Photo by Stephanie Richardson and Jeff Steinmetz
John Stamos may be tweeting backstage passes to Beach Boys fans and Lady Gaga personally Facebooking with followers, but in this moment of increasing celebrity accessibility, folk group Girlyman can honestly say they did it first and maybe with more integrity.
Formed in 2001, the band has always maintained a close relationship with their supporters, arguably grounds for their consistently swelling fan base. However, according to band member Ty Greenstein, it was member Doris Muramatsu’s 2010 leukemia diagnosis, that further solidified that unique connection. Now in addition to down to earth post-gig conversations and personally mailed CDs, the girly people have begun openly blogging about everything from body dysmorphia to musical self-doubt.
While on tour, Greenstein spoke with Our Town about Muramatsu’s positive prognosis, recent addition, JJ Jones and why the band will never change its name.
Our Town Most bands say the secret to maintaining a good working relationship is time apart, but Girlyman socializes on and off the road. Why does it work?
Ty Greenstein We really are best friends, soul mates who share a life path. The bond was personal first. Our lives lined up in this incredible way so we get to be in a band together and take our life lessons into our work. That's really how it happened, not the other way around where a band of random musicians gets together and hopes they have some personal chemistry. In some ways the band is a theater where we can play out all our dynamics and work through whatever comes up, which we're all committed to doing. If things feel good in the relationships, the music also feels solid, and if personal revolutions are happening, I think you can hear it in the music or see it in the shows.
OT Recently you added JJ to the group. Was the addition as seamless as it appeared?
TG It really was. I forget she's a newcomer; we all laugh at the same jokes, obsess over good food, and have long conversations about the meaning of life. Her vision for the band is very much in line with ours; we want to keep opening people up in all kinds of ways with music, and basically just have fun and keep growing. But she also has a freshness to her approach and a perspective that having done this for almost ten years, we sometimes lack. Sometimes we forget how lucky we are to have gotten this far.
OT You famously have a very open relationship with your fans. Any regrets?
TG After Doris was diagnosed in November, that kind of blew the whole thing open. We were all personally shaken and humbled. I was facing the mortality of my best friend of thirty years, plus the specter of an end to the band and my career. I didn't care anymore about arbitrary divisions between "performer" and "fan," and frankly, the fans helped get us through. They wrote to us, prayed and visualized for us, sent packages and donations and inundated Doris with love. Everyone should have that kind of support network when the sh*t hits the fan. We know how lucky we are, and how special our fans are.
OT How is Doris?
TG She's doing really great, responding very well to the drug she's on. She's active and for the most part, leads a normal life. This is largely thanks to the incredible advances in CML treatment over the past ten years. The drug she's on was only approved as a first-line treatment a month before her diagnosis, talk about being born at the right time. These targeted therapies have turned CML from a terminal disease where people had a few years at most, to a chronic illness that just needs to be managed. At her three-month checkup, Doris went from 100% leukemic cells at diagnosis down to 4%.
OT What was the personal and professional impact on the band?
TG In six words or less, it has put everything into perspective. Doris started keeping a blog about her health on CaringBridge, and then we basically turned our whole website into a blog where we post our thoughts about life in general, in addition to pictures and videos of the band in action and behind the scenes. I think the whole "fame" thing has been transformed in a great way with social networking and real time interaction via the internet. Everyone is just a person now, and we're sharing our lives.
OT What can fans do to help?
TG Please keep coming to the shows. And if you want to make a donation to Doris or to the band, you can do so at http://girlyman.com/donate/
OT Careers in the arts can be rife with disappointment. Any derailing early experiences you could share?
TG Plenty. Before Girlyman, when it was just me and Doris as the Garden Verge, we once played a gig where so few people came that not only didn't we make anything but we had to pay the sound guy his fifty bucks out of our own pockets. Then when Girlyman formed, there were plenty of places that wouldn't book us, even for free. Those early days can be pretty rough. I've blocked out a lot of it. We once played a whole show to one person. That was pretty special.
OT You have a good size body of work at this point. Are there any songs that were particularly important in teaching yourself how to write?
TG That's such a great question! For me songs that broke the mold taught me a lot. There are songs on "Little Star" [written] from another person's point of view, like "Young James Dean" and "Superior," that taught me how to emotionally tap in to a character's story, uncovering a complex person with layered feelings about themselves and the world. "Somewhere Different Now" was the first song I wrote with a refrain and an almost old-fashioned folk ballad feel, a "This Land Is Your Land" kind of meandering quality and no chorus. I just went as deeply into metaphors and images as I could, a little more in each verse.
OT What’s next for you guys?
TG We just did our first live webcast, a full show to three moving cameras and a studio audience and answered questions via Twitter feed. We were excited for people from all over the world who never had the opportunity to see us play to get the live show experience. We've also started leading workshops on harmony arrangement and that's been really fun. We did our first UK tour last fall and are excited to keep traveling the world.
OT If you could go back in time and not name yourselves Girlyman thereby avoiding years of annoying questions and confusion, would you?
TG Hell, no! It's fine for people to ask or scratch their heads, or even laugh. We like having a name that's not safe. I do sometimes wonder if some people hear the name and immediately think, "Oh, that's not for me," either because they think it's too gay or they assume we're a thrash or punk band. [Sometimes people are] shocked that we're singing all these intricate harmonies and playing acoustic instruments, because the name sounds edgy to them. That's fine. Let people push through their judgments if they want, and get the music as a reward. Or not. We just are who we are.
A freelance writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum, when not writing, supports herself as a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago's Story Studio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She’s kind of looking forward to it actually. IMPORTANT: the official Our Town site doesn't support comments. Join in the conversation by followingOur Town on Facebook and Sarah on Twitter: @SarahTerez