24Hr. Records: Songwriting With Strangers

Photos by Andrew White, courtesy of Andrew White Photography/24Hr. Records
Photos by Andrew White, courtesy of Andrew White Photography/24Hr. Records

In South Nashville, a stone’s throw from the country music megaliths that have claimed Music Row and in the same zipcode that houses recording studios operated by early aughts rock radio mainstays The Black Keys and Kings of Leon, lies Club Roar. Operated by tenured producer/engineer Robin Eaton, Club Roar is a 2,000-plus square foot warehouse that served as a storage space for his wife’s imported Italian chandelier business until he transformed it into a recording studio/curio-filled funhouse. It is here that, every two or three months, a group of up to five local songwriters will encamp themselves for 24 consecutive hours to write and record three songs.

These musicians, handpicked by the crew at 24Hr. Records, are expected to forge and build working relationships with new collaborators in the name of turning out a product that betrays the ephemeral nature of the project. It’s an exercise in the process of songwriting, but in a reversal of the classic saying that seeks to safeguard against expending excess energy in an unnecessary fashion: the 24Hr. Records sessions are much more of a sprint than they are a marathon.

Upon their arrival at the studio, it became sharply evident that each of the five participants was eager to get down to attempting the Herculean task, not only showing up early or on time for the 12:00 pm call time but also settling into their places with minimum hobnobbing. The most recent cast of songwriters/instrumentalists (in order of arrival) consisted of lap steel/saxophone/keyboard player Caleb Hickman, Harpooner keyboardist Scott Schmadeke, drummer Nick DeVan (of local soul revivalist acts DeRobert & The Half-Truths and AJ & The Jiggawatts,) Blank Range bassist Taylor Zachry and last-minute addition Erin Rae McKaskle.

About 30 minutes after being corralled into a circle by the production crew and told “there’s not really any way to get started” on the process, the musicians settled into a Southern psych-streaked jam led by DeVan on drums and Zachry on bass, a jam that rapidly pivoted to something more soulful once Hickman abandoned his lap steel for a Rhodes piano. With Schmadeke taking up the role of lead guitarist, McKaskle picked up her own to play rhythm before settling in with pen and pad as the primary songwriter.

From left: Nick DeVan, Scott Schmadeke, Taylor Zachry, Erin Rae McKaskle and Caleb Hickman.
From left: Nick DeVan, Scott Schmadeke, Taylor Zachry, Erin Rae McKaskle and Caleb Hickman.

Taking up a fly on the wall perspective during this process was illuminating, to say the least. The common thread throughout much of this full day spent in Club Roar was that much of the construction of each song was relegated to handwringing over chord structures and key changes. McKaskle herself, who fleshed out the initial sketch of the first song with lyrics written with Schmadeke’s help, assured that she was “more of a songwriter, not a theorist,” a statement that confirmed that everybody entered Club Roar with their own preconceptions, only to have them completely subverted by the experience. McKaskle and Schmadeke ended up acclimating to the Muscle Shoals-indebted sound of the first song by reaching into the depths of The Great American Songbook and coming out with a duet about innocent platonic love, lyrics that spun out of Schmadeke’s initially joking suggestion that since “the song sounded [so] sexy, maybe we should just make it about sex.”

Though it’s essential to assume that most musicians in Nashville run in a circle that eventually becomes more of a shared hamster wheel, only two of the five people in the room had actually worked together before (Hickman plays lap steel in McKaskle’s live band). For the most part, what was happening was unadulterated, and therefore fascinating to observe. While there has been talk as recently as last year of a season of The Real World being filmed in Nashville, reality TV would never capture something as genuine as the break period on the first song, in which the number of cigarettes smoked ran directly in proportion to the number of new, potentially fruitful friendships being established.

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This first break was also a good reference point for how the group’s collaboration would develop over the course of the 24 hours. Though the initial respite from constructing the first song began with everyone congregating as one, it developed into a splintering of the faction. Zachry holed himself up in one of Club Roar’s two soundproofed rooms to work on bass, McKaskle and Schmadeke hammered out melodies while sitting at the grand piano shortly before Hickman joined to help out and DeVan checked out the facility’s many quirky decorations before jumping back on the drum kit. By the 12th hour, necessary couch naps and brief individual rehearsals aside, The Vump (the band name they adopted, a portmanteau of the words “vamp” and “bump”) had become a foster family of sorts.

Of course, no good foster family exists if not for compassionate caretakers, a role that the team at 24Hr. Records plays with a weathered and rugged outlook. Having been in existence for nearly three years, founders/producers Michael Hardesty and Stephen Turney have managed to turn what was initially an impromptu endurance test into a relatively unique and justifiably popular video series. And with a three-man video crew (made up of director Brad Cash, director of photography Andrew White and graveyard shifter Evan Moore) and an audio engineering duo (made up of Turney and David Brubaker), the production side of 24Hr. Records uses unlikely collaboration as the basis for a finished product that connects with its audience in unexpected fashions.

Zachry expressed his appreciation of the call to work on the 24Hr. Records project, hinting that he missed the innocence of just “jamming out with friends” since he’s begun spending much of his time as a hired gun for bands in town. He joined locally-based rock band Blank Range earlier this year and has been touring large swaths of the country opening for bands like The Mountain Goats and Two Gallants. Caleb Hickman is in a similar spot; his talent as a multi-instrumentalist has attracted everyone from country-turned-PBR&B act Night Beds to 24Hr. Records collaborator Erin Rae McKaskle.

In fact, Hickman and McKaskle’s previous collaboration led to the inception of the second song, a track that had previously existed as little more than a sketch in McKaskle’s imagination for the past three years and congealed only after Hickman gave some input on the front porch of Club Roar in between recordings. Keeping in line with McKaskle’s preexisting identity as a folk musician, the second song started out as a lap steel-driven rumination not far removed from the emphatic finger picking meditations of New Nashville legend William Tyler. Much like a William Tyler song, this one was laid out with the intention of being an exclusively instrumental track, but it found its voice in an unlikely place. Referring to it as his “favorite Van Morrison record,” Schmadeke found his inspiration for the lyrics to the second song in the psychedelic imagery that adorns the cover of the 1973 record Hard Nose the Highway. Whereas the prior track was influenced by the universal concept of romantic engagement, it was much more fascinating to see how Schmadeke expanded on the insular appeal of another musical work’s visual representation on a song being crafted nearly half a century later.

It was also fascinating that the collective had the reserves of energy required to power through the physiologically exhausting requirements inherent within 24Hr. Records, as I can only recount the recording of the third and final song in movements: the initial bass-heavy glam rock noodling that I fell asleep to somewhere around the 16th hour, and what I can only reasonably refer to as the synth-infested “psychedelic goth” that I woke up to about two hours later. In what was easily the most intriguing song of the three, it seemed that Hickman had taken up the songwriting reins to convey sonically what he described as being inspired by “feelings of self-doubt, the idea of being in your mid-20’s and trying to make it as an “adult”.” The song itself mirrored that existential dread, with the band literally experimenting with new elements until the last minute of the 24th hour. Around the time that I fell asleep, Schmadeke was annexed from the group on the grand piano. Shortly after I woke up, he was laying down some truly eerie lines on one of the many electric organs contained within the walls of Club Roar. At one point, while I was walking to the bathroom, I noticed Zachry manipulating his voice while screaming through a megaphone in one of the soundproof rooms. Within the last 30 minutes of that last hour, Hickman was working on three completely separate saxophone parts and using pedals to alter the sound of his lap steel.

The fact that this group of people, who had literally only been working together for a day, coalesced to the point that they progressed from making straightforward vintage pop to something so extremely experimental is encouraging for the future of music as a whole. It is incredibly convenient to be cynical and get hung up on how the draining of profit from the industry has led to increasingly few instances of artists being willing and able to break free to create something that holds up outside of it, but it’s far more simple to accept that great music is being created in every corner of the earth at every waking moment, even if that corner is just a small studio in South Nashville and that waking moment is stretched out to 24 hours.