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.

The members of the band Girlyman  look a little irritated, which is notable because irritated is not their natural state. Ty Greenstein, Nate Borofsky, and Doris Muramatsu are almost relentlessly cheerful, and just minutes before, they were trading quips and laughing as they do during a concert. But now they're 15 minutes into checking the equipment at the Nightcat in Easton, Md., and they haven't been able to fix a buzz in one of the speakers.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

On the little stage, which is backed into a corner of the small club, the band plays a song just long enough to test a guitar, banjo, or microphone and then stop abruptly, as if Dad has walked into the room. They move on to see if the problem is in another input. They pull a cable or check a connection, all the while fiddling with their molded earpieces, which allow them to hear a direct feed of themselves. Ary Smith, their sound technician and the only other person the band travels with, zips back and forth between the stage and small soundboard near the bathrooms.

This kind of fiddling isn't unusual for them. If you're a touring musician, every night you start from scratch. It's like being a chef cooking in a different kitchen every day. You can bring your experience and knives, but sometimes you get a 32,000 Btu Vulcan range and sometimes you get a toaster oven and a hot plate. If the equipment is bad, the band can never be good enough to overcome it—the sound is lousy and the crowd feels cheated. They don't buy the CDs for sale afterward and they bitch to their friends on a blog or the band's Facebook page. But fortunately for everyone, 20 minutes into the sound check, the buzz is located and eliminated. Ary writes some notes in case the ghost in the machine appears again.

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The life of an independent musician blends different kinds of risks: artistic, personal, and financial. At every performance you expose yourself to embarrassment in front of an audience. You live hand to mouth, and the decisions you make on your latest recording can determine whether you'll earn a living at all. And yet you've always got to keep challenging yourself creatively. Artists like Girlyman push themselves to uncomfortable places in order to find a deeper truth and keep their art from getting stale. As singer-songwriter Paul Simon put it: "The risk of failure is part of the fun of what I do."

I'd arrived at the Nightcat just before the sound check. The club is a coffee shop during the day. The only sign of its nighttime identity are the speakers that hang from biker's chains as if they're being punished. There were a few graduate students in T-shirts typing on their laptops. Then I realized Ty, Nate, and Doris were the graduate students. The club has no greenroom for performers to change and hang out in. They were working at their computers because everyone in the band has a chore. Nate books the hotels, Ty settles up with the manger of the venue, and Doris handles the merchandise. They also tap out status updates to their 4,000 Facebook-page followers along the road. ("We're passing through the Donner pass today to play in Reno, NV. Cannibalism is not on the agenda, but if we get peckish, which one should we eat?")

The opening act, Po' Girl, arrives. The four of them have been traveling with Girlyman for weeks. A band member asks Nate where he's sleeping that night. There aren't any cheap hotels nearby, so Po' Girl may ask the audience if anyone has a room they can crash in for the night.

When Girlyman takes the stage at 8:30, there is a new set of unknowns. The band has never played the club before. The house is full, but since it's a vacation town, the crowd of about 50 probably isn't made up of their die-hard fans. Plus, two of the band members have colds.

When a Girlyman show is going well, there is no wall between the performers and the audience. People mouth the words to the songs. They hold up cell phones to take pictures and video the way audiences held up lighters in the '70s. Ty, Nate, and Doris know they've connected if the audience responds not just to the music but to their banter and improvised songs. "This is a song about jealousy from the perspective of the person who is having quite a good time," quips Nate before playing "Hold It All at Bay." "Because," adds Ty, "they have feelings too." The audience laughs but it's an inconclusive laughter. It might just be good manners.

A few songs in, there is no doubt about how the audience feels. They are laughing at the least little aside. By the end, they stomp so hard to accompany the song "Through to Sunrise," it makes waves in the beer glasses. The lights come up and everyone is smiling.

Girlyman can't just disappear into the dressing room—and not just because there isn't a dressing room. Making your fans feel like they know you means you can't blow them off. The three spend a half-hour at the front of the club smiling and nodding, taking in all the attention the way you had to at your high-school graduation. Doris puts on her glasses, and toggles through the spreadsheet to check how much merchandise they sold.

The Nightcat was not Girlyman's biggest or smallest show, their most exciting or their most challenging. It was just a show. One in a long string of them. They earned $765 from the appearance (more than their guarantee, which means the club and the band made their money), and they grossed $121 from shirts and CDs. They probably even won over a dozen or so new fans. They'll wake up the next day at the Econo Lodge, squeeze into the van, drive to Philadelphia, and do it all over again. This will happen 100 times this year, and if everything goes well, 100 times next year, and 100 times the year after that.

The Whole Is More Than the Parts

Girlyman was conceived in the back of a rented Buick in 2001 when Doris, Ty, and Nate were driving from New York to Atlanta. Doris and Ty had been friends since meeting in the second grade in Princeton Junction, N.J. They formed a duo called the Garden Verge. Ty's father is a musician, but Doris' Japanese immigrant parents were horrified when she announced at 13 she wanted to ditch her piano lessons to become a singer-songwriter like Paul Simon. Nate, a solo act in 2001, was born in Groton, Mass., and became friends with Ty and Doris at Sarah Lawrence, where he graduated in 1997, a year after they did. As they drove, Doris sang and played "Montpellier," one of Nate's songs. The other two added harmonies. They liked the mix so much they decided to start playing together.