COVID tunes

Philly songwriters mark pandemic anniversary with album

Emily artists
A number of Philly singer-songwriters collaborated on ‘Still Singing Songs from the Inside’ to mark the pandemic’s anniversary: Top row from left: Emily Joy Goldberg, mighty FlipSide, Ami Yares and i try, you try. Second row: Scott Coulter, Marion Halliday, Chana Rothman and Amy Elkins. Third row: Rodney Whittenberg, Hammer in the Morning, Gary King and Julius Brown. Fourth row: Matthew Gordon, Jackie Rudy, Jason Ager and Two of a Kind. Image | Courtesy of Emily Joy Goldberg

What’s the best way to make your way through a pandemic? For Philly singer-songwriters, making music and cutting albums proved to be an answer.

“Still Singing Songs from the Inside” was created and recorded by 17 Philadelphia-area singer-songwriters during the pandemic. Emily Joy Goldberg found lifelines in the new music shared over and over in her local songwriting communities. She reached out and brought musicians together in this endeavor – first, for “Songs from the Inside” a compilation that described the beginning of the pandemic era. It was released in May 2020, and now, for this new compilation, it was released earlier this month, and describes our lives a year later.  

All proceeds from this compilation of original songs go to BuildaBridge and Village Arts, organizations working with art in local communities.

PW recently caught up with Goldberg to talk about the album and the efforts to help art in the city.

PW: Philadelphia area artists have been working during the pandemic to create music. The first effort, “Songs from the Inside,” was released last May. How did you come up with the idea for a compilation endeavor? Were artists excited to participate? What was the response to this first album?

EJG: I’ve attended the Philly Songwriters Circle (run by Avi Wisnia and Aaron Nathans) for a few years. It’s a great way to connect with other musicians. When the pandemic hit, they immediately moved online. We can’t harmonize, but the platform is surprisingly adequate for sharing songs in progress. While we were stuck inside last winter, I heard tons of new songs all made for this particular time, from this group and from friends all over social media. I wanted to capture that feeling. It was like having a musical window into what other people were experiencing, and it made me feel more connected and less alone. I figured a compilation would be a way to craft a kind of musical time-capsule.

My friends jumped at the chance to share tracks for the project and to reach out to other interested artists. I kept telling people not to worry about the recording quality. We’ve gotten so used to highly-edited songs that people are afraid to share anything less. I didn’t want that to keep people from sharing songs when they were needed. There is a wide range of sound-editing resources in the project, but all the tracks are beautiful. Some of my favorites are bare-bones. For example, Avi Wisnia, who is typically meticulous in his beautiful studio recordings, shared “Find Me,” which he recorded on his phone. It’s heart-wrenchingly gorgeous and still makes me cry. I can’t imagine a better version. This is where we were: inside. We didn’t have all the tools. But we had enough.

People seemed to love that first album. They talked about being struck by how different all the songs were, but how well they all fit together.

‘Still Singing Songs from the Inside’ is the follow-up album from Philly singer-songwriters, dropping almost a year after the initial ‘Songs from the Inside.’ Image | Emily Joy Goldberg

PW: Now the second installment has been released, “Still Singing Songs from the Inside.” Why the follow up? And what’s been the response from the local music community and fans?

EJG: My friend Ami Yares sent a track a few months ago (“Them Lights”), and I almost added it to the first album as a bonus track. Then I realized that things felt different now, almost a year after the pandemic hit. The first compilation was released just before the George Floyd protests. We had a pretty big election. Things are not the same. I wanted to make another musical time-capsule marking this strange anniversary. It took less than a week to realize I easily had a whole album of new songs coming in. It was even faster to collect them the second time.

I loved putting these albums together, partly because it’s an excuse to meet new friends. We are all connected anyway. It feels good to act on it. 

Performing arts can get competitive and clique-y, and it’s a big turn-off for me. My friend Dan Blacksberg, a renowned klezmer trombonist who isn’t on the album, lamented recently that at the start of the pandemic, it was like musicians were on a level playing field all of a sudden, but as the year wore on those with resources and fame separated again. It’s a shame. Music is meant to be a regular activity we all share, not something enjoyed solely through three or four super-famous stars and their shiny albums. Those are great, but we need local music and musicians that reflect our lives and keep us together. They keep us sane and keep us connected. Buy local…music!

Fans love this second album, too. They mention the variety of genres, how surprising it is that they all work together, and how it illustrates a different ethos than the first.

PW: All proceeds from this compilation of original songs go to BuildaBridge and Village Arts. Can you talk a little about what these organizations do and why they are important to support?

EJG: Contributor Ami Yares is the executive director of BuildaBridge – a nonprofit that engages the arts to bring hope and healing to children, families, and communities in the contexts of crisis and poverty.

The Village of Arts and Humanities is a veteran arts organization in North Philadelphia. They provide arts-based opportunities for self-expression and personal success that engage youth and their families, revitalize physical space, and preserve Black heritage.

At least a piece of our brokenness in this country right now is due to people drawing their communities too small. We are all connected. I wanted to support organizations that are using art to strengthen those connections. Whether it’s in North Philadelphia, or with new immigrants, or first responders, in little circles or big ones, we are all a part of the same community. You don’t even have to draw the circle very big to see it.

PW: When people listen to “Still Singing Songs from the Inside” what will they hear? Are there different genres represented? Is this a good representation of the local singer-songwriter community?

EJG: When you listen to this album, you’ll hear pandemic experiences through the lens of electronic music, hip-hop, country, folk music, rock and gospel, all snuggled up with one another. There’s Jackie Rudy’s sweet, sweet folk country song, “Through This Time.” Rodney Whittenberg’s powerful rock song, “Angels and Saints,” is about icons we strive to emulate to get through life.

Amy Elkins’ folk-pop song “Turn the Tide” focuses on doing the work to change things. Gary King’s reggae song “White People Get Away with It” underscores the work we have to do around racism and justice. Chana Rothman’s electronic lament “Canada to the USA” is a song of home and healing that gets stuck in my head regularly. They all do. I don’t think these scenes are so separate. I would never say that this album represents the whole local singer-songwriter community. It represents the part I’ve connected with so far, and the web that starts to stretch from there. I hope it keeps stretching wider.

PW: What are you hearing about the local music scene possibly opening up again? Do you anticipate a return to live performances anytime soon?

EJG: Several artists on this album performed virtually for coffee shops and other venues all year. I sing in the feminist choir ANNA Crusis, and every Monday at Zoom rehearsal we speculate on when we might sing again in-person. Singing is particularly risky, so it will be one of the last things added back. I’m an expect-the-worst-and-be-surprised kind of person. I look forward to when live performances can start up, because it would mean we’re all much safer from COVID.

If we follow public health guidelines, hopefully that day will come sooner rather than later.

PW: Give our readers a rundown on how they can get “Still Singing Songs from the Inside.”

EJG: Get “Still Singing Songs from the Inside” on Bandcamp: emilyjoysings.bandcamp.com.

The album is only on Bandcamp because it’s the only platform that remotely attempts to compensate artists fairly. We want to raise the most we can for art in our city.

  • Eugene Zenyatta was raised on old-time Memphis 'rasslin' and strongly prefers the company of dogs to people. His greatest heartbreak came in the 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic.

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