On a cool summer evening in Detroit’s Petoskey-Otsego neighborhood, the vibrant sounds of a live stringed quartet seem strangely out of place as they drift from the Greater Impact House across the overgrown lots and dilapidated houses that surround it on Hogarth Street.
Inside, musician Alexander Vlachos sits behind a piano, preparing to launch into a recording session with Six Mile Strings, a recently formed stringed instrument ensemble, in a living room that has been transformed for the night into a makeshift recording studio.
The 109-year-old house, in disrepair after years of neglect but still beautiful with time-worn wooden floors, bow windows, and other original architectural elements throughout, is the center of Vlachos’ latest project — a new residency program for mid-career and established musicians and artists in Detroit.
To bring that vision to life, Vlachos is launching a crowdfunding campaign this week to transform the house into an updated, comfortable space where resident artists and musicians from around the world can live and work in a substance-free environment, drawing on the power of their own creativity to rise above the limitations of their personal struggles and traumas.
Part of that mission stems from Vlachos’ own experiences regaining control over his music, mental health, and the traumatic memories that have shaped both since childhood. From an upbringing that left him emotionally scarred to a lifelong struggle with mental health and substance use, music ultimately became a means of conquering those anxieties for Vlachos — who was born in New York and lived in Greece until the age of 7, when he moved to Metro Detroit with his family
— but it was also one of their earliest sources.
“Around the age of 12, my father got me piano lessons, and it turned out really traumatic,” Vlachos recalls. “The piano teacher was well-versed — he was a prodigy. But his teaching skills were very emotionally abusive.” Because Vlachos had only a keyboard to practice on at home, rather than a full-key piano like the one his teacher used during their lessons, he was often unable to meet his teacher’s rigorous technical demands. As a result, Vlachos frequently endured harsh scoldings that left him feeling frustrated and defeated.
By the time he was 15, Vlachos had given up on piano and shifted his focus to acoustic guitar. Influenced by the records his father and brother often played at home, ranging from Yanni and classical Spanish guitar to rock bands like Korn, music became a means of expression for Vlachos — and an escape from an abusive home life he says lasted until he eventually moved out on his own. “There were all these ranges of different musical influences [at home], compounded by a lot of mental and emotional abuse on top of it,” Vlachos says.
Despite those negative early experiences with life and music, Vlachos managed to use his creativity to transform obstacles into opportunities with perseverance that would ultimately guide him toward a career as a professional musician. “The reason I went further into music was because of compounded trauma,” he says.
After graduating from Wayne State University with a degree in music in 2004, Vlachos began working in hospitals and eventually pursued a career in nursing as he continued writing songs on the side. But in 2010, just as he was about to begin a third certificate in nursing, Vlachos says everything changed when his late sister attempted suicide for the first time while she was living across the country in Los Angeles. (In October 2019, Vlachos’ sister ended her own life.)
“Everything just abruptly stopped,” Vlachos says. “That was when I made a huge directional shift toward music. It felt like I really needed to focus on what was going on with me — because, in many ways, my sister and I kind of mirrored each other emotionally.”
Diagnosed with depression at the age of 18, Vlachos spent much of his adult life experimenting with various mental health treatments, medications, and techniques. Two years before his sister’s attempted suicide, he says he’d stopped taking prescription antidepressants in favor of what he viewed as more natural remedies such as cannabis.
But by the time of his sister’s attempted suicide, Vlachos says he’d realized self-medicating wasn’t the answer for him, either. “It was just numbing my trauma even further …” he says. “That’s when I started the whole idea of just trying to find this greater part of myself — and realizing it’s not happening through these other vices.”
After releasing his debut album “Positive Love” under the name Greater Alexander in 2012, Vlachos says he finally began taking his music career seriously while gaining a greater level of control over his mental health through human connection without the use of substances. “Just releasing that album really started that connection [with] other people,” Vlachos says. “I found that the music started leading me in a way that made me understand how to connect to the world.”
In addition to a studio residency at Assemble Sound in Corktown, the haunting and sometimes melancholy songs on “Positive Love” led to what Vlachos describes as a “critical amount of licensing” through Assemble Sound and Portland’s Marmoset Music, who placed his music in commercials for companies like MassMutual, Amazon, Comedy Central, Centria Healthcare, Pure Michigan, and more.
In 2016, after releasing his second full-length album, “Spilled Love,” Vlachos’ earliest musical anxieties came full circle when a head-on car crash left him with nerve damage that affected his eyes and hands — rendering him unable to play guitar. After undergoing evaluation with a neurologist alongside alternative healing therapies focused on mental and physical wellness, Vlachos made the decision to return to the piano. “I was kind of like, ‘I’m still here. I’m still alive, I’m still creating, I’m still in this experience — and I’m proving it to myself with everything that’s happened,” he recalls.
By 2017, as Vlachos’ residency at Assemble Sound was drawing to a close, he says he knew he wanted to start a residency program of his own using his past struggles to create opportunities for other musicians. “I really wanted to have a space where artists create goals each week for themselves […] and, at the same time, focus on what’s going on on the mental side of things,” he says.
After learning about auctions and land bank-owned homes while working with a local Realtor, Vlachos stumbled upon a listing for the 3,500-square-foot house on Hogarth. After purchasing it for $5,000 with funds he’d earned through music licensing, Vlachos, who lives in Southfield, embarked on the long process of establishing the residency.
Although the program’s formal structure is still in development, Vlachos says key parts of the Greater Impact House will include weekly goal-setting sessions alongside regular meetings with an art therapist to help guide resident artists past their personal traumas and creative challenges, as well as a formal agreement to abstain from drugs and alcohol during their residency — something Vlachos advocates from personal experience. “I don’t know how artists live at home, but I know that I was surrounded by a lot of alcohol and a lot of cannabis in my youth …” Vlachos says. “I’m watching how artists around me are either numbing, or also singing about, their sensations. […] Taking myself off those vices gave me a clearer perception of the world.”
The residency, which will be open to local, domestic, and international artists and musicians selected from an online and video application process, will provide space for two artists to live and work at the house for durations of 1-3 months, and provide daytime studio space for two artists to create or record. Because of the abundance of resources available to emerging musicians and artists in Detroit, Vlachos plans to use the Greater Impact House to attract more mature artists to Detroit. “We really want to gear ourselves towards already-established artists,” Vlachos says, adding that he hopes to offer grants or scholarships for their projects.
Although the Greater Impact House currently provides limited day space for select artists to record music and create art, Vlachos says the long-neglected house will require significant repairs before it’s suitable for a formal live-in residency. “If I really want to make this residency feel good and able to be worked in and lived in, then the work with contractors needs to happen,” Vlachos says. “It really just comes down to having a space you feel comfortable creating in.”
While Vlachos has already updated the house’s electrical system, he estimates the remaining renovations — which will include repairs to the roof, kitchen, and bathrooms, re-plastering the walls, and installing a heating and cooling system — will take around a year to complete and cost around $75,000. To help secure those funds, Vlachos has turned to Fractured Atlas, a fiscal sponsorship platform that assists artists in raising money for their creative ventures.
Throughout the crowdfunding campaign, Vlachos also plans to release three new albums: “Contained Love” (a collection of 88 one-minute melodies created during the COVID-19 shelter-in-place order, which will also include a special edition ’zine with a similar theme); “New Love” (an album based on Vlachos’ childhood memories) in late fall 2020; and “Let Love In,” slated to be released early next year.
Paint peels from the walls while the house's bones show through a portion of disintegrated drywall.
For Vlachos, though, the Greater Impact House is about more than fundraising, record releases, and structural renovations — it’s about transforming the lessons of his own traumatic past into opportunities for growth within the city’s creative community. “We want things to get to a place where we’re really performing on top of the community that’s already there, coming together to create group meetings in the space to talk about trauma, to talk about racism, to talk about all the things that are occurring in today’s world,” Vlachos says. “But also to really get into the nitty-gritty about how [our resident artists] are living and how they’re creating — and possibly offer a more enlightened and in-tune perspective.”
If you’re interested in making a contribution to the renovation of the Greater Impact House and for the latest updates on the campaign, please click here.
Artists interested in contributing artwork or photographs to the “Contained Love” special edition ‘zine can submit their work here through Oct. 15.
All photos by Erin Marie Miller.