Isolation Drills: RB Ricks (Hardwork Movement)

Like the majority of you, all of us in the Philadelphia area are staying at home, learning to adapt to our “new normal.” MAGNET is checking in with local musicians to see how and what they’re doing during this unprecedented time. Photos by Chris Sikich.

Hello. This is Robert Ricketts—or RB Ricks—from Hardwork Movement checking in.

I hope everyone reading this is staying safe and healthy during this global pandemic. I give my thoughts and prayers to all of those who have faced any form of hardship during this time.

I must say, being quarantined has made me more disciplined than ever before. During the week, I spend most of my time working as a purchasing analyst for a manufacturing-products company. Work has helped me to keep some form of structure in my days while also keeping my mind from wandering. I’m extremely thankful to still be able to work and provide for my family during this time as the unemployment rate continues to skyrocket. 

When I’m not working, I’ve been spending a lot of time writing, working out and catching up with friends and family. This time has allowed me to slow down and appreciate all the things I normally wouldn’t have while stuck in my pre-COVID routine. 

As for Hardwork, being creative as a unit has been challenging especially since we are a nine-piece group. Due to social distancing, we haven’t been able to rehearse, and of course, we haven’t played any live shows this year. Pre-COVID, we were working out our performance calendar for the year while also, getting ready for The Roots Picnic. Now, everything has changed. With all that, we’ve had to adjust. We’re looking to find alternative ways to be creative and, most importantly, stay connected. Everyone is going through many different challenges, but the most important thing we can do is continue to keep community. As a group and individually, new music is on the way!! Hardwork is always working! 

I know it’s easy to wish that things would go back to normal while we are faced with a pandemic and economic crisis, but I would be remiss if I didn’t express my feelings about the racial injustices that Black people are feeling across the county. Like everyone else, I have been itching to go to Spruce Street Harbor, Silk City or hit up Assembly to catch a rooftop vibe, but that isn’t what keeps me up at night. What keeps me up at night is the fact that every time I step out of the house, it could be the last time because of the color of my skin. That has been weighing heavy on my mind more recently. I’m praying for all of my Black men and women who have an additional hurdle every single day. We’ll work together to get things right.

Much love, and stay safe.

Isolation Drills: Bright Kelly (The Great Enough)

Like the majority of you, all of us in the Philadelphia area are staying at home, learning to adapt to our “new normal.” MAGNET is checking in with local musicians to see how and what they’re doing during this unprecedented time. Photos by Chris Sikich.

I don’t know where I thought I would be in 2020. Waiting for the hindsight to kick in, I guess. I certainly didn’t expect to be in the prologue of a peri-apocalyptic survival horror novel. 

I’m a bit solitary by nature, so the idea of sheltering in place didn’t terrify me, but I’ll be honest, the touch hunger settles in after a while. Even those of us, like me, lucky enough to be shacked up with someone special would give an awful lot to hug a friend. Like I sing in a song by the Great Enough, “You’d give anything to be with your friends again.”

I would. Well, almost anything—but I wouldn’t put them at risk. And so I’m holed up here, working on music at a truly feverish pace, playing shows from my spare room, wondering what a post-COVID world is going to be like. Will we all give up on shaking hands and start bowing and nodding? Will we remember kindness? Will we be grateful?

I suppose I ought to shill for a moment. I sing for the Great Enough and have solo work, and there’s content for both.  My band dropped a new single last month called “The Fall,” complete with a music video.  I drop regular solo material and perform twice a week. Details here.

Honestly, that’s my job these days. Struggling to earn the kind of living I was making traveling and gigging constantly without leaving the house is a white-knuckle thrill ride I could do without, but my fan family, who we call Lamplighters, have been unimaginably supportive. They actually just ran a fundraiser to get me a looper pedal so I can add that element to my shows.

I’d want to specifically call out my Patreon community for keeping me sane. I post a lot of lyrics, poetry, demos, things like that. Hell, I’m actually serializing a novel over there. Come hang with us, folks. It’s a good time. 

So. I was tasked with talking about how COVID-19 has affected me. It’s left me lonely, and anxious, and scared to leave my house. It’s ramped my impostor syndrome into high gear, because my music has never been more do-or-die than it is right now.

I’m pretty sure I’ve got it easy. A close friend of mine had to watch in terror as his mother battled this insidious virus. Thankfully, she pulled through, but there are no guarantees, no matter how strong someone might seem. Corona is indiscriminate. 

Gang, I’m rambling, and I know it. Let me say the most important things I can:
• Help who you can. 
• Donate locally (I might recommend Philabundance) or specifically (I might recommend MusiCares, whose relief fund for impacted musicians kept a roof over my head this month).
• Love who you’re able. 
• Get really good at digital hangs. Faces on a screen aren’t as impersonal as they used to be. They beat the living hell out of no faces at all. 

I’m humbled by what the virus has taught me about the world. It is both crueler and kinder than I believed. It is a wider spectrum than I’d thought possible.

As I sing in another song, “There are deeper mysteries than either man or androids dream/And it’s been a while now since I weathered the storm.”

If I seem impossibly self-absorbed, quoting myself, well … I’m here in quarantine, forgetting how to sleep. Forgive me my little forays into conceit, and let’s trespass on the world again as soon as it’s safe. 

In the meantime, stay the fuck home. 

Love and peace,
Bright Kelly

P.S. Black Lives Matter

Isolation Drills: Valentina Sounds

Like the majority of you, all of us in the Philadelphia area are staying at home, learning to adapt to our “new normal.” MAGNET is checking in with local musicians to see how and what they’re doing during this unprecedented time. Photos by Chris Sikich.

Valentina Raffaelli (a.k.a. Valentina Sounds): As I write this, we have been in lockdown for a little more than two months. At the beginning I was counting the days; now I’ve stopped counting. I had to open a calendar to make sure I had my facts straight. 

I have been among the few lucky people who have been able to keep their job and do it remotely. Besides being a performer, singer/songwriter, music director for Valentina Sounds and several other project (I like to be involved in community theatre), I teach part-time at The Episcopal Academy as a choral director and music teacher, and although it took the school seven days too many to lock down, we transitioned to a remote teaching situation pretty quickly and, I dare to say, pretty smoothly as well.

I’ve also been able to keep most of my private piano and voice students as well. I’m still accepting students in case anyone is interested in getting their voice and piano skills up a bit, or if they just have bored kids around the house and a piano or a keyboard that has been going unused and untouched for years. There’s no time like the present to dedicate to a musical instrument!

I’m originally from Italy; my family and lifelong friends live there. When the pandemic first exploded in Milan, I was submersed by messages and calls from my close family and friends warning me to stay at home. School hadn’t closed yet over here, and I had to keep going to work. “Wear a mask everywhere you go,” they were saying, but masks were nowhere to be found. About a week prior to the Pennsylvania lockdown, I stocked up on canned beans, my favorite shelf stable almond milk, some bags of frozen vegetables, and I waited for the government to make the call. I washed my hands raw, I disinfected everything around me, enough to give myself an allergic reaction to the fumes of the cleaning supplies. 

My colleagues called me crazy, my friends said I was being paranoid. They said I was overreacting. But it was such a relief not to have to rush to the grocery store when everyone else was in full panic mode, buying piles of toilet paper, for God knows what reason.

I jumped on the virtual performances bandwagon almost right away. I’ve been playing a couple of livestream shows a week, with my Italian/American concert being the highlight of my week. Every Saturday at 1pm, I play a concert for friends and fans in both continents on my Facebook and Instagram page. I play songs in Italian and English, and try to keep it fresh and varied from week to week. I’m quarantined with my roommate and backup singer Sara Mingle, who joins me in these live performances. We play for tips, but we understand that the situation is so tough for people right now, so we’re really just happy to provide some entertainment without expecting anything in return. 

I’ve been trying to help others as I can. I contribute to the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, but also smaller local charities like Femme Freedom (they collect sanitary products for homeless women) and other food distributing non-profits. I’ve also been taking advantage of curb-side pick-up for several restaurants and gelato places, ’cause as much as I love to cook, it’s nice to get someone else to cook for you! 

There are many free things that people can do at the moment to support independent artists and venues: like their Facebook pages, follow them on Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, whatever your social media of preference is! For musicians, it’s important to get a “follow” on Spotify (even though they pay us $0 for streaming our music). 

I’ve recently released two new music videos that you can find on my YouTube page. One is a pretty serious heartfelt song called “For Both Of Us,” and one is a super-silly/snarky tune called “Eat The Chocolate.” I recommend them both, but you know, I’m biased.

I’ve been getting more comfortable talking about my anxiety problems lately, so in the next paragraph I would like to share with you what I have to remind myself every day in order not to get paralyzed by panic attacks:

Sooner or later, we will get back to normal. Hang in there. Be patient. If you had something exciting planned for these months and it got cancelled, getting upset over it is not going to make a difference. Just keep healthy and make sure to plan it again for the future. We’re all in the same boat—some better some worse than others. Let’s appreciate what we still have. Even the smallest things.

Isolation Drills: Jefferson Berry

Like the majority of you, all of us in the Philadelphia area are staying at home, learning to adapt to our “new normal.” MAGNET is checking in with local musicians to see how and what they’re doing during this unprecedented time. Photos by Chris Sikich.

Singing Through The Pandemic In North Philly
Berry: Really, with all the changes going on in the world, I’ve got it good. The shutdown has given this inner-city high-school teacher more time to play and write. While I’m bemoaning the lack of live support for our new album, neither I nor the members of my band are completely dependent on gig money to survive. And we’re not sick. Yet.

But what will we be singing about in the future? As a published historian, I recognize that this period of time is one where civilizations are indelibly changed. The type of cataclysms we’ve only read about are now a part of our daily lives. We are being confronted not only by a virus that our politics have few answers for, but climate change has it snowing in May! COVID has teamed up with the nagging problems of income inequality to produce massive unemployment and a sense of desperation. While I know our job as musicians is to transport people out of their troubles, those troubles have never been bigger.

OK, so things are never going to be the same. I know that people are going to still groove to the beats my guitar sets up for Uncle Mike and Rapo, the Urban Acoustic Coalition’s bass player and drummer, respectively; that Bud Burroughs (mandolin/keys), Marky B! (chromatic and blues harps) and Dave Brown (banjo, lap steel and Strat) are going to be the talk of the town with any band they’re in. And the community of musicians we swim with will always be soulful in their support. But the folk/rock songs I write are about the city and urban living. These things are going to be different. New times demand new stories.

And they will be received differently. Just as songwriters have had to adjust to the decline of CDs, we’re now operating on the internet like never before. I miss my band, but we’ve been learning how to record, light and assemble videos. Changes? I’ve been playing with Bud Burroughs for more than a dozen years. While he may be the tastiest player I’ve ever known, not once has he called the tune. Not at three o’clock in the morning around the fire at the many festivals we attend. Not while putting together sets lists for any of the three bands we’ve been in together or the hundreds of shows we’ve played together. He’s always made what other decided to play so much better, But upon the death of John Prine and Bill Withers, Bud solo’d “Angel From Montgomery” and “Ain’t No Sunshine” with a couple of the most memorable tribute video’s you’ll ever see. Alone. In his living room.

Meanwhile, I’ve been in my rowhome basement, hanging backdrop curtains, experimenting with lighting and iPhone software and attachments. Reading online reviews, I decided upon a MV88 Shure MOTIV mic to hook up to my iPhone. I was having fun doing internet shows—particularly the one for Americana Highways.

On April 15, it was reported that Gene Shay, the godfather of all folk DJs and a Philadelphia institution, had died of COVID. I wrote a song about him. And then, it turns out, he wasn’t dead—that Gene, always a trickster! A couple days later, when he did finally pass, it was sad, but he’d have wanted the party to go on. I shot the acoustic-guitar part for “That Guy Was Fun” with a click track running low in the Sennheisers. I downloaded that video asset to edit in QuickTime and then played it back while shooting the vocals. Mixing the two shoots together in iMovie, I sent it to Bud. You never go wrong sending stuff to Bud.

He and I agreed that the song begged a chromatic harmonica. While a fabulous harmonica player, Marky B! had as much to learn about the tech of looking good while playing well; neither of us had ever approached anything like this before. And he crushed it. We stripped out the audio and had Matt Muir, the engineer from our last two records, mix it. We’d been working with photographer Lisa Schaffer. She gave us her cache of Gene Shay photos for the project. When it came to putting it all together, like Clint said, “A man has to know his limitations.” Final Cut Pro? Maybe someday. Our friend, Alyssa Shea did a fantastic job of editing the final project. We had it out in a week and got 500 views in the first 48 hours. It’s on the Jefferson Berry And The UAC YouTube playlist.

That’s a lot different than playing some girl a new song you wrote, her saying it reminded her of a Roger McGuinn song. Now it’s a bunch of guys communicating out of Dropbox folders.

The challenges musicians face with the pandemic, particularly the pros among us, are real, both financially and creatively. No shows this summer? Are you kidding me? Still, my mind keeps going back to my students. Poverty in Philadelphia is rough in the best of times. The health conditions that the coronavirus seeks out are the most prevalent in the poor communities my school serves. That kind of desperation leads to the violence we’re reading about every day: shootings are way up. So, while “the beat goes on,” when we get through this, things are going to be different. Way different.

Isolation Drills: Hemming

Like the majority of you, all of us in the Philadelphia area are staying at home, learning to adapt to our “new normal.” MAGNET is checking in with local musicians to see how and what they’re doing during this unprecedented time. Photos by Chris Sikich.

Candice Martello (a.k.a. Hemming): I feel very lucky to have my girlfriend and her son with me during all of this, but I’ve never experienced this much lack of personal space or alone time. That’s what I’m struggling with the most.

I love my time alone. It allows me to think and process things at my own pace. It’s when I can be the most productive musically, partially because I’m not held back by anyone listening. Being alone also helps me recharge my mental state to function as a more easy going person.

Anyone living with a kid will know that personal space is almost impossible right now. Songwriting has felt difficult. I can’t force creativity to happen in the moments I find to sneak away. In the meantime, while I’m not writing, I’ve started to record and post cover songs just to keep me singing and creating music in some way. I put a small collection of covers on my Bandcamp for open donation; all money earned by these covers is going to equality/community organizations. I also have a more-produced cover on this awesome compilation; any money donated goes to support immigrants not getting from the government.

I think in isolation, it can be easy to get lost in a dark place. I’m sure many people are having a hard time with this feelings of helplessness while everything is uncertain. When it’s difficult for me to write and play music, I whittle. This is a hobby I didn’t expect to pick up until I was old and retired. It’s something I have never really done before and requires hours of concentrated work. My girlfriend does not understand what I get out of carving one spoon for days, but it’s really just a way to distract myself. The one thing that always makes me happy without fail is creating something out of nothing. I just throw on a Hank Williams record, put on my apron and slowly chip away wood, attempting not to slice my fingers more than I already have. It almost makes me feel like I’m somewhere with wide-open fields instead of a South Philly basement.

The rest of my time is either spent cooking or trying to help entertain Mars, my four-year-old BFF. He’s a hilarious, energetic kid who fills all possible silence with questions. Right now, he’s really into wildlife and insects, which I’m very excited about. Most of the day is spent drawing bugs or catching a snake that’s actually a shoelace. We even started a band where he bangs on the drums while I play guitar and he yells facts about reptiles.

Every day seems the same, but every day is different. I’m so grateful to be locked away with people who I love, even though we have our rough patches. If I can manage to pull myself out of my head enough to not be a jerk, I consider it a good day. If I can record a cover someone requested and get it posted or get some carving done on a spoon, it’s a good day. I’m trying to focus on the little victories to keep myself positive and sane.

I’m very interested to see what kind of music and art comes out into the world after all of this is over. Isolation is difficult but can also be a catalyst for creativity, even if it presents itself in wooden spoons.

I hope you’re all doing as well as you can be doing right now. This won’t last forever—it just feels that way. Be good to yourself.