Interview with Musician Josh Urban
Enjoy this interview with musician and educator, Josh Urban. In our conversation, he spoke about how his collaboration with people on the street was a conscious choice and a change from his previous more traditional approach to performance. It was hard for him to step back from the limelight, he said, but it was evident that it was really worth it for the evolution of his creative process.
Can you remember an instance where you first knew you were a creative person? What were you doing?
I was raised in a household both creative and technical. My mom always involved the kids in art projects, and my father showed us how to work on electronics at an early age. Many of my first hands-on activities involved educational destruction if you will; I was forever taking things apart and cutting things up. (My social security card fell victim to this, and standing in line years later as an adult to replace it…well, I felt that was punishment enough!)
I’ve always had a blend of technical and creative skills. My first fully-formed creative work was probably a poem I wrote for my mom about a beautiful Beech tree. I think I was about ten years old. Around the same age, I woke up in the middle of the night and heard a mockingbird singing. I wrote a poem about that, too. Seems fitting that I’m a lyricist now!
How does your creativity manifest?
Primarily through music, comedy, writing, and graphic design. And entertainment.
How did you become interested in music? How about teaching?
I saw a teenage punk band when I was 13. Although I had always been an attentive fan of music, I became intensely interested in playing, as a result of seeing them. I was too intimidated to try the guitar, though, and if it weren’t for my mother’s encouragement, I’d never be having this conversation with you! It’s so important to nurture those little sparks of inspiration, as they can change a life. Teaching is another passion, but it first grew out of “Well hey, that looks like a fun job.” I was 18 and had just graduated high school. I applied to work at a guitar shop on a whim. Twelve years later, here I am!
Would life be different if you didn’t act on your creativity? How?
I think I’d pop! I know this sounds weird, but I think it’s true. Creativity doesn’t have to be in a traditional sense of being adept in the arts. If I were a bank teller, I suspect that I’d have the reputation as the guy with the crazy ties who can do impressions. It would ooze out somehow!
Does society support your creative practice? How about your social circle, family, and friends?
People have been kind, supportive, enthusiastic, and sometimes indifferent. It’s a game of metrics. Mostly society is neutral to what us artists do, often frustrating us. The trick is to find your tribe. My family has always been supportive, and through our parallel paths in art and business, we inspire and encourage each other.
Where do you “find” your ideas?
Anywhere I can! It’s not always a glamorous process and involves a lot of staring at a blank screen or guitar neck. But other times an idea will come in a flash, such as some satirical graphic design, or a bit of sly comedy. Those ideas will usually have something that triggers their arrival, something as trivial and silly as a hat I see, or someone who says something in an unusual way.
As a matter of fact, a hat helped me come up with the story, album, and poster design for Lt. Prancer. My step-dad brought a silly Christmas hat by one day that was a cross between reindeer antlers and a pilot’s helmet. I invented a ridiculous story of how Santa delivered presents in WWII. There are, of course, the “standard” artistic inspirations of empty railroad tracks, heartache, elation, etc. A thing that I’ve found world-changing is that ideas are all around us right now, we just need to look closely enough. That’s easier said than done, though!
What do you gain from performing on the street? And how did you decide you wanted to get your audience involved in collaborating?
The street is the most fascinating, humbling, and fun stage I’ve played. Sometimes people utterly ignore you, and homeless people themselves have thought me a “bum.” Other times there’s a rowdy jam session on the street corner, and I can feel the spirit of rock ‘n roll grace the pavement. It’s brought new friends into my life, and sharpened what I call “free market performance skills.” If people aren’t stopping (buying what I’m selling), then I need to play (sell) something better. It’s a marketing laboratory–what types of people like what interaction? How do I engage people? How do I disrupt the flow to make people go “Huh?” If I do something people can’t quite categorize, they are more interested in engaging.
It’s a teacher of humanity, being a colleague of the fringe and the forgotten. It’s a place to practice extroversion. Even I get intimidated, but every time I play, I get a little better. Playing Johnny Cash on the 7 Train as it rumbled above Queens wasn’t the most comfortable thing to do, but wow, what a practice opportunity!
Regarding audience involvement, the street has taught me that the more people are involved in the show, the more fun everyone has, and the deeper the connection. I noticed breaking down the “fourth wall,” the barrier between the performer and audience, really creates more engagement.
I like to take that collaborative approach with me when I play more traditional stages. When I did a radio interview recently, I brought an extra percussion instrument for the host. We had so much fun on the air, eventually resulting in her momentarily forgetting herself, and throwing the instrument to the ground at the end of the song much like you’d smash a guitar. It was so punk! (And the instrument bounced, so no worries there.)
Did you always value collaboration?
At first, I approached performing in a more traditional way. I wanted to be the center of attention. But I consider what I do now “guiding” and it’s important in its own right. I used to tell myself, “If I were more talented, I’d perform alone.” But now I know I am better as a collaborative performer.
Do you consider yourself an extrovert?
A lot of people aren’t as extroverted as I am. But the first song of the day is the hardest, even for me. If you’re not an extrovert, find something that’s comfortable for you. There is a place for everyone, the trick is finding that place.
Does anything about your creative work or process bring about fear?
I’m most scared of sounding wimpy and white, but most of the songs I write turn out…wimpy and white. That being said, there are plenty of other things I am scared of, but if I focus on them too much they will control me.
What are you working on currently?
My immediate project is editing a music video I recorded on my most recent train tour traveled around with a home built guitar fashioned out of a broomstick, and jammed with strangers on street corners. The editing is time-consuming, but always leaves me with a smile on my face when I look at how music connects people, bringing some levity into an often dark world. Future projects include: building another guitar out of something weird and crazy, and further meshing electronic music and blues guitar.
How can people keep up to date with you?
How have you made it financially possible to focus on your music?
My business model is a threefold approach: I teach music (private guitar lessons), play music, and host music (DJ.) I’m pleased with how each modality not only makes each other possible but also enriches the other areas. Teaching forces me to become a better musician, playing gives teaching a new perspective, and DJing immerses me in music to influence my writing. The key for me has been to determine what resonates with people, and then figure out how to monetize that. I’m humbled that I get to do what I do!
What challenges have you faced in your creative work?
Personal discipline is my biggest challenge. Sitting down to write a song and not browsing the internet…man, that’s tricky! It seems that each artist has their own creative process. Mine is one of a winding, steep road, full of crumpled paper, “Well, THAT’S STUPID” moments, endless recording takes, and the occasional flash of inspiration. It’s always easier to check Facebook. I’m watching a video a friend sent me of guys dressed up in sumo wrestler suits with clown clothes wrestle to “Gangnam Style” at a Russian wedding right now. Seriously! “Ohhh! Red clown!”
Tell us something we don’t know about you yet:
I love science. I was THIS close to going into the field but chose entertainment instead. People often assume that creatives aren’t technical, but that’s not always the case.
Josh Urban is an entertainer and educator living near Washington, DC, USA. He performs music on stages and street corners, builds strange instruments, teaches people of all ages how to play guitar, and hosts various music programs as a DJ. In addition to the usual modern hits, Urban has been a college radio host for the past five years on WDCE 90.1 FM Richmond. He spins for an audience of senior citizens hosting, “The Classic Radio Hour” at area assisted living communities. When he’s not involved with music, he enjoys astronomy, repairing antique clocks, and Latin dancing (although he often accidentally injures people on the dance floor.)