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Balanced: The Journey Of Hunt Sidway
(or, How It Took Nearly Five Years to Write, Produce, Record and Release a CD)
Author's Note: This story unfolds over the period of exactly one year. In November, 2003, Hunt Sidway's Balance was finally mastered and ready for duplication, distribution and (it was hoped) sales. Unfortunately, there were a number of setbacks - mostly financial, plus the fact that the artist and producer both moved to different cities - and it is only now that the recording is being released. I've done my best to combine both interviews - the first with Hunt Sidway, Stephen Moon and Eddy Morris made in the control room of Morris's Ear Candy Studios in St. Matthews, the second with Sidway alone at my home - to form a cohesive narrative that doesn't ignore the lapse of nearly 365 days between interview sessions, but instead treats it as one of the many gaps that sometimes show up in the timelines of any kind of creative endeavor.
Then - Early November, 2003: a street off Lexington Road, the stretch of highway that winds from the Highlands to St. Matthews in Louisville, lined with trees, large older homes and, on this day, thick sheets of crisp, fallen leaves on the ground. It is also a road of sacred places: a seminary, a Catholic church, a retreat center and former convent and its adjacent girls high school. Just before the road opens into a large business district, the houses are smaller. We are in a room built onto the back of the garage of one of the homes. The room where we sit is cramped with a large audio mixing board, a couch and two cushioned chairs on casters. The light is sparse, some of it indirect from lamps on tables, some from the dimmed bulbs in the track lights on the ceiling. A large rectangle of glass in one of the walls reveals another room where a cluster of microphone and cymbal stands rise from the floor like chrome cattails. All sounds, from whispers to full-out laughs, fill the space. Not one noise is lost.
In the room a lanky young man wearing glasses glances over to the man seated next to him and says, quietly, so that we all hear it, "Against your producer's wishes, you assembled a band and organized the songs around its sound."
The man next to him nods. The words were less like an accusation and more like a declarative statement with just a tinge of dissatisfaction, the kind that Blofeld, the nefarious head of SPECTRE in three of the final James Bond novels written by Ian Fleming, would use to convey bad news at a meeting of his top staff - before whoever caused the bad news would be killed right where he sat. But on that day, 10,000 volts of electricity didn't shoot through the chair and fry the man, nor did a secret trap door open and plunge him into a pit of rabid weasels. Instead the man on the receiving end of the statement takes it as intended: a single-sentence summary of what started an intense collaboration, the impetus that put the two men, a third and a batch of the city's best musicians into a recording project that would take nearly 18 months to record, re-record, mix and re-mix before a final product would be considered ready.
The room where we were seated was the control room of Ear Candy Studios, built by proprietor and chief engineer Eddy Morris, who, along with Stephen Moon - the young man who had just offered up the quiet admonishment - had just finished making a recording that had its genesis nearly three years earlier. It had gone through numerous personnel changes and additions. Money to finance it would be spent as quickly as it was found. Disagreements would erupt into fiery arguments that drove performer and producer apart for days, or longer, until compromise brought them back together and work resumed.
In short, it was no different from any other well-crafted production. With one exception: the recording is just now being released.
Ralph Huntington Sidway III - Ralph to his closest friends, Hunt to the rest of us - is tall, slender, bespectacled, with thick dark hair, a narrow face with strong distinguished jaw, but with a relaxing, tweedy demeanor, who looks as if he's just finished teaching a challenging session on Milton's Samson Agonistes to a batch of bored undergrads at a university in the northeast.
But on this day, instead of breathing in chalk dust and decompressing in a stuffy office after a lecture, he's seated in a small recording studio in Louisville, his four-year opus mastered and burned onto demo disks
Plus, he's getting ready to move to Cincinnati for a new start in life.
He replies to Moon's admonishment with one directed at himself. "I basically, inadvertently robbed him of his production freedom by forming a band and letting the band take the direction of the songs. So when we picked it up again, he made it quite clear - and I was really glad to comply - that he was the producer and it's just gotta be that way. So that also entailed a certain amount of responsibility on my part. I really got serious about it."
The transgression being discussed was only one leg of the heptathlon that yielded Balance, Hunt Sidway's newest CD. A long-belated follow-up to Nuclear Child, his studio effort from 1994, Balance had what the first lacked: a driven production team behind it helping him to craft his songs - to make them tighter, leaner, as if they had spent six weeks at Parris Island - and to put his best performance on tape by using all the contents available from the producer's standard bag o' tricks. And, generally, to help his producer make a genuine pop-rock recording, the breezy kind that filled record bins and airwaves in the mid- to late-1970s, before it was boogie-oogie-oogied, then Knacked into the Land of Misfit Cut-Outs. "Smoke from a Distant Fire" anyone?
But to find the true zygote of what would become Balance, Sidway takes us back to the autumn of 1995, shortly after the release of Nuclear Child. "It was not produced by anyone who had a vision," he said of his first release, "it just kind of developed its own sound in the studio, but it was still a great process. And I really wanted to do a follow-up as quickly as possible. I went into my friend Charlie Quillen's home studio. We started laying down tracks and "Forever Gray" was the first one we started working on."
A few lines from the chorus of the newer version of that song, "Will the colors ever return / Will this unquenchable fire ever cease to burn," and the song title itself are appropriate metaphors for how the Balance project evolved. For Sidway, the desire to complete a second recording remained ferocious, while the entire process seemed to float in a gray limbo, the one where all projects - novels, businesses, marriages - sometimes get stuck. Fortunately for Sidway, there were other things to occupy his time.
He continued. "For one reason or another, aside from some demo tracks that we did, it ultimately didn't go anywhere. So I had this collection of songs and I kept writing. And I started doing art photography."
The twin modes of creative expression throughout Sidway's youth and adulthood, from high school to his years at Transylvania University and up to his life now, have been music and photography. "I can either do one or the other well," he explains, "I can't do both at the same time." As his interested in music gradually subsided after Nuclear Child, he began to work more in photography, while still playing the occasional gig. Someone he kept running into while playing in clubs was Paul Moffett, Editor-in-Chief of Louisville Music News. Both men had needs at the time: Moffett needed a head photographer; Sidway needed a new outlet for his creativity.
Fulfilling those mutual needs resulted in five years of memorable cover photographs for the paper.
With his camera gear, a Macintosh, a scanner and the ever-handy Photoshop graphics program, Sidway took static musician photography and made it live: danny flanigan's bald head painted like an Easter egg; Muffy Junes wearing only green body paint and plastic vines superimposed on top of the St. James Court fountain; Dan Gediman's face painted in tribal colors while he holds a mask of his real face in his lap; Paul K in mysterious red light and blue shadow surrounded by smoke from his cigarette; Superface teamed together like comic book heroes, with power beams bolting from their arms and eyes; the up-angled shot of Flaw standing at a graffiti-slathered drainage ditch tunnel in the south end. Sidway's tenure as the paper's head photographer culminated in a show at Artopia in September, 2000, featuring oversized versions of his most memorable cover shots.
It was toward the end of his work for Louisville Music News that, in Sidway's words, the pendulum began to swing the other way.
"I'd decided I really wanted to make a run at doing this follow-up CD. I'd met [former LMN writer and Stephen Moon's spouse] Victoria Moon while she was working on some cover stories, so I approached Moon and asked if he wouldn't mind - if I'd get some rough mixes together - listening to them and giving me some feedback. And his response, for which I was totally unprepared, was, `I'll go you one better. I want to produce an artist on my fledgling label, aside from myself and my own solo project. I need an artist, you need a producer. I will produce your album.'"
Moon's own project, The Funeral of Mr. Disappointment, on his and Victoria's Moon Rover Records, had been released in the autumn of 1999. A review run that December`s issue of this publication said the recording contained "sublimely positive songs of change, faith - in the self and in people - and the unburdening of the spirit." So the elements were locked in for Sidway's and Moon's new project: a producer with the song crafting and production ideas and a performer whose creative fires were stoked and ready.
"That's where we started," Sidway said. "We basically did a combination of bartering for photography and came up with a fee for the actual pre-production and producing of the album itself. I had no idea what I was getting myself into."
At Moon's insistence, Sidway took voice lessons, first from Margaret Oates, a performer with the Kentucky Opera and later, during the second half of the project, veteran Louisville musician Turley Richards. His lyrics went under Moon's knife for more nips and tucks than those on a bored, rich middle-aged Los Angeles housewife. If the course of true love never truly runs smooth, the kind of recording project involving two dynamic and creative people doesn't either, even to the point of meltdown or self-destruction. At one point Sidway's project reached a critical mass and it took one world-shaking event to force it to a temporary close: the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Several weeks later when the nation was able to gradually feel less of the shock to its collective psyche, lives resumed. So did Sidway's music career. But without Moon.
"I had an opportunity to play on `Mid City Mix' and on `Live at Mom's' in that winter of 2001," Sidway said. "So I thought I needed to get a band together. I wasn't going on as a solo acoustic. We threw it together really fast. It was fun, though."
Sidway took his band and their arrangements of some of the songs that would eventually appear on Balance into Eddy Morris's Ear Candy studio. The results were ear-opening.
"It started the way most bands that come into a project studio like this," Morris said. "They've never heard themselves, they come in and mic everything up and they're all shocked when they leave. A few come away feeling they really are good. Most find out they have a lot of work to do. They've never heard themselves before on tape and that's when they hear the elements they haven't been able to hear when they've been practicing in their storage space somewhere or wherever. That's kind of what those people were hearing for the first time."
"It was like having a carpenter design the architecture," Moon added.
The project resumed in the autumn of 2002. slackshop's Billy Bartley and Jakeleg's Patrick Donelley laid down the initial drum and bass tracks, but theirs were replaced with others as songs developed into distinctive directions. John Hayes and Ray Rizzo came in to modify the drum work, Mauriece Hamilton added sax on two tracks, Mark "Lupe" Hamilton became the session lead guitarist. Kathleen Hoye added the harmony on the opening song "Right Before Your Eyes," and The Pearls - a trio recommended by Gary Falk, proprietor of Falk Studios - contributed backing vocals. Moon guided the entire production. Morris rode shotgun.
The production also encountered funding problems as it evolved. Sidway sold several heirlooms from his late father to raise the cash. His sister and her husband had helped provide some seed money and Sidway made some additional sacrifices as well. When he had to make the decision to either continue with voice lessons or resume recording, the project won.
In the autumn of 2003, the recording had been mixed and mastered and Sidway had finally selected an appropriate title for it. Initially it was to be Forever Gray (too sour), then Sometimes the Sun Bursts Through (too vague). Then, to reflect the songs' themes of search and discovery, doubt and certainty, emptiness and wholeness - as well as the variety of song styles, ranging from finger-snappy pop to dark ballads - Sidway decided on Balance. His plan was to have the CD on sale by early 2004.
But the lives of the two principal figures changed as they moved to different cities: Sidway to Cincinnati, Moon to Atlanta. Balance was, once again, on hiatus. This time for a full year.
Now - November, 2004: He sat across from me at my dining room table, relaxed and comfortable despite the frustrations and exhaustion of making his way to Louisville from his new home in Cincinnati, leaving there in a rented car during the thick of rush hour only to spend an evening being bombarded with questions about a recording project that took nearly half a decade to complete. Around his neck is a brown leather medallion hanging from a simple black cord. On one side, Christ wearing the crown of thorns. On the other, a cross. "I purchased it at an Orthodox Christian monastery in Michigan," he said. "It's subtle so I can wear it without feeling gaudy. Like some huge chain or something like that."
It is an appropriate accoutrement for Sidway. No gilded, flashy bling that advertises his faith. Just something simple and understated. Much like Hunt Sidway himself: devoted member of the Russian Orthodox Church and a musician who is getting ready to release Balance after nearly five years of pre-production, production, voice lessons, creative differences and loud arguments with the producer, national grief following the terrorist attacks, a sojourn with another band and money problems.
In the year after the suffering, the struggles and the successes to finish Balance, Sidway had moved to Cincinnati to be closer to the Russian Orthodox congregation to which he began commuting every weekend while he lived in Louisville as he began seeking deeper spiritual guidance. Producer Stephen Moon, his wife Victoria and their baby son had moved to Atlanta. It seemed like the previous years of work were only going to yield a single master recording and a handful of demos given to friends. But as Sidway sings in Balance's opening track, the time had come to "fold your hand or finally place your bet."
This time the bet went down.
"I finally resolved at the end of the summer," he said, "I guess around August, not merely for myself but for everybody who contributed to this project. I owe it to everybody, Moon and Victoria and Eddy and all the musicians, to put this thing out, `cause I'm really proud of it, they ought to be proud of it, people ought to hear it. I feel kind of a sense of responsibility to make sure this sees the light of day because the performances are just beautiful."
Balance will see light of day not only because of Sidway's resolve and sacrifice and Moon's skills in developing a sound for it, but also with help from a sixth century hymn writer.
"I just kind of stumbled across and made the connection with this great singer-songwriter, who is also an Orthodox Christian, named Peter John Gilquist. He launched his own record company called St. Romanos Records. St. Romanos was a highly revered hymnographer in the Orthodox Church. So [Gilquist's] actually distributing recordings by a wide range of Orthodox musicians, everything from liturgical music to some alternative stuff that's really surprising."
And now that Balance is going to be distributed by a label associated with the Orthodox Church, it already has a built-in potential audience.
"It's something I've wanted to try to do for awhile," he said, "which was somehow reach out to and get my music in the hands of fellow Orthodox Christians, simply because so many of the songs come directly out of my experience in the church, so I think it would resonate with people of the same faith."
Even if it does or doesn't get into the hands of those who can identify with the spiritual-quest subtext of the songs, Sidway also believes that, if for no other reason, Balance should be heard as a fantastic example of how to do an independent recording project and how to craft a contemporary pop-rock album. In one way, it was like getting the best kind of on-the-job training: you got to experience the benefit of what you learned, plus you got to play with a bunch of cool grown-up toys and act like rock stars. In another it was like playing war games with live ammo: there always was a gut-deep fear and it would just take one clash for somebody to get hurt. But like a war, fake or otherwise, you learn to rely on the people around you.
"There were times when I was insecure about my contributions to it," Sidway said, but when I listen to it, I'm really pleased with it. And I think a lot of that is because everyone's contribution elevated me."
Find out more about Balance at www.huntsidway.net.