Southeast Michigan musicians find both hardship and unexpected inspiration in pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused the music industry to largely shut down — and with it, many musicians' livelihood. But staying home has prompted many Southeast Michigan musicians to either reach out online to fans or to take time to work on new or existing musical projects. And the crisis has served as a powerful reminder to fans of music's power to uplift everyone and get them through difficult times.


We interviewed musicians from across the area about how the pandemic has affected them. Here are their stories.


Early effects


Detroit indie artist Stef Chura is a perfect example of just how quickly the national touring industry came to a screeching halt. Chura left with her band on March 10 to join the band Against Me! for a long-awaited tour set to run through April 2. As news of the pandemic spread, they were told the tour would end with its fourth show on March 14. But unfortunately, Chura and her band learned that it would be cut even shorter while they were sound-checking for the second show of the tour in Portland, Maine.


"Against Me!'s manager walked up to our manager and said, 'You heard, right?' She said, 'Yeah, Saturday, right?' and he said, 'No, tonight,'" Chura says.

Stef Chura.

After the show, her band started the two-day drive back to Michigan with a van full of new merch. When Chura's band and Against Me! said their premature goodbyes, Chura says, "The running joke was, 'It feels like the tour just started yesterday.'"


Ann Arbor songwriter Chris Buhalis' tour was literally called off at the last minute and it very well may have saved his life. Buhalis was supposed to leave Feb. 27 for a tour and a recording session in Northern Italy – ground zero for the pandemic there.


"If my tour had started two days earlier I would have been there," Buhalis says.

Chris Buhalis.

With many friends in Italy, Buhalis had a sobering awareness of what was due in Michigan sooner than most people.


"Look at Bergamo. It's about the same size as Ann Arbor," he says. "They had obituary columns that were 10 pages long. So it was on my radar earlier because I have people over there [who] I care about."


Ann Arbor musician Pete Larson also had a much earlier respect for the impending pandemic. Larson founded the legendary Bulb Records and currently runs Dagoretti Records, which specializes in African and jazz music. But he's also an epidemiology researcher with the University of Michigan's (U-M) Institute for Social Research and School of Public Health, where much of his research has now pivoted to COVID-19.


"I'm terrified, to be honest," Larson says. "I've done the back-of-the-envelope calculations and even in the best-case scenario it's just devastating."

Pete Larson.

The time Larson once spent playing shows is now being directed toward other creative projects, including several records and a book.


"All the creative stuff hasn't stopped," Larson says. "It's just different. Every single musician and artist I know is at home working on their stuff."


Live from home


Local artists have joined musicians across the country in rapidly embracing livestreaming as a way to continue performing and to create a virtual community for their isolated fans. Erin Zindle and the Ragbirds were among the first artists in Ann Arbor to turn to livestreaming during the pandemic. Zindle and her band had already been investing in video equipment for streaming in Zindle's basement rehearsal space. So they were well-prepared to launch a livestream series called "Live From the Birdhouse" on March 12, the same night The Ark announced that it was canceling all shows for the remainder of the month.


"I just started making calls and activating the underground network," Zindle says.

TJ and Erin Zindle.

Shows followed until Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's "Stay Home, Stay Safe" executive order on March 23.


"People were really generous with the online tip jars," Zindle says. "I was able to pay the musicians a good night's pay."


Ann Arbor guitarist Laith Al-Saadi appeared on "Live From the Birdhouse" during its brief run. He now livestreams on his own Facebook page on Friday nights. For Al-Saadi, who made it to the finals of the 10th season of "The Voice," the recent widespread adoption of livestreaming makes perfect sense and even seems overdue.

Laith Al-Saadi.

"I think it's shocking that it's taken this long to get people to put on online concerts," Al-Saadi says. "My fame is different than your average bear. I got a lot of my fame off of a national TV show that was shown internationally. My real fan base is spotty all over the world. So for me, to do an internet concert gives me a chance to perform in front of more people that know who I am than any one physical location. While COVID-19 has forced this to happen, I'm planning ... on playing internet shows as part of the way I'm going to reach the world (after the pandemic passes)."


Detroit singer-songwriter Audra Kubat, along with friends Michele Oberholtzer and Emily Rose, has been presenting a nightly livestream series called Lullabies From Detroit. The series features a variety of Detroit-area and Michigan artists.

Audra Kubat.

"Lullabies are almost like a hidden art form. A way for a parent to comfort a child," Kubat says. "This is us trying to soothe and comfort our adult community. During this time we thought it would be really beautiful for us to do this for our community."


Marion Hayden.Buhalis, too, has taken his former Troubadour Tuesday residency at Ann Arbor's The Ravens Club online on a weekly basis. But livestreaming also has its pitfalls. Marion Hayden is a Highland Park-based jazz bassist and an adjunct assistant professor at the U-M School of Music. She notes that livestream platforms are still not ideal for playing live music, especially for music educators trying to move their classes or lessons online. She also says there's an opportunity for "someone to make a platform that's accessible and affordable for musicians."


"One of the things we're really going to have to do better is pay artists and musicians for online content," she says.


Bright spots in a pandemic


For now, most artists are appealing to fans' generosity. DJ D-Nice's virtual dance parties inspired Detroit hip-hop producer/DJ Nick Speed to take his DJ sets to the internet.


"I'm like a bartender now, surviving on tips," Speed jokes.


However, Speed has faith that the inherently innovative nature of hip-hop will make lemonade from the pandemic's lemons. He notes that Detroit artist Curtis Roach scored a contract with Columbia Records on the basis of his quarantine-inspired song "Bored in the House," a hit on the social network Tik Tok. Roach has since re-recorded the song with rapper Tyga for Columbia.


"Somebody is going to find a way to use these digital platforms and do something new with them and we'll be able to get paid," Speed says. "We'll find a couple new stars out of this too."

Nick Speed.

Other local artists have managed to find inspiration in the midst of the pandemic. Detroit electronic duo ADULT.'s new album "Perception is/as/of Deception" was released Friday, April 10. ADULT. members Nicola Kuperus and Adam Miller found themselves stuck at home instead of going on a planned tour, and were forced to scrap plans for a music video that would have featured six dancers. So the married duo rethought their concept for the video for the song "Total Total Destruction." They built a set in the commercial building attached to their home and then destroyed it on camera.


"We had to do something that's cathartic and consuming. It was eight full days from construction to destruction," Miller says, then adds with a laugh, "I mean production."


Perhaps ironically, given her stage name, COVID-19 drew Detroit hip-hop emcee Miz Korona back into the studio for the first time in four years. She was initially hesitant to return to recording, as she feared her name could be triggering to friends, family members, and others who had been hospitalized with COVID-19. However, she was encouraged by friends – and by memes that began circulating online, labeling her "The only Korona you can't die from."


She commenced writing and recording her six-song EP "The Virus" on March 14 and was done 10 days later. Photos for the cover were taken as Whitmer issued her stay-home order and downtown Detroit turned into a ghost town.


"It was really eerie," Korona says. "We saw two people the whole time we were shooting."


Korona plans on taking the lessons learned from this project into her future recordings.


"When it's time to go back in the studio, I'm not going to overthink. I'm not going to be super hard on myself," she says. "I'm going to trust my instincts and create from the heart. It shouldn't take me five years to make my next album."


Doug Coombe is Concentrate's managing photographer.

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