photo by Cameron Whitman
Justin Trawick is a singer-songwriter who has built a following touring in the Washington D.C. area and along the East Coast. In fact, in 2014, he won a Washington Area Music Award for his song “All the Places that I’ve Been.” Like all other touring musicians, he was forced to find other avenues for performing when live music was canceled due to COVID-19. By phone, he discussed his successful Facebook Live shows, the community being built among his fans, and his new single “Back of the Line.”
Americana Highways: What has it been like for you to be off the road?
Justin Trawick: It’s interesting. Off the road for me relatively speaking is very different. I’ve always thought there are two ways of being a performer and being in a band. There’s the tour like every rock band ever has done in a van or your car until you make it or you don’t. I’ve also thought there’s another side that would be get big in your town, then slowly get bigger to more surrounding towns. I started in the D.C. area, then the mid-Atlantic, then the east coast. That’s what I have predominantly done. Even if my road is mid-Atlantic and the east coast, to go from playing 180 gigs last year to playing zero gigs for most of this six months. But there’s a few things that we’ve done in response. It’s been such a mind-blowing experience to not be on the road but still be performing. My girlfriend and I started doing Facebook live shows on March 12, when my first gig was canceled. A lot of people have done Facebook live and streaming shows in general.
We started so early that we got a lot of notice from people like Reuters. Reuters found out about us, came over, and filmed our second show. Our first show was March 12. Our second show was March 15. After that, it became a Thursday and Sunday thing. We have never missed one. Yesterday was our 51st show. In hindsight, we weren’t too worried about the guy coming in to film us. When CNN came in April, we were a little more worried. We actually considered not letting him in. He came in wearing a mask and gloves. It kind of looked like a scene from Dexter. He’s a cameraman for CNN that you’ll never recognize because you never saw his face. It was wild that we got all this press from being us online. We very early on tried very hard not to duplicate a bar gig. We wanted to make it more like a TV show like Regis and Kathie Lee or Kelly and Ryan. It was more of a variety show where we talked with the audience, told stories and jokes, played songs. The songs were never meant to be perfect. My girlfriend has normally never been in my band. For her to go from not being in the band to being a co-host and singing twice a week or more was quite a change for her. She has become a very good singer just from doing this two or three times a week. It’s incredible the amount of impact we’ve had in this time because I’ve been playing full-time since 2008. I’ve been writing songs since I was 13. The amount of fans that we’ve made is staggering in comparison to the amount of years I’ve played overall. We’ve made a bigger impact in the last six months. We’re all in the same boat in this time. Through some sort of weird collective feeling, our fans became friends with each other. They’re socially distant, but seeing each other now. We’re doing these secret backyard shows that spawned from this. People from D.C. are now buying tickets to a backyard gig in Philly because they want to meet Shannon and Tucker, who they’ve been talking to for months on our Facebook Live shows. It’s pretty amazing that we’re causing friendships to be made.
AH: Building a community.
JT: That’s a big part of playing online as a TV show is the community building aspect. People want to be engaged and want to be made to feel special. If you watch what we do, it’s not about perfection. I stop in the middle of a song to answer somebody’s question. Then I’ll look at Lauren and ask, “Where was I?” She’ll tell me a line I just said, and we’ll continue the song. A three and a half minute song might take us seven minutes to get through because we stop to answer somebody’s question or say something funny. I think that’s why people watch.
AH: There’s a lot of charm in that. You don’t get to see that sort of thing at a bar gig.
JT: Absolutely. For years I’ve always thought how my personality doesn’t really come through on records. On a record, you hear the song, but you don’t hear us talk. That’s what our ticketed shows are like. I’ll go off on a tangent with a story. People only experience that live. When we were able to bring this to our streaming shows, we suddenly started realizing that this is a way for people to enjoy the stage performance aspect, and not just the songs. A lot of people who don’t live in D.C. just listened to the songs. I’ve always considered myself more of a stage performer than just a musician. Facebook Live was a way for me to fall into a medium where people can discover us as performance artists. People watched us on Facebook Live, then started asking if we could perform on their Zoom meeting. You have to remember, I’ve always been sort of a local artist. I’m local to D.C. I do a lot of things based in D.C. I’m not a marquee name, so this is a big deal. At least locally I cracked a code. I say that not bragging. I want my friends to have the luck I’ve had. I’ve tried to be as helpful as possible with my peers.
Several months into our Facebook Live performances, we started going, “Gigs are canceled.” 100% of my normal gigs have been canceled and have never come back.” We just created this new fan base of people who really like us. We started asking around to our close friends and fans. People started letting us use their backyards for free. My girlfriend was kind of heading this. We made sure we were being as safe as possible. We have these big backyard shows. We can have no more than 25 people. We map out these backyards so everyone was getting at least a 10 x 10 foot square of land. They buy a ticket online through PayPal. They essentially get a ticket to a square in a backyard. We would place people as they bought their tickets. We made sure everyone knew the rules. You have to wear a mask and bring your own food. You can’t share food with other people. People have been excited. As a musician, you can sometimes maybe forget about being a music fan. I’m a fan of music, but I play music so much, it’s different for me. For me to be there and people to come and say, “Thank you for bringing live music back. We haven’t seen live music in months.” I’m OK that I maybe wasn’t their dream concert coming out of that. They were excited to be in a concert together in a safe way. They didn’t have to worry. They weren’t around a lot of people, and we tried to provide some levity. We’ve done a couple different versions. Tomorrow we’re doing one called Common Good on the Block. It’s only 50 people in a very big parking lot. We’ve measured the street so everyone gets a fairly large square. Instead of it being just me and Lauren, now it’s the whole band. Even the band is spread out. We rented a stage that’s wider than it should be so we can be much farther away from each other, and a large part of the money benefits the Arlington Food Assistance Center.
You’ve probably asked half a question, and I’ve just talked the entire time. Have you ever had an easier interview? (laughs) When we started doing Facebook Live, we started getting asked to do other socially distant and online things. Someone in Loudon County, Virginia, thought that we would be really good at doing children’s books. They started sending us children’s books. You can see them on YouTube of us doing these events for the Loudon Literacy Council. They asked me if I could do a couple readings of Pete the Cat. There’s two Pete the Cat videos on YouTube, and we actually now do them at our shows, especially at these backyard shows because people bring their kids. We usually bring one or two books with us. It’s wild. All of these things that we never thought we’d be doing, suddenly now we’re thinking, “Why didn’t we do this before?” We’ve done Zoom parties for PBS, Comcast, The Holocaust Museum. It’s been an interesting time creating these things.
In the midst of this, I wrote a new song. I have felt that this time that we’re in has been very uninspiring in terms of creating art. For the first several months, everything was so bleak and sad. I’m very close with my parents, for example. I talk to my parents every day. To not see my parents for three months was really tough. My family is just my parents and me. I found the time fairly uninspiring for an artist. We went to survival and recovery mode immediately. I was finishing a record. We were on the final mix for a record that would have been out in April. My sound engineer sent me the third mix in March. I truthfully have never listened to the third mix he sent me in mid-March. Something just went off. I wasn’t interested because of all this stuff. Everything became so much more serious. But I will listen to it and we will finish the record. And the new song that we wrote in May, which is the first song I wrote in this time, called “Back of the Line” will now be a part of this record. It’s a single now, but it will be included on the EP. I wrote “Back of the Line” as a way for me to deal with all this. I don’t normally write feeling songs. They’re usually more storytelling songs. For me to write something like this was out of my wheelhouse, which I think made it more honest. I’m not a marquee name, so that song is not flying off the proverbial Spotify shelves at the moment. I thought that it was worth putting out there and getting people to hear it. The people that have heard it so far, I think it’s really helped them. I don’t have millions of people that look at my YouTube. But if you look at the comments, they say, “Thank you for doing this. This has meant a lot to me.”
AH: That must mean a lot to you.
JT: It does mean a lot. I’m thankful to have some sort of skill that can make other people happy. I’ve been writing songs since I was 13 and performing since I was probably 14. I’ve always enjoyed playing songs. I like that I’m improving someone else’s life. Music for me is a way of life. I’m sure other musicians are the same. I can’t imagine doing anything else. I’ve had lots of other jobs. I’ve done them all very badly in comparison to my music. I never wanted to do them. I wanted to be playing. That was another reason why this has been such a weird time. For someone who can’t imagine doing anything else, and suddenly has to start imagine doing something else with their life. Fortunately I haven’t had to do that. We’ve figured out other things. This coming winter is going to be tough. A lot of the money for rent has come from these backyard shows. We live in D.C. We don’t live in Maine, but we don’t live in Florida. If it gets below 50 degrees it’s hard as a musician to play outside. Your fingers stop working, and people don’t want to be miserable outside. I feel like a squirrel right now, playing these Zoom shows and stuff like that, and knowing that I need to put away money to last the winter. Another thing that I had considered, but didn’t know how to get started is a Patreon account. I started messaging people about it. For some sort of subscription service, you’ll get live shows, past shows that I’ve recorded with my band, or merch or whatever. I’ve had 180 people sign up. That was individually messaging people for two months straight. I think people really understood that supporting the arts benefits everyone. I imagine you’ve heard of venues that may not open again. People are figuring out if they don’t support the venues and the artists, their entertainment might disappear.
AH: It’s fortunate that you live in a place where you can line up these backyard shows.
JT: We knew that were being safe by keeping the numbers low. We didn’t want to push it by doing them in public settings. We haven’t been doing it on rooftops of apartment buildings. We haven’t been doing it in closed restaurants or cul-de-sacs. We’ve been going on personal properties and being responsible. Everybody really appreciates that.You see stories on the news, and I don’t know why, but it’s always country artists trying to ruin it for everybody by having huge concerts. We’re not trying to be the next bad example. We have never done one in D.C. proper. I’m four or five miles from D.C. That’s where there’s no backyards. Anyone that’s wanted to see us has to come to us. We’ve done some in Richmond, about two hours south of here. We’ve done some in Philly, and we just did one in Outer Banks.
AH: What would you be doing if you weren’t making music?
JT: I’m not sure what I’d be doing. I’ve always been interested in cooking, but I don’t know that I would have gone to cooking school if I hadn’t been doing music before. I’ve learned a lot in the last six months cooking 100% of our meals. I have jokingly thought about it. I would seriously consider going to night classes for cooking. Nowadays, you can just ask the question on Facebook and someone will have the answer. I was thinking about posing the question, “Does anybody own a restaurant or a food truck where I could wash dishes and start from the bottom one day a week and learn some basics of cooking?” I’ve always worked best doing something in real life. Studying was never for me. I would rather be thrown into a situation with someone telling me, “This is how you do it.” I’ve thought about that a lot now. Music has been my job since 2008, but I think it would be cool to be a line cook somewhere and learn the right way to cook a steak or burger at a mom-and-pop restaurant.
Trawick’s Facebook Live shows air every Thursday and Sunday. His new single “Back of the Line” is available to stream now. https://justintrawick.com