As the COVID-19 stay-at-home order remains in place, earning wages through live performances and new album releases has been put on hold for many live musicians.
Electric Company, an Akron-based recording studio, creative collective and record label, released an album called "Solo" to support local artists during this time. The album contains nine tracks recorded by participating solo artists in their own homes.
Showcasing new songs by affected artists
At the beginning of the coronavirus shutdowns, shows planned to take place at Electric Company’s home base at 15 Broad St. were canceled. Northeast Ohio musicians began hosting live-streamed performances recorded from their homes as an alternative.
Hannah Troyer and Robert Keith, Electric Company’s co-operators, were looking for ways to support artists who were either in the process of recording in their studio, or who had to cancel concerts scheduled at that location.
They also wanted to build something sustainable that could outlast the pandemic.
“It kind of inspired the idea to create something that would live past this time,” Troyer said. “I wanted to make more of, like, a piece of art that we could look back on and see and listen to.”
Keith credits Greg Milo, one of the musicians featured on the album, as inspiration behind the concept. The album highlights individual artists going back to their roots—writing and recording songs from their intimate home environments.
“[Milo’s] song, I think, is also partly responsible for inspiring the record because it actually was recorded right when quarantine began,” Keith said. “We saw this and were like, ‘we’ve got to get more music like this out there.’”
Troyer said the other eight tracks on the album have titles that read like a poem—the order of the song choice was deliberate. Troyer didn’t give the participants any creative structure or guidelines, but she said she wasn’t surprised that all the songs "ended up being them processing emotions."
"It's been hard to process for people,” Troyer said. “Music is what helps them cope...we hope to help others cope and process their emotions.”
Adapting the recording studio during lockdown
Electric Company’s physical studio is set up so each room serves a purpose. Each instrument or vocal is captured during recording in an individual room.
The space was once used as a hospital and, in more recent years, the operating space of The Homeless Charity and Tent City. Several recording sessions were put on hold due to the coronavirus shutdown orders.
Troyer and Keith were in the middle of working with local bands at the studio—including Stems, the band "Solo" contributing artist Justin Seeker is a member of. Some artists who had plans to work with the Electric Company have begun recording music on their own and sending their tracks to Keith to master outside of the studio. Akron garage-rock trio, White Lighter, was among the first albums Keith mastered from his home during quarantine.
Troyer and Keith have rethought the ways in which they are able to support local artists during this time.
“I think that with the change of the industry, and the change of which we sell music and support music, it’s requiring new ideas for how to support artists as a record label,” Keith said. “This is not only what we want to do right now, this is what we want to do in the future, permanently and sustainably for artists in Akron.”
They normally do not use much digital recording equipment in the studio, but the current circumstances have opened doors for new possibilities, production-wise, and the ability to work with artists remotely.
“Recording an album is a ton of pressure because there’s a lot of expectation to present yourself in a positive light,” Keith said. “We work really hard to bring the life of those home recordings that we all practice to our work in the studio.”
Recording from home
For the “Solo” compilation, each artist had their own home recording set up—some were more elaborate, while others were simpler recordings done via computer, and others captured their songs via cassette recorders. After the songs were recorded from each artist’s home, they were sent to Keith to master.
“One of my favorite parts about home recording is the aspect of journaling,” Keith said. “As soon as we couldn’t be around anyone, the idea of getting people’s reactions and sort of journal entries for how they were processing this quarantine was really a great opportunity.”
Troyer and Keith each have a track on the album.
“It’s really interesting because when you’re doing home recordings, and you’re super comfortable, you take a different approach,” Troyer said. “A more authentic mood comes out in those recordings.”
Keith’s “WRONG” is upbeat but with a haunting vocal that repeats the lyrics, “something’s wrong,” while Troyer’s “Chasing The Sun” is a sadly sweet acoustic track that captures the essence of lo-fi bedroom pop.
Troyer, along with Will Cardina—a longtime friend of Keith’s and an artist featured on “Solo”— recorded their original songs on cassette.
“The sound of a cassette is a very sensitive thing—all the nuances of your playing are exposed,” Cardina said. “I feel very vulnerable using that format, so I wanted to add more instruments, but I only had four tracks... so I have to squish them together, and they lose a little bit of fidelity. You lose a little bit of creative freedom with that process. But that’s what you have to sacrifice.”
Cardina said recording his track, “Goodnight America,” on his TASCAM 414 forced him to be more creative. He put thought into how the sound of the song is shaped by the machine.
“Sometimes it’s better for me to set my own limitations because, working digitally, there are no limitations, but when you force yourself to really scale back your production and it forces you to really focus on your song,” Cardina said. “The song has to stand really strong without a lot of gimmicks and processing and whatnot. So I like that honesty about it. You can’t edit a cassette. You can tweak it a little bit, but you can’t cut a part out or put a part in.”
Cardina said he started writing “Goodnight America” in the early hours of the morning when it was quiet and he could have the time to himself—before the coronavirus forced the general public to self-isolate.
He had a few lines of the song done but was unsure where to take it. He picked the writing back up when Keith asked him to record a song at home for the “Solo” compilation.
“I went back to that song and worked on it a little bit,” Cardina said. “I got some opinions from Hannah, and we kind of developed what I had already to kind of be a little more cohesive with the tone of the present situation.”
Expressing shared anxieties through song
While the origins of “Solo” weren’t intentionally centered around compiling songs written on a particular theme, the artist’s raw emotions ended up expressed in their tracks.
“I was playing these really haunting, drawn-out chords—[a] really ominous bass part,” Cardina said. “In these times, in the current state of the world, I was just feeling maybe like a little bit desperate, maybe a little bit on edge. So I wanted to kind of express that in an unsettling way with my music.”
Troyer said she started writing her song as a guitar track with additional instrumentation, then later was inspired by the present times to write the lyrics.
“I was really seeing and dealing with a lot of like confusion and fear, especially right at the beginning,” Troyer said. “I was making a lot of music and art that reflected the idea, at least for today, it was going to be O.K.”
Keith said the first action he took after the pandemic started making headlines was recording music as a way to help process his emotions.
“The particular song, ‘WRONG,’ that ended up on the album was me having a panic attack, actually,” Keith said. “Like, the entire time I was personally nervous because I hadn’t been feeling well for about two weeks. So I was starting to feel very wrapped up in the hysteria of it.”
He said he thought “WRONG” was “terrible” after he initially recorded it.
“Then I listened to it an hour later, and I was like ‘oh, this really nicely captured everything I’ve been feeling for the last week,” Keith said.
The changing pace of life as an artist
Seeker’s “Solo” track “It’s Getting Quiet Around Here” arguably echoes similar feelings of uncertainty, solemnity and existing in a chaotic world.
Other titles on the compilation, including “Coming Down” by Time Cat’s Jeri Sapronettia and “Slower” by Matt DeRubertis, speak to the pace of everyday life winding down as many Americans are social distancing.
“It’s like everything has really slowed down and come to a complete halt, and everything that was fast-paced and speedy delivery has kind of slowed down,” Cardina said. “Everybody is kind of taking a step back from the daily life and trying to figure some stuff out. At least I have. And that’s translated into my creative process.”
Troyer said she and Keith used to be out-and-about all the time as they focused on building relationships in the local creative community and working at the Electric Company.
One they were forced into quarantine, they realized they hadn’t been in their homes this long "for like a year," Troyer said.
“It’s been good to take a breath and slow down and focus on what’s in front of [us],” Troyer said.
She said she and Keith are restructuring now but continuing the work they have done to give local musicians a way to record and share their music.
“I don’t want to waste this experience,” Keith said. “It’s been so life-changing, the simple act of shutting things down for a second, I’ve learned so much. I don’t want to just let go of it and run back into the rat race.”
Raising money to support out-of-work musicians
The album has served as a way to highlight local musicians’ individual voices and granted them an opportunity to showcase their solo work outside of the bands they play with.
Troyer and Keith also released the album with the goal of raising money for Akron-area artists. Electric Company runs on a pay-what-you-can model for artists interested in utilizing the studio and working with Keith and Troyer. The album is also for sale online using the same “name your price” structure.
Troyer said the core of the operation at the Electric Company is to truly support artists. They may have more time now for creative projects, but they still have bills they need to pay,” she said.
"The biggest emotion I’ve seen expressed during the whole time is unknowingness and confusion and fear," Troyer said. "Those are real emotions, and people want to process them. I hope this project can help listeners and creators."
The operators have set up a GoFundMe page to support contributing artists and their creative endeavors. The goal is to raise $100 for each artist featured on “Solo.”
Akron Coffee Roasters sold coffee beans with the "Solo" album cover on the front. They were able to raise $2,000 for the artists.