What Kind of Music Do You Get Coming from a Mountain Top?

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Front Page / Jul. 17, 2013 11:40pm EDT

By Kate Soules


Singer, musician, and songwriter Kristina Stykos works on an album in her off-the-grid studio in Chelsea. (Herald / Tim Calabro) Singer, musician, and songwriter Kristina Stykos works on an album in her off-the-grid studio in Chelsea. (Herald / Tim Calabro) The question of art and space is inevitable as you drive the two uphill miles on Pepper Road near Chelsea, to arrive at the home where musician Kristina Stykos lives and runs her recording studio. Perhaps the music produced here, at Pepperbox Studio, high in the Green Mountains, takes on a special quality.

In fact, this is a good question to ask, Stykos said, as clients who drive up the mountain to record find themselves in another world. Stykos works with these clients, recording and producing albums under the Thunder Ridge Records label.

Her career choice comes as no surprise. Stykos grew up in a house full of music. Her father played piano, and the legacy of her family’s music-making continued into adulthood: One of her brothers owns a studio in New York.

An Early Start

Stykos herself has played guitar since childhood. “Guitar just grew up with me,” she said.

She talks easily about the different stages of her life and about the things she picked up on guitar along the way, from chords and folk songs, to later excursions into finger picking and flat-picking.

Even though there have been instances of reprieve from her music, Stykos knew it was never far away.

It was most difficult when her children were young. But as they grew older, she pulled music back out of the closet, and even did some concert promoting at the Barre Opera House, booking folk music shows.

Folk music reaches back to Sykos’s very roots: “That’s certainly where I started and I feel pretty comfortable stylistically in folk music,” she said.

But that’s not where she wants to stop.

“I think lately I’ve been more excited about playing with drummers and bass players and making it more of a roots-rock sound. There’s the folk element, but I have a lot of friends involved in roots rock music and that’s where I’ve landed lately.”

Roots-rock will not be a shock to anyone who listens through Stykos’s albums chronologically. Diverse musicians influence her, perhaps best heard in her vocal technique.

She takes cues from female singers in any and all genres, and from particular singers such as Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, and jazz/blues singers Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone.

For Stykos, the most inspirational part is “how these singers can take a song and make it their own.”

Alone in the Studio

Stykos gets the most satisfaction from the work she does in the studio, a space where she can experiment and create without the critical perception of an audience. The privacy affords her a quiet and solitary environment, one where she can find the ideas she wants to cultivate.

Stykos individualizes each recorded piece by spending countless sessions in the studio, singing songs multiple times over, trying new things, and making discoveries until she gets the sound she wants.

“Recording has become an integral part of my writing process. When I write songs, I’ll just go into my little recording bubble and all of the rest of the world is locked out. Often I’ll do it late at night and really start to get to know the song as I sing it over and over. In the end, I’ll pick the version I like best. And that’s what will end up on the final recording.”

But Stykos does not limit her range of interests to recording. Her gamut of creativity seems neverending as she engages in activities such as creative writing (both stories and poetry), garden design, photography, and film.

This heightened sense of creativity is necessary for the promotion of her work, especially in the elements of photography and film. Stykos recognizes the importance of social media as a marketing tool. She posts on Twitter, has active websites for the studio, and herself as an artist, and hopes to make the leap into music videos.

Where the Audience Is

Without these tools, Stykos realizes she might not have much of an audience. She prefers not to perform much—Vermont is not the best state to foster a performing career, and she readily admits she’s not fully committed to performing. So she turns to the internet for listeners.

“YouTube is the place where most people are exposed to new music, so if you’re not playing the game on YouTube, you’re missing out on a lot of potential listeners,” she said.

She is currently in the midst of studying and working on films, trying to get a group of people on board for her projects, and has even considered starting her own production company.

By pursuing these forms of media, Stykos merely ensures she has some type of audience; she is not ‘selling out’ or ‘going mainstream’ as some die-hard fans of folk and other grass roots genres might think.

“Everyone has an audience somewhere in the world,” she added. “The trick is finding them.”

For herself, Stykos has found that she has little followings in places like the Netherlands and Vancouver. These groups that pick up her albums are interested in the type of Americana music that Stykos regularly creates—the rich sound of the old American melodies that entwine around lilting guitar lines.

Pepperbox Studio

Stykos began her professional recording endeavors through her love of songwriting.

“Songwriting is very personal, very challenging,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to present issues poetically, which satisfies my writing urge and also adds music, which packs an emotional punch. When I taught myself recording, that added a whole other technical element to my creative process.”

At first, technology was a major hurdle, but she determined to conquer the equipment and software in order to take better control over her own creative process. For this, her brother proved to be a major help.

“He kept showing up at the door with new pieces of equipment,” she laughed. “He brought me microphones and various things that, at the time, I didn’t know what they were. And eventually I took courses through Berklee College.”

The early clients for Pepperbox Studio gave Stykos trial runs, for both the equipment and herself. The patience of these clients (such as a puppet troupe and a storyteller) allowed her to become more comfortable with the equipment and technology.

Now, years later, Stykos produces records for a variety of artists in a variety of genres.

Off the Grid

The recordings at Pepperbox Studio have their own gimmick. The studio’s electricity comes completely from renewable energy sources located on the property, including solar panels and a residential wind turbine.

Nine solar panels sit on the roof of her home, which also houses the studio. Another set of panels sits away from the house, providing energy for her husband’s Froggy Bottom guitar shop. These panels (in addition to the turbine) generate energy that is stored in batteries lying in the basement.

During the summer, these renewable sources produce more than enough energy for the studio. But on a cloudy winter day, the solar panels don’t always generate enough for the sessions.

In that case, Stykos has two generators that will take up the slack, recharging batteries when they run out of juice. Stykos pointed out the system does not run cheaply.

Propane fuels the generators, and large winter recording sessions may quickly lead to running the generators. Stykos is always looking for new improvements in solar panel technology, hoping to find affordable panels that will soak in the rays—even in the winter.

“Off-the-grid” is more a statement of energy used to produce the music than a statement of limitations. Sykos confirmed, “I can do anything here.”

The generators work to provide any additional energy she might need for her work. Interestingly enough, most musicians tend to come to Stykos for recording during the winter, despite the trek up the mountain.

“In wintertime people want to hole up in the studio and work on a project.”

During the summer months Stykos stays busy doing garden design for Vermont’s summer residents.

The Finished Product

Stykos tends to attract those clients who want a simple recording; she stays out of the way as much s she can. Her ultimate goal is to capture the unique sound of each instrument and voice that passes through her gear.

She keeps a light touch, and always hopes for a good performance so she doesn’t have to change much on the computer. She applies this same principle to her mixing.

“You can record anything any old which way and just stack it all up and produce it,” she said. “But if you’re a good mixer, you’ll consider every element individually, how they relate to each other and how they enhance or detract from each other.

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