Junkyard Heartstrings: At the End of Year One

The conclusion of the calendar year provides us all with a convenient point at which to look back. Even before we reached the end of December, Heidi and I have spent many hours reflecting on the creation of our band, Junkyard Heartstrings, where we’re at now, and the places we might be headed. It’s been a surreal journey so far in our first year.

I remember a few distinct points at the start that led us here.

Heidi and I were going for a walk at the local high school when we decided on the name Junkyard Heartstrings.

Junkyard Heartstrings Nest

Experimenting with new design images/ideas. Guitar string nest with picks for eggs. Made by Heidi.

Our conversation where we solidified our plans (mainly regarding the equipment purchase) occurred at Fanelli Cafe in New York City amid images of boxers (the fightin’ kind) on the walls. We had stopped in for a drink following Joseph Arthur‘s annual New Year’s Day concert at the City Winery. This seemed appropriate given our name alludes to his set of EPs. A portion of the conversation was certainly, “We can do this thing… right? We can do this? Of course we can do this.” Mutual reassurance with a healthy dose of skepticism about our own abilities seemed natural. We ordered all the equipment a few days later and crossed our fingers.

Aside from deciding on a name and knowing what songs we wanted to play, we weren’t quite sure what and where other benchmarks should be. Was it to reach a specific number of gigs? A monetary amount? The number of Facebook “likes”? How does one gauge an element of success when there isn’t really a specific guide? Our initial benchmark was to recoup the funds spent on equipment by the end of the first year. This seemed reasonable and good place to start, to ensure that we weren’t engaging in an enterprise, though spiritually fulfilling, that might be financially draining leading to stress or regret somewhere down the road.

The beginning, unsurprisingly, was the hardest. It snowed on our first 3 dates, which created ideal conditions for limited attendance, but on the flip side, it probably put us more at ease with performing. We had played a lot of open mic nights to help hone our skills playing in front of people but they represented short bursts of 3-5 songs in a set. Quite different from filling 3+ hours with music. We quickly built our stamina to the point that we rarely take breaks during our sets. It feels much more comfortable for us to keep going with the music and we often lament at the end of the evening the songs we wanted to fit but couldn’t manage to squeeze in there.

It was the act of booking that has provided the most challenges. With a detailed spreadsheet of potential venues, we began a coordinated blitz of phone calls, emails, and “dropping by because we were in the area.” Our list soon became filled with notes of contact people and their varying availability to discuss booking. We could (and probably should) write a book about all of this, but to anyone out there attempting anything (no matter what it is), there is going to be a high rate of failure or non-replies. We have increased from getting booked at maybe 10% of the venues we contacted to about 15-18%. It’s low, but we feel this is par for the course. I believe we were smart not to limit ourselves too much geographically. We set a limit of roughly one hour (one-way) for travel and this opened up further possibilities for us. Overall, it feels good to get booked somewhere and despite knowing you’re more than capable to play and entertain a crowd, it feels as though you’ve achieved something monumental and also fooled someone into believing you’re qualified.

Junkyard Heartstrings

Doing our thing way back when at The Stomping Ground for open mic. Photo by Kent Spottswood.

It took us a while to even feel confident calling ourselves “musicians,” never mind selling ourselves as such. Yes, we play music, but the term seems far more professional and accomplished than either of us believed we were or are. Heidi has sung for a long time, but never considered herself a “singer” until now. We decided that if we’re playing at least half a dozen gigs a month in front of strangers that clap in appreciation in places willing to pay us then perhaps we could define ourselves as musicians. I think part of the difficulty is also the fact that we’re currently a cover band and have yet to write and perform original music. This is going to happen eventually, but probably contributes to the hesitation.

I think part of why we’ve been able to play as many places as we have is our work ethic. As teachers, we have to possess a degree of self-discipline, be organized, and put in time outside the bounds of established working hours. We also love doing it and it rarely feels like work.

However, it’s left us open to the continual anxiety we experience in the teaching profession, which involves asking ourselves, “Are we doing this right?” This leads to many more questions and looking at what other people are doing and then leads down the rabbit hole of comparing ourselves to other musical acts.

Comparison is not a good habit to get into based on the negative feelings it can conjure, but it’s been useful as a barometer of progress and certainly helpful in researching what places are booking music and generally on what days. We’ve tried to turn this tendency to draw parallels from a potentially adverse act into a positive and useful one. We attempt to keep the scale towards observation and not let it dip into charting and dwelling on correlations. One thing we’ve learned is there are a lot of bands out there and a lot of places booking musical acts. Sometimes we feel competitive, but we each define success our own way and in a culturally determined space. In other words, we try to breathe and gain perspective as we go in the knowledge that everyone is different, doing their own thing, and that should be celebrated. There’s really no need to grow incredibly concerned over what others are doing, how many gigs they have, or what songs they’re playing. This is especially true considering with Junkyard Heartstrings that, “We don’t even know what it is yet. We don’t know what it could be. We don’t know what it can be. We don’t know what it will be. We know that it is cool” (from THE SOCIAL NETWORK). It’s silly to feel jealous over something when so many bands have their particular niche. Defining Junkyard Heartstrings, as much as the success of it, is nebulous. We know we have something here. It’s good and it’s going to get better. Even if we struggle to articulate it or haven’t quite yet found a robust following.

Finding our audience is one thing that is confounding us, but isn’t startling to the couple who have very few friends. We’ve certainly caught some attention but don’t seem to have the ease and rapport many acts we’ve seen have nor do we feel surrounded by a regular supportive crowd of musicians. We’ve met many nice people and had great conversations, but we very much feel as though we’re outsiders and a bit solitary in our odyssey. It hasn’t impeded us in terms of playing shows; this realization is more of a personal sensitivity. Maybe we’re too guarded or we haven’t let it happen yet.

Despite the rising action we’ve been experiencing in booking more and more shows further and further into the future, we know that we’ll max out either in terms of how often we want to play or how many gigs we’ll be able to book. There is a fixed amount of places and only so many dates to play those in. We haven’t reached that point yet, but we’ve found enjoyment in the journey by immersing ourselves in the unknown and seeing where we can get. This has also proven true in exploring marketing and our musical interests.

Though we don’t feel close to experts, we’re growing in our understanding and ability to promote ourselves. We’ve become more adept at website design and constructing online content. We have created videos, recordings, and graphics to share.

This project has instilled us with business and marketing skills, allowed us to mindfully manage digital material, and improved us as careful players and listeners.

There are loads of songs we plan to add and it happens a bit slower than most because we take time to consider our choices and the best way to present them in an acoustic format. I mentioned before about writing our own material and we’ve begun dabbling, but I foresee it as a multi-step process so I can’t begin to guess the gestation period aside from knowing it will undoubtedly be lengthy. This will create more opportunities and a period of rebranding that hopefully allows us to morph in even more engaging ways.

We recognize we’re on one of those ventures that will never have a clear endgame (to quote THE SOCIAL NETWORK once again: “the same way fashion is never finished”). The whole aspect of regularly performing is finally starting to feel more normal after a year, but it hasn’t lost its excitement; there’s much more we want to do, and it’s made us far more confident about ourselves in ways we never before thought possible.

Junkyard Heartstrings

On the road again. Photo by Kent Spottswood.

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