John Gerard – Turning The Subway Into A Symphony
By Sean Mackey
Packing up like Tetris in a subway car, those who commute to work in Boston encounter stressful traveling situations. Relieving this tension is John Gerard, a musician from Alewife who plays not only on the streets of Cambridge and Boston, but also at the subway stops. Gerard turns the atmosphere in a more pleasant direction, armed with his amazing voice and impressive acoustic guitar talents.
I met John Gerard yesterday with a firm handshake, accompanied by his friend & musical companion, Steve, as they entered WERS for a live mix. Gerard opened up with the soothingly rhythmic “Easier”, which cannot be found on his records, but is “often heard out on the subway and streets.” As he let his lyrics flow, the WERS staff was taken aback by the amazing voice possessed by this one man. Gerard then followed the request of a friend by playing “The Only One”, and continued on with the slow, deep acoustics of “Let Me Be”, backing the melodiously stunning vocals.
When asked by our host exactly why he enjoys performing in the subway, Gerard responded: “That’s a good way to hone your skills. It’s how I really wrote the last album. I had a handful of songs and I practiced them in the subway. And I tend to write a lot in between trains.” Complementing the joys, though, are challenges. Gerard also described to us how playing in the subway means playing against the boisterous noises of everything else – people and trains. “So once you get to play an actual venue that’s meant for what it is, it’s gold,” he told us. Intrigued by this, I asked John Gerard to sit down for an interview, and he agreed to it, very enthusiastic about the idea.
So how exactly did you get started with music?
I was terrible at sports, and I was raised on music, and I just asked my mom one day if I could get a guitar. So I saved money at the job that I had – I worked at a diner – and I bought an electric guitar. I took lessons for a very short while and went from there –headlined a lead singer for a bunch of bands through high school. Then a few years ago, rock n’ roll and I sort of went our separate ways, and I went to an open mic in Boston. And I loved it. I never went back to rock, and stayed with acoustic music.
When did you start doing your street and subway performances?
I started a couple years ago, but I really got serious with it and did it full-time in September of ’07. I just got back from Europe – my mom just died. And I had a couple of hundred bucks to my name, and not much else, and I got my performer’s license down in Cambridge. I played the streets of Cambridge ‘til it got too cold, and I got my subway license and played there. And that’s what I’ve been doing. So yeah, almost two years ago.
Have you been making a living off subway performances?
I have. I’ve sold probably close to 3,000 records, and I would say probably 85% of that would be streets and subways. It’s been the best experience – honing my skills, learning to be the best musician I can be, musically and vocally. Even writing material-wise. I’ve been selling my record with “My Good Woman” that I wrote in between two train stops coming home. So it’s been a great experience in every way.
What kind of impact do you think you have on the atmosphere of the subway station when you play?
Good! I’ve gotten great e-mails through MySpace from people who’ve said things that’re priceless. I had one girl come up to me and literally scream out loud saying: “Oh my God! You are on my iPod!” And then followed that with: “I’m wondering if you can play my funeral.” And I said, “Sure.” Somebody said that I made their day, which is mundane 9-5 everyday, brighter. And that I “turned the subway into a symphony” which I thought was a great compliment really.
What would you say the main difference is between playing on the street and playing on the subway?
Well, there’s definitely more trains. And there’s fumes. When you get out of the subway there’s sort of like this thin transparent coating of just dust. Streets – there’s a natural reverb, which is more interesting. It gives the songs a different texture. I’ve been really fortunate. I’ve had people literally wait and miss their stops for trains three or four times just to watch me do a set, and people sort of circle around when I’m on the streets. So they both have had their pros and cons I guess.
Oh wow. That sounds really cool for people to be missing their stops for you.
Yes! They’re like “I just missed my train for the 3rd time” – it’s really great.
So what exactly do you love about music?
What I love about music is that I’m a fan of it before I’m anything else to it. Music makes me feel as it evokes an emotion of whatever that may be, whether it’s fast, up-beat music when I’m running, or if it’s sad – it just evokes an emotion. So when I write I try to do the same thing. And I’ve seen people cry at the songs that I do. And it sounds sadistic, but I always feel like my job’s done when I’ve reached a place in them that makes them feel something.
What is your purpose for playing? Like, the songs you write – what do you write them for?
I think I wanna write about the things that I wish I could hear on the radio. I try not to limit topics of what I write about. And there’s a lot of songs I write that are serious topics – they’re everyday life about everyday people. And that’s what I tend to write about. And sometimes people say that my stuff is sort of sad. I just think that every song’s a journey, and if it is sad, it just makes you appreciate whatever it is that you have afterwards.
What are your favorite artists or bands? What bands have influenced you, would you say?
Pretty much all of the spectrum from, let’s say, AC/DC to Wilco, Mary Gauthier, Martin Sexton, Dave Matthews, Deftones… My range of music is pretty broad, and when I write, I can always hear who I’ve been listening to for a while.
I’ve seen the Deftones before in New York, and AC/DC in Boston – Have you seen them?
[AC/DC] was the first show I saw when I was a kid, and I’ve never seen the Deftones but they’re one of my favorite bands, just because their approach to music is very unorthodox. But they’re just great.
What do your tattoos mean?
They all have different meanings. The one that gets a lot of notice is my whole left arm. It’s a sleeve of puzzle pieces, which is one of the logos used by the Autism Awareness Society. My middle brother is autistic, so I got that for him. I have a pitbull – I used to have two pitbulls when I was younger. They pretty much range. I have a Converse logo on my leg, and I have a thing with clowns. So they all have different meanings.
How many do you have?
Oh my gosh… I counted one time. If I had to go individually, probably close to 100.
So where do you see yourself going with music? What’s the future for you?
The future for me is to do more shows like this to sort of go to the next level: clubs. Which I do now. It’s slowly starting to morph from less street and subway to more gigs. I licensed out a song from my record What Lies Between, “My Voice”, for an HBO documentary that comes out in theaters, I believe sometime this year. So I think opportunities for that are endless. It could be anything – it could be nothing at all. But I’d like to essentially go on a road tour and play all over the world. I always told myself that I’d love to do that and then maybe come back and do one show in the subway and then one show on the streets, because it’s really where my roots are.
Do you have anything else to say?
Yeah I do – I wanna thank every single person that I’ve ever met that’s ever bought a CD, that’s ever shook my hand, that’s ever sent me an e-mail through MySpace, in any whatever medium and has let me know that my music has meant something to them. That really does mean the world to me because I wouldn’t even be here if it hadn’t been for them. So to my fans, definitely. And my girls – my two daughters – Leona and Savanna. And the love of my life, Alicia. And my family. If it wasn’t for everybody in that realm.
If you’re interested in seeing John Gerard play, you may find him out on the streets of Cambridge (and sometimes Boston) throughout the Spring, Summer, and Fall. Aside from that, the subway stop he’s been playing at most lately is Park Street at the Red Line, but due to construction, he has moved off into the Boston Common.
Look out for John Gerard’s song, “My Voice”, being used in an upcoming HBO documentary, to be released in theaters worldwide. For more information on John Gerard, along with him self-titled album and What Lies Between, visit his website.