On Friday, March 13th 2020, school ended for the year. We had no idea at the time, of course, but students were not to set foot in the school building again. For undergraduates this was, although a big deal, not necessarily catastrophic. For seniors, though, it was everything. Prom. Concerts. The spring musical. Graduation. Everything gone, and even worse, it was a slow drip of cancellations over many weeks until we realized there was nothing left. We spent some time figuring out how to teach our classes into computer screens, but the bigger questions were left unanswered; namely, how do we replace the irreplaceable things? With my daughter a senior herself, I had a decent insight into what they were going through. There’s nothing that can take the place of a concert, but technology still allows us to make music. So that’s what we did. Every senior, instead of polishing and performing their usual classical solo, picked a piece to record, for an album we would release by graduation (whatever that ended up being). For copyright purposes, we needed to stick to either original music, or songs that were at least a hundred years old. We ended up going down a rabbit hole of 1890s hits, looking for those that still somehow spoke to us in the modern age (and trying not to be horrified by how incredibly racist so many of the other songs were). This was the beginning of what became “From the Inside Out”.
“Wayfaring Stranger” was the first song chosen for the album, after “You Love”. There was never any question that it would be a feature for Colby Dagwan Santos, whose unique voice and wonderful sense of ornamentation were a perfect fit for this plaintive old folk song from the early 19th century. The arrangement is in 4/4, rather than the original 3/4, with a mix of strings, slide guitar, and old Fender amp vibrato. I had Emmylou Harris in my brain, the whole time we were recording it, even though the song sounds nothing like her version. Her inspiration gave us this, though, and we are incredibly grateful.
“From the Inside, Out” is the first full-length album released by Mt. Hope Music, the catch-all for music published by our high school groups. Each of the songs were recorded at home, during the pandemic of 2020, and almost every one of the seniors in that year’s Vocal Ensemble took a turn out front, singing a solo. It’s a testament to these students and their hard work that this ended up being an eclectic, yet enjoyable, collection of music. The video for “You Love”, which was directed by Mark Bettencourt, was very popular in Rhode Island, and was used as the theme song for a fundraiser for the homeless and underprivileged, who were affected so terribly by COVID-19. Read the blog for the behind-the-scenes story of the making of this album!
I started “You Love” about three years ago, as a lyric-writing exercise. I do these a lot, because writing lyrics is a never-ending struggle to fill a bucket with a hole in it. If I can occupy my mind with arbitrary rules about rhyme structure, then I don’t spend as much time wondering what in the world to write in the first place. Also, I thought it would be fun to write something in second person, like “Captain Jack” or “Kid Charlemagne”, except about love and hope and not, y’know, junkies. It took a while to finish, and then sat in a note on my iPad for even longer. Eventually, I was looking for something to use as my next choral piece, so I wrote the arrangement over the summer, and taught it to Vocal Ensemble soon after our winter concert. We were on track to perform this new piece at the RIMEA Choral Festival in March, and then the world went into lockdown. We would have recorded it anyway, but once COVID-19 took over, we couldn’t even use our meager recording facilities at the school. So each student sang their part into a phone, while listening to the backing track with earplugs, and we began the INCREDIBLY TEDIOUS task of manually assembling a chorus. I’d guess that each track took at least an hour and a half of cleanup before it was in decent-enough shape to add to the project. Then the real fun started, with lining up entrances, fixing timing and tuning, and just generally being obsessive. The audio for this three-minute song probably took eighty hours of work. I’m not complaining, though; we got something special, and it sounds like what they sound like when they sing together, which is to say, fantastic.
We left school in March, on Friday the 13th, telling each other, “well, see you in a month or so!”. We knew that we probably weren’t going back, but no one was ready to process what that actually meant. In the two months following, everything on the school calendar was canceled: concerts, the spring musical (Legally Blonde!), proms, class awards, graduation. The country has endured a terrible year, with tragic losses. However, our high school seniors have endured a different kind of terrible year. While their families have lost income, and possibly loved ones, they have also lost all of the milestone events to which young people look forward for most of their school careers. Each year at Mt. Hope, we do a recording project with Vocal Ensemble, our audition choir. The first couple were graduation songs (see “To Belong” and “Timeless”), which we were honored to present at the graduation ceremonies their respective years. For 2020, we had a new choral piece, entitled “You Love”, which we had planned to debut at the RIMEA state choral festival. This festival was, of course, canceled, so we were at a loss as to what to do with it. Out of sheer desperation, and a desire for a project around which we could rally, we decided to record it remotely. Twenty students, all singing into their respective iPhones, on a choral song that relies on precise timing and shared dynamics. WHAT COULD GO WRONG? Also, since the difficulty level evidently wasn’t already high enough, we figured we could record all of our seniors’ solos, and make an entire album out of the resulting material.
WHAT COULD GO WRONG?
Well, so, a lot. However, we stumbled into a fantastic project, which brought us together in a myriad of ways, and which gave our last quarter of the school year real purpose. Over the next few posts, I’ll document what we did to make “From The Inside, Out”, as well as the accompanying videos and fundraising project. If you would like to cheat a little and find out ahead of time how to contribute, click here.
After we had performed “To Belong” for the final time last year, Alycia Tierney, a rising senior (and Vocal Ensemble president-elect) came to me and declared, “I’M writing next year’s graduation song”. My answer was something like, “yah, ok, can we talk about it in six months or so?” As it turned out, we sat down with only a title at the beginning of April, and by the beginning of May we had this beautiful song finished, with a studio-quality demo and choral arrangement. It’s so wonderfully personal, with great details about her life, while being just wistful enough to make you miss high school and your friends, even if you’re not the one graduating. It’s one of my all-time favorite co-writes. The 70s Fleetwood Mac vibe was entirely intentional, and stands as a pretty significant contrast to last year’s pop-oriented arrangement. There are great background vocals from Colby, Jacob P., Jenna, and Sam, and, of course, that’s Jacob Lauria on drums. We were severely pressed for time the day we did the tracking, so I cut the lead guitar track in one take. Sometimes we make our own pressure for fun, I suppose. Released as an online single in June, 2019.