For many young people in Brooklyn, doing a job is quite different from doing their work. Specifically, for local musicians, in order to be prolific in this modern-day cash-is-king society – and specifically the pricey bohemian mecca of New York City – one has to be realistic, and get one of those things regular people call a “day job” to pay the bills. Often when that 9 am to 5pm or 4pm to 1am shift is done, a double-life is born.
Then the questions come. For instance, when a musician meets a stranger, how do they react to the question on everyone's tongue: What do you do? Which answer do folks fish for and which answer do musicians give – their work or their job?
“Depends on who it is,”said Andrea Tarka, (pictured, above left) at night the lead singer of the percussively driving pop-rockateers Stewart and by day an acupuncturist. “If I'm at a show and it comes up in context of making extra cash, I'll be like 'Oh yeah, I'm in a band'; that's usually the first thing I bring up, but if I'm talking to a patient, I usually don't tell my patients that I'm also in a band, it's a very different side of myself,” Andrea said.
Often that day job can be a source of slight embarrassment. If one isn't profiting enough off of their craft, the assumption on the part of a stranger could be they're just not good enough, at least not yet. Being put on the spot can be a bit daunting, so another knee-jerk reaction is to make light of it.
“I usually say, 'I'm a lover, not a fighter, but I will fight you, if it comes to that,'" said Kevin Johnston, a Park Slope-based musician, whose former band The All For Nots toured the U.S. as part-musical collective, part web reality-series. "I think I usually try to come up with some jokey bullshit answer, kind of like I just did."
Johnston moonlights as a bartender for the open mic hub and watering hole, Bar 4 (well-known as a good spot for networking with musicians), and as a barista at El Biet in Williamsburg. Johnston uses these two jobs to his advantage, both as networking tools with fellow musicians, and opportunities to promote shows he plays in the area. “You can't swing a dead cat without a guy who works at a coffee shop giving you a flier for their band, but it's a stereotype that works, I guess,” Johnston said.
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“When people ask you what you do, they're more interested in who you really are,” he added. For the artist, it's easy to become consumed with creation, like Johnston, for whom music seems weaved into his DNA – something that seemed to grow in his marrow from the start.
Some artists prefer to keep their art and work a little more separate. For Tarka, she goes a step past sun-positioning and actually puts a geographic blockade between her Brooklyn-based band, Stewart, and her day job as an acupuncturist in a small town in Pennsylvania.
“It's weird to be an acupuncturist and be in a band because the two lifestyles traditionally are kind of complete opposites,” Tarka said. “As an acupuncturist you're supposed to get plenty of sleep and eat right and rest and be all nice and calm, and as a musician – drugs sex and rock n' roll – you never sleep, you never eat, you run your body ragged.”
Tarka's been playing with Stewart since fall of 2005, during which they've released three full-lengths, while at the same time building a strong clientele as an acupuncturist. After training in acupuncture out west, Tarka returned to the east coast and began pursuing both careers. While the two are distinct from one another, they also work as a balancing act.
“When I'm in acupuncture my goal is to listen and help people with their story, but when I'm on stage it's me expressing my story, and hopefully that will help someone along the way; there's a similarity to it, but it's such different parts of my personality that come out in each one,” Tarka said.
There are some artists who have made the leap to subsidizing their art with, well, their art, like recently reconstructed indie pop trio Bear in Heaven. Now in their sixth year with a hit record under their belt, the band is putting full-time effort into the project, most recently completing an 11-week tour, and now are in the midst of an 8-week international tour. While the ability to work as a musician full time is a luxury, it's now also imperative for their daily bread.
“It's just as much work, except for there's more traveling involved, because we make our living now by playing shows,” said frontman Jon Philpot (pictured, left).
The obvious advantage to profiting enough off of one's art is the amount of time freed up to concentrate on the craft. “When you're working a day job, you're stressed out about when you're going to get that time to do it, and you usually do your music on the weekend or after hours, where as now, I could spend a week doing stuff I'd normally do in a month,” Philpot said. “It's definitely ramping things up as far as what we're able to do.”
However, the new-found freedom is balanced out with a pressured demand for new material. “We don't necessarily have more time; the expectations for us are a little bit higher than they were before,” Philpot said. “Even though we have more time to spend making music, the amount of time overall which we will inevitably have to make a new record will be shorter.”
For artists with day-jobs, it can be easy to see the words 'fame' and 'success' as synonymous. However the two are defined separately, both multiply tiered, and subjective. Some find success in the smallest things to be most rewarding.
“It's silly little things, like we just had this show and there was a guy there who knew every single word to every single song, and that was one of my top dreams, this is somebody who doesn't know me and I was able to reach out to and impact in some way,” Tarka said.
Through a series of side-projects, Johnston (pictured, right) was sent with a band he was working with to play The Jimmy Kimmel show, where he was fortunate enough to play one of his originals. Even just assessing the present can help an artist to determine what they've achieved, what they're proud of.
“If it came down to it, life is not so bad playing in a great band, and bartending,” Johnston said.
For Tarka, her expectations have already been fulfilled.
“For me personally, if something happened and the band was over, I wouldn't regret a thing because we've done everything I wanted to do with the band, so at this point it's all just gravy,” Tarka said.
For others, it's all about the fans.
“If I can make one grin on an orphan,” Johnston said. “Or if I can make one orphan throw their panties…”