All photos taken during the BRIGHTSIDE sessions at Sun Mountain Studios by Nicholas Bell
Sun Mountain Studios in Boiceville draws artists like Shania Twain and The Lumineers to make records while overlooking the Ashokan.
Fans of folk-duo The Lumineers probably associate them with two locations. Firstly, there’s Denver, Colorado, where Wesley Schultz and Jeremiah Fraites are originally from. Then, New Jersey comes to mind, being the place where the pair first came together to make music. However, after recording three records in the Hudson Valley, the band is forming an deep connection with the region.
“My cabin overlooks the Hudson Valley—it’s enchanted me ever since coming out this way to make our second album Cleopatra,” Schultz told Hudson Valley magazine.
Their fourth studio album, BRIGHTSIDE, is no exception to the trend. Set to release on January 14, 2022, BRIGHTSIDE presents a departure from The Lumineers’ typical reverb-heavy folk sound. Rock dominates the nine tracks of BRIGHTSIDE, which were all recorded at Sun Mountain Studios in Boiceville.
This hilltop recording studio is a prime space to craft music, as it overlooks the majestic Ashokan Reservoir. Against the backdrop of the Catskills, artists find incredible tranquility and inspiration. Woodstock native David Baron, longtime collaborator with The Lumineers, runs Sun Mountain Studios.
“People get very inspired here for many, many reasons. We have a ton of hiking trails right outside, we have a trampoline, we have a fireplace….there’s all these sorts of places you can escape. You can walk down to the river and get your thoughts together during a project,” Baron says. “It’s very private, and the feeling here is very magical. It makes people inspired both to hang out and talk and be human with each other, but also to be creative and hopefully make the best records of their career.”
Baron continues a rich music-making tradition in Ulster County—as well as a familial passion. The Oberlin Conservatory grad grew up in Woodstock, where his father operated Location Recorders.
As an engineer, Baron’s dad produced a ton of live albums using emote recording, also called location recording. His impressive credits include At Fillmore East by The Allman Brothers Band and B.B. King’s Live in Cook County Jail. Albert Grossman, a legend in the folk-rock scene, “fell in love” with the technique. Eventually, this led to The Band recording Stage Fright at the Woodstock Playhouse. Plus, the Bearsville Center has an incredible live performance history of its own.
Baron recalls being raised amid the creative culture that put Woodstock on the global map. When his dad wasn’t in the studio, he was partying at Levon Helm’s. Keeping with the tradition, Sun Mountain Studios is just a short walk away from Jimi Hendrix’s former home.
“You know, the future here is going to be probably just as magical as the past. We are like a mini-Nashville in a weird way when it comes to the amazing music being made here,” Baron says.
Baron originally had a studio called Edison in New York City, under a partnership with Lenny Kravitz. After focusing on classical piano at Oberlin, Baron transitioned into producing more electronic music.
“I spent a lot of time arranging orchestra and string scores. I was mostly doing commercial music for television and advertising,” Baron recalls. He also experimented with music technology, developing many creative ideas in his NYC sandbox.
However, he always wanted to return to the Hudson Valley. So, he bought a house in Boiceville in the late 2000s. At first, the studio was more of “a palace of keyboards.” Baron ran to the city less and less for sessions, and slowly built up the studio.
Simone Felice, one of the founding members of local folk-rock group The Felice Brothers, recorded his solo album Strangers with Baron. They met through Woodstock native Simi Stone, who also made her self-titled album at Sun Mountain Studios. Felice and Baron, a poet and an engineer, respectively, struck a creative chord together rather quickly. Soon after, Felice introduced Baron to The Lumineers.
“This was right when ‘Ho-Hey’ was an indie hit, before it made it really big. [Wes and Jeremiah] drove up from Jersey in a Hyundai….Wes might have borrowed it from his mom,” Baron remembers. “No pretension, just two nice guys. They loved the Felice Brothers….I think they were first really attracted to the wildness and poetry of what Simon did.”
After writing Cleopatra, The Lumineers hired Baron for their music video. The Ballad of Cleopatra is a series of vignettes that comprise a short film. Several of the album’s songs fuel the story, including a video for “Sleep on the Floor” that appears to have a photo of Kaaterskill Falls on the wall. “You take in everything around you when you’re composing and making music. There’s a lot about this area that seems to make it into their folklore,” Baron says. Baron’s own grand piano faces the Ashokan, the namesake to a track on his Whispers EP.
While The Lumineers were on tour, Baron developed connective score with the music video’s director. The band sent in their notes from the road, while he injected emotive piano music into the video, tying together vignettes.
Any fan of The Lumineers understands the importance of storytelling. The Ballad of Cleopatra‘s tale of a lonely cab driver packs a greater punch with Baron’s thoughtful playing behind it. Throughout his career, he’s written score for films. For instance, HERE.IS.BETTER—which screened at the 2021 Woodstock Film Festival—features original compositions from him and Jeremiah Fraites. Baron’s unique combination of classical training, technical expertise, and cinematic passion made him a perfect match for The Lumineers’ songwriting.
When the band returned to The Clubhouse in Rhinebeck to record their next album, III, Baron and Felice were unofficial members of the band. III tells a deeply personal story of addiction and generational trauma. Baron played keyboard and synthesizer on most of the album. Then, at some point, The Lumineers decided to part with the engineer who was working on the project with them. Because of that, Baron ended up mixing the bulk of the record.
“There’s a lot of moody sounds that I’m responsible for on that album, like the synth sounds and the creepiness. To me, it ends up sounding a lot like a film score,” Baron says. During the pandemic, Baron started producing records full-time at Sun Mountain Studios. He installed a vocal booth, installed 16-ft ceilings, and optimized the space for big piano and drum sounds. In a similar vein, additions like a cozy lounge or a table for session lunches on the deck sweetened the experience. UK band The Wandering Hearts and Shania Twain both recorded new music at Sun Mountain Studios.
According to Baron, Twain enjoyed sipping champagne on the deck and strolling the property for inspiration.
“I really enjoyed working with Shania. Because I had done a lot of work with Lenny Kravitz, and he’s very 90s, I’m from the same era as her. And in a lot of ways, the two artists were very similar. They’re both super dynamic people to be around,” Baron remembers. He enjoyed her creative approach to the project. “She was just open to everything. And, when she liked something, she would jump up and down and applaud.”
In a similar vein, he also co-produced Jeremiah’s solo classical record Piano Piano—a perfect project for Baron’s skills. Then he and Felice co-produced Wes’ solo album of covers, Vignettes. Then, there was BRIGHTSIDE.
“David’s studio is nestled into a mountain overlooking the Ashokan reservoir. There’s something truly special about this studio—the vibe and energy brings out something eternal in the music,” Schultz told Hudson Valley magazine.
After producing two albums in Rhinebeck, The Lumineers moved their process to Sun Mountain Studios. It was the first record in which they asked Baron to actually produce, record, and mix. He and Felice were a part of the whole process. The band brought in talented touring musicians like bassist Byron Isaacs and violinist Lauren Jacobson, along with guest collaborators like James Felice.
The Lumineers recorded BRIGHTSIDE in two batches. Their approach at Sun Mountain Studios was to record and mix simultaneously. Everyone involved could hear the record come to life and evolve in real time. The mix was an iteration of that day’s work. When they recorded another track, they could reference the cut that came before it. BRIGHTSIDE was assembled like a volume of books, according to Baron.
In addition, they rehearsed the album at the Bearsville Center in Woodstock. “We totally enjoyed the Lumineers stay at Utopia Studios Soundstage here at Bearsville. We were told that the band chose Bearsville because we could offer them a complete package – a creative vibe, excellent technical facilities and support, and cool places to hang in the park by the Sawkill Creek or in the historic artist rooms of the Theater,” Lizzie Vann, the owner and curator of the Bearsville Center says. “And we welcome them back anytime.”
“The record was literally a joy to make, it was so fun. And it was like spending time with your best friends, doing what you’re dreaming of doing with all the creative freedom an artist could want. I can already tell it’s going to be one of my favorite records I ever worked on,” Baron enthuses.
The mastering was actually done in Nashville by Andrew Mendelsohn, another classical musician. All of the keyboards, sax, organ, and overdubs for Meghan Trainor’s Diamond award-winning “All About That Bass” were done in Boiceville, even though the vocals were recorded back in Tennessee. The Lumineers wanted to get in the rock mindset for BRIGHTSIDE, so turning to Mendelsohn, who’s worked with Neil Young and The White Stripes, made sense.
Despite the new sound, Baron assures BRIGHTSIDE is still “purely Lumineers.” Wes Schultz’ one-of-a-kind voice drives this album. On III, his vocal tracks had a lot of moody reverb and ambient sound. In contrast, BRIGHTSIDE features a very dry and upfront vocal sound. During the pandemic, everyone involved in making the record shared the same need to celebrate the bright side of life.
“It’s a very, very specific move of how to present Wes and how to present the storytelling. We are shouting for the hills now, ‘let’s wake up and have a great life.’ Those decisions are intrinsic in the audio,” Baron says. “I don’t look at myself as a mix engineer; I’m a musician first. It was a pleasure to play on pretty much every song on this new record.”
BRIGHTSIDE releases on January 14, 2022.