In early March, as Sarah and Austin McCombie of North Carolina-based folk band Chatham Rabbits drove home in their brand-new tour van, their inbox flooded with COVID-19 cancellations. Instead of preparing for a nationwide tour like they planned, the duo spent the next few weeks adjusting to a new, concert-less reality.
The arts industry is one of the most severely affected by the pandemic, and it will likely be one of the last to return to business as usual. Musicians worldwide have suddenly faced the question: without tours, concert halls, and crowds of fans — what’s next?
For Chatham Rabbits, the answer came in the form of solar panels and a utility trailer.
“Instead of people coming to us to see music, we thought, ‘what if we can bring music to people’s houses?’” Sarah McCombie said.
They spent the month of April equipping the van with solar panels to power their sound system, purchasing a trailer and hammering out logistics. At the beginning of May, just days after the release of their second album, Chatham Rabbits launched the Stay at Home Tour.
Three or four nights a week, Chatham Rabbits visits neighborhoods from Asheville to Wilmington, playing several short sets that people can safely enjoy from their lawns and front porches. The tour is funded almost entirely by donations.
Fans can submit an online request for Chatham Rabbits to visit their neighborhood — Sarah said they’ve received over 500 requests. They’ve visited more than 60 neighborhoods since the beginning of May and have no plans to stop the tour anytime soon.
“People have been just so eager to see live music and have just been really, really responsive to the whole idea,” Sarah said. “We have been blown away by people’s generosity.”
Other musicians throughout the Triangle have found creative ways to continue sharing their art with the community. For Chatham Rabbits, that meant finding new, safe ways to perform. For others, it means channeling their energy into producing and recording new content.
Faith Jones, a Durham-based singer-songwriter and a 2020 UNC graduate, is working on an EP and said she’s been able to write new songs every day since June.
“I’ve been trying to figure out my voice in what I say and how I want to say it,” Jones said.
In addition to writing original content, Jones also recorded a cover of “For What It’s Worth” written by Stephen Stills for the Cat’s Cradle benefit album, “Cover Charge.”
“Cover Charge” consists of 25 tracks recorded by local musicians, the proceeds of which support the Carrboro venue Cat’s Cradle.
One of the project creators, musician and UNC English professor Florence Dore, said the project inspired her to create more new music while in quarantine. To record a song for “Cover Charge,” she and her bandmates emailed tracks back and forth, mixing and recording remotely.
“Hands down, it would be better to be playing in clubs and interacting with audiences,” Dore said. “But I gained inspiration and motivation from figuring out how to keep recording even though we could not do that.”
Mipso, a band composed of UNC graduates, channeled its creative energy into making music videos for its self-titled album that's releasing in October. Vocalist and fiddle player Libby Rodenbough said the group gathered in North Carolina for about two weeks and created six full music videos, which they plan to release throughout the fall.
Mipso also recorded a cover of “Long Distance Love” by Little Feat for “Cover Charge.”
Durham-based artist A.yoni Jeffries also said the pandemic has allowed her extra time to strategize unconventional album releases. Jeffries’ debut album, “Potential Gon Pay,” comes out this month — and she said she plans to record video performances to promote the album.
Rodenbough said Mipso is still considering their options, including livestream performances through North Carolina venues.
“Like everybody, we’re trying to think creatively,” she said.
Matt Southern, a Raleigh-based singer-songwriter, said he’s had a similar experience — he and his bandmates are promoting their newly-released album via local radio instead of live shows, and they’re using the time in quarantine to research and make creative lyric videos.
“Live music won’t go away; it’s too important,” Dore said. “But you can make magic in other ways. These days the virtual experience can do a lot to soothe people’s sense of isolation.”
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