(Hi, I’m Azaria! I’m here for the next ten months to help Olivia tell this story!)
“Inspired by Isadore” is part of a larger work-in-progress called “This Is Where You Live – Songs Inspired in Spokane, 2021-2022.”
Nearly 50 years later, reminders of Expo ‘74 can still be found in Riverfront Park. The park itself, of course, was home to the exposition, and those enjoying the park can still admire the iconic Great Northern Railway Depot Clocktower, Sister Paula Turnbull’s Garbage Goat and the Pavilion, which was a gift from the U.S. government to the city.
In 2020, after years in a place of honor at the White Elephant, another piece of Spokane history joined Riverfront Park – Isadore, the elephant.
Isadore’s time in Spokane began in Natatorium Park. The elephant then spent decades representing the White Elephant until both locations closed in July 2020. After the closures, the Conley family, which owned and operated the White Elephant for 74 years, gifted Isadore to Riverfront Park. Isadore is now located near its friends in the Looff Carrousel, which also used to call Natatorium Park home.
It was while touring Riverfront Park with her Leadership Spokane classmates that Olivia Brownlee caught a hint of inspiration.
Park director Jon Moog told the group that builder Charles I.D. Looff built the carousel as a wedding present for his daughter Emma and her husband Louis Vogel, who owned Natatorium Park. The park closed in 1968, and in 1975, the carousel was relocated to Riverfront Park, where it has delighted riders young and old ever since.
The carousel’s history, plus the addition of Isadore, piqued Olivia’s interest, though it was only a matter of time before she wrote a song about the fairground favorite.
“Carousels have always meant a lot to me,” she said. “Both my grandfathers were very patient with me and carousels, so that’s why my grandfathers had to make an appearance in this song.”
Once the storyline – “an elephant who thought that her time in the community was done and then she gets this second chance to be a meaningful part of the community” – was solidified, the songwriting process was only a matter of putting the right words in the right place.
“There are so many words and there are so many great words and there are so many words that are just small and simple, but if you put them in exactly the right place, they’re great,” Olivia said about the song writing process, which she compares to putting together a puzzle.
When listening to the demo Olivia sent me, I couldn’t get the smile off my face. (I know that may seem biased because I’m writing these blogs for her, but it’s the truth.) The music instantly transports you to a fairground or carnival, so much so that you can practically smell the kettle corn cooking. Lyrics-wise, Olivia pays tribute to Isadore, of course, but also the Looff Carrousel animals, the Garbage Goat and Mobius Discovery Center.
Once “Inspired by Isadore” was written, Olivia set out to find musicians who could make the song “oom-pah.” Thinking back to her time working for a music booking agency in Los Angeles, Olivia figured that most musicians would be up for just about any project, as long as it fit their schedule.
“If you offer a decent wage, they’re like, ‘Sure, yeah. I don’t know you, but this can be fun,’ ” she said.
But Olivia didn’t have to turn to strangers for “Inspired by Isadore”; she’s known everyone involved in some way or another for years.
Helen Byrne, assistant principal cello with the Spokane Symphony, who played accordion on this song, and Leonard Byrne, the symphony’s principal tuba player, are longtime family friends.
Symphony percussionist Rick Westrick played on Olivia’s second studio album, and while Olivia hadn’t personally met the symphony’s principal trumpet player Larry Jess before getting to the studio, she had done theater with his wife Carolyn for years.
“That’s so Spokane,” Olivia said with a laugh.
In my short time with Olivia, I’ve learned that the Spokane music community is both incredibly vast and incredibly small. Everyone is a friend of a friend, and everyone is quick to say yes to projects, even if they don’t directly know everyone involved.
Rounding out the group is vocalist Kristina Ploeger-Hekmatpanah, director of the Spokane Symphony Chorale. Kristina was a professor of Olivia’s, and while both admit they haven’t kept in touch as much as they would have liked over the years, they both also say they’ve admired the other’s work from afar.
Like the others, it was easy for Kristina to say yes to helping on “Inspired by Isadore.”
“I was totally excited because she always does cool things,” she said. “And you don’t know what it’s gonna be like, you don’t know what musical genre, it’s just going to be cool. I was like ‘Yes, if you want me, I’m there. Anytime. Whatever I can do for you.’ ”
“Likewise,” Olivia responded.
The “Inspired by Isadore” recording session took place in Liberty Lake at Spokane Productions with studio director Rob Miller. Spokane Productions is set up to accommodate a variety of creative projects including music and audio recording, commercial ad campaigns, independent filmmaking, professional photography and drone cinematography.
Rob quickly set up microphones and made sure everyone was as comfortable as possible (turns out some chairs are better for tuba players than others). Though recording experience varied amongst the musicians, everyone quickly fell into a rhythm of recording a take, then listening back for things to tweak or errors to fix.
“You have to listen specifically to the things that you’re doing, but then also how it fits in with everything,” Helen said.
In a handful of takes, with Olivia conducting/dancing in the center of the group (“I’ve never gotten to shake my booty in a room full of symphony musicians before,” she said), the music was finished to everyone’s satisfaction.
While packing up their instruments, Helen and Leonard credited performing with the symphony and at church with helping complete the recording so quickly.
“A standard Symphony Pops concert is you show up Saturday morning, you may or may not have seen the folder before and you play the concert that night,” Leonard said. “One rehearsal and go.”
“I enjoy church work because you don’t have to prepare for something for five months, to practice and practice and practice,” Helen said. “You only have a week and then you go to the next thing.”
With the music finished, it was time for Kristina to add the vocals, a process I missed entirely because I was interviewing Helen in the lobby. Seeing as the interview only took about 10 minutes, it was obvious Kristina is a pro in the studio.
In fact, in the mid-’90s while living in Seattle, Kristina was often called into recording studios to add background vocals for rock bands.
“They would say ‘Listen to this twice. Make up some harmony,’ ” she said. “There was an octet of us that would get called in to make the choir sounds. And then they tell us what kind of choir, ‘Make it sound like a gospel choir, or make it sound like a classical choir.’ ”
Kristina actually thought she’d be providing back up vocals to Olivia’s lead on “Inspired by Isadore” until Olivia told her otherwise.
When looking at the piece at home, Kristina began writing chords for the song as if it were a jazz tune, thinking it would make Olivia smile. She then had to challenge her brain to unhear that melody so it could match the “oom-pah” feel Olivia intended.
With both vocals and music in place, it was time for Olivia and Rob to fine tune “Inspired by Isadore,” a process which included adding reverb and snippets of audio Olivia recorded at the Looff Carrousel to the beginning and end of the song.
“I think it’s pretty typical, if you’re doing one song, that you’ve got something you can take home,” Rob said about the four-hour session. “Not always, but it depends on the artist and how much work needs to get done. Obviously, if you can get it done and out the door the same day, then everybody’s happy.”
When wrapping up for the evening, Rob called “Inspired by Isadore” one of the “most unique and fun” songs he’d worked on in awhile, which seemed to be the consensus of the whole group.
“Olivia is so creative, anytime she has an idea, you just want to run with it because you know it’s going to be something fun,” Helen said after the group finished recording.
As the evening came to an end, the musicians turned their focus on the busy summer ahead.
Helen, Leonard, Larry and Rick will have their hands full with symphony work. They’ll perform at the symphony’s Patriotic Pops concert on July 4th at the Pavilion in Riverfront Park and at the Festival at Sandpoint finale concert on Aug. 7.
Helen and Leonard will also be performing in the Laclede, Idaho 4th of July parade.
The quartet will also perform Sept. 4 at Pavillion Park in Liberty Lake and Sept. 6 at the Pavilion in Riverfront Park as part of the symphony’s free Labor Day concerts. The Spokane Symphony’s 2022-2023 season begins in September.
Kristina is busy finishing her doctorate of musical arts at the University of Kentucky and teaching at summer camps. She then plans to do some work for the American Choral Directors Association’s summer institute and at a jazz camp in Boise. She also teaches at Eastern Washington University full time.
As for Olivia, she’s already thinking about song #90. Stay tuned!