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Making Music In The Midst Of A Pandemic

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Recording studios and artists across Vermont have found ways to keep music alive during COVID-19.

People all across Vermont have had to be creative when it comes to getting work done while also social distancing during the pandemic. Musicians and recording studios are no exception. This hour, we'll speak with various voices from the music industry around the state about how they are producing music safely and efficiently during COVID-19.

Our guests are:

Disclaimer: Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers. They may contain errors, so please check with the producer before quoting in print.

Benjamin Lerner: A 'Reanimation' During COVID-19

Benjamin Lerner is a composer, writer and recovery advocate based in Vermont. 

Mary Engisch: So, Benjamin, you’ve been very prolific and creative during COVID-19. Tell us about the song you wrote during the pandemic, a reflection on COVID-19. What is your process for composition?

Benjamin Lerner: Well, I've been able to, with the help of Joshua Sherman, my producer and mentor here at Old Mill Road Recording, put together two aspects of my musical personality that I've always really loved. I started playing classical piano when I was nine years old and it took me a while to get the theory and get my hands ready and learn the different scales and other modes and all that. But as that was developing, I was also developing a love for poetry and Hip-Hop music.

But in my addiction, I was never able to really combine them the way that I wanted to. Because when you're under the influence, the complex polyrhythms of matching up the syncopation of old school hip-hop flow cadences with classical piano emphasis doesn't really work. When I cleared through the fog of a mental haze that came with my addiction and I came up here to Vermont and came to the clear skies, it was really cool to be here at Old Mill Road and put together, as I mentioned, the polyrhythms with the music.

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What I do is: first I think about the rap. Usually, unless there's a sung component, which I do on some of my hooks, it's really about figuring out the rhythm and the syncopation of that. And then, for example, with this piece, I really wanted to do a major chord with a couple of minor simple chord progressions with kind of just open parts, chords that really kind of relay an inspirational message of hope. And from there, I kind of think about how I'm going to layer the different components together. So for that, it was pretty simple; just the one-two-three-four alternating chord pattern. But then the challenge is really: how am I going to put the rap rhythm over this in a way that's pleasing to the ear and lets the cadences just kind of breed together? So that's usually how it works. 

Mary Engisch: I love hearing that recipe. That's so cool. How are you staying in contact and helping other folks who are in recovery based in Vermont? Everybody’s trying to stay socially distant, but we all need to be willing to be close and have folks we can talk to. How are you helping with that through your music? 

Benjamin Lerner: For me, first of all, I like to speak through my music. My album Clean just came out a couple of months ago. It came out during the very start of the pandemic.

What's interesting is that there's a lot of overlap in terms of the pandemic and the opioid epidemic. Sadly, we're seeing overdose statistics rise across the country, including in Vermont. And what's really helped is to be able to communicate through my music and also to be able to communicate through Zoom meetings.

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It's very good that addicts are further apart in a way than they've ever been, but through friends across the country, across the coast, I have connections in New Jersey, Washington, D.C., Vermont and the national and international community of recovering addicts. Musicians are actually coming together through Zoom and through other streaming collaboration platforms like never before.

"It was kind of like a reanimation, because when the pandemic was first starting in this Vermont winter, I felt very isolated. But to be able to come into the studios, the trees came back to life, it was kind of like reawakening." - Benjamin Lerner

That's why it's so incredible to have this studio, because not only is it a great place to record, but it's also a great place to perform. I mean, talk about a beautiful backdrop. And one of my favorite terms and concepts is synesthesia, uniting of the senses. When you're looking out the window here at the waterfall, you feel a real sense of freedom, no matter what the season.

You know, COVID-19, is taking a huge toll on the moral psyche of America as a whole, I think. But it was kind of invigorating to see the trees here in Vermont so vibrant and verdant, coming back to life in the spring. It was kind of like a reanimation, because when the pandemic was first starting in this Vermont winter, I felt very isolated. But to be able to come into the studios, the trees came back to life, it was kind of like reawakening. That coincided with me really wanting to get out of myself and use both my music and my recovery circle to reach out to people and really take advantage of the fact that people were out there doing musical collaborations. 

Laura Heaberlin: 'Ghosts In My Calendar'

Laura Heaberlin is half of the folk duo Cricket Blue based in Burlington. 

Mary Engisch: I'd love to hear about your experience as being an artist in Vermont today. And I’m wondering if you have been into a recording studio since the pandemic hit?

Laura Heaberlin: I have not been into a recording studio since the pandemic hit. Luckily, I have a pretty good recording setup at my house, which is nice. But I, as you said, play in a folk duo called Cricket Blue. And since the pandemic started, I have not been in the same room as my music partner, Taylor. We're one of those bands who are not quarantining together. And so that has definitely made, you know, band progress a little bit difficult.

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We released a record back in 2019 and we're kind of working on writing our next project. We had a couple of tours that were booked, but of course they were all canceled. They're kind of like ghosts in my calendar. I look at my calendar and I'm like, 'Oh. I would be in Philadelphia today but instead I'm at home again.' But it's been sort of nice in a way. It pointed us more towards our creative work rather than our business work. We were meeting three times a week, mostly just to email people back and do our accounting and things. But when you have no income and you have no shows (which require a lot of logistical planning) all of that work kind of disappears. We both get to just focus on writing.

Mary Engisch: Are you doing anything that's like online? I know you're not quarantining together, but are you able to do some Zoom-style music composing?

Laura Heaberlin: We've both done some livestreaming as solo artists, and we did one kind of prerecorded livestream. But we've definitely been co-revising things together over Zoom, which has been really nice. 

Mary Engisch: And what do you plan for? I guess it's sort of hard to plan, but, you know, let's say things turn around...Are you going to still stay close to home or get right back out and start booking things?

Laura Heaberlin: Well, we're both pretty cautious about pandemic things. I think even if we were allowed to do interstate travel right now, we would not be participating. But, you know, once things are different, if the venues have all survived, which we're both very worried about, then hopefully, yeah, we will definitely get back out on the road.

Ben Dunham: 'An Opportunity For Growth And Connection'

Ben Dunham is a singer and songwriter based in Montpelier.

Mary Engisch: So Ben, you’ve been working on music throughout the pandemic. How is that different from, say, pre-pandemic time? Does it just feel like now is a great time to strip everything away and get down to basics?

Ben Dunham: The priorities have changed, you know: taking care of family, friends and artists that I'm working with, keeping community. And that's so important for all of us as artists, and especially during this time. It's really what's important right now. I just have to go with stripping back to what’s stable and to what's simple.

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Mary Engisch: Tell me, were you performing out much before the pandemic? What was your tour schedule like? Were you pretty booked up and did you have to sweep that whole idea of playing out away? What does performing look like now for you? 

"I'm looking at this as an opportunity for growth and connection." - Ben Dunham

Ben Dunham: Yeah, I was very busy and actually producing and writing and traveling all over. And that was kind of hard to accept. But at the same time, I'm looking at this as an opportunity for growth and connection. Future tours are not going to happen anytime soon. Maybe a backyard fire pit with an acoustic [set], which actually sounds pretty lovely. We have to be resourceful. And right now it brings up all the liability, the insurance and [questions about] what's going to happen in the future. 

Mary Engisch: What have you been finding with local venues? Are they reaching out to you and to other artists, saying, 'Let's give this a try as safely as we can?'

Ben Dunham: Well, there are a few select small venues that are doing safe social distancing and shows that are coming up through the summer. But again, I’m very, very cautious and have a lot of trepidation around getting people together. I think we just need to be wary of that. 

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Mary Engisch: Tell us about your new single that came out during COVID-19. 

Ben Dunham: I just released a track with [Montpelier-based artist] Sarah Grace. The track was called "Smoke Screen", and we wrapped that up during COVID-19. That was a project that we were able to do through file sharing and remote recordings. We were able to do that by just using click tracks and compiling all this stuff and then revamping everything. We just released that a few weeks ago, and a bunch of Vermont artists are on that track. We had just this incredible cast and we're seeing some success on that track.

But also, right now, it's important for us to essentially give that track away. And that was kind of the goal is to say, you know what, we're not going to monetize this. We just need to get it out there. But I'm really excited about the next project coming up, which should be out in October. We're wrapping that up right now.

For playlists from VPR's show Safe & Sound, featuring music from local artists, follow VPR on Spotify.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet us @vermontedition.

Because of music rights issues, we won't be able to podcast the show, so be sure to listen live! 

Broadcast live on Wednesday, August 19, 2020 at noon. Rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

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