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Mike Doughty finds a fresh start in artist-friendly Memphis

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by Luke Taylor

November 24, 2015

Mike Doughty
Mike Doughty
Sarah Forbes Keogh

"New York is a different place than I moved to when I was a teenager in the '80s," Mike Doughty explains. "It just seems like every year, the artists, the working artists, get pushed further and further from the middle of the city. I just got tired of it."

When he visited The Current for an in-studio session in November 2014, Doughty hinted a change might be in the offing when he told host Bill DeVille he thought New York was "about done" for him. "There are so many New Yorkers moving to Nashville," Doughty says now. "I mean, it's kind of incredible how Nashville is turning into this mecca for people from New York and Los Angeles. So I figured I was either going to move to Nashville or to Austin."

Summer 2015 proved a busy one for Doughty; he logged many miles playing 40 shows on a living-room tour organized by Undertow Music. "The maximum [capacity] was 50, 60," Doughty says. "One of the pleasures of the tour was everything sold out before the tour began, which was a fine little ego boost."

Besides playing numerous shows, crisscrossing America gave Doughty the chance to do a bit of fact-finding as he considered relocation. He visited Nashville, Tenn., and Austin, Texas. But Doughty's friend, musician J. Russo, suggested a visit to Memphis. "I drove from Nashville to Austin," Doughty recalls. "They're both fantastic, but I stopped in Memphis in the middle. I just fell in love with Memphis."

Russo had also given Doughty the number of Matt Ross-Spang, the esteemed Sun Studio engineer. Ross-Spang met with Doughty during the visit, telling Doughty about Memphis's affordable cost of living and its mid-continent location — ideal for touring. "It really is a place where people can have a part-time job and then make art for the rest of their lives," Doughty says.

On a return visit to Memphis, Doughty spied an apartment with a "for rent" sign on it. Two days later, he rented that apartment; one month after that, Doughty became a full-time resident of Memphis.

Now, Doughty has fully embraced his new hometown, noting how one can get more space for much less money than in New York. "I have time and I have space and I've just been working up a storm," he says. "And I'm going out and enjoying the coffee and Goner Records, one of the greatest record stores in the world. Shangri-La Records is also here, a fantastic place. All the great studios — Ardent and Sun and Royal — those are all still active studios. … It's just fantastic here."

Although there is some physical distance between Doughty and his longtime collaborators, technology bridges the gap. Doughty is currently finishing a new record with New York-based drummer Pete Wilhoit, cellist/bassist Andrew "Scrap" Livingston and producer DJ Good Goose (who produced Doughty's last album, Stellar Motel). "Today, I've been sitting in my house editing vocals that [Good Goose] sent me," Doughty says. "You don't need to be in the same place to make records anymore. I have a perfectly good microphone sitting in my studio and a laptop, and that is plenty."

When he finishes he current project, Doughty looks ahead to future projects in his new hometown. For instance, he'd love to record at Sun Studio, and he'd welcome the chance to work with Memphis's long roster of legendary session musicians.

That's not to say he's completely turned his back on New York. "It's an eternal city," Doughty says, "so I think people that say, 'New York is over' and that kind of stuff, it's hard for me to take that kind of talk seriously. … Everyone complains about New York in New York, and everyone talks about how they want to leave, but people are only now beginning to leave, it seems to me.

"Memphis is a place that is beginning to bubble," Doughty continues. "Obviously, it has been bubbling for its entire existence. It is a beacon of American culture, but in terms of arty hipsters like myself moving to town, that is just beginning to start to happen."

Mike Doughty's Memphis

Here is a list of some Memphis places that Mike Doughty recommends visiting.

Goner Records — "One of the greatest record stores in the world; I'm all about Goner Records."

Shangri-La Records — "It's a fantastic place."

Sun Studio — "It's just an amazing place, just oozing with vibe … obviously a beacon of American culture in general. It's kind of a museum during the day, and at night, it's a working studio."

Otherlands Coffee Bar — "Otherlands is amazing. It's like four blocks from my house. I practically live there, and I've been doing gigs there just because it's so close to my house. I can walk over."

• Music venues: Hi-Tone Café, Ernestine & Hazel's, The Buccaneer Lounge