Over the last few years, it’s become easier than ever for musicians to record their music themselves. With multi-track recording programs like GarageBand, homemade albums are coming out of the woodwork. However, with every band recording themselves, it may come on a CD, but the recording quality usually sounds about as good as a cassette tape. That’s where Side Door Studios comes in. Right here in Lake Forest, located underneath CROYA, is an actual recording studio with a live room, a control booth running Pro Tools, recording engineers, and mastering technicians. Thanks to Side Door Studios, the bands coming out of Lake Forest sound radio-ready.
Take GEM, for example. This band was founded in a training room a couple of rooms over from Side Door Studios while the members were taking guitar lessons from Activator Academy. Under the instruction and encouragement of Nick and Shelia Christofalos, founders of Activator Academy, Grace Royster, 14, and twins Etta and Mattie Eckerstrom, 15, went from learning about chords and capos to writing and recording an album’s worth of original songs.
“Originally, we just started playing around in the studio to hear what we sounded like and to know what we needed to improve on,” says Etta, the lead guitarist and the “E” in GEM. “Then we realized we could make it a CD. It just turned into this project. It’s been really exciting.”
“They’re a great group of girls,” says Shelia Christofalos, of Activator Academy music school, who’s been teaching Etta and Mattie piano since they were 5 years old. “[Side Door Studios] is a tremendous facility and CROYA has been a wonderful partner. All these things came together perfectly to make this happen. Then this summer, we had a ton of bands through, putting out really great material.”
It took the girls of GEM 10 months of songwriting as a group, hours upon hours of rehearsals, and a lot of late nights in the studio, but they’re finally ready to release their self-titled debut album this month.
“We would spend up to seven hours at a time in this basement,” says Grace, the lead singer and “G” in GEM. “I mean, this is our dream. We’d spend our nights down here, we’d record parts, we’d eat pizza. It wasn’t just work though, it was a lot of fun.” That much is clear when listening to any of the group’s infectious, country-tinged, pop rock with catchy hooks and lyrics that perfectly encapsulate—straight from the source—the concerns of being a young adult. These girls write from the heart, and it’s a really fun ride. In fact, I had one of their songs stuck in my head for a day and a half after meeting with them.
But how do they find the time for all this? They’re not just splitting their time between the band and high school. Grace spends six days a week horseback riding as well as competing in horse shows across the country, Etta runs cross-country for Lake Forest High School, and Mattie plays clarinet in the LFHS marching band. “Sometimes we have to stay up late doing homework, but it’s worth it,” says Mattie, the bassist and “M” in GEM. “It’s so much fun, and even with everything else we have going on, we make time for this because it’s what we love to do. With music, we can leave our mark on people and say, ‘This is us.’”
When asked where they’d like to see this go, “Nashville” seems like a very geographically specific answer, but the meaning is clear. GEM wants to play together for a long time and in front of a lot of people. That’s something that they may not have known if they didn’t have a facility like Side Door Studios available to them, ready to take them as seriously as they take themselves. But before they can head to Nashville, the girls have a more pressing goal in front of them: finding a drummer who’s in high school, without who they won’t be able to play in the Battle of the Bands or in the LFHS talent show.
All the drumming on their album comes from their Activator Academy music instructor, Nick Christofalos, who was also their guitar teacher before they declared themselves a band. “A lot of times when there’s a group of kids in a lesson together, I try to form them into some sort of band and see how far that’ll go,” says Nick, Shelia’s husband and partner in the indie-rock duo Reactavox when they aren’t teaching little Bluffian roughians and Fret-shredding Foresters the power chords of rock and roll. “If the chemistry works, if they all learn at the same pace, it can work out. With this one, everybody was on it, everybody got along well, and everything kept gelling.” Whoever they end up finding to replace Nick at the drum stool, I just hope their name ends up working well with the acronym, because there’s nothing else standing in GEM’s way.
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