Gideon Irving is a professional skipper of towns. Before his current tour in collaboration with the Foundry Theater, Living Here: A Map of Songs, he was traversing New Zealand on a bicycle, schlepping all of his equipment with him in a trailer, as he went looking for places to stay and perform.
"I thought I'd try to gain a little sympathy from folks," Irving told me, "And see if it would help me get into their homes, if they pitied the fool who was lugging 200 pounds of instruments on a trailer over the mountain."
Once he found a home for the night, he'd put on his show—a concert interlaced with stories, jokes, and improvised chat. This is Irving's practice: He is a vagabond singing storyteller, performing in people's private homes in exchange for their stories, their audience, and a bed (or a couch, or a floor) to sleep on for the night. As he travels, Irving builds his network of venues by asking audiences to write their adventurous friends' names and numbers on a map of the world. Those names and numbers become his database of venues—homes where he'll go in the future, perform, and stay the night.
Irving's current show, Living Here: A Map of Songs, is taking him across all five boroughs of New York. I saw him perform on a Thursday evening on the Upper West Side in a brownstone.
When I arrived at the show, I was greeted at the door of the home by an officialish woman with a clipboard (one of a number of differences between Irving's independent shows and his current collaboration with the Foundry). Upstairs, I was met by Irving, who shook my hand firmly and did that trick where you repeat someone's name to build intimacy, and also to help you remember it. He took me to the living room and introduced me to two perfect blonde twins, a boy and a girl—the hostesses' kids. "This is Jennifer," he said my name like we were old pals. (This, I would later discover, is Irving's way with people: cutting through the time-consuming small talk and speeding straight to the stage of friendship.) "She writes for VICE. But you guys probably don't know what that is." The boy shook his head, then ran down the hallway, barefoot in his own home. Irving would perform barefoot, too.
I walked to the kitchen to hang up my coat on a makeshift rack, peeking around the house before settling onto a couch in the giant living room, where a basic stage and set had been placed. Irving's practice is as much an act of curious, art-sanctioned voyeurism as it is anything else. Who doesn't want to travel the world looking into people's lives?
That's sort of the overriding sentiment of Irving's show: He's falling in love all the time. He's falling in love with his audience right now.
As the audience settled in for the show, I found myself seated next to a dad and his preteen daughter. When I asked him how he knew about the show, he grinned, "Oh, we're great friends with Melanie!" and gestured vaguely to his right. I had no idea who Melanie was. "Of course!" I said, trying to adopt Irving's air of at-homeness.
It was time for the show, which flew by like a fever dream. Irving is nothing if not charismatic, and the audience was rapt with attention—with the exception of the boy twin, who shouted up at the stage "Do maaaagic!" from his mother's lap. Irving laughed, and pointed at a singed spot in his set. "A few nights ago, I almost set the stage on fire, buddy. That's what happens when I try magic."
Over the course of the 90 minutes that followed, Irving played songs that ranged from full-out ballads to ten-second riffs, playing on a guitar and an instrument that looked like a sitar and an accordion that he'd been given by a postal service worker named Joe. Irving is a versatile musician with a powerful, emotive voice. He toys with synths and beats and at one point, he asks for an iPhone from the crowd and builds a little symphony out of that shitty, tinny ditty that wakes me up every morning. He mixes the tech stuff in alongside good, old-fashioned acoustic strings. Think of Irving as the lovechild of The Tallest Man on Earth and Ben Folds. But louder.
Irving's art is about his travels and he travels for his art. His songs are about the people he's met and the places he's stayed. And his philosophy is simple. "People ask, 'But don't you wanna put down roots?' Yes!" he says to the audience. "But I wanna put them down everywhere." Irving doesn't want kids, he explains in the show. He wants his audiences to have kids, though, kids who he can stay with and perform for, when they're grown. "People ask, 'But don't you wanna fall in love?'" Irving pauses. "I fall in love all. The. Time."
While the notion of the traveling troubadour could trace its roots back by millennia, Irving was inspired by Julian Koster, a modern-day vagabond singer and circus performer. "I started traveling in late 2011, after seeing [Koster] perform a show in a home. It opened my eyes to the idea of homes as a venue. I wanted to give that a go, and my best friend Hubcap told me that New Zealand would be a great place to try building a new show in people's homes because when acts go on tour over there, no one ever plays small towns."
When Irving would arrive on the other side of a mountain or valley to small New Zealand towns, he was almost always met with a warm welcome. "People were so happy that I'd worked so hard to get where they were," he told me. "They were very hospitable; it allowed me to develop a show and a practice."
Irving performed to a community of Māoris, the indigenous Polynesians of New Zealand. He even stayed in family home next door to the current Māori King, Tuheitia Paki. "It was interesting," Irving reminisced, "I got to go on a little tour of the palace and the traditional royal meeting ground. It was very ornate; whenever dignitaries are visiting, they entertain them there. But when they don't have any foreign guests, the king just lives in this little house next to all these other families and people see him on the street and call him 'King!'"
Back in the United States, he continued to travel and gather more material for his art, performing in places that ranged from the most expensive apartment in America (the subject of one of the songs in his latest show) to a geodesic dome in the Redwoods.
In the middle of his show, Irving sings about his life spent multitasking. When you've met as many people has he has, and you're trying to keep in touch with them all while on the road, corners get cut in the service of postcards and stamps. While singing "Postcard" (I just want a little more love / from a lot more people all the time / I want to be everyone's favorite / and favorite them every and all to be mine ... from Norway to Jersey, Phoenix to Turkey, Paris to Palestine), Irving hopped around the audience to deliver postcards to a few of us. Mine read:
As he closed out his show, Irving took an unexpected, but moving, turn towards the traditional, crooning out a slow rendition of "There's No Business Like Show Business." And when Irving sang, "Everything about it is appealing... everything the traffic will allow..." I know he meant it. This is a man who spends up to six hours a day driving and biking alone on foreign roads, before hopping on stage to do his show.
When I spoke with Irving a few days after his show, I asked him what story he's trying to tell his audience. He didn't miss a beat. "To be unreasonable," he said. "Everything I've done since beginning this project has seemed kind of silly, and maybe too difficult or complicated to get done. But I've found that when I commit to that kind of idea, and share it with other people, they get excited about it and want to be a part of it. And once you've done one unreasonable thing, people have a little more faith in you. That faith has given me a lot of strength and confidence to not shy away from any absurd idea. I want to build an elaborate show that's performed for just one person each night. It's incredible to see people inspired and responsive to taking risks, to inspire them to do unreasonable things themselves."
Gideon Irving's Living Here: A Map of Songs continues through May 2. Tickets are available via The Foundry Theater. Irving will also be performing at the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Follow Jennifer Schaffer on Twitter.