Celebrating the release of his debut solo album Profiles Friday and Saturday night at Tonic Room, I spoke with local songwriter Donnie Biggins about working outside of The Shams Band and balancing the workload between his duties as musician, promoter, venue owner, festival curator and father...
Well versed in the DIY work ethic that is typically associated with punk acts, but which also defines the folk music scene, Donnie Biggins is aware of the importance of wearing many hats.
Working with local folk/blues/rock quintet The Shams Band since 2009 taught him that it was in his best interests to learn how to book his band. So he started Harmonica Dunn in 2012, billing itself as "Chicago's most artist-friendly promoter."
Booking Lincoln Park's Tonic Room over the last four years taught him the value to a promoter in owning a venue. Now he both owns and books Tonic Room.
Somehow, Biggins was able to balance all of that alongside his duties as a father and still carve out time to record his debut solo album Profiles at Pieholden Suite Sound in Chicago. "I'm tired," he jokes.
Never shy about the influence of Wilco on his music, Biggins reveled in the wide array of instruments and recording equipment available at Pieholden - including a guitar that once belonged to former Wilco multi-instrumentalist, and Pieholden founder, Jay Bennett.
Flanked by Dan Ingenthron on bass and keyboards and Jamie Gallagher on drums, the Ryan Anderson produced sessions turned a batch of songs which spanned the better part of a decade into a fully realized album that traverses an array of genres like folk, blues, rock and roll and country. The end result of the lush instrumentation is a layer of sounds that's well produced and uniquely Pieholden.
As he gets ready to celebrate the release of Profiles Friday and Saturday night at Tonic Room, I spoke with Donnie Biggins about his first solo album, recording at Pieholden Suite, balancing his promotion work alongside owning a venue and curating the fifth installment of Dunn Dunn Fest which returns to Chicago clubs in February of 2017. A lightly edited transcript of that phone conversation follows below...
Q. You’ve recorded with The Shams Band since 2009. What made this the right time for your first solo album?
Donnie Biggins: Things kind of slowed down after 2012. We stopped touring and our show schedule slowed down a bit. Some of the other members got married and we were just busy with our individual lives. And that’s kind of when I was like, “Well, I think this is a good time.”
I could invest my time into making a solo record and doing some songs that weren’t necessarily made for the band but for myself.
Q. How long did you record at Pieholden Suite Sound?
Biggins: We did it over the course of a year. About a year and a half.
Q. I’ve heard you cite Wilco as an influence and, in the grand Jay Bennett tradition, that studio has so much different equipment. What was it like for you recording there and what kind of an impact did recording there have on the finished Profiles album?
Biggins: It was almost like a spiritual feeling.
On a few of the songs, I was using Jay Bennett’s guitar that has his name embroidered on it and everything. There’s paintings of him in the studio. It just creates a really good vibe for creativity and recording. You just kind of naturally think about him and think about Wilco and using some of that same equipment that they were using.
Q. I feel like I hear [Wilco's] Summerteeth (particularly "Nothing'severgonnastandinmyway (again)") in the production and keyboards of "A Mind That’s Been Lost" even though it’s a slower, more brooding affair. Were you going for that?
Biggins: You know, when I wrote that I was really into Harry Nilsson. I still am today. But I had that kind of in mind – just as a type of Nilsson song.
And we wanted to keep it just as simple as possible. That was just a one vocal, one piano take at the same time.
Q. There’s a lot of different musical styles represented on this album – from folk and blues to old rock and roll, even country - which makes me wonder how spread out the songwriting process was on this album. Are these songs all a more recent effort or have some been kicking around for a while?
Biggins: That’s kind of part of the reason we went with calling it Profiles. It’s kind of the last decade of my life, my twenties. I’ve gone through a lot of changes: going from being a young adult into becoming a pretty young father at 25. And how that changes your songwriting and your life lessons. I used to think that I would be a folk singer strictly and that’s all kind of changed with this.
When we recorded the record, we started off with only me and guitar. It was kind of a backwards way of recording the click track that way. But it gave us kind of the bare backbone of each song. And then we tacked on layers and ideas from there and built each track individually like that.
Q. What kind of freedom did the solo album allow you that maybe working within The Shams Band doesn’t?
Biggins: It was basically just opinions.
It was nice having… It was kind of my call on the end of everything. Ryan Anderson is the producer on the record and he definitely had a lot to do with the way that everything sounds. And he played a lot of instruments on it as well. But in the end he would always be like, “It’s your call. This is your record. It’s your name on it.”
So it was just the freedom of having that attitude towards it and being able to do what I wanted.
Q. This kind of goes toward the process of growing into adulthood that you just described. Lyrically, this album is extremely personal. Was it hard but necessary to go there?
Biggins: I wouldn’t say it was difficult. I just think it was a sign of maturity and growth within myself.
That’s kind of part of the reason we went with calling it Profiles. It’s kind of the last decade of my life, my twenties
Q. A song like “People Killing People," in the grand folk tradition that you're well versed in, seems like it could be referencing Laquan McDonald. Was it hard to write about something that’s so controversial in our city - something that's so important and yet at the same time can be very divisive?
Biggins; That was just an extremely emotional time for me when that all came out.
I just turned to music, myself, to kind of deal with what was happening and the treatment of African Americans in our city.
And it was kind of a therapeutic way for me to get through what was happening right in front of my face.
Q. A track like “No Cop Will Ever the Know The Truth” takes some humorous jabs at Logan Square. What’s behind that track?
Biggins: That one’s a pretty jokey song.
That was just kind of talking about misbehaving I would say. There’s some literal lines in there about my life and also some fibs.
Q. "Closer to You" has such a vintage, old rock and roll feel – particularly in the guitar playing and through those fantastic backing harmonies. It really kind of stuck out for me on Profiles because of that. Who were you channeling on that song or what were you going for on that cut?
Biggins: We were just going as Beatles as we could.
That song basically came out how we were imagining it. I wrote a simple pop song. Repetitive. To me, that’s always how a song sticks in your head: repetition.
I was just going straight forward with it and we didn’t lose that in the production of it either. Any time we were adding hand claps or what not, it was very deliberately done.
But that’s what we wanted with it – just a simple two and a half, three minute pop song. Straight rock and roll. Oldies. We just wanted a timeless feel on it.
Q. There’s some really beautiful organ playing on Profiles on a number of tracks (“Milshire Hotel” and “Yes, It’s Hard” kind of stick out). Who’s responsible for that?
Biggins: That is Dan Ingenthron. He’s credited on our listings. Dan’s playing a lot of the organs. On those two specifically, I believe it was Dan. Ryan also played a few different organs – a pump organ.
Those two guys are two musicians that can do anything. So they’re very versatile in a studio setting. Especially at Pieholden where they have every type of organ or guitar and thing you can imagine because it’s there to use.
Q. You keep your hands almost unreasonably full in your other endeavors in promotion via Harmonica Dunn, as a venue owner/booker at Tonic Room and as the curator of a festival in Dunn Dunn Fest. Were these avenues you were always looking to travel down or did they kind of pop up along the way almost more out of necessity?
Biggins: It just kind of keeps on happening to me in my life.
I majored in Physical Education in college… And then I was suddenly in a band. So I learned how to book the band and then I realized that I could make a career booking. Booking a venue I realized I should own all the liquor sales there to help myself out.
So it was kind of just like a snowball effect. I don’t know where it will end up but I just keep on learning. I’ve always been kind of a hands-on learner so I try to just keep going with it, take the risk and see what happens.
I don’t know where it will end up but I just keep on learning
Q. You cite as a focus in Harmonica Dunn’s mission statement changing “the artist-venue relationship to increase artist revenue and creative a positive experience for artists and fans.” It seems like that should be a pretty standard thing but I know, sadly, that it isn’t. How difficult has it been trying to go about that and how crucial did owning your own venue become to accomplishing it?
Biggins: I’ve owned [Tonic Room] since April but I’ve been the Talent Buyer there since 2012. It’s been an uphill battle. It’s been turning a dive bar with live music into a credible venue. Getting agents to work with me and what not has been tough. But it’s been working. So far my business plan has worked I would say.
There’s a lot of money that is taken away from artists at the door and in other ways. Sometimes that money is used to promote an actual show, sometimes it’s used to…
It’s none of my business what other people do with their money but what I have always done and tried to do since starting it was give artists 100% of their door after [my] one expense at Tonic Room which is for a Sound Engineer. When we hit a certain number, that expense is eliminated and the artists do get to walk away with 100% of everything that came in the door.
And that is my pitch all the time to the bands that I work with and to get touring acts through and basically to get more people to work with me. Because they’re going to walk with more money than they would from basically every other place within the capacity. And I just think that’s the fair treatment. That’s how I would want to be treated if I worked really hard to sell out a venue. I would want all of it. We did all the hard work so…
It’s difficult if I’m renting out a different room but people do realize that and they know that I’m not in control of that if it’s not my venue. And I think that’s why I have the same groups that always will continue to work with me because they know I’m not going to lie to them or mistreat them. I’ll get them what they want, we’re friends and it’s always been pretty positive.
Q. Well I saw the first Dunn Dunn Fest announcement for 2017 and it’s a fantastic double bill at Lincoln Hall featuring Mike Doughty and Wheatus. What else can fans look forward to this year?
Biggins: We are announcing the initial lineup on December 6th. It’s at Lincoln Hall, Schubas, Subterranean, Beat Kitchen, Hideout and Tonic Room. Eighteen shows will be getting announced next week.
I think it’s a really good, kind of taste-maker festival. I’m booking bands that you’re going to end up seeing in bigger spaces over time but you can see them now for $10 to $15. These are people that I’m confident in their talent. Their growth is going to happen. I just think that kind of comes with my profession: over time you get better at that and realizing that and seeing who they're working with or what the press is doing behind them.
I don’t really want it to get bigger per se. I would love to see my festival sold out all the time but I think it’s more just getting the word out as much as possible. It’s grown every year and if I just keep it up, I’m confident that it’s going to continue to grow in turn out and the word. So I like where it’s at. I don’t want to expand it anymore or take on more risk with it.
That goes the same with Tonic Room. We have a great residency every Tuesday – the Chicago Hootenanny. All the strong bluegrass and folky players of Chicago are coming out every Tuesday night for an open jam. It’s really good and community based. And the bar is always full of musicians. It’s just a nice community home for them and I think that people are pretty comfortable there.
Q. You're promoting your debut solo album yourself with a pair of shows at your own venue. That's pretty good. What can fans look forward to this weekend at Tonic Room?
Biggins: I hope people can come out. I’ll have vinyl for sale and everything else is just digital.
I’ve just been waiting a long time for this weekend so I’m happy that it’s here and I’m excited.
- Jim Ryan ( @RadioJimRyan )
(Details on Donnie Biggins' Friday and Saturday record release shows at Tonic Room below)
Donnie Biggins - Profiles Record Release Shows
Friday, December 2, 2016
Saturday, December 3, 2016
Doors open both nights at 8PM
Both shows start at 9PM
Friday: Martin Van Ruin, Falcor
Saturday: Fishpoole Lane
$10 each night (in advance)
$12 each night (at the door)
$17 for a two day pass
Click HERE to purchase tickets