Local musicians double down on their craft after working with famous artists

CONNECTED: Notable collaborations between Asheville-area musicians and well-known recording artists include, clockwise from left, John Medeski and Debrissa McKinney; Zach Cooper, Leon Bridges and Vic Dimotsis; and Seth Kauffman, seated in blue hat and Jim James standing, middle. McKinney photo by Austn Haynes; Cooper photo courtesy of King Garbage; Kauffman photo by Larry Hirshowitz

The Asheville area is home to many renowned musicians — including the likes of Gladys Knight, Angel Olsen, Moses Sumney, Tyler Ramsey, Avey Tare of the Animal Collective and the gentlemen of Steep Canyon Rangers. Alongside these stars, there are plenty of local performers with far less sway. Yet, through proximity, many of the area’s working musicians are developing lasting connections with household names, while avoiding the headaches and stress that sometimes accompanies fame.

As festival season heats up and marquee tours swing through town, Xpress spoke with three such individuals about their experiences with big-name players and the impacts these encounters have had on their professional and personal lives.

Kismet kings

Zach Cooper and Vic Dimotsis are officially Grammy winners for their songwriting contributions to Jon Batiste’s 2022 Album of the Year winner, WE ARE. The pair have also worked on tracks for Leon Bridges’ two most recent albums, Good Thing (2018) and Gold-Diggers Sound (2021). But while earning those opportunities involved plenty of time and talent, Cooper is upfront that the path to this elevated visibility began with an incredible amount of good fortune.

Back in 2017, the Asheville/Black Mountain-based team behind soul/rock band King Garbage released its 2017 debut, Make It Sweat, featuring Dimotsis on vocals and drums, and Cooper on guitar. A chance placement on Spotify’s Fresh Finds happened to catch producer Ricky Reed’s ear while in his car.

Soon thereafter, Reed reached out to the pair, who began sharing music with the producer. At the time, Reed was preparing to go in the studio with Bridges to work on what would become Good Thing. Two of the first songs the duo sent over, “Lions” and “Mrs.,” made the cut, and Cooper says the final versions on the album are “very faithful” to their original productions.

From there, the King Garbage guys stayed in touch and saw Bridges perform on a few occasions. In 2019, when the time came to start working on Gold-Diggers Sound, Reed and Bridges flew Cooper and Dimotsis out to Los Angeles  to collaborate in person.

“It was an awesome week of sessions and … throwing stuff at the wall, seeing what sticks,” Cooper says. “We had some great times with Leon and everyone else that threw down on the making of that record.”

In between the two Bridges albums, Reed signed the duo to a co-publishing deal and brought them to LA to work with songwriter Autumn Rowe on material for Batiste, including the song “SING.”

“We wrote it pretty quickly and sent it to Ricky the next day, and he freaked out over it,” Cooper says. “We wrote it in 2017, so it was a long time until it reached Jon — probably two years. And then once it got there, it took on this whole second line [New Orleans parade] kind of thing, which is cool. He really turned it into his own thing, and the way it sits on the album is beautiful.”

These “cuts,” as they’re called in the music industry, have given Cooper and Dimotsis more legitimacy within their profession, which Cooper says helps make more well-known artists feel confident working with the pair, even though they don’t live in LA, New York or Chicago. But while they’re grateful for the success they’ve had with Bridges and Batiste, the hierarchy and plentiful rules they witnessed in the studio with Bridges gave them pause.

Cooper notes that such rigidity stems from the significant amount of money and time at stake in those settings. Though he’s confident King Garbage’s focus on “problem-solving and making good art together” was evident at the highest level during the Gold-Diggers Sound sessions, there were only “four or five people who really had a say in what was going on,” which didn’t include Dimotsis or himself. In turn, the experiences have made Cooper appreciate the way King Garbage creates music, which was put into full effect while crafting the duo’s latest album, Heavy Metal Greasy Love.

New friends

Debrissa McKinney won a Grammy in 2017 for her contributions to Secret Agent 23 Skidoo’s Best Children’s Album winner, Infinity Plus One. Along with her ongoing work with Skidoo, she’s a member of local groups Free Radio (vocals) and Empire Strikes Brass (vocals/saxophone).

Those experiences proved fruitful in 2020, when Skidoo connected McKinney with Asheville-based biophysicist and shaman Jeff Firewalker Schmitt for the latter’s Saint Disruption collaborative music project. The jazz/hip-hop fusion group was inspired by rap pioneers The Last Poets and their commitment to giving voice to the oppressed. McKinney recorded vocals on multiple tracks for the Rose in the Oblivion album, and the next time she checked in with Schmitt on the collection’s progress, he revealed that he’d added another member to the group: revered jazz keyboardist John Medeski (Medeski Martin & Wood).

Though Medeski recorded his parts separately at a studio near his Upstate New York home, McKinney was introduced to Medeski when he came to Asheville for Saint Disruption’s August 2021 show at The Grey Eagle. McKinney has since recorded with Medeski and Schmitt for a cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine” — a track that also features Warren Haynes (guitar), Austn Haynes (vocals), Datrian Johnson (vocals) and Jake Wolf (bass). Though McKinney was only in studio with Johnson, Schmitt and Medeski, she says the keyboardist’s skills left an impression on her.

“Sonically, I was like, ‘OK, I know nice pianos and stuff, but this makes you want to throw things,’” she says. “It was amazingly well-rounded and had such great depth. To see him in his element was really something else.”

And the appreciation was reciprocal. McKinney says that by being in the studio together, Medeski got to see her and Johnson’s process in real time and form a bond with his fellow musicians.

“I’m so thankful for my connections with every person, because what it really does is it adds one more friend,” McKinney says. “It’s always someone that then you have the potential to maybe call them up or maybe they’ll call you up for future collaborations and different stuff like that. So, it only makes the net grow larger.”

The Saint Disruption experience wasn’t McKinney’s first brush with fame. She’s performed with Warren Haynes multiple times, shared the stage with George Clinton and was also recruited to record on the Brother’s Keeper album by Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe.

“I really hope to be in [the music industry] until I keel over,” she says.  “So getting to play with all those people and see their progress that they continue to make and have made over long periods of time — it gives me encouragement to keep going. Because I know that there are people out there that enjoy what I do as much as I enjoy what I do, so that just inspires me.”

Staying grounded

Looking at Seth Kauffman’s musical credits, it’s tough not to be impressed. The Black Mountain artist and frontman for indie rockers Floating Action has played an integral role on albums by Lana Del Rey (Ultraviolence) and Olsen (Phases), but it’s his ongoing work with Jim James of My Morning Jacket and Ray LaMontagne that stand out most.

“Jim really liked my songwriting, production style and soulfulness contained on the Floating Action albums, so he reached out, and we became fast friends. He started asking me to play bass on his solo records, tours and records he produced,” Kauffman says.

“LaMontagne was a similar situation. [The Black Keys guitarist] Dan Auerbach was a fan of Floating Action albums, so he asked me to play on Ray’s Supernova album that he was producing. Randomly, Jim produced the next Ray album, [Ouroboros,] and asked me to play on it.”

In addition to Kauffman’s wide-ranging skills — he plays every instrument on Floating Action’s records — he feels that his professional relationships with James and LaMontagne have endured because he’s never pushy or tries to force things with his fellow musicians. Though he’s not discussed it with them, he guesses that they view him as “a nonladder-climber” and good friend; and that being someone who writes and produces himself makes him trustworthy in understanding the right thing to play at a given moment. It also helps that he doesn’t care about fame.

“We’re all just people. Everybody is different. Ray and Jim are incredibly talented people. They’re also very smart and nice people,” Kauffman says. “I guess with a ‘famous person,’ there’s that elephant in the room of ‘their fame,’ so I just kind of ignore that. As a poor, nonfamous person, I can’t relate. I’m too busy [with handyman side work] crouching in someone’s shower, pulling hair clogs out and mowing yards, etc.” 

Currently on tour with LaMontagne through early June, Kauffman is thankful for the opportunity to hit the road with his friend but has no desire to pursue the spotlight himself. He says he’s witnessed the pitfalls of those aims firsthand in the music industry and has found happiness in “staying grounded and humble and poor,” as well as trusting his instincts and not overthinking things.

“Going after big-name connections to advance yourself will leave you hollow and empty inside. Just be yourself and be humble. Make your art as if no one else will ever hear it or care about it,” Kauffman says. “It reinforces my philosophy of laying low, living in an off-the-radar place like Black Mountain. Mountain biking and hanging with family and nonladder-climbing friends is where it’s at.”


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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for ashevillemovies.com and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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