Girlyman and the pursuit of creative risk.

The story of America's greatest idea.
April 21 2010 10:57 AM

Getting Naked Every Night

Girlyman and the pursuit of creative risk.

(Continued from Page 1)

Girlyman plays a mix of acoustic folk, bluegrass, and folk rock. What makes the band distinctive is its alto, tenor, and soprano harmonies.

Girlyman is reminiscent of the Mamas and the Papas or Peter, Paul, and Mary but with a more urgent sound (there is no hint of arm-locking and swaying). Their biggest artistic influence is the Indigo Girls. Amy Ray, one of the members of the duo, put out two Girlyman CDs on her record label. Girlyman has opened for the Indigo Girls on three tours and will play with them again this spring.

Ty, Nate, and Doris alternate lead vocals; they all play guitar (and other stringed instruments), and they all write songs, usually collaboratively. Their songs are about love and loss and memory. Often, they're about the loneliness and rootlessness of contemporary life. But Girlyman doesn't wallow in such emotions; the band approaches them frankly, capturing, in a story or a surprising metaphor, a feeling you've had but never heard so well-expressed. 

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This winter JJ Jones, the former drummer for Po'Girl, joined the band. She makes their sound more powerful, which means they can play larger venues and expand into more classic American rock. She also adds something to the live performances. Even when she's only playing a soft shuffle with her brushes, she moves her body like she's trying to keep the lights on.

The name: Some of their fans love it. They love the irreverence—embracing a term that is meant to be an insult. To others, it's confusing. At shows, some audience members question their sexuality. Is he gay? Is she gay? Given the economic challenges facing independent musicians, maybe the band should have picked something safer. People have suggested they drop the name to become more marketable. They're not considering it. They picked the name to be playful and, as Nate puts it, to get across "that we don't quite fit in gender-wise." That's still who they are.

When the band members tire of explaining the name (it's often the first question in interviews), they say, "If you put all of us in a blender you get a Girlyman." This is more than just a quip. They are a blended entity—from their harmonies to their entwined private lives, which are one twist from becoming an HBO miniseries. During the eight years the three lived together, Nate and Doris were in a relationship with each other. Doris and drummer JJ are now dating. Ty has been in her relationship with the band's manager, Genevieve Barber, for 14 years.

Girlyman's members are proud of who they are, and that easy pride accounts for their strong following in the queer community (recently enhanced when the comedian Margaret Cho made a music video of their song "Young James Dean"). One of the traits of all successful risk-takers is being comfortable following your own idea in a world that thinks you're either crazy or wrong. For the band members, that's not just their artistic posture; it's the way they live their lives. Onstage, Ty, a woman, often wears a tie and vest, and Nate, a man, wears makeup. But their music and performances don't make a political statement other than perhaps "be yourself." Anyone at a show hoping for a proclamation (or girding against one) will be disappointed. "This is the wrong lipstick to be wearing for bluegrass," Nate jokes to the Nightcat audience before one song.

Staying Alive

Financially, Girlyman is making it but not rolling in it. They face financial risk every day in a thousand little ways. Do they book a larger venue and risk not filling the seats, which means they might not get invited back? Or do they play a smaller club they know they can fill but that will pay them less? Do they play crowd favorites, or do they play new songs they like but that might not immediately thrill the crowd? Do they stay in a hotel or save money by driving through the night to stay with friends?

Then there are the economic realities they cannot control. When gas prices go up, they notice. When the economy soured, people couldn't make their shows. "@girlyman Wish I could come," wrote one fan on Twitter, "stupid recession."

 "Often they don't know how something will happen," says manager Genevieve. "How will they afford the microphone they need for their new CD? How will they learn to produce on their own and not have the songs sound like bad circus music? Will anyone buy CDs in advance to fund the manufacturing? Will anyone buy at all? Will anyone come to the shows? There would be more certainty in another course, not to mention health insurance. But they've chosen this way. Girlyman is sort of hopping lily pads, here, hoping the next one will appear."

In this environment, something like a rent-controlled apartment can keep you alive. For eight years starting in 2001, they all lived together in a 900-square-foot apartment in Brooklyn, paying a mere $400 a month each. The stable rent kept costs down, which meant they didn't need to have demanding full-time jobs. "We'd see other people sucked into their day jobs, which meant they didn't have the energy to write or play on the weekend," remembers Genevieve.

In their current rotation, the band tours for two weeks and then takes two weeks off. Sometimes they play venues as small as the Nightcat or as large as the 5,000 person main stage at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival. It's more traveling than they'd like, but they need to keep that pace to pay the bills. The band is enough of a going concern that they can afford a van other bands envy. A 20-foot-long Dodge Sprinter bought for $40,000 in 2004, it has a loft and is large enough to serve as a greenroom when the band plays at venues that don't have one. (They just paid off the loan for it this year). If they work Priceline just right, they can stay in hotels of high enough quality that there are real glasses in the bathroom, not the disposable ones wrapped in plastic. In total, the band made $108,000 from touring last year, another $95,000 from CD and merchandise sales, and they spent $115,000, which includes paying their manager, agent, and other support people. Each of them took home $27,000.

Still, it's not high living. They have no driver and no roadie, which means taking turns behind the wheel for rides that can extend for 12 hours at a stretch. (Late-night driving leads to occasional scares; in a remote part of Wyoming they hit a deer and disabled the truck.) Nate jokes about making deviled eggs by stealing hard-boiled eggs and mayonnaise packets from the breakfast bar, but they spare their arteries by staying away from road food, instead stocking the refrigerator in their van with fruit, cheese, yogurt, and homemade granola. They often skip lunch (which saves money) and eat free dinners the venues provide. When they splurge, they eat Korean food.

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