Knable Gazing: Talker-Songwriters in the Age of COVID

I have a secret dream that’s not so secret anymore because I’ve told too many people about it. I want to be a late night talk show host. Somewhere between Steve Allen and David Letterman, with a twist of Wallace Shawn from My Dinner with Andre. I have actually been fortunate enough to dabble with that dream this year through getting to teach an American History through Song course that saw me bringing on musician and teacher guests. Then in the fall I fell into the role of singing talk show host proper when my Songs of Suffrage concept album for Luna Stage’s Voting Writes Project turned into a weekly event wherein I had on political activists, performance artists, and even some history teacher friends I had made through my American History through Song experience.

Meanwhile, in the songwriting world at large, I noticed a steady proliferation of other songwriters hosting their own talk shows in a growing phenomenon of pandemic proportions.

To be clear, I’m not talking about open mics and curated songwriter nights (Lara Ewen’s online version of her American Folk Art Museum’s Free Music Fridays, for instance). I’m not even talking about all the excellent singer-songwriters of varying degrees of fame doing live streaming shows with audience interaction through live comments (Niall Connolly, here’s looking at you!). I mean songwriters who are hosting guests in a talk show format on a regular basis. Sometimes the conversation centers on song craft, sometimes on creativity in general, but topics might range as widely as they would on any talk show, from depression to relationships to politics, almost always with an underlying COVID era aura. These are talk shows featuring songs more as punctuation than as main events.

From the summer to the fall, I watched Chris Q. Murphy very intentionally pivot from live-streaming himself from his back shed to hosting a musical guest a week in a quickly codified conversational format, with only the occasional tune thrown in. Experiencing Murphy’s show as audience member and guest, I note that he is as adept at hosting as he is at performing his own or cover songs. His years as a teacher, I suspect, are as integral here as his years as a musician. He knows how to listen and keep the dialogue going, making the guest feel empowered and the audience feel included.

Says Murphy, “Making music around or with people is at the core of so many of my friendships. I have also always loved talking about the process of making music. So this was a natural extension of those aforementioned relationships – and of my life as a musician.”

Also intrinsic to Murphy’s show is a deliberate effort to respond to the national dialogue around civil rights in the wake of the actions of the Trump administration and, more specifically, the murder of George Floyd. Murphy expounds: “I have always taken pride and felt like a contributor to the movement in working hard to make my pubic school classroom an inclusive anti-racist environment. As we have transitioned to remote and hybrid learning, I have found it very difficult to do that work virtually, so, aside from making a few phone calls to senators (which is tough to do during business hours with little kids at home) and posting on social media, I felt as though I was doing very little to aid in a fight that I feel like I have been a part of for a long time. As I began to recognize my Tuesday Night Livestream as a platform and not just a dalliance, I realized that by being inclusive, I could shine a light on voices that are often overlooked in the ‘singer/songwriter’ world. There are so many white dudes with guitars (like myself) who are taken seriously as ‘singer/songwriters’ while songwriters who are women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ+ are too-often seen as that identity first and songwriter second – or overlooked entirely. So I made it my mission to make sure that, as often as possible, there was only one cishet white man on every show (me). Lara Ewen hipped me to this way of thinking a few years ago, I have tried to make this a part of my M.O. when booking shows, too.”   

Joe Kye hosted Cuchulain Kelly on Cup of Joe December 5, 2020.

Joe Kye is doing something similar on the other side of the country. Cup of Joe sees Portland multi-instrumentalist pop-folk-classical-world-music performer Kye start and end each episode with a song of his own devising. When I saw him recently it was his first Korean language song as the opener and an improvisation with stacks of his own looped instruments and vocals as his closer. In between, he hosted fellow songwriter Cuchulain Kelly, who was just releasing a new song. Most of their chatting centered around their shared (and admittedly, my shared) experience of being in a debaucherous group of a cappella singers in college. Cuchulain had a chance to do a song or two of his. They experimented with playing together to the degree streaming platforms allow. But mainly, it was about hanging out and talking, with questions thrown in from the audience. 

Diego Garita (left) with Joe Kye (right)

Kye started his show in April after the pandemic was in full bloom. Says Kye: “It took some time to organize the style, the audience, and line up interviews, but I’m really glad I started it up.” He found himself thinking of his show in “seasons.” June through August – Season One – had him doing an episode every week. It culminated with NYC guest Diego Garita, a high school dancer Kye collaborated with over the summer remotely through a New York program called Young Dancemakers Company. Diego had attended protests against ICE and racism before the pandemic hit, and was inspired to create a piece around incarcerated migrant children with Kye. Suffice to say, they had plenty to talk about on Cup of Joe. “Season Two,” which began in October, has shifted to every other week in frequency.

Back on the East Coast, New Jersey’s own Sarah Donner had been hosting shows like this for years before the pandemic, mostly on the platform StageIt. I have known Donner for over a decade and can attest to her generosity as a singer-songwriter who promotes other singer-songwriters as vigorously as she attends to her own career. Now she hosts the epic Saturday night talk, music, and multimedia spectacular Quarentinapalooza. On the December 12th “Quarantinapalooza XXXIX” she played a short set of her songs, engaged in charming banter with her partner about his shoe-tying technique, talked with Subjective Truth podcaster Danyelle Ellett, brought out the Misbehavin’ Maidens for more music, and culminated with the The Damsels of Dorkington playing games and hanging out together in splendid isolation. Steve Allen would be proud.

Sarah Donner (upper left) in the midst of Quarantinapalooza XXXIX

Says Donner, “I have definitely seen an increase in the audience numbers since COVID. It’ll be interesting to see if those audience numbers also increase when live music is a thing again.”

In general, she points out about the indie landscape, “The ones who are still surviving are the ones who could adapt and, maybe more important, the ones who have fans willing to adapt.”

From Dave Keener’s and Karen Dahlstrom’s established Songwriter Deathmatch show–which has only gained relevance since the pandemic started– to the various shows around the world that songwriters are hosting for other songwriters (I saw you on Brian’s Basement, Mike O’Malley!), we of the singer-songwriter persuasion pivot and adapt to the landscape of virtual performance, conversation, and experience. 

And perhaps a new profession is born: Talker-Songwriters.

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Jim Knable is a performing songwriter who recorded two albums in 2020: Songs of Suffrage for Luna Stage and the Andrew Goodman Foundation and Blue Reunion, by Jim Knable and The Randy Bandits. He has released two other studio, one live, and one secret album with The Randy Bandits since 2006 as well as performing as The Jewbadour for the Unorthodox Podcast circa 2015-2018 with a matching album of demos for the show. He is a produced and published playwright, currently the Staff Writer for The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and has had articles published in The Brooklyn Rail, Tablet Magazine, The SDC Journal, and other online and print publications. See him as a guest on Sarah Donner’s show on January 9th, 7pm-10pm ET at youtube.com/sarahdonnerparty. He recently appeared on Australian songwriter/impresario Plastic EP‘s show, mainly talking.