The music industry is alive and well in New Hampshire
Reports of the death of the music industry may have been exaggerated, but things have definitely changed. Fortunately, for musicians, "changes" are part of the gig.
In some ways, the music business really hasn't changed at all.
Talented souls with dreams in their heads and songs in their hearts come to a recording studio where they open their souls and lay down some tracks. What happens next is mostly decided by a combination of talent, tenacity and luck, but a mark is made, a unique personal vision, for better or worse, is realized.
Dreamers just like that came to Stax Records in Memphis in the early 1960s, often just for a chance to perform with the Stax rhythm section, better known as Booker T. & the MGs. By providing that unmistakable sound and attracting young performers like Otis Redding and Sam & Dave, Stax essentially invented contemporary soul music.
When Berry Gordy started Motown Records in Detroit in 1959, he built a music "factory" not unlike the assembly lines of the Big Three car makers nearby. Within a few years he was literally cranking out a series of the most successful musical acts of the 20th century – from Martha and the Vandellas to the Jackson 5.
Before Sam Phillips' Sun Records gave the world Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, he had to scrape together enough dough to open the Memphis Recording Service whose motto was "We Record Anything – Anywhere – Anytime." For four dollars Phillips would put you "on record," which meant you got two songs on one double-sided acetate.
So maybe things have changed a little.
And New Hampshire definitely isn't Detroit or Memphis.
Drive north on Rte. 28 from the Epsom traffic circle on Rte. 4 and soon you'll be driving through Pittsfield. The operative word here is "through," since few heading north have reason to leave the rural state highway, but take a left onto the ironically named Upper City Road and you'll find a country lane lined with farms, hayfields, the Appleview Orchard and one world-class recording studio, disguised as a barn. The only clue to the true identity of the structure is a tiny sign bearing a silhouette of a rocking horse.
Rocking Horse Studios is the brainchild of Brian Coombes and his wife Michelle, who also live in the adjacent house. It was born out of the ashes of an earlier musical dream. Coombes was a musician and lyricist for Tristan Park, a progressive rock band he helped create in the late 1980s. The band took off in the '90s, toured the US and Europe, signed to a British record label, got some good reviews and then, like thousands of other promising bands that were almost famous, slipped off the wave of probability and back into obscurity. They reunited briefly in 2006 for a 20th anniversary concert at the Tupelo Music Hall, but all that remains is a few albums of music, still available on Amazon.
But the visceral experience of being so close to musical success still propels Brian Coombes' work at Rocking Horse, and he uses the lessons he learned on the road to assist the young talents who come through his doors. And lesson one, by the way, is that success in the music business is all about connections.
At a recording session in the spring, young Will Kindler (WebExtra: listen to some of Kindler's music here) is at the microphone in the Rocking Horse control room. He sings and strums his guitar as the house band records the accompaniment.
"Sorry guys, this guitar with the cable on it, the intonation might be a little suspect," says Kindler. Coombes and his engineer are more focused on the field of knobs and slides that cover the Trident Series 80B console – the legendary model of audio technology that engineered iconic records for the likes of Michael Jackson and Guns & Roses.
The music starts again with Kindler singing a song for his new album. The lyrics suggest some enchantment of love and loss, his high tenor navigates around the melody in graceful loops.
Meg Joslin, another artist who records with Coombes and sometimes provides her voice to his projects, stands in a doorway listening. She smiles approvingly and nods to the music.
When the flow is interrupted by another technical break, she asks, "Hey, Will, you got a name for this?"
"I don't really," he replies. "I've only got about 25 percent of the words written." He continues, talking mostly to himself, "That's the hardest part for me. I overthink and overthink. Usually they just come. I can't sit down and say I'm going to write a song today."
Joslin is also a singer-songwriter and she sympathizes. "What's great is to come up with something simple, bring it in here and let these guys take it to a whole new place," she says, gesturing toward Coombes and the band in the "live" room.
Coombes flips a switch and says to the band, "The last two bars of that six bar break, the intensity felt great." He looks down at the console and the song starts up again.
Kindler is a client of Coombes but in a way he's also a partner. He came to the studio just to record some drums and piano for songs he was recording at home. That's a common track for musicians in this age of fast computers and powerful audio-editing software like Avid Pro Tools. But soon he realized that the studio environment at Rocking Horse put his home setup to shame and that the seasoned influence of a good producer was worth paying for.
About the same time, Coombes realized that Kindler was exceptional. "He's incredibly talented and the best singer-songwriter in the state," he says. Now Kindler helps out at the studio, playing banjo or pedal steel, when he's not working his real job at a nursery in Wilton or working on his own project, a second CD due out this fall.
In the music business, if you're doing things right, one thing leads to another and sometimes the stars align. Not long ago, Coombes had called in Tony Garnier, Bob Dylan's long-time bass player, for a session. During talks between sets, conversation drifted to Dylan's earlier years and his work with The Band. Coombes, a keyboard player, inquired about The Band's famous organist, Garth Hudson. Garnier told him that Hudson is still working on creative projects and might even consent to come play a session at Rocking Horse if they had the right album.
Nothing like that was cooking at the time, but when Coombes began working with up-and-coming country rocker Dusty Gray and with Will Kindler, he realized the time had come to ask.
"I sent some songs to Hudson and his wife, Maude, and they loved them and asked what we had for a budget." A deal was struck and soon they were in a recording studio in Woodstock, NY, with Hudson playing keyboards for Dusty Gray and accordion for Kindler.
The sessions were magical, says Coombes, and watching Hudson react to the music reconfirmed his confidence in Kindler. "Garth and his wife both got the vibe that he is of a different time and much older than the 24 years he has lived," says Coombes.
The studio where they taped was operated by Jerry Marotta, drummer for Peter Gabriel during his first run of solo albums. Marotta appreciated the sound on the tapes that Coombes brought along and another connection was forged. Since then, they've remained in touch discussing future projects.
"Having a performer like Hudson appear on your record adds stature," says Coombes. "It verifies you are on a certain level." It was for just that reason that Coombes hooked another promising Rocking Horse protégé, Meredith Padfield, up with Greg Hawkes, keyboard player for the legendary Boston-area breakout band The Cars. The 16-year-old Padfield writes her own songs and plays guitar and ukulele. On her first CD, Hawkes accompanies her on his own uke.
Such curious mixtures of sound and celebrity, a blending of the greatness of the past with the promise of the present, these are just as essential to the formula for musical success as the balance on a recording console, says Coombes.
At the Folk Cellar in the heart of trendy Wolfeboro, a music store occupies the basement storefront and guards the doors to a tiny recording studio. The place is run by Franz Haase, an old-timer on the local music scene, and the chief engineer is Ryan Ordway, a promising recording artist who is working on a second album of his own melodic and hook-filled rock music.
Small as the Folk Cellar operation is, one of their distinctions is that they are both a recording studio and a record label: Resort Recordings, says Haase. Along with Ordway's CDs, they are producing one for Curtis Gray, a kid from Wakefield, NH, who made it into the top 50 on this year's "American Idol" competition, earning some air time and fans along the way. (WebExtra: Listen to "I Let You Go" by Curtis Gray here)
Normally the Folk Cellar operates on a fee-for-service basis, but with someone they believe in, they can make other arrangements. In the case of Gray, who has a powerful, soulful voice and real star presence, the Folk Cellar enlisted an investor to pay for the studio time and production.
Gray, who drops by the studio in bare feet and carrying Dino, his long-haired chihuahua, offers no false modesty.
"This album is friggin' killer," he says. "It has everything on it." He lists of few of the components – music with an edge, ballads and even something he calls "salsa rock."
A release party is planned for Sept. 22 at the Kingswood Art Center, and Gray will have just opened for Steve Miller at Meadowbrook a few nights before so spirits should be high.
Along with the occasional investor, Haase says the studio has other resources and connections. His partner Ordway is the nephew of Danny Wilder of the duo The Rembrandts (famous for providing the theme song for the TV show "Friends" as well as a number of other hits).
"It can't hurt to know people," says Haase. "You can be the greatest singer-songwriter in the world, but you still need that break."
Gray appreciates the help and the faith he's been shown. After the high of being on national television, it's tough to come down and play covers in small clubs for a living. He says "Idol" doesn't hand out free advice to contestants and there's no guidebook for what to do next. "There's a private Facebook group, where you can keep up with people. I don't spend much time on that. Basically, when they are done with you, good luck," says Gray. "I'm one of the fortunate ones," he says. "Not all of them get this chance."
Haase says Gray has lots of potential and still has momentum from that previous high, so they are planning a tour of the Eastern Seaboard once the CD is released. "You just ride the wave until it breaks," he says.
Back at Rocking Horse, Coombes has no argument with that philosophy, but he emphasizes the bigger picture. Getting kids out of their bedroom studios and into the wider world is not only beneficial to them as artists, it's good for the state's music scene.
"I have the best session band in the region, but I have my [star] performers play on one another's records," he says. "That cross-pollination is important for us developing our own music."
And "us" is not "Rocking Horse" music, mind you, but "New Hampshire" music. After all, this may not be Memphis or Detroit, but a place as distinctive as the Granite State should certainly have its own distinctive sound.