Carsie Blanton and her band threw rent parties to stay afloat in the pandemic. Now they’re back with ‘Love & Rage’
The singer-songwriter is back in the Philly area, in a move she did not see coming.
When Carsie Blanton arrived in Philadelphia from New Orleans last March, she hadn’t intended to stay in the area. The singer-songwriter, known for a playful sense of humor and a strong political point of view, had plans for only a brief stopover.
Blanton, who had lived in Philly from the mid-2000s to 2012, had been back in town to rehearse with bandmates Joe Plowman and Patrick Firth before heading out for a busy year of concert dates.
But coronavirus shutdowns meant Blanton’s tour with her Handsome Band was over before it began. And instead of staying for a few days, Blanton wound up living at Plowman’s house in Germantown with the bass player and his wife for six months, and eventually moving back to the region for good.
And slowly, she came to realize that she’d written her song “So Long New Orleans” — a highlight of her tender and righteous new album, Love & Rage — “before I knew what the song was about.” The album is set for release April 30 on her own So Ferocious label.
“I thought that song was about how New Orleans is going to be gone because of global warming, and the city sinking into the sea,” Blanton says. “Later, I realized it’s about, me leaving.”
She and her husband, Jon Darvill, have settled into a house in central New Jersey. “The pandemic re-prioritized everything,” she says.
With playing live music an impossibility, Blanton realized she wasn’t going anywhere, and she needed to find a way to earn a living for herself and her band.
“I was like, all right, if I’m going to be in a pod, I”m going to be in a pod with my band, because otherwise I’m not going to be able to work on music. It just clarified where I need to be. I need to be around Philly.”
Blanton, 35, grew up on a Virginia farm, “unschooled” and “raised by hippies,” she says. Her parents sang John Prine songs to give her a musical education.
“My grandpa was really into jazz,” Blanton recalls. “He had lived in Chicago and used to go see Sidney Bechet play every week.” He gave her “every jazz CD he thought I might like for my 13th birthday. So those are the two musical streams I’m drawing from.”
Blanton is a subtle vocalist with a knack for conversational phrasing that’s grown more impressive, notably on 2019′s excellent Buck Up. It comes into focus on timeless Love & Rage songs such as “All My Love” and “Mercy,” not to mention her profane 2018 parody of the Ed Sheeran hit “Love Yourself.”
“I always think of us as a band of jazz players playing pop music,” she says.
Billie Holiday and Nina Simone are her favorite singers. “They figured out a way to really maximally communicate with the instrument they were given,” she says. “It’s not about being a virtuoso. Singing is about communication.”
Looking to sustain themselves when touring stopped, Blanton and band were inspired by jazz history. They started throwing monthly online rent parties, passing a digital hat in a modern update on a tradition that began in 1920s Harlem.
Blanton covers her own expenses through Patreon, the online service where she shares exclusive content to fans for a membership fee. But she needed another income stream to pay the band.
“It happened pretty organically,” she says. “The tour got canceled, and the immediate concern was, How am I going to survive? We can’t do gigs. So I was living with Joe” — who also performs with Philly jazz guitarist Marty Grosz — “and watching 100% of his income be canceled. So I said let’s do an internet show and see if we can raise money to make your rent?”
Since then, Blanton, Plowman, and Firth have done 13 donation-only rent parties, “and each time we’ve managed to raise enough to pay Joe and Pat’s rent.” A party slated for April 24 is the last one they have scheduled, although Blanton says they might continue after touring resumes.
The focus shifts
Blanton wrote most of Love & Rage before the pandemic, including the opening bacchanal “Party at the End of the World,” and “S- List,” which she calls “an antifascist anthem,” partly in response to the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. “I have a lot of songs about the feeling that the world is ending,” she says.
But as work on the album carried on, it focused more what was happening in Philadelphia. Its black-and-white artwork features pictures taken by photographer Isaac Scott at local Black Lives Matter protests following the police killing of George Floyd.
A line from “Down in the Streets” gives the album its name: “We’re gonna fight for all our friends in the up above, with all our rage and all our love.” It was written after the June 1 demonstrations where Philadelphia police teargassed protesters on I-676.
“That was the last song I wrote,” she says. “There’s always a song that’s sort of like the master thesis of the album.”
On that day, Blanton was protesting above the highway, while her brother was down below. “I had a bird’s-eye view watching him be gassed in the face, and then arrested. It was a fairly traumatic experience. Like, wow, suddenly we’re in a war zone.
“I went home and fried some fish. We ate the fish, and then I went and picked up my brother at the police precinct. When I got back home, I finished the song.”
Blanton, Plowman, and Firth worked on the album in Philadelphia, then drove to Los Angeles, sleeping at KOA campgrounds along the way, to work with producer Tyler Chester.
On the road again
Blanton has a few outdoor shows scheduled this summer, and an indoor tour is starting come together for the fall. A World Cafe Live show that has been rerescheduled “I think six times,” she says, is back on for Nov. 20.
She’s eager to return to the road for many reasons.
“The big thing I learned this year is that I’ve kept pretty busy for my whole life — by touring and making records, running all around the world and playing shows and meeting people — and it’s a really great job. But it’s also the main way that I manage my mental health, and I didn’t know that until I stopped.
“So, you know it’s been a hard year, and I lost two grandparents [both to COVID-19] and a dog as well. So there’s a lot of grief to process, and I don’t get to do all the stuff I used to do to try and stay happy.
“So I got a little garden going, I started therapy, and I’m trying to take care of myself,” she says. “But, man, I look forward to getting all my old coping mechanisms back.”