Behind the (local) music

A new show shines a light in the recording studio
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  October 7, 2009

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INSIDE LOOK Spencer and the School Spirit Mafia at Acadia Recording.

“Working in a studio for so many years, we get to work closely with musicians when they are at their most creative — and most vulnerable,” says Marc Bartholomew, audio engineer and co-runner (with his wife, Gina) of Hanover Street’s Acadia Recording Company. The studio has birthed some of Portland’s most tortured, inventive, and delightful albums of recent years, including releases by Dilly Dilly, Ocean, and Boreal Tordu.

While the fruits of their labor are familiar to most local music fans, the couple is about to make Mainers a lot more familiar with the challenges, tedium, and triumphs of studio recording. Their latest project, a television series called The Acadia Sessions, debuts at a fundraiser at SPACE Gallery on October 9, after it was picked up for a 26-episode run by Maine Public Broadcasting Network. After the premiere of the 10-minute pilot episode — a recording session with Spencer and the School Spirit Mafia — the Bartholomews and other cast and crew will discuss the endeavor, before a benefit concert with Moneycastasia and Tricky Britches.

The genesis of The Acadia Sessions stems from Developer, a video series Marc and Gina put together in 2005. “Gina and I took three local bands and had them each write a 15-minute song for us . . . [and] videotaped each band’s song in a highly reverberant space,” Bartholomew says. Episodes (some of which have been seen at local short-film events) include Seekonk at Peaks Island’s Battery Steele, Moneycastasia on Casco Bay’s Fort Gorges, and Conifer in a Sprague Oil tank in South Portland.

The “incredibly arduous process” helped bring to light the inherent tribulations and human drama of their day-to-day work in the studio. “If you can tell a story about the music and the musicians, the music takes on new meaning that enhances the power of it,” Bartholomew says. “[O]ver the years I think we honed in on the right formula to make an engaging show that we could produce every week.”

David Camlin (director of the recent 48 Hour Music Project documentary) and Scott Sutherland, both regular collaborators with Marc and Gina, joined in on the technical side of The Acadia Sessions, and the pilot was filmed this past spring and edited over the course of the summer. “As the pilot episode was taking its final shape in the editing room, we unanimously agreed that this was meant for PBS,” Bartholomew says. “We weren’t making a flashy, over-hyped, and over-excited promotion show; we were showing artists making art. . . . The president of MPBN and two of the VPs came down to the studio to watch the pilot, [and] they actually applauded at the end of it. They want it to be on PBS as much as we do, as it will help them equalize their demographics by appealing to younger viewers.”

While, for Portland viewers, some of the show’s appeal will come from seeing familiar faces in the recording studio, the crew stresses that their formula seeks to offer diverse acts — new, touring, emerging, and longstanding musicians in a variety of genres — an opportunity to tell a unique and engaging story to an audience that largely has no idea who they are. (As Camlin puts it, “Not being familiar with the group is kind of the point.”) Some episodes, Bartholomew says, “will have Mister Rogers-style ‘field trips’” to other music-related businesses in the area, including a Portland violin maker and a drumstick-making factory.

The show will debut on the network (and perhaps New Hampshire Public Television, which recently expressed interest) with a six-month season of weekly half-hour installments once enough funds have been raised to get the series into regular production. Bartholomew is optimistic about those prospects. “A show like this helps younger people realize that Portland, and Maine in general, is a place with a vibrant arts community, a place worth staying and building a life in. . . . Once people and businesses realize the good that a show like this can do for a region, it’ll be a no-brainer to support. Look at what Austin City Limits did for Austin.”

Christopher Gray can be reached atcgray@phx.com.

THE ACADIA SESSIONS | pilot premiere with music by Emily Dix Thomas + cast & crew Q&A | October 9 @ 7 pm | SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St, Portland | Free, donations accepted |space538.org

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