Baritone saxophonist Josh Sinton — who is scheduled to perform as part of Predicate Trio at Firehouse 12 on Crown Street this Friday with cellist Chris Hoffmann and drummer Tom Rainey — didn’t expect to be in the middle of a real conversation about how people make a living playing music. In a broader sense, he didn’t expect to be playing music at all, anymore.
In January, Sinton, who had been gigging steadily since the early 1990s, first in Chicago and then in New York, announced that he had two gigs that month. Then, he announced, he was going to stop.
“I’ve been told that breaks are helpful, even essential, to one’s health,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, I suck at them. Be that as it may, I find myself in a place where I have to do this. After these shows, I’m taking an indefinite leave of absence from music. So, this will be my last email for the time being. As I begin this hiatus, I will become more scarce on the internet. But, my Bandcamp and Soundcloud sites will remain if you need reminders of the sounds. Thank you for your support. And perhaps see you in the actual world one of these days.”
Sinton had a lot of reasons to step back. His health issues, he said, were “a lot related to toxic aspects of my relationship to art and making art.” Also, “I have a kid and I’m married, and I had these relationships that I really cared about. I had to choose between business as usual or making sure I put my family first.”
A little while later, with Sinton’s hiatus underway — “I wasn’t doing any music hustle at all,” he said — a colleague posted two questions on social media. How did musicians out there pay for their projects? And how did they manage to make a living?
“I chimed in right away with a Twitter essay,” Sinton said. “I started with a statement that it’s one of the third rails of the creative music community.”
George Grella, an editor at the Brooklyn Rail, read what he had to say and asked Sinton if he would be interested in writing a longer piece about the truth about how financial aspects of how musicians support themselves and create their music. “I think this could be a helpful essay,” Sinton recalled Grella saying.
Sinton agreed to write. “I would start writing it in my head,” he said. “Then it was confronting the issue of how to talk about it without being bitter, in a clear and honest way without being weepy.” He wrestled with how to be “fair and honest to all sides, including my side.”
It took months longer than he expected it to. But “what I sent George was essentially the final draft. Almost no revisions needed to be made, which was flattering.”
The essay appeared in The Brooklyn Rail on Oct. 3. (Read it here.) In it, Sinton laid it out.
In the past 33 years, he wrote, “I have been: a farm hand, a busboy, a library attendant, a landscaper, a secretary, a waiter, a sales clerk, a house painter, an assistant at a law firm, a grocery store clerk, a temp, a ghost writer, a delivery person, and a copy editor assistant.”
But all of that work was not enough. “For the most part, I’ve relied (in the past) on my parents and now on my wife for financial support,” he wrote. “There have been a lot of bounced checks, about a decade of not enough food (one to two meals a day instead of three) and several decades of enforced insomnia. And while my physical circumstances have thankfully improved enormously, the same cannot be said of my life in the arts.”
He saw the same hustle in the lives of the musicians around him. “Everyone works multiple jobs, lives multiple lives,” he wrote. But the truth was, he didn’t know how most musicians supported themselves. “None of us like to discuss finances with one another,” he wrote.
“A life in the arts is a ghostly one in the world of capitalism, and that means there are few, if any, predetermined career paths available to us,” he continued. “And rather than treating that as a hardship, I’ve begun to experience it as a small amount of additional room for me to make the life I want to live rather than have to live.”
And that meant that Sinton’s hiatus wasn’t necessarily as much of a break as it appeared on the outside — or even as much as he had intended at first.
“I put together Predicate Trio two years ago,” Sinton said. “Last fall I asked Chris and Thomas to leave some time to record.” He had mentioned that he was shooting to turn the mics on in the spring. Then he announced that he was going on hiatus.
Hoffmann and Rainey, Sintont said, “very wisely kept quiet.” And waited.
Without a performance schedule, gigs to line up, or projects to develop, “I started exercising regularly. I started meditation practice. I made dinner most nights of the week. And I just let time roll by,” Sinton said. But also, he made a mental note to himself: “By the end of March I will let Chris and Tom know the status of this.”
The end of March arrived and Sinton was still ambivalent. He had meant what he said about taking a break. And he’d already made nine albums and knew the legwork they entailed, to prepare for them, to record them, and to promote them afterward — just the kind of legwork he was trying to step away from.
Sinton spoke with his wife about it. “She said ‘I totally understand why you don’t want to make a record,’” he recalled her saying. But she added something else: “’Witnessing what you go through, I don’t think you’ll get this time with Chris and Tom again, and I think that’ll really upset you.’”
So in early April Sinton reached out to Hoffmann and Rainey, who had indeed kept their schedules open. “I did all the annoying hustle,” Sinton said. “I booked two rehearsals and the gig. I booked studio time.” For this, his 10th record, he found himself as focused as ever.
“I know what I want. I make decisions really fast,” Sinton said. “I know what I’m looking for as a listener and in a recording experience. I’ve made the important aesthetic decisions.”
The trio tracked the record — Making Bones —in one day. Mixes were finalized in two weeks. A month later, everything else was done. He sent it to Iluso Records, an Australian record label devoted to creative new music. The record label was delighted with it. Iluso wanted to put it out in August. Sinton suggested they wait, to give more time to get the word out. Making Bones now comes out on Nov. 9 — the day of the trio’s show at Firehouse 12.
Sinton is delighted to be playing at the Crown Street spot, which has developed a national-level reputation among jazz and experimental music musicians and fans. “It’s a place I’ve known about since it opened,” Sinton said. “It’s just a place I’ve always aspired to play. Who knows when I’ll get a chance to play there again? It’s a very known quantity.”
“Having played there,” he added, “I now have no reason to be jealous of other people who have played there.”
With a new album out and the Firehouse 12 show, does that mean Sinton’s break from music is over?
Yes and no. Sinton has started a band covering the music of Morphine, an indie band from the 1990s composed of bass, drums, and saxophones that had an increasingly successful run until bassist and singer Mark Sandman died of a heart attack during a performance in Italy in 1999. Sinton’s project will have a January residency at Barbes, a club in Brooklyn.
“I feel very weird about all this stuff,” he said. “I’m glad I’ve got musicians I love coming to play music with me.”
Sinton has no immediate plans after that. “In a way I’m still ambitious, just more tired,” he said. He finds himself taking the longer view of making music in the twin maws of art and commerce.
“When the swing craze hit in the 1990s, I was playing baritone sax,” he said. “We were working all the time.” One of the musicians he played with was a guitar player in the generation above him. “I remember talking to him and he said, ‘it’s nice to have this while it lasts,’” Sinton said. Sinton asked him what he was doing before the swing craze started. “I was working at this toy train and hobby store,” the guitarist said.
“I immediately thought in my mind, ‘I’m going to do what it takes to not do that,’” Sinton said. It seemed possible then to make a living playing music, and for a little while, he said, he did. He hustled and would play whatever people put in front of him. “For a short minute, I was in a Michael Bublé band,” he said. Now he sees it as a question of timing.
“I think in music and performing arts, day jobs have been the norm except for that one window in the ‘80s and ‘90s — except for that one moment — especially for weird music.”
But Sinton acknowledges the disappointment that fueled the break last January in the first place, even as he has more perspective on it now. He age group, he said, is “the last generation that had some inkling of the American Dream — an idealized meritocracy. If you take care of music, it’ll take care of you. It’s a great way to instill a work ethic, but it’s not great life advice.”
Now he believes that “a life in the arts is exactly like buying a type of lottery ticket, with the expectation that you can get training that will increase your chances. There are things you can do to increase your chances of winning something. But you’re still playing the lottery,” he said. “We’re in a new Gilded Age. We talk about the Rockefellers and the Carnegies” from the previous Gilded Age. “And there were millions of people who starved.”
And through all this, Sinton hasn’t lost the desire to make music for its own sake. “I know I don’t have the career I thought I’d have and that I’m not what I consider ‘successful.’” But I know I’m ok. And that means I’m supported,” he wrote in the Brooklyn Rail. “And that means I can keep making art if I choose to. And I am learning to accept that that is enough.
“All I wanted to do was play the damn horn,” he said.
The Predicate Trio performs at Firehouse 12, 45 Crown St., on Nov. 9 at 8:30 p.m. Click here for tickets and more information.