Sunday, 17 March 2013

Toy Hearts head for the Western Swing motherlode. It's like Moseley. With horses.

Toy Hearts take a leap, not quite into the unknown, but certainly into a whole world of unpredictable. 

Last Thursday 28th March, Birmingham’s Toy Hearts played a hometown gig with Brooklynite Rebecca Pronsky as their special guest at the Hare and HoundsThen it’s off on the road again. In May they play a farewell gig, again at the Hare. 

Two days later, they relocate to Austin, Texas, for at least four months. Bags packed, gigs set up, visas sorted, cat rehomed. That is, all things considered, one hell of a jump. 

Toy Hearts are no strangers to the US. A family band - sisters Hannah and Sophia, and dad Stewart Johnson – they have taken their blend of bluegrass and western swing stateside for years. You might say that’s coals to Newcastle, but they’ve been generously and warmly received. That speaks volumes. And if you check out the USA Toy Hearts videoclips in this post after the jump, it all seems to fit. Still and all, it’s one thing to travel to the States and get a warm welcome; it’s quite another to take yourself to the home of Western Swing and systematically build on that.

This time last year, Toy Hearts were readying their last album, ‘Whiskey’. They were deep in marketing strategies, and refreshingly open about the challenges they face as a band playing the music they love. Those challenges won’t go away, and that’s partly why they are getting ready for a transatlantic leap. 

The history of bands and acts that base themselves in the US to try for that big breakthrough isn’t exactly encouraging. Slade tried it; Robbie Williams tried it; both failed. Deluka are trying it even now, holed up in Williamsburg. But there is a difference with Toy Hearts: they’ve already found acceptance in the states, through years of visits and gigs. And, for them, it’s a much bigger market.
Hannah: We’ve got lots of friends there, as well as contacts. Austin is the live music capital for Country. There’s a lot more work than in Nashville. On average there are 200 live shows a night in Austin. Compare that to probably 200 gigs in England…
Sophia: … all year…
Hannah: … and that’s being generous. So it makes sense.
Sophia: We’ve been building up to this. Since 2006, we’ve been exploring possibilities in North America. We went to Nashville first, but Austin is much more what we were about. Nashville is like Hollywood. Everyone you meet is an aspiring singer-songwriter… waiting tables, parking attendants, in the hotels… everybody is a singer songwriter, and it’s like a song factory. There’s some great stuff happening, especially in East Nashville, where we’ve recorded… but Austin just seemed right. 
Here’s the kind of thing that happens: towards the end of our last tour, we go down to the Continental Club. Merle Haggard’s guitarist Redd Volkaert is on stage, Raul Malo from the Mavericks gets up. And after him, they call us up on stage. ‘We got two English girls here, give them a big welcome’. I was like ‘what!’ But it was all fine – that’s the kind of stuff that happens in Austin. 
So what’s the plan? You’re going to Austin Texas…. Do you know where you’re staying? Do you have gigs lined up?
Hannah: We’ll fix a place before we go. We’ve got gigs in the diary already, and hopefully that’s going to build as we go. 
Sophia grabs the diary and starts reeling off the gigs:
South Dakota Folk Festival, Philadelphia Folk Festival, Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival… Long Island. IBMA – the International Bluegrass Association – a week-long conference where we’re hopefully showcasing… North Carolina… There’s already stuff in. But a lot of this is setting up for a big festival season next year. From February onwards next year, we want to hit Merlefest, and things like that.
Cherry Bomb Rock Photography
But it’s one thing to be invited up onstage by a kindly MC, because you happen to be nice British gals who can sing and play. Isn't it a whole other thing to put yourself right there into that marketplace, competing for those gigs?.
Hannah: It’s going to be more of a positive than a negative. Before, when we went over for two or three weeks, lots of people found us, and asked us when the next gig was - when we were going home the next day! So it’s good to have that contact at grass-roots level with the people who go to the (Western) Swing shows. Especially the dancers. That’s a BIG part of Swing. If we can get the dancers of Austin to our show… that helps to build the fan base.
And I really hope that’s going to show up on YouTube …
Sophia: Last time out they were dancing to our stuff, and we hadn’t even tweaked the set for them! 
So let’s talk about your infrastructure, your platform, your base… Here in the UK, you’ve got everything set up. You’re going to have to start again over there. 
Hannah: It’s not so much that. Our creativity is more fulfilled by being over there. Here… we’re on our own. It’s a paradox. This is much more for our souls, and nourishing what we love. So even if we’re just writing over there, and we come back and record over here, that’s a bonus. We’re not worried about proving ourselves. It’s more that the three of us can write and work over there.
Sophia: We’ve put out a lot. I don’t know another band that gigs as much as us. This is going to put energy back into the pot
Hannah: Cos otherwise… we’ll burn out. 
Stuart: Last year we did maybe 100-150 shows. I don’t know another band in Birmingham that comes anywhere near that. We get our inspiration from going out and playing.
Hannah: and seeing other bands in the circles we’re in. There is great talent in Birmingham, and I’m proud to be part of that. But in our niche, it makes sense to be surrounded by people who, who.. are better than us. It’s definitely about development, this trip.
You’re going to the home of Western Swing, the mother lode… you’re going to have to punch your weight and better, aren’t you?
Stuart: It’s kind of not like that. It’s not as competitive. 

People will be sweet to you simply because you are English.
Stuart: We have a certain cachet, because we are English, and we stand out. But there’s a lot of great music in Austin. A lot of it is pick-up bands, guys from different bands who are off the road. So there’s a lot of cross-breeding where ideas cross over.
Hey, you could be talking about Birmingham…
Stuart: It is similar. But the fact of being a band, doing your own material, not playing shared material everyone knows… that will get you a following. Everybody has told us – if you come to town and start playing, people will pick up on it. 
Sophia: This has happened to us on every trip. ‘Are you from Texas’? You’ve got to answer ‘No, but I got here as quick as I could!’ The city’s slogan is 'Keep Austin Weird'. It’s like Moseley… on a huge scale… with cowboys… and people turning up at gigs on horses.
Toy Hearts at Glee Club, Birmingham, April 2012     Photo courtesy
The conversation moves on to money. Toy Hearts make the interesting point that while gig money isn’t directly comparable, petrol, accommodation and food costs are all significantly lower in the US than the UK, and as a result things work out pretty well. But then come two zingers:
Hannah: America has a tipping culture. If you work hard and you give a good show, your incentive is dollars in your tip-jar, and you sell your CDs. Over here, I’ve seen some bands not talk to their audience. We don’t do that – we give a show. And that’s paid off. On three separate occasions, we’ve had one hundred dollar bills as a tip! So the money thing – it’s different to how it is in the UK.
Sophia: The festivals are better paid. You aren’t asked to somebody’s trendy festival with all these people who can barely play their instruments, and you’re expected to do it for the exposure… 
Hannah: And they treat you so much better. They make you welcome. I’ve walked into venues in the UK – we don’t get a dressing room, we don’t get a drink, the sound man doesn’t speak to you…. 
What about your UK fans?

The answer spills out in a rush, Hannah and Sophia finishing each other’s sentences: 
They’ve been lovely. Our fans have said they’re proud of us. They see it a success, they understand why we’re going. We’re gonna miss you, we’ll see you in a year, you’re gonna have to come back and do a big kick-ass tour. That’s lovely. What more can you ask for?
And... what if it all blows up in your face?
Hannah: We’re trying to minimise risk
Stuart: ... by planning
Hannah: But you’ve got to try in life and make things happen 
Sophia: We’ve got to make the best of this that we possibly can. People sit around waiting for something to happen, waiting for a record deal, waiting for a dream. I’m done with all that. I want to create a sustainable working life for ourselves. 
I’m sympathetic. I took a similar jump stateside to kick-start my radio career. When I ventured a personal opinion about the contrast between US and UK working cultures: the US welcoming, open and friendly, and the UK, sadly, far too often judgmental and obstacle-strewn…. Hannah and Sophia almost exploded in agreement. 

Cherry Bomb Rock Photography
I am full of admiration for the stance Toy Hearts are taking. For seven years the band has hammered relentlessly around the UK and Europe. They’ve paid their way for all that time, which is more than most bands can claim. 

Toy Hearts have done all this working a specialist area of music, which, in this country at least, is fraught with pitfalls and genre snobbery. That same genre snobbery would be given very short shrift in the US. 

I look forward to good news from across the pond.

See also, from April 2012: 

Toy Hearts: Family. Tradition. Attitude. Experimentation. High Heels. Don’t Mess.

Toy Hearts and Gig list

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Amit Dattani, Mellow Peaches said...

Great stuff, can totally get the 'niche American music being played in the UK issue' thing. Best of luck to them!

Spence said...

Good luck to them. They know what they want and they put in the hard yards.I've seen them live a few times and they have the talent and the attitude to have a long, successful career either side of the Atlantic!

Giitarpicker said...

A brilliant band of expert string pickers. Other British acts making similar music require twice as many musicians to make half as much happen. Curiously ignored by British tv at least so far