In many ways, the modern indie artist is diametrically opposed to the standard “working musician.” One toils away on original music and only plays consistently when on tour, with years sometimes separating shows in a given city. The other’s income is usually tied to playing as much as possible in a particular location, often performing two or three gigs in a single day in the grind to make a living.
Micah McKee, singer/songwriter/guitarist of local indie-folk/Americana act Little Maker, sees compelling ways to live a musical life in both paths. Bucking the trends of most indie artists, McKee eschews touring and sparse local shows in favor of two residencies in his hometown of New Orleans: every Thursday at the Blue Nile on Frenchmen Street with Little Maker, and most Sundays at Circle Bar for a songwriter showcase where McKee invites friends to flesh out song ideas.
McKee feels he lives in a city uniquely qualified for a more rigorous gig schedule. “New Orleans is not like Austin or New York. You really can play regularly and turn over good crowds here,” says McKee. “Kermit Ruffins does it. Rebirth does it. There are bands that gig a lot in the city, and they do pretty well. If all these brass and jazz and funk bands could do it, why can’t an indie rock band do it? The only thing that separates us from those guys is genre. That’s it. Yet there’s this huge phobia with indie rock bands playing too much. If we can get over the stigma of oversaturation, I think a lot of really cool stuff could happen.”
Not only does McKee see an opportunity with a working musician’s gig schedule, but he also sees benefits for Little Maker. “We’re a band of folks that have a lot of other commitments and are in other bands, so going on tour 100 or 200 days out of the year is simply not feasible,” says McKee. “But when we do tour, I talk to people after we’ve been on the road a couple of days and they say it sounds like we have been playing every day for the last three months. We usually say ‘Well, we kind of have been!’ We just sleep in our own beds instead of a van.”
Compacting time and rearranging the conventional wisdom of what an indie act “should” do has shaped Little Maker’s full-length, The Salty Seas We Used to Know. The process of writing, recording and releasing the album has taken nearly three years. While most may consider that a frustratingly long amount of time, McKee sees inherent value in taking his time and allowing Little Maker to discover its identity. “A lot of bands form their identity over the course of several albums, and I feel like we did that in only one. I’m stoked about that because I don’t have to go through a few shitty albums to get to the good one,” he adds with a laugh.
During those three years of developing his artistic output like a working musician, McKee has conversely used his creative tendencies to fuel his money gigs, primarily his 1960s soul/R&B tribute act the Essentials. “Our trombone player Luke Huddleston came to me one day and said he wanted to get the guys in Little Maker and form a wedding band,” says McKee. “I have to admit I was skeptical, but he told me, ‘We’re going to bring Little Maker’s passion, flavor and feel to it, but it’ll just be other people’s songs.’ We had six or seven months of rehearsals before we played a single note live, and by the first show, I was smitten.”
That love has directly improved Little Maker’s musicianship. McKee acknowledges that performing songs by Otis Redding, Sam Cooke and Van Morrison has tremendously aided his growth as a vocalist. He also sees how learning the tricks of the greatest rhythm sections of all time has a substantial impact on how Little Maker writes and performs rhythms. But aside from the obvious musical benefits of playing vintage soul classics, McKee has learned another lesson from playing in such a crowd-pleasing act: the value of pleasing a crowd. “The importance of showmanship and spectacle is a bit more tangible in Little Maker now,” says McKee. “One of the things I learned from being in a ten-piece, showbiz-based, glitz and glamour kind of band is that you have to be a showman. It’s definitely made Little Maker, intentionally or unintentionally, about being present with the audience.”
Of course, the artists honored by the Essentials were exactly the type of musicians McKee has become: songwriters and original artists who were also session musicians putting in a day’s work and playing as much as humanly possible. By taking cues from a time before the “indie artist” versus “working musician” divide, McKee has found a way to move past the binary and push himself and his music forward.