You know when you finally meet someone who’s work you admire and then are cruelly disappointed when they turn out to be an complete ass? Well thank god that was the OPPOSITE experience I had when I met Deb Oh of The Debonaire. Based in New York, Deb is one of those multitasking extraordinaires who’s got her hand in everything and somehow manages find time to do it all. She’s a singer-songwriter who’s lived here for 10 years and still manages to have the drive and upbeat attitude of someone who just arrived.
Her blog is an immensely charming mix of design finds, personal photography, music mixes and general tid-bits about the city she loves. Being a long-time reader of the site, I wanted to meet the woman behind the blog. So when I saw she was playing a show at Rockwood Music Hall to prepare for her EP coming out next month, I seized the opportunity to meet this wonder woman in person. I learned about her illustrious “political past”, how you really get to Carnegie Hall, and how she really just wants to make music she can dance to.
Laura S: So, what do you do when you’re not writing/performing/blogging/etc ?
Deb Oh: Last year, I was working part-time as a research assistant for a historian, which was great because I could make my own schedule. It gave me time to rehearse, write new music, and go to a lot of shows. But there comes a point where, I was making enough to get by, but I realized I needed to get a real job. So I just started working at a sound studio called Headroom. I didn’t really know anything about the production side of music but since starting there I’ve learned a lot. It’s definitely been hard transitioning to a full-time job, but it acts as a nice control, a ceiling to the chaos.
LS: When did you start playing the piano, are you classically trained or did you teach yourself?
DO: I started playing when I was 3, the story behind that is, I was obsessed with the Sound of Music when I was a kid. So my parents came home one day and realized I had memorized the entire soundtrack. And they were like, we should probably get her some piano lessons. I was classically trained til I was 16/17. There was a point in middle school where I was a part of this really intense music school. When I was 13, I got to play at one of the yearly concerts at Carnegie Hall. It was just so intense; I didn’t want to be a concert pianist. But after I took a break and went back to it, it was just a completely different experience. You used to have to chain me to the piano, but then I started playing music I liked and writing music for hours a day. But the great part was, all that training was so internalized that I don’t have to think about it anymore. And when I was writing my own music, it just came.
LS: What’s the name of your EP that’s coming out next month?
DO: The name of the EP is going to be Cold Glory. I definitely plan on playing more shows once the EP is out. I’d love to tour; I’ve never done it before.
LS: Where’s your favorite place/venue to see shows in New York?
DO: I like Bowery Ballroom, I’ve seen a lot of good shows there. I may just have a sentimental attachment to it, but I’ve seen a lot of bands there before they get big and play some venue like Terminal 5.
LS: What have you been listening to currently?
DO: I’ve been re-listening to a lot of the old Arcade Fire because of the new album. And I’m gonna plug my friend’s band, Modern Rivals. They have a really fun, indie sound.
LS: You work, play music, take pictures and update your blog daily, how do you find time to do everything? You’re one of these modern slash/slash/slash. On a personal note, really how do you do it?
DO: I was just thinking about this the other day when I was sitting on my computer at 1 in the morning, and saying to myself, you really need to go to bed, because I need to be up the morning for work at 7:30 am. I should be sleeping, but I’m blogging. I started it because I was bored, and unemployed, and in college, living with a bunch of boys and I needed an outlet for something I can put pretty things up, and music that I like, and keep me active. It’s a good outlet for people like me who are interested in a million different things: film, music, photography, fashion, all the stuff I’m really into.
LS: You recently returned from a trip to Alaska, how often do you make the trip home? What brought you to New York in the first place?
DO: I love living in New York more than anything, but I have to get away from it sometimes. I have to get the complete opposite experience from it just to balance it out. It’s so overwhelming to be here, 24/7, year-round and vice-versa. I just need that, literal â€œbreath of fresh airâ€. Where I grew up, it was actually pretty suburban. It’s right outside Anchorage and Sarah Palin used to be our next door neighbor. She was just this nice, happy Mom. When I was 8, she ran for mayor, and I remember being at her house helping her stamp envelopes, and eating cookies. And then during the 2008 election, thinking back and being like â€œaghh I was a part of this machineâ€, so I had to do extra campaigning for Obama to make up for it.
LS: Your blog involves a lot of photography, it’s obviously something you’re heavily involved in, is that something you’ve always been interested in? Do you take your camera with you everywhere? It’s a lot of New York based stuff, what is it about the city that you draw inspiration from?
DO: It started when I was in college, it just clicked at one point, I started seeing things differently. I had a crappy point and shoot camera and I just couldn’t stop using it. I had a DLSR at one point but it got stolen, so now I just use my iPhone, which takes me back to the portability of the point and shoot. When you have one of those bulkier, professional cameras, you feel this pressure that you have to take certain photos.
LS: I can tell you’re a movie buff, what’s your favorite New York based movie?
DO: I have to say Manhattan. I know New York is not gorgeous black and white shots with Gershwin playing in the background. It’s dirty, and crowded, but it still captures the feeling of the city. It’s still romantic, idealistic, and you’re in a bubble of limitless possibilities. It’s such a confined space, a small island that’s so jammed pack with people, culture, food and everything. And that Gershwin and skyline stuff is just how I feel about it, after I come back from being away. Oh and Breakfast at Tiffany’s that’s another one.
LS: Oh man, that movie is the only reason I ever romanticize fire escapes, Nobody hangs out on those, but after seeing that movie, all I wanted to do was live downtown and play guitar on my fire escape. But in reality if you tried doing that, people would just tell you to shut the f*** up.
What’s your favorite free thing to do in New York?
DO: The New York Philharmonic in Central Park. You just grab some friends and get a lot of wine, a lot of snacks and listen to this beautiful music. Usually it’s a gorgeous summer night, and you’re a little buzzed listening to Gershwin or Rachmaninov, Beethoven and there’s fireworks. That’s it, that’s all you need. You can’t really top that.
LS: Have any favorite dive bars?
DO: I like the Rusty Knot in the West Village. You can grab a Busch beer and an amazing pretzel-dog for $5. It’s not the cheapest place on Earth but you can still get a deal there.
LS: Favorite cheap eat?
DO: I like CafÃ© Orlin on St.Marks place. It’s not college-cheap, but it’s New York-cheap. I’ve always had a soft spot for Grey’s Papaya. That was the routine in college: get drunk, go to Grey’s Papaya. Now the â€œrecession specialâ€ is $4, what kind of recession is that?!
LS: Got any magic money saving tips?
DO: It’s not to cook at home, cause I don’t cook. I wish I could. For me it’s just being really strategic when it comes to shopping in general. I just don’t spend money on a lot of unnecessary things; it’s just become habit. But I still live in the city and want to do things. So if I do have money sometimes I’m going to splurge a little, cause splurging feels amazing.
LS: What do you refuse to spend money on?
DO: I try to avoid cabs. I’ll only take them if it’s really late or in the winter when it’s so cold and so dark you just want to get home.
LS: Do you have some words of wisdom for other working musicians out there?
DO: Everyone says it, but you really do just have to work your ass off. You make the conscious decision that this is what you’re doing, this is what you love doing, and this is what you’re going to do, despite what everyone else says. If you know you have the talent, you’re making music that’s better than the crap you hear on the radio, then that drives you to write more, to perform more, to experiment more. You get hungry for it. It’s terrifying to make that decision to be an artist. Both my parents immigrated here and made sacrifices so the last thing they want to see is for me to fail. They gave everything up to prevent me from having an unstable life. But luckily both of my parents are really supportive. They were the ones who got me my first piano lesson. But it took me awhile to get to this decision. That’s the downside of being a jack of all trades; you never want to settle on just one thing. But I feel like I’m still in the thick of it, I’m still on the edge and it’s exciting. If I try and fail, than at least I won’t have any regrets.
To hear more of Deb Oh’s music, check her out on Myspace.