When Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer pitched the idea of a city song, Teddy Abrams said it became clear, pretty quickly, that the piece should be created by a collective of local musicians.
Abrams, a pianist, composer and music director for the Louisville Orchestra, had been working with the mayor on a campaign called “Lift Up Lou,” which, as part of the effort, used arts and culture to boost community morale during these tough times. What emerged was a sort of anthem for the city called “Lift Up Louisville,” Abrams said the mayor told him “it would be uplifting, it would be positive and something that would really showcase our city in the best way.”
“And I said, okay, well we’ll get to work on that,” Abrams said.
“We really worked hard…to identify the talent that we thought, at least in part, represented some of the amazing musicians that are in this city,” Louisville cellist and composer Ben Sollee said.
Sollee was enlisted as a producer and organizer, overseeing the technical aspects and helping “put this thing together piece by piece,” Abrams said.
Putting it together ‘piece by piece’
The song “Lift Up Louisville” features 27 artists who have ties to the area.
To kick things off, Abrams recorded a scratch piano track, a sort of rough musical foundation for the song.
”Which we then sent out to a core group of musicians,” Sollee said.
That included Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Will Oldham, known to many as Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, and Scott Carney of Wax Fang. They took “a crack at writing lyrics” and recording vocals, Sollee said. Then Patrick Hallahan, also of My Morning Jacket, percussionist Dani Markham and bassist Danny Kiely laid down some rhythm tracks.
“Once we had that kind of real meaty skeleton of the song, then we started sending it out to folks to add harmony…whistles, guitar parts, Sam Bush playing the mandolin and Michael Cleveland playing fiddle and really started to kind of flesh it out and add all the wonderful ornaments that have made the song what it is,” according to Sollee.
Other contributing musicians include beatboxer Rayul Beatbox, Jecorey “1200” Arthur, Louisville Orchestra concertmaster Gabriel Lefkowitz, Americana musician Brigid Kaelin, singer-songwriter Cheyenne Mize, Daniel Martin Moore, Anne Gauthier at La La Land Studios and more.
“I think that’s what makes it so special is that the people were genuinely creating this music as co-composers and bringing their own sense of who they are as musicians to the table,” Teddy Abrams said.
A number of the artists received an honorarium payment for their contributions, and those who could, donated their time to the project, said Sollee.
Technical hurdles amplified by social distancing
After getting the call from Abrams, Sollee said he did some research “to see what had been done out there” when it came to a community-sourced or community-composed song. \
Two major challenges stood out to him.
First, there’s the difficulty of getting a large group of people in step with each other on a project like this — challenging under most circumstances and only exacerbated by “the fact that we can’t get people in the same room,” he said. Then there’s the other hurdle of getting everything recorded and in one place.
Sollee used a cloud-based digital platform called Splice, creating a space where, at least theoretically, everyone could work from the same space. Though some people preferred their own digital workstations and the access to recording equipment among the musicians ran the gamut, Sollee said, so he accommodated.
“Some of the artists just didn’t have the technical means to record themselves,” he said. “And so we ended up having…one of their housemates hold up a cell phone with the song playing in one ear and then hold up… one in front of them while they sing and then just kind of manually put everything in place.”
Sollee added that it became a “matter of curating people’s experiences for wherever they were and also to accommodate for whatever technical… limitations they might have.”
‘The kind of collaboration that’s possible’
Sollee said the cool thing about this project is the multitude of ways it could morph.
“This track is very much the product of Teddy and I’s taste,” he said. “If you were to give the same tracks to another artist to produce or edit, you might end up with a very different sounding song, and to that point, it would be really cool to hear this song get remixed.”
Or get a new spin on it, he said, incorporating even more artists in the community to get a broader sense of the real musical diversity in the city.
“Louisville is such a metropolitan city,” Sollee said. “We don’t have any Cuban artists on this track. We don’t have any other languages. There are a lot of communities that still need to add their voice to this and I’d love to find a way to do that at some point.”
Abrams said that one of the contributing musicians, in reaction to being a part of this, had the thought of “wouldn’t this be amazing if all the other cities in America started doing their own songs.”
“We’d have this giant quilt [of music],” Abrams said.
He’d like to see a live public performance of the song as well, when it’s safe to host public gatherings again. But he thinks the project’s “bigger picture is that this is a small demonstration of the kind of collaboration that’s possible using technology today.”
“It’s obviously really tragic that it takes a terrible situation like this one to kind of jump-start it,” Abrams said. “And I’m not talking even just on the level of a single song, but this whole idea that the worlds of different musical genres are fluid, that we’re all working on essentially the same thing right now.”
All profits from the sale of the song will benefit the One Louisville COVID-19 response fund.