Almost Famous

I just re-watched one of my favorite movies this past weekend, Almost Famous.  For those who haven’t seen it, it’s directed by Cameron Crowe and it’s the semi-autobiographical tale of William, a high school senior who skips out on school to write an article for Rolling Stone.  His assignment is to go on tour with Stillwater, an up-and-coming (fictional) band headlining their first tour.  At the end of the tour, he must produce an article that gives the world the “real” picture of Stillwater.  While William struggles to make sense of what is real and what is false, he encounters and becomes fond of many memorable people such as groupie Penny Lane and lead guitarist and total heartthrob Russell Hammond.  When it comes time for William to write the article, a band member pleads with him to “just make us look cool.”  I won’t spoil the ending, but the article William writes delves much deeper than the disillusionment of a young fan getting to know the “real” side of his favorite new band.  Rent it.

 I feel a sort of kinship with William.  My time at WXPN has not brought upon me even slight disillusionment about the music industry; what I’ve encountered I have not been overly surprised by.  I’m a fan, yes, but more so, I love interesting people.  And musicians and groupies and managers are really just as fun as one would think (and, honestly, just as crazy).  But I already knew all of that, and so did William.  Although I’m not getting to know these bands on highly personal levels or writing articles for Rolling Stone, I am getting exposed to the “real” side of a touring band, behind the performances and meet-and-greets.  I feel as though I have been catapulted into a world full of adults behaving badly, but I’m enjoying it immensely. 

“So there I am, topless.  I hopped the fence to the V.I.P. camping section and I stumbled upon MGMT.  But I didn’t know it was them.  It was just when they were getting big, and there were like a million people around them.  And then I sat down and talked to them, I don’t really remember it well, but the editor of Rolling Stone was there.  And they were like, ‘That’s the editor of Rolling Stone!  You’re topless in front of the editor of Rolling Stone!’ And then I was like, ‘Can I have an internship?’  As you can probably guess, I did not get an internship.  Yeah, I used to be pretty crazy,” said my 23-year-old co-worker (let’s call her Bonnie).  She was reminiscing about her “groupie” stage (her words, not mine) and I was all ears.   Bobby Long, a British folksinger who was playing a Free at Noon concert, is one of Bonnie’s favorite musicians.  We both jumped at the chance to set up for the concert.  As we were making coffee for Bobby and his band she was telling me about all the other bands she’s had encounters with (the list is really quite long: Of Montreal, Raphael Saadiq, ?uestlove, etc.).

When Bobby finally came in, we were both struck by how pale and sick he looked.   He went straight to the Green Room as his band mates set up their instruments.  He eventually emerged onto the stage and ordered a Bloody Mary from the bar. 

“Man, it’s so early in the morning.  We just came back from New York and we were out pretty late.  So I’m tired and really hung over,” he said to Bonnie and me, trying to explain why he was drinking at 10:30 am.  The repetitive and irritating noise of the sound check seemed to be worsening whatever he was feeling.  “Are you girls tired?”

“Yes,” I said, right as Bonnie answered “no”.  We looked at each other and exchanged a smile. 

“New York is wild,” he said wistfully, in his Liverpudlian accent.  We left, giggling to each other. We continued to set up for the show until 11:30, when the concertgoers started piling in.  The show began promptly at noon with the host Helen introducing Bobby and his band.  The Free at Noons get broadcast live on the radio, and the whole thing takes about 40 minutes.  Bonnie and I had grabbed the camera from our bosses’ desk and snapped some shots of him playing. 

“I just threw up in the bathroom a couple minutes ago,” he admitted to the audience, live on air.  There was general discomfort in the crowd as no one laughed at his quasi-jokes.  Most of the concert-goers were affluent, middle-aged WXPN members, not bar-going college kids.  The uneasiness lasted the entire set, but I still enjoyed the brooding, alt-country folk and the audience eventually let go and started swaying along.

It’s funny to see what goes into a live act.  It’s easy to assume the musician is thrilled to be doing what they love and playing live music, but it’s so much more.  Bobby was griping onstage about the lack of freedom afforded to him by his record label, but after the set he went into the Green Room and strummed his guitar a bit, singing to himself in a trance.  It’s clear he loves music, but it’s also clear that he’s tired of being forced to perform at certain times, in certain places.  He wants to be cool and relevant, and the older crowd at the concert was not impressive to him.  They didn’t matter because they weren’t laughing at his jokes.

He’s in that awkward stage of almost fame; he’s not famous or important enough to have artistic freedom and visionary direction, but he’s starting to outgrow his small fan base and support system.  The frustration is what’s captured in Almost Famous; it’s the frustration of dealing with one’s self-imposed limitations. 

Bonnie and I went backstage after the show to escort Bobby to his meet-and-greet.  We were instructed to cut it off after 10 minutes.  Some middle-aged women and the occasional teen girl came to get the set-list or a CD signed, and everyone eventually wandered out.  Bobby and his band went back to the Green Room to pass time before that night’s show.  I could see the stress of this lifestyle in his eyes, and I almost felt a little sorry for him.  He probably won’t ever hit it big.  He’ll gain some more fans and release a second album, but he’s not that innovative or imaginative.  He is cool, but coolness doesn’t last forever.  Eventually it will taper off.  Whatever buzz he has surrounding him can only last so long, until he actually has to make something of himself.  Which, I hate to say, probably won’t happen – it rarely does.  So I smiled at him as he drank his Bloody Mary, watching him fill the time until he has to grow up.

Confessions of an Unpaid Intern

I’ve just finished up my first week at WXPN.  My reflections can basically be sorted into two categories.

The BEST things about my internship thus far:

1)      Being constantly surrounded by music and people who like music is definitely the biggest perk.  Even though a lot of what I’m doing is formatting scripts, researching featured artists and writing promotional blurbs, it all involves music I’m interested in.  I’m absorbing so much information about new artists and albums that I easily get lost in the work.   I can’t help but listen to the bands while I write about them.  Just walking through the hallways of the WXPN office makes me happy – they’re covered in signatures of all the bands that have been there before.  I can usually be found gawking at the names of my favorites in the middle of the hallway, looking like the shell-shocked teenage girl that I am.  Another great thing about working with music is the vast CD collection I get to sample while I type endless documents.

2)      Getting to meet bands and musicians is pretty awesome.  I am in charge of taking care of bands that come in to record for the World Café program.  Thus far I’ve “hosted” Summer Fiction, an indie rock band who’s actually really good (look them up!) and some guy named Vusi.  He’s from South Africa, where he’s known as “The Voice” (I wasn’t sure what to call him.  It ended up just being “sir”).  I get them coffee and take pictures for the website while they do a sound check.  The picture part is slightly uncomfortable, especially since the grumpy videographer likes to tell me I’m “in his shot.”  I also make sure they sign the wall.  But otherwise, it’s really fun chatting with the band and hearing them play.  I’ll try and post about the artists more when I host in the future.  (Hopefully) I’ll even get to sit in on their recording sessions with David Dye.

3)      The other interns are really great and supportive.  No one flinched for a gratuitously long time when I told them I was in high school (“Yeah I’m doing a Senior Project…No I’m not a senior in college.”).  They all like the same kind of music that I do and it’s really fun to swap concert stories and favorite albums.  They’ve been really helpful in showing me the ropes and editing my writing and research.  They’re all local college students: two from Penn, three from Temple, one from Drexel.  Most of them have been working at WXPN for three or four years, which is a little intimidating. 

4)      The Free at Noon show – which takes place every Friday – features a World Café artist for a free show, at… well, noon.  The interns are in charge of making sure the show runs smoothly, but we also get to watch it.  I can’t wait to see my first one! They are often packed and difficult to get passes for, but as an intern I have first priority.  Adele performed two weeks ago and Bobby Long is performing in a couple of weeks (watch him here, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AAG2flpe8Yg ).

The WORST things about my internship thus far:

1)      The commute is killer.  I live 45 minutes outside of the city, but during rush-hour, it’s more like an hour.  Instead of driving the whole way, I drive to a local train station (which takes a half hour due to the horrendous traffic) and then get on a train to 30th Street Station.  By the time I’m at the WXPN building, I’ve been commuting for almost an hour and a half.

2)      Being in high school feels a little weird.  People keep asking me where I go to college and it’s very uncomfortable to tell them I’m not in college yet.  When a band member from Summer Fiction inquired about school, I hesitated for a while before stupidly blurting out “I’m a student!”  He looked at me very strangely and didn’t press the matter.  Hopefully I’ll handle this question better in the future, I just don’t want to be treated differently because I’m a few years younger than the other interns.  It’s beginning to seem almost inevitable, though.  I’m just happy that the college students I work with don’t seem to care. 

3)      When I tell anyone I’m doing this internship, they say to me: “I bet you’re doing a ton of clerical work, since it’s an entry-level job.  That’s how everyone starts out: at the bottom of the food chain.”  I’m very sick of being told this, mostly because I am doing a ton of clerical work, but also because it’s hard to hear again and again how everyone has  to “start at the bottom.”  I get it.  I’m living it.  It can still be fun and worthwhile, though – that’s the goal. 

Beyond that, I’m just getting started and learning the ropes.  I’m hoping to post some interesting stories in the future because I’m meeting some pretty cool artists!  I hear Bright Eyes is coming in for a session in a couple of weeks…Stay tuned.  And don’t forget to listen to the World Café on NPR!

Hopes and Expectations

Hey! I’m Catriona, better known as Catie.  Unlike some of my peers, I’m not going to a warm, foreign country for my Senior Project; I’m staying local and bundling up for the cold.  I’ll be commuting daily to Philadelphia to intern at a radio station, WXPN.

XPN is a non-commercial station that plays music that commercially funded stations can’t afford to.  Instead of playing stuff that’s been focus-grouped to death and deemed “sellable,” WXPN plays music composed with talent and passion by intelligent and groundbreaking artists.  Because it is affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania, many Penn students get the chance to volunteer and intern at the station.  I will be working with those college students as a Programming Assistant to the World Café show.

My interest in the program is what made me want to pursue an internship at XPN. World Café is a nationally syndicated show (you can listen on NPR or XPN!).  The show has two components: an interview and a live set.  Many independent and alternative artists are featured on the show, and a lot of these artists are relatively unknown. What drew me to the program initially was the quality of the music, but after listening I realized the real heart of the show is actually its brain.  The conversations between the host, David Dye, and the artists make listening to their music very special and personal.  He has featured such bands and artists as Coldplay, Joni Mitchell, or Yo-Yo Ma and still manages to help the listener understand the vision and soul of the music.  Regardless of how famous or mainstream the guest is (or not at all), Dye frames their work in a way that is compelling and interesting.

As an intern, I will be working directly with the artists and their managers, helping to coordinate their stays in Philadelphia.  I will be responsible for maintaining the calendar of events and gathering information on the artists.  But I want to do something that goes beyond the job description I was given. I hope to gain insight into the life of a musician and the lives of the people who maintain this musician’s image and career.  I am, by nature, an observer, and more than anything I want to have a story to tell at the end of my project.

I hope that with this blog, I can share some of my observations – and maybe a story or two – with a wider audience.  Enjoy!

P.S. check out http://xpn.org/xpn-programs/world-cafe