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Plans are changing rapidly with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and for those in the arts world, every single night looks different. With venues closed, many creatives are turning to the sanitized wide web to share their works – and many are making these decisions rashly, in an effort to keep some form of income flowing.
Robert Price, a Houston-raised writer/performer transplanted to New York, made the call to release his latest album Did You Eat My Songs Yet (three meals a day) digitally on March 20 quickly. “Bandcamp was running a promotion where for 24 hours, they were going to forfeit their share of the profits for any sales made on their website,” Price explains. “This caused a bunch of people who make music to upload whatever they had. I had been working on these songs since January of last year, when I started writing them. They were finished by the end of the summer, and I slowly started to learn how to play them better.”
Known to many in the Houston scene as a dedicated improviser who cut his teeth at ComedySportz Houston and BETA Theatre, Price has been churning out acoustic jams on the side since his high school days. “Since then I’ve written a whole lot of stuff that I’m excited to make,” Price says. “So having the songs is a great comfort to me, because I can show everybody in three minutes who I am and what I do. I don’t have to bang my head against the wall trying to prepare something, the way I did with stand-up where I felt like I needed to be writing new stuff all the time in order to feel OK saying it in front of people. Song writing has been a relief in that way.”
While the songs display a sense of Price’s quick wit, they’re played more straight than many may expect. The 26-year-old artist acknowledges this upfront. “I was introduced at a song-writing sharing event. And the person introduced me as: “This is Robert Price, he writes amazing comedy music – he puts such dedication into songs that are comedic.” Then he brought me up onstage and I played Bubbles Burst, the third song on the album. Everyone was staring at me, waiting for my opportunity to laugh, and then the laughter was that of bleak recognition. There’s a surprise in the song where the chorus is twice as fast as the verses. So when people hear the chorus, they don’t know what happened! The laughs are more like ‘theater gets’ than ‘comedy gets’ – if that makes sense.”
Price sounds conflicted when trying to box himself into a specific genre for the album. “This is the difficult part of it because you want to believe that whatever you’ve made is the first there’s ever been,” he says with a dry laugh. “I really admire old jazz and country folk songs that are written like little poems, that have a beginning a middle and an end, and when you revisit a chorus, little words in it might have changed or the chords may have evolved. Older people might appreciate that I’m a big fan of Don McLean’s album, Homeless Brother. They’re folk songs armed with seductive music theory choices, where melodies will drift in and out of the familiar. Maybe younger people would appreciate that I’m writing almost Shell Silverstein poems for grown-ups.”
While the Corona virus may have pushed Songs out of the nest with intention, many of the standard avenues of promotion are unavailable to Price at the moment. So, as would be his nature, he’s improvising. “I did live stream my songs a few days ago. The weird thing about this, is it feels like you’re playing not to no one, but to one person who pities you. You imagine one person saying [either], “I’m here!” or “Why am I here?” But if I can perform from my apartment — that means anything in my apartment is fair game to be used. And because I live with someone who runs a moving company, I got a lot of crazy trinkets in here. So I imagine there will some more set decorating.”
Among those the lanky lyricist is extolling thanks to are @OffTopNYC, the hip hop improv collective he frequents and the cultishly adored QED Astoria. “It’s a tiny venue in Queens that’s a café during the day, sells books and pretty much has an open mike every night,” the University of Houston graduate beams. “It’s a great little room for trying out comedy. I performed my album there, inviting other people to sing on it – which is something I can’t really do in the quarantine.”
The space also gave Price his album cover, which shows the performer in his oddly fashionable glory. “The jump suit I’m wearing in the photo are thrift store finds. The bottom are disco bell bottoms and the tag on them says unisex, and has a picture of a man and woman both wearing them and embracing each other. The top half is like a power suit shoulder padded garment with an art deco collar. I wear it emphasize the pink and purple in the guitar, and I wear it to look like a superhero. The guitar is scaled small for my body, and the pants are scaled big.”
In the end, the album is for many people, Price surmises. “Every song is like a little play you don’t have to go to. Which is really convenient, because now we can’t! It’s one arch that includes all those songs, and the order in which they occur is how I felt: the things that happened to me emotionally after getting out of monogamous relationship. It’ll be obvious when you listen to it that it is about heartbreak, in the tradition of Hank Williams. I feel some sort of responsibility to this old music that father loved, and made me love, and discovered based on recommendations from real, human people I met. Finding little gems in the past. The acoustic nature, and playing on the Barbie guitar is my attempt at authenticity. Willie Nelson has been playing the same old guitar his whole career, wearing goofy clothes and writing incredible songs. And if I have a fraction of the world he has, that would be wonderful.”
Robert Price’s Did You Eat My Songs Yet (three meals a day) is now streaming and available for purchase on robert0price.bandcamp.com