ARUN RATH, HOST:
Omaha, Neb., gained national attention around the turn-of-the-century for the band Bright Eyes and other artists on their label Saddle Creek Records. As it often does, the national spotlight has moved on in the search for the next scene. But Omaha's musical community is still growing strong. And a number of new albums are coming out this year with ties to the Midwestern city. Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters tells us why.
CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: On a recent afternoon, Omaha rapper Brenton Gomez, aka Conchance, stops by Make Believe studios just outside of downtown.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hey.
BRENTON GOMEZ: Hey, how are you. Good to see you.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Good to see.
MASTERS: The studio is still under construction. CEO Rick Carson shows off some of the progress.
RICK CARSON: You're standing in control room right here, so there'll actually be a wall right in front of that glass wall there. And this'll have a pro-tools rig.
MASTERS: Carson moved to Omaha a few years ago. He's lived in Detroit, Chicago and Colorado but settled on making records here.
CARSON: It's all market research, you know? Omaha's the best. We have one of the best economies in the world. We have one of the lowest unemployment rates, which means that people can pay lower rate and they can still have a job, you know? Someplace in Chicago and Detroit, for sure, that's not exactly how it goes down.
MASTERS: That low cost of living was one of the reasons Laura Burhenn moved to Omaha. When she left Washington, D.C. six years ago, making music was a second full-time job.
LAURA BURHENN: When I moved out to Omaha, it was really - it was really nice. I actually was able to find myself an environment where I could make music full-time. It's nice about a low cost of living.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET THE RECORD GO")
MASTERS: Burhenn says she was able to write the music for her first album as The Mynabirds.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET THE RECORD GO")
THE MYNABIRDS: (Singing) Let the record show you gave it all your might. And let the record show I gave it all of mine. It didn't turn out quite, quite like we'd hoped. So lay your best lines and let the record go.
MASTERS: In addition to finding time to write, Burhenn also found a thriving artistic community.
BURHENN: There are all of these really incredible activists and artists who live in this town in the middle of a very conservative space in the Midwest. And when you live there, you realize really how much the rest of the world sees it as flyover territory. But then you get in there and you realize how many great things are happening all around you and how people just sort of step up and just do it.
MASTERS: Burhenn now calls LA home, but her upcoming album features an ode to Omaha.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVERS KNOW")
THE MYNABIRDS: (Singing) Omaha, will you still call me darling? Omaha, will I still be your girl when I come home from the thrill of hunting lions, my ruby-throated riches from the world.
BURHENN: But in the end, Omaha is Omaha. And that's the thing I love about it. It's like, oh, yeah, we welcome everybody in here, but we're not necessarily changing for anybody. And that's a real incredible thing, you know what I mean? Those are the people you want to be friends with, right?
MASTERS: One of her friends is Simon Joyner. He's been putting out critically-acclaimed music from Omaha since the 1990s.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE ONLY LIVING BOY IN OMAHA")
SIMON JOYNER: (Singing) Or is there a fire you forgot to touch? Is there a heart you never saw? Tell me do you think you'd miss it very much if you're the only living boy in Omaha?
MASTERS: In 2002, the national media descended on Omaha, thanks largely to Saddle Creek Records and its handful of bands. Joyner says that brief flurry of attention probably still haunts musicians in the city but says Omaha is like any town with a music scene.
JOYNER: The train stopped here for a minute and then moved on. But there's great scenes in all of these cities. They just need some breakout band for the world to kind of look and say oh, I wonder what's going on in Des Moines? You know, it seems like if this band is there, then there must be other things. But I guarantee you there's exciting scenes going on all over the place that we don't know about.
MASTERS: But a lot of musicians feel to really get attention, you've got to be in New York or LA. Omaha native Conchance says he feels like he has to leave.
GOMEZ: It's really important for us not to necessarily stay here - 'cause I can't deal with too many more winters - but to be the artist that did our city justice. There's not a huge community of hip-hop here in Omaha setting a standard for it. So, like, that's what I'm trying to leave with the help of my friends.
MASTERS: He and his friends collaborate for M34N STR33T, one of his three musical project he's working on while in Omaha.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NITE OWL")
M34N STR33T: (Rapping) Funny how regret dress same impressive and Jess. Sonny, I’ve been broke, depressed, learning lessons of stress. Unless you the mess swept where the garbage is kept, you slept, hardly stepped the steps the blessed often forget. I shot the chef. She cook nonsense, s***** foods of the West. Listen destiny, I'm dissin' your distress. The Moon’s mission left, landed on planet booze, take what you for granted loose. Check your ambition, sabatic truths.
MASTERS: For his part, Simon Joyner says he's thought about leaving, but he likes the speed of Omaha. He has a family and runs and antique business as well. He says while Omaha might be more conservative than other cities were a lot of creative people are working, that tension sparks a kind of positive struggle.
JOYNER: And struggle little usually adds to creativity, whereas the easier things are, the lazier I think people can be, you know? So Omaha is good for keeping it just hard enough (laughter) I think.
MASTERS: Just hard enough to keep the music scene thriving with or without the spotlight. For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE EXECUTION OF ALL THINGS")
RILO KILEY: (Singing) Then we'll go to Omaha to work and exploit the booming music scene and humility.
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