WYEP’s Reimagination Project equips Pittsburgh teens for the music industry

Photo: Na’Chelle Simone

When Na’Chelle Simone submitted a song to WYEP’s Reimagination Project, she hoped it was good enough to be released on the compilation album featuring young musicians from the area.

Na’Chelle, an 18-year-old  from Homewood, had no idea “Rise Up” would earn national attention through a story featured on National Public Radio. But the most significant benefit was how the song ameliorated a family issue: “Rise Up” became a bridge back to her mother, with whom Na’Chelle had been having difficulties.

“It was just a misunderstanding between me and my mom,” Na’Chelle says. “But once she heard the song and liked it, we talked about it. I feel like it helped us.” (Listen to it here, along with other Reimagination Project songs.)

Launched in 2014, the Reimagination Project provides young musicians a chance to record songs and learn from music industry professionals.

“It’s an investment in the area’s music ecosystem in that, hopefully, many of these teens become the next generation of Pittsburgh artists that we’ll be playing on the air for years to come,” says Mike Sauter, WYEP station manager. “We hope that the established musicians who serve as producers and mentors to the teen musicians are not only energized by the project but also stay connected to these kids so that they might one day collaborate on future music.”

Bassist Greg Joseph of The Clarks recalls there were no resources to help fledgling groups when his band formed in the mid-1980s. Joseph serves as executive producer of the project with Dana Cannone, owner of The Church Recording Studio.

“We hunted and pecked for every opportunity,” recalls Joseph of The Clarks’ early years. “Certainly, learning about the business was nowhere on the radar in our community. … So, our program puts the kids who get on the disc way ahead of where they would be if they were just figuring it out on their own.”

In addition to providing recording opportunities, The Reimagination Project features workshops on songwriting and booking shows to give kids a well-rounded look at getting started in the music industry.

The Spare Lights

For Gibson Musisko, 15, the lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter for the band Spare Lights, working with producer Dave Hidek was a chance to “work in a real recording studio, with a real producer.” Gibson says the workshops also provided him with new insights and connections.

“Listening to Bill Deasy talk about songwriting was very insightful. I thought it was super cool,” says Gibson, the son of musicians Jenn Wertz and Gary Musisko. He attends Taylor Allderdice High School in Squirrel Hill. “It was interesting to hear someone else’s take on songwriting because I’m still developing the way I feel. But those workshops are also cool because you get to meet the other musicians involved in the project.”

The selected musicians and bands worked with a slew of established musicians and producers: Jon Bindley, Brian Edwards, INEZ, Jake Hanner, Sean McDonald, Skip Sanders, Rick Witkowski, Wertz and Hidek.

The Caregivers

Wertz, an original member of Rusted Root, was assigned The Caregivers, a band comprised of students from Penn-Trafford and Plum school districts.

“I couldn’t believe how bright and open they were,” Wertz says of the band. “They were very open to learning and the ideas that I brought. They would try anything. There wasn’t any possessive ego pushback from these kids.”

Joseph, who was involved in the Reimagination Project since its inception, says he’s continually amazed by the number and diversity of young musicians applying for the program.

Sauter agrees.

The Reimagination 7 CD cover.

“When I was their age, teen bands were lucky if they all had functional instruments,” he says. “These days, they come on board with Reimagination with not only good music but sometimes music videos and a social media presence. It’s pretty amazing how skilled they can be, so when they get a little work with an experienced musician and do a little bit of work in a real recording studio, there is no telling how much they can up their game.”

Na’Chelle worked with Danielle Walker (who records and produces music as INEZ) on previous musical ventures when they decided to apply for the Reimagination Project. Na’Chelle wrote “Rise Up” with her background in hip hop and rhythm and blues in mind, but Walker challenged the young artist.

“I told her, I don’t think we should make the song people are expecting us to make,” says Walker, who added gorgeous piano accompaniment and a percussive rhythm section to the basic track. The result is an irresistible song that crosses genres and positions Na’Chelle as a candidate for Pittsburgh’s next breakout artist.

“The sky is not the limit. The stars are not even the limit. Her potential is limitless,” Walker says of Na’Chelle. “That’s why I love working with her. Because I know the things I’m passing onto her are going to be used by someone capable of being an amazing person and an amazing artist. That’s all I can ask for.”

Encouraging potential is part of the reason The Grable Foundation provided funding for the Reimagination Project.

“Young musicians need mentoring and professional guidance, access to quality recording technology, and performance opportunities to help bring their dreams to life,” says Kristen Burns, an associate director with the foundation. “WYEP’s Reimagination program makes these connections so that young people’s musical creativity can flourish. Grable is proud to support this work.”

To take a listen to the songs by the artists selected for the Reimagination Project, click here.