On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
D.C.-based band Oh He Dead was set to go on tour before the coronavirus outbreak. Now, they’re home and navigating a local music scene that’s been dramatically upended.
Lead vocalist C.J. Johnson and singer-guitarist Andy Valenti weigh in on what this pandemic means for local musicians and the songs and performances that keep them going.
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
- Cynthia "C.J." Johnson Lead Singer, Oh He Dead
- Andy Valenti Singer-Guitarist, Oh He Dead
Oh He Dead's 2019 Tiny Desk Contest Submission
"Show Me Love"
KOJO NNAMDIThat's the D.C.-based, indie-soul band Oh He Dead. Joining us to discuss what this pandemic means for local musicians and the songs and performances that keep them going is "C.J.," or Cynthia, Johnson. C.J. is the lead singer of the DC-based Oh He Dead. C.J., thank you for joining us.
CYNTHIA "C.J." JOHNSONHello, Kojo. How are you?
NNAMDII am doing okay, broadcasting from home. And good to talk to you again, even though I'm not seeing you this time. (laugh) Also joining us is Andy Valenti. He is a guitarist and vocalist for Oh He Dead. Andy, thank you for joining us.
ANDY VALENTIKojo, thanks so much for having us.
NNAMDIAndy, this is a strange time for everyone, but I'm wondering for you, as musicians, how has your life changed? Andy, let's start with you.
VALENTIYeah, we certainly had a different plan for how the month of April was going to go. We were supposed to go on our first big tour that was booked by a big touring agency. You know, we were kind of on the precipice of achieving one of our major dreams. And so that's obviously -- you know the need for live music and having a ton of people in a confined space, the need for that is much, much lower, I would say, now.
VALENTISo, we're shifting focus and shifting priorities. So, we're focusing a lot more on, how can we create right now? You know, we're forced to be inside. And C.J. and I are really, really lucky in that we live directly across the street from one another, and pretty early on, we agreed to be quarantine buddies during this. And so we're getting together as much as we can to work on music, and we're doing live streams.
VALENTIAnd I personally feel a renewed sense of purpose during these times. I think one of the main roles of art in society is to comfort disturbed people. And we've got a public that's very stressed out right now and everybody's on edge. And so it's really important for us to continue just playing our music and being upbeat and getting together and being goofy and silly and live streaming and just keeping people happy.
NNAMDIC.J., this was supposed to be a big time for this group. This spring, you were going out on tour, you were going around the country. How have you been making out now that that's not happening?
JOHNSONYou know, it's a big change. You know, we definitely were looking forward to it but, you know, we're trying to do something else positive. Like Andy was saying, we're doing these live streams. And I've got to say, I'm actually loving the live streams. I get to talk to all of our fans from, like, all over. They all tune in and, you know, they're welcome to comment and, you know, goof around with us. And it's a great experience to, you know, be able to interact with your -- I don't think that was something that we were really doing beforehand. And now it's put us in a direction of, you know, how to interact with our fans and stuff like that.
NNAMDIAndy, are you guys able to practice together, as a band? And what does that look like exactly?
VALENTILegally, we're not. (laugh)
NNAMDIYeah, because there are five of you. That's too many.
VALENTIRight. Right, exactly. We're right at the cutoff, unfortunately. So we're figuring out ways to collaborate remotely. We're recording music in the same file, and we're sending the file around. And we're trying this new thing where we're going to record videos and audio separately, and then try to edit it together and make it appear as if it's kind of a, you know, joined performance.
VALENTIAnd so it's forcing us to get a lot better at technology. It's a time in which I really appreciate having an IT department when I worked at a company, because there's nobody to call right now. I'm like, how do I get this (laugh) audio to not sound funny?
NNAMDIThat's my life, but go ahead. (laugh)
VALENTI(laugh) So, you know, we're all amateur technology...
NNAMDITypes, so to speak. C.J., you are the eternal optimist. What's it been like quarantining with Andy?
JOHNSONI'm sorry, can you repeat that?
NNAMDII said, I know you're the eternal optimist. What has it been like for you quarantining with Andy?
JOHNSON(laugh) It's pretty funny. I think I joke around a lot. We both have a -- I don't think there's anybody during this time who's not going to have, like, a down moment. We definitely both have our down moments, but I think we both do a good job of goofing around when we're together. So, it's kind of nothing but laughs and, you know, calm. You know, just trying to stay positive and take walks, if we can, you know, just to get a little bit of sunlight when we can.
NNAMDIHow hopeful are you, C.J., about people in this community offering support to the arts and to musicians, in particular, who are struggling during this time?
JOHNSONI'm actually very hopeful. Just by doing live streams, there are a lot of venues and a lot of, you know, online -- what would you call them -- journals that, you know, if you're doing a live stream, they'll, you know, blast it out for you and make sure people go watch it. And they'll also, you know, offer to help, you know, promote like, you know, people donating to you if, you know -- me and Andy are both out of jobs right now. So, you know, people have been definitely donating, and it's been very helpful.
NNAMDIGlad you mentioned that because...
JOHNSONWe weren't expecting it.
NNAMDIGlad you mentioned that, because, Andy, what impact has the shutdown had on you, financially?
VALENTIYeah, I quit my job in mid-February, getting ready to gear up to go on tour. And we had, you know, full plans to really do well on our tour and expand it into something bigger after that, and just kind of play on the road. So, it's been a shift, for sure. But like C.J. said, we've been doing these live streams. And so every Tuesday and Friday night on our social media channels, we get in our pajamas together. (laugh) We dubbed them Jammie Jams.
VALENTIAnd we wrote our Venmo on a piece of paper. And the first two times I did it, I didn't realize that Instagram flips it around. So, everybody's trying to read our Venmo handle backwards on the live stream. But we put up our Venmo handle there, and people really showed out. People were donating, and we're super grateful for that. So, it's been, honestly, really inspiring to see that our fan base in the community has kind of rallied around musicians in an awesome way. And we're super-thankful for that.
NNAMDIWell, we're very happy that Oh He Dead is still very much alive. And inviting you to call, join this conversation. Cynthia "C.J." Johnson, lead singer of the D.C.-based indie-soul band Oh He Dead. And Andy Valenti is a guitarist and vocalist for Oh He Dead. Andy, you have talked about how it's not just the musicians who are affected by this, but the music venues and all the people who work at places like the 9:30 Club, the Anthem, the Black Cat. What ripple effects has this crisis had on D.C.'s whole music scene?
VALENTIYeah, you've got a lot of people that are out of work right now. And it's not just musicians. It's theater, you know, Broadway's shut down. And think about any kind of event where people rely on people coming to see them and, you know, buy tickets to see a show. So, it's a uniquely challenging time, but we're seeing some really cool things.
VALENTIWe’ve had multiple venues reach out to us and ask us to livestream through their social media pages. We did one with Sixth and I earlier this week, and they gave some of the proceeds to their staff and helped them kind of fund their operations cost. And we split the money in half with them. So, it was an awesome opportunity for us to play to out of their fans, and for people to contribute, not only to the musicians, but to the venues right now.
VALENTISo, I'm personally really hopeful. I think necessity is the mother of invention. And there's a need to see a lot of innovation in the live music space. And I think you're starting to see kind of little bits of it now. But I'm really excited to see where things go and where technology goes in the next couple weeks and months here.
NNAMDII know you've been doing Instagram live sessions. We just talked with C.J. about the Jammie Jams sessions. And I'd like to play a song now which you recorded with us last summer as part of our Tiny Desk series, profiling local entries from NPR's Tiny Desk contest. This is Oh He Dead playing "This Time Around."
NNAMDIThat was Oh He Dead performing "This Time Around" recorded last year at WAMU studios. What a fun time I had. I'm not currently broadcasting from studios. I am broadcasting from home, but still happy to talk to the members, two members of Oh He Dead. Let's hear from Kerry in Arlington, Virginia. Kerry, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KERRYYes, hi, Mr. Nnamdi. And I'm pleased to know that you're doing this from home. Thank you for all the ways that we can kind of share ideas for staying connected during this time. I wanted to comment on something that one of my favorite artists has done. That artist actually reached out to his fans. His name's Pops Walker. He's a local. He lives in Shenandoah. And every year he does this Big River Fest.
KERRYWell, they had to cancel it this year, so he's decided that on kind of a regular basis, to tide the fans over, he's going to send us some short videos once or twice a month. And the treat is, you know, getting a chance to share new stuff, or previously unrecorded pieces. So, for now, it's keeping me going. (laugh)
NNAMDIIs he asking for any compensation for that at all, Kerry?
KERRYOh, that's not his way. He's doing it out of the goodness of his heart. But he knows his fans are loyal, and next time we get a chance to come to his River Fest, we'll definitely leave extra donations.
NNAMDIKerry, thank you very much for sharing that story with us. C.J. we're now in the midst of a stay-at-home order. Apart from music, you've been telling us how you and Andy have been collaborating. Apart from music, though, how are you using all this time at home?
JOHNSONYeah, so, like I was saying, sometimes me and Andy, or Clair, our manager, she makes us walk a lot. (laugh) She's definitely a manager. There's a cemetery nearby (unintelligible) Oh He Dead surprised to be walking through a cemetery. (laugh) But there's nobody there so, you know, we're not breaking any laws, you know. (laugh)
JOHNSONBut, you know, we try to just, you know, keep our minds, you know, in a positive place. But the walks definitely help. Just the other day, me and Clair was walking and saw this guy skating. He just zoomed past, skating on roller-skates in the street with a hockey puck and his hockey stick. And he was just playing out there by himself. So, you know, just seeing those things, you know, they give me hope, you know. (laugh)
NNAMDIAndy, how about you? Apart from spending time walking in the cemetery, what have you been doing?
VALENTI(laugh) It's pretty funny.
NNAMDII can't think of a more pleasant past time. Good.
VALENTI(laugh) Yeah. Just the cemetery has an amazing view of the city. It's the one in Mount Olivet, right above Trinidad, which is cool. But, man, I've just been playing music. It's been fun to, like, wake up and roll out of bed and just play from dusk 'til dawn. So, I'm taking lessons online right now. I'm taking vocal lessons and guitar lessons. Met a really cool musician who's based in New York, a couple months back at one of our shows, and she is teaching me guitar theory over FaceTime. So, you know, I'm FaceTiming and trying to learn music.
VALENTIAnd we're working on a lot of new stuff. Like Kerry said, we want to start sharing more new stuff kind of earlier in the process. And we want to -- I think it's a really unique time to let fans in a little bit earlier in the process. You're gonna see a lot of artists kind of lowering the threshold of what they're willing to share, at what point.
VALENTII think a lot of times artists want to wait until something's, you know, super-finished and mixed and mastered and polished before they put it out with a great music video. But we're kind of in a school of thought. Like Kerry said, a lot of people look to musicians for comfort in these times. And so we want to try to provide that wherever we can. So, we're thinking a lot about how we can write new music and show people our process a little bit through our social media channels.
NNAMDIHere is Joshua in Tyler, Texas. Joshua, you're on the air, and it's my understanding you're also on a tractor. Is that true?
JOSHUAI just got off the tractor, yes, Kojo. Longtime listener, by the way.
NNAMDIThank you very much, Joshua.
JOSHUAWell, since getting laid off from my restaurant jobs, I found myself being a ranch hand on a cattle farm here in Texas. And I have plenty of time, more than normal, to listen to music. And so I've been discovering lots of new artists, spending about 13 hours a day in the fields.
NNAMDIAnd exactly who are the favorites that you're discovering right now?
JOSHUAOne up there is an artist named Matt Heckler.
JOSHUAAnd another named Benjamin Todd of the Lost Dog Street Band.
NNAMDIThat's very interesting. Andy, C.J., are you finding yourself listening to new music right now?
VALENTIYeah, definitely. It's a really good time to explore new artists. Spotify does a really cool feature where they will recommend artists to you based on what you've listened to. So, there's a Discover Weekly playlist that I make a habit of listening to. And we've been sharing a lot of stuff. Our drummer Adam is an absolute fiend for finding new music. So, every single day, he's posting new tracks that he's found. So, we're trying to share a lot of music back and forth.
NNAMDIAnd, C.J., I'm just making a guess here that you've been listening to a lot of old-school stuff.
JOHNSONKojo, you know me so well, (laugh) you know.
NNAMDI(laugh) I do.
JOHNSONYou know, there's nothing like, you know, just chilling in the house, listening to some Sade, you know. You know, just all you can do. She gets me going. And some good old yacht rock, you know.
NNAMDII know. I guessed as much, (laugh) C.J. Well, not too long after you appeared on our show as part of the Tiny Desk series, you released a new album. And because this wouldn't be a show about music without, well, music, here is "Show Me Love."
NNAMDIOh He Dead with "Show Me Love." Andy, on a more somber note, in the past week, we've lost some prominent musicians to COVID-19. I wonder if you have any words about any of them that you'd like to share?
VALENTIYeah, it was really hard to lose a couple people. I don't know if it was related to COVID-19, but obviously, we lost Bill Withers last week, who's a huge inspiration for any musician that does anything with soul music. And it's been really moving to listen to his music lately.
VALENTIAnother one that impacted me personally was this guy Adam Schlesinger, who was the bassist in a band called Fountains of Wayne which got famous for a kind of silly song called "Stacy's Mom." But he was a brilliant musician outside of that band. And he wrote the theme song for the movie "That Thing You Do," which, you know, for me, as a musician, is one of my favorite movies. And that movie is not what it is without the soundtrack and without that song that really makes that story really believable.
VALENTIAnd anybody that wants to be in a band and kind of make it and hear their song on the radio for the first time, "That Thing You Do" is the reason that a lot of people want to do what they want to do and go on tour. And so that was a huge bummer to lose him.
NNAMDIHere's Rob in northwest Washington. Rob, your turn.
ROBHi. Yeah, I just wanted to chime in at the end, here. I help run a collaborative art space that is mostly run and attended by students in northwest D.C. And we have a lot of underground local, as well as touring, musicians come through. And we were having events, three or four a month, and, obviously, we're not anymore.
ROBIt's been a huge adjustment, I think, for the underground music community because live shows are pretty much everything. You don't really rely on streaming as much, or those other platforms as much, just because how many artists there are. So, we've seen a lot of people switch to Instagram Live, and it's actually really interesting. Folks are pretty much setting up concerts, booking three or four acts, bands, and having them play on Instagram Live.
NNAMDII'm afraid we're just about out of time, but thank you so much for sharing that with us. I'd like to go out with one last song from Oh He Dead. This was fittingly speaks to an experience many of us might be having now as we quarantine ourselves apart from friends and loved ones. It's called "Lonely Sometimes."
NNAMDIAndy Valenti, thank you so much for joining us.
VALENTIKojo, we miss your face.
NNAMDIC.J., thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDII miss your face, but I connect to your soul, C.J. (laugh) Today's show on how writers, musicians and other creative types are keeping the arts alive during the coronavirus crisis was produced by Julie Depenbrock. Coming up tomorrow, pro sports seasons have been interrupted and postponed. How are D.C. area athletes preparing for the year ahead, while social distancing? Plus, many fans are relying on e-sports to fill the gap, but what are e-sports and how well do they substitute for the real thing? That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening, and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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