Given the productive year he had just experienced, longtime local musician/producer/filmmaker Kent Meloy was feeling pretty good about his 2020 prospects. After a long Cincinnati band run that included Collins Gate in the 1990s, and Staring at the Sun, Kid Jupiter and Kelp in the new millennium, Meloy had finally released his first solo album, Inconceivable. And he and his band Oh So Luminous — an evolutionary extension of Kelp — had also released You Have Always Been, their 2019 debut, albeit with more than a touch of tragedy.
The nascent version of Oh So Luminous began when former Kelp drummer Jim Lipscomb contacted Meloy about starting a new project to brighten some dark personal life experiences. Meloy readily agreed and invited bassist Mark Szabo to join, as the pair had been in discussions about working together. The trio's rehearsals yielded intriguing results, but Lipscomb had to step away from drumming due to lower back issues that ultimately required surgical attention. After months of physical and bureaucratic hoop jumping, Lipscomb was just days away from surgery when he suffered a fatal heart attack in 2016.
"It was devastating,” Meloy says in a recent email exchange. “A benefit show to help with funeral expenses was put on and, among a bunch of other bands, myself, Elle Crash (Beth Cheek), Mark Szabo and Jesse Gilsinger put together a Kelp set. Kelp singer Rena Hopkins and bassist Gary Weimer re-learned a couple of the tunes remotely and came down from Detroit and Columbus, respectively, to play the last couple songs of the set. After that benefit, it felt weird to continue, but I also felt like I had to do it to honor Jim. Mark was game and, after months of trying to figure out a line-up, we connected with Ryan Bouts, an amazing drummer from Wilmington, and Mark's wife Whitney became the obvious choice for vocals; Whitney had actually auditioned for Kelp way back when I was first trying to put that together.”
With the personnel settled, Oh So Luminous began playing live in 2017 and eventually recorded their debut album at the Szabos' home. After its 2019 release, Meloy was stoked about the coming new year, right up until the planet caught fire. With the pandemic's rise and Cincinnati's increasingly stringent social gathering restrictions finally resulting in a full lockdown, Meloy conceived a challenge for his fellow songwriters and musicians, both in the local scene and throughout the wider world. He launched a Facebook group page under the title Cincinnati Quarantunes and tossed down a creative gauntlet: write a song a day, inspired by or in reaction to the quarantine.
“When Ohio first shut everything down, seeing so many of my musician friends suddenly completely locked out from performing was painful,” Meloy says. “For several of them, this was their only income and I wanted to do something to help. I figured if we tried spinning some new songs together maybe that might help, in some microscopic way.”
Meloy was gratified by the response that followed his challenge, first with the number of posted submissions and then with the subsequent formation of Live Virtual Open Mic Night, an idea suggested by Sara Daigneault and LaTanya Foster, who helped facilitate the first two events. Participation tapered off in the wake of larger issues that ultimately and understandably commanded the public's attention.
“It slowed down a lot when the protests began, and I know that, for me at least, the Quarantunes began to feel a little frivolous compared to the real anger and pain that had been laid raw,” Meloy says. “I'm starting to see some new posts now; we'll see where it goes. We might do another Open Mic soon. The time might be right for at least a little frivolity.”
With the initial flurry of Quarantunes submissions, Meloy realized he should probably be leading by example, so he began churning out material at the proscribed pace. In relatively short order, in the cloistered atmosphere of near-total quarantine, he produced two full albums of material, Unintentional, and its follow-up, the appropriately titled Addendum.
Although the foundational style of the albums could be described as a bracing blend of Indie/Alt Rock and Power Pop, the songs run the gamut of Meloy's voluminous influences — his early exposure to Kiss, his subsequent love of Rush, the miasma of Prog from the 1970s, the discovery of the Ramones and so many others in the pages of Trouser Press, his proximity to the potent Pop music scene in central Illinois where he spent his teenage years, the Synth Pop giants of the '80s and the advent of Alternative Rock in the '90s. In many ways, last year's Inconceivable and this year's quarantine albums were forged in the crucible of his influences and steered by the bands he has contributed to over the past three decades. But his first solo album was critical to his current situation.
“In all of these bands, and before, I was always writing, hundreds of songs spanning three-plus decades,” Meloy says. “A lot of them are utter crap, but every now and then there would be one that I personally really liked but just never quite gelled with the rest of whichever band I was in at the time. After being so excited about the Oh So Luminous release, I really got thinking about some of those songs and wondering if it was time to finally turn them into a collection. I started with the title track, 'Inconceivable,' which is the oldest track on the album, written only a few years after I was out of college.”
The missing element was provided when Meloy sat in a studio and watched Szabo as he recorded and mixed the Oh So Luminous album. With the clarification of a few technical studio methods, Meloy felt confident in returning to his archive to create what ultimately became Inconceivable.
“Suddenly, my own mixes were a level of magnitude better, at least to my ears,” Meloy says. “At that point I got completely lost in the process, really cleaning up the old tunes, writing some new stuff. It was an incredibly rewarding experience. If I hadn't done Inconceivable, there is literally no way I would have had the nerve to do the quarantine songs.”
The stylistic breadth of the material comes by way of an epiphany that Meloy experienced during a Beck concert at Riverbend Music Center. Seeing the eclectic singer/songwriter juxtapose so many disparate sounds in a single set gave Meloy the inspiration to stop pigeonholing his own material and explore the full range of his influences and how he translated them.
Watching him go from 'Where It's At' to 'Dreams' and everywhere in between hit me like a thunderclap,” Meloy says. “I was buzzing off the music for days and realized if he could do whatever the hell he wanted musically, why couldn't I? So I threw my playbook out the window and stopped thinking so hard about style. Just music. It was probably the most important thing I've learned in my own musical journey.”
One of the most satisfying outcomes from the Quarantunes experience for Meloy was his inclusion in the Mercantile Library's recently launched Dear Pandemic Diary archive, a collection of varied artifacts created during the coronavirus outbreak. Meloy's role as a producer on the Mercantile's Stand-Up History performances turned out to be advantageous in his inclusion in the collection.
“Stand-Up History is weird little talks on the stranger and more irreverent bits of Cincinnati history done with Greg Hand of Cincinnati Curiosities and Molly Wellmann of Japp's, just like a stand-up comedy routine,” Meloy says. “Greg and Molly both do a lot of work with the Mercantile and set up our first virtual Stand-Up History through Amy Hunter down there. She and I were talking through some details about the show and we ended up talking about movies and music and the Quarantunes thing. She thought it sounded cool and tossed my info at Cedric Rose who got in touch and said he thought it was a great fit for the Pandemic Diary. I was incredibly flattered.”
Obviously, Meloy is looking ahead to the possibility of playing out in support of the first Oh So Luminous album and being able to record the next one but, like everyone else, he misses the simple human component of being in the company of his fellow humans most of all. Incredibly, he's keeping busy with more than just music in quarantine, so it hasn't had a negative impact on his productivity by any stretch of the imagination.
We've held it together as a family quite nicely and it's been a God-send, but I haven't seen some of my friends in person since the first shutdown,” says Meloy. “I've also been steadily pounding away on a feature film I've written called Into the Sunset, about an aging courier making one last delivery to fulfill a broken promise to his dead wife, pursued by someone that may or may not be the devil. It's one of the few things I've done that I'm really really proud of. The budget and schedule are just about sussed and I'm hoping to start fundraising very soon. The hope is to be able to be filming this time next year, fingers very much crossed.”