The Next Frontier for Touring Musicians: Living Rooms?

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The young, talented songwriter Gideon Irving is building an audience by playing unusual shows in unusual venues—like my friend's house.

gideon irving sheller 900.jpg
Courtesy Gideon Irving

The hand-scrawled orange sign on his fluorescent-green shopping cart reads, "My Name is Gideon.com." His full name is Gideon Irving. He's a young New York singer, songwriter, raconteur, and entertainer. And his favorite performance venues are in strangers' homes, preferably living rooms—and a few choice kitchens—where he parks his prop and musical instrument-filled cart, and then does his act for no fee as long as long as he's fed, allowed to sell his latest CD, and invited to sleep the night.

"Someone's home is a venue like any other with its own unique properties and values," he told me after an exhausting recent tour of New York living rooms. "It is an opportunity to play for small crowds without the hassles inherent in a noisy club, and experience space I wouldn't ordinarily see."

This isn't just a lark: He's been doing it across continents, over hundreds of shows, matching a hippie-era communal ethos with the networking power of the Internet.

Gideon earned $15,000 from Kickstarter to tour New Zealand. The five shows he booked through couchsurfing.org blossomed to 80 homes.

The inspiration for this moveable fest came from a "house show" by a band called the Music Tapes (the project of a former member of the venerated '90s indie act Neutral Milk Hotel) he attended two years ago in a Bayside, Queens living room. "Julian Koster is the front man of the band and their performance leapt over boundaries," he said. "It was as much a music show as it was a magic show, a sculptural installation, a twisted story, a nostalgic memory, and a group game. The intimacy of the home lent itself so well to that adventure." This gave Gideon the confidence to try his own intimate shows, including the one I saw at artist Marshall and wife Dee Arisman's birthday party for their cat, named Catman, who just turned 21 (or 100 human years) .

"It's been an amazing space for a performer like myself who is really just beginning," he said. "The feedback from the audience is crystal clear and relentless." In a living room everyone's face is visible—the joy and the boredom: "I can see someone fall asleep or someone close their eyes because a number is taking them some place. There are no illusions as to what is and what is not working in such a small space, and that has been the greatest tool in developing a show."

Gideon has been performing in front of people for five years, but only doing his own material for the past nine months. His current act is a mix of autobiographical and comic narratives about himself and his family—some true, others not—accompanied on banjo, harmonica, bouzouki, and sometimes a bellows used for Eastern devotionals. He has a distinctively emotive, tremulous sound that sometimes reaches a wailing pitch and then returns to a calm harmonious timber. For some of his tunes he rhymes wittily, with a folk or bluegrass sound. About his vocal careening he told me, "I would rather push my body and my ideas to places where they can dramatically fail or succeed than to just hang in some middle plane."

A New York native, Gideon took piano lessons when very young, but was never made to practice, so with no discipline not much came of it. He grew up listening to show tunes and a great deal of world music, as well as Dylan and Mitchell and Hendrix. In 2008 Gideon took up residence with banjoist and potter Akira Satake in Swannanoa, outside Asheville, North Carolina, where lived for over a year working as his assistant, learning the foundations of music. "The time I spent with him and his family is invaluable and something I give thanks for regularly," Gideon said. "Also being around Akira's work ethic was perhaps one of the most valuable lessons."

Working larger spaces than private homes would be nice, but Gideon believes that to do so would involve making a club or theater into a living room. "If someone wants to put me in Carnegie Hall, I suppose that's cool," he said. "I just hope it can be a potluck event and that there can be a handful of kids sitting on the floor right at my feet." Still, he wonders, "What club or theater will make me dinner, breakfast, and tuck me in?" His hosts end up being one of his favorite parts of the experience: "I get to talk to some more than others, but as I continue to do this I feel like I'm slowly building a global network of really interesting and different people."

Last year Gideon earned $15,000 from Kickstarter that allowed him to make a concert tour to New Zealand. Initially he had just five shows booked through couchsurfing.org, a social networking site for travelers. From those five he got contacts for the next five, a pattern that repeated itself until four months later he had played in 80 homes and traveled more than 2,500 miles on his bicycle. During his sets he pins up a map of the area he's touring, asking his audience to jot down any contacts of any possible hosts for a similar evening. "While on tour through New York City this past month I posted my NYC map and USA map on the wall and collected over 200 potential house show contacts across the country," he said, adding that he started collecting international contacts for hosts in Norway, Thailand, Denmark, England, Germany, Malawi, South Africa, Japan, and Iceland.

His first DVD, My Brother Is Isaac, now available at his shows, has a sleeve printed with a list of small, hand-drawn names—people he has met throughout his life. It represents what he calls a handwritten attempt at revisiting the web of characters that have made up his life. "I came up with the list over nine months. First I wrote down everyone I could remember from every section of life (school, work, family, neighborhood, travel) then I got in touch with dozens of people, through phone and email, in that list to help remember names of folks I'd met through them." The final list was about 5,000 names. "This record defines me in so much as I am a response to a series of interactions with these people," he said. "Without these people or with a different list of people I am someone else. I like the idea of seeing a person in a list of other people."

Gideon's goal is to become a "room catalyst"—someone who can draw the real show out of the audience. "All those words—singer, performance artist, poet—make me uncomfortable," he said. "I feel like they are both things too big to live up to and things I don't aspire towards. I guess I wanna be a surprisist. Someone who is able to create a string of surprises."

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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