How Big Island Musicians Are Handling Isolation During The Pandemic – Part One

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Back in March, which seems like ages ago, the pandemic began to pulverize the entertainment industry and put everything on pause.  While live venue music might be on lockdown for a while, live streaming opportunities are the next best thing for artists to connect with their fans.

In the coming weeks, this column will focus on how the pandemic has affected local musician’s livelihood, and what they anticipate the future of performing might be like in the near and long term.

Charles Michael Brotman is a GRAMMY® award-winning producer, composer, guitarist, and multiple Na Hoku award nominee and winner. He owns and runs the Lava Tracks Recording Studio and Palm Records on the Big Island, where he works with many local artists, including producing Grammy-nominated albums for Sonny Lim and Kahulanui. He’s also the president of the annual Hawaii Song Writing Festival. Brotman was scheduled to give a solo performance at the Mike Luce Studio in Waimea last March, but the Kahilu Theatre canceled all shows in the wake of the pandemic.

Charles Michael Brotman at the Hawaii Songwriting Festival. (Steven Roby)

How are you spending your creative time during this pandemic?
[Brotman] I’m in the studio every day, writing and producing. I create music for film and TV music libraries in the US and Europe. I’ve also been doing a lot of co-writing and producing singer-songwriters from Hawaii and the mainland. We co-write via Facetime; the vocalists record their vocal tracks and send them to me via the internet. I arrange, produce, and mix the tracks, which then get pitched for TV, film, and advertising.

Do you have any plans to release new material, and will there be any COVID-related songs?
My current music is being written with the expectation that TV music placements during and post-pandemic will focus on songs that are uplifting and offer hope, but that does not refer directly to the pandemic.

How or are you connecting digitally with your audience?
I haven’t been connecting much with audiences — no FaceTime performances, for example. But I have been networking on various Zoom calls for professional organizations in the industry.

What do you anticipate the future of performing might be like in the near and long term?
When you are performing on a regular basis, your playing stays in good shape without much practice. But without performing, I feel my playing going downhill — so I look forward to gigging again to get my chops back!

 
Songwriter/singer/rapper Higgs has been honing his musical skills with various bands in Hawaii since 2005. Over the past five years, his solo career has taken him around Hawaii, the Pacific Northwest, Los Angeles, and back home to Big Island, where he resides. In 2018, he took first place in the Hawaii Songwriting Festival’s competition for his song “No Plans.” He continues to collaborate with other Hawaii writers and artists and has garnered music placements on TV shows.

How are you spending your creative time during this pandemic?
[Higgs] I’ve been working out of my home studio, focusing on finishing some tunes and continuing to write. I’ve done a few remote collaborations with friends as well, like rap verses and top-lining, that kind of thing. Also taken this time to delve more into other creative outlets like videography and design (you can learn anything on YouTube, ha-ha). Lots of puzzles with my fam.

Higgs at Kukuau Studio.  (Steven Roby)

Do you have any plans to release any new material, and will there be any COVID related songs?
My goal is to release my 10-song album this summer, probably late July/early August. And yes, I’ve definitely written a few “quarantunes”!

How are you connecting digitally with your audience?
This lockdown has helped me to be more focused on my social media interactions and I started doing weekly live streams on Instagram (tune in Fridays at Five). Also putting out little snippets of what I’m working on, on any given day. I’ve just been trying to stay connected without being completely tethered to my phone.

What’s the first thing you want to do when the live music returns to the venues?
Go see one of my friends play a show. And also go play a show.

 

Ronnie V. heads his American Roots Music group called The Family Band and performed as a solo artist in Kona before COVID-19 shut everything down. He’s been called a “bear of a man” and listening to his deep baritone voice is similar to having someone melt a chocolate bar in your ear. He’s appeared at Shakastock, Six-String Fling, and the annual Kona Blues Festival.

How are you spending your creative time during this pandemic?
[Ronnie V.] Originally, I enjoyed about a week of some good old time off.  Then, once it set in that we would be dug in for that long haul, my creative wheels started turning in full. I started working on the things I hadn’t had the time for before because I was gigging a lot. I started with brushing up on using my loop pedal, which I hadn’t really used, to embellish my solo shows, which I figured would be first to return after all of this. That led me to work on some lead guitar parts for my original music. Also, something I had never done before as I always play the rhythm parts. That sent me down the rabbit hole. As I was playing the leads over the loop, I realized that it sounded great, just like I always wanted, but never expressed. And that I needed to start recording right at that moment.  So, I busted out all of my gear that I usually use for live shows and set it up in my front room.  I recorded 4 separate parts for 3 different original songs that night.

Ronnie V. at Six-String Fling. (Steven Roby)

Do you have any plans to release any new material, and will there be any COVID-related songs?
Indeed. There will be a new album, and it will revolve around the second new song I wrote during this time called “The Quarantine Blues.”  It will be a solo album. I’ve got 9 songs for it that I’ve worked on in part already with another 2 on the burner. Half are brand new songs. The other half are previously played live but unrecorded. It will be a solo album where I will play all of the instruments myself. Including vocals, harmonies, rhythm & lead guitar, Rhodes, bass & percussion.  I plan to release it through CDBaby and launch it on all digital platforms.

How are you connecting digitally with your audience?
Initially I just sent out a message saying myself and the band would return as soon as possible.  And I was hesitant to do any live streaming. Mostly because I don’t usually like to be on camera. Unless I’ve had some bourbon. Which is exactly how my first live stream came about. It was late night and I wanted to test it out. Luckily only a couple of close friends saw it and asked for more. I screened that night and decided to take it down so that I could tune up the view & sound. I’ve done a few more streams since. Including four, 20-min. sets throughout the day on 4/20 to celebrate. A virtual sound circle hosted from Alaska by my friend Tyson Davis, frontman for Blackwater Railroad Company. A sunny day set on the Socially Distant Festival homepage. And most recently as a duo with my fiddle player Shaun Elise at the Sage Sound Musicians Lounge in Kainaliu a few weeks back. Looking at it now, I guess I’m due for another stream!

What’s the first thing you want to do when the live music returns to the venues?
Believe it or not… I want to play LOUD!  I usually play pretty laid back. And even more so in my home as we have a lil’ baby boy here. So, I’ve had to play exceptionally quiet when I do get the time. The first thing I’m gonna do when all of this is over is turn it up and sing from the top of my lungs!


Steve Roby is a music photojournalist, an L.A. Times bestselling author, and a Big Island filmmaker. He’s been featured in the NY Times, Rolling Stone, and Billboard Magazine. Roby is also the Managing Editor of Big Island Music Magazine.

Photos: Steve Roby and Saurav Sen

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