By Colin Aldridge
Two In The Record Store writers are in Gold From Grief’s practice space in the depths of Strongwater Food and Spirits, the dimensions of which are approximately 12-by-12 feet. The walls are covered in a white particle board, soundproofing the room and helping give the music a warmth.
“It really picks up the low ends,” drummer Michael Ortiz said. “Most spaces don’t.”
Ortiz sits in the corner behind his drum set, which takes up a considerable amount of the limited space. Guitarist Michael Furman picks up his white Stingray and plugs it into his pedals opposite Ortiz. In between them is an inexpensive disco ball, which spins and projects octagonal patterns on the carpet. Lead singer Kelsey Hopkins and bassist/producer Lynn Roose III come in and take their places in the remaining corners, which leaves ITRS staffer Zachary and myself pinned against the door next to Hopkins.
There is no free space, but there does not need to be. It suits a band as technically proficient and fundamentally tight as Gold From Grief. There is no pretension or excess. Everything fits.
The band chats for a few moments. They discuss what to play first, deciding on an older song as a warm-up.
As they deliberate on which one, Furman smiles and starts into “Crying Shame,” one of the six songs that make up its excellent self-titled debut EP, released in Dec. 2017. When he reaches the end of the riff, the rest of the band joins in.
The members of Gold From Grief are at the point in their careers where they are in complete sync with one another. They are deeply focused and very serious, while simultaneously permitting the music to move them.
In this space, they don’t have to worry about performance—though they are not wooden or boring in the least—nor do they have to worry about recording. There is no pressure associated with playing in front of a crowd. Right now, they are craftspeople, and they are at work.
The band started on Tinder—that is to say, that is how Hopkins and Furman met in Oct. 2015.
“We went on a date with our dogs and talked about music,” Hopkins said. “It felt like a business relationship, so we said, ‘Let’s put that dating thing aside and start a band.’”
Furman would send Hopkins riffs he was working on, and she would write lyrics to them—a similar songwriting process they use to this day. The band was briefly named The Mean Reds.
When a friend of Hopkins mentioned knowing Ortiz, former drummer of Chicago’s Company of Thieves, she was overwhelmed with excitement.
“I used to drive around with friends singing Company of Thieves songs,” Hopkins said. “I needed him in the band.”
Ortiz was studying Sound Production and Engineering when Company of Thieves took off, so he quit school to tour the country and Europe. He then left the band and taught English in Thailand for two years before moving back to Columbus, where he started working as a brewer.
“I kind of thought I was done with music,” Ortiz said. “Now I’m in three bands.”
Roose III, who is also in three bands, joined in May 2017, stating he “was a fan.” Furman recalls the conversation that got Roose III an audition, which was held in the same practice room
“I asked him if he knew any good bass players and he said, ‘Well, you know, I’m primarily a bass player…’”
The audition went great, and the line-up was complete. To signify their new start—and because they learned about two other bands called The Mean Reds—a new name felt necessary.
Furman, it should be noted, is a Slavic professor at The College of Wooster. He is extremely well read, and it was he who recalled a line from Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest”: “I hear her hair has turned quite gold from grief,” Algernon says of Lady Harbury.
He brought it to the band, and it stuck. Hopkins spoke of the significance of the name for a blues band.
“I believe in growing from pain,” Hopkins said. “In a genre that historically does a lot of complaining, it was important for her that they use pain as a launching pad for something constructive, to make gold from grief.”
At practice, they decide to try out a new song. I ask if it has a name, and Hopkins laughs and says, “My Feminist Rant?” She’s joking, but if they went with that, it would be perfect.
“It’s inspired by creeps at bars,” Hopkins said.
They launch into it, and the room pulses with sound. Roose III plays the bass like he is almost surprised by it, raising his eyebrows and cocking his head as if to say, “Hm, no fooling?” Ortiz makes use of his eight-piece, keeping a solid beat with excellent timing. Furman is careful with every note, and he seems lost in concentration while paradoxically at complete ease with his instrument. Hopkins’ voice is, aptly, golden.
With Roose III on board as producer, the band worked on its EP in July of last year. They recorded with Cameron Reck at his studio, a duplex home on OSU’s campus. Furman described the recording as “super low key, a really nice and smooth process.”
The band recorded in the living room surrounded by blankets and pillows, and Hopkins recorded vocals in the stairwell leading up to the attic, standing on one step with the microphone a few steps down. Reck mixed the songs, and they were mastered by Harold LaRue of Transit Mastering. The EP was finished by September.
“It’s really wonderful being involved with so many fantastic people,” Furman said.
The EP itself matched the process of its recording; it is smooth and clean and put together masterfully. The one thing it is not is low key because it rocks from start to finish with a musicianship that is rare in its intelligence and talent.
Roose III, who studied Musical Theory and Composition at Ohio University for a bit, excels as a producer. For the closing song, “Hey Mister,” there is a moment where Furman creates a soundscape of feedback in which Roose III yells the name of the track into the guitar, which you can hear on the track.
“You’ve seen Jimi Hendrix do that with his guitar,” Roose III said. “It’s up to us to use the tools [past musicians] gave us.”
In between practice, Furman starts playing a bluesy riff which gets Hopkins and Roose III excited.
“He pulled that out last week,” Hopkins said, “And I said, ‘“O Brother Where Art Thou?” Yes, I want to write to that.’”
Roose III matches Furman with a baseline and Ortiz jumps in on drums. We are witnessing the birth of a new song.
This is how the songwriting process begins. Furman will introduce a riff, which will lead to a jam session with the band while Hopkins listens and tests out different melodies. They record it onto Furman’s iPad, and he sends it to Hopkins, who listens to it, builds a melody around certain parts and works on lyrics.
Hopkins studied theatre in college, works as an actress and teaches at the Children’s Theatre. Favoring the masters like Shakespeare and Chekov, she is selective with words. Writing lyrics can sometimes be taxing, but there is no question that she is great at it. The artistic singer picks out the parts of the recording that she hears a melody for and brings it back to practice, where it is incorporated into the song. We are witnesses to the first stage of the process. As the guys jam, Hopkins leans over to me and says, “This is when I just sit back and they go with it.”
It is not a minute later that she is at the microphone vocalizing, throwing in a few words now and then, writing poetry in her mind. Furman, Roose III and Ortiz play off each other in a sonic dance, a conversation of notes. The four of them reach a level of transcendence. They all bring their best talents to the space.
They are here and they are not here. Ortiz switches tempo at one point, and everyone follows without missing a beat. I lean my head against the wall and feel my eyes literally vibrate in my skull, shaking my vision slightly. Something falls off the wall. Other objects quake off amps and fall to the ground. They wrap it up and look at each other. Furman looks at me and nods, “Something like that.”
After everyone contributes new ideas, Furman sets up the iPad and starts recording. They jam to a new song like they have been playing it for years. Hopkins continues to vocalize. It is then that I think of how extraordinarily busy these four people are, but they find the time to come together and play.
Furman drives 1.5 hours to come to practice. Hopkins has not been home all day. And it is impossible for me to imagine this room empty of sound, completely at rest. It is just as hard to imagine the same of Gold From Grief.