From open mics to home recordings: how the pandemic changed Ray Flanagan’s approach to music
The COVID-19 pandemic has limited the ability of many artists to make music. But Cleveland singer-songwriter Ray Flanagan says the isolation freed his creativity and challenged him to develop new skills.
Flanagan used this time to write a daunting amount of new songs and taught himself how to record them from home.
He decided in November of 2020 that he wasn’t going to play gigs until a COVID-19 vaccine was available.
“But I didn't know like how long it was going to take,” Flanagan said. “When I decided that I wasn't going to play gigs, I was like, ‘Well, what am I going to do?’ And I was like, ‘Well, there's Bandcamp.’”
He began releasing two songs every month in January 2021 as a way to become more disciplined and use the goal as a way to inspire creativity.
Pivoting during the pandemic
Flanagan has worked as a full-time musician for the past five years after leaving his warehouse job in 2016.
“You find that you make things work if you don't give yourself options,” Flanagan said. “You know, I quit my job and said, ‘I'm going to do this,’ and I just committed to that.”
The global shutdown during the onset of the pandemic forced the musician to think of other ways not only to get his music out, but also to continue earning a living as an artist.
The guitarist and songwriter has collaborated with a seemingly endless number of musicians throughout Northeast Ohio.
The shutdown enabled him to hone his skills in a new way, in the form of finessing his songwriting with new tracks monthly.
“I had this song called ‘The Arsenal’ that I put out. I added some vocal harmonies and added some guitars. I kind of finished it on my own and put that out,” Flanagan said. “I put it out on Jan. 1, 2021, and I was like, ‘I'm going to do this every month.’”
Bandcamp Fridays began in 2020 as a way for the music platform to support artists by waiving fees.
All payments acquired on musicians’ material went straight to the artists, and this inspired Flanagan to make new music and release it according to the newly created schedule.
“You'd be surprised at how fast it makes a month fly by if you just have two songs that you need to create and finish from top to bottom."
Flanagan learned how to record from home throughout the process. He decided to release two tracks at a time by drawing inspiration from 45 records.
These vinyl records have both an A side and B side, with two tracks total that either work together musically or are polar opposites.
Writing, recording and releasing songs monthly forced him to be disciplined and more consistent with making his songs available outside of live performance.
The two musicians have known each other for more than a decade through the local open mic scene, which is where Flanagan cut his teeth as an aspiring musician.
Flanagan said the COVID-19 pandemic put an end to the 10 X 3 songwriters’ showcase hosted by Kirby at The Brothers Lounge in Cleveland.
This is where Flanagan came up when he started gigging in 2011 or so.
He said open mics have been important to him for fostering community within the local music scene.
Kirby and Flanagan were approached to participate in a remote Ideastream Applause Performance in April 2020.
In preparation for the virtual event, Flanagan bought home recording equipment and was on Zoom multiple times a week with Kirby to work on the music.
The result of this collaboration during lockdown was Flanagan’s song “Lay Down,” and Kirby’s original tune, “With This Time.”
“So we put those together, like at our homes, like remotely, and I had never done anything like that,” Flanagan said. “And the rawness of them, I think that that is what makes them special.”
He also released the EP, “Our Year in Purgatory,” which he calls his “COVID songs.”
“It was sort of a radical thing for me to do at the time because I played all the instruments on it, which I've never really done before, and I just recorded it and made it in my bedroom,” Flanagan said.
Prior to the pandemic, he said he was against home recording for his own original music.
He said he didn’t want to have to wear all the hats. He wanted to be the singer-songwriter, and have professional engineers tackle the rest.
“But now that I've been doing it, I'm kind of like, 'Wow, well, when I produce my own stuff, it ends up closer to how I want it.’ Even if the recording is not as pretty,” he said.
He said in the past, he wasn’t sure how to clearly communicate how he wanted his songs to sound when recorded.
If it wasn’t for the pandemic, he said, he never would’ve recorded so much of his material.
“I'd probably just still be just doing my gigs and then like being unhappy with recording,” Flanagan said.
He said releasing the songs on his own allowed any feelings of self-consciousness he would normally feel in a studio to slip away.
Prior to lockdown, he also perceived earning a living as a musician more as making money entertaining patrons at bars than from his actual art.
The experience of songwriting, recording and digitally releasing his music was freeing, and it was how he coped during the pandemic from month to month.
“You'd be surprised at how fast it makes a month fly by if you just have two songs that you need to create and finish from top to bottom,” Flanagan said.
Marking a moment in time through music
Flanagan’s process for writing songs so frequently and consistently begins with recording fragments of an idea through the voice memos and notes apps on his phone.
Later, he fills in the blanks.
Flanagan said he lets the rest of the song come naturally. Some ideas don’t necessarily come to fruition, but it’s about the process and experimenting with different moments of inspiration.
His songs come from his subconscious and perspective on how he thinks, feels, approaches or views various subjects.
“I just follow whatever pops into my head, and I don't think about it because I know I have to get it done. So having a deadline, actually, I think, makes me creative,” Flanagan said.
The city of Cleveland appears as a theme throughout his work, which is expressed through the roots-rock sound of his songs.
"It was a crazy year. I just put all that stuff into the art because I believe in it."
Releasing new tracks every month allowed listeners to always be surprised. Some have a bouncing Americana feel. Others dabble in gritty blues, and a few are more straightforward folk.
Flanagan made a Spotify playlist that includes all of his 2021 songs in chronological order.
“I think it's pretty interesting to listen to just in terms of everything ... You can hear me learning how to get better at recording things. You can hear me, you know, like, especially once I started to do drums, you can hear the progression of how that changed a lot,” he said.
One song, in particular, stands out because it was heavily inspired by current events.
“For Ahmaud Arbery” was released in June 2021.
It chronicles the events that transpired when a Black man was murdered by three white men in February 2020, serving as one of several catalysts for nationwide Black Lives Matter protests in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I followed that story, and it just made me so upset that I just decided to write a song about it. I kind of wrote it like I would write like, like, it's like a news article, taking inspiration from like Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan,” he said.
It is like a chronicle of what was happening in society in that moment in time, Flanagan said.
“For me personally, it recentered me on what I really love about creating art and music and writing songs. It was a crazy year,” Flanagan said. “I just put all that stuff into the art because I believe in it.”
He said the recordings he released can be enjoyed for years to come as a mark of what was going on in 2020 and 2021.
In December 2021, Flanagan released the EP, “The Earnest Tube 12-09-2021,” a five-song session that was recorded direct to vinyl disc, then transferred to a computer.
Flanagan is getting back to gigging but that doesn’t mean his output of recorded material will stop any time soon.
He plans to keep the songwriting momentum going this year by releasing a song on the first Friday of every month, starting in February.
Flanagan will play a happy hour set at Forest City Brewery from 5 to 7 p.m. Jan. 21.
Ray Flanagan & The Mean Machines will perform at The Happy Dog May 13.