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Six Santa Clarita Valley students spent more than eight hours Monday inside the John Lennon Educational Tour Bus, a rolling state-of-the-art audio/video recording studio parked in the Santa Clarita Sports Complex lot, collaborating on writing an original song called “California Calling” from scratch, then recording it and shooting a promo video to end the session.
Pictured at left, the students — Leilani Avlia, 14 (Valencia High School); her sister Elisabeth Avila, 19 (College of the Canyons); Matt Molloy, 16 (West Ranch); Gregory Rosenberg, 17 (West Ranch High School; Brianna Riddle, 17 (West Ranch); and Matt’s sister Melinda Molloy, 13 (Castaic Middle School) — got a hands-on lesson in the basic creative process behind every great recording, including the ones by the legendary John Lennon.
The six students are either related, know or are acquainted with each other, but this was the first time any of them collaborated on writing a piece of music.
“I think I really would like to do more with this when I get older, so this was a great experience for me, to know how it feels,” Melinda Molloy said at the end of the day.
Producing the session was the Lennon Bus’s three-man band of gypsies — multi-skilled writers, musicians, engineers and videographers Kyle Baudour, Hans Ages and Ryan L’Esperance — who criss-cross America 10 months out of the year conducting sessions like these.
“The bus’s purpose is to try to carry on John Lennon’s legacy, which is, art-wise, trying to bring art and music education to people all across the country,” Baudour said. “There’s so many different music programs and art programs being cut across the country. The bus is a way to give back to different communities and different schools across the country.
The bus travels all across the continental United States. “This year alone, we’ve been back and forth on the East Coast a few times at least. We’ve been to New Orleans, Texas, New York — you name it, we’ve been there,” Baudour said.
Based in California, the Lennon Bus has been on the road for 15 years, he said. “This is actually our 15th birthday right now.”
The bus and its crew are funded and operated through a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.
“Everything on the bus is donated and given to us by our different sponsors,” said Baudour (pictured at left). “Everything from our Sony cameras to our Gibson guitars, it’s all given to us and free of cost, so we’re able to carry out this mission and allow students across the country to use this gear that you’d see in any real recording studio.”
A fixture at the annual winter NAMM (National Association of Music Merchandisers) convention in Anaheim each January, the Lennon Bus was officially christened there in 2008 by Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono. In the years since his murder on Dec. 8, 1980, Ono has devoted considerable time and energy to finding and partnering to create creative ways to honor her late husband’s legacy, and keep it alive and thriving for future generations.
“It’s through Yoko, who comes out every now and then, that we’re able to carry on John’s legacy,” Baudour said.
“At a time when music education in the schools is facing tough funding challenges, the John Lennon Educational Tour Bus has been a rolling testament to the enduring, positive power of music-making,” Ono said in a statement. “(The bus) is precisely the kind of project that John Lennon would have loved. I support this project 100 percent for that very reason.”
The Lennon Bus stops in locations by special request. In this case, Donna Avila, who happens to work for the city of Santa Clarita, thought it might be a good experience for her daughters and other local students. So Avila visited lennonbus.org/request, filled out an online form, and the organizers who put together the bus’s itinerary added Santa Clarita to a schedule of Southern California stops. The visit came nine days before what would have been Lennon’s 72nd birthday on Oct. 9. (He and Ono are pictured in 1971.)
In the Sports Complex lot Monday, the day’s schedule was roughly this:
7:30 a.m.: Bus arrived and crew set up
7:45 a.m.: Crew ate breakfast
9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m.: Recording session with the six students
6:15 p.m.: Session wrapped; bus loaded-out and hit the road soon after.
When the students boarded the bus at 9 a.m., they had a fairly good idea who John Lennon was.
“He was very hippie-ish. It was all about love, and in the center was equality and being the best person you could be,” Riddle said. “And in a lot of ways, it was inspirational…I think his song ‘Imagine,’ which is probably his most famous song, is really like who he was. He found ways to spread the love and the peace and tried to make the world more unified.”
“I think he was calling on us to change the world,” Rosenberg said.
But the group had little idea their extra-classroom education that day would be a songwriting/recording/video session on the Lennon Bus.
They marvelled at how every square inch of the bus’s interior is neatly jammed with recording studio gear, digital musical instruments, computer drives, and storage. From front to back, you see the entrance and driver’s seat, then the center recording and video area, which doubles as a lounge. The next section back has a computerized mixing console on the left and a keyboard and full set of digital drums on the right. Keep walking and open the soundproofed sliding glass door, and you to go into the isolation booth at the rear of the bus.
“It was crazy,” said Elisabeth Avila.
“‘We’re writing a song? OK, guys!'” said Melinda Molloy, who actually sings and has played guitar for about two years, and wrote the music.
“You don’t necessarily trust your musical inclination to write a song sometimes, but it’s kind of cool to see how, if you actually trust yourself to do it,” said Riddle, an actor, not a musician, she added.
Rosenberg said he was an actor, too. “I can do musical theater, but I’ve never written a song before.”
The vibe was upbeat from the start of the session.
“(Melinda) got on the guitar and started strumming up some chords…” Riddle said.
“We were talking,” said Melinda Molloy (pictured at right). “‘Is it going to be a sad, slow song, or a happy, upbeat song?’ They all said, ‘Happy!’ So I’m trying to think of happy chords, happy strums, and something just clicked…so we went along with it.”
“When we had the guitar chords, everything kind of found its spot and fit in really nice and neat,” Riddle said.
“Especially your keyboards,” Rosenberg said to Riddle.
“I was really excited, actually, to work in a professional studio with a professional drum kit,” said Matt Molloy (pictured at left). “That was really awesome.”
“It all went really well,” his sister said.
While brainstorming ideas for lyrics to go with the music track they recorded, Elisabeth and Leilani Avila noticed Gregory was sitting alone, looking like he felt excluded, and it sparked the idea for the song.
“At first, we were going to sing a song about rainbows and unicorns, but no one really liked that idea, except for (Rosenberg),” Melinda Molloy said.
Elisabeth and Leilani Avila and Rosenberg developed a storyline, and buffed out the lyrics using iPads provided by the Lennon bus producers.
Along the way, the six named themselves Any Other Name, a phrase from Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” (as in, “…a rose by any other name…”), and the song became “California Callin.'”
“It’s about this guy who lives in New Mexico, and he wants to be a star, but he sucks at guitar and no one likes him,” Rosenberg said.
“Then he gets a chance, he gets money to actually go to California, and then he’s awesome in California, and everyone loves him,” Leilani Avila said.
“In the chorus, it says he wants to be in the (Rock ‘n’ Roll) Hall of Fame,” Melinda Molloy said. “So, at the end of the song, he gets to be in the Hall of Fame. That’s pretty much his goal.”
She said she’d like to do the same someday. “That would be really a great honor.”
“Yeah, that would be pretty cool,” Matt Molloy agreed.
Last came the vocals by Melinda Molloy and Elisabeth Avila, recorded in the vocal booth (pictured below) as engineer Hans Ages (pictured at right) captured the digital files.
Working with Baudour, Ages and L’Esperance “was really exciting,” Riddle said.
“They really liked you,” Rosenberg said to her.
“You sit there and you think, these musically inclined people — instead of going out and trying to be the most famous rock stars they can, they volunteer their time to come and teach kids about music and to help spread it,” Riddle said. “And it teaches there’s so much to it, it’s so complex and it’s a beautiful thing, it’s really awe-(inspiring). It’s astonishing that they give their time to teach us how to do it.”
“You can tell they really love the creative process of it,” Elisabeth Avila said. “They get really excited about it. Like, ‘Hey, what do you want to do?’ And as soon as somebody gets something, ‘Oh, dude, dude, check this out!’ They get really excited about the process and creating a song and a video, all in one day.”
Melinda Molloy wound up spending the most time in the isolation booth, laying down vocals and guitar.
“I had to do guitar once and redo it over again, so there’s a lot of time and effort that goes into it,” she said. “But really, it’s just a lot of fun. And they really do enjoy working with us. It doesn’t get frustrating.”
“It’s nice to see how patient they are with us, ’cause none of us are patient,” Riddle said. “We’re not prodigies by any means.”
“They definitely gave us a lot of control,” Rosenberg said.
Elisabeth Avila and Melinda Molloy sing for the music video, as Leilani Avila holds up an iPad displaying the lyrics, and Hans Ager mans the camera.
That control extends beyond the day’s session.
“We don’t own any of the rights, or at least any of the copyrighted rights, to the songs — they’re owned by the students,” Baudour said. “But we do upload them to our YouTube channel, youtube.com/johnlennonbus, and post them on our Facebook wall, facebook.com/lennonbus, so the entire world can actually see all of the different student projects we’ve created over the past 15 years.”
The SCV students certainly gained a new appreciation of what goes into producing the music they hear on the radio or on their iPods.
“So many (popular) bands — how long did it take them to get it so perfect, so it sounds so cool?” Melinda Molloy asked. Now, she has a clue.
That’s exactly what he and his crew set out to do, Baudour said. “We hope that the students leave here with a newfound respect and enhancement of their creativity, understanding maybe a little bit more about the recording process, about the writing process and about the music video-making process, that they really take something away from this that can be applicable not just to their musical and video lives, but to actually their artistic, creative everyday lives.”
Next stops for the Lennon Bus: Long Beach and San Diego.
And check out the Lennon Bus website this weekend for the audio and video of “California Callin'” by Any Other Name, fresh outta the Santa Clarita Valley.
All photos: Stephen K. Peeples, except John & Yoko, courtesy Capitol/EMI.
In addition to his “Peeples Place at KHTS” blog, Stephen K. Peeples is a features writer/reporter and photographer for KHTS Radio News (hometownstation.com) and SCVNews.com, and host, writer and co-producer of the weekly “House Blend” music and interview television show on SCVTV, community television for the Santa Clarita Valley (scvhouseblend.com). A former SCV music and entertainment columnist for The Signal (2004-2011) and drummer with SCV jazz group RainTree (raintreejazz.com, 2010-2011), Peeples is a Grammy-nominated record producer (“Monterey International Pop Festival,” MIPF/Rhino, 1992), an award-winning radio producer (“The Lost Lennon Tapes,” Westwood One, 1988-1990) and an award-winning online editor (The Signal website, 2007-2011). For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit stephenkpeeples.com.