Louis Wall's Texas Room Project Marries Music from Immigrants and St. Louis Natives

The Voice of the Holy Spirit Choir performing during a 2014 Texas Room fundraiser at the Fortune Teller Bar.
The Voice of the Holy Spirit Choir performing during a 2014 Texas Room fundraiser at the Fortune Teller Bar. PHOTO BY JARRED GASTREICH

The Texas Room

8 p.m. Friday, February 19. Blank Space, 2847 Cherokee Street. $7. 314-300-8831.

"I honestly feel more overwhelmed than I did before I started this project, because now I have some degree of understanding of the depth of music in this town. I just can't believe the quantity and the quality happening. Whereas before I was like, 'Oh, there's probably some people doing some music,' now it's..." Louis Wall pauses for a moment, searching for the right words.

"People are operating on really, really high levels in tons of different subcultures — and it's really amazing to explore."

This Friday at Blank Space, Wall will mark the culmination of two years of work by himself and a cast of more than 50 musicians hailing from fifteen different nations with the collaborative compilation album Non-Fiction. The release is the first tangible artifact of Wall's project, dubbed "The Texas Room," wherein the producer sought to pair immigrant and refugee musicians in the St. Louis area with other local musicians of both the native and transplant variety.

The project initially grew out of Wall's increasing awareness of his limited exposure to cultures other than his own.

"I became really familiar with my own white-male narrative in music and I was ready to experience — not necessarily someone else's narrative — but just expand my own direction or voice," he says. "And then I realized I didn't know my own scene. I didn't know who in St. Louis was doing music."

Around the same time, Wall — a longtime percussionist with a background in the worlds of marching bands and drum corps — began to see his musical interests shift away from live performance and toward producing recordings. That interest in production landed him a spot as an engineer at David Beeman's Cherokee Street recording studio Native Sound, which led to an epiphany.

"There were a couple artists that I saw at the Festival of Nations that were pretty interesting, and I wanted to work with them and produce some songs with them," he says. "I realized I had the opportunity to offer free recording time to help people hone their own songs, and in exchange ask them to be part of the compilation album and help me with the productions I had in mind."

But before Wall could put his plan into action, he needed the musicians.

"It was difficult," he confides. "A lot of it was word of mouth. I remember David sent me a few people. The International Institute helped a little bit on their message boards."

With a small handful of prospective contributors established, Wall spent the majority of 2014 raising funds for the project. Despite a largely unsuccessful Indiegogo promotion, Wall and Co. pressed on with their plan to drop one song per month throughout the course of 2015 on the project's Soundcloud page, thanks largely to a grant from the Regional Arts Council.

On February 2, 2015, Wall released the first of the Texas Room's collaborations, "Unde Dragoste (Where Love)," which he describes as "a Romanian pop song done in a dirge-pop style." Wall followed through on his monthly commitment throughout the remainder of the year, and on December 20, "Old Hat," an original track by Brian Landzaant and Louis Wall featuring harmonium by Nepali-American musician Ajit Logun, became the final entry in the series.

Throughout the course of the project, Wall felt a responsibility to maintain a delicate balance between his own vision and those of the other musical contributors.

"I wanted to make sure I wasn't watering down anybody else's voice so it would be more digestible for Westerners," he explains. "Most of the source material's already pretty digestible — it's all pop music, even if it's native to somebody else."And now, with both the recording process and monthly releases of the individual tracks complete, Wall's attention turns to the album's official release. In keeping with the ethos of the Texas Room, the show will be a thoroughly collaborative affair, featuring installations by the Clothesline and additional visual art by Basil Kincaid, who provided artwork for Non-Fiction, as well as live performances by some project contributors.

click to enlarge Bosnian accordion master Mensur Hatic, American singer Ben Tulin and Louis Wall in the studio. - PHOTO BY JARRED GASTREICH
Bosnian accordion master Mensur Hatic, American singer Ben Tulin and Louis Wall in the studio.

When asked which tracks from the album will be performed at the release, Wall replies with a grin. "Actually none. We're going to have DJ Agile One spin the album in pieces. Khaled Hussein is singing some material that one of his neighbors wrote in Iraq twenty years ago. Voice of the Holy Spirit Choir is singing a bunch of secular devotional tunes — they're super rad — and then this Bosnian trio is going to play," Wall says. "They're just beasts of musicians; I mean, they just crush."

As for what's next for the Texas Room, Wall says that after the release, "We look into 2016, apply for grants and decide specifically which projects we want to pursue."

Careful not to give too many specifics, he adds, "I've got plenty of ideas with different artists who would really shine in an EP or album form, just having the same artist and the same narrative throughout the album. Non-Fiction is super diverse, super all over the place. Hopefully there's some cohesion, but it's very much a compilation and a collaboration album.

"It'd be nice to just have five to ten songs — just one narrative tying together. To have them collaborate for a few days in the studio, writing, arranging, and producing — that would be ideal."

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