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.

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.

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. 

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.

Friends in the Band

Performing folk music may not seem risky. It's an established form. There aren't any stage dives. There is no smoke machine. But Girlyman faces a particular, acute challenge: Its fans demand an extraordinary level of engagement. It is not enough for them to play their instruments and sing well.

Girlyman fans are insanely devoted. Some talk about the music in almost mystical ways. "The three voices together are so moving I'm trying to find a way to bring it into a prayer service," says Lori Feldstein-Gardner, a third-year rabbinical student. (Catholics are moved too.) I've mentioned Girlyman on the Slate Gabfest, and several listeners have written to thank me for the music. "That band has brought me immeasurable joy," wrote Spencer Greenwood, "culminating in a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the US to see them play in a crowded downtown Manhattan bar."

In person, Girlyman's audiences demand a narrowing of the gap between themselves and the band. They seek an experience that seems authentic and personal. This is generally true of fans of acoustic music, which is usually performed in smaller venues. They don't like the energy to flag between songs, which is why performers stay engaged with their audiences between songs. On one live Paul Simon recording an audience member, angry the singer hasn't gotten chatty, shouts out: "Say something!" Some musicians are so good, their fans can recite the stories behind songs verbatim.   Other musicians can't take on the added stress and only mumble a few sentences during an entire show. It's hard enough to expose your lyrics and singing to audience reaction. Becoming a comedian is just too much.

Girlyman has turned its stage patter into an art, joking with one another and the audience between songs. It's hard to capture how well this patter works in the moment of a live show, but listen to this clip:

After a show it may be hard for an audience member to convey to friends exactly what it was that made him or her enjoy a Girlyman show so much, in the same way it can be hard to re-create for others what made a dinner party so great. This leads to a lot of postings on their fan page of conversion stories of the previously skeptical. "My husband and friends saw immediately what I was talking about," said Andrea Hanelt O'Keefe after one show, "Now they're fans too."

Girlyman's lyrics incline toward heartbreak and confusion, so they use their onstage rapport to keep the show from getting too serious. They also do this by playing at least one unexpected cover like Loretta Lynn's "Fist City," a version of "Rock Me Amadeus" in German, or a bluegrass version of George Michael's "Father Figure."

Or they just improvise songs. Doris and Ty play in different tunings, which means there are necessary pauses while they prepare their guitars for the next song. This is one of the most regrettable things about folk music. The artist tunes, apologizes for tuning, the audience titters, and the gas goes right out of the show. Nate, who is a natural jester, fills the dead time by making up songs on the spot—topics have included the pope and antipope

The risk is that people who just want to hear music may find the chatter self-indulgent or just not funny. If you've ever tried to explain a funny experience to a roomful of people and felt that stranded feeling in the middle when you realize no one is getting the joke, you can imagine what a sustained evening of that might be like. "Who are these people who think they're so special," says Ty of herself. Reviewers of their live album on iTunes had just that complaint. The patter and tuning songs "smack of a band that thinks they are a just a little too cute," wrote one.

But the vast majority of the reviews of that live CD praise those same interludes, which means the bigger risk for the band is not being too clever but not being clever enough. They have to create something spontaneous and new and funny every night, in different towns, week after week, no matter how they are feeling. If they don't, they lose fans. As Frank Sinatra said, "An audience is like a broad. If you're indifferent, Endsville."

Counting Heads

The greenroom at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., is larger than the entire Nightcat performance space. It feels like a suburban basement. There's an L-shaped sectional couch and just outside the room a washer-dryer. (For bands that live on the road, this is a crucial amenity.) On the wall a sign reads, "America's Greatest Music Fans await your professionalism, talent and art. We applaud your gift of music."

In the Birchmere audience is Hadar Pedhazur, a venture capitalist. Girlyman is his favorite band. He and his wife have brought 26 people with them to the show. He says it is his life's mission to get them heard and appreciated. He has the pitch down: "Extraordinary lyrics, harmonies and personalities that show warmth and humor. The shows draw you in to caring about them." Pedhazur, the founder of Opticality Ventures, is what the band refers to as a "road angel," one of the handful of people who have stepped in to help finance the band at various times when they ran out of money.

As showtime approaches, the band members speak less. Even though this is the tenth show they have played this tour, and the 67th this year, out of more than a thousand in their career, the nervousness before a show doesn't go away. (Henry Fonda, even at age 85, still threw up before performances.) But there's an extra tension. Everyone is coughing, and Ty has a head cold that threatens to turn their three-part harmonies into two-and-a-half-part mush. Her eyes, which already have a slightly sleepy look, are nearly shut. She's standing at the microwave waiting for her water to heat. She'll add salt, gargle, and repeat as many times as she can before taking the stage.

It's going to be hard to put on the sparkly dinner party for fans. But that's only part of the tension. The house isn't full—there are only 100 or so in the audience early in the night, even though the venue can hold 500—and this makes them anxious. This is like getting a lousy performance review the minute before a huge presentation.

They know, in theory, that attendance at any particular show means nothing. One night in Opelika, Ala., there were only 35 people in a venue that could hold many more, and the audience requested songs by other bands. But the next night, just an hour down the road, it was standing room only at a 150-person venue. The club ran out of food and liquor. But while the band knows about the ups and downs in theory, being faced with middling attendance can quickly lead to a downward spiral. "I start to think, 'What does this mean?' " says Doris. "I start to think 'oh shit, we're sliding downhill.' "

The spiral can get out of control quickly when you have an artist's imagination. Maybe they'll have to get part-time jobs. They might have to go back to playing campus cafeterias, where the crowds can be loud, distracted, and just passing through. All of this doubt makes it harder to take risks, the thing you rely on for your art.

Ty, Nate, and Doris all say they would keep doing what they do even if no one was listening. It is not just a job. They need to write and play and sing. But they also need to tour for reasons that go beyond just making money to survive. It gives shape to their lives. "I can relax into a tour," says Ty. "It helps me remember who I am. I know what to do." If that went away, they would have to entirely rewire themselves.

On the wall at the Birchmere hang black-and-white calendars showing the acts who have played there before—including John Prine, Lyle Lovett, and Lucinda Williams. "I hate these calendars," says Nate quietly. "I keep thinking, 'Maybe we got more than they did' or 'they got more people here than we did.' "

One calendar from March 2005 shows Girlyman opening for Dar Williams. Now they're the main act, but it's hard to focus on that progress. The venue is one of the larger ones they play. The audience will be intense and go wild but the band needs numbers . If they don't bring in a decent audience, they won't make as much money, and the Birchmere might not invite them back.

By showtime the house is full enough, and everyone makes their money. They'll be invited back.

Working With a Net

If Girlyman were to suddenly become famous and rich, Nate might expand his home recording studio or he might put the money into his kitchen. He was making shrimp grits the day I arrived at his bungalow in downtown Atlanta, where he moved three years ago, and the other band members followed shortly thereafter. A loaf of bread was cooking in the oven and another was on deck.

Doris was hosting a potluck birthday party for herself that night, and Nate was preparing his offering. At Doris' party, they baked Christmas cookies at one end of her railroad apartment while Ty mixed whiskey sours at the other end (in the middle is the bedroom). Friends came and went, but by the end of the evening, it was just the band. They were the last to leave even though the next night they were planning to do it all over again in Ty and Genevieve's newly renovated kitchen. For that, Nate would cook a fried-food-themed meal of Thai fried chicken and French fries.

Bands don't always get along this well. Often there's either open antagonism or everyone lives separate lives once they're off the tour. "We come off tour and call each other and say, "What are you doing tomorrow night?" says Doris.

This friendship mitigates the various risks the band faces. If it's necessary to keep making leaps to produce good art, then it helps to have a net beneath you. For Girlyman, the friendship is the net. The stronger the friendship has become, the more comfortable they have become taking risks—making their songs more personal, stretching their vocal range, and trying new song arrangements.

When Ty, Nate, and Doris talk about their work, they use words like raw, exposed, and naked. When a small business wants to grow, it risks investment in new equipment. A singer-songwriter goes to the emotional bank. "You think you're being honest and then you're just not," says Ty about songwriting. "You have to strip down another layer … the stuff that I want to give is the really scary stuff."

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.

Read John Dickerson's interviews with Ty Greenstein, Nate Borofsky, and Doris Murumatsu. Read the other profiles in this series, on rock climbers Eli Simon and Pete Fasoldt, entrepreneurs Redbeacon, and Marine Gen. James Mattis.

Become a fan of Slateand John Dickerson on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

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