Meet The Kansas Musicians Who Turned A Tornado Shelter Into A Recording Studio
At Lost Cowgirl Records in Stull, Kansas, Jenna Rae and Martin Farrell Jr. have created a recording technique that literally echoes the sound of an entire band playing together.
Jenna Rae and her partner Martin Farrell Jr., are well aware that band practice can bother the neighbors. Rae owns Lost Cowgirl Records and is also a wound care nurse at the University of Kansas Medical Center, so she’s familiar with how downtown living and music are only a great fit at certain times of the day.
The thing is, Rae and Farrell create and produce a lot of music. Just in 2020, the label released four singles for two different groups and two LPs: "Cosmic Western Duets" under Jenna and Martin, and Farrell’s second solo album, “Coffee and Laundry.” In 2021 it's already released one single and one LP: “Moonflower” by Lily B. Moonflower, a band Rae and Farrell play in.
So the last couple of years have seen the couple on the move, looking for a place to make music.
They tried living in an old school bus converted to a tiny house on Rae’s grandmother’s property in Peculiar, Missouri. That was okay for about a year. Then, just before the pandemic struck, they found a house on acreage in Stull, Kansas.
Rae says, “Our landlord owns a lot of cows, so we’re back behind his house on his property surrounded by cows. We barely see other people from here. We’re up at the top of a hill.”
The set-up is perfect for their studio, and the cows don’t seem to mind late-night drumming.
Rae says she worked very part-time hours at the hospital in the last couple of years, because she was shifting her career away from medicine and more into music.
“When the pandemic hit, obviously there wasn’t much money to be made with music, so I just switched back to being a nurse and Martin’s been holding down the studio, holding down the fort here,” she says.
Farrell plays many instruments, among them the guitar, steel pedal guitar, piano, drums, harmonica, bass, and banjo. He acted as the entire band on his “Coffee and Laundry” LP, with the exception of Rae singing background vocals on a few tracks.
But he didn’t simply record one track at a time and mix them together. He really wanted the sound of many people playing instruments all at once.
“We have a tornado shelter in our backroom here, and it took us a couple of months to realize, but it’s perfect for an echo chamber, so we use it as our reverb room,” Farrell says.
He has spent a lot of time examining the methods of master producers like Phil Spector and Dave Cobb, and he studies and collects all manner of microphones.
“I overdub everything, so it’s all single track,” Farrell says. “I’ll play all the instruments and putting it in this reverb room makes it sound like it’s a band playing together.”
That, in addition to the content of “Coffee and Laundry,” has made the recording a great audio representation of the pandemic era. Though, Farrell says, he only wrote one of the 10 songs in 2020.
Rae says, “It was just crazy that he had all these songs that kind of fit this year, or last year, and then once he finished ‘Take Care’ it kind of brought it all together.”
The song “Take Care” opens: “Take care of yourself, my good friends, I want to see your smiling face/how you act when you get old, I want to know.”
Rae describes their style, whether in solo efforts or playing as Jenna and Martin, as “cosmic country, roots country with a lot of other influences.”
Growing up in the Shawnee Mission School District, Rae’s first instrument was the tenor saxophone, and she says she thinks it works in their bluegrass and country songs.
Farrell says, “There are no instruments that are off-limits for the recordings. We’ll use whatever we can to take the listener to the place we want to go.”
He also likes to sing as different personas, people whose lives are very different from his and maybe even lived in a different time in history.
That’s how he came to write “Dust Bowl 1933,” an older song on the new album that feels like it fits the zeitgeist of 2020.
About four years ago, a documentary about the Dust Bowl captured his imagination.
“When I see something that really moves me, a lot of times it’ll be something kind of depressing, but I feel like most country songwriters kind of gravitate towards the main losses in life or the loss of love,” he says.
He had no idea when he wrote the song that the collective anxiety he described would be almost immediately pertinent. Farrell sings about people joining hundreds of thousands of others all desperate to find stability, sick family members in tow, “drinking tears.”
“When the record was coming together, and when I finally sequenced it, I was glad that it could be applied to what’s happening today,” he says.
But not all the songs are grim. One called “Silly Thoughts,” also written before 2020, gets at the sort of slap happiness of spending a lot of time in one’s head: “I’m just fine; I try to walk that straight and narrow line, I grit my teeth and look beneath the stairwell for my brother,” the song goes.
As the two begin to tour again, Rae says they’ll be happy to have the respite of their new country home. After spending many, many more hours in the house than in a typical year, it may be hard to go back to being out, which Farrell’s new album recognizes, too.
Rae says, “I love seeing people, I love hanging with people, but it’s also nice to be able to come out here and have our privacy.”
Catch Martin Farrell, Jr. at the Aztec Theater at 8:00 on Saturday, April 24 at 11119 Johnson Drive, Shawnee, KS 66203. Tickets are $20 in advance online and $25 at the door the night of the show.