Music » Folk

Taking a Chance to Shine

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In the 1990s, just south of the intersection of 49th and College, before the craft beer, gastronomy and hipster spots opened up, a slew of musicians lived, worked, practiced and spent a lot of time on porches. I was one of them, but I wasn't one of the few who made a career out of writing or recording songs. It shouldn't be a surprise that one of the hardest working and beloved residents of the area, Otis Gibbs, ended up making some pretty great music and having an intriguing career. Before the turn of the century, he worked days planting trees, nights manning the door at the Patio, and all the spare moments in between fronting Blind Otis and the Lost Highway.

Souvenirs of a Misspent Youth was funded through a Kickstarter campaign after an unexpected surgery wiped out Gibbs’ savings. - TODD FOX
  • Todd Fox
  • Souvenirs of a Misspent Youth was funded through a Kickstarter campaign after an unexpected surgery wiped out Gibbs’ savings.

Eight years ago, Gibbs moved to Nashville, Tennessee, with the goal of getting more serious about his music. Since then, he's released four albums including his acclaimed new LP Souvenirs of a Misspent Youth (released today), toured internationally, and hung out with some of the most respected living modern folk musicians. He also matured a lot as a performer; these days, he takes the stage like a very humble star, confident and capable with each note, putting on his game face with the goal of connecting with his audiences. And he still works hard, even beyond the stage and recording studio. With his partner Amy Lashley, he runs Wanamaker records, publishes a popular podcast, makes his own videos and maintains a great Instagram feed.

Gibbs is pure Hoosier, writing songs that reflect his roots in Wanamaker, Indiana. But he's travelled all over the world and built a broad fan base with his authenticity, humor and storytelling. He returns to Central Indiana this Friday (Aug. 22nd) to play at The Hi-Fi. In advance of his first local gig in years, I chatted with Gibbs about his local ties, his suggestions for renaming some streets, his inspiration and what he's learned on the road.

Sky Blue Window: How much of Indiana is in your music?

Otis Gibbs: I tell stories about Indiana at every single gig I play. I just did a month of touring in Europe and every night I talked about growing up in Wanamaker, living with 10 other people in a two-bedroom apartment in Broad Ripple, eating 85-cent biscuits and gravy at Peppy Grill every day for almost six months. Indiana is a huge part of who I am, and I enjoy sharing some of these stories.

SBW: I've said before that I think you're a little bit like Kurt Vonnegut -- you had to leave Indy to be great. What's it like to come home to perform after everything you've done since you left? How has Indy changed since you left?

OG: Thank you, but I don't deserve to be compared to Vonnegut. I remember hearing him say in an interview that he never felt comfortable being a creative person in Indianapolis. People thought it was cute that he was artistic, but they were waiting for him to grow out of it and get a "real job." He said the Writer's Workshop in Iowa nurtured his creative side and made him feel like art was something worth pursuing.

A lot of us who grew up in working class environments like Indy can relate to that. Indianapolis has been home to so many creative people, but we've always done a lousy job of celebrating that part of our history. Meridian Street should have been renamed Kurt Vonnegut Boulevard 30 years ago and Broad Ripple Avenue should be John Hiatt Avenue. It might seem like a tiny gesture, but these people are part of our history and we should celebrate them.

I felt guilty about leaving Indiana for the first two or three years that we lived in Nashville, until finally deciding that what I missed was something that no longer exists. It was a time and a place that I was lucky to be able to share with the people I loved. It was beautiful at the time, but my friends transitioned into the next phases of their lives. Some of them passed away, some got careers, kids and moved on. The great news is there's a fresh crop of 20-somethings who are doing a great job of keeping Indy interesting, and I get a big smile every time I hear about the cool things they're doing. I'd love to see the city embrace and support their efforts.

A couple of years ago after a gig in Sweden, someone brought me a picture of the Patio's marquee with my name on it and asked me to sign it. They said they printed it off the Internet and asked if there was any significance to it. I spent the next half hour boring the poor guy with late night Patio war stories.

SBW: What's your approach to storytelling?

OG: I guess it comes natural to me. I first started recognizing it when I worked the door at The Patio and people seemed to get a kick out of my tall tales. If were forced to give any advice I'd say to make sure your story goes somewhere and has a payoff. Beyond that you're on your own.

SBW: Of all the musicians you've met, what experience has been most important to you?

OG: The thing that stands out most is the huge number of musicians I've met who struggle with anxiety issues. I had no idea how common it was until people started opening up to me about it. Many of them have talked about it on my podcast. Did I mention I have a podcast?

SBW: You produce a lot. What keeps you inspired?

OG: I'm just doing what comes natural and trying to be where I said I would be on time. There a lot of people counting on me to make it to the next town and to entertain the people who've laid out their hard-earned money, and I take that very seriously. When I'm staying overnight in Manchester airport so I can make the early morning flight to Belfast to play a daytime slot at a festival on three hours sleep, I try to remind myself that this is what I've always wanted to do and I'm fortunate to have been able to somehow make it happen. Then I rub some dirt in it and give the people my best.

Otis Gibbs has found a fan in folk-punk legend Billy Bragg, who called Souvenirs of a Misspent Youth a “constant companion” in his headphone listening. - TODD FOX
  • Todd Fox
  • Otis Gibbs has found a fan in folk-punk legend Billy Bragg, who called Souvenirs of a Misspent Youth a “constant companion” in his headphone listening.

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