Dropped cold-turkey into the middle of an incredibly traumatic and dynamic historic moment —the age of Covid-19—Missoula singer-songwriter John Floridis is adjusting to a different life in the age of social and cultural restriction.
“Like everyone else I have had to adapt,” says Floridis. “I had about five performances in the six days leading up to the Monday where everything hit the fan. During the last few performances, things were getting super cautious, and as the week went on, there were questions about the gigs, and each succeeding day a little more concern about close contact, and it started having an effect on people going out… Businesses started adhering to policies to get ahead of the curve and work disappeared. It was a strange sensation to see that happen.”
Professional working musicians such as Floridis hate removing performance dates off of their calendars, but in a time of national emergency, he has made peace with the precautionary timeline.
“There is no sense in getting upset about it because it’s happening to everyone. Being self-employed, there is the basic financial need that we are dealing with, and needing to meet. I am fortunate enough to have room left on my contract to produce on the radio show.”
John interviews traveling musicians for an in-depth, hour-long program called Musician’s Spotlight, which broadcasts on Montana Public Radio and in the midst of a changing environment, Floridis is familiarizing himself with the modified role of music as a response to a critical moment.
“There is live streaming, and I’ll be going with that, sticking a virtual tip jar out there through Venmo and PayPal, and relying on that. For someone who plays music consistently, it’s so much a part of your identity. To me, it’s grounding to play music. So, even if it’s live streaming, at least I’m playing music at the end of the day.”
For decades, Floridis—a Missoula resident since 1993—has found nourishment in songs. Indeed, the robust scene in the city provides him with the reassurance that every night there’s another crack with light streaming through it.
“As a middle-aged soloist, it’s [the Missoula music scene] a good situation for me,” says Floridis. “Breweries, wine tasting rooms, distilleries, playing from 6 to 8 p.m. At 57, I don’t want to be out at 1:30 a.m. As a soloist, the scene fits with what I do, even with the live looping thing at restaurants and breweries, and it fits for the tap rooms.”
As a professional musician in Montana, Floridis has long since had to be open to all kinds of situations to stay solvent, from brewery performances to non-profit benefits; in this, he says that the “intentional listening experiences” that he relishes are generally becoming harder to find in our culture. That’s unfortunate, because in such an environment Floridis is precious, a singer-songwriter who resonates with a calm, charming minimalism that showcases his elegance of language and achingly poignant melodies.
“When there is intentional listening, there is a whole other side of musicians you get to hear. I find that using electronics [live looping] to use a bigger sound, essentially a multi-track recording on the spot, works well in a live setting. I don’t go in there with prerecorded things. You are creating stuff, almost like performance art, hitting the body of the guitar, creating a percussion sound, playing on top of that, recording some acoustic guitar, and switching to an electronic sound, or a lead, or whatever… There is a great energy that comes off of that.
“I’m trying to be a part of the room, with my energy present, and that energy engages people,” he adds. “Even if it’s not a pristine listening environment, art is happening. The more patrons, the more challenging it is to have that kind of experience. At times, someone will be deeply moved by what you were doing, though you will have no idea until afterwards. That’s what you have to look for in those circumstances.”
John Floridis’ relationship with music deepened three years ago following an aortic heart valve replacement. He returned to gigging approximately one month after he was fastened with a new bio-prosthetic regulator and given a clean bill of health.
“Your work is so much a part of your identity, and it was symbolic to get right back on the horse… it doesn’t ease all the concerns and stresses of putting yourself out at that level, but the surgery was a great perspective giver. There is a different flow that I found coming out of that. It’s not a cure-all for everything, but surviving open heart surgery has left me with a deeper appreciation of the connections of music and how you can engage people.”
A night with John Floridis is a like watching a book falling open in your lap; you’re dropped into a narrative already in motion, sliding smoothly between the sacred and the sensuous. Skillfully, he provides enough detail so that people can feel invested, but not pinned firmly to the floor, his success a combination of sophistication and lack of pretension in both words and music.
“Whatever you put out into those (music) environments, you get it back, and you control how good you are…I’m always looking for this mix of light and dark. You could do that with a song that sounds lyrically intense, but is more musically uplifting. Or, it could go the other way around. That’s always there in my music, and I acknowledge it. You could get more inside of the lyrics in an intentional listening situation.”
Floridis says that he recently heard an interview with an Irish musician who discussed his role as “a community musician,” and that’s a term he likes, because it’s in step with his attitude and the attitude of a lot of other musicians in his community.
“When (Missoula singer-songwriter) Tom Catmull plays at a wedding, they’ve hired him because they wanted him—Tom Catmull, the person—to play music at their wedding. It was important to them. I take it very seriously when I play private events. It’s an honor because you are asking me to be myself. Even more so, since ninety percent of what I play is my own music. Valuing local musicians is very much a part of the state and Missoula in general. [Montana country-Americana artist] Russ Nasset can be Russ Nasset until he falls into the grave and people are still going to dig him. There is a lot of be said for that.”
John Floridis’s music is not done by rote, but instead represents the declaration that he’s lived through another day. Under ordinary circumstances he plays about four shows per week, and there is nothing cliché about them.
In any case, there is a fresh new reopening ahead, and once the restrictions on freedom of movement and assembly are carefully lifted, we will be in desperate need of a new song, or better yet an old song from a familiar voice like John’s.
“For now, I think whatever modicum of normalcy we could get to at this point—like live streaming—is a good thing. It’ll be fascinating to see how this pandemic evolves as a culture, and how art evolves, too.”
In Floridis’s mind, music is best shared person to person in real time, and once the door has been nudged back open, fans can count on him to return to the road to deliver the essentials of his craft.
“There have to be at least 60-plus tap rooms across the state [to perform live music], and they just keeping popping up, especially on the Hi-Line. There is one now in Wibaux [Beaver Creek Brewery]. I’ll need to figure out how to get to all of those.”
John Floridis will perform live at 5 p.m. on Thursday, September 17 at the Montana Press Montana Happy Hour on Facebook Live and the performance will be available at any time as a public video on the Montana Press Facebook site after the live event.