Quarantours And Conference Calls: How Artists Are Collaborating In Isolation

Chvrches, Real Estate, Cautious Clay, and more weigh in on creating in harmony while staying apart

After recording their fifth album since 2009, indie rock band Real Estate tried a novel experiment: They aimed to be everywhere at once. In addition to a planned summer tour across the United States and Europe, the five-piece filmed a short set of new songs from The Main Thing, their latest release, in December 2019. Following some post-production touch-ups, their fans would be able to watch it remotely from anywhere — like South America, where Real Estate had no immediate plans to play, but where fans had clamored online for a concert.

"They're like, 'Why don't you ever come to São Paulo, Brazil?' We're like, 'We did once and we'd love to come back. It's just complicated,'" said bassist Alex Bleeker, who helped found the band with vocalist/guitarist Martin Courtney in suburban New Jersey. With help from creative agency Callen, they lined up virtual arrangements instead via an augmented reality concert experience you could stream on your phone. "We're going to go on tour everywhere at the same time," Bleeker recalled of the initial prospect, something Courtney was eager, though skeptical, to try. "I was like, 'This whole idea is so ambitious that I'll be shocked if it actually works out.'"

Now with the coronavirus pandemic halting the live-music industry, that experiment has become their sole touring option, though they're not earning a cent through it at the moment. Monetizing it "was never something that we really thought of," Bleeker said. "It was just like, 'No, this is a cool thing that we've done and now, in this time, we can roll it out for this reason and foster some earnest connection.'" They've named it the "Quarantour," complete with dubbed-in topical stage banter that would've seemed unthinkable just five months ago. ("Sadly we're all stuck indoors right now," Bleeker says to open the show, "and it felt to us like we could all use a few songs.")

With tours and festivals on hold for the past month, cozy performances relegated to the glow of a digital screen have become the new normal. Even top-tier acts like Taylor Swift, Post Malone, and Lady Gaga have embraced homemade piano and guitar setups out of necessity. The stage lights, show-poster decor, and multiple angles make the Quarantour a few steps up from these diaristic webcam riggings; what really sets it apart is the now-unorthodox visual of a group. In this case, five people, standing less than 6 feet from each other, creating together in real time.

It's a sight Glaswegian synth-pop trio Chvrches tried to replicate in a recent video of their own, thanks to some clever editing. Since forming in 2011, the band — Lauren Mayberry, Iain Cook, and Martin Doherty — have stayed tight through three Billboard 200-charting albums and a handful of globe-trotting tours. But the coronavirus pandemic has kept them self-isolating separately across time zones for over a month now at a crucial juncture when they're laying out plans for their fourth LP.

"This is the longest time I've ever gone, I think, without seeing Iain and Martin since we met," vocalist Lauren Mayberry told MTV News. But they're still writing, even if their process has been upended, replaced with sending files in a "round-robin" kind of way. "A lot gets lost if you can't tell someone's body language or tone of voice or you can't get that immediate response," she said. "I feel like it just takes longer to communicate things."

That's why, when they do communicate, Chvrches opt for virtual catch-ups and quick calls instead of texting: "Sometimes we've been playing each other things over the phone. Martin called me a couple of times to be like, 'What about this?' just before he records it." Yet even as they're looking ahead, Chvrches recently found an opportunity to revisit the past.

In March, a track from their 2018 album, Love Is Dead took off after its placement in Netflix's Spanish teen thriller series Elite. The song, "Forever," hit over 1 million streams in a single week, finding the band in a unique moment. They tried to record it live while still remote. It didn't quite work. "It just sounds like we can't play in time with each other," Mayberry recalled thinking. "We had to figure that out the hard way."

So they pivoted. They set up a video call among group members, including touring bassist Jonny Scott, each giving "Forever" a few run-throughs. But only one member's audio was enabled at a time while the others mimed on mute. Afterward, every layer was mixed together for a final unified song. This allowed them to bang out a new, remotely produced "Forever" they recorded together, capturing the group's energy without the choppy chaos of a conference call.

"Everything is played live, just not 100 percent at the same time," Mayberry said. They polished this technique for a remote performance, stylistically filmed like a proper music video, on The Tonight Show last week as well.

Likewise, Twenty One Pilots filmed their latest video for "Level of Concern," a song the duo created in quarantine, while isolating in separate locations. "It's how we did it when we started, too. We grabbed a camera and just started filming ourselves playing music," Tyler Joseph said on SiriusXM last week. As Joseph tweeted, the writing process itself was as simple as "sending some files."

The internet long ago made in-person connection an obsolete prerequisite to creating music collaboratively. But even as songwriters and artists freely email raw takes — as modern pop production goes — the recording studio still exists as a place for all parties to get on the same frequency. In the age of the pandemic, that space is now gone, but the vibing spirit remains.

It's inescapable on "Cheesin'," a joyful new mini R&B posse cut masterminded by Cautious Clay and producer Hxns (who styles his name in all caps). The duo assembled the song's bedrock — a gliding guitar loop, a minimal beat, a patented silky hook from Clay — well before social distancing took hold. It didn't feel right for his upcoming album, so Clay set it aside. He picked it back up recently, at a time when quarantined creatives might've felt "at a standstill."

"It felt like a really cool time to just kind of highlight and bring light to a situation that's not very great, almost smiling about it," Clay said. Hence, "Cheesin'," a sunny two-minute skateboard ride that still breezes through five different vocalists, including Clay, Remi Wolf, Still Woozy, Sophie Meiers, and Claud. Guitar virtuoso Melanie Faye rips a quick solo at the end, too. It was a group effort assembled remotely piece by piece, something Clay said he feels captures the spirit of the moment. It's also why all proceeds from the song go to benefit MusiCares's COVID-19 Relief Fund; so far, "Cheesin'" has raised over $40,000.

"It reinforces the very nature of the song because we weren't together when we made it," Clay said. "We all just kind of created it and then it slowly just morphed into what it became."

Hxns, who has only been making music for a few years, first cooked up its foundation after hearing that "fucking sick" guitar loop. Sending a new file to Clay wasn't anything out of the ordinary. "This is the main way for me that I've made music with a lot of people. So it feels pretty organic still," he said.

Charli XCX, a generous collaborator herself, has spent the past three weeks creating as organically as she can. As she's crafting her new album, How I'm Feeling Now, in real time on social media, the future-pop visionary has kept busy sharing lyrics as she writes them and posting sound snippets as she tweaks them remotely with producer A.G. Cook and fellow digital creators 100 gecs.

"I didn't just do the album to fill up my time. I did it because, for me to feel positive, I need to be creative," she told Stereogum last week. While album cycles are typically carefully curated and planned out months in advance, Charli revealing her collaborative approach with both fans and her own musical team feels revolutionary.

For Mayberry and Chvrches, the act of creating in quarantine can still feel like working uphill. "Some moments are really efficient, and I can get loads done and I'm productive, and then I stare into space and have a sense of doom forever," she said. But she also put stock in how the unexpected challenge of creating remotely galvanized her band, and what it might mean for the future of creatives in this environment: "I do think if we haven't had pushed to make that separate, put-together version, it would have taken us longer to figure out how we were going to create in this new, alternate universe."

The guys in Real Estate, meanwhile, are wondering what comes next as this period of self-isolation stretches into another month and beyond. "The livestream thing is the first easy idea, and the Quarantour thing was something we were lucky enough to be able to roll out. But it's like, what else do we have?" Bleeker said. "As artists and as musicians, I think we're going to have to think of creative interesting ways to make it a little bit more dynamic as we go on."

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