The Day Room is a column by Philip Cosores that features stories from the music industry that shine a light and brighten the corners.
When I finally meet Joshua Kirk, the first thing I notice is his smile, and then the way his eyes open wider from behind his glasses, giving off the sense of joyful innocence that I first encountered in his YouTube video series, Album of the Day. The previous 30 minutes were spent troubleshooting to get our video chat to work, and the situation resolves when I update to Skype 6.3 from, and I’m not kidding, Skype 2.8. I’m an emotional cocktail of embarrassment and worry, but that dissipates to relief when I see my 12-year-old subject beaming from his home in suburban Maryland.
My relief stems from the previous day’s exchange with Joshua’s mother, Diane Kirk, in which I suggested moving the talk time up an hour. “Let’s stick with 4:00 p.m. since Joshua has already agreed to that time and a change might cause him stress,” she replied. “He does not like to make decisions, and he especially does not like to change them.”
These words might seem harsh but the sting was softened by a frowny emoticon and the knowledge that we’re not talking about a Fortune-500 executive or an egomaniacal pop star. Joshua Kirk is just a little boy.
His encouraging face on the computer screen means the delays did not cause a crisis. Joshua is calm and happy, wearing a grey Wilco shirt that lets me know we’ll get along fine.
As his mother Diane told me a few days earlier in a separate interview, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve done just that, met one person with autism.” Preparing to speak with Joshua would be only as helpful as any research can be, with his mother advising me that her son is shy and to just be patient when asking him questions. After all, autism affects both communication and social interaction, which is essentially what an interview is.
We found out about Josh’s review of our album through some people at our record label and were immediately struck by his honesty, enthusiasm, and perception. We love how straightforward his reviews are; he usually describes how the songs start, the instrumentation, dynamic shifts and references the lyrics and some stylistic details. There’s none of the pretense found in so many other reviews. His reviews will give you a very accurate picture of what a record sounds like and whether he likes it or not. And isn’t that really the purpose of a review? He’s definitely doing something right: his YouTube channel has more views than ours. – Dr. Dog
“So far I’ve done about 17 episodes,” the tiny critic says. “When I did the first one, it was September 25th, 2012, I believe.”
Over our time together, Joshua often shows a little uncertainty like this when expressing something very precise, kind of like the way many people talk about numbers.Most people have trouble keeping birthdays straight, much less album release dates. But this is where autism gives rather than takes, as Joshua has an unbelievable memory.
“He remembers everything he sees and hears,” his mother explains in a separate interview, recalling Josh’s launch of the video series. “Sometimes he regurgitates it out word for word, so I wasn’t sure if he saw someone else doing that review and was just repeating it. But, obviously that is not what he is doing.”
To some extent we all repeat ideas we get from other places, but we all can’t sit down with a blank piece of paper and write out song names and their track lengths from memory, like Joshua. And it goes beyond that.
“He’ll get his portable CD player,” his mom says, “and without the headphones, he’ll let it play and watch the running time, not hearing the music. And he’s flipping his hands and his feet, like he’s doing the songs in his head. It’s the coolest thing.”
It’s another extraordinary extension of an ordinary activity for music lovers, humming a tune to themselves that plays in their memory. But for Joshua, he can seemingly equate the moment on the digital display with the sound that is happening that moment without actually listening.With a brain that would need to be this focused on something, the joy that his intense fascination for music gives Joshua is not a concern for his parents at all, and his mom admits to being more worried about finding another Discman if Joshua breaks his.
Diane and Steve, Joshua’s father who only appears briefly when helping set up the Skype, met at Ohio State University when they were both students and settled in Maryland. After nine-years of marriage, Diane gave birth to their only child, Joshua, on January 5, 2001.
“He was a perfectly healthy little baby as far as we knew,” she recalls, “but as he got bigger, he wasn’t really talking and wasn’t really moving as we knew he should.
“Joshua was eventually diagnosed with muscular dystrophy,” Diane says, her words striking a more serious tone. “Actually it’s Duchenne muscular dystrophy. And then a few years later he was diagnosed with autism, as well. But it was really the autism –him not speaking — that led to the early diagnosis of muscular dystrophy. He really didn’t talk until he was four and that’s what got the doctors paying attention.”
Duchenne muscular dystrophy involves rapid muscle degeneration and currently has no cure. One in 3,600 young boys discover the disease, usually before age six. The prognosis varies from case to case in some aspects, like how quickly it will progress and the quality of life during that time, but the outlook is grim. The typical age that children afflicted with DMD lose the ability to walk is 12, Joshua’s age right now. But his doctors think he could walk until he is 16, possibly due to the early detection and Prednisone he has taken daily since he was three, and possibly due to his small stature.
His mother notes that his DMD does not define him: “That part of his life doesn’t really interfere with his life. For him that is something he just deals with. People say ‘I’m sorry’ when they hear but I say ‘he’s doing great.’ It’s normal for him, and as far as he is concerned he is going to live til he’s 99. And he may well do that, who knows?”
I think I first ran across Josh’s videos when somebody threw a review of his up on my Facebook, making a slight joke about how I’ve got some “competition” to look out for. This isn’t the first time somebody has made this kind of joke, but it is the first time I was pretty awestruck by a fellow video reviewer’s sense of observation and logic. While I don’t think our tastes overlap that much, he seems like a dude I could pretty much share any kind of music with, and he’d be happy and able to share his thoughts. – Anthony Fantano, The Needle Drop
“I like your shirt, Joshua,” I tell him mid-way through our conversation, adding, “Wilco is one of my all-time favorite bands.”
“They’re one of my favorite bands, too,” he replies, “since 2008.”
We talk Wilco for a few minutes and I tell him about the I Am Trying to Break Your Heart movie, which he hasn’t seen, and also mention that the Jeff Tweedy tour documentary is quite good.
“I believe you’re referring to the Sunken Treasure film,” he says, and manages to punch in his own points, noting “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a great album. Rolling Stone gave it a really good review.” I am learning from him about one of my favorite bands.
Despite being a late talker as a child and not completely comfortable in conversation with new people, Joshua currently speaks in front of thousands of online viewers, and there are only a couple of answers he struggles to articulate. When he doesn’t think of a good example for a song that he relates to on an emotional level, I bring up Bright Eyes and his review in Episode 8 of Album of the Day, and how there are many songs from I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning that I connect with,mostly because Conor Oberst is such an emotionally direct and personal songwriter.
“Yeah, his earlier stuff is like that too, like Fevers and Mirror,” he notes, and he’s right. But it’s interesting particularly because he says the opposite in the video review. Joshua told me he always watches his reviews again to see how they turned out, and I figure he must have either changed his opinion since that time, or realized that he misspoke when revisiting. Regardless, he’s refining his opinions and not stubborn in maintaining an argument, one of the hardest lessons music writers must learn.
Joshua cites Wikipedia as a major information source and acknowledges The Needle Drop as a reviewer he watches. His consumption of information is partially driven by his autism.
“Honestly, most of the time when he’s doing a review, I don’t know what he’s talking about,” his mother admits. “I like music and all, but he knows about music, and that he learned from the internet. He goes and he researches. But in the autism world, they call it ‘stimming.’ It’s from a hyperactivity of the brain, and if they can’t be calm, they can’t deal with it.
“Most of us when we walk into a room, we filter. We filter out the light and the people, but a kid with autism walks into a room, and they experience everything. They can’t filter, but they often focus on one specific thing and repeat that over and over again. It could be flipping your hand or shaking your hand, so they can get control over it.
“So for us, the things he enjoys, we let him do. If he wants to read about music for an hour and a half, why not? It’s his free time. So, I think from that, he’s built a skill, from reading and studying and understanding music.”
Other characteristics Joshua displays with regards to music might be amplified by his autism, but they don’t sound far away from what many music obsessives do. I wonder if Joshua chose his Wilco shirt he wore to the interview for the same reason I did my Okkervil River shirt. It’s little things like this that are kind of weird but many fans do them and keep the knowledge internalized.
“Josh makes a big deal about when we go in the car,” his mom notes, “he has to pick the music for the car. And he gets worked up about whether the trip will be long enough for us to listen to the whole CD. And it’s usually a good thing, but it can be a source of stress for him. It can be hard for him to make decisions on what to take. Or, if someone asks him what his favorite album is, he can’t pick, because for him to say one is the best would be to say the others aren’t good. It’s kind of an absolute way of thinking.”
His autism may make this a bigger deal than someone who’s just a music nerd, but still the sentiment rings true. My own car is filled with CDs, and many trips have slowly begun with me cycling through the myriad discs in search of the right songs to soundtrack the 14 total minutes the engine will be running.
One other relatable quirk is how personally fans take criticism of artists or albums they love. Many feel the need to defend them, because, in essence, what they like is an extension of themselves. Many a heated argument has resulted from something as simple as having different tastes. But for Josh, it can go a little further.
“Just the other day,” Diane remembers, “he was upset before school because he was watching a Dr. Dog video interview and some people put negative comments and he couldn’t understand it. He was crying and having a crisis over it, and I explained that musicians have a thick skin and realize that not everyone is gonna like their stuff.”
It’s this reaction to negative comments that feeds into Joshua only making positive video reviews. The point of the project is to shine a light on his favorite works, not to kick dirt on disappointments, plus he adds “no one would want to watch it” if it were negative. I know many bloggers who hold a similar philosophy, and while in music criticism, negative reviews have a place in publications that try to cover all significant releases, it makes you wonder if the “hate-click” approach is really such a smart editorial tactic after all.
It’s easy to pick out my favorite part of Joshua Kirk’s reviews. At the end, he has a part where after describing most, if not all, of the songs on a particular album, he lists his favorite tracks. Usually 60-80% of the albums songs are then listed, and he’d probably list them all if he didn’t realize this portion was for calling attention to a part of the whole. There’s nothing more honest than that, where he struggles so mightily to pick his favorite when he loves them all.
Joshua first hit a larger audience outside his YouTube community with his review of Jukebox the Ghost’s Safe Travels, which the artist shared and first saw an unexpected swell in interest in his work. But when Ryan Adams called attention to Josh’s take on Cold Roses, it caused a chain of events that has resulted in more than 34,000 views on his channel.
“The cool thing is that he’s just doing it because he loves music,” his mother affirms. “We’ve had people asking to send stuff and we send a very nice letter saying thank you, but he’s not going to review things because people ask. That said, I’ll guarantee you he’ll listen to it, and I guarantee you he’ll probably enjoy it. Everything he’s been sent by anyone, he’s listened to every single one, and some he’s gone out and bought another CD by the artist. And every once in a while he goes, ‘I’m going to review this one.’ I have no idea how he picks the ones he does.”
Joshua is enjoying some of the perks of the industry and has learned quickly that you cannot be beholden to any artists giving you free music or concert tickets.
“Yep Roc Records sent him a package of CDs and a really nice letter,” Diane remembers, “and it was all given in the spirit of giving, no demand for a review or something. And the people that have contacted us about doing something for them, they totally understand he’s a 12-year old kid. He’s having fun. He doesn’t need to be doing this for a living, and we don’t want to stress him out. If you told him he had to do a review a week, for one they wouldn’t be as good, and second, he just wouldn’t do them. It’s too much pressure for him. He does it when the spirit moves him. He literally goes into his room, turns on his Flip camera, and talks for 20 minutes. He doesn’t write anything down or prepare. And he has done it before where he’ll try to do it and come out and say ‘I can’t do it, it’s not good, I can’t do this one.’ And then he doesn’t do it. And I’m like, ‘Damn that was the Foo Fighters, I really want to see them.’”
His mother jokes, but Diane and Steve are enjoying the interest themselves, and she notes their busy summer ahead of concert viewing. Luckily, unlike many autistic children, the lights and sounds of live performances do not affect Joshua, though they do use a wheelchair for him because of the amount of walking that can be involved. But while his autism and DMD affect many of the details surrounding his life, his passion and appreciation of music are solely him, not the result of his afflictions.
“What’s cool is he’s doing all this stuff independent of all that,” his mother notes. “People are enjoying his reviews and they don’t even know he has autism or know about it after the fact. It’s cool because it means they like what he’s doing and what he brings to the table. He’s gained a lot from that in terms of self-confidence.”
Well…Im honored that he enjoyed my album as I would rather have a library of good reviews out there then cruddy reviews. But…I couldn’t help but notice how his comments and opinions just seemed to flow out of him and come forth in such an honest and informed way. Informed by listening and feeling the music and then studying the artwork (and credits). Hell…I thought I was one of the last humans who still appreciated artwork that tied into the music in the name of a grander effect. He actually has a youtube video of him making guacamolethat I enjoyed even more than his review of my record. All of the things I adore about him exist in his guacamole video as well…I mean I laughed and my stomach growled at the same time. The fella is gifted….he’s honest…. he’s a natural. - Jason Lytle
While Joshua and I discuss his reviews in some detail, we mostly just talk about music. And, from his beginnings of cataloging his collection of Disney VHS tapes to his recent interest in creating cooking videos, the point for him is sharing.
And it’s allowed him to experience some of his greatest fantasies. Jukebox the Ghost took the time to meet Joshua when they invited him to a recent concert, a story that makes him glow. He watched their soundcheck, sure to add “ they are really cool guys,” before giving me a detailed account of his haul at the merch table.
Joshua gets most excited, however, when talking about Dr. Dog, his “latest obsession” that he’ll finally see for the first time this summer. “Do you know who invited us to the show,” he asks me before proudly proclaiming that the band had extended the offering, loving the sound of the words as they leave his mouth.
Part of me envies Joshua. As a big music fan, I started reviewing albums for pretty much the same reason he does, for fun– to share the music I like, and to share my insights on them. Now, it’s all I do and it’s not always fun talking about bands I love, but even when I find myself spending four hours in the car to work the Pitbull and Ke$ha event, no other job I’ve ever had can compare.
But as a fan, I get where Joshua is coming from; he just seems to be starting a lot younger than most do. I published my first album review at 24-years-old during an internship. That’s twice as old as Joshua and no way it was as good as his are. But the key, whether you listen and think about music for money or for pleasure, is to never forget what a privilege it is.
And like so many of us, Joshua just wants to be as involved as possible.
“It would be great to work with a band in the studio,” he notes, “or even to create the artwork for the album.” And he goes on to describe one such scenario where others worked with The Avett Brothers on a song, providing harmonies or handclaps, but one little phrase sums it up perfectly: “I’d just do whatever I can.”
Music has got ahold of Joshua. It’s that passion that has you learning how to take photographs so you can stand right in front of the band. It’s the passion that crashes My Bloody Valentine’s website. It’s the passion that has you bringing up Kanye West to literally everybody you talk with for four days straight. It’s a passion that rejects money and time and energy as second-tier worries, all beholden to music in your life. And Josh is doing whatever he can to share this passion. Luckily for all, “whatever” has turned out to be quite a lot.