You may have seen Josh Pearson at an open mic or a concert somewhere in Amherst, you may have heard him on WMUA at some point, or maybe you’ve just seen him around campus. Pearson, a senior communications major from Barre, MA has made a name for himself in the Valley with his music, and is looking to do even more of it after graduation. He is also committed to helping people with visual impairments like himself navigate college. Here’s an insight into the man behind the guitar and the man behind the microphone.
Her Campus: How did you start playing music?
Josh Pearson: I played the piano for about 10 years, doing all the classical stuff. My teacher was one of those proper old New England church ladies, so I got the religion in me early. However, I found that it wasn’t really the vehicle for me, so when I was a teenager I got into folk music and into writing my own stuff. My style’s always evolving, but it usually stays within the roots and folk stuff. After the piano, I had a high school Spanish teacher who taught me a few chords on the ukulele, and I got a guitar. After I came here to UMass, I feel like I flourished as a musician. I could connect with people who knew the kind of stuff I was doing and could talk shop, or I could play to people who had no clue what I was doing but liked it anyway.
HC: One of the venues you play at the most often is the Black Sheep on Main Street in Amherst. How did you get involved with them?
JP: A friend of mine who plays in NoHo a fair amount told me that I should go check out their open mic. Up until then, I’d played a few frats, a couple of bar gigs, and I’d busked when the weather was nice, but I hadn’t played at the Black Sheep before. However, in the fall of 2013 I found myself in the position where I had Thursday nights (when they do the open mics) free, and I wanted to fill it with something. After a few shows there, I became a regular.
HC: Do you think having that space helped you to grow as a performer?
JP: Definitely. Before the Sheep, I’d just get onstage and play whatever, but now I feel like I have better control of the crowd. If I feel excited and I feel that the crowd is excited, I’ll do some upbeat folk or blues or whatever. If I sense that their energy is lower, I’ll mellow it out. I’m better able to get a response and feed off the crowd now.
HC: Have you noticed a change in the Black Sheep since you started playing there?
JP: Yeah, there are a lot more UMass students that come up and play, and a lot more people who are willing to experiment, and some other folks have become regulars as well. I guess they got bitten by the bug, too. What I like about the Sheep is that with the regulars, you get to know them as people as well as musicians, and you see that a lot of folks are serious about the music both in making it and appreciating it. I’ve played places where the audience doesn’t really give a sh*t, which kinda hurts because my music is really lyric-driven, so if you’re not listening to the words you’re not getting a lot out of it. At the Sheep, they listen.
HC: For those who can’t make it out to a Thursday at the Sheep, have you made any recordings?
JP: Yes. I have a couple of albums out, but I’m more excited about the one that I’m actually going into Cottage Street Studios in Easthampton on Saturday to work on. It’s taken a while to figure out what my style is. I don’t really know of folks that go back as far as I do with some of the styles I write in, like, all the way back to the 1890s at times. It’s tough to gauge the kind of response I’d get out of it, so I asked myself whether I’d sell out and do more modern stuff or keep writing the way I want to write. I figured I’d do the latter.
HC: Wow, can’t wait until those come out! Is there anywhere where we can hear those first two albums?
JP: They’ll be up on iTunes and at joshuapearson.bandcamp.com in about a month. I haven’t really officially released them, they’re pretty rough demo tapes. However, they’re things I can show to venues, and if you ask me for them I can give them to you. I haven’t really put them out on a grand scale yet. They’re usually just vocals and guitar or ukulele.
HC: You’ve also been working on starting a songwriters’ collective for the Valley. What prompted you to start that?
JP: There’s nothing like it around here. There’s lots of folks who write music, but nobody is really gathering together to push each other to write, so it seems. Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash held songwriting circles back in the day where musicians could get together and bounce ideas off of one another. The idea I’ve had is to get a community going with this, to make it about the people first and the music second, and with this we can set up workshops and maybe even a festival or something. The folk scene here is huge, but I don’t think it particularly gets its due.
(Ed. Note, if you want to join the Valley Songwriters’ Collective, please click here.)
HC: As if you weren’t behind a mic enough onstage, you’re also on the radio. Can you tell us more about your show?
JP: Sure, it’s called Midnight Honey from the Diamond Mine, and it’s on WMUA on Wednesdays from 2:30-4:30pm. I generally just dig through my record collection of old folk, blues, and other stuff, but I love to get live artists in the studio as well. I want to help some people get exposure through that as well. I have a co-host who does some of the more modern folk stuff, but I stick with the old-time stuff.
HC: What are some of the other things that you do at UMass?
JP: Man, I wear a lot of hats. I’m trying to fit 192 hours of stuff into a 168 hour week. I work at Disability Services, do some tutoring, work with OIT, and I teach tech accessibility. How to make the technology work for everyone, essentially. When technology is rolled out on campus, I try to make sure that it works well for those with visual impairment, so I test a lot of the technology. It’s actually been huge in my career here. While I could have been as successful as I am here without the technological advances, it would have been a lot harder. I think we live in an age where with the technology we can get past the physical idea of a disability. Technology can help to level the playing field in the classroom, and I love that I can work with the school to make sure it works.
HC: Have you noticed any improvements in visually-impaired access at UMass throughout your tenure?
JP: It’s hard to say. As new technology has come along, we’ve always embraced the newest stuff. In terms of my own use, it has improved, but it’s only because the technology has improved. Disability Services is pretty cutting-edge with its technology. We want to make sure the campus is taken care of and that everyone has access to what they need. At the end of the day, we’re all here for an education, so if we can help with that that’s what matters.
HC: Have you noticed any places where UMass is lacking in accommodations for the visually impaired?
JP: Definitely. For starters, there’s snow removal. That’s just a general campus access issue, but it’s a big one. There are a few other ones, though. I’ve had a very difficult time at the Harvest since it’s self-serve. Apart from working with someone-and I’m a very independent person, I pride myself on that-I can’t figure it out. The accessibility isn’t taken into account. That and the Blue Wall and other places like that-sometimes you have to rely on other people to show you which food station is which. There’s not a lot of Braille or large-print lettering with a lot of the labels there. I just think it’s a shame to see UMass being so dedicated to accessibility on some fronts, but lacking in others.
HC: That is definitely some food for thought. Anyway, one final question: Your dog Alpha is well-known on this campus, can you tell us a little more about him?
JP: It’s kind of strange. When people meet me, sometimes most of what they remember is about the dog. It’s important to know that he’s a dog, but there’s also a person on the other end of the leash. He wouldn’t be on this campus if I wasn’t here. That said, his name is Alpha, I’ve had him for five years, and he’s been a huge part in making sure I travel safely.