By Madeline Pennington
“Do you think spirit colors are a thing? Because I think mine is green.” Grammy-nominated musician Courtney Hartman calls to the crowd of the grungy Chapel Hill bar. In response, the audience of college kids, donning their wire-framed glasses and Doc Martens, whoop and holler in affirmation.
Hartman grins bashfully as she strums the intro to the next song on her set list. The energy is youthful, and electric. However, just two days ago, her show was much different.
February 3, 2019- while the rest of America gears up for the Super Bowl, Courtney Hartman taps her bare foot on the hardwood floor as she goes through the motions of her soundcheck. Her stage, a living room in Huntersville North Carolina,. her audience- about four rows of six chairs. In a room so small, Hartman contemplates whether she should even use a microphone. She croons part of a verse into the mic, and then does it again sans mic.
The scene begs the question- why would a Grammy-nominated artist choose to play a house show?
Founder of Passion House Concerts, Matthew Seneca, believes his concerts give artists a more intimate, low-stakes environment to play at in addition to their other tour dates. He adds that his shows attract artists because he keeps none of the profits.
Hartman feels similarly. Though house concerts come with their fair share of challenges, she enjoys experimenting with her set list and sound during these shows.
Low production, High quality
For both the artist and the audience, a Passion House concert is a unique experience that prioritizes music above all. Seneca seeks to strip away the bells and whistles of a traditional concert venue, put the audience as close as they can get to the performance, and give the artist creative freedom with their set.
As Hartman sound-checks, Seneca bustles about his kitchen setting out bowls of snacks and cases of seltzer. He finishes his spread with a basket of his mother’s homemade scones.
Though Seneca tries to refrain from putting out too much of a spread that could distract from the musician’s performance, part of him can’t get over the feeling that he’s just inviting friends over to his house to hang out.
He isn’t the only one supplying food either. Often, some of his more dedicated concertgoers offer to bring snacks as well. For the Hartman show, one concertgoer brings a platter of barbecue sliders and encourages the room to indulge.
A sense of community nurtures each guest as they enter Seneca’s home. Seneca greets each person with a handshake or a hug and thanks them for coming. He then directs them to the Donations basket in his foyer, reminding each guest that all profits go directly to Hartman.
Seneca and Hartman look like yin and yang, chaos and calm. While Seneca bounces from person to person, chatting amiably, Hartman is a still image. In the same way Seneca seems to energize people with his presence, Hartman calms.
Seneca recalls how it has always been this sort of dynamic with Hartman. They met two years ago at the Swannanoa Gathering in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Swannanoa is a folk arts summer workshop where musicians of all ages and skill levels go to take varied guitar and songwriting classes.
In the Summer of 2017, Hartman is an instructor at the gathering. After Seneca sees her perform, he becomes mesmerized with her skill. He describes her as a “quadruple- threat,” noting how her songwriting, singing, guitar playing and composing skills are unmatched with most other performers her age.
During their lunch break at the camp, Seneca sits with Hartman and approaches her with the idea of playing a house concert. He hands her his business card and they part ways, losing touch over the next two years, until Hartman finally reaches out wondering whether Seneca’s offer still stands.
Washing away the Past
In the two years in which Hartman and Seneca lose touch, Hartman pilgrimages to “The End of the Earth,” the northernmost peninsula in Spain. It is during this pilgrimage where she writes almost every song she plays during her Passion House Concert set.
She notes how this pilgrimage began as a way to force herself to write, but ended up as a way to find her way back to herself. She arrives at the Camino Finisterre, bathes naked in the river as is tradition, burns her old clothes and immediately goes to write what is the first song in her set list for her 2019 tour.
She tells this story to the crowd of twenty-something people in Seneca’s living room as she softly picks an acoustic melody on her guitar. The audience is enraptured in the performance, in Hartman’s skill, her demeanor, her energy. The beauty of the Passion House concert is how intimate the performance feels. Every twitch of the musician’s hand, every dimple- revealing smile- the audience catches it all.
These minute details keep audiences coming back to Seneca’s house in the suburbs. The appreciation from the audience and ability to really connect keeps Hartman playing house shows, while love of the music keeps Seneca opening his doors every few months.
Small Venue, Big Impact
After each show ends Seneca wonders if he’ll be able to do it again. Can he convince people to take a chance on mostly lesser-known artists and drive out to his house? Sometimes the answer is no.
Before the Hartman concert, Seneca was devastated because a good amount of his audience who had reserved tickets could no longer come.
That’s all just a part of the process though. Despite lower attendance than expected, Seneca’s love for music fuels him to continue his concert series.
While packing up her equipment, Hartman peers at the electric green walls in Seneca’s living room. “I’ve always loved the color green. It’s so hopeful. It’s my hope color.” she muses.
The concert catches Hartman at a turning point in her career. She’s just left her Grammy-nominated band Della Mae, and is venturing into the unknowns of a solo career. House concerts like her show at Passion House make her hopeful for the trajectory of her career.
No matter how many people come to see her play, what matters to Hartman most is the way she makes each individual feel. Whether she’s playing a bar or a living room, Hartman spreads hope with her music.
Seneca wonders where she may perform on her next tour. Hopefully, the walls of the venue will be green.
Edited by Nick Thompson