Back To The (Magic) Garden: Tubey Frank and friends talk collaborating on the Mouth House Sessions to support artists and PMG - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

Josh Kirwin of Tubey Frank is helming this summer’s Mouth House sessions, a series of recorded benefit performances at Philly’s Magic Gardens. Last year, Kirwin set up two similar events at PMG in a livestream style that supported Morris Home. This time around, he’s assembled a full production crew and rotating cast of performers that represent the sense of community that this project required in order to authentically come to life.

Along with the help of Allison Boyle, Lauren Hawkins of Eleanor Two, and videographer Bob Sweeney, the first episode of Mouth House Sessions will air on Friday May 14th on PMG’s website, Facebook, and Youtube page, and will feature dynamic and collaborative performances from Tubey Frank, Taylor Kelly, justmadnice, and Erik Kramer. The second round of performances will premiere later this summer and host Kuf Knotz and Christine Elise, The Lunar Year, and an eclectic array other eclectic artists. 75% of the event’s proceeds will go directly back to the artists, and 25% will go toward preserving PMG.

The heart of this project, aside from showcasing PMG as a musical stage, is the fact that most of these artists had never collaborated with each other before, and also hadn’t played with anyone live in nearly a year. The DIY (though professional-grade) studio used to record the sound was set up and disassembled over the course of each day of recording, making this a truly intense labor of love. The Key sat down with Kirwin, Taylor Kelly, justmadnice, and Erik Kramer to discuss the work that went into creating this ultra-collaborative and forward-thinking project. 

Mouth House shoot at PMG | photo by Jeffrey Bergeland

The Key: Why is the concept of DIY so valuable to you all? Rather than waiting for traditional venues to give you the okay to throw shows, like a lot of other artists are doing, what was the driving force behind making this project happen * now * ?

Erik Kramer: I’ve always leaned toward DIY in the sense that those are always the shows I was always going to that felt the most like a community and a family. I think a bigger part of this project was the collaborative nature in a different way than playing on bill with each other. It was more reliant on getting inside of each other’s musical brains. Philly has some amazing venues, but there are some where you show up and you just feel like an isolated individual. I’ve always appreciated the smaller gatherings that encourage people to talk to each other and feel like a really intimate sharing of music. 

Josh Kirwin: At first a lot of this started off as just “we need to do music again.” We thought that during this time, it still is unsafe to do things indoors, especially if we wanted to get good quality music, so doing this outside was the only option. A lot of this has been pivoting to make sure that something can happen and still be within what is safe for everybody. We bent over backwards to make sure that this could happen. Magic Gardens is a place that was really happy to have us the last time when we raised money for Morris Home. This time, we just wanted to see how much we could bite off to make this event even better. It was like swinging  a bat with all the weights on it. This one was really about seeing how far we could push ourselves in a three-day recording period making a nearly two-hour long live record. 

justmadnice: As a participant, I think what was beautiful about this particular event is how we showed up for each other. I think that’s true for a lot of DIY spaces. There is a community, and you show up as a friend, as an equal, and you contribute to a sound and a space. This experience really challenged me as an individual. I can’t remember the last time I had to learn so many harmonies or a new instrument, but it was really awesome. I was definitely nervous, but I tried, and I think that kind of energy is particular to DIY. 

The Key: The most unique aspect about this from an audience perspective is that you all play on each other’s songs, and that seems pretty effortlessly collaborative. Was that the case, or was it intimidating showing up and trying to play with musicians that you’ve never played with before?

justmadnice: Erik and Josh have been with me on my musical journey from the beginning as supporters. I wasn’t intimidated — I felt very safe to try things out even though I hadn’t played with everyone before. I suspected the rest of the group would be just as encouraging, and they were. 

Erik Kramer: Josh and I were tracing back how we ended up standing in that space together — my partner Melina met Alex at an open mic at The P H A R M A C Y and Josh was there opening up for a friend’s band. What I love the most about the Philly music scene is that there’s this feeling of follow-through and mutual appreciation of each others’ energy. I met Taylor Kelly at a teacher’s meeting and then we intentionally chose people we trusted in a collaborative sense. I’m someone who loves crash landing into these scenarios, so it felt like a cool opportunity to have these unique versions of these songs that will probably never sound the same again. We all came to the table after a year of quarantine with new material that we felt free and flexible to navigate in this new frontier. It felt very comfortable. At first, we were meeting up weekly on Zoom to talk through the music, and it was almost overwhelming that we were even meeting up that much, but we did all show up for each other even before this idea came about. 

Taylor Kelly: Since Josh asked me to do this project, I have only been excited and totally at ease. The energy of all of these people has been nothing short of amazing and inspiring and getting together in person for the first time and every time thereafter was so effortless. Everyone was so warm and inviting and we really just came together so easily and wonderfully. I think the space had a lot to do with those feelings too because how could you not feel inspired and incredible in a space like the Magic Gardens?

Josh Kirwin: Would this have happened if we hadn’t gotten to know each other in a production setting? We hit some major speed bumps that, had we not built up this emotional infrastructure with each other, we might not have surpassed those problems. We narrowly escaped cracking, I think. We had a set up day that got rained out, so we had to quickly come up with a way to rebuild the studio into the indoor part of the museum and thread it to the outdoor part. That wasn’t something we’d anticipated, but because we already had gone over everything in our heads a million times, we were immediately able to pivot. It just blows my mind, the amount of brain power and collaboration that was used to build a near-professional grade studio on the fly. 

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The Key: Do you think learning to be so quickly adaptable with this project has lent itself to you all becoming savvier in the way you’ll approach future events in more creative spaces? 

Josh Kirwin: Absolutely. I think we all grew a lot, whether it’s as players or as people who make the players look good or as people who make the music sound good. Every single person stretched themselves in ways that I don’t know if they knew they were capable of. 

justmadnice: I think it definitely expanded my definition of what a show could look like. Recording for each other and performing for each other was a really wonderful experience, and as someone who gets stage fright, I didn’t necessarily miss the audience. Live shows don’t have to be the only way we can showcase our music. 

Erik Kramer: I think COVID really pushed most industries to have to pivot and adapt. Even if there is a live audience, why not be able to share these events with people on the Internet or on the other side of the world? I’ve been thinking a lot about how to combine the live aspect with content creation and realizing that things can live more permanently than we think. This is a cool format to explore, and that’s why with this, we’re trying to figure out how to tell the story of what we’re doing — and a big part of that is utilizing these visually-stimulating places and collaborating with not only other musicians, but the space, videographers, photographers, public relations people, and letting the art cross-pollinate. 

The Key: Has this project, from an artistic standpoint, encouraged you all to think about future projects together?

Erik Kramer: Yeah, Alex and I have talked about it. Josh and I are working on a record. I hope this causes more collaboration, because we do want to think of this production team as a network. Maybe in the future we can throw a variety sideshow. We want this to feel like a family that has access to each other’s talents. 

Taylor Kelly: I honestly can’t wait for things to open back up so we can play again on live shows. I’ve become a super fan of everyone and I feel so lucky. This will truly hold me over for quite some time and will forever be one of my fondest memories.

The Key: Through COVID, there has been an overflow in remote collaboration among Philly artists because so many people realized that now they had not only the time, but the accessibility to musicians that they wouldn’t normally be able to work with. So it’s really inspiring that you’re able to move that into the in-person space, because that’s usually the hardest part. Seeing things move past the digital space is incredibly refreshing. 

Josh Kirwin: The whole remote collaboration aspect proved to everyone the importance of doing your homework. Once we applied that to this, that was something that we probably came together a little better prepared to put this on. We’d all flexed some new skills — production, time management. We all had to figure out how to stretch ourselves and grow. In some way, I think everyone learned how to exercise a new muscle and that made us more well-equipped to bring this project to life.

Mouth House shoot at PMG | photo by Jeffrey Bergeland

The Key: Aside from aesthetic purposes, why did you choose Magic Gardens for your  visual backdrop?

Josh Kirwin: Philly’s Magic Gardens is run by some of the most inspiring people that I know on South Street. My partner, Caroline, works there, so I’ve known a lot of the people who have been in that family of workers, for a long time. Everyone has this immense respect for each other. There are a lot of very strong, forward-thinking, independent people involved in keeping it afloat. This is a place that really fosters community and we wanted to find some way to amplify that. 

The Key: Had you done this in a traditional studio setting, this still likely would have sat with audiences just because of the cast of players you have involved and the talent that everyone brings to the table. But from a visual standpoint, you couldn’t have chosen a better location. It’s stunning what you’ve created and how you integrated Magic Gardens into the shoot almost like another character rather than just the setting. The community aspect is incredibly well-thought and totally driven home just through every moving part of this project. 

Josh Kirwin: You can really feel it when you’re watching the footage back. 

The Key: What do you feel is the main thing that audiences will take away from this project?

Taylor Kelly: I hope that whoever watches this is reminded of the importance of community and local music. There is truly nothing like creating something beautiful with others. I also hope it’ll get them to the Magic Gardens if they haven’t been because wow, that place is really something of a different world.

Erik Kramer: I hope a lot of humanness comes through in this project, because I think there were a lot of really human moments caught on camera. Not that we want it to read like a documentary, but we were figuring out all these moving parts on the fly, and hopefully the teamwork and flawed humanness of us all comes through in a way that people feel like they can connect with that. 

justmadnice: There were a lot of vulnerable moments in the collaborations and the song choices. I think each musician really picked something that took something out of them. Everyone really exposed their heart and their pain and their grief in this project. For me, it was a very cathartic experience and I hope that comes through when it’s watched. There’s something for everyone here — this year was really hard, but we still created something very beautiful and were able to share that. 

Josh Kirwin: We all grew a little taller and stranger, as Tom Waits would say. 

The first episode of Mouth House Sessions takes place Friday, May 14th on Facebook with Tubey Frank, Taylor Kelly, justmadnice, and Erik Kramer. More information can be found at the Philadelphia Magic Gardens website.

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