It Came From Bean Town: Berklee & Boston Breed Indie, Folk, Just A Little Bit Of Funk

By P. Elizabeth Cawein

Imagine a web where every point connects to every other point. It becomes so entangled that as you try to follow one connection, you end up somewhere else and can’t quite remember where it was you came from in the first place. Now imagine at each of those points a person, a musician, an instrument and a musical style.

It’s an interconnected web of sorts. An inter-web? Taylor Shell from Turkuaz calls it a “cluster fuck.” However you describe it, it’s this music school phenomenon -- or more specifically, this phenomenon of a music school sitting smack in the middle of a culturally vibrant city -- and the bands that come out of it, totally interconnected with one another and thriving off a community of musicians that no longer requires geography as glue.

The bands you’re about to meet come from the Boston scene. Many of them attended Berklee, some are from Boston, some just found themselves there. Whatever the case, they all know each other, they’ve played together and they’re recording albums, touring and figuring out what it means to be professional musicians.

Take the guys (and girls) of Turkuaz -- they’d all crossed paths at different points during their respective tenures at Berklee, but in the end it was disco that brought them together. Well, not quite.

Turkuaz - "20 Dollar Bill"


“The band sort of came together out of a recording project of Dave and I, kind of a joke at first, to make a disco album,” said Turkuaz bass player Taylor Shell. “We were working on some other records with other people, and then the band came out of that.”

“Well, it started as a disco album,” added guitarist/singer Dave Brandwein. “And then it ended up being a little less ridiculous than that, I guess. But then Berklee asked us to be on their Heavy Rotation compilation and then we had to put a show together for the showcase for that, and it was pretty easy to put the band together.”

Shell says before Turkuaz took shape, funk was something they did for fun, “like what we did when we were hanging out and drinking and having a good time.” Berklee’s invitation to feature Turkuaz on its Heavy Rotation album was the turning point from hanging out, making music and having a good time to doing the exact same thing in front of crowds of people who know your name.

Most of the band members are fresh Boston to New York transplants, and as they forge their identity in the New York Scene they say the connections they made and the experiences they had at Berklee become more and more important.

“I mean, for me, a lot of what we’ve been trying to do, like with our label – we have an independent digital label called Galaxy Smith that we have started, we started it up in Boston and we’re continuing to work on it down here – and sort of the point of that is to keep all our friends involved with each other and collaborating with each other, sort of under the same umbrella and aligning our interests to some degree,” Brandwein said. “Because yeah, we are all friends, we come from the same place, we’re trying to do the same thing, we have a mutual respect for each other’s projects, so I think it would be insane not to try to work together, and keep a common bond between us.”

Back-up vocalist Jen Hirsh said it was the community of musicians -- the members of Turkuaz alone account for at least a small town -- that solidified her decision to become a New Yorker.

“It made my move a lot easier, knowing that there was a solid group of people that I knew from Berklee,” the California native said. “There have to be like 15, 20 people that I know here from Berklee, who I hung out with in Boston, and it made it so much easier to be like, ‘Okay, I’m going to stay on the east coast.’ I have that network in NY, so why not play music with people I know who I already have that connection with?”

For Annie Lynch, of folk/bluegrass four-piece Annie Lynch and the Beekeepers, that support was equally as important.

Annie Lynch and the Beekeepers - "Someone Else"

[Annie Lynch and the Bee Keepers]

“Having a sense of community around me is really important to my emotional well-being, especially being in a city like New York, so that comes first,” she said. “I feel like in order to be productive in your art form, you have to have that. For us it’s been really great, you know just knowing so many people and having those resources. Like if you want a horn line, you’ve got the guys from Turkuaz.”

I think that we’ve all been around each other, we’ve all been around each other as friends and musicians during the most formative times in our musical lives. So having that foundation sort of means that we’ll always sort of rely on each other no matter what paths we’re on. Madi’s in Nashville now, and when I’m writing new stuff I’ll e-mail it to her. I think we’ll all always be sharing things with each other. There’s that Berklee bubble, and now that we’re in New York, this is one network that we have, and we’ll expand outside of that as well. I don’t think we’re going to restrict ourselves at all.”

Lynch moved to New York in September, and Beekeepers bandmates Ken and Alex are still finishing up at Berklee – their fourth member, Mat Davidson, is already here – he plays with Turkuaz, too. When the band is all in one place again in May they will be hitting the ground running, with an EP coming out May 12 and a tour in the planning.

The Low Anthem met Annie Lynch while she was singing back-up – they’re also a folk/Americana group, and though they call Providence, R.I., home, they say Boston is where the magic really happened.

The Low Anthem - "Charlie Darwin"

[The Low Anthem]

“Boston was the first city that really embraced us, I think,” said bass player Jeff Prystowsky. “Because in Providence, we were playing in front of friends, family, and same in New York, but in Boston we didn’t know anybody. We just went up and started to play in these bars, and it took a while. But actually we found some great places in Cambridge, a little place called Toad, Lizard Lounge, and those were the first rooms that really started to generate a lot of excitement. We’ll always feel like that’s where things really started happening. The first show we sold out was The Lizard Lounge.”

Prystowsky and Ben Knox Miller met while going to school at Brown. “We started as a four-piece band with an electronic drummer, and it was just a ridiculous arrangement that kind of evolved 12 different times, went through all these names,” said Knox Miller. “We came to New York to play a few times, but we didn’t really do anything more serious than that. Then a couple of years ago this thing called The Low Anthem just started to have a bit more of an identity, a little traction.”

Knox Miller and Prystowsky then brought Jocie Adams on board, a multi-instrumentalist Ben knew from a classical composition class at Brown. That was a year and half ago, and now they’re getting ready to go on the road as support for Ray LaMontagne and considering a possible national distribution of their critically acclaimed record, Oh My God, Charlie Darwin -- they’ve even come close to living out the dream of musicians everywhere. Not quite the cover, but still Rolling Stone.

It’s a whirlwind that Madi Diaz knows well – the singer and guitarist has gone from Lancaster, Penn., to Philadelphia to Boston and Berklee and now to the south, to Nashville. At Berklee, she developed as a songwriter and most importantly, met Frank Charlton and Martin Cooke, two up-and-comers in the school’s music production and engineering program. The three began work on a full-length album, and Charlton put together a group of Berklee’s finest roots rock instrumentalists to play the sessions. The group would later become Madi’s touring band, with Kyle Ryan on lead guitar, Adam Ollendorff on pedal and lap steel, dobro and guitar, Adam Popick on bass and Zach Mangan on drums and percussion.

Madi Diaz - "Nothing At All"

[Madi Diaz]

It was the meeting with Kyle Ryan that would prove the most serendipitous. The two wrote their first song together in 2007. That same year Diaz released a solo album called Skin and Bone, and recently she released her first EP with Ryan, Ten Gun Salute.

Diaz said – and it seems most of the bands would agree – that the most important things that came out of Berklee and her experiences in Boston were meeting her counterpart Kyle Ryan and discovering the partnership that would make the music she wanted to make. She didn’t finish her degree at Berklee, and has now moved to Nashville, far from the safety of New York’s resident “Berklee Bubble.”

Turkuaz’s Taylor Shell echoed her sentiments. “ There’s a lot of shit at Berklee that’s good, there’s a lot of shit at Berklee that’s not as good,” he said. “The people, the music, I think that in the long run, and I think all of us would agree, that the point of being there is to meet people you’re inspired by and unique and bring something to the table musically that you’ve never heard before, and not only to meet one or two people like that, like I think some people who are living and trying to become musicians in other communities find one or two people that they really connect with, but a whole lot of people, a whole crew of people.”

As for the city of Boston itself, The Low Anthem and Annie Lynch say the city is growing a burgeoning folk scene, particularly in the Cambridge area.

“When we found Toad and the Lizard Lounge we realized there’s this great songwriters’ scene, very strong resurgent folk and Americana scene,” Knox Miller said. “This place called Club Passim – it’s a club and also like a non-profit organization devoted to the preservation of folk music. Their interpretation of folk has grown a lot over the years. Americana, country, contemporary songwriters, pop songwriters, as long as its songwriters, somewhat acoustic. They did do us a lot of favors for a long time.”

Lynch said when she goes back to Boston, it’s all about the folk scene in Cambridge – the Beekeepers are also getting involved with WERS and WEMB, classic folk radio stations in Boston.

Turkuaz are focused on playing, recording and growing their label, Galaxy Smith, Annie Lynch and the Beekeepers are prepping the release of their EP in May, The Low Anthem are hitting the road with Ray LaMontagne and Madi Diaz and Kyle Ryan are spending as much time working with as many of Nashville's songwriters and musicians as they can. They've diverged on separate paths both sonically and geographically, but at some point they all came from the same place. That left us with one lingering question -- who's next? We asked all the bands to give us a few artists or bands out of Boston that we should be on the lookout for. Here’s what they came up with.

Nathan Reich (folk/acoustic)
The Scandanavian Half Breeds (another project of Turkuaz/Beekeeper Mat Davidson, folk/Americana, heavy on the banjo)
Andrew Burri (folk/electronic)
The Parkington Sisters (acoustic folk/experimental)
The Accident That Led Me To The World (acoustic/indie)
Surprise Me Mr. Davis (electro-folk/alternative)
Badman (straight up rock)
The Slip (rock/indie/avant garde)
Nathan Moore (folk)
With Engines (rock/pop)
Emily Green (indie pop)
Altered Tensions (experimental/ambient)

It Came From Bean Town: Berklee & Boston Breed Indie, Folk, Just A Little Bit Of Funk