Martin Courtney (Real Estate) on Being a Quarantine Dad and Music Life in Limbo

His family has found a new rhythm, and he found some old music.

I’m not the kind of person who had a normal nine-to-five life before all this happened, and neither did my wife. She’s in nursing school. She was in school three days a week, and obviously that’s no longer happening. She works from home, she has virtual classes, Zoom meetings and stuff. Trying to set up the new schedule has taken a few weeks, and it was really stressful, and it’s still not ideal. We had it pretty dialed there, right up until everything fell apart. My wife would be in school and I’d be doing pick-ups and drop-offs and lunches for the girls that were in school, then Thursday and Friday I would go to my studio and try to do some writing. Now we’re just trying to find the new version of whatever that is.

I’ve found that since all of this started that I actually have way less free time. I think for a lot of people who don’t have kids, they have more. My life has gotten so much crazier, because no one’s going to school. It’s bonkers.

My oldest is almost 6, she’s in kindergarten. Then we have a 3 and a half year old and a year and a half old. They all have their moments, but it’s more that there’s most responsibility now. The 5-year-old is usually in school five days a week, and now that she’s not in kindergarten, I feel bad. When all this was starting, I could see clearly that this was not going to be a short thing. You just knew. “School’s closed for two weeks,” and then two weeks pass and it’s “School’s closed ‘til the end of April.” I just felt like, “You’ve already had your last day of kindergarten.” Which is so sad, because she really liked her teacher, and it was just sad all around.

I feel bad for kids that are older, that are actually in real school. I also feel bad for kids that depend on school for a safe place to go, people who are not in fortunate family situations. It’s a really bad thing that’s happening right now. She has her work now, though. Her teacher is awesome. Every day we’ll get a couple emails with a lesson plan for the day, and videos to watch. We have worksheets, things that they sent home a couple weeks ago. We picked up this huge packet of work for her, a couple sheets every day. It’s all doled out day by day. It’s cool, but it’s not the same for her. She really liked being in school. Sitting in a room with her at a desk, its hard for her to focus. She does really well in school, but at home, I don’t blame her. For the same reason that people like to have an office outside of home; it’s hard to work when you’re surrounded by your everyday life. Obviously it’s kindergarten, there’s not that pressure, but we’re trying to keep a schedule going.

I’ve sort of been able to find time for music. I still try and squeeze a couple hours in Thursday and Friday. Before we went into full-blast lockdown, there were rumblings that Cuomo might require everybody to stay completely at home. We thought maybe that was going to happen here, so I went to my studio, which is about 20 minutes away from home, and just grabbed my computer and some guitars and microphone — just as much stuff as I could.

I cleared out a room in my basement to work in, for recording demos and stuff. Now I’ve been trying to use this time to comb through old cassettes. I found this plastic shopping bag filled with cassettes, my old four-track tapes and stuff from college. I’ve just been sitting down there listening to these old four-tracks, hearing stuff that I completely forgot I wrote, which has been kind of fun. It’s weirdly moving, hearing some of these songs. Everything now is tinted with this different hue, because we’re living in such a weird time. I’m hearing these things that I wrote in my early 20s, and it’s like I’m sending myself a message from simpler times.

There’s only a couple of actual songs; I found this cover of a Little Wings song that I did but had totally forgotten about. I was a huge fan of Little Wings when I was in college, and I recorded this song, and now I know Kyle Field, I’ve played shows with him. I would never have been able to predict that when I was a kid. I sent it to him and I was like, “I made this in college!” It was cool to get to do that. I started a Bandcamp, and I’m thinking of compiling this stuff into a release, for fun, and maybe I could scrape a couple dollars off it too. I’m supposed to be on tour now, and the money thing is weird. And I’m trying to stay useful and maintain some feeling of productivity.

The most recent Real Estate record was already darker than anything I’d written before. Times were already tough. On a personal level, things were harder in the past few years, and then Trump… 2016 marked this downward turn and now instead of talking about a curve starting to flatten out, it just turned into a straight nosedive. That’s how it feels, anyway. You try to find things to feel hopeful about. It is going to end.

To be honest, though, it’s been hard. When I talk about making music recently, anything I’ve been writing… One project is just taking these little tapes and self-releasing them, my old stuff. And I was thinking about making another solo release, self-releasing maybe a compilation of instrumentals. It’s really hard for me to think about writing lyrics right now. I don’t know what I’d write about. I don’t want to write about what’s going on now. I’d have to write things that aren’t based on my current life. It’d have to be more songs that are funny or innocent. If I’m going to write lyrics, they’re not going to be super deep right now.

I worked so hard trying to make this Real Estate record that felt so personal and emotional in many ways, that I don’t know if I can go back into that now. I’d like to make something a little lighter. It’s nice to be able to do both.

I did hit this weird wall going into the latest record. I just felt like I didn’t know how to make music that felt like it was worthy of what’s happening in the world. It kind of feels silly to even try to make music right now. I feel like maybe I should be doing something more useful. Is this going to be it, what I end up doing with my life is making pop records? Being in an indie-rock band? [Laughs.] Is that even so bad? I’m pretty lucky to have been able to do this. I had that conversation with different people, including the guy who produced the record, Kevin. I was working with him on a separate project, recording songs for a friend’s movie. We were talking about that very thing, because he was having similar thoughts. This was the first time I had really stopped to question what I was doing with my life. I started doing it right out of college, and it kind of snowballed into an actual career.

At a certain point, to be totally honest, it felt like it was plateauing in a way. Like this might be it: I just keep putting out records and playing nice sized venues. If we can keep that going, that’s great, but it didn’t feel like we were on an upward trajectory like we had been. That whole thing is so exciting. Earlier on when we first started getting attention, and I was really young, it’s just all-consuming and very exciting. And now I’ve got a lot more going on in my life and a lot more responsibility. It felt at the time hard to put the same amount of focus and myself as I had been, and I didn’t want to make something that felt… How am I going to make something that feels substantial? If I’m going to make a record it needs to feel substantial because there’s a lot of darkness going on. And I felt like maybe I didn’t have it in me.

I guess I just ended up writing about those feelings, and that’s how that record at least started. And through the process of making it, talking about these things with the band and the producer, we were all kind of in that same headspace. Maybe I was giving everyone else the same complex that I had. [Laughs.] We worked super hard on it, and we put a lot of ourselves into the record. It felt like the meaning that at least I got out of the process was doubling down on my love of making music and remembering why I loved doing it — getting back into that feeling I had when we were first starting out. Losing myself in it and not thinking so much about it. Maybe that’s a lie because I was definitely thinking a lot about it. [Laughs.]

This pandemic is affecting many people much worse than it is me, but one of the big bummers about it personally is that the record that meant so much to us came out three weeks before this whole thing went down. It felt almost comedic. We launched this triumphant creation out into the world, and we’re so excited and just getting ready to go out on tour and celebrate it and share it with everybody, and then it’s just squashed. But it seems like it’s resonating with our fans. I can’t base it on anything other than how I feel about it, and I’m happy with it.

(Photo Credit: Jake Michaels)

Martin Courtney is the singer-guitarist of the Brooklyn band Real Estate, whose fifth album The Main Thing was released earlier this year. Like every other musician on the planet, his band’s touring hopes were dashed by the pandemic, but that hasn’t stopped him from working. The band has recently launched their augmented reality “Quarantour,” which can be experienced by visiting

(Photo Credit: Jake Michaels)