Arts + Culture

Leaving lockdown behind, Lafayette musicians look ahead from limbo

Musician Blake Pujol Photo by Travis Gauthier
Blake Pujol's career move to Austin is still on hold a year after pandemic lockdowns began in Louisiana.

Why don’t you get a real job? That common, callous phrase was uttered to singer, songwriter, pianist and teacher Julie Williams late last year. In pre-pandemic times, she could have made her living performing in studios, festivals, clubs, fine-dining restaurants and casinos — solid, steady contracts for a true, working, professional musician.  

Why don’t you get a real job? Julie Williams had a real job. The pandemic made it impossible. 

With a relative paucity of public assistance for musicians and live music and dancing literally illegal – like a fictional town in a movie – Williams faced unexpected challenges. But the cessation of gatherings hurt not just the income of working musicians like her; the second pandemic is said to be from people suffering from mental health issues. So, when you lose a real job, you lose a sense of yourself. 

A full calendar year has passed since Gov. John Bel Edwards’ stay-home order took effect and life in Louisiana, a place of revelry, was altered for the foreseeable future. More than half a million American lives have been lost, as well as innumerable livelihoods. Musicians’ livelihoods have borne the brunt of national and, especially, local shutdowns.  

Some of the state’s greatest cultural resources — musicians — face the prospect of another year of lost opportunities, revenue streams and their social and professional identities. 

Although there are reasons for optimism, Louisiana has only recently moved to Phase 3 of pandemic public guidelines, which allows bars and venues to reopen at 25% capacity in all parishes, or at 50% in parishes with less than a 5% positivity rate of the coronavirus. It also allows live music, but the music industry’s personnel and infrastructure have already been permanently impacted. 

“This is very difficult for me,” Williams says, “but I believe it’s necessary to shed some light on this situation that artists and musicians have been placed in.”

In a year of regulations, adaptations and pivots, live streams and virtual concerts became ubiquitous for a spell of the stay-at-home life. But the qualitative impact of the pandemic could be measured by where music was not. Some have acquiesced to closures, adapted to new technologies and advanced their artistry. Others have increased and improved their skill-set, crafted new careers and come to terms with the current state.  

Others, though, have struggled with the loss of their habits, their spaces of commune and their core identities.  Much like the chorus of reggae-group Steel Pulse’s 1984 hit, “Roller Skates,” in this “life without music, [they] can’t cope.”

And the peculiar challenges of the pandemic forced musicians to make some uncomfortable choices. 

“I found myself in a moral conundrum,” says Williams. “Do I starve, or do I go against my better judgment and take some gigs that were unsafe?”

She took the gigs, she admits with guilt. 

Guilt she feels she should not have been in the position to feel. Louisiana languished in Phase 2, with no live music, long after federal unemployment assistance had halted, and after many sectors of the economy had reopened. The state moved to Phase 3 in October 2020, but it was short-lived, as the governor declared the state’s return to Phase 2 after a fortnight, because of case spikes. 

Musician Julie Williams
Musician Julie Williams found herself in choosing between her health and her livelihood in 2020. Photo by Travis Gauthier

For Williams, the resumed shutdown confounded her, and it was compounded by the perceived hypocrisy that live music was allowed in churches.  

“I grew up in church,” Williams says, “and had a family that was loving and stable. They were and are what I believe a Christian should be. So, my issue really isn’t with the church, but more so with our local government.

“I don’t think I’m wrong to believe that public safety should be enforced in the same manner, no matter the venue, no matter what separation of church and state is and should exist. So why couldn’t we musicians work safely, while being distanced and protected?”

Williams is a “first-call,” veteran musician, so some of her guilt came from the fact that she was able to find some work, which was more so than others. She struggled with working for venues that contradicted her commitment to doing her part to stop the coronavirus, but she made the choices out of desperation. Williams received her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine recently, which she says will mitigate her guilt.  

Music, and musicians like Williams, whether full-time or part-time, are part of the lifeblood of Louisiana’s culture, and are some of the greatest champions of the state. Everything in modern American music history can be traced here. It’s part of Louisiana’s renown. Seldom has the show not gone on.

For degreed, professional musicians like Blake Pujol, who says he knowingly chose a “stupid career,” a return of  church gigs — virtually in his case — was fortuitous. The work kept him on the job as a musician. 

The Lafayette-based, Bunkie-born guitarist earned his performance degree from UL Lafayette’s music school in 2018, and has been a full-time musician since. He is in several ensembles, which were good sources of revenue between weddings, shows and casino runs, and also teaches lessons at the same music school as Williams, School of Rock in Lafayette. For Pujol, the pandemic took something greater than his savings; it also derailed his next career move.

In February 2020, Pujol had begun packing up his life in Lafayette to relocate to Austin, Texas. He had built the skill, experience and résumé to take the leap to a larger market in his profession. The pandemic wrecked his plans for the year.  

“I had just started making content [in advance of moving], and then once it hit, I think I kept making content for a little while, but it didn’t take long,” he says. “I remember around June, I posted something, and I didn’t make anything for, like, months after that.”

All dates were canceled, and he didn’t hear about his students’ availability for months. Pujol and his bandmates in Groove Grove vacillated between playing, or not playing, a gig at The Blue Moon on March 14, 2020, a day after the governor announced the statewide lockdown. Ultimately they did, and it was their last gig since.

“The rat race was canceled,” he says. “Now, everybody had to sit and realize what it’s like to be a human being. The whole world was forced to do that, which, I loved that aspect.”

Early into the initial quarantine, his cover band, Rouge Krewe, adapted well, performing on Facebook and Twitch, and gained newsworthy attention last summer, when they hosted or played several COVID-compliant neighborhood “block parties,” which brought the music straight to people. Rouge Krewe donated the proceeds of one show to Blue Monday Community Meals, which was created in partnership with sponsors, donors and restaurants to feed out-of-work artists for the first two months of quarantine. 

“This isn’t an attack on us directly [as musicians], just for the sake of it,” Pujol says. “We’re just unfortunate collateral damage of what’s in the best interest for the public. 

Pujol suffered through the virus himself for two weeks last summer, and says he “100% understands” its dangers. He has since resumed playing private events and weddings with Rouge Krewe, but their engagements are a fraction of what they once were. Much like Williams, he takes some gigs reluctantly. There are no longer the money-making casino runs, but Pujol says gigs are becoming regular again. 

“That’s been humongous,” he says. “If I didn’t have that, I would most likely be morbidly depressed. Very likely. I already have a tendency to fall into that anyway with not much help, but, yeah, if I had no live things happening, I’d be in a way, way worse, mental state.” 

John Williams is bringing back his Blue Monday series to help musicians feel whole again. Photo by Travis Gauthier

Moral confliction. Disappointment. Apathy. Stifled creativity. That was the story of 2020 for working musicians. Overall case positivity is trending downward.  But musicians, artists and the greater community still have work to do before things are right. 

“COVID-19 decimated our creative economy,” says John Williams, founder and CEO of Quality of Life Services, whose service arm is the nonprofit Love of People, and the Blue Monday Mission, which assists the creatives in business and personal affairs. “It put the whole thing at risk. It could have destroyed the whole thing.”

A nurse for 17 years, Williams says the financial stress stacks on a stew of impacts to musicians’ well-being. There’s a lot more to make whole than wallets.

“It’s not just your physical — it’s your mental, emotional, spiritual and even financial, that affect your quality of life. With all those things working together then you can begin healing,” he says. 

His monthly Blue Monday Concert Series is set to return in April. The series and mission fed creatives and frontline workers early in the pandemic. Williams says that’s why the Blue Monday Concert Series is returning.

“When we started bringing the concerts back,” he says, “it was to attack the issues of depression and other [mental health] issues. I believe that, again, it revealed the power of our music in our culture.”

Williams explains the pandemic also took away the community’s privileges — things taken for granted, like creatives and the creative economy. But he believes the absence made people realize how important the area’s culture really is. 

“That was the positive spin on Covid,” Williams says, “that finally, South Louisiana can appreciate its creative economy for what it is, what it has done and what it is capable of doing. Well, you know that old saying, ‘You don’t miss her ’til she’s gone.’”

With the coming of the spring of 2021 also arrives the stereotypical symbolism: rebirth, hope, refocus, burgeoning optimism and rededication to the blossoming of dreams.  

Pujol still plans to move to Austin; it’s just postponed indefinitely, until the pandemic slows and he rebuilds his savings.

“I just have to wait,” Pujol says. “I know Texas is opening, but I have to see if that sticks. I just have to wait to make damn sure that the industry is stabilized, to the point where it was before. I’m still just kind of in limbo.”

Julie Williams is writing more than she has in years, and is working on a project she calls “the ultimate collaboration.” 

“Now that I’m finally inspired,” she says, “I can use experiences throughout the year to help with writing, and some of my close, close [quarantine] pod are people I’m writing with. So we have shared experiences that we can write from an honest standpoint, and I really missed creating, and I’m really excited. I’m really excited!”