The Grand Rapids indie-rock project spearheaded by Bill Chesney, general manager for Earthwork Music, boasts an all-star cast of guests and ‘a beautiful balance’ of musical styles. (Story, podcast, video)
THE ARTIST: Stepladders
THE MUSIC: Indie-rock, folk-rock
WHERE YOU CAN SEE THE ARTIST: Sept. 16 at Earthwork Harvest Gathering outside Lake City
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As general manager for the Earthwork Music collective, Bill Chesney has mostly worked behind the scenes supporting and promoting Michigan bands as they record, tour and release albums that he helps package and design as a graphic artist.
Staying integrally involved with music yet out of the limelight seems to be his “sweet spot,” says Chesney, who runs Eco Print Services in Grand Rapids.
But that’s all about to change as Chesney rolls out his own musical project, Stepladders, with a debut album set for release digitally at the end of August and in CD form in mid-September.
The indie-rock venture calls on a host of familiar names for guest appearances, including members of The Crane Wives, Max Lockwood from Big Dudee Roo, Steve Leaf from Steve Leaf & The Ex Pats, Earthwork Music founder Seth Bernard and others. The album was recorded by The Crane Wives’ Ben Zito at his Grand Rapids studio, with mastering by Ian Gorman.
“This is just so far out of my comfort zone, it just feels so weird,” Chesney says of being a frontman with a new album to promote.
Nevertheless, the amiable guitarist, bassist and singer also happens to be a prolific songwriter, an avocation sparked by a songwriting retreat hosted by Joshua Davis, an Earthwork Music collective mainstay who’s earned a national following thanks, in part, to his third-place finish on NBC’s “The Voice” in 2015.
WRITING ‘A BUNCH OF SONGS,’ FROM EMOTIONAL TO TOE-TAPPING
“I went to a Josh Davis songwriting retreat and left there and just nailed a bunch of songs really quick,” Chesney recalls. “That kind of turned into this album that’s coming out.”
That album, filled with songs about love, about loss and “relationship-based stuff,” resonated with the musicians who took part in the recording, said drummer Dan Rickabus.
“The vibe of Stepladders is so much fun for me,” says Rickabus. “I tell people that it has all the best parts of the ’90s and none of the bad parts. The music has a beautiful balance, too, between really pretty, emotional, deep, heart-wrenching stuff and stuff that’s really fun and gonna get your toes a-tapping.”
PODCAST: Local Spins Live with Stepladders
Rickabus and bandmate Emilee Petersmark of The Crane Wives joined Chesney for Local Spins Live on News Talk 1340 AM (WJRW) this week to talk about the project and perform a couple of songs — “In Love” and “Broken Friends” – on the air. Listen to the podcast here, with a video of their performance of “In Love” below.
Chesney – who describes “In Love” as one of those “heart-wrenching” tunes – takes a unique tack with his songwriting.
“A lot of it is if you’re feeling any kind of emotion, then you just spit out so much stuff,” he says. “I like to have people send me a photograph and tell me nothing about the photograph, and then I’ll just write 1,000 words or whatever, make up a story.”
Recorded and produced with help from a fan-funded Kickstarter campaign, the Earthwork Music album will be available digitally on Aug. 30 and officially released physically on Sept. 16 at the Earthwork Harvest Gathering outside Lake City, where Chesney grew up.
The collaborative album also features guest vocals from Petersmark, Chris Bathgate and Kate Anderson, with strings by May Erlewine, Micah Ling and Sam Cooper.
Chesney, who’s also creator of the web design team Rough Draft Designs, isn’t quite sure what the future might hold beyond the official release of the new album by Stepladders (oddly enough, a twist on the name of former FIFA soccer president Sepp Blatter).
“I’d like to do a few more shows to say that I did,” says “the man behind the curtain,” noting that assembling the crew of musicians who participated in the album would be a “task of its own.”
VIDEO: Stepladders, “In Love” (Local Spins Live)
Copyright 2016, Spins on Music LLC