This Friday, April 7, ArtRat Gallery will host Americana Special! An Evening with Sam Robbins and Andy Baker. Created the folks who bring you ArtRat’s Americana Sundays concert series, the show runs 8-10pm at 46 Division Ave. S in the heart of downtown Grand Rapids. (Admission $20; tickets available from Eventbrite.)
The bill pairs Nashville-based singer/songwriter Sam Robbins with West Michigan’s own Andy Baker. Ahead of the show, ArtRat asked Andy some questions about his creative process, his day job as an animal doctor and his prognosis for local music.
What's your process for writing songs? Do you usually start with a story, a lyric or a melody — or does inspiration come in through different doors?
I actually lead a couple songwriting groups online, with the purpose of writing a song a month based on a one-word prompt. So the prompt is given by one of the members on the first day of the month. … We write a song with that word in it … and turn in the song by the end of the month for critique. This is an interesting way to start the process; instead of having a blank page in front of me, I at least have one word. And that one word often leads me down avenues where I would normally not go as a writer. Once I have an idea about what I will write about, I start playing around with the guitar until I find a chord progression and the mood that I want … And then it’s off to the races.
Of course, I also write from inspiration or things that are simply on my mind. But I rarely write lyrics without the music … To me, the process of the words and the rhythm and the mood and melody all go hand in hand.
Many of the artists who perform at Americana Sundays have a musical pedigree: They grew up with musicians in the house. How did you find your way to writing and performing?
Well, I did not grow up in a particularly musical family, but (and we’re talking late ‘70s, early ‘80s here!) there was a turntable, and a couple John Denver albums … and a few Eagles albums … Enough to give me the itch to beg my parents for a guitar at around 13. And a Mel Bay book of Eagles songs with the chords that I taught myself.
But I really didn’t get into writing until my mid-20s, when — going through some periods of depression — I got into journaling as therapy. And then someone handed me The Artist’s Way. And then someone handed me the new Indigo Girls album, Closer to Fine. And somehow, the journaling became poetry and morning pages, and then song lyrics … really horrible, self-absorbed stuff at first … but I fell in love with the possibility of writing songs, and the emotional cleansing they brought to me. And soon the songs began to expand. … I begin to tell stories. … I found joy in writing about the challenges of being human, the humor and the tears … The sad stuff, the uplifting stuff … ALL the stuff! And all that stuff became a roller-coaster ride that I took my audience through during my shows. And I learned in the end that people respond to vulnerability, to truth seeking, to thought provoking and sometimes to just a good old laugh. And I always try to leave my listeners in a better place than I found them.
You live in a small town near Kalamazoo. What do you think makes the West Michigan Americana scene special? Do you think there's a common musical thread among communities on this side of the state?
First, let me say… There are some AMAZING artists here in West Michigan … And in Michigan in general. I have met many of them over my years of performing, and know some of them quite well through the songwriting groups that I run, Folk Alliance, et al. I also curate a monthly concert series in South Haven called the Songwriter Showcase at the Black River Tavern, featuring many local and regional artists in a writers in the round format. It’s been a wonderful way to get to know other artists in the area, and to get their music out into the world.
Unfortunately, the COVID years wrought havoc on many of our local venues that dared to feature local or even touring songwriters … And those who remain are struggling. And we are also in this cultural place, where so many things are vying for people’s attention. Our phones alone can provide hours of entertainment without leaving the couch. But I’m hoping that people begin to rediscover the magic of live shows … be it live theater or a concert … The engagement, the human energy, The emotions that are shared as a community … These are rudimentary things that go back deep, deep, deep into our human storytelling history, and cannot be duplicated on cell phones. I think people are slowly waking up to this. … And the good news is, we now have ways of reaching people that we never had before. So I hope it turns around. And hats off to venues like ArtRat that are giving this kind of thing a shot! I’m very aware of the time and energy it takes to put on a good concert. …
You're a veterinarian as well as a musician. Is working with animal patients anything like working with an audience?
Ha! Well. Although I don’t find myself writing songs about my patients … I do think that music and medicine have some things in common. Both of them are problem-solving ventures. A medical case is often a puzzle that involves detective work to come to the solution. A song can be like that as well. A song often begins with a simple idea, and it takes problem-solving and detective work to figure out how that story will unfold, and what the conclusion will be. They are both creative ventures.
But I also like that I can do these two passions in my life, and have them be completely separate parts of me. When I’m working in the office, I don’t think much about music … And vice versa. This kind of gives my brain a break from each thing. Sometimes, after a day of work, I will come back to a problem in my song, and the fix suddenly appears. Whereas, if I had stared at that verse all day, I may never have figured it out. So I’ve come to trust in my songs coming in bits and pieces … sometimes just 15-minute sessions on my drive home from work. … In fact, some of my best Lines come from just driving here and there… The grocery store, the gas station …
And I hope saying this gives other people who perhaps have full-time jobs and kids and lives and all of that … but who have harbored dreams of being a songwriter … It can be done in the little moments in between. I am living proof of that.
What do you like about performing in downtown GR?
I LOVE playing in GR!
There’s a real love of the arts in Grand Rapids, certainly on full display with ArtPrize, and definitely a wonderful base of fans there who love live music and come out and support their local artists!