Washington has a music scene, but it’s found in other cities
By Chris Richards,
Somewhere between guitar lessons and Coachella, it’s customary to leave your home town in the dust.
So in 2006, it was farewell to Falls Church for Thao Nguyen, a graduate of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technolo gy who spent her teenage years working in her mother’s Fairfax Circle laundromat. “I would write songs between making change and folding strangers’ laundry,” the 28-year-old says over the phone from San Francisco, where she has lived since 2006.
“We the Common,” Nguyen’s new album with her band, the Get Down Stay Down, came out last week. It’s her strongest effort yet — a dozen songs where affable melodies (very California) blast their sunshine onto a grid of mildly anxious rhythms (very D.C.).
For Nguyen, leaving the area was about growing up and moving on. But for other musicians who have moved their careers out of Washington, it’s often about finding things our city can’t provide.
Why is that? Plenty of indigenous music gets produced and performed in the District these days, but it hasn’t been enough to Febreze the city’s eternally stuffy reputation. Despite a nightclub boom over the past few years, the District offers few of the music-biz resources that abound in New York, Los Angeles or Nashville. And perhaps the biggest obstacle for any young Washington artist: The rents here are increasingly ridiculous.
“Having a dedicated arts district where rents are kept in line so that musicians can afford them? That certainly could help,” says John Simson, president of the National Recording Academy of Arts and Sciences’s D.C. chapter. “But with New York and L.A. — that’s where the record companies are based. . . . That, you can’t change.”
We asked a handful of ascendant ex-Washington musicians why they left home. Like their respective locations, their reasons were across the map. (Their responses have also been edited and condensed.) But the artists all shared one common trait: None of them plan to boomerang home anytime soon.
That includes Nguyen. She loves San Francisco and says she would consider moving back only for family reasons. And while her loved ones still reside in the area, her old practice space is history.
Mom recently sold the laundromat and retired.
Singer-songwriter of Thao and the Get Down Stay Down
●Moved to San Francisco in 2006.
“I played every open-mike night in the Washington, D.C., area — Jammin’ Java, Firehouse Grill in Fairfax, Iota, Galaxy Hut. . . . One summer, I was the lunch-hour music at a Potbelly. You had to play three hours, you could only play covers, and it paid $20 an hour. With a sandwich. Not one sandwich every hour, though.
“When I was 22, I went on tour and never came back. It was ‘can’t stay where you grew up’ for me. I knew that if I were to pursue music to the hilt, I wouldn’t be stationary no matter where I lived. So it came down to, ‘Where did I want to come home to?’
“In San Francisco, the pacing was more relaxed and more my speed. It’s a walking city. I could exist here without a car. There’s access to water, access to really amazing food, really fresh fruits and vegetables. It was definitely a quality-of-life thing.”
→T hao and the Get Down Stay Down’s new album is “We the Common.” The band performs March 20 at the Black Cat.
Singer and pianist, above center, of rock band Jukebox the Ghost
●Moved to Philadelphia in 2007.
“We took the name Jukebox the Ghost the year we were graduating from George Washington [University], and we left after we graduated. Part of it was testing out a new scene, part of it was that rent and livability was so expensive in D.C.
“So we migrated to Philadelphia and got a three-story house with a basement and a back yard for $1,200 a month. That kept our costs low, so we could afford to go out and make $100 a night on tour. And once it became financially feasible, we made the move to New York. We’re all in Brooklyn now.
“There is that culture in D.C. — it’s a transitional city. People come and people go. That was part of the narrative when we got there, and I don’t know if it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy or what.”
→Jukebox the Ghost performs March 16 at the 9:30 Club.
Producer, DJ and co-owner of U Street Music Hall
●Moved to Los Angeles in 2012.
“I was just doing the most Cali thing ever: I was doing a conference call on the treadmill!
“Moving here was something I was thinking about before the club opened, so once U Hall got some strong legs, I started looking at neighborhoods. I wanted to see my career go in a certain direction, and there’s a meeting-of-the-minds sort of thing that’s going on out here. It’s almost an American Berlin. And there are opportunities that come with that. My booking agency is out here. My manager is out here. You’ll go out to dinner and maybe run into a vocalist or an A&R [a record-label talent scout].
“There are obvious reasons that people are moving here. The Skrillex thing is happening. The house music scene is bubbling. The major labels are all out here. But there’s also this peer pressure to be successful, and it can swallow your identity if you’re not careful. So I feel super, super, super happy to have U Hall as an excuse to fly back and forth.”
(Disclosure: Tittsworth is a friend of the author.)
→ Tittsworth performs March 2 at U Street Music Hall.
●Moved to New York in 1995.
“I grew up on Capitol Hill, and I remember that we had really good radio in D.C. When I write music, in my mind, I still hear go-go beats.
“I left for New York at 16 to go to school, and at the end I started singing backups. Then I started writing songs and met someone who wanted to manage me. At my second show, somebody tried to sign me. I guess that wouldn’t have happened in D.C.
“I came home after college for about two months but had to leave. . . . Artistic people need space and freedom. And I love D.C. — I’m not putting it down. That’s just how I felt growing up. If you’re different, you know you’re different. You don’t need to be told.”
→ Alice Smith’s album “She” is out March 19. She performs April 4 at the 9:30 Club.
Christian “Billy Jeans” Blunda
Singer and guitarist of punk band Mean Jeans
●Moved to Portland, Ore., in 2007.
“You start to wonder, ‘How much longer am I going to be delivering pizzas, living in my parents’ basement and playing really dumb pop-punk songs?’
“So we took a month-long road trip, had fun and ended up in Portland. We found a super [lousy] house but didn’t have any of the things you need to survive, like a bed or, like, a fork. There was this little piece of plastic you use to clean video-game cartridges, and we would trade off eating macaroni and cheese with that thing. We weren’t stricken by poverty. We were just idiots.
“You can just skate by in this city. A lot of people prioritize going out to shows, starting bands, drawing cartoons — [stuff] that isn’t respected by society at large but is totally up my alley. It’s a good community, even though that word is a little bit corny. A lot of the bands I was into had been skipping D.C. on their tours and here, there’s a really great house-show scene. It’s more about people having fun. The Mean Jeans, we’re into people having fun.”
→ Mean Jeans are touring the West Coast.
●Moved to Nashville in 2008.
“I loved growing up in Potomac, but being at an all-girls Catholic high school — I went to Our Lady of Mercy [for grade school, and Georgetown Visitation for high school] — it was really demanding, and people didn’t have a lot of extra time for being in a band.
“I went to Clemson and majored in vocal performance. But I left for Nashville the middle of my sophomore year because I just felt like I had to put myself in the best position possible to make my dream a reality. All the resources that I need are in Nashville. There are so many talented people here, it pushes you to evolve as a musician more quickly. I had so many opportunities to write with seasoned songwriters and that helped me hone my skills. My producers are in Nashville, the studios are here and there are so many opportunities to perform.
“D.C. has changed in the five years I’ve been away, and there seems to be a more creative side to it now. I think if it had more venues, it would flourish even more — medium-sized venues for newer artists.”
→ Maggie Rose’s album “Cut To Impress” is out March 26. She performs March 8-9 at Bethesda Blues and Jazz Supper Club.
●Moved to Brooklyn in 2011.
“The best place to make your name in hip-hop is anywhere outside of New York, but I still found myself one too many times being asked, ‘When’s the next time you’re coming to New York so we can schedule this meeting?’ Or, ‘my videographer is in New York, so if you can do it up here, we can do it half-price.’
“I realized that D.C. is a great place for lobbyists, for IT people. But for the photographers, graphic designers, videographers and everyone else that propels my industry, it’s not necessarily the best place.
“I’m still constantly back and forth between New York and D.C. — one of my most successful records was called ‘Rock Creek Park,’ and I produced it in Brooklyn. My ties to D.C. are unbreakable and unquestioned.
“I’m not mad that D.C. isn’t a place where I could stay. This is a country built on job specialization. When you want to get into the computer industry, you go to Silicon Valley. If you want to make dairy, you move to the Great Lakes. We’re already fortunate enough in this country where artists have two cities to choose from — New York and L.A.
“To ask for every person’s home town to be on the same level is almost unfair.”
→ Oddisee is preparing for a tour of Australia.