Sound and Vision
To borrow a lyric from Joni Mitchell, these producers are “stoking the star-maker machinery” of the music industry right here in New Hampshire.
Great music often reflects the vibe and energy of the place and community where it is created and shared. This is certainly true of the New Hampshire music scene, which is constantly in motion and striving to perfect a multitude of sounds across many genres such as rock, folk, country, jazz, classical, hip hop, and rhythm and blues. We talked with three New Hampshire music producers to get their thoughts on where the Granite State’s music scene could be headed next.
NH’s Great Musical Experiment is Never-ending
At Rocking Horse Studio in Pittsfield, owner Brian Coombes just finished an ambitious, operatic concept album, titled “Circus of Wire Dolls,” with his band, Rocking Horse Music Club.
It is filled with progressive rock and that melds with other music to produce a distinctive sound and reflects the ever-changing, evolving New Hampshire music scene. A British reviewer noted that Rocking Horse Music Club succeeded by mashing up progressive rock with glam, folk and ’80s new wave to make the album more progressive, Coombes says, but when they first conceived the concept album, they were tinkering with styles, saying, “Let’s write a Roxy Music song or a Cars song.” The experiment expanded to include other artists (like Taylor Swift, says Coombes) unleashing their creativity in the process.
Coombes’ eclectic range (he’s a multi-instrumentalist who favors the keyboards) and his desire to record all kinds of music created by artists throughout the Granite State keeps things exciting and unpredictable. He sees New Hampshire’s increasing diversity as a driver that is bringing music from other cultures to bear and add new tones and styles to his inventory.
He recently recorded a Ukrainian-American folk singer and songwriter, Andriana Gnap, who performs her own material as well as traditional Ukrainian material. Andriana’s family history is similar to what is happening to millions of Ukrainian residents who have been forced to flee their country as its war with Russia continues.
Coombes explained that when Ukraine was invaded in World War II, some of her family ended up on the Russian side, but Gnap’s grandmother became a forced laborer in Nazi Germany as a young girl and ended up being a housekeeper for a prosperous Germany family. When trouble came to their town, the family took her with them. Gnap’s grandmother eventually came to America. Now Gnap is making music in New Hampshire that reflects her cultural roots, and she is making a name for herself.
Gnap just received a New England Music Award nomination in the World Music category for 2022. Coombes also has been nominated for the ninth time as producer of the year and won once in 2015.
Since opening his studio full time in 2007, Coombes says he has recorded more than 14 hard drives full of music from just about every genre on his Pittsfield hilltop inside a nondescript barn building that was specially designed and built to produce the best recording conditions.
Coombes says the best way for a music scene to evolve is when new music and artists are introduced into it and inspire like-minded musicians to experiment, borrow and incorporate. He notes that as more people from African countries, Afghanistan, Ukraine and others call New Hampshire home, their cultures and musical traditions will have an impact. Meanwhile, New Hampshire’s younger and up-and-coming artists are picking up on those vibes and are open to culling new sounds, he says, creating the perfect mix for a healthy, vibrant music scene.
“I hope that we can continue to evolve,” says Coombes. “The roots run deep here in New England, the world continues to get smaller, and communications from online sources continue to grow. You might see shifts as the state becomes more diverse and more musical styles are introduced. I continue to learn new things from everyone that walks in here.”
It’s one exciting musical journey for him as an artist and producer — a career with a number of twists already under his belt. Coombes was one of the founding members of Tristan Park in 1986. He had just graduated from high school when that band signed a recording deal with a British label, toured and recorded in Europe.
“Then that ran its course, and we all got a bit older,” Coombes says. He worked in the software industry in New Hampshire for about 10 years, but he never completely “outgrew” his youthful passion. The whole time he was at LillyWorks Software in Hampton, his colleagues knew he was a musician who took vacations to go on European tours. “It was a startup company, and they thought it was cool,” he recalls.
He started a recording suite in his basement in Manchester, and as it became more serious, he and his wife decided to move to the country and create a proper recording environment. “I was just thinking it would be a sophisticated recording studio, but I was still going to work,” he says, but he decided to open his recording studio after the company went through some changes that led to downsizing. He was drawing on some old music connections, and when he and his wife recorded an album in 2003 with Chris Difford of Squeeze, that inspired the couple to make the move and create the studio.
“For me as a music professional, I look back at the time I spent in the software industry and wonder where I could have been,” says Coombes. “It set the ground work and provided the funding to get this off the ground, and I have no regrets.”
When he and Michelle, his wife of 26 years, moved to Pittsfield, they hired a Boston builder to design a state-of-the art studio in the barn. “Our neighbors just assumed we were going to have horses, but when the cinderblocks arrived, they knew it would be something different,” he recalls.
“The band Genesis had a studio in Surrey called the Farm, and our layout was almost modeled after that,” says Coombes, adding that he once produced an album at the Genesis studio in 2017 for Dale Newman, a former roadie for Genesis who went on to manage that studio and to perform there.
Coombes has had to evolve as a studio producer as the music industry has evolved.
“When we started, artists were producing CDs. Now artists are doing mostly digital, and CDs are starting to make a comeback. We are producing EPs and singles, for the most part,” says Coombes. “The attention span of the average listener these days is more conducive to that.” In fact, he often recommends that artists do not put out all of their songs from a recording session at once, but release them gradually to cater to that narrow attention span.
“My own band, Rocking Horse Music Club, just released a 22-song, 90-minute rock opera,” says Coombes. “My audience happens to be people my age and older. I wouldn’t recommend that approach for country or pop artists,” he says.
Rocking Horse Studio continues to be busy. “We are recording six days a week. We have a lot of ongoing projects. The studio could be booked for five to eight days for recording and mixing a different project. They could be 10 to 15 projects at the time,” Coombes says.
They record artists of all genres, but focus on singer/songwriters who need full band arrangements, tapping his own skills and inventory of talent. Rocking Horse Music Club was formed from that process, and they have performed a number of special events such as the Best of NH hosted by New Hampshire Magazine.
Coombes says they record a lot of New Hampshire artists who play acoustic, indie rock and some country projects. There are also fusion recording sessions with artists like Kenwood Dennard who plays in the group Brand X.
One project that Coombes is very excited about is their work with Jim Sampas, who is the executor of the Jack Kerouac estate in Lowell, Massachusetts Coombes’ love for American literature, stemming from the BA in English and American Literature he earned at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell, fuels his enthusiasm.
“Jim has written music and adapted Kerouac’s prose and made them into lyrics,” says Coombes, who notes that Rocking Horse Music Club’s latest album was inspired by a writer that both he and Kerouac admired: Thomas Wolfe, who wrote the novel, “Look Homeward, Angel” in 1929. Such literary influences go way back: Tristan Park’s last album in 1998 included two 10-minute songs that were based on Theodore Dreiser’s novel, “An American Tragedy.”
In spite of the changes and the years lost to COVID-19 restrictions, Coombes continues to be very optimistic about the state of New Hampshire’s music scene.
“The fact that we are busier than ever with a wide range of different artists from different ages, I would say the creative output is stronger than it’s ever been. In my 17 years, I have never worked with a more diverse group of artists. People in their 50s and 60s and teenagers. And they are all expressing themselves with their unique music,” he says.
During the pandemic when artists could not perform, they spent more time focusing on their art and writing more songs, he says. The ability to record music and distribute music via digital apps is good, because it makes it easier for more people to express their creativity, but they still need a studio to refine their work, says Coombes.
Recently, The Becker Sisters from western New Hampshire enjoyed using the conservatory grand piano at his studio to enhance their classical vocal and piano music.
While the local music scene in the Concord area is still dominated by jam bands, Coombes says he is seeing his share of artists who want to integrate drums, keyboards and vocal arrangements into hip hop records and other newer sounds.
“Most of the young artists who come to work with us want to create good songs and make them sound good. No one is trying to invent the next trend,” says Coombes, and that’s good. “If you are a forward-thinking, open-minded musician, that is where you are going to find it.”
Meet the King and Queen of NH Hip Hop and R&B
For more than 20 years, Ruby Shabazz and her life partner and musical collaborator, Bill Feehan, have entertained Granite Staters throughout southern New Hampshire with their brand of hip hop and R&B. They also help their fellow musicians hone their desired sound at Fenetic Music Studio in Nashua.
Hip hop has always resonated with Shabazz and Feehan more than any other musical genre, and they are pleased that it is gaining momentum with more New Hampshire music fans today.
“We grew up on it. It speaks to us, and it speaks to our soul,” says Shabazz. “It is music about the culture and the struggle.”
During the summer months, Shabazz and Feehan perform at multicultural downtown festivals held in Nashua, Manchester and Concord. They also play any number of gigs at select pubs and restaurants throughout the region, performing at the two most recent Best of NH parties held at Shaker Village in Canterbury.
They attribute some of their success to their willingness to incorporate other types of music with hip hop, such as soul and rock, to make the music more accessible to more listeners, but being true to themselves as musical artists is always paramount, Shabazz says. “When Bill and I both said, ‘Let’s get back to our roots and be more of ourselves,’ people could see that and appreciate the authenticity. People see you are having a good time and they are having a good time,” she says.
Through their dedication to the craft and love for hip hop, the couple have helped create a community of like-minded artists and hip hop fans in New Hampshire, a movement that keeps growing with young and older listeners alike.
They opened Fenetic Music Studio in Nashua in 2012, producing a lot of hip hop and R&B music and providing a base as they perform all over the Granite State.
“We do a lot of coordinating with downtown festivals in Nashua, Manchester and Concord and area pubs,” says Shabazz. Feehan adds, “With organic hip hop, a lot of it pulls from the soul samples from the ’60s and ’70s, so when we work with a live band we can weave in the new soul samples and transpose it and revamp it to make it more exciting.”
The couple, who plan to wed in April after being together for 25 years, believe New Hampshire’s hip hop music scene is ready to take off. “It is growing and being cultivated right now. It is definitely becoming more diverse and inclusive,” says Feehan. “It is all over New Hampshire. We just did a show with Modest Man in Keene and played a rap night at Shaskeen in Manchester with DJ Myth.”
Feehan and another local artist, Cody Pope, were recently nominated for New England Music Awards for Hip Hop Act of the Year and Rising Star of the Year — the first time that two New Hampshire artists have been so nominated. “It validates what we are doing on a larger scale,” says Feehan. Winners were to be named at a ceremony on November 30 (after this issue went to press) at Patriots Place near Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
At their Nashua studio, Feehan, who performs as Fee the Evolutionist, and Ruby Shabazz works with keyboard players, bassists and drummers who play in rock bands, wedding bands, jazz bands and other genres.
“We are looking to work with more musicians as well,” Shabazz says, noting that interested musicians can contact them via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When the couple perform together, their joy is evident and infectious. It’s a chemistry that comes from how well they complement one another as performers and as a couple in real life.
Feehan says they have worked with 40 different artists in their studio over the past year. They also enjoy collaborating with engineers in other studios. “We’re big on collaborations and the community in general,” says Feehan. “We are only as strong as the music community.”
One of those collaborations resulted in a songwriting award nomination for work they did with Ski Beatz, who produced Jay-Z. Feehan, performing as Fee the Evolutionist, worked with Ruby Shabazz, Professor Lyrical and producer Ski Beatz on the song, “Ain’t No Love” that can be acquired on Apple Music, Amazon and other streaming platforms.
Although famous for its competitive turf battles between East Coast and West Coast crews, collaboration is really at the heart of hip hop as a musical genre, and it’s at the very center of everything that Feehan and Shabazz have done since they met on the campus at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell 25 years ago. Shabazz, 44,
is originally from Roxbury, Massachusetts, and Feehan, 50, grew up in North Chelmsford. Their love of hip hop and R&B drew them together as creative partners and later as a bonded couple.
They performed and produced hip hop and R&B music in the Greater Boston area and around Lowell for the first five years before they moved to Nashua. They, and other hip hop artists, began to set out to build a movement in southern New Hampshire, and now they believe they have succeeded.
The two have made many albums together, including “One Love” and other albums that were put on vinyl with a group named X Cal.
They believe hip hop reached a turning point in New Hampshire when they and other artists improved production values and made the music more accessible to the audiences. “It also changed when we decided to be more of ourselves,” Shabazz recalls. Feehan agrees, but adds, “You need to kind of push your ego aside. And you have to do what you love to do, but you can do it in such a way that people respond to it as well.”
Feehan believes New Hampshire has a gold mine of talent that is embracing hip hop like never before. They have learned that if artists are emotionally committed to their musical form and that love reaches the audience, good things happen.
Shabazz believes that Nashua and New Hampshire can become a place where national hip hop and R&B artists will want to perform during their tours as word spreads about its popularity here. Bringing local and national fan bases together generates a great ripple effect, says Feehan. “Their fans become your fans, and our fans become more fans.”
They love it when they see both younger and older members in the audience and appreciate it when fans linger. “As long as you’re talented and relatable, kids want to be able to shake your hands, talk to you and exchange social media,” says Feehan.
The isolation of recent years fueled people’s desire to get outside and be together and that urge further fuels hip hop’s popularity in the Granite State, says Shabazz. “With the pandemic, there was a lot of social consciousness going on. With different cultures coming up with different music, food, dancing, people appreciate it and they want to know more about their cultures, their struggles and their celebration,” Shabazz explains.
In the end, they are doing what they love to increase the love for everyone. “If the scene thrives, we have more places to play and more places to go and just enjoy ourselves,” Feehan says. “If you love your craft, the fan base will grow organically.”
NH Music Scene Breaks New Ground, Sees More Fans
Bob Lord’s PARMA Recordings in North Hampton marked a milestone this fall when they produced “Amplify,” their 1,000th album, that was released on PARMA’s label, Navona Records. It was made for All Classical Portland in Oregon and represents another masterful classical music recording for Lord and his team.
“We’re really proud of this project. We hope it is just the beginning of a movement to larger projects like this,” Lord says.
As the founding member of the Seacoast progressive rock band Dreadnaught, Lord developed a strong love for classical music that led him to create PARMA Recordings and Navona Records in 2008. He believes there are many more listeners out there who are ready to fully appreciate and embrace classical music as he has. It is just a matter of making it more accessible and casting it in a different light.
The Grammy-winning Navona Records’ goal is to provide listeners with a fresh taste of today’s leading innovators in orchestral, chamber, instrumental and experimental music as well as prime pieces of classic repertoire. Lord explains that, while their focus is on classical music, they also work with jazz, folk and electronic music artists.
A new project that has captured Lord’s heart is Leonard Bernstein’s recently uncovered “Music for String Quartet.” Navona Records is working with members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) to record and release this music that Bernstein composed in 1936 at age 18 while attending Harvard University. Artists Lucia Lin, Natalie Rose Kress, Danny Kim and Ronald Feldman will perform the music for PARMA Recordings that will be released by Navona Records in 2023.
“It’s a rare event indeed to present a premiere of any type by a great master of Bernstein’s stature, much less to have something completely and totally unheard composed by the man himself as part of it,” reads a statement released by PARMA in October. “We’re honored to be the stewards of this historic project.”
“People know this piece has been discovered, but what they don’t know is that it has not been recorded before,” says Lord.
PARMA had been working with BSO violinists Lucia Lin and BSO Music Librarian John Perkel, who brought this project to Lord to produce.
Great music is a constant that flows out of PARMA Recordings and Navona Records. In addition to the classical and jazz music artists that Lord produces, he also enjoys working with celebrated authors like his friend Dan Brown. Lord’s studio produced Brown’s “Wild Symphony” children’s book, which Bob said is just amazing because “it is having an impact on listeners all over the world.”
Bob explained the book is coupled with a symphonic work and an app that can be accessed by scanning a QR code in the book. Each page plays the musical track with the associated animal on that page, Bob said. The music was recorded by the Navona’s Records’ orchestra that they operate in Croatia as part of the Zagreb Festival Orchestra. The book and the album were released in 2020. MGM Studios is currently turning Brown’s book into an animated feature film.
Lord’s experimental rock band, Dreadnaught, which has also served as the house band of The Music Hall’s Writers on a New England Stage series for 17 years, is a passion for him, but he says he loves working in the studio even more. He notes that, as a producer, just “knowing that you are doing something that has the potential to last a very, very long time” is very gratifying. He believes the Bernstein’s recordings are a good example.
The creativity and the energy that Lord experiences as producer here in New Hampshire is a reflection of the Seacoast music scene, he says. Even looking back to when he started Dreadnaught as a University of New Hampshire student in 1996, Lord believes the Seacoast artists have always striven to bring together different sounds and influences to create exciting music. And Portsmouth is currently blessed with so many venues where musicians can play for attentive audiences, from the Press Room and The Music Hall Lounge to Jimmy’s Jazz & Blues Club and 3S Art Studios. He says when you have that much activity happening in those larger venues and places like the Stone Church in Newmarket and the smaller coffee houses that are perfect for bands and singer/songwriters who are just starting out, wonderful things usually happen.
In a singular way, Lord has always had a finger on the pulse of the Seacoast music scene. “I am the only person who has ever been a musician, running a music company, chairing the board [of The Music Hall’s board of directors] and someone who has been on stage performing for an audience,” he says. And, he notes, there continues to be a tremendous musical confluence of new and up-and-coming artists that are homegrown to more world-class musicians who want to play in Portsmouth. “Right now, there is more great music being created here than there are outlets for it to be shared and experienced.”
And, with the continued business growth, population growth and diversity of cultures that are finding homes in the Seacoast region, Lord says, “All of these factors will fuel the Seacoast music scene for a long time.”
That said, in many ways, the current Seacoast music scene is not that different than the one that flourished 30 years ago. Dreadnaught is now 26 years old and the band just released “Northern Burner.” In 2021, Lord released a solo album, “Playland Arcade” (named for Hampton Beach’s famous arcade) containing musical odes to such attractions as Fry Doe and Skee Ball.
“Capturing the crazy stuff in your head before it evaporates is really important,” Lord says.
With Dreadnaught, the band performed so many gigs that it didn’t always have time to really hone its sound and focus on songwriting. As Lord’s love for classical music and modern music blossomed, he enjoyed working in the studio more and more and helping fellow artists perfect their sound. Since 2008, he has developed a laser focus to help bands and artists realize their potential. “I can help people achieve their vision,” he says.
One of his most memorable gigs with Dreadnaught was when they opened for The Who’s late bassist John Entwistle in Portland, Maine, in 2001. Entwistle was one of Lord’s heroes, and he always admired the way The Who combined classical music with rock when they made “Tommy.” The Who is currently touring with a symphony orchestra, which is now common for many contemporary artists.
Lord believes the New Hampshire music scene is benefitting from the ease of creating homegrown music via digital technology with apps like Spotify, Apple and YouTube, in spite of the downsides in terms of revenue. “Digital music has cut the revenue stream in albums,” he admits, but he adds, “It has opened up this world where you can skip and jump from style to genre and create.”
Listeners’ ability to do the same also enables more people to embrace more different musical genres today than before. This development is removing the stigma that has dogged traditional classical music for a long time, he believes.
The willingness of musicians to mix and meld various musical genres to create their sound gives the New Hampshire scene more life and vibrancy than it has ever known. Musicians should never hesitate to capture whatever they hear inside their heads, says Lord.
“Artistic bravery and doing what you feel and think is artistically right is the most important thing,” Lord says. “There is no secret code. The only thing that is holding you back is the fear that you will make yourself look like an ass.” And the best way that music fans can nurture their local music scene is to go out and listen to live music. “We can’t do what we do in a vacuum,” he says.
Lord takes it as his vocation to help artists realize their vision. As a result, he says that everyone that he has ever worked with have become like members of an extended family.
“I am a steward of their art, and I take that responsibility very seriously,” says Lord.