This article originally appeared in the Victory Review and is reprinted with permission.
Last May (2009) a new acoustic music venue quietly opened up in a craftsman house atop Phinney Ridge that offers stunning acoustic sound and a unique engagement between players and fans. Empty Sea Studios is a labor of love by musician, educator and recording engineer Michael Connolly, borne of his frustration with available acoustic venues, and a passion to raise the bar for what audiences and performers alike can expect.
The 27-year old Connolly is a bit of a musical renaissance man. A lyrical violin and mandolin player, Connolly is adept on instruments ranging from the clarinet to the Hammond B3 organ, guitar to Uilleann Pipes. He is comfortable playing the Memphis soul he grew up listening to (and playing professionally in bars as a 15-year-old), traditional Irish repertoire, bluegrass and most genres in between. He teaches (primarily fiddle), runs a national website that matches music teachers with students, is an active side man for local and national acts, and a budding luthier—the first fiddle he ever built is the one he plays on stage.
. EmptyEmpty Sea Studios (a play on Connolly’s initials: M.T.C.) was launched because Connolly was looking for a live/work space that could accommodate all his various engagements in the music world. Initially a performance hall was not what he had in mind.
“A friend of mine who lives down the street saw that the 12-step shop [that had occupied the house for many years] was vacant… we peeked in the windows. I just saw this big open space—it just came out of nowhere—it was such an obvious usage for that space,” Connolly told Victory Music one rainy night in October.
Sitting at the mixing console set up in the former dining room, Connolly gestured to the L-shaped space that was once a living room, where 45 seats in a handful of rows embraced a simple raised stage.
“I had this revelation last St. Patrick’s day when I was doing a bar gig: I am really part of the wallpaper, people are here to see their friends. So it is a really a different experience to put someone on this stage and go poof!” He turns on the stage lights—all attention jumps to the splashes of light that define two microphones set in the darkened space. “Between the lights, painting the ceiling blue, the dark curtain backdrop, everything is for maximum attention on the performer. That is pretty rare. And that is why people respond to it.”
Having been to two shows at Empty Sea, I can attest to the brilliant, clean sound and the dramatically intimate nature of the small room and lack of distractions.
Connolly called it the “anti-pub and anti-coffee shop.”
“When you play a coffee shop it can be so demeaning, because people are working on their laptops and the coffee machine is going; you are such a small part of the entertainment,” he explained.
“If you look at the economics of a lot of what we call concert venues, the music is really incidental to their primary purpose. In both the bar and coffee shop scenes the music is there to move more product. That is a weird thing….You look at all these places and the name of the game is having music every night and the quality bar [of the music] is really not that relevant. Because if it were relevant, then it would be worthwhile to have a good PA. But clearly it is not, it is just wallpaper.
“I played with Captain Gravel for a number of years,” Connolly recalled. “I played the fiddle. To play loudly on the fiddle you use a lot of bow pressure, and I would end up with this divot on the side of my thumb that meant I have basically been at maximum pressure for hours and hours. And there was just no dynamics at all, because anything less would not be heard at all.”
“It is very frustrating. The thing I would hate more than anything would be coming out of a show with my ears ringing from harsh monitors. I didn’t hear anything the whole night, we couldn’t hear each other so we didn’t play well together. And I don’t get the sense that anyone in the audience heard anything either. It was like: Why are we doing this?”
“So, everything here is less about a proactive business plan and is instead reactive to all the crap gigs that I have played my whole life and what I wish was different about them. And I think that is why it goes over well with musicians!” stated Connolly.
“I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from people who are used to playing in noisy bars and coffee shops that playing here is a little intimidating–to be on the stage and everyone is actually listening. It is quiet and kind of intense.”
The strength of the audience/performer connection at Empty Sea is supported by the fact that artists are selling a high number of recordings, making this small-venue show artistically rewarding and lucrative.
With about 30 shows under his belt, Connolly has showcased nationally known touring acts like David Grier (the “most award-winning guitarist in recent memory,” according to his web site) and The Cantrells (A-list Nashville songwriters and performers Emily & Al Cantrell), lesser known touring acts like Jonathan Byrd and Coyote Grace, as well as some local performers.
“Strangely enough it has been mostly touring folks, so far,” Connolly said, “because many locals will focus their booking efforts on The Tractor, or The Showbox. Few people who live here enter ‘acoustic music venue’ in a search engine because they think they know them all already. Whereas people coming from out of town may be doing a search as a primary way of finding a place to play.”
“The word of mouth has been spreading a lot. I think that is how David Grier and mandolin player Mike Compton got here. The Cantrells brought the story back to Nashville and they just cold-called me.” In addition, an ongoing partnership with Northwest Folklife has been helpful in bringing in well-known performers as part of a “Folklife Masters” series.
Empty Sea is a beautifully tuned room, with a sound system featuring equipment selected to showcase acoustic instruments and voice, and room treatments to bring out the best in the performers.
“I’m pretty much of a sound nerd,” Connolly said. “ I’ve been recording for about 10 years, it is my chip on my shoulders—bad sound. It is so crucial for this genre of music. If you look at the concert programming that we have been having here, it is actually a hodgepodge of things, but what binds them together is that they would be really poorly served by bad sound. It is all delicate, listening kind of music.
“Phinney’s Home for Acoustic Music” is also developing a reputation as a great studio to record acoustic music projects.
“I get pretty good results, because I have a nice room and acoustic music is all I do in terms of recording, said Connolly. “My mic selection and gear is biased towards acoustic music. And I play most of these instruments, so I have a strong idea about what I want them to sound like.”
Dirk Powell and Martha Scanlan cut tracks when they were recently in town. The Toy Box Trio recently recorded a full length album featuring their eclectic mix of toy piano, tuba and accordion.
“I have the value-add thing that I can play extra instruments on your stuff,” Connolly said. “I’m usually pretty opinionated about arrangement and the producing side of things. I can weigh in on that. I’ve played in a lot of different genres of music so I have a fair amount of opinions, but I can also shut up and hit the record button if necessary.”
Empty Sea is doing so well, along with Connolly’s www.LearningMusician.com website (which features 1,500 teachers nationwide and has helped 40,000 students find an instructor) that he is transitioning out of his day job coding software for a medical device company so that he can work full time on music-related ventures: booking shows, giving more time to his own performing, recording more performers and building more instruments. But underneath all those discrete activities, Connolly has a deeper plan:
“I have this meta-level kind of evil plan to increase the quality bar that people demand out of their listening experiences. The coffee guys did it in Seattle. All the sudden people started over-delivering on the coffee experience. Vivace, Vita, they were all like: here is some crazy good coffee. No one asked for it, but here it is. And people developed a taste for that really quickly and started asking more. It seems like Seattle is the most advanced in that category.”
“Similarly, I’ll get all these comments like ‘I’m not a musician, but I couldn’t believe how it sounded!’ People don’t realize that it can be like that. I don’t think a lot of people even get what acoustic music is about, because what is there to get if it is like (makes muffled trumpety noise) ‘duh-duh-duh…’ To me what it is about as a player is the amount of depth and articulation in the instruments, most of which gets lost in a large space or a bad sounding space.”
Empty Sea Studios is located at 6300 Phinney Ave. For information on upcoming shows, go to their website: www.emptysea.com
Mike Buchman is a performing songwriter and sometimes music journalist who serves on the Victory Music Board of Directors. You can find him most Tuesdays at Victory’s open mic at the Q Cafe.