The “How Does a New Orleans Musician Work?” Transcript

Read what Adam Davidson asked singer-songwriter Sarah Quintana about her workday.

Sarah Quintana
Sarah Quintana.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo courtesy of Sarah Quintana.

We’re posting weekly transcripts of Season 2 of Slate’s Working podcast for Slate Plus members. This season’s host is Adam Davidson, the co-founder and host of NPR’s Planet Money podcast. What follows is the transcript for Episode 6, which features Sarah Quintana, a New Orleans–based musician. To learn more about Working, click here.

In addition to the transcripts, we’ve added some other Slate Plus perks for Season 2 of Working. The members-only version of each podcast will feature a short Slate Plus extra, and we’re also allowing members early access to the podcast—look for it to publish on Sundays. The nonmember version will publish on Mondays.

You may note some differences between this transcript and the podcast. Additional edits were made to the podcast after we completed this transcript.

Adam Davidson: What’s your name and what do you do for a living?

Sarah Quintana: My name is Sarah Quintana, and I’m a musician.

Davidson: Great, and we are—right now we’re in New Orleans. We’re actually doing this interview out on the street because one thing we learned is that a musician has a very busy life, and it was hard just to find a time and a place to meet.

Quintana: That’s correct, and also in New Orleans most places have live music, so if you find a place to meet you might be dancing.

Davidson: Right. So, what do you play? What kind of music? What do you do, and what kind of music do you do it with?

Quintana: I play guitar and I have a background in jazz. And for the past three years I’ve been going singer-songwriter and making more creative music with a variety of medium.

My latest project is making music with water, and I have a lot of fun playing with other improvisers and bridging the gap between composed music and soundscapes with water.

Davidson: And the reason I wanted to talk to you is, being in New Orleans walking around Frenchmen Street and walking around the French Quarter, there’s so many musicians around it’s almost hard to believe how many musicians.

And I was talking to some folks and they’re like, “You can actually make a living as a musician here in New Orleans,” and I was curious about how that works.

So, what do you do to make money as a musician?

Quintana: I think the most important thing is to become a part of the community, and one way is to learn the songs that people are playing and to start sitting in.

I started playing music out by being a jazz vocalist and playing rhythm guitar in different jazz bands, and that gave me my foot in the door with the clubs and also helped guide me along when I was deciding as an artist what kind of music I wanted to make.

It’s very fun to play jazz and to go play on the street or to become a part of this huge web of music. And especially if you’re doing Americana or traditional music, New Orleans is a great place.

Davidson: So, what do you do each week? Do you have regular gigs? What do you actually do to make the money?

Quintana: I have a few regular gigs in town, which is really nice. It’s so nice that your fans know where they can find you. And I’m also playing original music, so I don’t have as many regular gigs say as when I was singing jazz covers and doing the jazz clubs in the French Quarter. But I have nice gigs that I feel very happy and at home in.

I also spend time booking myself in summer tours in France, and I’m a sideman in a few different bands. So, it’s not uncommon for someone to call me and just have me come sing a few or play guitar in a different band, even though it’s not my own project.

And then I also raise money through crowdsourcing and have an album up on Kickstarter.

So, I feel like I’m really on the cusp of this, like, jazz singer-songwriter thing, but there’s so many different ways that you can make money with music in a place like New Orleans. And also just, you know, many revenue streams if you get into writing and composing, I think, too.

Davidson: So, was there a moment where you had to choose between singing jazz standards and being a good commercial property, and pursuing your own artistic vision?

Quintana: Personally, yes.

I don’t think that’s the case for everybody, but I started wanting to play my own music so much that even on my jazz gigs I would play it. I got requests to not play my own music and to play the Top 100, “Basin Street Blues,” “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

And I just decided pretty much that Bourbon Street was, you know, my early 20s and I was ready to pursue music in a different way, and that it meant something more to me than just money.

So, I definitely decided.

I also felt like I was developing bad habits on gigs from being in those club settings where musicality and creativity aren’t really the priority, and it hasn’t been as easy to make a living. I definitely do a few side jobs and really pray that my Kickstarter will get funded.

But I’m much happier to put my 100 percent into what I’m doing instead of to pretend that I enjoy singing jazz standards. Which, I do enjoy certain ones that I have a connection to and I love making people happy, so I’ll always play a song if someone requests it, but I really love my own songs and my own conviction about that.

Davidson: And so, let’s talk for a minute about the jazz standard world.

So, those are—you walk down Bourbon Street and it’s just, every window is open and you’re playing songs, and I’m not particularly expert in jazz music and I feel like I recognize every single song that I’m hearing walking down the street. So, it’s a tourist crowd, it’s not a music-loving crowd. It’s people who are going out to drink and they want to have a New Orleans experience, and in their mind that’s like, a Louis Armstrong song or some song that they’ve heard before.

Is that what that commercial product is?

Quintana: I think it happens even outside of Bourbon Street and even outside of the city, because oftentimes in France people will request “St. James Infirmary” or famous songs, “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” And it’s fun to play into that mythology. It’s definitely a part of who I am—I’m from here. But more and more I feel distant to the Frenchmen Street and to the idea of making a living here by selling an idea to the tourists, even though I appreciate that.

And my personal favorite jazz bands around have a lot of depth and a lot of discrimination about what type of tunes they plan and who they’re channeling. It’s really possible to put together a band and do great covers.

Personally I just—when I put together a band, I ended up doing my original material and veering away from jazz just kind of organically, because that’s what I spent more time and that’s how I learned more about music, through improvising and composing.

And for some people, like, they just want to be the Sidney Bechet of today and master that style.

So, New Orleans is a place of such dynamic mastery of many, many aspects of jazz, and you can find it all here. If you’re looking for somebody that plays a beautiful Louis Armstrong style trumpet, or even contemporary jazz on the guitar scene—we have one of the world’s finest bebop and swing guitar scenes. And it’s such a thrill. You can just go see these guys play every night—and gals, too.

Davidson: Yeah, it’s hard to convey how exciting for me Frenchmen Street is.

I mean, Bourbon Street to me feels like kind of a nightmare. It’s just drunks—I mean, literally I saw a guy with a plastic fishbowl around his neck, like, tied with a cord with a straw filled with alcohol, just—it was the most disgusting thing in the world. And it smells, and it’s gross, and it—

And then Frenchmen Street for me, it was like, every bar it was a level of expertise and virtuosity in music. Some felt really old, some felt really fresh and exciting.

So to me there’s something so exciting and alive about that scene. It felt unique in the world.

Quintana: Sure. I think it’s a really important comparison, to look at Bourbon Street and Frenchmen Street, and when you see all of these amazing musicians hopping from club to club and get this experience, you really gain an appreciation for the community-building that went on after Katrina.

It’s amazing, it’s a miracle that we have so many young, amazing, talented people and such a lovely community, and it is one of the most precious things. And I’m so happy to be a part of it. And I’m also just kind of like, outside of it, because I’m from here, so I’ve seen Frenchmen Street go from a quaint little rundown kind of older crowd of like, papas playing jazz, to this like, vibrant, young, slightly commercial—everyone fears it will become the Bourbon Street.

And I think that’s part of the cycle of things, but I’m also really happy to—at least from my perspective being in my 20s when all of this is happening, instead of like, my grandma’s age or something—I’ve gotten to experience so much of the world through all of the musicians that have moved to New Orleans since Katrina, and it’s really fun.

I almost know only musicians, which is crazy, but there’s just so many. And it doesn’t—it doesn’t feel strange to be a musician. It’s very normal to go traveling, to have erratic hours, to have a bunch of money one day and then to have none the next.

Or to just be completely absorbed in a project. I’m really grateful that I have such stellar examples of like, what the ups and downs of a true creative life are, and not in a way that’s like, Hollywood or L.A., but more based on the seasons and evacuating for Katrina, or these kind of like—I don’t know, New Orleans is called the “Big Easy” for a reason, and I do think you stay connected to a certain aspect of like, your creative life here, that you might not keep if you were focused on commercializing your music or “making it.”

Davidson: How often do you play music in a week, like, in front of an audience?

Quintana: Personally, three times a week. And I kind of set that myself. I’m not someone who wants to be out in the clubs late every night, I’d rather have a few nights off to go dancing, and I play my gigs earlier, and I do singer-songwriter stuff almost exclusively like my art, instead of singing jazz right now, which I might have to change.

But for now it’s pretty cool.

Davidson: Why would you have to change it?

Quintana: Because I’m broke and I really want to make a new album.

Davidson: So, to not be broke what would that involve?

Quintana: Probably singing jazz standards for a club gig.

What I’m working on is more like crafting my art. So, I know that sounds silly and maybe a little bit snobby, but I’m kind of holding out and just hoping that my Kickstarter will get funded and that I can find a home for my new record.

Davidson: Do you play on the street sometimes?

Quintana: I have in the past. It’s very fun with a band and it’s OK solo.

I’ve done it quite a bit, and that’s how I got my start. Most definitely, every single musical connection I’ve ever made in my life has come from playing on the street.

Davidson: Tell me about that. How old were you when you started playing on the street?

Quintana: I was 20 and I was living in France, and I discovered that I could make money. And I could just go out drinking beer, and buy my friends pizza, and I was like, “Oh my gosh! Who cares about getting a regular job? I’m going to sing these songs that I know.”

And then I started working with the Jazz Manouche group, and that went over really well. And then I started singing with a few of the bands, the Cyclown Circus and the New Orleans Moonshiners here in New Orleans when I moved back from France.

And then I just shifted into writing singer-songwriter stuff and trying to write good tunes, and thinking about my career. And all of a sudden I was doing my taxes and putting up things on a website, and all this really boring stuff happened, like interest rates.

But it’s really cool how this like, little spark of passion—and also wanting to be a part of the scene here in New Orleans—helped me grow up in a really interesting way and find a career path.

Davidson: So, you would play on the street and then you’d see other musicians playing on the street, and then you’d say, “Hey, should we play together?” Is that how you got to know people?

Quintana: I’d like, come with a guitar and sit in and learn tunes.

Davidson: Like, literally just walk up to some folks playing on the street?

Quintana: But also you kind of know the tunes, you know?

And you can just still just walk up to somebody and be like, “Hey, could I play with you?” Except some groups are a little more organized. So, when I played on the street I was usually in a group and that helped, because there’s definitely street politics there.

And I do know quite a bit of people, and I’m happy to sing a few tunes here and there. But mostly what you do is like, get a band together, or someone will need a singer or a guitar player, and you know the style and you know the tunes or you can read the charts. And then you just do them.

Davidson: And you can make a living like, a band of four people on the street?

Quintana: You can make a living, a band of 12 people on the street. Many people do. You can make great money, especially if you have CDs to sell and you have a great singer and draw a crowd. Yeah.

Davidson: Wow, like, 12—you could make more than $100 each in a day and that—

Quintana: Yeah, for sure, if you have a spot from like, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. You can do pretty well. With a bigger band you draw more people and more attention—so that’s an advantage.

I play guitar and sing, and I’ve been very fortunate that I can do little coffee shop gigs and things like that by myself and have a few people accompany me. It’s really nice.

But you do what works, and I think certain groups find their thing and their way of drawing a crowd and making it work. You know, usually CDs really help too, and you have a good way to hustle the CDs.

Davidson: Right. What’s a good way to hustle the CDs?

Quintana: Well, I really like what Ben Schenck of Panorama Jazz Band says. He says, “Tips spelled backwards is spit, but don’t spit in this bucket!”

Davidson: That’s funny. He was great.

Quintana: He’s awesome, yeah.

Davidson: So, I feel like the things I’m interested in are the opposite of the things you’re interested in.

Quintana: Probably.

Davidson: The way I would think about your economic choices, it seems like there’s sort of a slow and steady, and reasonably reliable way to make an OK income—

Quintana: For sure.

Davidson: But then the singer-songwriter route from a—I mean, there’s the creative part and the passion part—but from an economic standpoint, it’s a much wider range. Like, it’s a riskier proposition. You have a much bigger upside potential. You’re not going to become a superstar or have your own recording contract or something just playing on the street or doing jazz standards on Bourbon Street. But so, you could as a singer-songwriter really establish a name for yourself and your own income stream, or you could just not do well, right?

Quintana: Yeah, I know. I don’t know what I’m thinking. And it’s really nice. I don’t think of jazz or like, being a jazz vocalist as a background plan at all. It’s something that’s been really important to me and that I had to do, and that I’m really lucky I did it because I paid for all these lovely things.

But then I just wanted to write my own music, and I really love writing tunes, and I really love playing guitar, and I couldn’t hide that. I felt like, really sad actually, when I realized I wasn’t going to be a jazz singer, because I had wanted it for so long.

Davidson: Really, that was sad?

Quintana: I was sad, yeah. I wrote a song about it.

Davidson: Really? What’s the song?

Quintana: It’s called “Cut Flower,” and it’s a tribute to the jazz singers who wore cut flowers in their hair, and who sing for the day before their color fades away.

Davidson: Wow!

Quintana: Yeah, but it just—it just wasn’t me.

I think it’s more important to be authentic and to find, you know, even if things are risky—like, to find a way to do things with integrity that’s uplifting to everybody. Like, an archetype of the jazz singer to me was something that I just couldn’t honestly wear, and I’m not that good at singing sultry, sexy songs.

And the way that I find sensuality and like, romance is through my own like, experiences and the way I convey them in my own words. So, I’m pretty happy about it. I hope my album gets funded, and if it doesn’t I don’t know what I’m doing. I just don’t.

Davidson: So, I think my last question. So, I—my parents are artists and I grew up in a world where everybody—all the adults were adults, and I dealt with that by becoming a financial reporter and making sure I always had a steady income. Because it was hard as a kid to have—I mean, I’m thrilled my parents are artists and I love artists—but it was hard as a kid to have that kind of fluctuating income. And looking at older artists, I think—like, when you’re 29 you can absorb a degree of uncertainty and even some hungry nights where you’re bugging your friends for—you know, going over to a friend’s house at dinnertime just by coincidence.

But where I would get nervous is thinking out 20 years from now and what your life would be like at that time. Do you think about think about that, the economics of middle age, of old age, of having a family?

Quintana: I do. I actually think artists think about money quite a bit. My mom is an accountant, so I’m the inverse, and I really love that my parents get to see me sing and enjoy vicariously my crazy travels and stories, and hear them in song from.

I feel so infinitely special that like, my aunt and all my little cousins and my grandma know the words to my songs. It’s so cool. I have no regrets about it. I don’t worry that much at all, but I also see myself doing other things and loving other things, and I want to have a family.

Davidson: And it does work. Like, most of the adults I know, it worked. Like, I didn’t mean to freak you out. I just—

Quintana: No, I’m not freaked out. Maybe my mom wishes I was a little more freaked out, but I’m just—I have like, no—I don’t know. I don’t know why I’m not worried. I’m not. I kind of have to do it. If I don’t do it I would feel like, why even be alive? So, if it’s what you live for you don’t really have a choice.