An inside look at the creative talents of Louisville’s local music scene
By Sarah Levitch
Photos by Kathryn Harrington and provided
Louisville persists as a creative playground for artists of all trades, with a flourishing music scene of everything from rap to hip-hop to folk to country to punk-rock. However, it seems most musicians in the area prefer to remain underground, cultivating devoted fan groups who will also keep their music as their best-kept secret or party trick. I’m always particularly giddy when I play a quirky Ben Sollee song to my non-Louisvillain friends, and they’re pleasantly surprised with what they hear. Yet this underground culture doesn’t feel so hidden when we’re all together for a celebration such as Forecastle or hear a familiar tune on WFPK. Jaxon Lee Swain, sonaBLAST! Vice President and musical artist, noted that, “What I love about the music scene in Louisville is the punk rockers know the country guys. Everybody knows everybody. I think that gives us a cool collaborative energy that I don’t think every city has. It’s a special aspect of our music world. For someone to come here from out of town, they could go see multiple genres of music in one night.”
We may not currently be able to enjoy live music as we used to, but there is still music to be made and heard. It’s undeniable that love courses through the veins of the sound of Louisville; love for music and music for love. We caught up with a few locals to discuss this love, and what we can look forward to hearing in the new year.
Gil Holland, Founder of sonaBLAST! Records, indicated two projects coming in early 2021. They include the local country legend Johnny Berry’s record “Hillbilly Star” and underground punk-rocker Andrew Rinehart’s EP “Have Fun Idiot.” He also illuminated a secret gem in Louisville for the music community, a dreamy, homey recording studio by the name of “La La Land.”
Before we discussed the music, Holland reminisced of his early memories with music.
“I always listened to music as a kid and had the little transistor radio by my bedside. In college, I was a DJ at WXYC which is like the WFPK of Chapel Hill. You had to pass this crazy exam on the history of all kinds of music and it took me about three years to get enough knowledge to pass the exam. It was harder than when I took the bar exam,” Holland joked.
This young love for music came full circle when Holland began sonaBLAST! in 2002 with Irish singer-songwriter Mark Geary, who was ironically Holland’s local bartender in New York. Now with an ever-growing artist roster and an aim to release 30-40 projects this year, sonaBLAST! distinguishes itself as the leader in the Louisville music scene, with diverse genres and deep Kentucky roots.
In the works for early this year is Johnny Berry’s “Hillbilly Star,” a “very personal record. Almost all of them are true-life experiences. Things that have happened to me, things I’ve noticed and seen. There are two love songs. One of them is pretty; it’s about two ravens dancing in the wind. The other one is a love song about attempted murder. A crime of passion kind of song. There’s a dichotomy of gritty realism with groovy, urban beats,” remarked Berry.
Reminiscent of childhood days spent listening to the country radio with my Mamaw, Berry brings old school honky-tonk to the modern-day listener. Berry’s early days were spent singing in the All-State Choir, Barbershop Quartet and Gospel at church. Authentic to his roots, Berry isn’t trying to be anyone but himself, as the sound of his steel guitar strums throughout the record and his song “Halfway to Louisville” is destined to be on every local’s road trip playlist.
For musician Andrew Rinehart, a love for music developed in the discovery of the Louisville alternative scene. Rinehart said, “I used to go to Blue Moon music and the owner would give me a Bonnie Prince Billy record. Back then, it was like Palace Brothers and Freakwater. All of that together hooked me.”
Reinhart titled his upcoming EP “Have Fun Idiot” as, “sort of a joke, but it’s also saying, hey have some fun! Making music is not a depressing thing, it’s an amazing cosmic thing,” said Rinehart. Now with a graduate degree in Psychology, Reinhart understands love as bigger than monogamy and traditionally constrictive definitions, admitting that, “Human beings are very confused and messy. We can be jealous and possessive. I’ve been enjoying feeling love, just by myself. Not necessarily experiencing it within an interaction with another person. Love exists, it’s all around us. It’s something we can access and feel. In that way, I think it’s similar to how I would conceive of God.”
Getting a sneak preview of the sound to come, the song “Zoe” exudes a triumphant melody, the kind that makes you close your eyes, hold your heart, take a deep breath and say, “Okay, everything will be okay.” Reinhart shared, “The inspiration for this music is a creative force that’s not separate from what love is or even spiritual abstract energy. Even in the face of the pandemic, I want to put out a positive manifestation that love is ultimately making the world go around and there is still joy to find here and there, and music is a big place for that joy. I think that’s why people love art. When you encounter it, it disarms you.”
For someone unfamiliar with the music industry, the process of making music may be too often overlooked. All listeners hear is the final version of months of risks composing both creative breakthroughs and failures. To write is one hill to climb, but to record is a whole other mountain. Having a musical safe haven such as La La Land, a recording studio nestled between Clifton and NuLu, is a true blessing for the Louisville music scene.
Led by Producer and Engineer Anne Gauthier, the space feels like an expressive wonderland, with two-story high ceilings allowing your mind to open to new heights and an open space giving your instruments room to breathe.
Gauthier commented on the vibe, “There’s a lot of psychology in producing actually, making sure people are comfortable. I love the whole process. You can always learn and try new things. Music is so personal and recording music is even more vulnerable, so it’s cool that people feel comfortable letting me into that emotional space. I feel like I’m in the band for however long we’re recording.”
Once social gatherings on a larger scale are safe again, both owners of La La Land hope to utilize the space for social events. Gauthier added, “We want this to grow and continue to be a staple for local musicians.” One can only hope that soon this day will come again.