During the last few months, people across the state have struggled to stay connected to their communities while adhering to Governor Walz’s stay-at-home order amidst constantly changing COVID-19 concerns. Quarantine has taken a toll on people’s emotional and mental health as weeks of events have been canceled and storefronts have been closed down.
This statewide shut-down has particularly affected musicians, who haven’t been able to give live performances for months. Minnesota State University Mankato student Luke Smith, however, has found a way to continue collaborating with other artists and sharing music with the community through his latest project, “Songs from Home.”
Difficult Times for Musicians
Smith grew up in Faribault and started playing guitar when he was 13. Since then, he’s added bass and piano, and he also writes songs. His music ranges from pop tunes to folk melodies that he comes up with on his guitar, as well as hip-hop and electronic dance music that he produces on his computer.
In 2016, Smith moved to Mankato to study music at MSU. He said most of his music gigs are still in the Faribault/Northfield area, but he was working to expand his playing area into the Mankato music scene when the stay-at-home order put everything on hold.
While all this is going on, the one thing we can still do is write music, and it’s so easy to collaborate with peopleLuke Smith
While Smith has stayed busy because of his other job as a CNA, he said he’s still been able to use the extra free time to work on more of his music—which is how his latest project came to be. “Songs from Home” is a five-song EP that brings together area musicians with original music inspired by the quarantine experience. Since meeting in person wasn’t possible, the idea was to collaborate virtually, with musicians working on their parts by themselves and then sending Smith the results so that he could put together a full EP. He has been working on the project since mid-April.
“While all this is going on, the one thing we can still do is write music, and it’s so easy to collaborate with people,” he explained. “We all have the capacity to record ourselves at home. I thought it’d be fun to take advantage of everyone’s free time to work on a project together that kind of addresses the whole COVID thing.”
Smith collaborated with seven other area artists for “Songs from Home,” with the songs actually featuring four. (The other artists contributed smaller instrumentals, such as a saxophone solo.) He said he found them by simply putting out a call on Facebook, though he did know all of the artists who responded. Featured artists from the southern Minnesota area include Ocho, Matthew Ruff, Mary Clare Stroh, and SMILEBRO.
Once Smith had found his collaborators, he wrote the instrumental parts for four songs and then sent one to each featured musician. These musicians were in charge of creating their own melody and writing the lyrics, based on a writing prompt that Smith sent along. The musicians would then record their parts and send the vocal track back to Smith, who would put the whole song together.
It’s super cool the way that every song has got a different style to it, despite Luke’s own style showing through. It’s really cool, just the concept of it all.Mary Clare Stroh
While Smith said the experience wasn’t as fun as working in the same room with other artists, he still enjoyed the collaboration—even if it came with its own unique challenges.
“I [have] to go in blind a little bit, because I’m not getting feedback as they’re working on it,” he explained. “I’d say, ‘For this song, I feel like it’s going to have a more positive vibe…’ but I’d give the freedom to take it wherever they want it. I didn’t set any strict guidelines. It’s kind of interesting, because sometimes I want to write the melody, but I wanted to open myself up to see what other people bring to the table if I [let myself] lose control of the whole song.”
Despite the challenge of working remotely, Smith said he’s been pleased with what his collaborators are sending him. His favorite piece is “House Arrest,” which he created with Matthew Ruff.
“So far, it’s been pretty solid,” he said. “I’ve been really happy with what they’ve sent. They definitely come up with stuff I wouldn’t expect. For every song, they’ve taken it in a direction that’s a little different than what I had in mind. It’s fun to be surprised like that.”
Besides the four songs where Smith collaborated with other artists, he’s also including one fully original song in the EP, a rap that will be a “surprise tag-on” at the end.
Faribault singer-songwriter Mary Clare Stroh is one of the artists collaborating with Smith. She has been writing music since she was 12 and has become particularly focused on writing songs for other people, such as for a first dance or to commemorate a lost loved one. Stroh knew Smith growing up and jumped at the chance to collaborate when she saw his Facebook post.
“Everybody has slowed down, [and] I don’t have much going on,” she explained. “I commented, ‘I want in,’ and he sent me a prompt and a track to write to.”
Stroh’s prompt was “something positive despite being in quarantine,” which inspired her to write about the joys of having more time with her family, especially because she just gave birth to her third child last week.
“That’s been a really great thing for our family and our marriage, despite having to make sacrifices in other places,” she said.
Stroh said she has never virtually collaborated and that it took a little back-and-forth, but the end result, her song “Quarantine,” ended up being “pretty sweet.”
“It was a lot of fun,” she said. “I’m definitely a perfectionist… It was a matter of letting it go and saying, ‘This is fun.’ It’s super cool the way that every song [on the EP] has got a different style to it, despite Luke’s own style showing through. It’s really cool, just the concept of it all.”
The Final Product
While Smith has been releasing a song from his EP every week since April 18 on streaming sites, the full EP will be released on May 30. The project is being released under Smith’s electronic music moniker, Late Night Luke, and will be available on all major streaming platforms, such as Spotify, iTunes and Apple.
Smith said he’d be interested in doing a similar project in the future because of how enjoyable the process was this time around.
“I really want to do more projects, and I like the idea of working with other people,” he said, adding that his hope is to release more music in the fall.
Throughout the project, Smith also published a video to document the creation of each song. You can watch the series on YouTube.
Smith was nominated for “Best Solo Performer” by Southern Minn Scene, an arts and culture publication, in 2017.