Almost eight years ago, on June 10, 2008, I showed up at Austin-Bergstrom Airport with one large suitcase, a guitar, and $300 to my name. My remaining possessions, a bed and a couple of boxes of cd’s and notebooks had been put on someone else’s moving truck in Brooklyn and were theoretically on their way to meet me. I was picked up by Kasey Pfaff, a very generous friend of my roommates in Brooklyn who had offered to put me up, sight unseen while I waited for my furniture to arrive. We went to Kasey’s house in north Austin so I could put my stuff down and later that day she lent me her truck so I could go look at my new home, a tiny freestanding cottage on Wilson street in the heart of 78704.
I don’t know what these cottages looked like to people who weren’t artists or didn’t live there, but to me it was my first real adult “home”: a place all to myself, surrounded by other musicians who also had places all to themselves. It wasn’t the Four Seasons – they were extremely “DIY”, full of allergens seen and unseen, questionable electrical wiring, no insulation, some of them bordering on unsafe. But there were trees, there was a supermarket two blocks away and most importantly there was a sense of community. For me it was heaven. All for just $425 a month. In Brooklyn I had been paying $650 for a tiny bedroom and tinier kitchen which I shared with four other people.
I had taken the cottage sight unseen. Jessie Torrisi had led me there on a visit where we were both checking out Austin as a potential place to move to. She introduced me to my future neighbor Scrappy Jud and somewhere along the way we picked up Ben Hamilton, the unofficial mayor of South Austin (maybe one of many), an extremely generous and mellow soul who nevertheless had the guts to walk me into the office of Ely Properties and demand to know how many months’ rent I had to put down to secure the place to myself. I still don’t know how this all worked out – in restrospect I don’t even remember where I got the extra months’ rent, but I was able to get the place.
Scrappy took me under his wing and introduced me to Daily Juice (now Juiceland) on Barton Springs. It was only early June and already hotter than hell but I told myself if I could make it through that first summer I’d be able to stay here for good.
Those first couple years were so blissful to me. I had next to nothing in terms of possessions (even the boxes of cd’s and notebooks got lost by the moving company) but I was so happy to have my own place and be surrounded by other musicians who “got it” that I didn’t care. Plus people were so generous. Charlie Faye who lived down at the end of the cottages lent me her car whenever I needed to run an errand or it was too hot to walk to the HEB. Will Sexton bought me a bike, just because he saw it at a yard sale and thought I could use it. Mark Addison let me use his recording studio in return for feeding his dogs while he was away. (Mark and I have since recorded 7 projects together and he has managed me and generally been my right hand for several years.) Super Dave, who had a real job often lent me money and then finally took pity on me and hired me to assist him with his DNC work. He also introduced me to Randy Weeks one night at the Broken Spoke and I was starstruck and awkwardly exclaimed “I’m a huge fan!” Little did I know I would eventually get to sing and play guitar with Randy and be part of his band for a while. I met and played and/or toured with Matt the Electrician, Betty Soo, Suzanna Choffel, Ray Bonneville, Shelley King, Jimmy LaFave, Noelle Hampton & Andre Moran, Sam Baker.
When I was broke again I discovered Airbnb and would rent out my cottage for days or weeks at a time while these same friends let me crash on their couches. I recorded an album called Bound to Love. Up to 2 weeks before recording started I had no idea how I would pay for it. But serendipity struck again and I met a music fan at a show in NY who told me he was interested in supporting the arts and asked if I had any ideas how…He ended up funding almost the entire album. The following summer I had to go on a month long tour and didn’t have a car. I put up a post on FB asking if anyone would be willing to rent me theirs for less than I’d have to pay at a rental company. In response Deb Gray, another live music fan and Austin’s resident expert on Bruce Springsteen wrote to me saying I could just take her Rav 4. No payment needed. I mean, wtf?! This place was perfect. Everyday I sat down in the morning and meditated on abundance and every day I was able to find what I needed.
In 2011 things started to shift. I still loved Austin but my dad who had been living in Arizona passed away from ALS, turning my whole world upside down. The cottages were threatened with and then slated for destruction so that high priced condos could be put up in their place. It was like the whole little idyllic world was being ripped away. Relationships changed. A love affair I naively thought was solid blew up in my face. Prices went up. I moved further south into an admittedly much nicer apartment (i.e. All the appliances worked and the landlord had a face and was friendly and generous). A new chapter began. I met Katharine Flynn and other friends who helped me navigate the changes. I tried to focus on getting ahead in my career and made some good headway, upping my game. I found a new booking agent and manager. I started hanging out with the amazing Havilah Rand and she introduced me to Billy Masters, a guitarist who added something soulful and powerful to my music in a way no other guitarist had. Between Feathers and Billy and I we formed a pretty solid band. I started taking acting classes from the amazing Paula Russell. I met John Fullbright and sang with him several times and was asked to sing harmonies on From the Ground Up. I was learning a lot and I was gaining a lot career-wise.
But I kept opining the previous chapter of my life, the one where I felt like I had a cohesive group of people around me as neighbors who were just there because it was the place we were supposed to be – an easy place, a spiritual home for the end of the day or the end of the tour, somewhere we belonged.
Finally I started hanging out with Mike June and things started to shift again, but this time that seemed like perhaps a good thing. Like maybe we were two people who could choose to make choices together and help each other out and enjoy life together. I met new people who understood my new challenges and had been through similar stuff. Mike introduced me to Jon Dee and I got to absorb the powerful music of another incredible artist.
I moved back into 78704. It wasn’t clear yet whether Mike and I would actually live together so I took the last affordable (though tiny) one bedroom near Oltorf and Lamar. Life was good. Mike did eventually move in and then things got tinier but it still had that long-term feel, like this time the compromises would mean something. They would serve a purpose.
Over the last year, while driving all over the world and playing shows together, Mike and I decided two things: 1) we want to spend our lives together and 2) it was time for us to move away from Austin. Austin is great city. But that sense of tight-knit community, the sense that the same $500 was being passed from friend to friend whenever someone new needed it, the sense that you could just show up with your talent and be welcomed and given opportunities just because it was exciting to see someone new, those things have necessarily changed with all the growth. There’s a lot of people showing up with talent and/or an ability to promote themselves. There’s a lot of traffic and that makes it harder to just pop in and see someone, especially since for many of us living centrally has become too expensive. It’s like a lot of other cities in many ways. For me, despite the incredible times I’ve had and people I’ve met here, the decision to leave came down to the fact that I can hustle to get gigs anywhere. I can sit in traffic anywhere. Maybe somewhere where rent isn’t so high, the summers aren’t quite so brutal, I’m not sick with cedar fever for two months straight every year, and I can be closer to my roots in the Northeast.
Later this spring we will move to near Raleigh, North Carolina. Who knows whether it will be forever or just for a year. I don’t quite have the same wide-eyed innocence I had eight years ago when the future and aging seemed like a distant concept I didn’t need to concern myself with. But I’ve still got it in me to give a new place a chance. A cheaper place, closer to our families, closer to the northeast where I can make a living touring. Maybe this is the fate of artists, to go somewhere new to be inspired. To find the other artists and contribute to that vibe until the rest of the world wants to live there and then it’s our turn to move somewhere else. Maybe because my family is Jewish I’ve always had that internal sense of wandering and it doesn’t seem strange to me to set up shop somewhere new.
Austin feels like the place where I finally became an adult and I am incredibly grateful for that. It could have been a lot harder somewhere else. The significance of that is not lost on me. My life is so good. I will miss immensely those of you who played a role in this time in my life. It’s taken me a long time to really commit to the idea of moving because the concept of leaving this place where I’ve had such important times is heart wrenching. I really came here a child in some ways. And now even though I’ve grown I want to cling to Austin where certain things feel safe. But on the other hand I have a deeper sense that I found what I came here for and it’s time to go find new experiences. I know that I showed up in Austin at the tail end of – or even after – what the old-timers consider the ‘good old days’, but I still got to have the feeling and that’s what counts because now I know what to look for going forward.
I’ll be back within the next 5-6 months to make a new album with Feathers. I’m sure I’ll be back after that to play shows. And visit.
But it won’t quite be the same.
I hope all of you who can make it will come send me off at my farewell show at The Cactus Cafe, Wednesday April 20th at 8 pm. I’ll have the whole band with me -feathers, Billy, Brian, along with a short set by Mike June and appearances by some special guests.