Diving into the Unknown: Local Musicians Ponder the Pandemic’s Challenges and Surprising Upsides

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Vibe Riot

The Sally Rose Band

On March 13, 2020—two days after the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a global pandemic and three days before the U.S. president announced social distancing guidelines–Sally Rose, bassist and lead vocalist of The Sally Rose Band, had just wandered dazedly into the Charlottesville Trader Joe’s with a black sports bra wrapped around her face, surrounded by people rushing to buy canned goods and toilet paper.

“It was before people even had masks, but I was trying to find some way to cover up my face,” she said. “I got the sports bra from my gym bag. I was crying. I had mascara running down my cheeks. I looked absolutely insane.”

To understand Sally Rose’s appearance in that moment requires understanding the whirlwind the band was caught up in immediately preceding the pandemic. They were set to release a new album, had a three-month tour already booked, and a new line of merchandise. They were doing radio shows, interviews and had already sold out presales, including local venues like The Southern and The Jefferson. “It was two years of savings and writing and touring and studio time to make that happen,” she explained. Yet, just hours before the doors opened, she had to make the call to pull the show and cancel the entire tour.

“Those first few hours were as rock bottom as it’s ever gotten for my mental health,” she admitted. I ask her to sum up the experience in a word.

“Devastating,” she replied.

As the lockdown took hold, Sally Rose’s mindset began to change. “Soon after, I realized that, if this is going to be hard and we are going to be doing this for a long time, I needed to find ways to cope that are healthy and fulfill me and give me a sense of purpose.”

That meant making changes. She left her job of thirteen years, became a certified personal trainer, started doing outdoor classes with her martial arts academy, and began writing her own solo material for the first time in years.

“Everything just kind of three-sixty-ed,” she said, “and to be completely honest, I really loved that life that I was living. I had a garden, I was doing all these DIY home improvements, I was spending more time with family, my partner and I were able to get to know each other in a way we hadn’t before, and he moved in with me, and we got a dog… I mean, I feel bad saying it, but it was almost like a domestic bliss part of me that never really came out because I’ve always been go-go-go.”

Despite the upsides, she acknowledged a type of guilt that went along with her unexpectedly positive experiences.  “It feels terrible to say out loud,” she admitted, “but I’m so grateful for a lot of the major changes I’ve made in my life over the last two years because of the pandemic.”

Vibe Riot

Sitting comfortably in the Crozet Mudhouse with an oat-milk decaf cappuccino and a slice of banana bread, Jay “Jaewar” King, frontman of the Charlottesville-based band Vibe Riot, recalled his own surprisingly positive sort of epiphanic pandemic moment:

“I was working virtually from my studio with [California-based producer] John Ho on the song ‘Right Now,’ Jaewar recalled. “It’s in the middle of the pandemic and social unrest and the track came together instantly, and when I heard the final cut it just hit me: Wow, music is never going to be the same for me in a good way.

The collaboration with John Ho and others was the result of Jaewar realizing that the pandemic was here to stay and beginning to look for opportunities to do things musically that he was not able to do before. “I started reaching out and connecting with producers that now were more available,” he said. “Before, I just did everything myself. The pandemic opened doors because of all these people I was able to connect with—getting to know their studios, engineers, and musicians who now began throwing music at me. All of a sudden, I was not doing everything on my own.”

As a result, Jaewar said, “I finally connected with the folks that I needed to and learned lessons that made me a much better producer. I realized I needed this to happen.”

In addition to “producing some of the best music” of his life and hitting a “growth spurt” creatively, the pandemic opened up a lot of other opportunities for positive changes. Unable to tour, Jaewar had more time with friends and family, spent more time hiking, got involved in the City of Charlottesville-funded Black Cville, and booked a residency for Vibe Riot at Common House in Charlottesville.

Unexpectedly, adapting to the difficulties of the pandemic morphed into handling some of the guilt that came along with his positive experiences. “This growth,” he notes, “came from a thing that was so terrible for others. Yet, I don’t want to devalue things that I needed for my own development.

“How do I reconcile this?” he asked, pausing to consider the question. Outside the Mudhouse windows, a train trundled by. The parking lot was full of cars and there were people sitting and chatting at the tables around us. The world is opening back up.

“In the end,” Jaewar said, “I guess it’s really that both things are true.”

Lord Nelson

“I remember it was February and we had just done a run through Carolina and Tennessee and finished in Greenville and were coming home and things were feeling exciting,” recalled Kai Crowe-Getty of the days leading up to the pandemic. Like the Sally Rose Band, Lord Nelson had just finished a record and had already started booking events around it. “The band was gelling,” he said, “but then that wall just hit and like everyone else, we started seeing the cancellations roll in and everything suddenly went belly up.”

According to Kai, the band first thought they’d be sidelined for a couple of weeks. “It was summer,” he admitted, “before we realized this was going to be an industry- and life-changing situation,” describing how the band “shuttered” and “hunkered down” to see what would happen—an experience he referred to as a “dive into the unknown.”

Like Jaewar’s experience, much of what Kai would discover in that unknown would prove to be surprisingly positive. Kai described how, perhaps counterintuitively, the dark early days of the pandemic sparked the initial stages of creative growth: “There was just this unknown vastness,” he said, “and the news was scary every day, and it was like, you know, the one thing I could do would be to paint my kitchen and try to write a song.”

Kai described a subsequent burst of creativity during which he challenged himself to write one new song each week and began holding live streams of the new work from his house in Nelson County. He said that over the pandemic he “ended up writing more new things and playing guitar more than [he] ever had before.”

Kai sees a correlation between the way the pandemic slowed life down and the abnormally high creative output he experienced. “We play a lot of shows,” he explained, and the band is often “on the road and going and going, but, from a song-writing perspective, I need that quiet of the brain to get there with new songs. I found a lot of inspiration and time to write and have that stillness as part of my life.”

Not only did he end up writing “probably five times as many songs,” but he also experienced other positive changes. He renovated the kitchen, painted the entire house, and started running again and got into an exercise routine that being on the road had made difficult. “The hustle mentality, constantly saying yes to things and working to make it got taken away,” he said, “and what I discovered was all this space for other forms of creativity.”

Moving Forward

With venues getting back in full swing, The Sally Rose Band, Vibe Riot, and Lord Nelson have shows booked up locally and regionally and an exciting backlog of new material to share. Yet even as each musician notes how healthy, affirming, and positive performing for audiences once again feels, they are mindful of the new perspectives they gained during the pandemic.

Moving forward, Kai noted, “It’s about getting the brain back to where it was a year or two ago, but also learning how to balance it with all the new growth in a healthy way.” For Jaewar, part of that new growth is about taking all he’s learned from other musicians and producers and applying it to his music while also maintaining collaborations and partnerships formed during the pandemic.

“Tread Light,” the title track of Sally Rose’s solo album, written during the pandemic and released in February, is a song that, even as it captures the pandemic’s dichotomy of growth and guilt, reminds us to appreciate and carry forward those good things we discovered during an otherwise dark time.

“Most of that song is like, Hey, it’s okay to break down at home or even at Trader Joe’s,” she said with a laugh, but it also “reminds us it’s okay to take joy, and carry forward, the positive ways our lives have changed.”

If the last two years were a dive into the unknown for local musicians, then the goal ahead, it appears, is about carrying forward into a reopening world the valuable things they discovered.  

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