As the father of a newborn baby, Monroe County musician Ryan Pennell said he was anxious when the coronavirus first appeared in the U.S. He said the pandemic felt like a monster lurking outside, ready to strike at any moment.
“It was such a new thing, like this invisible force was going to come and take people away,” Pennell said. “There was definitely that feeling of, ‘Is it right outside the door?’”
Pennell said mid-March he learned two of his neighbors had contracted the virus. COVID-19 actually was right outside his door.
One way he found solace was by writing and producing “Social Distance,” a four-track electronic music EP inspired by the spread of the virus and the necessity of social distancing. The EP was released on March 18 on Spotify.
Pennell said he finished the project within two weeks, staying awake to record while his wife and 3-month-old son slept. He said he wanted to complete the EP as quickly as possible to capture his response to the consequences of the coronavirus as they happened.
“I was incredibly inspired and wanted to make it as fast as I could,” Pennell said. “At the time it wasn’t clear how long this was going to last.”
To achieve a sound that echoed his uneasiness, Pennell said he recorded instruments with cassette tapes, removed and cut up the cassette spool, pieced the spools together into different loops and recorded those again on more cassette tapes.
The result was a dreamy, far-off resonance that matched the isolation Pennell felt, he said. The process was perfect because, much like the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, there was no way of knowing what the final product would sound like until it was finished, he said.
“Without question I was trying to go for some transmission vibe, some sort of distant sound from the radio,” Pennell said. “The distance, the isolation, that’s how it felt to me.”
Pennell also used this process for his remix of “Pandemic,” a song written by fellow local musician Emily Plazek, musician name Millaze. Plazek challenged musicians to remix the track she released March 15 as a way of encouraging people to make music while stuck in quarantine.
As a result of his cassette tape method, the lyrics to Plazek’s original work became unintelligible on his remix. Plazek said she thinks this is a metaphor for the halt in face-to-face communication.
“I just wanted to spur creativity, and he nailed it,” Plazek said. “It’s such a surrender to what music can be.”
Pennell’s previous bandmate and writing partner, Mark Reynolds, said he liked how the album is connected to the pandemic but ambiguous enough to be listened to outside of that context. He said he admires how Pennell can take the sounds of acoustic instruments and edit them into something unanticipated.
“He’ll take a piece out of it and effect it or reverse it, or just do something to manipulate it electronically,” Reynolds said. “It’s familiar but also unexpected.”
Although Pennell has been worried about the virus these past few weeks, he said the panic did have one positive: It gave him an artistic vision for the music he wanted to make. Writing, recording and producing music amid so much chaos was a release, he said.
“It’s very therapeutic,” Pennell said. “It gives you some positivity in an extra scary time.”
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