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Q&A: Jennifer Gilson, Co-Owner of the Living Room


(Editors Note: I interviewed Jennifer Gilson last year for another publication that since folded. Since the article was never published, I thought it’d be helpful for local musicians to know what she looks for when booking acts at the Living Room.)

For over a decade, New York’s the Living Room has been known as an intimate place to witness live music. Co-owner Jennifer Gilson explained that she decided to open the venue shortly after her waitressing job at Sin-é ended when the café closed. The Irish café, famous for where Jeff Buckley performed and recorded Live at Sin-é, booked many musicians, some of who suggested Gilson open her own venue.

“Sin-é had a really low, intimate stage so I decided to keep that. That’s sort of what worked. Artists used to say, ‘This is great. I feel like I’m playing in my living room.’ That’s why I ended up calling it the Living Room,” Gilson said.

While the Living Room boasts well known and emerging talent, Gilson says she likes to maintain a comfortable, friendly atmosphere and on any given night you can expect to hear good music. With that said, she has some suggestions for bands hoping to land a slot on the Living Room stage and explains what she looks for before she books an act. Heed her advice below.

1. Don’t send elaborate press kits.

“It’s funny. People used to mail big press kits with their folders, head-shots and bios, sometimes with ribbons. What I would always do is put them to the side and just get my stack of CD’s and start listening. That’s what I do first: I listen to the music. I don’t see if they’re being signed or they can bring a million people or they’re friends with somebody. First it’s the music,” she said.

“If it’s something I like that I think would be great here, then I look into it further and I’ll listen to another song and go from there and see what an appropriate time for them to play might be. Another thing is I’ll listen to it and think, ‘Would I enjoy sitting through 45 minutes of this artist?’ Sometimes you can tell in a measure and sometimes you can tell by the second song.”

2. Sound good.

This might seem obvious, but Gilson explained this is crucial before she decides to book an act. An artist must sing in pitch, be able to play his instrument and have good lyrics. “I’ll love something that’s solo guitar straight folk and I’ll also love something that has a toy piano and some weird synth stuff and cool percussion. I don’t book one style of music, but it has to be good by my standards.”

3. Be honest about your draw.

“If you don’t really have an audience yet, try to go to open mics or play places that don’t require a larger audience and then build it up. If you say you can bring a certain number of people and then you don’t, we’re probably not going to want to rebook you,” she said.

But, if you are honest and Gilson feels you’re still a great fit for the venue she says “maybe we’ll do something at a time that doesn’t require you bringing a lot of people.” Their upstairs space, Googies Lounge, has a smaller capacity and an artist can play there to build his audience and eventually move downstairs to the bigger room.

4. Know the venue’s standards.

“To play at the Living Room you have to play at a particular volume. I have a rule with the staff and sound that if you feel like you have to put something in your ears, then it is too loud and you probably can’t hear the lyrics and you can’t hear the lead singer,” Gilson said. “Why should you protect a part of your body when you go out to have fun? It’s just not necessary and it’s more about good sound. If you have to play loud, then a rock club is probably more your place.”

5. Promote the show.

Once you land that gig, you have to do your own self promotion. “You have to bring people because whether it’s a show that has a cover or whether it’s one of our $10 suggested donation tip jar shows, we need people to buy drinks so we can pay our rent,” she said. “It’s not all about the bodies. First it’s about the music, but you have to get people in.”

Artist of the Week Band of the Week

Band of the Week: Howlin Rain

Described as “A psychedelic cocktail of Crosby, Stills and Nash, the Faces, the Damned and author Raymond Carver” by Rolling Stone, Howlin Rain is no doubt a band to watch. Their upcoming release, The Russian Wilds, is a captivating mix of solid rock & roll with Southern and jam band influences. With minute long instrumental interludes, striking vocals and captivating percussion and guitar accompaniment, Howlin Rain grabs the listener.

The San Francisco quintet’s third LP, The Russian Wilds embodies all the components of a standout album. Each track offers a new side to the band and whether it’s ear-grabbing vocals, impressive guitar riffs or impeccable percussion parts, it’s nearly impossible to not hit that repeat button.

“There was a point when we were really trying to blend Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, Steely Dan’s Gaucho and Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness On The Edge of Town,” says frontman Ethan Miller. “There’s a sense of audacity to these records — a band chasing down strong, invisible connections — and there’s moments like that on our record. We didn’t always do the smartest or safest things.”

The standout “Phantom In the Valley” blends genres with distinct rock influence at the song’s start before a Latin flavor with horn features and seductive vocals enter mid-track. As soaring vocals that bring to mind Queen crescendo five minutes in, it is evident that Howlin Rain are in a league of their own.

Listen to “Phantom In the Valley” on SoundCloud here.

Able to transition from the high energy rock numbers to ballads effortlessly, songs like “Strange Thunder” showcase the band’s more serious side. With ethereal vocals by Miller, delicate guitar strumming and light percussion for five minutes, the nearly nine minute track picks up mid-song with powerful guitar riffs, a heavier bass component and surprisingly forceful vocals. Likewise, the mostly instrumental “…Still Walking, Still Stone” embodies jazz elements with a beautiful piano introduction, soothing background vocals and impressive guitar chops.

A versatile album, Howlin Rain’s The Russian Wilds is due for release February 14. About to kick off their tour, Howlin Rain performs next week in New York. Catch them February 7 at Mercury Lounge and February 8 at Brooklyn Bowl. For more on the band and complete tour dates, visit their Website.

I have a pair of tickets for their intimate, invite-only acoustic set at The Living Room in New York City on Monday, February 6. To enter for your chance to win, e-mail me the answer to the below question. Good luck!

What band was Ethan Miller in when he started Howlin Rain?

Concert Reviews

Ryan Bingham Showcases Songs From Upcoming LP

Ryan Bingham performed to a packed crowd at New York’s famed Living Room venue on Wednesday night. The private event featured the Oscar winner alone onstage with nothing but his acoustic guitar, harmonica and powerful vocals. For those in attendance, that was enough.

Before his set began, a pamphlet of lyrics to the songs from his upcoming September 7 release, Junky Star, was passed out. Artist Kiki Smith then introduced Ryan with immense praise.

“We’re here to celebrate Ryan Bingham. The wounded part of him that he sings about gives me the opportunity to heal myself. For me, that is very powerful,” she said.

For my complete review, visit The Boot.

Concert Reviews

Matthew Perryman Jones’ Intimate Performance at New York’s Living Room

With his deep voice and welcoming stage presence, Matthew Perryman Jones entertained all in attendance during an intimate, candle-lit performance Thursday night at the Living Room. The singer-songwriter performed a 50-minute set showcasing songs from his most recent release, Swallow the Sea, as well as older fan favorites.

While some may recognize Jones from his song, “Save You,” featured on popular television shows “Private Practice” and “Kyle XY,” his set Thursday night proved that he is a versatile performer and one that is sure to be around for some time. Not quite a newcomer, Jones’ third full-length album has been receiving much praise and from the audience’s response, he has been leaving a lasting impression on concertgoers.

Thursday’s set opened with Jones alone on guitar for “Feels Like Letting Go” before the rest of his band joined in. At times, his vocals vaguely reminded me of a mellow version of Dave Grohl, maybe what the Foo Fighters would sound like if their music was made up entirely of acoustic ballads.

Singer-songwriter Kate York joined Jones onstage for a few numbers throughout the night, including “Without a Clue” – a song York and Jones co-wrote together. A bit faster than “Feels Like Letting Go,” their voices blended well together. “Sinking Wishes,” from his last album, Throwing Punches In the Dark, Jones explained as, “A song about chasing after somebody.” With lyrics like, “I’m taking a chance to find what’s real inside/I’m taking a chance this time on you/I’ve got nothing to lose” he got his point across.

“When It Falls Apart,” a catchy song co-written with musician Katie Herzig who performed later that night, showcased Jones’ deeper vocals. The keyboard accompaniment and light drumming only strengthened the performance. Watch a performance of “When It Falls Apart” below.


Possibly the most diverse song of the night was “Motherless Child,” a spiritual song from hundreds of years ago, reinterpreted by Jones. “This is a really old song that I fell in love with and it found a place within me,” he told the crowd. Definitely an edgier song than his previous within the set, “Motherless Child” is a song that has the power to change the temperature in the room. One of his favorite tracks on his latest record, Jones has described the song as having a certain “haunted feeling and anger” to it. Extremely well structured, the song showcases a perfect blend between the dark instrumental interludes and Jones’ somber lyrics. Check out a video for “Motherless Child” below to see for yourself.


“Refuge” was another song that resonated with the crowd. From his last record, Jones said the song was written about a time in his life “when I felt like I was going crazy.” Alternating from acoustic to electric guitar, you could feel the confusion in Jones U2-esque vocals and musical makeup. Closing the night with infamous song, “Save You,” Jones informed fans that while he had to leave for Nashville right after the show, he’ll be back to New York in December. From the response of the audience, I think they’ll be back to see him too.

Be sure to check back next Tuesday for my Q&A; with Matthew Perryman Jones!