We’re all hurting during these shutdown days, in some way. Musicians, accustomed to stringing together various gigs to earn a living, saw months of work vanish almost overnight, and there’s still no certainty as to when or if work will return or how they will survive. In a cultural community like Pasadena, that affects not just those individuals and their families but also a chunk of the local economy that depends on their creative labors — restaurants, bars, theaters, coffeehouses, instrument and gear repair shops, studios, sound engineers, producers, costume designers, hat makers, merchandise manufacturers, to name just a few.
The Pasadena Weekly talked with several local working musicians: Angel Town Combo lead vocalist Liela Avila, a Pasadena resident who also regularly plays restaurants and casual gigs with her own group; drummer Mark San Filippo, a lifelong San Gabriel resident who plays regularly with about 15 bands, including Angel Town Combo, Big Butter Jazz Band, the Richard Glazer Quartet, Tom Kinney & the Hi-Seas; Gwendolyn Sanford, who along with her husband Brandon Jay composes music for cable TV and online streaming shows (“American Princess,” “Orange is the New Black,” “Weeds”) in addition to recording their own music at their home studio in Altadena; Covina-based singer-songwriter and guitarist Rick Shea, a longtime fixture of the Southland’s acoustic and Americana scene; and Eagle Rock resident Will Wadsworth, bandleader and songwriter for Eagle Rock Gospel Singers. All expressed empathy for people suffering with the coronavirus, and support for Safer at Home measures needed to “flatten the curve” and defeat this beast of a virus. Amid substantial unease about work and finances, they tried to sound philosophical, even hopeful about the massive changes transforming our community.
PASADENA WEEKLY: How are you adjusting to the shutdown, personally and professionally?
Liela Avila: Professionally, I’m used to gigging four to five nights a week, so since this has all happened I’m home. It’s been a bit of a struggle financially but I’m focusing on creating.
Mark San Filippo: I play in about 15 bands; some would play once a month and some only a few times a year, but I was playing four, five nights a week, for the past 10 years, at least. I’ve lost all of that work. I’m hopeful that it’s going to return at some point, but it’s going to be a long time. I’m trying to work on things I can control like songwriting over Zoom with [bassist] Gabe Davis and Maria de la Vega. I’m in a somewhat better scenario than a lot of my colleagues because I also work at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, which has managed to stay afloat for the time being. Also, my wife and I own a for-profit arts education company, Los Angeles Arts Group (laartsgroup.com); contracts go through the school year and we don’t know what’s going to happen. But a lot of our full-time musician colleagues, the only way they’re managing to pay their bills now is through remote teaching — that’s probably less than a quarter of what they’re used to making. Most musicians have to hustle four or five things simultaneously to make a living: teaching, performing live, doing studio work, copy editing, licensing music. A lot of that is gone.
Gwendolyn Sanford: In many ways things haven’t changed for me, because I work from home and I work in my studio all day. But the forced isolation makes it interesting because the kids are home and I’ve got a second job now as a teacher and a full-time parent. So it reduces my time as a musician and songwriter, and makes me work a little faster to get the lyrics or idea down on paper.
Will Wadsworth: I personally feel really blessed because I have a job [teaching high school in East LA] where I can work from home. I can’t speak for immediate members of my band; I do know that there is real financial struggle happening right now, because a lot of them are full-time artists and musicians and don’t have the luxury of being able to work from home. So there are some issues with what’s going on with the economy right now with respect to job opportunities, and social distancing doesn’t really allow for certain jobs to be done. So my heart is really going out to my band members.
PW: Are you doing online concerts?
Gwendolyn: I honestly haven’t had the time, having our kids home 24 hours a day. We have a pretty good schedule going for them, which allows Brandon and I to take turns in the studio; I get about three hours a day. I’m not in a performing mood right now, so I’m writing songs. I’m sure I’ll be in a performing mood as soon as all these songs are done [laughs] and recorded. There’s always a season for how these things go.
Rick Shea: I started doing those Facebook Live performances on Saturdays at 5 o’clock; there’s been a bigger response than I expected, with people saying they’re looking forward to it, so I’ve continued it. I did one earlier because a pretty fair number of people in Ireland, the UK and Europe have been listening and it’s really late for them when I play at 5; they end up listening the next day, it’s archived there. … Everybody’s just figuring everything out. But if this continues the way it seems it’s going to, I think we’re in this for a bit of a long haul. I’ll be more than happy to continue doing these.
PW: How are you responding to the shutdown creatively?
Liela Avila: I’m focusing more on my songwriting. I feel like I have the time to sit down and finish a lot of the unfinished work that I haven’t had time to do because I was gigging. My husband is an engineer/producer and we have a little home studio set up, so it’s pretty convenient to just have him engineer a session and get a track done. We can finish a whole song in a day.
Gwendolyn: There have been a few opportunities to submit [music] for [TV] shows that are coming in the future; they’re trying to prepare but nobody really knows when production will start. I was actually supposed to jump on a plane on March 11 to go to New York to do our “Romy and Michele: The Musical” workshop back East. That all got canceled so it gives us a little more time to work with that material, perhaps write a new song for that. But again, we don’t know when that’s going to get picked up because that’s a live theater show.
Rick Shea: I had already tracked six or eight songs with [drummer] Shawn Nourse over at his studio, and had Dave Hall come play bass on them. So I already had all of that to work with, and I’m trying to make a new album. I’ve even written a couple new songs. I’m playing the song here to a click track and then sending it to Shawn and having him [drum] to that, and then the same thing with Dave Hall. I sent some tracks to Dave Jackson, he’s playing some accordion, and I sent some to Jim Shirey and he’s been playing some fiddle. Trying to figure out this working remotely thing.
PW: How have you seen music helping people get through this?
Liela Avila: It’s bringing people together. I think people are starting to realize family and friends and music, all these things that bring us joy, that those are the real things in life — not materialism, not money; those things don’t really matter at a certain point. I think music has been bringing people together and kind of shining a light on how we’re all in this together.
Rick Shea: The online performances have been wonderful and amazing; a lot of people that I’m familiar with, like Richard Thompson and David Grissom, I hadn’t noticed doing that before. As far as adjusting and making some money, I know some other people are recording the way I am, some people had been giving lessons and have moved those online like Brian Whelan and people at the Fret House. It seems like people at home are spending more time listening to music, which I’m always happy to see.
Will Wadsworth: More fan interaction is happening with the livestreaming of performances and the displaying of work online in a variety of ways. I think there’ll be some silver lining to be seen as far as artists and audiences go.
PW: How do you think this experience is affecting people’s relationship with music? Are people responding differently to your music in the framework of the pandemic?
Liela Avila: When I sing jazz, so much relies on communicating with music; it’s so much harder to not be in the same room with someone when you’re making that music. You’re missing this whole part of it. … It’s tough not being able to connect with people on any kind of level except through the internet.
Mark San Filippo: I’m taking advantage of the technology that we’re able to use. But we’re not performing in front of a live audience, so there’s no spark of that magic that happens when you play live.
Will Wadsworth: Some of the music that we just finished has ended up being pretty timely, as it’s really about overcoming tragedy, overcoming obstacles, getting up off of the floor after you’ve been knocked down and fighting back into a good place. And obviously we’re a gospel group so it’s calling out to a higher power. Things get highlighted whenever there’s trial and tribulation to be dealt with.
PW: What are your thoughts about how the music scene might reshape itself post-pandemic?
Liela Avila: I do a lot of restaurant gigs, and I’m not too sure, once this all is over, if those gigs are still gonna be there. I’ve kind of accepted that I might need to change what I do, as far as making money from music. I’m switching gears and focusing more on songwriting. I enjoy being home with my family; I have a 1-year-old daughter and it’s really hard every night to be at a gig, I don’t get to say goodnight to her. So it’s nice being home.
Mark San Filippo: Once venues reopen, there are likely to be different types of rules that go into effect. I don’t know if we’re going to see things go back to the way they were for a long time, in terms of just being able to gather with your band friends and set up at a venue and invite all your friends to come out and perform. I think [bands being able to rehearse together] is more likely to happen first, before we’re able to perform in public arenas, because everybody’s waiting on the testing process to get caught up. I don’t know if rehearsal studios are going to be the best places to go, depending on the numbers; those places are filthy.
Gwendolyn Sanford: Maybe we’ll have a gathering of 10, do a parlor scene, speakeasy-style. As far as larger venues, maybe places that have seats will stagger their seats to make people feel comfortable; I don’t know, we’re such a culture of maximum occupancy. I’d be into songwriter circles where we’re engaged with each other, and really listening to each person as they play, one at a time — a video song circle.
Rick Shea: Honestly, I think everything’s going to be different; I don’t see this being over any time soon. I hate to be the voice of doom and gloom, but if this goes on for a long time it will be a while before people feel comfortable again being in a crowd. But I’m also hopeful. If there’s a vaccine or something else for this, people would go back a lot quicker. But if it takes until next year the way that some reports are saying … I’m not sure a lot of the venues will be able to survive until then. It might be starting over in a lot of ways.
Will Wadsworth: That really is the question. I hope that live music thrives more than ever before. I think people are going to be really hungry to go out and see live music, and be around people; maybe not immediately but eventually, I think there will be a real desire for people to be in community in person with artists and performers on stages and with audiences. That desire might be stronger than ever when we come out of this. Right now people are sharpening their social media skills and figuring out how to create more content from home. That’s really valuable, and we need to know how to do more of that and keep creating and moving forward. Let the limitation be something that really promotes creativity.
PW: How do you keep your hope alive?
Liela Avila: I just take it one day at a time. My husband and I were just talking about this the other day — about how no matter what happens, somehow it always works out. As musicians, we’re used to this lifestyle of living from one paycheck to the next and letting the music just take you. So far we’ve been provided for and it always works out. So I just keep the hope alive. There’s really no other alternative for me. Music is what I’ve done my entire life, so this is just what I will continue to do and I will figure out how to make it work.
Mark San Filippo: I feel fortunate because I’m not alone; I’m with my wife and 8-year-old daughter and my parents live within walking distance. One of my best friends had a birthday in South Pasadena and we planned a drive-by parade with streamers and percussion instruments, and then we had dinner via Zoom. I’ve been trying to take pictures of different things like my daughter’s Girl Scout meeting via distance technology. It is a historical time. I was a workaholic, working four and five nights a week, so I was working day and night for over a decade. Now it’s a different quality of life; simpler, in a way.
Gwendolyn Sanford: Just focusing on the moments, honestly. But the songs I’m writing are pretty dark, so that’s kind of an outlet. It’s hard to say how much will change after all of this is done, or how much time it will take for things to feel normal again — or if they should. Growth always comes from these very uncomfortable periods.
Rick Shea: I have to be sort of optimistic even when it feels like it might be naïve. [Laughs] I know I may not sound like it sometimes, but I can’t walk around with a dark cloud over me all the time. I keep real busy. I’ve been as busy or maybe even busier than I’ve been since this all started.
Will Wadsworth: I’m looking at these limitations and this suffering and this distancing and this loneliness and cabin fever that we’re experiencing right now as an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to really dive into yourself, in some ways, to take personal inventory; to be reacquainted with yourself and the divine. To dive into the literature and the books you’ve been setting aside. To dive into the music and the movies you’ve been setting aside. I think we’re going to see a lot of great art come out of this. We’re going to see communities and people bond together more often, because whenever tragedy happens, one of the byproducts is people leaning on each other more. … As Mr. Rogers said, Look for the helpers; what can we do to be one of the helpers? Whether that’s art or shopping for your elderly neighbor. There’s a lot of hurt and a lot of suffering and my heart is breaking for those people, but I think there’s a lot of beauty out there too.