24/7 Awesome: A Day with Circa at Studio 18 Orlando

by • March 29, 2016

“These arms of miiiine!” The opening of Otis Redding’s classic comes out authentically and with force. To cover Otis is a bold move every time. To cover Otis with the accompaniment of only a guitar is so brash as to be insane. One would need an unwavering confidence in the constitution of one’s voice to try such a feat.

What is he using to pick his guitar? Is that a hotel key? A credit card? He looks like Macklemore on a job interview — shirt and tie with jeans, a lazy mohawk flopped on top of his dome.

Like most things he undertakes, Orlando soul singer Kyle “Circa” Lemaire manages this with aplomb. On this night, he is opening for Nikki Hill at the Social. At the same time, Gary Clark, Jr. is playing a buzz-worthy show at House of Blues. A lot of would-be attendees are out at Disney. The room is busy, but not nearly as crowded as the talent warrants. Circa is happy to talk after the show. Turns out he is involved with a music studio near Winter Park and would love to show us around the next day. 

Studio 18 is a heady reality show waiting to happen. Founded by experienced engineer Connor Smith, its campus is located at the end of a street in an otherwise residential neighborhood. A large two story building is the central nervous center. Circa greets us out front and begins talking almost immediately. For the next hour and some change he will consistently spin a yarn of intrigue, wit, and wisdom. Studio 18 is onto something special.  

Music isn’t some global consort designed to fuck you over. It’s just that too many people in a row do the fast food option which leads to a larger movement.”

Pop music does not have to be shitty. No reasonable person thinks Prince or Michael Jackson is trite or devoid of character, he says. Those guys were revolutionary for a reason.

People like Prince and Michael Jackson put places on the map. Even the casual listener knows the Jacksons are from Gary, Indiana. Go find a fan of life who does not associate Prince with Minnesota.

Orlando’s music scene deserves the same notoriety. Circa is unapologetically trying to create a modern-day Muscle Shoals or Motown. The talent exists, catching that lightning in a bottle, and distributing it to the world is the tough part.

Studio 18’s method for wrangling lightning is well considered. Their dualistic approach to songwriting begins with logic. The 1 in 18 represents the logic required to make a hit record. A studio has to pay the bills, and people need to hear this music outside of Orlando, so there is a little formula involved. Some of the most beautiful compositions in the world never get heard because they are not accessible to a broad audience.

“Meter does not care how beautiful a word is,” Circa says.

Each Studio 18 day follows their logical system. First, seeding. The team sits down in the morning and brings ideas (seeds) to the table. Some seeds are good enough to get to the next step, others die in the seeding meeting. Nine song ideas may begin the day, but only the good ones make it through the gauntlet to the night.

Circa and the other Studio 18 creatives aren’t turning out purely formulaic pop songs, but their approach is methodical. They studied Swedish hitmaker Max Martin to get a feel for what works on a global scale. Martin writes mega hits for Britney Spears, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Maroon 5 — if it was “I Kissed a Girl” big, Max Martin probably wrote or produced it. Martin starts with the melody. He “obsesses” about it, says Circa. The lyrics come much later in the process.

The 8 in Studio 18 represents infinity, the boundless potential of creativity. Pop music needs to be fulfilling and meaningful too. Straight logic can lead to fast food. Sure, your brain is tricked for a moment into thinking it feels good, but the feeling does not stick.

A disciplined approach to making Orlando music famous requires full-time commitment from the players involved. As Circa weaves our tour of Studio 18 through a working studio, down a set of stairs, and through a kitchen, unexplained doorways sit conspicuously unaddressed. “That’s a bedroom. So is that, and that,” he mentions almost as an afterthought.

Studio 18 has musicians living in the walls. “I don’t show everyone this,” Circa tells me while opening another door that looks like a closet. Circa’s roommate is standing in what is apparently the “foyer” of their tiny room. Jack Juan, an outstanding local singer, apparently sleeps on a bench, railroad-style between Circa’s bed and the door. Circa slumbers in what looks like it was probably a breakfast nook before “Making the Band: Orlando” broke out in the building. His closet appears to be a former pantry.

Meals are served a couple of times a day. Circa does a lot of the cooking, but everyone helps out. The day typically begins at 8:00 a.m. and goes for twelve hours. Seeding, recording, getting rid of the bad seeds, watering the good, and ultimately creating a song or two every single day. The process has yielded seventy finished songs in the past two months.

What’s it like to work where you live, basically constantly on the clock? “It’s 24/7 awesome,” says Circa.

We make our way to a converted garage/barn affectionately referred to as “Narnia” due to the fact that access is gained through a wardrobe. Another musician is just waking, and we have imposed on an intimate phone conversation with a female. He says he misses her and only as we are walking out to tour the next piece of campus does it become clear that the conversation is with his mother, not the long-distance love interest we took for granted.

Circa paid to get into his first gig at Will’s Pub. He was due to open for Eugene Snowden but was not on the list. The two had never met. Circa was booked through mutual friends and introductions would not happen until Snowden, the consummate showman, pulled Circa onstage to improvise a few tunes. The 8 of Studio 18 is alive in Circa, as is the 1, both present in spades. The current of creativity partnered with logic is thriving at Studio 18.

The “pick” Circa was using last night is his old EBT card. It is a reminder to stay hungry, keep working hard, and never lose sight of the process. Studio 18’s potential is limitless with such dedicated and talented individuals on board. We will be following that potential every step of the way.

24/7 Awesome: A Day with Circa at Studio 18 by Jason Earle, edited by Matthew Weller.

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