Facing the pandemic’s isolation, high school songwriters join forces to release collection of original music.
by Carol Pavlik
ELMHURST, IL—Anthony Poli knows firsthand what a demanding schedule is like at a high school like York High School in Elmhurst, Ill. But when school was disrupted by COVID-19 at the end of his junior year in 2020, Anthony found a new rhythm in his days; one that allowed more time for creating something of his own.
Poli’s original song, “Dream,” is the second track on 2021’s York Album Project, entitled The Road Home. This marks the 7th album that musicians from York have released since 2015, made up entirely of original songs, under the guidance of Music Production teacher Chris Gemkow.
“Personally, I’m glad quarantine happened,” says Anthony, who says he shares a friendly creative rivalry with his sister, Alyssa. “I think I’m specifically lucky being a musician because I can lock myself away in my room and play for hours. I can record and perfect my craft.”
Alyssa agrees. Her song, “Take Me Back,” is the 4th track on the album. Featuring her warm vocals accompanied by piano, she sings, Your image stuck in these four walls / so I started writing these old song / you can see right through my words / I was singing at you.
“I wrote this song one day when I was just feeling confused and like my head was all clouded,” says Alyssa. “Writing this song was really therapeutic in the way that it helped me understand my emotions better. Songwriting is a really productive and effective outlet for me.”
‘Just you in the studio’
Chris Gemkow, who runs a popular Musicians Club at York, knew that with social distancing measures in place and the uncertainty of whether school would be held in-person or remotely, he couldn’t rely on recording in the school’s recording space like he’d done in the past.
“We were going to have to have something to work on independently then come together as one,” says Gemkow.
Instead of recording each song in the school’s recording space, Gemkow reached out to Grant Mitchell, a York grad who now works as a professional music producer and performer.
After 26 students submitted tunes to be considered for the project, a panel of peers narrowed it down: ultimately 13 students accepted the invitation to be part of the project. Each musician recorded at Boulevard Studios in Oak Park, with Mitchell heading up the recording process.
For Mitchell, working with the York students brought back memories of his own high school days at York.
“My social group was mostly the musicians at York,” he remembers.
Not only was it nostalgic, but Mitchell enjoyed working with artists that didn’t have previous experience in a studio. “There is a lot of talent and amazing songs,” he says. “I think part of my goal for this project was that I wanted each mix to represent what the artist wanted.”
Gemkow knew the recording experience could be an eye-opening process for the students. “It had to open up their perspectives on what the recording experience can be like when you get the support of a professional.”
Kathryn King, who recorded her song, “Seventeen,” said the thought of going into the studio scared her. “I was actually really nervous because I’ve never recorded anything in a professional studio or anything like that,” she said. “But Grant was super helpful and supportive when it came to recording in the studio and mixing the final drafts of my song.”
Anthony says Mitchell created an environment in the studio that fostered creativity. “It’s pretty rare to come across someone who really cares about the production of music that much, yet is also willing to let you just let loose in the studio,” he says. “We had a phone call beforehand to get on the same page and it was a really easy and simple process from then on.”
While King was still in the process of writing, she says Mr. Gemkow gave her advice that she took to heart: “He told me to write what I wanted to write — not what I thought other people would want to hear. I think it made the song more enjoyable.”
Gemkow says keeping the York Album Project extracurricular is key for putting out an authentic album. “It isn’t part of a class,” he says. “We’re not held to any curricular standards—we have the freedom to be creative and have the freedom to change. Those that do it are the ones who want to be part of it, committed to it without the framework of, ‘I wonder what I have to do to get an A?’”
Reflecting back on the years he participated in the project as a York student, Mitchell says he arrived at college with a lot of experience and knowledge that most of his peers didn’t have. “It was not only the fact that [York] allowed me to explore that side of music production, but just the community there—the ease of finding similar-minded musicians—that was great. Mr. Gemkow was huge in fostering that.”
Over the past year, Gemkow has missed the usual activity of the York Fine Arts department, curtailed by a year disrupted by the pandemic. “We get daily inspiration from everyone in our immediate circles,” he says. “There’s a palpable energy that exists every day. Whether you want it to be there or not, it’s there. It can’t help but affect you.”
“So much has been lost from our normal lives,” he says. “Having this creative project provides something to motivate you to keep going forward with something. Maybe it makes everybody realize that creative energy still exists. It’s a reminder that we can’t wait to be back in the same space together. It’s still there.”
The Road Home is available to stream on Spotify, Apple Music, and all other streaming platforms under the artist name York Album Project. Since its release in January 2021, the album has already reached listeners in Australia, the UK, Mexico, Canada, and the Philippines.
On May 18, 2021, York Album Project’s 8th album, Finally Can Breathe will be available to stream on Spotify, Apple Music, and all other streaming platforms under the artist name York Album Project (cover art by sophomore Alyssa Poli). Stream or download the album from Bandcamp at yorkalbumproject.bandcamp.com.