With a little help from his friends: Music pros join young Northampton musician on his album

  • Louie Phipps doing his thing in his Northampton home. Now 9 years old, he first started playing the ukulele at age 3. Photo courtesy of Gabriel Phipps

  • Louie Phipps’ album of original songs includes digital contributions from almost 20 professional musicians, both from the Valley and further afield. Image courtesy of Gabriel Phipps

  • Louie’s father, Gabriel Phipps, says his son gets inspiration for many of his songs from exploring the outdoors. Photo courtesy of Gabriel Phipps

  • Louie Phipps, seen here outside his Northampton home, has recorded an album of original songs in voice and ukulele, and he’s been helped with virtual cameos from several adult musicians. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Louie Phipps got an assist from his parents, Annie Salsich and Gabriel Phipps, in creating his at-home recording of original songs and ukulele. The family is seen here outside their Northampton home. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Louie Phipps got an assist from his parents, Annie Salsich and Gabriel Phipps, in creating his at-home recording of original songs and ukulele. The family is seen here outside their Northampton home. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Louie Phipps got some early encouragement in playing music from his parents, Annie Salsich and Gabriel Phipps, but his father also says “he’s been very self-directed from the start.” The family is seen here outside their Northampton home. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Monday, December 28, 2020

With the pandemic shutting down the huge majority of live gigs this year, many musicians have retreated to their studios to do some recording on their own, while also collaborating with other players through digital exchanges.

Louie Phipps is one of them. But this Northampton musician is a bit unique — he’s all of 9 years old.

Louie, who’s been writing songs and playing the ukulele for several years now, began recording some of his tunes earlier this year after COVID-19 arrived. His father, who’s a painter, helped out his son by getting a good microphone and an adapter that records the music directly into a computer. And then, thinking the project could go a little further, Gabriel Phipps began reaching out to some musicians he knows in the area.

“I guessed that a lot of them were in the same situation we were in,” he said. “They had time on their hands, no gigs to play, and maybe they’d be interested in taking part in this, just to have a musical connection.”

Turns out the senior Phipps was right. Louie’s folk-flavored album, “Louie Phipps and Friends: We Are Together,” has contributions from almost 20 other musicians, including Valley players such as Anand Nayak, Jim Armenti, J.J. O’Connell, The Suitcase Junket and others, as well as from people further afield. One is guitarist Chris Eldridge of the Grammy-winning alt-bluegrass band Punch Brothers.

“None of this would have happened without COVID,” Phipps said. “It’s very much a product of its time. But it’s been a great experience, just a real feeling of people coming together, sharing music, and it’s been a lot of fun for Louie.”

Louie, who’s in the third grade at Bridge Street Elementary School, says he started playing the ukulele at age 3, when his parents bought him a plastic model. But within a few years, he had graduated to a soprano ukulele and began taking lessons, and then came the larger baritone uke, which has become his go-to instrument.

“I guess I’ve been playing for about six years now,” he said during a recent phone call with the Bulletin, with his dad also on the line. “I started lessons at 5, and ever since COVID began, I’ve been writing a new song each week.”

Participating musicians have all made their contributions digitally, and much of the mixing of the tracks has been done by Nayak, a versatile guitarist and multi-instrumentalist who has also produced albums. Nayak, a longtime member of the string band Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem, was one of the first musicians Gabe Phipps reached out to, as he knows Nayak and his family socially through an old friend who’s also Nayak’s brother-in-law.

“Anand was totally game for this, and he has really helped steer the record and has played on several of the tracks himself,” Phipps says.

Indeed, Nayak, who lives in Florence, says he had heard about Louie’s project and had thought at first that it might be a nice gesture for him “to help out a friend’s kid. But I was surprised when I heard the tracks at just how much Louie had advanced on ukulele and how thoughtful his songs were. I really admire his dedication and talent. That made me want to be a part of this.”

The album, he added, “has a great low-fi quality to it. The idea has been to take Louie’s songs and then flesh them out to make them fully what they want to be, but while preserving the original document, so to speak.”

A disciplined musician

The recording process has been left open-ended, as each musician has been free to add a part of his or her choosing to Louie’s basic tracks of voice and ukulele. That’s led to surprising additions in some cases.

For instance, Phipps said he expected Valley blues guitarist Eli Catlin, a skilled finger-style player, to throw in “some hot blues licks, but instead he added some synthesizer and vocal tracks.”

The project also owes a bit to chance. Phipps explains that after the pandemic lockdown began, Chris Thile, the mandolin player and lead vocalist for Punch Brothers, started an open mic on Twitter that was part of his popular radio show, “Live From Here.” Phipps posted a couple videos of Louie playing his uke to the site and Thile “really loved them,” he said, and invited Louie to be a guest on the radio show. The two of them then performed a “de facto duet.”

That led in turn to the idea of inviting other musicians to weigh in on Louie’s songs, including Chris Eldridge, the Punch Brothers guitarist; Louie also began taking Zoom-based ukulele lessons with Eldridge earlier this year.

Louie has another mentor for his songwriting: Valley folksinger Corey Laitman. They met last fall through the Youth Performance Festival, a program based at the Northampton Center for the Arts that paired young artists with adult ones over several weekends in fields such as music, theater and dance. Laitman, who lives in Turners Falls, was matched with Louie and four other young musicians and was struck in particular with his discipline.

“He works really hard at his music,” Laitman says.

The two reconnected after the pandemic arrived and began meeting regularly via FaceTime to talk about their songs, and soon they developed a workshop of sorts, using a prompt — a word or phrase — as the starting point for new tunes.

“(Louie) is full of ideas, and he’s just a really creative kid,” Laitman says. “He draws cartoons, he writes stories, he reads a lot.”

Laitman also performs on “Poor Chickadee” from Louie’s album. “I think it would be a good track for a Cohen Brothers movie,” they said. “It has that high lonesome sound, it’s simple and rhythmic.”

Louie says he writes about things in his day-to-day life, such as learning to ride a bicycle, and about things he likes, especially the outdoors. “Poor Chickadee,” for example, is about the plight of animals caught in forest fires: “Fire burning in the night / Just look, it’s a sight / Fire burning in the trees / Poor chickadee.”

His interest in music has come in part “from my dad’s album collection,” he said. “He listens to so many different things.” One of Louie’s early favorites was the Beatles, and he’s now a fan of the Punch Brothers, for one, and other acoustic artists such as Jack White and Rhiannon Giddens. He also likes Valley groups including Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem.

Phipps says neither he nor his wife, Annie Salsich, pushed Louie into music, but they’re happy he’s become so taken by it. Louie says he also did some busking in Northampton pre-pandemic, outside Thornes Market in particular. The idea to do it, he said, came “when I was walking home from a lesson at Downtown Sounds one day and someone asked me to play a song for him.”

Louie did, the man put some change in his uke case, and, Louie says, “I thought I’d try that again.”

His album, which is being mastered by Mark Alan Miller at Sonelab studio in Easthampton and is expected to be finished this month, will be available as a digital download through Bandcamp, and a limited number of CDs will also be produced for family and friends. Phipps says proceeds from sales will be donated to charitable, social and environmental causes.

“I think the whole idea of this project is to spread joy, because we’ve all had so much of that putting this together,” he said.

More information on “Louie Phipps and Friends” is available at louiephipps.bandcamp.com/releases.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.