This article was originally published in ORANGE Magazine's spring PDF issue in 2015. The video was filmed, edited and produced with Reanna Zuniga for J311F, Reporting Images, at the University of Texas at Austin.
In 2011, when public schools in Texas had their budgets slashed by $5 billion, all eyes turned to fine arts programs across the state. As schools recalculated their expenditures down to the last penny, it was all too clear that the majority of funding would go to standardized testing preparation, while the arts would bare the brunt of the cuts.
Austin, a city brimming with creatives who have an appreciation for the arts, was no exception. However, that same community of creatives responded with a grassroots non-profit called Attendance Records.
Executive director Jenna Carrens founded Attendance Records, an in-school program that connects students with community creatives, four years ago. Carrens, who has been involved with non-profit work for seven years, originally developed the idea while working in public schools through another program.“I was seeing first hand how it was affecting the kids I was teaching,” she says. “This program kind of encompasses all of the arts in one. You get music, art and writing in school.”
The program, provided at Anderson High School and Reagan High School, is divided into two parts: students learn how to create a zine and how to design, write and produce their own album. Artists and musicians from the Austin community come in and work alongside the students, guiding them through the process. Some of the musicians who have worked with Attendance Records include Mother Falcon, Marmalakes, Walker Lukens and the Eastern Sea.
Program director, Lizzie Buckley, is one of the teachers who visits the high schools twice a week. She and her fellow teachers work with students in the Advancement via Individual Determination (AVID) program, which is typically geared toward students who will be the first in their family to go to college and may not necessarily have the means to pursue music and art independently. “Some of them just have really brilliant ideas, and they’re willing to be so authentic,” Buckley says. “Some of the things they share are so deep, because these kids have been through so much. We feel very privileged that they're willing to share and they want to put it out there.”
Walker Lukens and the Eastern Sea recorded “The World, Differently,” the fourth, and most recent, album on Attendance Records. “The World, Differently.” “The kids wrote lyrics independent of us,” Lukens says. “We chose a handful of texts that we liked and molded them into arrangements as we set them to music. For the most part, we were taking away from what the kids had written —– removing verses, creating refrains, et cetera.” Once Carrens received approval from the kids on the songs, the musicians recorded the album at Estuary Recording Facility. The songs on the album cover a wide range of topics: the opening title track looks at the world through the eyes of a dog while “Dear Lover” expresses the pain that comes with being in a long-distance relationship.
Once an album has been recorded, Attendance Records holds an album release party and gives each student a copy, pressed to vinyl. Buckley says this is her favorite part of the process, when she can see it all come together. “We literally start with nothing. We start with a blank sheet of paper and build from there,” she says. “They just blossom throughout the process. Watching these kids grow is something really special. To be a part of that and encouraging that is really wonderful.”
Lukens and the Eastern Sea returned to Reagan High School at the end of the process and performed the songs to the kids. Lukens says for the most part, the kids were embarrassed to have their work performed in front of their peers, but he also thinks they may have learned how to channel their feelings. “I started writing songs when I was a teenager, and like most other songwriters I know, it was a deeply personal endeavor for me —– much more confessional than it is nowadays,” he says. “Maybe it opened up one of those kids’ imaginations in a new way. Maybe it solidified that they should never show their verses to adults.” Lukens says the experience was a “fun challenge to make someone else's words into a song while respecting their intent.”
Garage-pop band Growl and hip-hop duo Magna Carda are recording Attendance Records’ 2015 album. They finished tracking the songs in April, and the release date is set for September. Megz Kelli of Magna Carda says the experience took her back to her own time in high school. “It reminded me of where I was and what I was feeling in high school and reminded me of my growth,” she says. “In the high schools, just from reading the kids’ content, you could see that they’ve been through some things. It’s kind of good to be grounded again and realize that there are still kids in the education system that need attention.”
The members of Growl say that they hope the kids they worked with learned that being emotional is acceptable. “I think when you’re 15 or 16 is a really good time to start writing music,” lead guitarist Sam Houdek says. “It’s that age when you’re still trying to figure out who you are, it helps give you your own identity.” Lead singer Santiago Dietche adds that song writing helps teens process their feelings. “So much of adolescence is about this emotional compass that’s just going on the fritz,” he says. “Puberty is a weird fucking thing.”
Lukens, Magna Carda and Growl all agreed that the arts are an important component of a high school education. “I don’t think schools consider music as important curriculum, especially in Texas, and everything is so math and science focused because that’s where jobs are,” Growl bassist Johnny Lee says. “But there’s a whole separate half of your brain that’s getting ignored.” Lukens agrees: “Being familiar with the arts makes you a more well-rounded person. Being more well-rounded makes you a better person.”
Carrens says it’s important to keep the arts in public schools because it builds confidence and gives students something to look forward to. Buckley agrees,d and says pursuing activities like music and writing provide students with an outlet. “There are a lot of times that kids struggle to find their voice because there are all of these pressures around them, their environment is often really stifling growing up,” Buckley says. “Once you’re older, you kind forget that all these things like heartbreak and those little things mean so much to them at that time. The fact that they have a medium to express that is something that is really special for them.”