| Special Issue: The
Creative Campus — Princeton and the arts
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Ruth Gerson ’92, singer and songwriter
Listen to her songs:
Sarah And Yukel
An abridged version of the following story was published in the Jan. 25 issue of PAW.
Ruth Gerson: Making a living making music
In a packed, sweaty living room in an elegant house in Chicago’s Lincoln Square, Ruth Gerson ’92 tunes up her acoustic guitar for 60 strangers. People spill out into the hallway; they sit cross-legged on the floor and on laps on the couch. “We feel like family now!” Gerson says to the audience, cracking the ice. She pulls out a notebook, settles on a messy page of scratchings, and tries a new song:
White houses clean in rows
Stone fences of lovers
Sleeping still behind curtains
With windows closed
For 75 minutes Gerson roams the landscape of justice, ethics and love, her favorite topics. Or, as she wryly puts it: “Why we shouldn’t pummel those who are smaller and weaker than us.”
Gerson’s soaring vocals and her warmth and humor pull the audience in closer, making a small space even more intimate. A riveting performer and an original songwriter who spent years playing rock clubs and touring Europe (Italians voted her “best singer” in a 1999 popular poll), Gerson has appeared on Late Night with Conan O’Brien and has been compared to Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and Joni Mitchell by well-known critics. That’s why, last February, a lengthy article in The New York Times raised the question: Why isn’t she famous?
The answer: By reviving the small gatherings of ’60s and ’70s folk artists, Gerson is pursuing success on her own terms.
Among other shows this year, Gerson will play about 50 “living-room concerts,” as she calls them, an alternative to the club scene. “It’s a totally different record business [today], and it’s changing daily,” she explains. The home-based concerts not only offer a deep personal connection to her audience that she could not achieve in a club, they provide a greater financial reward – allowing her to pursue the independent performer’s dream: “I want to make great records. In no way have I turned my back on anything – I’ve just done my own thing.”
Gerson always believed she would be a performer. She started playing piano at age 3 and writing songs “as soon as I could talk,” she says. A native New Yorker, she started acting at 7, studied drama at the celebrated High School of Performing Arts, and spent summers during Princeton at the British American Drama Academy at Oxford. At Princeton, she moved from drama to music, and her music flourished. Music professor Steve Mackey “was one of the first people to make me feel like my songs had potential,” Gerson recalls. She was profoundly affected by religion professor Robert Gibbs, whose course on Jewish existentialism fueled her study of ethics. “The first time I walked into his class, it spoke to me so much that immediately I was kind of in tears,” says Gerson. “Everything I studied with Professor Gibbs … informs my songwriting. To this day, I go back to those books for inspiration.”
Indeed, her senior thesis on Emmanuel Levinas’ themes of responsibility and generosity now informs songs like “I Want What You Want” which wonders why we over-consume, while “Sarah and Yukel” is steeped in French-Egyptian-Jewish thinker Edmond Jabes’ The Book of Questions, which she read in Gibbs’ class. In that song, the fictional characters escape from a concentration camp, only for Yukel to lose his lover as she succumbs to madness:
You sleep and hear her laughing
Her face a perfect rose
Skies open – a star too heavy falls
You hold on strong to the stranger in your arms
She started playing in rock clubs soon after her Princeton graduation, garnered glowing reviews, and signed with EPIC Records in 1994. But her independent streak was already clear; after about 18 months with the record company, she asked to leave so she could find her own musical direction. She quickly began to make money from her homemade recordings; her first cassette sold 500 copies in two weeks, and she used the money to press her first 2,000 CDs.
In 1998, she wrote to Bob Dylan’s publisher to request permission to record one of his songs; Dylan liked the songs on the tape that she had sent, and agreed to meet. They got together in a Manhattan office, and played songs together on their guitars. Dylan “was very much like a professor, extremely kind, understanding,” Gerson says. “He listened to some songs, and played some others with me.” He picked up one of her CDs and read the reviews. “Be careful, don’t let people call you a songwriter,” Dylan cautioned her. “You’re a song performer. You don’t write them so they sit there, you write them to sing to somebody.” Dylan also suggested that Gerson dig into the roots of songwriting, and she found new influences such as American folk songs of the Dustbowl era.
The living-room concerts started with a fan’s offhanded remark a year later, a time when Gerson was playing rock clubs across the United States and busily touring Europe. After performing at a packed but financially disappointing gig in Washington, D.C., in 1999, Gerson was asked by a fan when she would next be in town. “I said, ‘Well, I’ll come play in your living room, but I’m not playing that club again,’ ” Gerson says she replied.
The fan took her seriously, inviting 60 friends to her home. After donations and sales of CDs, Gerson made $1,200 – far more than she could make at a club. “I realized I could do things a little differently,” she says. “I can tour via living-room concerts without a major label or even an agency. It’s do-it-yourself, but fun and a viable option to sustain yourself as an artist.”
A living-room performance is very different from the usual club gig. “It’s so quiet that it feels like a conversation with the people listening,” Gerson says. “You can see everyone’s faces and their expressions. It becomes a dialogue … My main goal is to connect to people.”
Gerson still plays clubs in major cities when she can, but she has built her career around playing in people’s living rooms, encouraging other artists to do the same and introducing the concept to hundreds of listeners (she notes that house concerts have existed for centuries, and remembers her mother’s quartet performing in private homes). The concerts allow her a life of greater flexibility for raising her 1-year-old and 4-year-old daughters. Artistically and financially, it has paid off: She has sold 40,000 copies of her five self-produced albums. She also has used the concerts to raise more than $60,000 for charities over the last year or so; at her concert in Chicago, in an elegant home in Hyde Park, guests gave $8,000 for Umoja, an organization that mentors high school students.
This year, Gerson plans to release three new albums, including two that will receive major distribution through Fontana/Universal; she has hired two major producers, Grammy Award-winner Rick Chertoff and Nic Hard, to work on them. The album she is doing with Chertoff is – in line with Dylan’s suggestion – a collection of traditional songs: “mostly murder ballads, beautiful songs, at times with peppy melodies, at times more soporific.” Gerson explains: “What intrigues me about them is how they are sung in contrast to what they are about – usually women being murdered or babies dying … I wonder what effect they have on us.”
Gerson says she hopes the wider distribution of the two albums will expand her audience and let her explore artistically at a more sophisticated level. But she plans to maintain her living-room base. The concerts “turned out to be more than I ever expected in terms of artistic, creative, and even personal rewards,” she says. “I became so enamored with doing them that they took over my life.”
By Tiernan Ray ’92
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