“It’s worthwhile, whatever your experience level is and whatever your history is, to be working on art,” Walker Spring tells me.
She and her Honest Jams Podcast co host Ayal Alvez spent plenty of time listening to podcasts while working long days together at Heavy Vegetables, Spring’s local vegan delivery and free-fridge meal service that she runs out of her home—a prolific space in SE Portland. In the backyard, her partner Victor runs a recording studio, Destination Universe, which boasts a long list of records created there since opening in 2010. With a recording method easily accessible, Spring’s experience as a member of the houseband on NPR’s weekend show “Live Wire,” and inspiration from an open mic series in which Alvez participated, they decided to create a podcast of their own in February 2020.
“I was going to this open mic at the Laurelthirst,” Alvez says. “That kind of became my church for a year, up until the beginning of the pandemic.”
The open mic offered songwriters the opportunity to write a song based on a prompt, and any participant could perform that song and another song the following week. Alvez and Spring integrated that aspect with concepts borrowed from the Immersion Composition Society’s classic “20 Song Game”—in which a small group of songwriters spend a day writing and recording 20 songs each—to set arbitrary constraints for each week’s episode in an effort to eschew perfectionism from their guest’s and listener’s creative processes. In the Honest Jams variation, an online word generator spits out three prompts that begin with the same letter, then the hosts and a musical guest take one week to each write and record a song based on at least one of the words. Past prompts have included anything from “helmet” to “pastel,” “mutation” to “incandescent,” and “death.” In an often-hilarious segment, “What Does the Internet Say,” hosts take a quick dive into fun facts, pseudo-facts, and etymology of the prompt word. In a recent episode entitled “Machine,” Ayal describes a steampunk-looking robot created in 1964 whose sole purpose was to answer the phone and hang up the phone, but had no voice or messaging capabilities.
A month after their first podcast released, the music community took a massive blow with the arrival of the pandemic. From small open mics like the one at Laurelthirst, to larger world tours and everything in between, venues and the communities who gathered in those spaces suddenly became fractured. Thus far, Honest Jams Podcast has predominantly featured friends made from years playing in bands—mostly musicians who live in the northwest, though they hope to bring in guests from outside the region in the future.
“It’s just who is in my rolodex, right?” Spring says. “It was amazing during the Zoom times, to be able to stay connected with people and see what they were up to. I wanted to see what art my friends were making and to stay connected that way.”
Alvez is the sole songwriter for his band Saroon, and has played in live bands and on recordings for countless Portland artists. Spring is a founding member of Point Juncture WA and Bitch’n, and recently joined the longtime northwest staple Old Time Relijun, who toured across Europe last November. She created a two-part Honest Jams “Extrasode” while on that tour, which she playfully suggests is “so when people say, ‘how was the tour?’ I can say, ‘here’s two hours of my inner thoughts.’”
Between the regular prompt episodes and the Extrasodes that lean more heavily on music theory, Honest Jams is nearly 200 episodes in, and they show no sign of slowing down. They make time to host concerts, with light catering from Heavy Vegetables, in the Destination Universe backyard during the summer. Relieving pressure is an effective creative tool for the hosts and their guests, but listeners can soak up new ways of approaching their own work in each episode as well.
“Removing expectation is what we’re trying to do,” Ayal says. “I believe in a culture where everybody feels empowered to do that in their own way. There are places where a perfectionist attitude is extremely helpful, but most of the time, it’s armoring. Get past that, for yourself, and see what happens when you allow yourself to create stuff.”
Honest Jams releases every Friday on all platforms.