White Star Sound recording studio, located on a bucolic farm in Louisa County, is a friendly, professional spot that attracts national acts like O.A.R. and The Infamous Stringdusters, along with local musicians like Sarah White, The Hill & Wood, and Invisible Hand, as well as several bands that have crossed that divide, like Sons of Bill and Parachute. It’s not only a resourceful and comfortable recording environment, it’s also a place where a loose network of producers, engineers, and songwriters can experiment, share ideas, and hone their craft. Now, White Star’s Chris Keup is hoping to take that success to the next level by launching a music publishing fund.
The studio was built by Keup and fellow producer Stewart Myers, who have worked together since the late ’90s. “For a couple of years, we’d kind of set up wherever the project was,” Keup said. “We made records in a lake house in New Hampshire, somebody’s grandparent’s house in the Hamptons, just wherever we could find a space where we could set up our gear.”
The current studio is housed in a renovated former barn, which also includes an upstairs kitchen and sleeping arrangements for musicians. The large studio has the standard isolated side rooms for recording vocals or drums, as well as a newly-restored 9′ classical ballroom piano from the 1920s, and is littered with other bits of gear—a stray omnichord, several rare and valuable microphones left behind by Jason Mraz, and a bass amplifier that supposedly once belonged to James Brown.
The building is decorated with dozens of concert posters by local artist and musician Thomas Dean, including three huge screenprints depicting the original master tapes of The Velvet Underground and Nico, Paul McCartney’s Ram, and The Beach Boys’ Smile, which loom over the control room.
Contrary to the classic image of recording studios, the control room lacks an old-fashioned mixing console—that long desk of knobs and faders, familiar from countless music documentaries. “When we first started, we got the old console out of Sunset Sound in Los Angeles,” Keup said. “It was this custom-made API console that ‘When the Levee Breaks’ was mixed on, four Van Halen records were made on, Neil Young—all this kind of stuff. And it turned out to be sort of irrevocably damaged. Rather than restoring it, we took 16 channels out of that, and racked it up.”
The mixing is done via computer, though the rest of the equipment is still a hodgepodge of vintage and restored analog gear. “When you do it more like this, we actually sort of open up the range of the colors you can get,” Keup said. “You have more options.”
Keup has a similar attitude towards the people operating the gear. These days, Myers is typically out on the road with a portable rig of gear from the studio, while Keup remains in Virginia, working with a rotating series of producers and engineers, including Paul McCord, Colin Killalea and Invisible Hand’s Adam Smith.
“It’s nice because everybody has their different aesthetic,” Keup said. “Sometimes I feel like it’s best for me to work on a project with Stewart, sometimes it’s best to work with Colin. It’s almost never a good idea for me to work with Adam,” he joked, “but sometimes Adam is exactly the right guy for the record. So when they use the space, the artist has more choice, they can figure out which configuration of producers and engineers makes sense for them.”
Like anyone who’s spent enough time in the music industry, Keup has many tales of deals gone bad, great opportunities that unexpectedly fell through, and times he got screwed. His dry, deadpan sarcasm comes through as he tells these stories, but Keup never sounds resentful. His realistic cynicism is tempered by a genuine optimism for new ideas, and his next big project is a music publishing fund called Salinger Songs, a venture for which he is currently courting investors.
“Over the years, everyone in the music industry has just become increasingly fearful,” Keup said. “Publishing deals for people who are not established artists are just terrible. They’re unsignable, really. You get nothing in return, you get no real commitment of any kind of assistance, you’re giving up the rights to your publishing for ludicrously long periods of time. Everybody’s trying to get into the licensing game.”
Keup hopes that Salinger Songs—a partnership with several veterans of the industry—will manage investments in songs from a stable of musicians.
“What I’d like to be is just another resource where [the label will say], ‘O.K., we can sign this band who also have real deal people pushing their music to film and TV, where these records are going to be essentially free to make, because we have these studios available to us, and we have promotion budgets to get behind releases.’ [That way], they don’t feel like they’re going it alone.”
Songwriters who work with the publishing group will have access to a collective network of studios and their professional contacts and resources, providing a chance to record music and make money by getting it out into the world.
Check out some of White Star’s recordings here.