St. Louis Artists Turn to Self-Recorded Projects During COVID-19 Times

Jul 8, 2020 at 6:15 am
St. Louis artists Jenn Malzone and John Donovan have released self-recorded solo projects while COVID-19 keeps stages empty.
St. Louis artists Jenn Malzone and John Donovan have released self-recorded solo projects while COVID-19 keeps stages empty. ALBUM ART

It's been with us for a while now, this COVID-19. Long enough to upend the music industry entirely, long enough to close the doors of beloved music venues — and long enough to see music begin to emerge from the home studios of songwriters cut off from their daily lives.

Though physical media is still in play for some artists, many are finding their newest songs released to the world digitally, especially through Bandcamp. That's where two talented St. Louis artists have recently put out new EPs, which, to varying degrees, sum up their experiences during this unusual moment in time.

One is Jenn Malzone of the celebrated St. Louis band Middle Class Fashion, who'd seen her routines radically changed. Without her job and landlocked at home, Malzone created a six-song EP called franco mal, taking on that same name for her recent forays into personal recording and releasing.

It's not quite her first dive into solo work. When a close friend died in January, she offered up a quickly assembled group of cathartic songs called so yeah, but those were so personal that she decided not to promote the project. Though that music is online, it's her newest release that she considers a true solo debut.

"I started it in early May, but I'd been in lockdown since mid-March," she says of the batch of six songs. "I had all this time. It's one thing to take a week off for vacation, but I had all this artistic energy coming together in my brain. I wanted to do the writing and recording in a short period.

"Spending that much time alone, without the distractions of work and community and all that, suddenly made my thoughts very loud," she continues. "I took all that mess and put it into songs. I was really nervous releasing it, as I didn't want to take attention away from really important issues, and when I was making it, we were just dealing with the pandemic. The way that I work is that I get really obsessed and go nonstop. I forget to eat and sleep and two weeks later, it's time to be exhausted."

Malzone says that five of the keyboard-led, indie-pop songs were birthed quickly, part of a binge that involved about ten or eleven days of intensive work. As the liner notes suggest, this was a truly self-generated affair, created only with "an 8-track Tascam DP-008 digital recorder, a Roland Juno, and an SM57."

Working with such a lean setup made for a much quicker period of songwriting than Malzone is used to when writing with her full band, she says.

"I usually have songs released that were written from a year before, and this release came out barely a month after I wrote them," she explains. "It's been an interesting experiment. Now that I know I can make this homemade stuff, I know that I can make even more of it. It felt really good to put it out there. It's vulnerable, but I feel that's a really good thing. Listening to it, it's weird how close I feel to the music. I'm not used to feeling that close to my songs. When I quit drinking a few years ago, this layer of my skin felt gone, so you're feeling more of the good and the bad. And I've been feeling that a lot more lately, too."

If her stellar new release is Malzone's breakthrough in home recording, John Donovan is something of an old hand at the process. A prolific songwriter in the most average of times, Donovan was quickly sent into a writing jag as the pandemic's effects were beginning to roll into the American consciousness. His latest release, When the Capital Fell, was penned in about two weeks in late March and released not long thereafter.

While Malzone's lyrics take some inspiration from the pandemic, Donovan's are directly found in that emotional pocket, with songs like "In the Unemployment Line" and "Last Week I Had a Job" taking aim at the topics on his mind at that second, consisting of little more than an electric guitar, his gentle vocal delivery and a darkly raw knack for writing an indie-folk earworm.

"I wrote all these songs really quickly, as everything was hitting," he recalls. "I was recording them right as they were being written. And they stayed really simple, just a guitar and my voice, being recorded late at night as the numbers were rising."

The songs touch on the small things as well as the large, as Donovan, who works as a coffee shop/cafe manager on-call, was freed from some life responsibilities. Lyrics about not going in to train a new employee or simply enjoying a dinner with his wife are found here, unvarnished and raw.

"It was therapeutic at the time," he says. "I can't speak for other people, I don't know if they can get all those feelings out. But there were images that fell out of me. I could tell 'that line was clogging something up' before it fell. There was no filter on it. Three or four family members and friends separately asked me if I'm okay, asked if I thought of writing happier songs. I thought that I was channeling the general mood, what was in the air. A sad and scared mood."

The suggestion caught Donovan's ear. As someone who can seemingly knock off a song a day, he jokes that "the next one might be called 'John Have You Thought About Writing Happy Music.' And it's all really sad."