By David Templeton | From the November-December 2020 issue of Strings magazine
“It’s been a wild and crazy journey, to say the least,” laughs violinist Damien Escobar, chuckling his way through another day in COVID lockdown as he prepares lunch for his kids and his fiancé. “I got to tell you, I have experienced every emotion one can experience, and a lot of them all at once,” he says, and though Escobar is clearly talking about the “crisis mode” he entered when the pandemic first hit the country, he could just as well be talking about his tumultuous path to the present—definitely a journey, and one he is the first to admit he’s learned and grown from. “I tell people all the time,” he says, “‘In every situation, the first thing I think of is how to help others. What I can do? I’ve learned that the best way to get through a tough time is to remember you are not the only one hurting.”
Originally from Jamaica, Queens, New York, Escobar is an acclaimed violinist, author, and arts advocate with a biography that is filled with wildly divergent ups, downs, rebounds, and rediscoveries. As a kid, he and his violin-playing brother Tourie performed as buskers in the New York subways, and under the name “Nuttin’ But Stringz” appeared on Showtime at the Apollo, The Ellen Degeneres Show, The Today Show, and The Tonight Show. They began recording, enjoyed chart-hitting tunes, concert tours, and a part in the movie Step Up. Along the way they picked up a pair of Emmy Awards, and performed with a Who’s Who of musical legends, including Aretha Franklin, Mary J. Blige, Patti LaBelle, Stevie Wonder, John Legend, Miley Cyrus, and Justin Bieber.
Not long after almost winning America’s Got Talent in 2008, the duo dissolved, ushering in a period of depression and homelessness for Escobar. Eventually, he got a real estate license and became a broker, and for a while set aside the violin completely.
Then music called again, and with a renewed vigor and enthusiasm for the violin, Escobar launched a solo career with the 2013 release of Sensual Melodies. He’s written a children’s book, The Sound of Strings, and has established collaborative relationships with an array of creators, launching his own custom violin line, boutique wines and perfumes, and, of course, more music, including his 2018 album Boundless.
Before the coronavirus pulled the plug on his plans for 2020, Escobar was ready for a major next couple of years, with a world tour, new music, and a long-in-the-works Christmas album still set for a November release. In the earliest days of the global shutdowns, recognizing that “something really bad” was about to happen, Escobar reached out to healthcare organizations in immediate need of equipment and nonprofits that support artists impacted by the imminent loss of gigs and income. At the end of March, he announced a livestreaming concert, originally intended to raise money for creatives who were losing gigs and income, but then quickly pivoted, as the health emergency hit New York hard, to a benefit raising money for emergency and protective supplies for health professionals. Initially scheduled for April 3, the concert, titled “Breakthrough,” was postponed for a few days when Escobar was involved in a car accident the day of the show.
“It was madness,” Escobar says. “But we still did the concert, raised $50,000 bucks, and played to around 100,000 people. And this was in the first days of all these COVID livestreams. Now, just a few months later, lots of people are doing it, but we were there among the first to do it. Shortly after that, we decided to just keep raising money for more masks for our health heroes.”
It’s all about helping out other people. A lot of people are really hurting right now.
Having recorded the “Breakthrough” show, Escobar released it as a live album during the summer, with proceeds continuing to help those on the frontlines of the COVID crisis. And with all of that happening, he’s still been working steadily on the aforementioned, still-unnamed-at-the-time-of-this-interview, much anticipated Christmas album.
“I’m so excited to be releasing a Christmas album,” says Escobar. “Seriously, I love Christmas so much, and I love Christmas music. And people have been asking me for years to produce a Christmas record. I’ve never had the time. But now, I’m finishing it up, working around the clock to get it done, but we’re still recording, and it’s just really special, very Motown-sounding. Think Motown mixed with Michael Bublé, just a crazy mash-up.”
The plan is for the EP to have seven tunes, all Escobar’s unique interpretations of familiar music, released along with a virtual holiday concert. Among the tunes he’s covering that he is the most excited about, Escobar admits, is his own violin-powered spin on “This Christmas,” the 1971 Donny Hathaway song that’s been covered by virtually everyone over the last 50 years.
“I’m really vibin’ with ‘This Christmas.’ It feels so good,” he says. “I already know it’s going to be my favorite on this record. I love Christmas, I admit it. I’m that guy who listens to Christmas music in July and doesn’t care who knows. It’s the nostalgia of it, the magic of it. So I’m looking forward to putting this EP out and sharing some of that with the world.”
Before that, though, Escobar is planning another major virtual concert, in partnership with Lula Cellars, in Philo, California.
“I’m bringing jazz online, where a lot of people believe there is no audience for jazz,” he says. “I beg to differ. So I’m taking an online festival to the masses, sometime later this year, and we’re bringing in many, many artists. I’ve got a strong and faithful online audience, and I want to use that to bring some appreciation to some of these other great artists who maybe haven’t had that big of an audience yet. It’s all about helping out other people. A lot of people are really hurting right now.”
From the long list of projects already mentioned, and others he mentions here and there throughout our conversation—including dropping a few new singles and videos between now and the end of the year—one could easily assume that Escobar has somehow remained in constant motion, avoiding any loss of momentum at a time when so many are finding themselves running out of work to keep them engaged and moving forward. Escobar admits he started out that way, but then something happened that put the brakes on his drive to keep the wheels of creativity and engagement spinning.
“It may appear that I haven’t slowed down, because I still have a lot of projects happening, but the truth is, I’ve slowed down tremendously, and it’s a big blessing, actually,” he says. “When it all started in March, I really was in crisis mode, and I was just literally nonstop with all these ideas, then more ideas, then more ideas. Then around June or July, I started to slow down and pace myself. And that is when I finally started feeling all the emotions around what is happening in the world. It just hit me so hard, and so I decided to take a bit of a break, for about a month and a half.”
That break came courtesy of COVID-19, which Escobar was confirmed to have at exactly that time.
“That was a s—t-show, those six weeks, I’m telling you,” he says, with wry, pained amusement. “But in that time I really finally had a moment to think about what is truly important to me. A lot has changed, I’m telling you, and it happened fast, ’cause that’s how it goes with being sick. A lot of things that used to be important to me just aren’t important anymore.”
It’s a feeling he says is shared by many of his friends in the arts and music scene. “Our industry has been impacted so much,” he says, “and at this point, there’s no real timetable for returning. But when you are forced to stop, you get to ask yourself, is life really about how many tickets you can sell? How many concert venues you can fill? The answer is no. Life is about impact, the impact your life has on the lives of others. And there’s a new emphasis on that now, for me.”
Asked if there is anything he’s been using his downtime for that he’d normally never have allowed himself to pursue, Escobar laughs again. “Tennis,” he says. “Tennis has been my thing since recovering. That and meditating. And using the Peloton has been my escape from everything. It’s all been about mindfulness, fitness, and self-care. I’ve been doing this nonstop for so long, never home more than ten days at a time. That’s the one silver lining in this whole thing: finally having the chance to connect with myself. Spending time with my children and my family. But as far as, you know, new hobbies go, it’s been all about tennis. I’m watching the U.S. Open now, and sometimes I feel like I can jump through that screen onto the court and actually do a little somethin’.”
The major new thing Escobar has been tackling, of course, is the rapid adoption and expansion of streaming technologies to create better and better virtual concert experiences for his fans. He’s been doing a number of private virtual concerts and corporate concerts from his home, and those audiences have been across the globe.
“Look, I know it’s not that same as a live show,” he allows. “It’s not the same for me at all. It’s harder to connect with a camera or a computer, but the truth is, it’s something that still brings people joy. And honestly, I did a concert for a company in Australia. I’ve never done a show in Australia, but then, because of this technology, I just did. That’s a cool thing. Even when concerts come back, I think what COVID will have done is create a virtual audience that will be huge.”
Escobar believes that what is already happening in small ways, with venues like House of Blues collaborating with web-based companies with the technological depth to create professionally produced streaming content, will ultimately lead to larger audiences and, possibly, much needed new streams of income.
“I think what we’re looking at,” he says, “are musical shows that happen onstage with a live audience, when it’s safe to do that again, that are also livestreamed across the world at a discounted rate for fans who can’t get from London or Australia to Texas, or wherever the show is originating from. I think the world was already going in that direction, but it just got fast-tracked because of the pandemic.
“But as positive as that might be,” he adds, “there will never be anything that can replace that in-person live contact between an artist and the audience. I don’t think that’s ever going away. Someday, we’ll get to have that again, and there will always be audiences who recognize the power of that, and there will always be performers ready to give them that experience.”
Until then, it seems we’ll be seeing a lot more of Damien Escobar online. “Look, the music industry is going through a rough time, but music is still music, and art is still art,” Escobar says, “and it still has the power to move us, even on the other end of a computer screen.”