The challenges and opportunities faced by musicians gravitating to the promise of New York City and their experiences upon arriving in the metropolis is a universal but constantly renewing story. In addition to the experiences of Leo Sidran, Waylan Daniel, Kari Bethke, and Dan Venne, here are five more Madisonians who have made their way east over the last few years, and now find themselves navigating this musical maelstrom through the varied tunes and scenes populating the city.
Jordan Laz (Locksley)
Not only is bassist Jordan Laz a recent export to New York, he's fresh out of high school. Laz began making trips to New York to rehearse and tour while he was a student at West High, then moved to Brooklyn to join the rest of Locksley once he received his diploma and the band got noticed by MTV.
For Laz, the move came at a right time to explore his persona as a rock musician. "I feel more in the right place than in Madison," he says. "Where I went to high school, other people were all about sports and dances, while I was the kid with the tight pants and the funny shoes, the New York punk kind of look. I get made fun of a lot less here."
While there's something to be said for holding fast to your identity, Laz says that feeling like less of an oddity has helped him to focus on his musicianship. "It makes things much easier in terms of making music and just being myself," he notes.
Sebastian Krueger (Inlets, My Brightest Diamond)
Sebastian Krueger, one of those guys who's tight with the who's who of Brooklyn bands, got his start playing music in Madison. "I haven't lived in Madison since I was an 18-year-old kid enamored with my bad jazz fusion band and playing for an audience comprised only of my wincing family at Café Montmartre," he says.
Krueger's main project, the lo-fi band Inlets, is a relatively recent one. "It began only two years ago -- long, long after my last purchase of zit cream at Neuhauser Pharmacy," he jokes.
"The difference between the music I make now and what I made then is a probably more a function of maturity than anything else," he says.
However, Brooklyn's saturation with talented musicians certainly had an impact as well, he admits."The concentration of highly regarded artists in such a small space really ups one's game, not out of competitiveness but because of inspiration," he says. "I think it helps me to write more thoughtfully and purposefully."
It also leads to collaborations that one would be hard-pressed to make happen in Madison. For instance, Krueger has played with Feist and has enlisted Beirut's Zach Condon for his upcoming album.
While these kinds of pairings are invaluable for a musician trying to reach a larger audience, Krueger is quick to list the selling points of a smaller city like Madison.
"In Madison I could make loud music in my folks' basement for free. Here we have very little space. I can get by recording and practicing many things in my own apartment, but we've got to rent out spaces if we want to actually get loud," he says. "Places that often smell bad."
Then there are the problems of money (everything, from groceries to rents, costs significantly more in New York), travel (your bandmates or rehearsal space are likely to be at least 45 minutes away) and people's ridiculously busy schedules (booking someone weeks in advance is the norm and cancellations are common).
While Krueger seems pretty set in Brooklyn, he says that the erosion of the major-label system has leveled the playing field for bands. "Bands living between coasts and even in small cities seem able to hope for much more success than before, when it was vital to live in music-industry cities to promote and perform," he says. "It's worth considering."
Erica Mather (jazz pianist and recording artist)
Voted Madison's favorite jazz artist in the Isthmus 2002 readers' poll, Madison native Erica Mather had certainly made a name for herself in her hometown. When offered a spot in Columbia University's ethnomusicology Ph.D. program, she jumped at the chance to broaden her horizons and join a world-renowned community of musicians.
"When I moved to New York in 2004, I was doing a fair amount of gigging, both through Columbia and in a pop band, plus sitting in at sessions and doing some subbing," she says. "This was about two years' worth of playing."
However, after two years of her Ph.D. program, she realized that academia wasn't her cup of tea. When she left the university, she dropped out of the jazz scene and invested her time in a different career pursuit: yoga instruction and holistic health counseling.
"I started practicing yoga in Madison in late 2002 because I was looking for a way to manage migraine headaches. I practiced all through grad school to reduce stress, and I saw it also really improving my piano playing," she says.
When she thought hard about it, she realized that yoga not only provided her with a much-needed release but a way of adding balance to her career as a performer. "A number of things conspired to make it a good move for me," she says of the career switch. "Even top jazz musicians are not making a fraction of what they're worth, and I'd left the financial sheltering of Columbia, which meant I had to come up with something pretty fast."
Today, in addition to performing at private parties and recording some new songs, she's on the A-list of yoga teachers in Manhattan. The teaching provides her with the financial stability she needs to survive and the perspective she needs as a musician in a cutthroat field of competition.
"I am basically coming to a really happy place where things like financial stresses will not affect my musical life, and I will play because it makes me happy," she says.
Kyle Sanna (guitarist and composer, arranger for Yo-Yo Ma)
Kyle Sanna was a finalist in a Turner Classic Movies' Young Film Composers Competition in 2003 and recently arranged two pieces for Yo-Yo Ma's upcoming album, Songs of Joy, which will be performed on the Oct. 27 edition of The Colbert Report. Before this, however, he was just a kid from Eugene, Ore., by way of Madison.
"A good friend of mine ended up going to the Juilliard School. He tried to get me to come out to New York for a while and eventually got me a gig here. I used that gig as my 'move to New York' deadline," he says. "But after my one and only New York gig was done, I realized I had committed to moving to a place where I had no work and only knew one person."
Sanna began teaching guitar, ushering at the Metropolitan Opera and temping, all three of which provided useful opportunities to meet other musicians.
"The first musicians I met this way were friends of my original New York friend and also worked at the opera house," he says. "Because of connections like this, I was able to wean myself off the non-music gigs after a few years, and now I earn a living playing shows, composing and doing a small amount of teaching."
He has also broadened his horizons musically, taking up Balkan music, traditional Irish music, classical guitar and orchestral music composition.
"Almost none of this I could have expected, and it's really due to the rich cultural scene here and the number of incredible musicians from all over the world," he says. "I sometimes wish I had focused on one thing, but there are real advantages to branching out. Plus I can't specialize: I'm interested in way too many things, and that really seems to work here."
Lindsay Marcus (Ursula Points, Bummer and Lazarus, Big Dive Community Orchestra)
Singer and guitarist Lindsay Marcus grew up in the suburbs of New York but cut her teeth as a musician while performing with the Big Dive Community Orchestra as a UW-Madison undergrad. She moved back east in 2002 to see if she could hack it as a musician in the big city.
Marcus worked in a variety of recording studios at first, eventually graduating to doing music for television, much like several other Madison-to-New Yorkers. She also formed the neo-shoegaze band Ursula Points with Kevin McGinnis.
"The Ursula Points project was a pretty typical New York band experience," she says. "We played out a lot, put in all of our free time and spent probably thousands of dollars getting everything recorded and pressed, and that's with us recording everything on our own.
Another challenge Marcus faced with Ursula Points was a logistical one: transporting the band's gear to and from gigs. "Having a car, like you can in Madison, makes a big difference," she says. "You don't even realize how useful it is until you don't have one."
Like countless other bands, Ursula Points spent hours lugging their equipment on subway trains, down crowded streets and in and out of taxi cabs. Marcus says her new outfit, a folkier duo called Bummer and Lazarus, is a lot more low-key: "For this one, I teamed up with a friend who's a very talented writer. I'm kind of a studio geek, so it's been a great match so far. We're just having fun playing out for now, and we'll see what happens."