Musicians across the world have had to accept performing without a live audience. One DeKalb folk musician has adapted to this and is still able to make a living doing what he loves.
Joe Jencks grew up in Rockford. He is the youngest of seven children. He said his family was always surrounded by music.
“I would crawl under the piano as a kid as a toddler,” he explained, “when other people were playing, I'd find a little cubby under there -- in between the instruments -- the guitars, and the cello and the trombone and everything else that was under there, I'd crawl in between them. And I would lay there and just listen to people make music.”
Jencks said that this was his safe space and the sound waves floating through his body brought him comfort.
He started writing songs at the age of eight but he originally wanted to be an astronaut or a fire ranger. When that didn’t pan out, he decided to follow the tunes in his heart.
Although Jencks grew up in a musical family, he credits Rockford jazz singer and former music teacher Dorothy Paige-Turner for changing the trajectory of his journey.
“That woman changed my life. And I had a lot of musical influences," he said. “She was one of the people that bridged history for me and said, ‘You're a part of this, you know, this is your torch to pick up and carry this, this movement belongs to everybody who believes in it.’”
He said she taught him that it was OK to live and dream big.
Jencks spent the last 25 years performing and touring. He did between 120 and 160 concerts per year. Live performances were his life, but COVID-19 has made him concentrate on another medium.
“I'm not a big fan of video, I sort of do it as needs be like, it's sort of like going to the dentist, you know, it's not, what I love to do,” he added. “But I know that a lot of people enjoy having video to watch.”
Jencks said he realized that it was time for him to learn new skills.
He spent the second half of April through the first week of June doing what he called a technical bootcamp. This is where he immersed himself into learning the technology that he didn’t understand.
Jencks had already created a home studio in efforts to save money. He didn’t realize that the new setup would turn into something else.
“It's like, somehow I built the ark before anybody told me there was going to be a flood,” he said. “I spent Christmas break, oh, you know, 2019 into January of 2020, the first few days, building a space in the basement that was largely soundproof and isolated so that I could do recording.”
He uses this space to give virtual concerts that he streams on his YouTube channel. He doesn’t charge for the viewings.
He stated that the question for him is not what he can get from his fans but what he can give them. He does have PayPal and Venmo links for all his shows, but a payment isn’t required. He said he’s able to keep a roof over his head and pay the bills thanks to donations.
“It's more like I'm a digital busker. I'm just standing on the street corner, giving everything I have to give,” Jencks explained. “And trusting that if I do my job well, if I bring my heart and my soul and my humanity and my sincerity into it, it's going to move enough people to you know, want to give back.”
He plans on continuing these showings at least through April.
Jencks also gives fans a peek of his soul through the essays on his website. Subjects range from his times in Ireland to messages of hope.
Although the folk musician has outgrown the little cubby underneath his family’s piano, he said he has a new safe space. And that’s when he is in front of a microphone. He calls it his shield.
Jencks is urging all creatives to find their safe space by following their heart’s calling. He said the pandemic is giving people the time to tap into their talents. He expressed how focusing on what you can give to the world will help you attract so much more.
- Yvonne Boose is a current corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. It's a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms like WNIJ. You can learn more about Report for America at wnij.org.