It all started off as an impulsive post on the hyperlocal social networking service Nextdoor.com. In the early days of following COVID-19’s entrance into the U.S. with all day job work and all gigs cancelled to promote my band Surround Sound’s new album, I wrote the following on a whim—not really expecting much to come of it:
I am a bored music producer who loves to make beats. Thought it might be fun to collaborate with some neighbors this week. Comment w/ a short sample, any original audio clip, and I will try to turn it into something musical. Or if it is already musical, I’ll try to flip it in a fresh way.
I was pleasantly surprised by the response.
Almost immediately, I was getting interest from artistic people from a wide range of musical experience with one thing in common: the desire to contribute and collaborate. Some sent me poems that they thought could be turned into lyrics. Some sent short, melodic samples to be turned into hip-hop beats. Some offered to contribute their home-recorded instrumentation to tracks I already had in production. One neighbor, Jess Zalzman, sent me a link to an original song she had recorded in her basement. The song was really good. I decided to jump on this one first.
I immediately replied to Jess to see if she could provide an acappella version of her song for me to build upon.
She was quick to reply with an enthusiastic YES and emailed a fresh track within a few hours. Jess considers it to be her favorite song she’s ever written. Here is her original stripped-down basement recording with her ukulele that first inspired me to take on the project:
It has a repetitive chord progression—to accompany her deep, sultry melody—which I turned into a groove. With drums, Rhodes piano, acoustic guitar and bass, we had a foundation. I structured out an instrumental track based on her already perfect arrangement and sent it back to her. Now she could record her vocals to my instrumental bed. Within a day, I had her final vocal performance—and everything I needed to finish the song.
That’s when the track really began to take shape.
Adding some strings and a gentle, muted trumpet to accompany her haunting melody were the perfect finishing touches. I then contacted longtime neighbor and good friend Kenneth Lovell to help with the mix. We work together on music often that he was happy to help out with this unique collaboration. The result was a solid, finished song that maintained the emotion of the original, while adding some production value and rhythmic groove to the recording.
I felt a connection with the artist without ever even meeting face-to-face or speaking on the phone. Just a few file exchanges and minimal communication, all while the world around us flips on its side in the wake of a pandemic.
Once the song was finished, mixed and mastered, I excitedly sent her the finished version.
This is usually an apex in the process when the artist gets to hear their idea, their brain baby, come through to fruition. I was eagerly and repeatedly checking my phone for feedback.
Another day came and went, and still no reply. I sent a gentle message asking for her thoughts. No response. At this point with all that’s going on, I can’t help from wondering if she’s alright. I sincerely hope it’s only that she was disappointed in the final version and didn’t know how to tell me. Nevertheless, I find myself concerned about the well being of this stranger/neighbor with whom I’ve only shared a musical connection over the web.
Art and culture has historically brought people together across traditional barriers such as age, income, education, race, religion, political beliefs—and now Coronavirus.
The power of the arts to start conversations we might not otherwise have, to sneak past our intellects and enter our souls and change our perspective is vast. The arts have this uncanny ability to circumvent… and therefore, fly under the radar and soar directly into our heart. The arts can sneak in beneath the defenses so rigidly held by our intellects and help us get unstuck in our ways. Charles Bukowski said: “An intellectual says a simple thing in a hard way. An artist says a hard thing in a simple way.“ – Rabbi Donna Berman, Executive Director, Charter Oak Cultural Center
This quote really resonates with me through this experience as relationships and social connections are crucial to meaning and purpose in our lives, yet isolation and boredom can bring forth emotions that we are usually distracted from.
Both are uncomfortable feelings.
Yet it can also be a respite and brief escape from the busyness of day-to-day life once you push through the urge to go down the “scroll hole” long enough to feel bored. This newfound state of isolation and boredom turned out to be a valuable opportunity for me to shake things up and start a conversation I might not otherwise have.
Several conversations, actually. As it turns out, “What a Shame” wasn’t the only collaboration to come out of my Nextdoor post.
- One young producer sent me a handful of nice, melodic samples that I was able to quickly flip into beats.
- Another neighbor/poet sent me poignant and personal song lyrics to build upon.
- A sax player who answered my post is working with me on an ’80s style retro-pop song with local musician and former Reynoldstown neighbor Digigost.
- Another neighbor is a high school teacher who invited me to teach her class some basic production techniques over Skype while remote learning.
- Others have offered to play their instruments over tracks I’m working on for this project.
Even a reporter from Fox 5 Atlanta caught wind of my modest Nextdoor post and stopped by my home studio to ask me about it.
Now this is what I call quarantine fun.
Several beautiful and unique opportunities have presented themselves from this. When casting a smaller, more localized net, I actually think I got more responses than I would have putting this out to a larger audience. Maybe people would rather connect with those close by or feel a sense of belonging and rootedness where one lives—especially in Intown Atlanta neighborhoods, which are so diverse and distinctive.
During these strange and uncertain times with all the things that are off-limits like jam sessions, gigs, high-fives and fist bumps, let your creativity be contagious. I’m just taking it one song at a time for now, but enjoying all the inspiration around me from a not-so-distant distance.