Musicians amid COVID-19 keep the fires burning

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New Jersey based singer/songwriter Josh Zuckerman
New Jersey based singer/songwriter Josh Zuckerman is a celebrated fixture of many LGBTQ Pride events

Ways to thrive despite adversity

It’s no secret that New Jerseyans have a long history of love and devotion when it comes to live music. Whether attending a festival down the shore or taking our pick of rockers raising hell up in Hoboken, it’s an intrinsic part of our culture that we’ve cherished but largely been able to take for granted.

Things are quite different now.

With our need for a collective pause button in the wake of Covid-19, musicians of all stripes have had to entirely re-think how to keep their fires burning, creatively and financially.

In these dark days, when the public is hungrier than ever for connection and communion with art to replenish the spirit, artists are just as eager to give it to them—but how to do this when mass gatherings are out of the question?

Out in Jersey caught up with several LGBT musicians with local followings to learn how they are responding to these challenges. As it turns out, many are thriving despite the adversity.

New Jersey based jazz vocalist Thos Shipley
Roselle, New Jersey based jazz vocalist Thos Shipley

Among them is Roselle Park-based jazz vocalist Thos Shipley, who has used his time in quarantine to learn more about connecting with listeners via Facebook through the best technology possible.

“After performing for years with top-notch musicians who show up with custom-made amps and instruments and I—after all the work and vocal prep—end up singing through a cheap mic with a girl singer’s lipstick stains on it, I got into learning the technical side of sound and production,” he said. “[This] is now amplified because of the Covid-19 social distancing. I’m working to ensure the quality of what goes out. My husband (former longtime Roselle Park mayor Joseph DeIorio) and I literally spent hours working on learning the various programs and gear to make this happen. The challenge now is how one can bring their best digitally.”

On May 1, Shipley used these skills to stage a virtual concert through his social media, with funds raised going toward Roselle Park 24/7, an organization he founded with his husband that supports small businesses in the borough by distributing gift cards to residents who have been in financial straits due to the pandemic, thereby providing a two-fold community benefit.

“The Covid-19 concert was an answer to the crisis at hand, not only financially, but to raise the spirits of our neighbors here and across the world,” Shipley said.

Howell-based singer/songwriter Josh Zuckerman, long a celebrated fixture of local Pride events, has also embraced the challenges of the moment, saying he feels it’s part of his calling as a musician to reach out to people in times of distress.

“I’ve been hosting a Facebook Live Monday through Friday at 4 p.m., playing one original song from one of my CDs,” he said. “It’s been gratifying just to be able to play during this time, and even better to make someone else smile and have something to possibly look forward to.”

In spite of the more affirming moments for Zuckerman—he helped solicit donations for Garden State Equality with a virtual Facebook concert on March 17—he said he cannot overstate the impact of the mounting loss of work many musicians are facing.

Josh Zuckerman live from his home
Josh Zuckerman live from his home during COVID-19 pandemic performance

“I am fortunate to have my teaching job during this time of losing the musician side of my income,” he said. “However, I know some [musicians] are asking for donations and tips and including links to PayPal and Venmo. I’m thinking of doing that once summer hits because then I won’t have the teacher salary. The summer months [are when] I rely more on my music to keep me going.”

Shipley said he echoes this concern for musicians’ survival in the absence of live gigs and keeps in touch with many of his colleagues.

“It has been a great blessing to perform with some world class musicians, all of whom have taught me so much professionally and personally,” he said. “I know more than a few of my colleagues are continuing to teach online, which is helpful. Some, like myself, have other day jobs and are working from home, while others are experiencing rough times. It is gonna be rough for a while [because] so much of what we do is funded [by] our audiences through their disposable income, from going to clubs and concerts, not to mention venues making ends meet.”

In spite of this, one irony is that the need for a middleman to unite artist and listener has only shrunken all the more, bridging the gap between them in spite of social distancing.

“It’s definitely a fine line,” Zuckerman said. “On one side, it’s really opened up opportunities for independent artists to expose their art to the masses without the need of backing from a record label. The challenge is to leave a mark with so many talented artists out there these days.”

Liz DuFour
Liz DuFour is a Martinsville New Jersey native who’s been performing in New Hope, Pennsylvania for many years.

Another musician who’s done just that is singer and piano virtuoso Liz DuFour, a Martinsville native who’s been a fixture in New Hope for three decades.

DuFour, who regularly mixes pop classics with her own compositions two nights a week at the Cub Room, said she was gratified at the response generated once she started playing live sets on her Facebook page on Saturday evenings.

“Originally there were 250 people and now we have had upwards of 1800 people,” she said. “Not all of them are watching it live, but some are seeing it shared from other people and then getting around to it later and then showing up for the next one, so it’s taken on a little life of its own.”

Reconnecting with people who don’t live close enough to see her play in person has also been an unexpected surprise, DuFour said.

“I’m hearing from old friends—everyone from high school friends to people who used to come and see me who have since moved out of the area,” she said. “One of the more pleasant surprises comes from people from my distant past who have found me and reconnected. I come from a classical piano background, so right through high school people knew me as much if not more for classical than they did for being a songwriter and performing pop.

“Now they are seeing a different side of me… definitely a more seasoned version of me,” she said with a chuckle. “Plus there are people that do know me who wanted to share my music with friends of theirs who have not heard my music before.”

Speaking of New Hope, Zuckerman said he is penciled in to play their PrideFest on its rescheduled date of October 10. Jersey Shore Pride has been rescheduled for the same weekend, on October 11, National Coming Out Day.

“I really look forward to Prides and connecting with the community,” he said. “The energy at Prides are that of summer celebration as well as a celebration of love and being who you are. It’s such a pleasure to play with my band and play my original music at these festivals. I’m happy to say I’m already confirmed to play Asbury Park’s Pride in 2021.”

DuFour said she also cherishes a sense of connectedness to the community.

“I wouldn’t have a career if it weren’t for the people that I’m showing up for to do fundraisers or simply for the community in general,” she said. “I’ve told people forever that when they say ‘you do a lot for the community, not necessarily looking for a paycheck and all that,’ that there’s a reason for that. New Hope handed me a 30-year career and I haven’t forgotten that. Even though I’ve branched out and played other places I’ve always come back.”

Melissa Etheridge
Rock and roll icon Melissa Etheridge

Another musician who also knows a thing or two about cultivating an audience over decades of playing live is one who needs no introduction, rock and roll icon Melissa Etheridge. In an interview conducted just before her recent family tragedy she took time out of rehearsing for her daily #ConcertsFromHome series to talk with me about what she’s done to stay productive in quarantine, the reverberations social distancing is causing throughout the industry, and her thirst to play New Jersey again after having to postpone a string of concerts in the Tri-State area.

“When I realized my tour was being canceled and it would be weeks if not months before I got up in front of people again to perform I was like ‘Oh no, this can’t be’,” she said. “I remember calling my management saying ‘Look, I’m gonna go online, on Facebook—I just want to do a couple songs.’”

As the performances became a daily ritual, Etheridge said she had a desire to up the ante. Like Shipley and his husband, Etheridge and her wife, Emmy-nominated TV producer Linda Wallem, soon set to work on sharpening the quality of the broadcasts.

“If you look at the first one it’s just me basically in the dark playing a couple songs,” said Etheridge with a laugh. “And then my wife and I were like, ‘Well…’, and she’s in production in television, and so we started [to make improvements]. If you watch the whole series—the whole 49 at this point—you’ll see the production grow and us get used to things. It’s been a lot of fun and that I think is one of the main reasons I’m doing this. It gives me the thought when I wake up, ‘Okay, what am I gonna do?’ It gives me something to work on.”

Etheridge said she was surprised by how much enthusiasm fans displayed, sending her song requests via her Twitter account.

“People started requesting, you know, not just ‘Come to My Window’ and ‘I’m the Only One’,” she said. “They started requesting the deep tracks and I started understanding that people have a deep appreciation of all my music. I’ve been going way back, to songs I haven’t done for 30 years and rediscovering them and bringing them to the audience. At the end of the day when I see people just saying thank you and I hear the stories they share with me—that’s what music is. It’s a place to refill your soul. We need that. If I can provide some sort of relief– half an hour’s release for people—then I’ve done my job.”

Fans showed their gratitude by launching a GoFundMe page to support Etheridge’s bands, techs and roadies, an effort she said has touched her deeply.

“That was one of the first things I thought of when I realized that I had to cancel my tour,” she said. “I’ve got twelve full-time employees that count on that. That’s their living and they are accomplished technicians [at] the top of their field. But we need an audience to do what we do. When I realized, ‘wow, it’s going to be a few months’, I felt very worried for my band and my crew. That the fans got together and did that really just… it makes a huge difference. It really does.”

To challenge herself Etheridge has also covered numerous artists during her broadcasts, including one evening entirely devoted to the music of Bruce Springsteen, an experience she said she found gratifying.

“The reaction I got, especially from the large Springsteen fan groups, was great—they really embraced it,” she said. “It went for an hour. I’ve got these songs [of his] I’ve always wanted to sing, and so many of them—he’s so specific about the women, you know—Mary, Sandy and Wendy and all the girls—and to be able to stand up and go ‘Yeah, I’m gonna sing these songs, as they were written about the girls’ and feel great about it—it was like a big love-of-Springsteen hug.”

Etheridge has also launched the Love Series, a set of streaming events scheduled for Mondays and Fridays covering a host of topics fans have expressed interest in, whether it’s learning how to play guitar, receiving health and wellness tips or simply delving deeper into her catalogue. Nonetheless, she said what she’s excited about most of all is re-launching her Medicine Show Tour come fall. A show in Atlantic City has been rescheduled for Sept. 5, while others in Asbury Park and Staten Island haven’t had new dates confirmed as of press time.

“I have been coming to the Tri-State area, especially New Jersey, every year for the past 30 years,” she said. “I am so grateful for the people that always come out and see multiple shows. That sort of investment from fans is priceless. And it has allowed me to make a good living at performing and I’m so grateful for that and I never take it for granted. Having to postpone it this year… it’s hard. But I want people to know we’re gonna get back to rocking and hugging and touching and all those things we’re missing out on right now.”

In spite of that absence of physical intimacy, DuFour said believes strongly in the need to remain engaged with one’s craft no matter the circumstance.

“I think it’s essential as an artist,” she said. “We can be quarantined and we can have our instruments and we can play them for ourselves but I’m actually surprised at the lack of feeling estranged. I can’t see everyone, but everyone can see me. Then, the more that people are writing comments and I’m seeing their little faces… it really feels like we’re together. When I say ‘Come on, everybody, just sing along!’ of course I can’t hear you, but I can feel it. I can feel that energy.”

Zuckerman said he too has taken strength in how much the pandemic has demonstrated the power of human connection.

“I can definitely tell you that before this, I took my gifts for granted, and often I would sulk silently that my music hasn’t gone farther,” he said. “Now, after this, I’m ever so grateful to be able to play an instrument, make lyrics and melodies and assemble them to songs that others can relate to and make them inspired or smile. I have a commitment to continue this journey with gratitude.”

Through it all, said Shipley, the deep human need to come together in a room to share and experience live music is something that will survive these troubling times.

“There is nothing like being in the same room with an artist and experiencing their unique artistry,” he said. “I feel human expression is transcendent. There is so much more than words and sound that pass not only from the artist but also from the audience to the artist.”

Etheridge said she agreed emphatically and offered words of encouragement to musicians who are discouraged.

“Do believe that the need for live music will not go away,” she said. “People love to gather and have the ritual and soul healing of live music. That’s always going to be there. There’s just nothing that replaces an audience enjoying a song, enjoying a performance… that is sacred. We’ve done that for thousands of years. By this time next year I think we’ll all be standing next to each other, sweating again. I think that’s what we as humans long to do.”