On the Road with Orion Walsh: The Final ‘Broken Compass’ Tour | Q&A

After a year of touring — spanning from Florida to California, across the Midwest, by car, train and Megabus, and with two visits to Europe — Orion Walsh is closing 2014 with a visit to the West Coast.

Called “The Final Broken Compass Tour,” it includes fourteen stops in California, Oregon and Washington at which Walsh is performing songs from his album, released in January 2014 by Hunter Records, The Tale of a Broken Compass.

On behalf of Hear Nebraska, Chelsea Yates sat down with Walsh as he stopped through Seattle, Washington. Here’s what he had to say about the tour so far:

Chelsea Yates: What prompted you to do a “final” Broken Compass tour?

Orion Walsh: I’ve been touring all year in conjunction with the album, and this final tour is an opportunity to bring everything together. I recorded The Tale of a Broken Compass in Sacramento and mastered it in Lincoln, so it’s nice to circle back around. This is also the final pressing I’ll do of the album, and I like being able to combine that with a tour.

Earlier this year, a friend challenged me to see if it would be possible not to get a job and instead to support myself fully as a musician. I accepted that challenge and refined the goal: not only would I support myself solely through my music, but I would make as much money as I would if I had a full-time job. And I’d be happy doing so. I’m pleased to say so far everything seems to be working out that way.

CY: Many of your performances take place in people’s homes. What makes house shows so appealing to you?

OW: There’s a sense of community that comes through at house shows that you don’t necessarily find in bars and venues. Sure, people may go to bars to see bands, but often they’re also there to drink and socialize, which can take the focus away from the music. I want to play for people who want to hear the music. I’m much more interested in the experience that’s created in the exchange between the musician and the audience. This, I feel, happens more organically at house shows. I can get to know my audience; I can learn their names. They can meet each other, and we can all participate in creating the moment.

House shows can be such intimate sorts of engagement—you’re in someone’s home and there’s often a different level of respect. Also, people aren’t glued to their phones like they are in public spaces. Overall, house shows tend to be more meaningful for everyone.

CY: Where did you get the idea to start playing house shows?

OW: It wasn’t my idea! A few years ago, a friend in Germany—his name is Christoff Vallen—asked me to consider doing a tour during which I’d only play in people’s homes. He’d worked with musicians for years and was constantly struck by how exhausted and unhappy they seemed doing typical tours—the kind where they’re following an intense schedule set by someone else, playing noisy venues, not having time to sleep or eat or get to know their fans. So, he thought, why not change the formula?

Christoff organized the first of my two European tours this year. We referred to it as “The Tale of a Broken Compass Mystery Tour” because I didn’t know any of the places I’d be playing until I arrived in Germany. He took care of organizing a series of house concerts as a way to create community between the performer—me—and the audience. There was no fee to attend these shows; at the end we’d pass a hat and collect donations. I traveled by train through Germany, not knowing where the next show would take place but always knowing that I didn’t have to worry; I’d be playing my music somewhere, for people who really wanted to hear it.

The experience changed everything for me. I played for audiences ranging from age one to ninety. In one home, I met a little boy who couldn’t hear but could play the harmonica. He and I played together that night. That’s something I’ll never forget.

CY: You’re a musician who is both a practitioner of an “old school” approach to social networking — relentless touring, playing intimate shows where you can meet audience members, almost a guerrilla-style means of sharing your music — as well as one who is very active in contemporary, digital social networking (ie, you maintain a dynamic presence through social media, your music is readily accessible via Bandcamp and Spotify). For you, how do these two approaches complement each other?

OW: Well, in my opinion, the best way to get your music “out there” is to be “out there” — on the road, meeting and playing for new people, visiting places you’ve never been and learning from them. But having a digital presence is really important, too. To do music for a living these days, you need to do both. For me, tours and live performances make music real. And it’s got to be real; I’m not interested in things that aren’t real. Digital functions as a way to keep in touch and build relationships with my audiences. I like being able to stay connected with people through Facebook and to make music available online so that folks can listen later, again, whenever.

Digital music is such an interesting thing, you know? Technology certainly impacts how musicians make, record and share music today. But the bottom line is getting out there and performing in front of people. Even after Woody Guthrie began recording his songs, he still toured as much as possible. I get that; for me that’s what needs to happen.

CY: Both your house concerts and digital music offerings present a “pay what you want” option for your audience. Can you talk a little about the role that generosity plays in your music — both for you as an artist and how you see it for your audience?

OW: When I first started the “pay what you want” approach, I received quite a bit of criticism, like I was discrediting the art or something. But for me, it’s just the opposite. This approach allows me a way to step outside of the music industry. I’m not interested in making a bunch of money as a musician. If that were the case, I would have quit doing this a long time ago. It matters more to me that people hear the message of the songs I sing rather than the amount of money I leave with at the end of a show.

As far as my audiences, all I can say is that people are generous. Not all of them, but a lot of them are. If you give them a chance to give, they often will. I like being able to ask people to give in a way that allows them to decide—on their terms—what and how. And generosity can take a lot of forms: though monetary donations, of course, but also through things like opening up their homes for a show, bringing and sharing food, really listening to the songs I sing, singing along, inviting their friends to future performances, and so on.

I’ve found that by not worrying about making money off of my art, I’m happier as an artist. If I can concentrate more on my songs and creating a relationship with my audience than on the business side of things, the better my art will be. That’s just a fact for me.

CY: What do you hope that people who attend your performances take away from them?

OW: I hope that they’ve had a chance to do some thinking, that they’ve been able to listen to the lyrics and that they’ve heard the messages of the songs. I also hope they’ve felt moved to sing along and that they’ve had a good time. Some of the songs I sing tend to be dark, and I used to not care so much if people had fun at my shows. But I’ve been thinking a lot about that this year, and anymore, it really matters to me. I want people to enjoy the shows and have a good time.

I hope my shows—especially my house shows—inspire a sense of community. I’ve played house concerts for as few as five people and as many as fifty. No matter the size, I always hope that they provide an engaging experience for everyone in the room.

CY: What do you most look forward to after a tour ends and you return to Nebraska?

OW: My grandma and my mom both are in Nebraska, as are other family members and friends, and I always look forward to spending time with them. I’m also eager to do some relaxing from my time on the road. And, of course, playing shows back home. In fact, I’ll be doing one on Dec. 28 at Duffy’s in Lincoln with Bonehart Flannigan and Brad Hoshaw.

CY: 2014 has been an incredibly busy year for you! Any new music projects on the horizon for 2015?

OW: I’m going to be working on compiling a live album from this year of touring. My goal is that each song will be a performance from a different city.

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Orion Walsh’s fifth solo album The Tale of a Broken Compass is available for download via Bandcamp. Keep up with him online, and see him at Duffy’s in Lincoln on Dec. 28 with Bonehart Flannigan and Brad Hoshaw.

Chelsea Yates is a Hear Nebraska contributor. She grew up in northeast Nebraska and now lives in Seattle, Washington. Reach her at chelseadyates@gmail.com.