid a decade ago, and a decade before that, too.
The other dirty secret of indie rock is that the musicians who effortlessly glide from one success to the next are almost all rich, or as some musicians call them, Trustafarians. This is about twice as likely if their brand is “gritty”—the Julians Casablanca of indie rock are legion.
These secrets are related in a bunch of complicated ways, and it’s worth saying that nothing about this changes the music. The Strokes make fantastic music.
But it is one of the many reasons I admire hustle. Because out there amongst the infuriatingly chill, quietly rich musicians are a crew who—whatever their relative levels of privilege—are hustling to make the numbers work against merciless odds. Without the time, gear, publicists, and studio hours that inherited wealth buys, there’s little choice.
Johnny Leitera of the band Tuff Sunshine is a hustler. I was a fan of Johnny’s music years before we connected online, as his band released music on a label run by a friend. I was particularly taken by their music video for “We Seal Every Deal with a Kiss.”
So I was happy and not at all surprised that Johnny was the first songwriter who wrote to ask if he could collaborate on an episode of SongWriter. I sent him a story by author Mike Veve called “Standing Room Only.” A fictionalized account of the life and untimely death of a Harlem neighbor, the story is haunting and sad, and the narrator is as slippery as the narrative. Interviewing Mike for the podcast, I asked whether he worried that listeners would have trouble following the story. In response Mike told me something he heard at Toni Morrison’s funeral. While memorializing the legendary author, Oprah Winfrey recounted how she had once complained to Morrison that on first read she had trouble understanding the novel Sula.
Morrison responded placidly, “That, my dear, is called reading.”
In other words: Making art takes hustle, and sometimes it demands the same of its audience.
The next live online SongWriter show will feature novelist Odie Lindsey and songwriter Mary Gauthier. Follow Ben Arthur @MyHeart on Twitter or @BenArthurMusic on Instagram. Listen to the latest episode of SongWriter at Noisetrade.