Local podcast grows, an interview and download at a time 

by Karina Coombs

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Carlisle’s Chuck Clough interviews a guest for his podcast “Above the Basement: Boston Music and Conversation,” launched with co-founder and co-host Ronnie Hirschberg in June 2016. the podcast has now been downloaded in all 50 states and in 50 countries.
(Photo by Michelle Gendreau)

An ex-financial services executive and a physiatrist walk into a farm-to-table restaurant. They are followed by a rotating cast of Boston area musicians, singer-songwriters, producers, band managers, radio DJs, music bloggers and venue bookers. Wide-ranging conversation ensues, and, with a laptop and some microphones, a podcast is born. 

Above the Basement

“I just love it when it’s a good conversation,” says Carlisle’s Chuck Clough of his podcast, “Above the Basement: Boston Music and Conversation,” launched in June 2016 with Ronnie Hirschberg of Acton. The show’s title is a nod to artists who have taken their work out of a literal or metaphorical basement or private space and made it public.

Inspired by the back and forth discussions heard on comedian Marc Maron’s popular podcast, “WTF with Mark Maron,” Clough’s podcast features a casual conversation style interview between the hosts and their guests. And while it might involve unexpected topics such as Jewel’s discussion of mindfulness or Don Henley’s thoughtful discussion of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, it always circles back to the common thread of music and what it means and represents to each guest. “That is our goal. To have a conversation... [and] we really make a point of being a part of it.”  

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Ronnie Hirschberg (left) and Chuck Clough interview four-time Grammy Award nominee singer-songwriter Jewel at the Umbrella in Concord. She discussed her rise to fame, her connection to Boston and her new project, Never Broken, which promotes wellness through mindfulness and anxiety reduction. Jewel has sold over 30 million albums worldwide.
(Photo by Michelle Gendreau)

In the 15 months the podcast has been active, Clough and Hirschberg have interviewed dozens of well-known musicians and artists and are fresh off the August release of their most famous guest to date, the aforementioned Henley who was in the area because of his involvement with the Walden Woods Project that he founded in 1990. “Now we don’t feel uncomfortable asking anybody [to be on the show],” says Clough who recently published their 50th episode, a “State of the Conversation” question and answer session, where Clough and Hirschberg discussed the progress of the show to date and things to come. 

Other Carlisleans involved in the podcast are guest host and member of the “Above the Basement’s” Board of Advisers Jonathan Beakley and photographer Joe Wallace who, along with Acton photographer Michelle Gendreau, captures images of the guests and their interview environment. Their photographs are featured on the podcast’s website for each episode. 

Getting back to music

“I’d always kind of played,” says Clough of his relationship with music, “but I didn’t get back to music until I got stuck behind the desk job.” Having grown up in neighboring Concord, Clough played guitar and sang in bands throughout high school and during his time at Northeastern University. After graduation, he made his way to The American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York for a three-year acting program, eventually starting his own theater company, which put on a number of productions. “If you can’t get work, you get your own,” says Clough, who after 10 years in the business decided to take an office job. 

Realizing he needed a creative outlet, Clough co-founded the band Northern Point, releasing three albums between 2005 and 2010 before he returned to the local area in 2010 and formed the band, The Butler Frogs. In addition to providing the show’s theme music, the band—of which Hirschberg is also a member—appeared on episode 28 of the podcast, with their first EP scheduled for release this fall.

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Ronnie Hirschberg and Chuck Clough pause for a photograph at Boston’s Symphony Hall. The pair interviewed Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart for the podcast’s 39th episode, where he discussed his work at Boston area hospitals and his 23 years with the Pops.
(Photo by Joe Wallace)

Hirschberg, a physiatrist specializing in trauma rehabilitation at Massachusetts General Hospital, was also involved with music during his teens and while in college. He and Clough met at Concord’s Main Streets Café, and it was Hirschberg’s Deer Mountain Songwriter Series where local songwriters were invited to perform their work with his trio, The Ronnie Hirschberg Band, that first inspired the podcast. 

“I thought it was kind of interesting,” explains Clough of the stories he heard during the shows. “Some of them were teachers, some of them had regular jobs [and] some of them were full-time musicians.” The idea of sharing the music and stories of artists and musicians appealed to both Clough and Hirschberg. With podcasts having a low cost of entry, the idea took shape. “And it’s kind of flourished,” says Clough who, after being laid off last fall decided to make the podcast his full-time project, calling it, “as good a time as any” to take a chance. 

The growth of an industry and a show

How popular are podcasts? A recent report from Edison Research discovered that 24% of the population above the age of 12 listened to podcasts monthly (67 million people)—up from 21% in 2016, with the average listener now subscribed to six. And industry analysts predict a boost to these figures and the medium with the growth of smart speakers in the home such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Google Home. 

“Above the Basement” is very much a DIY project, with Clough building the show’s website and social media presence, recording and editing the episodes and managing public relations. The hosts have recorded 80 percent of their shows at Concord’s Woods Hill Table restaurant, which is owned by Clough’s sister, Kristin Canty. With fairly portable equipment they’ve also recorded at The Umbrella, Symphony Hall, The Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods, an actual basement, Club Passim, The Sinclair and the Charles Playhouse where they recently interviewed Blue Man Group for an upcoming episode. 

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Ronnie Hirschberg and Chuck Clough interview Josh Bhatti, a talent booker for the Cambridge restaurant and music venue The Sinclair. Bhatti is also with “The Bowery presents”, a concert promotion and venue management company.
(Photo by Joe Wallace)

“Certainly when we first started it was a little terrifying [because] I don’t know how to interview people,” says Clough of the podcast’s early days. “[But] you learn as you go and figure out how to do it.” One thing Clough did not have to worry about was taking front stage and talking to an audience. “Being in front of people is not a problem,” he says, but admits to discovering certain speaking idiosyncrasies during the editing process, which he is now more aware of when in front of the microphone. The hosts have also taken listener feedback to heart and have worked on finding a balance between talking and the music that is featured in each show.

When it came to finding guests in the beginning, Clough and Hirschberg started with “friendlies,” people they knew or had played with in the past. Hirschberg also reached out to Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart for an episode through his role at MGH and to lead guitarist for the band Boston, Garry Pihl, in his role as neighbor, asking him to appear on the show as he stood in Pihl’s driveway, with Pihl still in his car. “Ron has connected us with a lot of different musicians,” says Clough. 

For his part, Clough reached out to Henley using a family connection with the Thoreau Institute and was pleasantly surprised when he agreed to an interview. “He was great,” says Clough. “Don’s (interview) was interesting because we mostly talked about Thoreau. We got onto music a little later.” (Spoiler: Henley is a Bruno Mars fan.) Clough also reached out to former Morphine drummer and current Vapors of Morphine drummer Jerome Deupree, once he found out he lived in Carlisle, with Deupree performing live during the episode, something they encourage many artists to do. “It’s all about live music,” explains Clough who tries to get listeners out to the venues to hear the music. “For the musician, it’s their bread and butter.”

The podcast takes off

“We’re in a real big growth spurt right now” says Clough, explaining that the show has grown from 300 downloads per month to nearly 2,000 per month, with early episodes still gaining attention and downloads on iTunes and Stitcher. As of August, “Above the Basement” has been downloaded in all 50 states and in more than 50 countries including Namibia, Japan, Norway, Iceland and Russia. “We’re being listened to in Russia!” says Clough. “It’s insane, it’s crazy [and] it’s cool.”

Clough and Hirschberg have also seen a shift when it comes to getting guests. “Our name is starting to pop up,” says Clough. While some artists and managers are reaching out to them directly for interviews, more importantly for Clough and Hirschberg, is that when they reach out, people now get back to them, reflected in the number of interviews they have scheduled to record. “When you put out an album, it’s a huge deal,” Clough explains. “I get to do it once a week with the podcast. It’s like so cool to press, ‘publish.’ It’s a little mini rush.”

Their newest interview with Ruby Rose Fox, winner of the 2015 Boston Music Award’s Best Pop Artist and Best Female Vocalist, was released on August 30. Their episode with Blue Man Group will be released later this month and going forward, Clough and Hirschberg will be interviewing hip-hop artist Moe Pope, singer-songwriter Alastair Moock, Italian pianist Roberto Plano and singer-songwriter Jonatha Brooke. “Getting big names is cool, and we have a couple that I don’t want to let out of the bag yet that are coming on,” says Clough, “but the more fun ones are the ones you don’t expect to be really great.”

To learn more about “Above the Basement,” visit the website at http://www.abovethebasement.com where you can subscribe via iTunes or Stitcher (for Android), listen to episodes, extras and in concert recordings, photos and videos, artist links, merchandise and causes promoted by the show. “Above the Basement” can also be found on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/AboveTBasement/    ∆