I Want Your Job: Michael Holt, House Concert Performer
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I Want Your Job: Michael Holt, House Concert Performer

How private concerts have opened doors for this local musician.

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Going to a Michael Holt concert isn’t as simple as just showing up at a bar or getting your ticket ripped at a concert hall. Holt, 47, is a pianist, vocalist and guitar player who specializes in house concerts—shows played in the intimacy of a host’s living room or backyard. “Rock clubs tend to start looking the same, while each house has the personality of the host,” he says.

A typical concert for Holt might include a potluck dinner, two 45-minute sets bookended by conversation, and time spent with his host. “It’s usually about fifteen people sitting in a circle in a living room,” he says. “Maybe some people are on the floor.” Holt, who moved to Toronto 16 years ago from the US, plays sessions with other musicians, creates scores for film and theatre, and composes arrangements for a genre called “chamber pop.” He’s also one of the founders and organizers of the annual House Culture event, which asks people to open their doors and host a neighbourhood or artistic event in their homes.

Our conversation with Holt—about how house culture impacts local economies, the smell of old beer, and how he finds all those living rooms—is below.

Torontoist: How did you get started as a musician? How did you make the transition from the American music scene to the Canadian one when you came here?

I’ve been playing music all my life. The transition to professional happened on Cape Cod, which is where my parents and family used to summer. I had musical buddies there when I was a kid, and we started playing little gigs here and there. I gradually transitioned into having bands as a teenager. My high school band [The Connotations] was pretty successful. We played CBGBs probably over 100 times. When I graduated, the band continued and we toured up and down the East Coast. We put out an album.

That led to more bands, and I had a few bands of my own, and then I joined a band called The Mommmyheads, which was based in San Francisco. We did a lot of touring all over Canada and North America, and were eventually signed to a major label. We played some large venues, where there were a thousand people at a show, and some festivals. I’ve been in that band off and on since 1990.

On tour in Toronto, with the Mommyheads, I met a woman I ended up falling in love with and marrying, and when The Mommyheads broke up at the end of the ’90s, I moved to Toronto to be with her. We’re still friends, and once I was in Toronto, it was quick and easy to meet great musicians and play with them and start recording. I was excited to move to Toronto because of two musicians in particular: Ron Sexsmith and Bob Wiseman, who were both big inspirations to me. Shortly after moving here, I met the drummer for the Rheostatics, and we became great friends and we made records together.

How did you decide to focus on house concerts exclusively?

Playing in rock clubs was always a mixed experience for me. Sometimes it was amazing and sometimes it was awful. The real change happened when I started focusing on my own music as a solo artist. When The Mommyheads broke up [in 1998; the band reunited in 2008], I started playing my own songs and doing solo shows. I found that, as a solo artist but also with my own music, which was more sensitive than just rock, it required a more sensitive environment, where people were more engaged. When I played my first house concert, I was like, Ah, this is what I’ve been looking for.

There was a period where I was doing both. My first few tours as a solo artists, I did play conventional venues like bars and cafes and even festivals, but it was the house concerts that I loved. Then there was this one gig at a bar in Belgium, where I was attempting to play my music and everyone was drunk and having a million conversations. I said to myself, I’m not doing this anymore. I’d had a lot of great house concerts on that tour, and the path was clear. That led to not only booking my own tours, but also trying to spread the gospel of house concerts for other people’s benefit.

You seem to view house concerts as an important part of political activism and community building. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Culture in the home inevitably becomes more participatory for everyone involved, and the connections between culture makers and culture consumers are more intimate. The line between the maker and consumer starts to blur, so that everyone is making culture together. The host who invites people to something, to a book club, or a games night, or a clothing swap, or a house concert, is making culture. That’s empowering for people. It results in a different kind of culture than what’s spoon-fed to us from big media corporations, and something that’s more vital and alive than what’s happening on the internet. That’s the biggest reason I think it’s political and subversive.

I was reading a book called The End of Growth, about the global economy. A lot of people are aware, on some level, of the unsustainability of our economy. We had a taste of that in 2008. A neighbourhood is just a place, but a community is connectedness. The place where I have a contribution to make is arts and culture, and I think hanging out together and having fun together is a really good way to build connections.

There’s also a lower carbon footprint, generally. If 20 people go across town to various half-filled clubs and theatres for their entertainment, that all have big sound systems and lights? But if they stay home, just to watch TV, then each of those homes need to be heated. That’s the worst! [laughs] But if they go to one person’s living room, they will probably have a lower carbon footprint. I wanted to green my neighbourhood, and I thought that getting people together into each other’s homes would be the first steps in building activist political connections.

What are some of the challenges that come with performing in people’s homes? I’m thinking about logistics, like “what if they don’t have a piano?” to the emotional vulnerability to being right up close with your audience.

Really, for me, the reason I started doing house concerts is that they removed most of the difficulties of performing in a public venue. It’s like night and day for me. I used to have to make posters and get in touch with press, and work the whole music industry system. Now the host just invites their friends and family, and it’s easy to get a good crowd that way. I don’t have to worry about accommodation or meals to eat. The environments are comfortable and nice to be in, whereas when you’re playing bars and clubs, you get so sick of the smell of rancid beer. It’s more money for me, because people are getting an experience that’s more interactive, emotional, and intense, and they tend to pay more for that experience. And in most cases, the host is so happy to provide this opportunity for their guests that they feed them and provide drinks, so people don’t have to buy those things. That leaves more money for me.

The first time I performed a house concert, I was freaked out by the intimacy. I’ve seen that in other first-time house concert performers as well. But I embraced it, and I’ve seen that happen for other performers during their performances. A persona doesn’t really make sense in that environment, so you drop it and realize that it’s so much nicer to drop it. It’s so much nicer to just to be yourself.

What about the financial aspect of this? We think of concerts as being publicly accessible money-makers, so how do private house concerts work from a financial perspective?

They’re done in different ways. In Canada, there’s a thing called Home Routes, which is a booking agency with lots of contacts with these regular hosts, and they’ll book artists on tours with them. Hosts usually charge a set admission fee, which is often quite steep—like, $20 per person—and you have to make reservations in advance. Those are a little less interactive and informal-feeling, and the artist makes a great deal of money.

I’ve tried, but I never really broke into any of those scenes. My style is much more grassroots, and most of my hosts are people who are doing it for the first time. I just go to my friends and contacts and just say, “Hey, can I play a show in your living room?” And then we just pass the hat. I make more than I would at clubs, but I don’t make that much.

I do most of my performances on tour, not in Toronto. I’ve been touring more and more, and last year, my big tour was four months. The longer I go out, the more money I make. I sublet my place here, and everything I make goes into my pocket. Being on tour feeds and accommodates me. When I think about wanting my job, the touring is the most fun and the part of my lifestyle that I’m proudest of, and people seem to be inspired by adventures on the road.