Everybody here [at Notes for Notes] — they’re hungry,” Queen McElrath says. “They’re hungry to do something better with themselves. I’d rather be around people that’s hungry than people that’s settled where they’re at.”
The 17-year-old McElrath is seated on a keyboard bench at the Nashville South Notes for Notes recording studio inside the Andrew Jackson Boys & Girls Club. Her shirt is white with black lettering (“Make sure you get a photo of my shirt”), and her eyes lock in to whomever she’s speaking with. When introduced to a visitor, she’s up, hand out, pumping a handshake the way a middle-aged lawyer does when he’s won a case: confident, accurate, assertive. Makes you wonder how a teenager got to be 17 going on 35.
“My mama was on drugs when I was younger.” McElrath has a way of pronouncing every word that comes out of her mouth as if on purpose — neither apologizing, nor boasting, just matter-of-fact.
“I did poetry,” she adds. “I didn’t know I could rap. I just did all my poetry into a rhyme.” McElrath sits with her feet pointed out from the keyboard bench. “I was 13,” she says, her voice carrying in the studio. “I had a teacher [at LEAD Academy Middle School] who was into music — and he was like, ‘You know, you can turn [your poetry] into music.’ He helped me turn a poem that I had into music, and we did it at the talent show, and I won second place in the talent show.”
McElrath’s teacher had another suggestion for the poet-turned-rapper. “I was getting into a lot of trouble in school,” she says. “[My teacher] was like, ‘Well, I know you [are] into music, so why don’t you come into Notes for Notes? They got a cool studio and stuff.’ And I was like, ‘There’s too many kids there, you know, making all of these excuses.’ ”
The Notes for Notes studio in the Andrew Jackson Boys & Girls Club is filled with too many kids, too many kids in red polos, singing with their hands up, big smiles on their faces. Too many kids throwing their heads back laughing, talking with and over each other.
McElrath smiles and continues. “When I came [to the Notes for Notes studio for the first time], I just fell in love with it.” Her voice speeds up. “[Notes for Notes has] kept me out of trouble. I was getting into a lot of trouble before I came [to the studio].” She doesn’t go into detail. “But being into something where you surround yourself with other people who do the same thing — now these are my friends.
“Poetry was my outlet, but it wasn’t how music is,” she says. “Music, when you perform it, it’s kind of, you getting everything out.” She pauses, then adds, “It’s like a big release for me.”
“I always wanted to make music,” Notes for Notes cofounder and CEO Philip Gilley says. Gilley is wedged on a leather couch behind the Which Stage at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn. “I wanted to compose music, but I had a music teacher that said to me, ‘You can’t read music, you can’t play music.’ And I can’t read music.”
Gilley doesn’t look like a CEO. He’s too young — early 30s — too tall, too skinny, his facial hair is too patchy. He looks like a musician.
“When I was 17, my mom got me an acoustic guitar,” Gilley says. “I just started learning tabs, and then I just realized I could kinda just listen to something and play it. And I’d never had that opportunity to do that until I just got an instrument.”
Following a couple semesters at the University of Vermont in his home state, the East Coaster dropped out and moved west to Santa Barbara — “I knew LA would eat me up” — to become a screenwriter.
To keep the lights on, Gilley donned a collared shirt and parked cars as a steakhouse valet. To fill the small-town Vermont community void, he volunteered with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program of Santa Barbara County.
Gilley was paired with a boy named Christian. Christian wanted to learn how to play drums. Gilley didn’t own any drums, so the duo headed down to a Santa Barbara music store.
“We’d just use the demo kit,” Gilley explains with a shrug. “I don’t know much about drums, but I’d teach him basic drum beats. I’d buy some picks or strings to justify the visit.”
During one of their routine music store jams, Gilley had a thought: “There should be a place that youth can go completely for free. And it’s packed with all the instruments that they want to use to make the music they’re listening to.”
A tall order. But Gilley would soon hear of a city teen center being built in the Santa Barbara area — a teen center interested in putting a music recording studio in its building.
“I was 23 at the time,” Gilley recalls as a Bonnaroo golf cart drives by, dropping someone off, picking someone up, tires spinning dust. “I was still parking cars six days a week.”
He decided to pitch his idea to the City of Santa Barbara. “I said, ‘I’ll get my parents to ship my old equipment over. We’re starting an organization called Notes for Notes.’ We had the name. We thought out what we wanted it to be.”
He pauses, then says, “I mean, I didn’t have any money.”
The City of Santa Barbara didn’t care that he was 23, didn’t care that he didn’t have money — “I put everything on a credit card to start; just paid that debt off a few years ago.” The city said yes to Gilley and Notes for Notes.
So Gilley’s parents boxed up his acoustic and shipped it to him. In addition, Gilley picked up a Casio keyboard, and raised some funds to buy a drum kit. The teen center already had an old computer, to which he added a version of Pro Tools.
“It was bare bones,” he says. “But, it gave us the start.”
Four years later, Notes for Notes had acquired a cofounder in California businessman Rod Hare. “Rod was a Big Brother back in college,” Gilley says. Hare helped secure an $18,000 grant from the Santa Barbara Bowl Foundation and christen a board of directors for the now 501(c)(3) organization.
Notes for Notes had also partnered with the popular retail store Hot Topic. And the nonprofit had launched two more Notes for Notes studios in the Santa Barbara area code — both of which were in Boys & Girls Clubs.
“Being in the Boys & Girls Clubs, we’re like, we can do this in other places,” Gilley says. “We thought, we can kinda creep down the coast and get to LA in like, 10 years. Or we can just be like, ‘Let’s establish ourselves nationally now. Let’s just go plant our flags. Where should we do it?’ ” The flag-planting decision was pretty simple. “We had one of our younger board members living in Nashville, and went, ‘Let’s just go to Nashville.’ ”
So Gilley hung up his collared shirt and headed east to Nashville. He opened the first Music City Notes for Notes Studio at the Andrew Jackson Boys & Girls Club in the summer of 2011. In 2012, a second Nashville Notes for Notes studio set up shop at the Preston Taylor Boys & Girls Club.
“I knew coming to Nashville, there were some people I wanted to get in touch with,” Gilley says. “First, we’re gonna be in Nashville, we gotta find a way to connect with Bonnaroo. And then also, while we’re in Nashville, there’s gotta be a way we can get to Jack White.”
“Yes, Third Man definitely gets its share of donation requests,” Ben Blackwell explains via email. Blackwell works out of the vinyl department at Third Man Records and beats on drums — quite loudly — in a band called The Dirtbombs. And he’s White’s nephew. “Notes for Notes just seemed to cut through the usual, everyday, ho-hum requests and was unique enough to catch our attention.”
“They gave us the Third Man record player[s], the headphones, a bunch of vinyl,” Gilley says. “We made a poster. So in each of the studios we’ve got these little Third Man Record stations. [The kids are] like, ‘What are these big black discs?’ ” Gilley grins, then adds, “It’s a cool experience.”
Eventually, Notes for Notes was put in contact with the Bonnaroo Works Fund, the music festival’s philanthropic arm. Notes for Notes became one of the organization’s grant recipients, and beginning in 2014, was invited to set up a backstage recording trailer at the four-day music festival. Bonnaroo artists — Nashville’s Ben Folds and Moon Taxi, among many others — can drop by the trailer to add their music to selected Notes for Notes youth tracks.
“This has just been a great meeting ground,” Gilley says, standing near the Notes for Notes trailer in the middle of the Bonnaroo media area. “And the tracks [are] a great introduction to describe what we do as an organization to all these artists.”
The Notes for Notes organization has picked up a few other Nashville friends since moving to the area in 2011. The Country Music Association Foundation pledged to open five more Notes for Notes studios across the country, two of which recently debuted in Atlanta and Detroit, bringing the number of Notes for Notes studios to 11 nationwide. LightsOut Events, a local Nashville events company, has begun hosting monthly supporting concerts at East Side Live.
My Morning Jacket bassist Tom Blankenship is another friend of the organization. “[When I was growing up], there was nothing anywhere close to this,” says Blankenship, who has stopped by the Notes for Notes recording studio inside the Preston Taylor Boys & Girls Club to record a few tracks.
He’s quick to point something out about the studio. “[Nashville regional manager Jarrad James has] got that softball coach kind of thing,” he says of his East Nashville neighbor and friend on the other side of the recording studio glass. “He’s got great energy, he’s really positive. He’s gonna be honest with you about what’s going on. It’s that encouragement that you can’t get from somewhere else.”
He smiles, then continues. “And he’s also a cool guy.”
“Being here [at Notes for Notes], I’ve learned more about myself,” Queen McElrath says slowly. “I’m very outspoken, and sometimes that’s not good.”
She pauses and laughs, then smiles. “Sometimes it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.”
McElrath walks into the studio booth. A few photos are taken as she raps.
“Queen, aren’t you famous?” a girl of 7,with pigtails and big eyes, asks.
“Not yet,” McElrath replies, moving the mic stand a few feet back.
“But you always at shows and concerts and events,” the girl with the pigtails says.
“That don’t matter,” McElrath insists. She tells the girl about coming into the studio and practicing every day, and about the importance of being there, every day, working hard.
“You got to water the seeds for them to grow,” she counsels.
McElrath slides on the black headphones and closes her eyes, leaning herself into the mic, catching the right beat before sailing off on her music wave. And the little girl with the big eyes and pigtails looks on, never taking her eyes off McElrath for a second.
Sometimes, what you say and how you say it is so much more than words.