It’s been nearly a year since the world ground to a halt under the deadly and disruptive coronavirus. 2020 easily could have been “The Year Without a Santa Claus” for the local music community, but Cincinnati musicians have shown resilience and resourcefulness in the myriad ways they’ve worked within and around the pandemic’s fallout of closed venues, limited bookings and few opportunities to sling merch. And with COVID-19 sticking around a bit longer, they’re continuing to power through in 2021.
Some local musicians have used their quarantines to write, record and release new music, while others have poured their creative energies into music-adjacent activities. Some have blazed new trails down career paths unrelated to their musical directions. And a good many have advanced their personal lives while doing some or all of the above.
Electric Citizen lead vocalist Laura Dolan is one such human. Dolan’s father, Paul Busse, founded Applied Imagination three decades ago to provide botanical gardens with scale model landscapes made entirely of natural materials; the Krohn Conservatory’s train display is an example of his work. Busse brought Dolan into a company leadership role in 2017, six years after his Parkinson’s disease diagnosis, and she is now president and CEO.
Although Electric Citizen has been relatively inactive recently, Dolan notes that the group has been busy behind the scenes.
“My intention is to absolutely keep going with the band. It’s important to my dad that I do,” she says. “I restructured the company in 2019 to ensure I could step away for touring. I have yet to test that, but in theory, I should still be able to tour. We’ve been using this down time to write a new album; Ross [Dolan] and I even built ourselves a little home studio. And [bassist] Nick [Vogelpohl] and his wife had a baby!”
In their own words, here’s what other Cincinnati-area musicians have been up to during live music’s forced hiatus:
Jess Lamb, singer/songwriter and co-founder of the Factory with partner Warren Harrison:
“In response to a year marked with isolation and polarity, we released our newest album, You Are, a collection of songs and mantras written over the past several years, celebrating personal empowerment, unity and the wonder of human life. I also began teaching a songwriting course at Xavier University, which was a happy, unexpected turn. I love teaching and mentoring. Going from performing three-hour gigs three days a week, to being more still with my Self gave me time to grow as a teacher and writer. I am grateful for that quiet time with Self, but I can’t wait to hug all of you at a live, sweaty show soon. You are beautiful. You are powerful. You can make it. Enjoy being still. Just be.”
Brian Kitzmiller, drummer for Van Echo and founder of marketing company Reveal Concepts:
“Right now, business is going well, even though events have fallen off. I’m currently working with Van Echo (Wes Pence, Randy Cheek and Ed Shuttleworth) to finish our record after two years. Also getting ready to organize songs with The New Usuals (Wes, Randy and Justin Lynch) and get some kind of recording out this year. We’ve been in the studio almost every week this past year and ongoing now. I’m also playing golf a ton with Wes. Even in the cold.”
David Butler, frontman of Black Owls:
“I’ve been channeling my energy into my writing, fine art, design, and, ahem, athletics. The same impetus of the Black Owls aesthetic I’ve been pouring into my own fine art pieces in collage and video. I set up my online presence (dwbfolio.com) and have been working on some multi-media (oh God, really?) comedy stuff with another local artist. Our project is a sort of ‘Funny or Die’ thing. We’ll be rolling into ‘21 like a skateboard on early ‘70’s urethane: brittle, tired, and yet somehow still brittle, tired. But honestly, having fun. Still planning on an Owl renewal. Also playing platform ‘paddle’ tennis and still mountain biking, snowboarding and breaking things. I definitely had the COVID in February of ‘20 while snowboarding in Utah before it was a well-known deadly pandemic. Glad I didn’t know... could’ve killed me!”
Kate Wakefield, cellist, co-founder of Lung and session musician:
“I’ve been working at a restaurant during the pandemic, which has been interesting. I’ve gotten really into online kickboxing. I like the free pre-recorded classes you can find on YouTube with the overly enthusiastic instructors who shout at you the whole time. Also, I’ve been finding that playing Scrabble with my girlfriend is my Saturday-night substitute now that shows are not a thing.”
Dave Purcell, former frontman for Pike 27 and drummer for the recently launched Ghost Man on Second:
“GMOS has written a dozen new songs during the pandemic, mostly thanks to the wonderfully prolific Andy Hittle. My main quarantine activities are connected: (1) focusing on my drumming and composing, including studying with Mark Guiliana, a brilliant jazz and electronic drummer and composer best known for playing on David Bowie’s Blackstar; and (2) reconnecting with my Buddhist practice of mindfulness and meditation. The beautiful fusion of the two got me through a brutal year personally on top of the pandemic, the lowlights being three deaths close to me (none from COVID, oddly) including my mom.”
Wes Pence, ex-Middlemarch/Ready Stance guitarist/vocalist, now playing with Van Echo and the New Usuals:
“Both bands have continued playing and recording since the early weeks of COVID, but more notable is my personal story. Freed from the shackles of the workday week, there were finally enough hours in the day to pursue long-ignored personal priorities like intensive daily exercise, yoga and meditation regimens, growing and harvesting our own food, writing my memoirs, oil painting, translating the works of Schopenhauer from the original High German to the more contemporary form and many other pursuits. Those are all things I definitely would have done this year, if I’d foreseen the lethargy and precipitous weight-gain brought by the first few months in pajama pants.”
Kim Taylor, singer/songwriter:
“My partner and I are moving to Berkeley, California. He’s in grad school, and it’s worked out for us to live there rent free so we’re heading out to be in the sunshine for a while. We’ll hopefully be back in 2022. Hoping to shake a record out of myself while I’m there. Gardening was a grounding force for me while it was warm. I expanded a really lovely, mostly native garden on our acre of property in Loveland. I also practiced piano every day, focusing on sight reading classical music, something I don’t do enough.”
Mike Montgomery, guitarist for Ampline and R. Ring, and owner/ producer at Candyland Studio:
“My wife and I had our first child at the end of 2019, so we’ve been raising our little boy. I halted client-attended sessions at Candyland in mid-March as the pandemic was taking hold. I set up a small studio at my house so I could work at either place. I’ve stayed surprisingly busy despite not recording any bands for most of the year; I’ve shifted to more mixing and mastering. I’ve helped a lot of friends and clients set up or augment their own home recording studios so we could continue working on their projects together, and the flood of new music people have been generating is giving me renewed faith in the power of creative pursuits to function as a beacon of hope in the darkness. With my own music projects, I’ve been sending way too many demos to my bandmates and writing partners, but it’s nice to know we’ll have material to rifle through when we can finally be in a room together again. R. Ring finished a sophomore LP that we’ll release either late 2021 or sometime in 2022. I’ve just been trying to say ‘yes’ to things as they come up to make sure I have fun stuff to keep my thoughts above water. I’ve been cooking a lot more, really trying to grow into my new ‘dad bod.’”
Maurice Mattei, singer/songwriter, frontman for the Tempers, graphic designer and photographer:
“The new line-up for the Tempers - Debbie Immesoete on drums and Bryan Berwanger on upright bass - is, in my opinion, the best one I’ve ever had, and we’re continuing to get together to rehearse as well as actually doing (very) occasional shows. The show we did for the Southgate House/Save Our Stages benefit (YouTube: bit.ly/3q6V1hS) in November turned out so well that we’re thinking of releasing it as a live album. The big news concerning the band is that we’ve been booked to perform May 1 on the nationally televised ‘Song of the Mountains.’ It will be livestreamed the night of the show and then telecast at a later date. We’re also working on new material for a possible upcoming new record. As far as my art work, even before COVID, I had been finishing up three major projects - my Italian photos, my ‘Highs in the Low ‘90s’ USA ‘Street Photo’ series, and my Urban Dweller drawings. The first two projects are complete and I am now finishing up scanning the last of my drawings.”
David Rhodes Brown, frontman for Warsaw Falcons and pedal-steeler/vocalist for 500 Miles to Memphis:
“Bobbi Jean and I are doing well or getting well. It’s always something at our age. I gained 16 pounds and then lost 16 pounds. I’ve been making single song videos for YouTube; ‘String of Hope’ has a couple. The third one with Moriah Haven will be released soon, and we’re planning another together as well. My roofing company does new construction and residential replacement roofing. Just a ma and pa deal we’ve worked for almost 20 years now. And we’re new grandparents for the first time. Wolfgang, our oldest, and his wife, Jessica, have given us the gift of a grandson, Atticus Augustus Kayser. Being a provider and gramps at 70 keeps me pretty content. It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.”
Musician updates have been edited for clarity and space.