Looking out on a grey Aquinnah woodland, the sprawling front room of singer Lexie Roth’s family house, with its vintage guitar and miniature car collections, has been converted into a live studio for a loose collective of musicians wintering on the Island.
This Monday afternoon it is dotted with microphone stands, a drum kit which sits obtrusively in the sitting area, and a group of twenty-something musicians — Willy Mason, Colin Ruel, Sofi Thanhauser and Miss Roth — who are preparing to record.
Meanwhile in the bedroom/control-room, Sam Mason, 20, is playing back a shockingly proficient — and profane — rap song he recorded with Miss Roth in the early hours of last Sunday morning.
The duo also recently have tackled the trance genre. “The problem is, sometimes you start something as a joke,” says Mr. Mason, “but then you get into it and suddenly you don’t know if it’s a parody anymore.”
Managing today’s session, he ducks back and forth between the drums and sound board. After a lethargic wind-up period of newspaper reading and dip preparation, the troupe launches into a bawdy version of West Tisbury folk singer Miss Thanhauser’s The Patriots — a dual lament on the national Presidential campaign and the recent defeat-snatched-from-the-jaws-of-victory of this state’s football team.
“At the moment we have no isolation, which sucks,” says singer-songwriter Colin Ruel, who is playing rhythm with a National guitar, about the sonic bleed between microphone pickups. The techie talk is in an inevitable consequence of the resolutely DIY approach of these musicians. “Next week, though, the control room’s going to be out in the middle of the floor, and then my guess is we’ll have guitar amps in the bedroom and the bathroom and then DI [Direct Injection] the bass.”
Their enterprising spirit is all-encompassing — there is talk of organizing a community label which will manage everything from design to distribution and promotion, incorporating multi-platinum-selling singer Willy Mason’s record label Grandma’s Basement. But, says Sam’s older brother, who performed bass duties on Miss Thanhauser’s song, it’s too early for specifics.
“It’s just a bunch of kids throwing ideas out at this stage,” he says. “But our feeling is that a group identity is more sustainable and easier to market. There’s loads of examples of that.”
Miss Roth is working on her second album, which she hopes to have completed by April. Miss Thanhauser aims to record an album’s worth of songs in the coming months. Nina Violet and the elder Mason brother also will look to record tracks in this co-operative arrangement.
As for Mr. Ruel, who set fire to 800 of the 1,000 copies of his last album, he is simply looking for something that doesn’t make him cringe.
“By fall, I’d like to have an album I’m not ashamed of selling,” says the falsetto crooner, sitting outside Back Alley’s in West Tisbury the following morning.
Mr. Ruel is a singer and guitarist in A Chorus of Arrows, a band that includes Sam Mason as well as Nina Violet and noted British producer Matthew Cullen, two other members of this musical consortium. Having something to promote is crucial, he says, and, in an age where the album is rapidly losing its value as an artifact, you have to be creative: on a recent, month-long U.K. tour with the band, Mr. Ruel hawked some solo compact discs after the gig. “I put them in manila envelopes with condoms and, like, George Bush trading cards, and sold them for £5,” he says.
While clearly enthusiastic about the burgeoning collective, he isn’t without reservations.
“When it comes down to it, maybe all artists are good for is making art,” Mr. Ruel says, sipping from a biodegradable, corn-plastic coffee mug, which he otherwise keeps dangling from his waist like an urban eco-warrior’s sporran, while preparing to go to help his uncle build a stone wall in Chilmark.
The fact that Willy Mason wrote Oxygen, the song that launched his career, from the driver’s seat of a Bobcat while working for Mr. Ruel’s uncle, is failing to inspire this morning.
“I had a dream I was getting higher pay. My uncle was like, ‘I’m going to pay you five more bucks,’” says the 24-year-old, heading to his truck. “You know what? I don’t think musicians should have to do more than make music. Making music is hard enough.”