Sometimes, a recording studio just has a certain spirit, a character that can’t quite be explained in words.
Take, for instance, Muscle Shoal’s Fame Studio, a no-frills recording joint in the obscure northwestern corner of Alabama. It was started by a bunch of young, relatively unknown musicians in the 1960s, and by the next decade, it had generated some of the greatest soul records of all time.
What’s happening over in a storage unit on Line Street in downtown Charleston is hardly Muscle Shoals. While more than a dozen indie musicians have recorded and produced records there in the past three years, none are quite like Aretha Franklin or Percy Sledge.
Even so, there’s one striking similarity: Both projects were born of boot-strapping 20-somethings in a town that had never been considered part of the national music scene.
And instead of heading for Nashville or Los Angeles, these young musicians have dug their heels in, linked arms, and said this is the place where they all want to make music together, whatever it takes.
Meet Charleston’s new indie collective: an extended group of friends, roommates and collaborators who work hospitality jobs to sustain their art and the escalating rent prices on the upper peninsula. When they’re not working or touring, a major chunk of their extra cash and time is spent in a storage unit studio, known simply as “the space,” to record with their friend and unofficial leader, Ryan Zimmerman.
The long-haired, 26-year-old often goes by the name Wolfgang, partly because it’s the name his dad wanted to give him, and partly because he likes the allusion to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He’s a self-taught recording engineer and drummer for the local band Brave Baby, known for his work producing albums and guiding the creative direction of local artists such as Jordan Igoe, Johnny Delaware, Grace Joyner, SUSTO and others.
He moved to Charleston six years ago and rented a single unit in the AAA Downtown Storage garage near Meeting and Line streets, where he recorded most of his friends’ debut albums from 2011 through 2012. Last year, he combined the space with the unit next door and knocked down the dividing wall. Zimmerman laughs now at the thought of working all the time in a space half that size, but still, he wouldn’t have wanted it another way.
“You have to be resourceful,” he said. “You know like they say, Steve Jobs always had the iPad idea in his head. But he had to get there with a floppy disk and dial-up, and eventually it led to that. So I think it’s just taking it one step at a time, being like OK well, we don’t have this money, what can we do to make it happen anyway? And then just try to enjoy those steps along the way.”
The goal, Zimmerman said, for his band and many of the other local artists he works with, is to reach at least some level of national recognition so that they can support themselves by touring and making music. Eventually, he’d like to move into a big warehouse somewhere in Charleston where they can all work, collaborate and throw big events.
“But living in the moment is pretty crucial, too, so we’ll just keep doing what we’re doing,” he said. “I think as long as we’re still here as each other’s support system, we’re going to do great.”
Most of these artists have found that they actually prefer to work in Zimmerman’s humble studio, even if they did have the money to record elsewhere.
“I’ve been in pretty awesome studios, but being with Ryan was definitely the best experience,” said Igoe, whose debut album was released last year. “If you go into an expensive studio, you have a very strict schedule. With Ryan, we took nine months. It was cool to come back with fresh ears over and over and keep addressing what was happening. Eliminating the deadline stress allows you be to a lot more creative.”
“There are two opposing forces: time and spontaneity,” he said. “That’s why I think our albums continue to get better because we just take our time. Instead of knocking it out in two weeks and spending a ... ton of money, we spread it out over a year and we don’t spend as much money.”
Since Igoe’s album dropped, the singer and multi-instrumentalist has caught a wave of new momentum.
She played the national BandSwap competition in Charleston and Colorado, which also landed her a spot at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas. Through those showcases, she caught the attention of Tim Nielsen, bassist of the Atlanta-based rock group Drivin’ N Cryin’, who’s now her manager.
Still, no matter where her career takes her, the Charleston native said she’s serious about sticking to her roots.
“I’m touring like crazy now, and I’m always going out of town, but my heart’s in Charleston and I want Charleston to do well,” Igoe said.
That’s what stands out about this new collective of independent artists: they all say that putting Charleston on the map is their main goal, no matter what sort of individual success they find.
The idea of aligning with like-minded musicians isn’t a new concept for the Lowcountry. Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst of Shovels & Rope, Sadler Vaden, Joel Hamilton and a number of others all came together and used their own resources in a group they called the Shrimp Records Family, and most have since found their way to the national stage, particularly Shovels & Rope.
And while many in Shrimp Records still call Charleston home, never before has a group been so vocal about making the city a hub for indie music until now.
Dan McCurry is the main guy in town throwing a lot of energy behind that mission. A Charleston native and 2007 College of Charleston grad, McCurry has been playing with his band, Run Dan Run, for many years.
He started a blog called Hearts & Plugs, which he turned into his startup record label once he and his friends in bands such as Brave Baby and Elim Bolt started releasing albums around the same time in 2012.
“That’s when I saw this could be a real record label and really started to put my energies there,” he said. “I just think we’ll all benefit so much more together than we would apart.”
This year, Hearts & Plugs gained some visibility in the community after partnering with Redux Contemporary Art Center for a four-week concert series showcasing all the artists that are releasing albums on the local label.
“Through this particular branded event we were able to push the H&P name up front and really pull everyone together,” McCurry said. “We’re very much all focused on the community aspect. And we’re all so passionate about where the city is right now with progressive, like-minded people, and there are a lot of people interested in making this a place to stay and create.”
Grace Joyner, who released her EP on the label last year, said McCurry plays a pivotal role establishing a community for up-and-coming indie acts.
“He really puts it in paper that this is the community we’re working with,” she said. “He’s done such a great job at pushing us forward and promoting us, and getting us to book shows. He is an amazing multitasker.”
It’s the combination of the city’s creative community, inexpensive studio time and Zimmerman’s unique direction that musicians say have drawen them to town, from around South Carolina and as far away as the Lone Star State.
“I moved all the way from Austin, Texas, to record with Ryan,” said Johnny Delaware.
In early 2012, the young musician realized he needed a change, so Delaware put up a Craigslist ad to find artists to collaborate with. Luke Mitchell, who started a band called The High Divers in Hilton Head, was visiting Austin for the weekend and responded.
The two struck up a friendship, Mitchell told Delaware about what Zimmerman was doing in Charleston, and now both Delaware and the High Divers are living and making music here. For Delaware, it’s been a humbling experience.
“I came in here thinking I could sing like Bruce Springsteen, when really it just wasn’t natural. (Zimmerman) kind of helped me find my voice. He helped me a lot actually,” he said.
“He would make me a pillow and lay me down and say all right, try this here. Like, what do we have to do to make you sing better, Johnny? Then the album turned out better than I could have imagined.”
Ben Bridwell, the lead singer of Band of Horses and a veteran of the music industry, said it’s albums like Delaware’s that have reinvigorated his interest in Charleston’s music scene.
The indie star grew up in Columbia, and remembers taking trips down to Charleston to catch shows by bands like Jump, Little Children. He spent several years with his own band in Seattle. Once he moved back to the area in 2007, he said serious, talented musicians just weren’t all that visible in Charleston until about a year ago, when he stumbled upon this group of young musicians who all orbit around a makeshift studio on Line Street.
“It’s a storage garage that they’re making these sounds out of, and I think that’s one of the most beautiful things you can see. People with humble means making such beautiful art,” Bridwell said. “If this is where we’re at right now, with these sorts of bands recording their own music and funding their own records, then we’re off to a great new era, at least that’s what I see.”
Bridwell has since lent groups such as SUSTO and Brave Baby equipment, advice and even industry connections to help them get off their feet.
Charles Carmody, the manager of the Charleston Music Hall, has been offering a helping hand as well, booking them gigs and promoting their music.
“Nobody else is really doing what they’re doing, on a national level even. It’s got the polish of a professional studio recording and it’s got the heart and soul of just people who love what they’re doing and love each other,” he said. “I think that we have something special right now. And we are set up to be an amazing music town.”
Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.