Interview by Morgan Davis
Photo by Carlos J. Matos
Next Monday, November 14th, Ovrld and the SIMS Foundation will be unveiling their collaborative, Cultural Arts Division-funded portait project Heart of the City (which you can donate to here). Spearheaded by our own Carlos J. Matos, the project aims to put faces to the struggle of music industry professionals in Austin with beautiful portaits of 12 of those professionals, ranging from performers to sound technicians to radio personalities. We also interviewed each of the subjects and will be releasing the full interviews throughout the year, beginning with veteran singer-songwriter Gina Chavez, whose version of Americana has caught the ear of national tastemakers, resulting in her being one of Austin’s most prominent and well-respected performers.
Morgan Davis for Ovrld: As someone who has lived in Austin her entire life, what are some of the things you feel have changed the most?
Gina Chavez: Obviously, the landscape of the city has changed in the sense that…actually, I remember my parents telling me stories about when they went to college here in the ‘70s, at UT, and 2222 was literally the end of Austin. There weren’t streetlights, there was the middle of nowhere. And I actually grew up slightly north of 2222, on Burnet. So it’s pretty wild to think that even where I grew up was booney land compared to anything else.
So obviously Austin has changed a ton just in the fact that we have so many more people, it’s become this go-to destination. I think with that obviously comes a lot of really good things, and not-so-great things. There are places that have turned over and changed. I remember growing up and hearing so much about the [long defunct legendary venue] Armadillo World Headquarters, which I never got to see or take advantage of. And I think there are places that people in my generation grew up with that our kids will never experience, like Steamboat or even the old Antone’s or whatever. But on some level, that’s just growth and those things happen. It’s a bummer, but I think there are a lot of new, great things about Austin— the booming film industry, the food here is incredible— so I think there are a lot of things that come with growth that are great.
For other changes, I think one thing, as far as being a musician, that I really appreciate is the environment of musicians; I really feel that it’s a very supportive community. I don’t ever feel like I’m in competition with my fellow musicians, like we’re fighting for the same gigs or something; essentially we kind of are, but not really. I feel like there’s way more camaraderie than there is competition. Or if there is competition, it’s healthy in the sense that you go out to see a band or you go out to see your friends and you’re sitting there in the audience like “Man, they’re incredible! I’ve gotta do some work!” You know? I feel like that’s a healthy thing, and I feel like that’s one of the things Austin boasts that I don’t know exists, at least in that kind of quality, in other music cities. I haven’t lived anywhere else long enough, like New York or LA or Nashville or Seattle or some of the other places that are popping up…I haven’t been to those places long enough to know what their scenes are like from a resident standpoint. But from what I understand they have more competitive aspects, like pay-to-play, that I hope never come to Austin or take away from the community we have here. At the same time, I do feel like we need professional-level music industry.
Ovrld: Like infrastructure?
GC: Yeah, infrastructure, because from the time I grew up— and I think this is still true— you have these artists that set up in Austin and you decide “Okay, I’m going to be an Austin musician, that’s going to be my thing” or you are an artist that is from Austin and no longer really in Austin. You have street cred, but then you leave. Because all the connections that can really take you to that next level are not here. For the most part.
I do think that’s changing slowly, but I do think that’s one of the biggest needs that I see, professional-level music industry.
Ovrld: You’ve been involved in some interesting organizations that have tried to help with that in some ways, like Black Fret. What are some of the ways you see that Austin is trying to address that issue? And how do you think they’ve been most successful?
GC: I know the city of Austin itself, for one, the fact that we have a music office is pretty cool, and I think it’s really neat to have support for an industry that is very grassroots. No one ever decided “Hey, we’re going to make Austin a music city,” it just happened. So I think being able to take that and support the people who made that happen as opposed to taking that and molding it into something else, I appreciate the growth that has happened. I think the city of Austin and the music office is very cognizant of the great things about Austin, the community aspect, the healthy competition, the quality of our music, to the point where we’re going to be able to grow in the ways that we need to grow, but I think it’s going to take a while. And I kind of hope it takes a while, any growth that is foundational needs to have buy in from all sorts of levels.
I think the music census, for one, I was able to be part of one of the focus groups they did with multiple audiences, everything from artists to managers to venue owners to residents in the area, and I think that was so smart. It’s so smart to be able to reach out to not only the people that are making the music happen but also the people that are benefiting or throwing money down and also the people that are dealing with music on a certain level. I think that’s what it’s going to take to move forward.
Groups like Black Fret, honestly, Colin [Kendrick] and Matt [Ott] have been trying for more than half of their lives to do exactly what Black Fret has become, which is essentially be able to support Austin musicians in a sustainable way. For me, I think it was 2009, there was the Gatti’s Jingle Contest and so hundreds of musicians submitted a jingle, there was $10,000 on the line as the top prize…
Ovrld: That goes a long way…
GC: It goes a long way! I mean, it was 2009 [laughs]. $10,000 isn’t like, you know, your career is suddenly changed forever, but it’s a significant amount of money that can go towards a new album or help you buy a car to tour with or whatever.
GC: Yeah, [does a nasally New York voice] moi-chandise [laughs]. But I remember that experience and I actually ended up getting runner-up and Ryan Harkrider won the grand prize. But it was such a letdown to get that close and not win, knowing that that was a one time thing, it was over. So I think being part of Black Fret now is so much more exciting because it’s not just like “Oh, I got a grant, peace out homies,” it’s like I feel so excited about this because I know that whether I get a grant or not, I get a chance at it, and I get a chance again. There’s a whole community of Austinites that might not want to go do the downtown at midnight teenagers thing but still want to support Austin music. And obviously there are ways that Black Fret is still new and there are ways that I think people would like to see it grow to, and Colin and Matt, in my experience, are so open to getting that constant feedback. And making sure it’s something that all Austin artists have access to…
Ovrld: And they do a lot of other events to help make sure people get awareness and information.
GC: For sure, and it’s really been incredible the community they’ve built in such a short time. And I think it’s because they themselves, and Kurt [Wheeler], and a lot of other people that have helped Black Fret get off the ground, have had their fingers on the pulse of Austin for a long time. So it’s not like it just came out of nowhere, these are things they’ve been working on for a long time.
GC: A lot of things. It really does take a community, is the biggest thing. I think from the time I started playing in coffee shops…I used to play at Tasa Fresca, that’s kind of where I got most of my start. I would do open mics nights, probably every few months, then I started doing it monthly. And you know, we had 40 people in that place. To the point where it was like “Okay, it’s time to go to a different location” [laughs]. And everyone was like “When are you coming out with an album?” and I was like “Oh, is that what I do?” So even from that standpoint for me, building that community was so key to me moving forward. Because I wasn’t necessarily the ambitious type that was like “I’m gonna be the leader of a band, I’m gonna write my own music,” it just kind of happened. I think to that extent, being part of a community is huge.
You can’t expect to come out with music and have people fall at your feet because you’re in Austin. There are a lot of really phenomenal musicians in this town, and artists, and cooks, we’ve got everything. But you’ve gotta do the legwork. There are so many organizations…SIMS, HAAM, the Austin Music Foundation, the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau, the City of Austin, I know I’m forgetting a ton. Even the non-profits in town, I think to some extent there are some non-profits that call you up and are like “Hey, can you play for free for three hours?” and you have to say “Well, no, not really,” but then there are those where even if they can’t offer you much they do what they can to promote your music to their spheres and things like that. I think finding a healthy balance with work is important but this whole community has been really phenomenal to me.
The other day I went out to see a new artist and she totally blew me away and I realized I hardly knew anyone in the audience. I hardly go out to music lately, just to see music, because my schedule is pretty packed and sometimes I just want to sit at home [laughs] and you know, enjoy an evening. But it was to the point where I was standing in the audience and I thought “Wow, I don’t actually know anyone here, and this band is phenomenal,” and it hit me that I could easily be a nobody in the sense that my music is no better or worse than the next person.
I’m very proud of the quality of music that I put out, but there are a lot of really good people who are hitting the ground and pushing their stuff, so I feel so fortunate that people have been able to find something in the music that we’ve been creating. I know for me I hope that my music is a bridge and I do think that bad things happen and I feel so fortunate at how the pieces have fallen together to make us be a voice for people who don’t necessarily have that platform and to bring people along for the ride.
GC: Kind of the biggest piece is that I volunteered for eight months with my girlfriend in El Salvador and I kind of stopped my music career at that point, which was a weird thing, and people were like “Why are you leaving?” and I was like “I really feel in my heart that this is where I’m supposed to be.” So I went to El Salvador and we learned more Spanish and it ended up being one of the most incredible experiences of our lives. Fast forward, we get back to Austin and we basically worked on my next record. And that took four years from the time I got back from El Salvador to come to fruition.
One of the things we did was a Kickstarter campaign, I wanted to raise $10,000, we ended up raising $20,000. That was when it hit me because oh, wow, talk about community, they are here and they are ready [laughs]. I think at that point I thought okay, we’ve got to do an amazing job. So I worked with Michael Ramos, and it was an incredible experience. We spent 10 months in the studio, total labor of love. That record, it’s my third album, but essentially it’s my first major record in the sense that it can stand on par with any work by any artist out there.
That experience of bringing a community along for this record, called Uprooted, that was a game changer on so many levels, from working with a fashion photographer for an eight hour cover photo shoot to 10 months in the studio for this labor of love on a bilingual album that’s kind of a risk. But it was what I felt like I was called to do and it did explore those different parts of myself. Not just being a Latina and being a gringa and exploring my Latin roots through music, but also being a Catholic and being a lesbian and dealing with all of these dualities. I feel like so many of us are not one thing, we do not fit into a box. The genres of music we play don’t fit into a box. And Austin is a great example of all those beautiful things that can coexist in one person and be able to celebrate those things.
So Uprooted, for me, was a huge game changer. And then, fast forward, the music, even though it was a risk, landed at NPR and they loved it and with that kind of support we were able to make an independent album that not only Austin but people around the world started listening to.
GC: I think with the technology, there are a lot of ways to tour smarter not harder but I do think touring is still just as necessary as it ever was. And honestly I’ve toured a lot but almost in less common ways than I would say most people have. I’ve actually done very little band touring, especially road travels. I’ve done more air travel, where we’ll fly to the east coast and do a few shows and then fly back. Or we’ve played, say, the Kennedy Center and play for Chicago’s Millennium Park series. So those are bigger shows and with bigger shows you can use them as an anchor date and create shows around that. But I haven’t gone “Hey, we’re going to tour for three months” and I’m in a van with six smelly guys or whatever. My guys don’t smell though [laughs].
Ovrld: That’s your prerequisite for joining the band…
GC: Yeah, you can’t smell [laughs]. But I have done a lot of touring, especially overseas, which has been a blessing, and has been amazing. I’ve gotten to experience being a musician in an ambassadorial role. That started when through the city of Austin in 2011 and 2012 I was able to visit our sister city, Oita, which is in the southern part of Japan. That was a mind-blowing and beautiful experience, especially to go the second time. It was my first time returning to another place in the world and actually feeling at home there because you’re like “Oh my god, I know this place, even though I don’t speak the language and it’s still totally foreign to me, I know this place and I know that person and oh my gosh we haven’t seen each other in a year but this is beautiful.” That was a completely heartwarming and eye opening experience, to be able to connect to people through music, no matter the language. Some of the songs they connected to most were the ones in Spanish.
Then just recently we had a trio, we were able to get a grant through the US State Department, they have a program called American Music Abroad, and essentially we were cultural ambassadors through the state department. So we got to represent our country with guitars! It’s so cool. From my standpoint, I feel like I play music from “the Americas,” it’s not just here. If Americana meant not just music from the US, I would say I play Americana music. So that was really exciting to me, we got to go through five countries in Latin America, as well as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and later this year we may actually be going to Jordan through our program through the US state department. Again, it’s just mindblowing to see the connections that our made.
I think my base takeaway from that is “follow your heart” and really pursue the things your heart calls you to, because that’s exactly what Uprooted was for us. And that’s really been the foundation for all the things I’ve been doing recently. And now it’s time to write new music [laughs].
GC: One of the things I personally can’t speak to but I know is the biggest thing is housing, affordable housing. I actually purchased a condo in 2005.
Ovrld: Before the Austin housing bubble really blew up.
GC: Yeah, and if I hadn’t done that, I have no idea how I would be able to afford housing in Austin. That was a just smart, lucky move on my behalf. Having grown up here, I have family here, so for me, staying in Austin was a priority. I don’t know where else I would go, unless I went to Spain or something [laughs]. Obviously, being a musician, having Latin roots, having my family here, it made a lot of sense for me to lay down roots here. But honestly if I hadn’t done that, I have no idea what I would have done. So that is a piece that I have very much taken for granted, that I think has probably always been an issue in Austin but now it’s exacerbated. I mean, we’re at, what, 99.9% occupancy or something crazy like that? I mean, don’t quote me on that, but it’s something like that [Gina isn’t far off, the most recent data has Austin apartment occupancy at nearly 95%]. It’s pretty much full.
Ovrld: Right, and we just keep expanding into all the surrounding areas…
GC: I know, yeah, that’s basically the story of my parents, where the end of Austin used to be 2222 but now that doesn’t compute.
Ovrld: And that’s one of the areas of Austin that is growing the most now, the north.
GC: Yeah, it’s wild. So I feel really fortunate that that piece isn’t something I’m necessarily contending with. I mean, I do have two mortgages that own me. Aside from that piece, I’d say obviously venue turnover, and there’s so many artists and people here trying to make it. There’s the “hey, play for free” thing. I know for me, I had an experience where I was invited to play for Formula 1 for free…
Ovrld: For “exposure?”
GC: [laughs] Yeah, for exposure. I kind of professionally said “We need compensation” and they said “Oh, we’re not going to be able to offer that this year.” I looked online and it’s $1500 per person to get into this event! I just thought to myself “This isn’t worth it,” but I also thought to myself “Somebody’s gonna take that gig.” Not that I wanted it but the point is, for everybody else, don’t take that gig. There is no reason that Formula 1 can’t pay you.
Ovrld: They’re not a struggling non-profit.
GC: Right, they’re not a struggling non-profit! So I think it’s those kinds of things that still exist. And like I said, somebody’s gonna take that gig, and that’s the kind of message Austin artists do need to band together on some level and basically as a community say “No!” There is a base level something. I think there’s the downtown struggles— parking, for instance. I find it funny that there can’t be some kind of permit for musicians to be able to park and leave a car.
Ovrld: I think Austin Music People has been working on that for years.
GC: Yeah, to me, it’s absolutely ridiculous that we can’t figure that out yet. And as a result, people like me don’t play downtown. Again, that’s not to sound snarky, it’s a reality. I’m not going to make my whole band struggle to get downtown.
Ovrld: Right, and pay however much for parking, and risk still getting a ticket.
GC: I know the festivals try to do a pretty good job of letting you take one or two cars, so we’ll meet at somebody’s house and we’ll load up the cars or whatever and people figure it out and it’s fine. But if you’re going to have me play and essentially bring in money for you, and sell booze for you, the least you can do is somehow provide me parking.
I actually played at a nonprofit event downtown a few years back and it was right across from the Westin and I came out and my car was gone. They had these little flip signs that were not flipped down when I parked, but I didn’t take a photo because I didn’t know they were there. So I came out and the signs said no parking between these times. Apparently they’re supposed to flip them down 24 hours ahead of time which I found out after going through all this rigmarole and interviewing all these people and going “Hey, what’s the deal?” Of course they stood by the people and said “The signs were down” but two of our cars were towed. We’re not idiots, of course we know how to park downtown and read signs.
Ovrld: Yeah, I think everyone in Austin has to be an expert on those signs in order to survive.
GC: It was one those things where I was just like “Wow, I’m playing for a benefit downtown, and I lost this much money because I had to get my car out of the impound.” It’s one of those things where you’re just like “d’oh!” [laughs].
GC: You know, like I said, I think growth…well, good growth, needs to be slow to a certain extent. I’m sure people would disagree with me on that. I think we’ve got enough entities and people that are working on it that are in positions of power. Like you mentioned AMP, the Creative Alliance, the COA. I think there are enough entities coming together and people coming together that we will see some changes. I think for me, I know that there are specific pieces and a lot more to be done, but I’m kind of one for let’s really lay a solid foundation and get all the right parties involved before we go changing a ton of things. Because changes are hard, even if it’s good change, you’re going to lose some people. You’re going to anger some people. It just happens. That’s what change does. I think doing that in a very methodical and thoughtful way is necessary.
Actually, I feel really optimistic. I feel positive. I do see a lot of potential, and I’m not sure this is being addressed, for cross-creative collaboration, in the sense that we have this budding film industry, this budding game industry, and I think we need to forge those connections. I think that’s absolutely a must. I also feel like that’s a little bit secondary as far as priority, because when you have people that can’t even feed themselves or help themselves, that are creating part of the economy that brings people to the city, those things are a greater necessity. But I think those are some exciting pieces that have yet to come.
Ovrld: The final question we’ve been asking people is what advice would you give to someone who’s in the music industry who’s moving to Austin now that you wish you had gotten early on? Just things people might not think of when they’re moving here, since so many people are moving here trying to make it in this scene.
GC: I think I encourage people to step outside their comfort zone a little bit. Whether that means going to some shows or stepping foot in some communities that might not seem like your niche, sometimes those are the best ways to get into a community. Because if you can shine with, say, an entrepreneur group or something…because musicians don’t think of themselves as “business owners” but that’s exactly what we are. So finding an aspect of, maybe it’s an entrepreneur group, or social media, or film or whatever. Maybe it’s electronic music even though you come from folk music. Find some way to step outside your comfort zone because I think it opens parts of the city. And when I say that I am also talking directly to myself. Having been here for so long, it’s easy to get into a comfortable groove and I think one thing this city does is not just comfortable grooves but also shake things up, because we are attracting so many talented people to our city. Just continue to inspire each other, and I think that takes stepping outside of our comfort zones and listening to each other.
Carlos J. Matos’ portrait of Gina Chavez will be on display alongside eleven other portraits at the Heart of the City opening at Antone’s next Monday. You can also donate to the project here. Heart of the City is funded in part by the Cultural Arts Division of the City of Austin Economic Development Department.
Morgan Davis sells bootleg queso on the streets of Austin in order to fund Loser City, the multimedia collective he co-runs. When he isn’t doing that, he gets complimented and/or threatened by Austin’s musical community for stuff he writes here at Ovrld, which he is the Managing Editor of.