If you’re a musician you’d better have good chops and like to drive.
“In the end it’s all about the tour,” according to Nancy Josephson, who sings circles around Lady Gaga (in my un-humble opinion) and has plenty of shimmy as well. Nancy, who fronts the Angel Band, started touring in her teens. Now 56, with formidable pipes and stage energy to match, she sees contemporary roots musicians living the old troubadour tradition: traveling the roads, playing music, and trying to figure out how to keep the dream alive in a shifting musical landscape.
I caught up with Nancy at Ashland Coffee & Tea in Ashland, Virginia (preceded by a telephone call a few days before). We talked about her musical origins, the changes she’s seen in the biz, and her attempts to harness some of those changes to enable independent musicians to survive in a world that is ever richer in complexity, frustration, and opportunity.
A bit of background: In her early days Nancy played bass and sang with the Buffalo Girls – “five women who played bluegrass and newgrass” – then moved on to bigger and sometimes vastly different things: Singing with roots legends Peter Rowan and Dave Bromberg (whom she married in 1979), working as a jingles singer in Chicago and performing as the lone white woman in a 30-woman black gospel choir. She now works out of Wilmington, Delaware, playing on average 2-3 shows a week with the Angels – three female singers backed by a three-piece band.
She’s seen vast changes in the music business, some for the good while others have made the always difficult life of a pro musician more difficult. She is in the process of launching a project she hopes will become a “new paradigm” for presenting music to an ever-fractured and dwindling audience. She has far more enthusiasm than you might expect from someone whose industry, like many others, is in severe shake-down mode. She has powerful dreaming skills and a serious love for cowboy boots. It’s hard not to immediately like Nancy Josephson.
“I was born to music,” she said during our long phone conversation. “I can’t remember not listening, playing and singing. I’ve always had a really good ear for harmony.” After touring with the Buffalo Girls she hit the road with Bromberg, who “toured like a madman.” She also worked with Peter Rowan and Laurie Lewis, then moved to Chicago in the early 1980s, where she switched direction.
“Our son was born and I didn’t want to tour as much,” she said. For several years she sang jingles, sometimes for large corporate clients. “This was studio work, and it was fabulous.Chicago was the jingle capital of the world, and I really learned a craft there. You have to be on, you have to be smart, you really have to listen. It’s all hands on deck.” A highlight was singing backup on a Ford commercial that featured Aretha Franklin. “Have you driven a Ford lately?” she purred over the phone, so sweetly I almost forgot the two Fords I’d owned that were rolling dollar ovens. The money was good, she said, but eventually jingle-singing ran its course.
“I was getting further away from what I loved about music” so she found a way to put herself back on the straight and narrow. “I had a friend in a gospel choir. I asked her if they might consider a new face.” The choir was called The Annettes – after the leader – and was comprised of 30 black women – and soon, Nancy Josephson.
This choir was not to be confused with a Unitarian choral ensemble. “We sang stone down and dirty gospel music. It was aerobics and a spiritual connection all in one – a transformative physical, spiritual and mental relief. It taught me so much about singing. I really got my groove back.” That Chicago-land influence is very much with her today, she added. “Every night I sing with the band, that’s where I want to go. We sing with our eyes closed.”
Nancy sang with the Annettes for five years and in 2002 moved to Wilmington – “we couldn’t afford New York.” She was spending most of her creative powers on creating visual arts, including a crematory urn bearing this message: “Does This Urn Make My Ashes Look Big?” – by any reasonable measure a world-class line. “I wanted to let those who came after me know where they might have picked up perhaps a strange vibe from.” She wasn’t singing much at this time though her musical life was about to be resurrected once again.
“David had two jams down at a local café – a Monday night acoustic jam and a Wednesday night electric blues jam. He’d come home and say ‘you really need to come down there. There’s a family with two women singers who are amazing.’ He kept this up a couple of weeks in a row and I was getting tired of hearing it.” So she went down to the jam, listened to the vocalists, and said “maybe I can add a third part.” Thus was born the Angel Band, though there have been several personnel changes since, including the departure of Bromberg as guitarist. “David was in the band for the first four or five years, but he knew we would want to tour more than he did. That was a hard time at first, knowing we were not going to be growing this together any more.”
At the Ashland Coffee & Tea gig the band was in full roar, despite a fairly small audience (this was their first time playing in the area). They were tight (though this was bassist Tony Cappella’s third gig) and couldn’t have put on a more spirited show if they were playing for their lives in the Roman Coliseum. The three vocalists – Nancy, Aly Paige and Kathleen Weber — could blast the bark off a redwood tree. During the band’s two 50-minute sets I was put in mind of a few other acts featuring three female singers, including the Wailin’ Jennys and Red Molly. All have terrific harmonies but the Jennys and Red Molly, to my ears, are much more suited to a folkie audience. Their singing is pristine but without the dynamic, or dramatic, range of the Angel Band. The Angels have no trouble wooing folk audiences but have enough brass to rev a NASCAR crowd
Nancy is the band’s Mother Superior, handling most of the banter, some of which can be biting. At one point she explained that a song she wrote about Annie Oakley, the noted woman crack-shot (who toured with Buffalo Bill and shared the stage with Sitting Bull), was something of a departure from the historical record. The real Annie, she said, had a somewhat sizable “stick up her ass.” She refers to drummer Josh Kanusky, who could get a gig as a Jesus look-alike, as “the son of God.” After guitarist Marc Moss fell to his knees for a few hot licks, then rose again – unassisted! – she cackled about him getting a gig peddling Geritol.
Which brings up another of Nancy’s strong points: She does not worship at the altar of youth. Quite the contrary. She explains in a song introduction that the passing of years can bring wisdom and foster an attitude based on the knowledge that life is fleeting. She’s all about seizing the day and wringing from it all possible joy, and perhaps a few profits as well.
That attitude is at the heart of her contemplations of what it will take for working musicians to stay afloat in these days of shrinking audiences, high energy prices and a public accustomed to getting music for free. She was inspired during the recent Philadelphia Folk Festival to crank out a “manifesto” for a project she calls the “Big iDeer” – an evolving “paradigm” for musical survival. As of now, she says, no one knows exactly what to do, while some are more clueless than others.
”Record companies are running around with their hair on fire,” she said. “What’s the next business model? But that ship has pretty much sailed. The bottom line is that people still love music. People are still listening to music. But musicians have to strategize very carefully to keep their particular ball rolling.”
She believes one of the keys is to think locally. “Our old record company, Appleseed, with whom we may work again in the future, tells us we need a national publicist. But we had a national publicist and it really didn’t do anything for us. In fact, it almost killed us. When we get a gig we slam the crap out of the local media. I make a lot of the calls myself.”
Her “new paradigm” is based, she says, on the idea that “we’re going to have to work well with others. We are strong as individual musicians and bands, but we also want to reconnect with a collective spirit because we can be stronger if we work together.” She envisions “mini-festivals” featuring four or five bands offering not only concerts but “workshops, art, education – something like a traveling circus. We will tailor these events — you take something from column A, something from column B – so instead of a ticket to a single event you get a wide-ranging experience specific to that day and night.” Nancy says she is not interested in soliciting acts to join her circus – “we’ve got our eye on a few bands we’d like to work with.” Eventually, she hopes to do two or three two-week tours a year.
Meantime, she’s adapting to other challenges, such as the Internet, which she says offers terrific marketing opportunities but also creates immense “chatter” that can be hard to cut through. “The Internet is a tool, but it’s also a beast – a hydra-headed beast with a lot of legs that can kill you. The monster requires feeding continuously.” Twitter drives her crazy, she adds. “I Tweet when I remember, which is hardly ever. I appreciate the value of it but most of the stuff you see is tremendously uninteresting. Facebook works great for me. I can usually come up with something to say every day.”
But, she adds, there is no substitute for touring. “That’s what it all comes down to, and you have to do lots of it.” Which suits her fine. “I love to tour. I look at everything as the next opportunity to get out in front of people. And every night we go on, we go on like it’s the last night we’re ever going to play in our lives. We do have a sense of reckless abandon.” She also reminded her Ashland audience that music is a cooperative venture between musicians and listeners. “If people don’t come out to places like this,” she said near show’s end, “they will disappear.”
So, chances are good that Nancy Josephson’s traveling circus will be coming to your town, or a town nearby, fairly soon. And maybe Nancy, or someone, will figure out how to get the Angels hooked into the NASCAR circuit. That might be a match made in heaven, or at least Wilmington.
Where to next? Looking like Ashville, North Carolina. My friend Erin Scholze (profiled recently) has offered to show me around the town that might be the roots capital of America. I’ll likely be doing a few songwriter gigs, and maybe some other gigs as well. Erin also tells me there’s a place in town that’s a combination brewery, music venue and hostel.
Sounds like trouble afoot.