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Stories from Backstage

Q&A With Austin Musician Scott Strickland

Austin musician Scott Strickland is gaining notoriety for his big voice and budding songwriting talent. Having recently performed as part of SIMS’ live streamed concert series ‘Sofa Sessions’, we asked Scott a few questions about his music career, mental health routine, and the under-representation of Black musicians in Austin.

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Tell us a bit about how you arrived here in the Austin music scene.

My wife and I moved to Austin in 2012. I was working on a documentary project that was getting off the ground and wanted absolutely nothing to do with music. During my time in graduate school at Stephen F. Austin studying film and making my feature film thesis I had also toured around Texas with a country singer and was starting to take my singer/songwriter endeavors more seriously. But after that tour I was exhausted and just got completely burned out from playing music.

In 2013 I went to the Continental Gallery and saw Ephraim Owens and Tameca Jones. That awakened something in me and I felt so very inspired to at least see what I could do musically. Shortly after, I went to an open mic at Irie Bean Coffee on South Lamar in Austin, and a little while later I went to do an open mic at Speakeasy on Congress. They asked me to come back that next week for a paid show. That’s the spark that got me started in Austin.

What’s the Austin music scene experience like for a Black musician?  What kind of artists and venues should people know about?  

Austin Music is a very segregated scene. You used to find a very bluesy and R&B Soulful scene on the east side. Dozen Street was home to black musicians in Austin, including Butter and Jam, where a lot of black patrons would come to see a Jam band play until 2 in the morning – on a Wednesday. I think every single person in this town could have learned something from the sounds that band was putting out.

There was nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing like that in Austin. You’d have to go to Houston or New Orleans to find anything close. Meo, who I’ve played with and had some incredible experiences with as a drummer, told me the week for Black musicians started on Wednesday, went through the week, and ended with their church gigs on Sunday.

R&B is one of the most underrepresented genres in Austin music, and R&B is one of the absolute hardest genres to play because it’s not a basic chord 4 chord structure at all. Alesia Lani is a great sort of mainstream example of that. But there are great artists out there like Sam Howden (who played trumpet in my band for a show) who has a great touch and feel to R&B music. The problem is genres other than Pop and Rock get no, and I mean zero attention from mainstream Austin Music. Also Worldbeat music, come to find out is kind of offensive to multicultural musicians who all get blended into this category – created by a White person.

Sadly, there are no venues making sure that Black Musicians are being represented – but I think that’s the tip of the iceberg. The problem is that the same tastemakers that hustled their way to notoriety will often get referrals from others in their communities – none of which represent minorities. The game is clicks, views, vanity metrics. And many musicians, especially musicians of color just don’t have the resources to attract those people in Austin. When you look at the venue owners, the newspapers, the radio stations, the promoters – they are very accustomed to continue to promote the same music year after year, keeping those that have been in the spotlight, continuously in the spotlight, extremely reluctant to take a chance on an unknown artist that doesn’t have representation because again – that representation is extremely expensive. Austin Music has an opportunity to create a tectonic shift in how music is represented – not only in this city, but around the world if they want to do so.

What role has mental health played in your life, especially late? 

Paramount. I have a therapist and have since the world locked down. I have a workout regiment. I meditate. I do yoga. All of this helps get me way from crunching the numbers, the humming of hard drives, computers, the idiosyncrasies that come with trying to write the perfect song. I’m 36 now and I’ve taken more time to work on myself than I ever have. There is no escaping the chaos that COVID-19 has caused, or the systematic racism you see when turning on the news or scrolling through my Facebook feed every day.

I’ve had to create my own work schedules, my own regiments, and thusly creating my own normal and getting some semblance of my own harmony and peace. There’s nowhere to go. There’s no friends to see. There’s just you, sitting in a room, working it out, occasionally a solitary walk in the park trying to make sense of a new kind of normal.

What unique mental health circumstances do Black people face that people should know about to be better mental health supporters?

Everyone has their own issues they are dealing with. Everyone is hurting and struggling. I think the nomenclature needs to shift from what African Americans need to what SIMS can do to provide resources affecting systematic income and inequality that is happening in Austin. African Americans are the canary in the coal mine. And the Austin Music scene in particular, based on stories I’ve heard and what I’ve experienced – is more sexist than it is racist. It is extremely expensive to be poor, and it takes a miracle to escape the gravity of those situations.

There is undoubtedly a lot of anger in the black community. I am angry. But I understand that a lot of people of all races are facing the same exact challenges. There is also acknowledgment that African Americans are plagued with anxiety, wondering if a run in with the police is going to result in the end of their life. Black artists in particular are in a very unique place – not having any work, and being afraid to go work elsewhere and exposing ourselves to COVID-19 because a lot of the underlying conditions exacerbate COVID and these underlying conditions in the Black community are mostly hereditary. I’m lucky. I put money away at the end of last year for the first time ever, so I’m coasting on that and unemployment. But I’m lucky. Not everyone has that.

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