Ty writes her songs alone in a one-room studio built for that purpose in her backyard. Every day that isn't spent on the road she tries to start with three hours at her desk with her guitar and a recording device that hooks into her iPhone. The three meet regularly for "song group," in which each of them plays something they've been working on and the others add melodies or lyrics or take over to reshape it if the original author feels stuck.
Their coleslawof relationships allows them to be naked—in the fashion they need to be to create their art—and in front of one another without feeling self-conscious or inhibited. Doris' parents, immigrants from Japan, have not seen her perform since Girlyman was formed. "My parents have such trouble with me because growing up in Japan, culturally people are more alike," says Doris. "Just recently my mother freaked out about my being gay. She said, 'Why aren't you with a man?' I said, 'It's not who I am, sorry. There are many different ways to be.' "
The world of Girlyman has a permeable membrane. After JJ joined the band at the start of the year, she assimilated immediately. She is paid like the others, is writing songs, and has a side chore managing the band's social media. Onstage, she is Harpo to Nate's Groucho, responding to banter only with her drums. Other friends, both new and old, have also transplanted to Atlanta, not to join the band but to join its circle. Next year, Genevieve and Ty are planning to have a child. It will certainly have many parents.
These ties have at times become messy. At one point early in their collaboration they saw a therapist as a band to work through the tension and irritation of spending so much time together. When Nate and Doris broke up after 10 years, the band continued to play, but the friendship cracked briefly. Nate moved to Atlanta in 2008. Doris got her own place. They didn't talk much outside of performances. But if the friendship makes the music possible, the music also saved the friendship. The two are as close now as they ever were.
Coming Out in the Closet
For seven months in 2009, Nate, Ty, and Doris took turns singing or playing an instrument alone in a homemade recording studio. Their fifth CD, Everything's Easy, was the first one they produced themselves. This was the biggest risk of their nine years as a band. They had no idea what they were doing. Producing your own album isn't unusual. Other musicians do it. But it was novel for them. They'd recorded their previous albums in a professional studio. They could look through the sound booth window at the producer and know someone would restrain them if they stretched too far for a new sound or clever phrase. And a producer also has a better sense of what kind of CD might sell.
To make the studio, they converted the utility closet in Nate's house by hanging quilts and taping soundproofing to the walls. They strung up Christmas lights for ambience. Hammers, screwdrivers, and a caulking gun hung on the wall. This prompted some outbursts into Pete Seeger's "If I Had a Hammer." "We stopped at the verse about 'love between the brothers and the sisters,' " says Ty, "because that's illegal in Georgia. At least technically."
They wouldn't improvise when it came to the microphone. They wanted a $10,000 Brauner VMA microphone to make the album. The Brauner produces a vintage sound that causes engineers to use a lot of exclamation points. But they couldn't afford it. After a few weeks of debate, they turned to their fans for help. Within four weeks, 100 fans donated to the cause. Built by hand and numbered 213, it is heavy enough to knock a man down with one blow.
Not using a producer meant they weren't on the clock. Every day of studio time costs money. If you want to take a creative risk you pay for it, literally. Now they could experiment and not worry about the money. Nate could get an idea in the middle of the night and walk down the hall to try it out. They trusted that if they were true to their instincts, they would make a CD that fans would buy.
The fear was that they would become self-indulgent. They would pile on instruments and overstuffed harmonies until a song became a hulking behemoth. "Wonderful musicians sometimes make bad producers," says Nate. "You'd get James Brown drum loops matched with the Vienna Boy's choir. That was the risk for us. At the start, I thought, 'We could make one of those CDs that other people have made that I think are terrible.' It could have sucked really really badly."
Everything's Easy sounds different than Girlyman's other CDs. They added a Les Paul electric guitar to some songs. "My Eyes Get Misty" is a throwback tribute to the Andrews Sisters. "Up to the Sea" is sung a capella. "Storms Were Mine" demonstrates a new range for Doris' voice that she might not have tried before, under different circumstances. "Nate helped me get in touch with my anger," she says about his help writing the lyrics to the song. A breakup song (of a relationship after hers with Nate), it builds to Doris yelling. ("This is the song that scared a 3-year-old when she heard it," Doris told an audience recently. "But she's 4 now and is totally over it.")
Doris couldn't have sung this onstage a year ago, she says, for fear people would laugh at her. "In Nate's studio though, you're in a closet and there's no one looking at you and the people who are outside listening I've known for so long I could get to an emotional place it was too scary to go to before."
It turns out the new CD didn't suck as Nate had feared. For almost two weeks it was the No. 1-selling CD on CDBaby, the Web site for independent musicians. The album was used to get the band booked in summer festivals like the Strawberry Music Festival and Pride Toronto. Just a few festivals can support the band for a whole summer when the gigs aren't as plentiful. And it helped launch their first tour of England, where, on the strength of the CD, they've now booked a three-week engagement for the fall. "Here is a band that reaffirms your belief in what is truly genuine," wrote a reviewer for Pennyblackmusic, a British independent music site. "Maybe it is the care that has clearly gone into its creation that makes it special," wrote a reviewer for Bluesbunny, another U.K. site. "It doesn't sound squeezed into whatever economic and stylistic constraints that most albums I hear suffer from."
Perhaps most important to the band, after playing the songs from the new album over and over now for almost a year, they haven't lost the emotional connection to the material that they found at Nate's house. On their most recent tour in early March, the songs from the latest CD were the ones audience members were screaming for. "This song is about the belief that the best thing we can do for ourselves and each other is seek out joy," says Nate when introducing the title track. For the band that means starting from scratch each night.