Residency program draws musicians
Folk musicians Chaz Prymek and Jordan Knecht were instantly intrigued when they heard of a month-long residency program centered in farm country, where musicians could work on their craft free of charge or of distractions.
Prymek, 25, of Salt Lake City and Knecht, 23, of Denver had never before visited Iowa when they arrived in Fairfield Nov. 1 with the goal of writing and polishing five songs together in 30 days.
After one week in town, the duo had already completed three songs, performed for the community during November’s 1st Fridays Art Walk and recognized friendly faces during trips to the grocery store or Central Park.
“The community is easy to break into,” said Knecht. “It’s ideal, there are enough distractions when we want them but not too many.”
“I’m kind of in love with it,” said Prymek.
The program started more than a year ago when Fairfield musician Taylor Ross returned from living in Vermont, searching for a way to pursue her passion for alternative, experimental folk music while living in her hometown.
“I was returning to the place I grew up with a fresh perspective,” she said. “I thought, ‘What type of project is Fairfield likely to support?’”
At the time, she was helping out at a local music venue, The Beauty Shop, booking traveling musicians while they were on tour.
“Since we’re in the center of the country, people are constantly coming through Fairfield,” she said.
While some musicians had large followings and others were up-and-coming, all were independent artists who kept day jobs, but pursued their music with a passion, she said.
“They were incredibly impressive, but broke and constantly on tour,” she said.
Ross, 26, saw an opportunity to help them create music while also drawing talented musicians to Fairfield. She decided to start a yearlong experiment, raising money to house and feed different musicians each month while they work on musical projects.
“Fairfield is supportive of music and art,” she said. “People aren’t harsh and critical … It’s a space to create and then take it out into the world; Fairfield is a womb.”
To gauge interest in her idea, Ross sent inquiries to an email list of artists she’d met at The Beauty Shop or while on tour herself.
“Within two days, everyone had responded,” she said. “We booked six months right away.”
The program has drawn residents from across the country to Fairfield. Starting in December of 2011, residents have written countless songs, taught workshops to the community in animation, have built their own instruments and even staged and performed an original rock musical.
It is a self-directed program, meant to allow artists to come work on a project or to collaborate with another artist. At the end of the month, artists hold a concert to share their work. They also hold a workshop to teach a skill they have with the community.
Ross offers residents free room and board, a studio to work in plus a small allowance. While researching for the project, she realized she could give musicians a deal they couldn’t pass up.
“I’ve never heard of a residency program, which doesn’t make you pay,” she said. “This couldn’t happen the same way in New York.”
Ross received a grant from the Iowa Arts Council to help fund the project, plus began a membership drive, where people pledge $10 a month in return for free admittance to residents’ workshops and concerts. Ross enrolled approximately 50 members.
For Prymek and Knecht, the residency program was an opportunity to blend two distinctly different styles. While both write folk music, Prymek also plays electronic and drone, and Knecht draws from his years in a punk band while growing up in St. Louis. The two artists knew they wanted to collaborate after hearing each other play at a concert in St. Louis in 2009. And when they heard of The Beauty Shop Residency program earlier this year, they jumped at the chance.
Prymek requested a month off work as a sous chef in Salt Lake City to head for the cornfields to write music. Knecht, on the other hand, came from Denver, where he’d moved in with his girlfriend just five days earlier. While both had to interrupt their lives to be a part of the program, both saw it as a unique opportunity.
“Now that I’m here, it feels like the best possible thing I could do with my time right now,” said Knecht.
Each day, they make breakfast together, play music, read, write lyrics and go on walks.
“We’re making stuff we wouldn’t normally make,” said Knecht.
Prymek, who said he doesn’t usually share his music until it’s finished, has had to learn to let go to work with another artist.
“It’s definitely taken down my ego a few notches,” said Prymek with a smile, “but I like it because I’m finding my weaknesses and improving on them.”
Prymek and Knecht’s visit marks the end of Ross’s yearlong experiment, and she said it’s shown her what’s possible.
In recent months, 20 musicians she’s never met have contacted her inquiring about the program. She also received a call from a musician in Santa Fe, interested in creating a residency program modeled after her own.
“It’s really encouraging,” she said. “There are so many amazing musicians who want to do it, I would love to continue.”
Ross said she’d do more planning before continuing the program.
“It’s awesome we made it through a year,” she said. “If we do it again, we’ll expand on the model, so we could have personnel to handle promotion and fundraising.”
This month, Prymek and Knecht will be performing Wednesday at open mic night at Café Paradiso, as well as holding a concert Nov. 30 at The Beauty Shop to share the music they’ve written together.
Knecht will be teaching a workshop 1-5 p.m. Sunday at the former DeCoursey Hall in screen-printing on a low budget. The class will cost $25 for non-members and $15 for members.
Prymek is teaching how to make cassette tape loops 1-3 p.m. Nov. 25 at The Beauty Shop. The class is $17 for non-members and $7 for members.
Ross said it’s been inspiring to watch Prymek and Knecht learn from each other. While she said they have different musical styles, they’re tied together by a slow lyrical style and willingness to learn.
“They’re humble and kind people,” she said. “That’s the most important thing in this program, because I believe effective, beautiful music comes from that place.”
Ross plans on making a compellation album of music residents created while in Fairfield.
“It will be an important way of sharing, to say ‘Look, this was created in Fairfield,’” she said.
For Prymek and Knecht, not only each other’s musical styles, but the town itself is influencing their music. The two artists said they’ve written most of their music while on long walks, and have taken inspiration from what they see.
“Fairfield is already in our songs,” said Knecht.