In addition to getting people laid and enhancing training montages in boxing movies, music has long salved the festering emotional wounds of humanity. Who among us has never crawled into a weepy ballad when life laid a bag of flaming dog shit at our front door, rang the doorbell and ran away?
At the very least, music soothes our savage breast; in its greater moments, music has accomplished much more. Or have you forgotten the powers of the pre-Psychic Network Dionne Warwick?
In 1984, Boomtown Rats frontman Bob Geldof corralled an astonishingly high-profile roster of Irish and British musicians (and some drummers, too) to record the charity single, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” to raise awareness and funds for the impoverished people of Ethiopia. Dropped four days after it was recorded, the song sold a million copies in the first week and became the UK’s biggest-selling single of all time (until Sir Elton cannibalized his own hit with “Candle in the Wind 1997”). So as not to look like greedy buffoons, the US responded a year later with “We Are the World,” another glitzy African poverty-relief initiative that paraded out American’s greatest musical treasures, such as Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and even Willie Nelson sharing a microphone with Dionne Warwick. Written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie and produced by Quincy Jones, this single has sold over twenty million copies to date.
The scorching success of these projects inspired a wave of star-studded relief efforts, such as Farm Aid, Hear N’ Aid, Live Aid and the Beastie Boys’ Tibetan Freedom Concerts, to name a few. While jaded observers have long opined that such initiatives are little more than self-serving publicity stunts for the performers, one cannot deny that regardless of motivation, such events do raise both awareness and money for their causes. Still, while some artists have personalized their mission with trips to suffering regions of the globe, the interaction between most artists and the recipients of their contributions has been minimal, essentially boiled down to periodic wire transfers from the coffers of the record labels to the checking accounts of the charities.
Certainly no one ever thought to hand a guitar or microphone to one of the needy and invite them to contribute to the projects. Why, that would be crazy, wouldn’t it?
Kevin Moyer doesn’t think so. In 2003, he released one of the bravest, most interesting charitable albums of all time: Live From Nowhere Near You—a 27-song collection that Kevin recorded in his attic studio with a lineup of impressively-talented street musicians. While this alone presented a unique angle to the project, it was the album’s other musicians who gave it legs. Incredibly, Kevin secured the participation of members of Pearl Jam, Third Eye Blind and Spoon.
Last year, Kevin released Live From Nowhere Near You: Volume 2—an even more ambitious, three-CD set packed with over 200 minutes of both high-polished and lo-fi tracks from a new group of street musicians, as well as Eddie Vedder, The Strokes, Josh Homme, Elliott Smith, members of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, members of The Decembrists, John Doe of X, Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinny, Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree, Mike Watt, Third Eye Blind, Bright Eyes, Wilco and and other well-known artists and bands. You’ve got songs like “Ill Street Blues,” performed and produced by Kevin and some groovalicious street musicians, sharing space with the Marvin Gaye classic “Mercy, Mercy Me,” covered by Eddie Vedder, The Strokes and Josh Homme.
Songs vary in genre and production style but the quality of musicianship is superb. Refreshingly, these are not throwaway quality songs—they are every bit as tuneful, well-produced and thoroughly enjoyable as songs you might find by the artists’ day jobs. Released by Portland’s Greyday Records, the new album is available for purchase for $15—what most people would pay for a single album, let alone a triple album. All proceeds from the project are walked over to Outside In—a Portland homeless shelter dedicated to restoring both dignity and self-sufficiency to the forgotten children who pass through its doors.
This project recently came to our attention and after listening to the music, we had to sit down with Kevin to discuss how this all came about, his experiences recording the street musicians and how in the world he secured some of the biggest names in music to lend their time and talents to his project.
Tell me about the concept–was there an “A ha” moment when it came to you?
I went to a concert with some friends – I don’t recall who it was but it was probably someone that we overpaid to see – and lost my friends in the crowd. So, after the show I figured the easiest thing would be to meet them outside. When I got out there, there was this amazing street musician sitting there – shoeless and wearing an eye patch – playing the blues. He was an older grizzled African American man and he was just making this guitar sing and cry and howl. I sat down with him and watched all of these people just walk past him like he wasn’t even there. These are people you have to assume are music fans, as they are coming out of a venue, and many probably bought $25 t shirts to go with their Ticketmaster admission fees, but for whatever reason they didn’t hear this guy who was literally playing at their feet for free. And this guy was amazing—he had played with Jimi Hendrix once. I ended up recording about 15 songs with him later, one of which appeared on Volume One. But these people, these music fans, couldn’t be bothered with him. So as we sat there and shared a smoke, I wondered why the big band that we had just paid too much to see was worthy of the attention, while this guy who was just as good, if not better, was not. Was it the social placement—the sidewalk versus the stage? Was it a matter of context—seeing him without shoes and the big band in photo shoots? He performed on the street with no fanfare, while the people we had paid to see had radio play and a marketing budget. It just seemed to me that there were so many different variables at play affecting perception, when in reality the only variable should be the quality of the music and artist and how it makes you feel. The other stuff seemed to be getting in the way and skewing perception, so I wanted to put together a project with both kinds of artists and do it in a way that you couldn’t tell who was who. The idea is that if the music is good enough, it shouldn’t matter if the musician is on a big label or on a small corner.
What was the biggest challenge in bringing this to life?
The biggest challenge was the logistics of putting it all together and making it tell a story of life on the streets. I wanted to go a step past facilitating collaborations between street musicians and professionals – I wanted the project to be a concept album that also tells a story. So fitting all of it together in a way that made sense was a giant puzzle, one that also had to factor in the flow of so many different musical genres and vibes. The challenge of having so many musicians on the effort—100 plus contributors—and what to do with everyone and how was also another puzzle. I also learned soon enough, especially with the street musicians, that I needed to take care of everything – from meeting to recording to getting permission to use – all at the same time, because who knows if you were ever going to see them again? Lots of the street kids were constantly in transit with no place to call home. I guess, doing all of this on the side of a very demanding 9-5 job was also a bit of a challenge too…
The most obvious question is how do you get these enormous names to appear on the project?
Well, a lot of them are friends of mine, or at least acquaintances or partners on other projects. And I like to think they took to the project because it was a unique idea with an integrated benefit. Not your typical charity album in that we made the concept tie directly to the benefit and I did the whole thing without any staff or budget or label support. GreyDay Records came in after the project was finished and they were nice enough to partner with us to print and distribute. It was just me, recording all of this stuff live on the streets, in my attic studio, or in donated basements. It was a way for them to do something creative and not have to worry about their contribution fitting in with an album that they would normally release; plus they didn’t have to worry about label parameters. It was a bit of creative freedom for some, a way to perhaps collaborate with someone they had always wanted to for others, and a way to get something unique out there, while also giving back and helping to bring and build karma.
What is the level of collaboration between the street musicians and the established ones? Did the big names ever record with the street musicians?
Oh yes, between the Volume One and Volume Two efforts we utilized every imaginable recording method. Some professionals recorded in the studio with the street musicians, other times one would leave a track for another to add to or build upon. Sometimes it was just a professional contributing a relevant song, and other times it was just a street musician doing it all. Sometimes the professional and I would head downtown to find what we needed for a particular song that we were working on, like finding a kid playing buckets – other times I would find a player downtown and bring him to a session. Sometimes we recorded in professional studios, other times we recorded under bridges or in sketchy hotel rooms or live on the streets with the wind whipping around us. It was always different depending on the musicians involved and the song and the scenario of all involved. One unique example that comes to mind was the song “Far Out Group Of People” that we did for Volume One featuring Chris Ballew of The Presidents of The United States. For that one I went out and recorded street musicians and random street audio to make a soundscape of sorts, then put it on a disc and dropped it in the physical mail to send to him up in Seattle. He went out and recorded more audio, some of himself, looped it, added to it, cut it, tweaked it and sent it back to me. Rinse, lather and repeat. I think we did for that two or three times before Chris had a song finished made up of all the different audio that we had found and recorded.
If you’ve seen my other pieces, this question will not surprise you: why isn’t there any metal on here?
Well, I tried to get as many different genres of music on the effort as I could. I like almost everything. But I guess, perhaps subconsciously, I might’ve been afraid that full on metal might have been a bit too extreme or abrasive for a charity album? How do you transition from a hip hop song to a jazz number to metal? I didn’t want anything too extreme on either side of the spectrum, there really isn’t any soft orchestra pieces either – because I wanted people to put the album in and listen to all of it in its entirety without skipping around. I wanted to have the album flow and have people give everything a chance, and the flow is very much a huge consideration in trying to do something where one song just flows into another, and to do that its hard. But then again, I think a lot of the songs have a tendency to go a bit metal as they progress. I don’t know if that’s my style or what, but a lot of the stuff would start gentle and build and build and then suddenly be an onslaught of guitars and drums. The track “There’s No Hurry To Eternity” by Third Eye Blind comes to mind as it does exactly that, and also the gentle song “End Wash” by my friend Greg Snell does the same as it ends in a bit of a sound frenzy, same thing with “Abandoner” by Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree . There are others. Oh, and one of the digital bonus tracks is a contribution from Year Long Disaster which is pretty metal in a Zeppelin-meets-Sabbath kind of style – those guys have toured with Turbonegro, CKY, Motorhead, and others. But yeah, that is a good and valid point.
So tell me about the charitable aims–what’s the charity, how much money goes to it, etc?
We are giving 100% of the profits to the charity. Outside of costs to print and distribute the album, everything else is being donated. None of the musicians were paid to appear, I am not taking any money and neither is the label that is helping to distribute it. The charity benefiting from the project, Outside In, is a non-profit charity focused on providing aid and counseling to homeless youth. They do other great things as well, but the proceeds from this project are being designated for homeless programs. For more info on Outside In, you can visit their website www.outsidein.org
Will there be a Vol 3?
Maybe. I think it might be cool to do one in New York. The talent pool is definitely there, both professional and street musician, and could be pretty crazy and fun. I’d be into that. But right now I am busy working on an Elliott Smith film project and also another different charity album with Mike McCready of Pearl Jam. But I’m a bit of a music slut—if it is a cool scenario, it is really hard for me to say no. Plus I just get these ideas…
Where is the album available for sale?
The album is available anywhere and everywhere. It’s at almost all retail locations, as well as iTunes and most other retail music outlets, or you can buy directly from the label that is helping me to distribute : http://www.greydayproductions.com/store/index.php?main_page=product_music_info&products_id=219