The rock star image of packed arenas, traveling with an entourage, and partying amid crazy backstage antics and endless drama is almost patently false. Sure, it’s reflective of a few artists from yesteryear who have platinum records and shortened lifespans, but most musicians have day jobs – and not just to pay the bills. Jobs provide new challenges, personal fulfillment and, yes, some rent or gas money.
And usually when somebody is writing a new record or scheduling a tour, they have to balance that with their job.
How an artist spends their time by day will influence the creative process at night. In Don’t Quit Your Day Job, Scene Point Blank looks at how musicians split their time, and how their careers influence their music – or, alternately – how their music provides escape.
In this installment, we talk with JR Robinson and Esther Shaw of Wrekmeister Harmonies. The band has a new album, out this month. They also own and operate Coptic Light Coffee. We caught up with them over email to chat about coffee roasting, travel and how their two worlds meet.
On We Love to Look at the Carnage, available February 21 on Thrill Jockey Records, the band present brooding, stripped down sounds that explore the depths of human emotion in a dense but accessible 5-track package.
Scene Point Blank: The two of you run Coptic Light Coffee. What is your official job title? How many people are involved in the operations? Do you have any other staff?
Both JR Robinson and Esther Shaw: It’s just the two of us. No official titles really, maybe co-founders? We do everything ourselves.
We have some really awesome coffee importer friends working with farmers who are not only producing high quality, delicious, green coffee but are socially conscious about it as well. From there, we cup and select the lots we want for our menu, decide on roast profiles, select artists for our packaging, find accounts to carry our coffee, bag and deliver, etc. The two of us do it all together as a team, and we love that aspect of our company.
Scene Point Blank: When did you decide on this career path? Did that happen before or after you were a musician? (In other words, give us a look at your timeline of the company vs. being a musician)
JR and Esther: We were musicians first.
Esther: I’ve been playing piano and violin since I was four and five years old. I was classical trained and always stayed within that genre well into adulthood. It wasn’t until I started working in coffee in my late twenties that I began meeting more artists and exploring other genres. I started off playing folk and country music in a couple bands with my close friends in Chicago and eventually met JR and began playing with him. I was very drawn to Wrekmeister Harmonies. It allowed me to express myself in a new way which was exploratory and improvisational while still drawing on my past musical training. JR and I played music together for many years, but always shared a passion for coffee which eventually led to Coptic Light.
JR: I initially connected with Esther through music and quickly discovered that she was in the coffee industry too. We would always chat about unique new coffees we were drinking, new roasters we had tried out, brewing methods, etc. After starting Coptic Light with Esther, I really started delving even deeper into the coffee industry. She took me to China to visit coffee farms and mills. We started cupping together which always leads to great discussions about taste, quality control, and coffee sourcing. She has shared with me her fundamental approach to roasting which has allowed me to develop my own roasting style as well.
Scene Point Blank: I imagine you had other jobs prior to this. What led to you to coffee? Was music or touring involved in any way?
Esther: Before coffee, I was working at Chicago Public Schools central office working in education policy and evaluation. It was a stressful and often disheartening job, and I wanted to do something different which would make me happy.
I chose coffee, and I was lucky to land my first job as an assistant in quality control cupping lab. It ended up being one of my best decisions because I have gotten to meet many amazing people, and it also brought me back to playing music with others.
Scene Point Blank: What’s the biggest challenge in balancing your career with your music?
JR and Esther: Surprisingly, it’s not challenging balancing the two. We were a bit concerned about it at first, but our coffee friends and co-workers are so supportive of our music life and vice versa. The two industries reinforce each other.
Scene Point Blank: Is there a busy or slow season in your work? Does that influence your music schedule in any way?
JR and Esther: The coffee side of things tend to slow down in the middle of winter but it doesn’t influence our music schedule.
Scene Point Blank: Hhave your experiences from making music or touring influenced your coffee business in any surprising ways? I imagine you sample locally-roasted coffee as you tour.
JR and Esther: Definitely. We sell coffee at our merch table so that is an instant connection we make with our music followers. Also, whenever we can manage the time on tour, we try to drop by a local roaster’s cafe to get a cup of coffee and a bag of beans. We have done coffee trading with local roasters and even managed to land some guest spots with people we met on the road as well. Another aspect of our company which is highly influenced from our music is the art on our packaging. We try to rotate the art and feature different artists and thus far we have met them all through music. Starting off it was David D’Andrea and currently we feature Simon Fowler.
Scene Point Blank: Do you know if many of your coffee customers are aware of your music?
JR and Esther: It’s probably around 50-50. Half of our coffee followers are not aware of the music and just love the coffee. The other half are aware we also play music -- some of them listen to the music and others haven't.
Scene Point Blank: What advice would you give to others who might be interested in working in coffee and/or music?
JR and Esther: Surround yourself with positive people who are passionate about what they do. Show them respect and learn from them.