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Pandemic Promotes Unexpected Music Collaborations

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The pandemic upended the lives of musicians across the country. While they've been forced off their busy touring schedules and out of concert halls, some have been able to complete projects that may not have gotten done without all this time on their hands. Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters reports.

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: Mason Jennings is a singer and songwriter from Minnesota.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE")

MASON JENNINGS: (Singing) I was born in a gold mine. You were born by the sea. Without nothing, we got something - Memphis, Tenn.

MASTERS: Jennings still remembers when his former manager approached him about working with a musician from one of his favorite bands when he was a teenager.

JENNINGS: And he asked me - he was like, hey, would you want to work on some stuff with Stone Gossard? And I was like, of course I want to, you know? I'm a huge fan.

MASTERS: Stone Gossard plays guitar in Pearl Jam and lives in Seattle. The two met about six years ago and started working on a project with Seattle keyboardist Brittany Davis and drummer Matt Chamberlain, who lives in Los Angeles. They called the band Painted Shield.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MASTERS: They've never played together in person but started sending each other ideas online via Dropbox. Progress was slow because of all of their other commitments. Then the pandemic hit, Pearl Jam's tour was postponed and Gossard says an opportunity presented itself.

STONE GOSSARD: It made us all think, what can we do right now for a little bit of creativity and just to keep feeling like we're staying active and moving forward?

MASTERS: For one song, Chamberlain sent Jennings some ideas and music. And Jennings, who lives in Minneapolis, was prompted by George Floyd's murder to write lyrics.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I AM YOUR COUNTRY")

PAINTED SHIELD: (Singing) I am your country. And one day you'll understand that all the pain that we've been given is far too great to ever fit between two hands.

MASTERS: Jennings then sent the music and lyrics on to Stone Gossard.

JENNINGS: And then he put down an incredible guitar part.

GOSSARD: Is it? Is it? (Laughter).

JENNINGS: I think it's incredible.

GOSSARD: Oh, awesome.

JENNINGS: Whenever it comes in, it makes goose bumps go on my arms.

GOSSARD: OK. Well, that's - I'm so happy.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAINTED SHIELD SONG, "I AM YOUR COUNTRY")

MASTERS: With all of the musicians stuck at home, they're already working on a second album. Chicago-based rapper David Cohn, who goes by the name Serengeti, and LA-based singer and songwriter Jenny Lewis wound up collaborating for the first time at a music festival a few years ago. Cohn reached out to Lewis for some music he could rap over before the pandemic hit, but she didn't get back to him until she had some time on her hands.

DAVID COHN: Months later in my text - one of these .AMR fuzzy texts - I get the song.

JENNY LEWIS: Dave and I have different kinds of phones. I'm on an iPhone, and so sending Dave a file is challenging.

MASTERS: Cohn has an Android.

LEWIS: So yeah, it, like, goes through the filter. And then by the time it gets to him, it's even, like, lower fi than when I sent it from my phone, which I made all of the music on my iPhone. Never once did I work on a computer.

MASTERS: They did all of their collaboration on cellphones.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNBLU")

LEWIS: (Singing) How long will I wait for you to become unblu (ph)?

I would write the hook and create the track, and then he would send, within 24 hours, just so much poetry.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNBLU")

COHN: Barefoot and quietly brushed her teeth in an open gown, simply put on impossible dreams. You talk to me, but you think you're scarlet.

MASTERS: They send the tracks to a friend in Minneapolis to mix them down and have finished seven songs so far. Lewis says this year has been the biggest break from the road she has had since she was a kid and says it really allowed her to work on something she might not have done otherwise.

LEWIS: And because of the circumstances and because I connected so deeply with it, it was all I cared about. And there were no other distractions.

MASTERS: So far, Lewis and Cohn have no plans to meet in person. Musicians of all genres really don't know how to plan right now. Classical violinist Jennifer Koh won't be playing with any orchestras in the foreseeable future, so she started a project called "Alone Together."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JENNIFER KOH: Hi. I am so excited to be here for the third program of "Alone Together." Thank you so much for coming.

MASTERS: In the early days of the pandemic, she reached out to young freelance composers and asked them to write for solo violin. Koh began premiering the works online from her New York City apartment.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MASTERS: Koh says it was important to help out-of-work musicians and composers.

KOH: "Alone Together" would have never happened had it not been for the pandemic. So I realized that I was really fortunate because I got to know all of these new people and all of these new artists. Granted, it was via Zoom, but at a time of constriction and contraction, I feel lucky that I had this opportunity to expand my group of collaborators.

MASTERS: And she's introduced their work to a wider audience.

For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.