Raw music in a digital age: Young Heirlooms find beauty in folk traditions

A mandolin and an acoustic guitar.

It’s not the typical rig that arrest a bar room crowd at MOTR pub or Southgate House Revival. But the Young Heirlooms has been doing just that for more than three years with their heartfelt, folksy reinterpretation of Americana.  

After near-constant touring, a lot of stylistic growth, and one major format change, the duo released their first studio album this month.

Christopher Robinson and Kelly Fine are better known as the Young Heirlooms. They put a modern twist on a blend of traditional Americana, jazz, bluegrass and country. Their 11-song, self-titled album comes after nine months of recording interspersed with a torrent of tours that reach as far as Chicago. The songs are stories, and fuse Fine’s lyrical explorations of character and feeling to Robinson’s musical landscapes of mood and melody.

“There’s a moment when something ties into the universe, transcends the oral experience," says Mark Santangelo, the album’s producer. "This album has that."

With 10 years experience at Warner Bros in Los Angeles, his own label—Element 111—and a hand in countless audio and multimedia projects around Cincinnati, Santangelo still pauses for a breath and a distant look when he speaks of the Young Heirlooms.

“It’s one of the best things I’ve ever produced in my 35 years of production,” he says. “It represents the best of the classic style of Americana recording.”

Robinson and Fine are both from musical, Cincinnati-based families. Robinson, 28, comes from a home with two “gigging” parents who also taught private music lessons—his father piano and his mother the flute.

“It was a way of life—my parents having their music jobs, and making money playing music,” he says.

Robinson played music all through childhood—trumpet, electric bass, guitar—before settling on electric and acoustic guitar. He played his way through half a dozen bands, experimenting with everything from rock and pop punk to blues and jazz.  

Fine grew up in the Mariemont area. Her father is a jazz percussionist, and she recalls running around the house as a child to the likes of Steely Dan. Music lessons began at the age of 3, with piano and voice lessons beginning when she was 6.  

“I’ve always been humming or playing music of some sort,” Fine says. “It’s a form of self-expression for me, almost to excess.”  

In first grade, her teacher stopped a reading group to ask Fine to stop humming so loudly. “Afterward the teacher said, ‘You’re going to be a singer one day.’ I didn’t even realize that the others could hear me.”

In Feb. 2010 Robinson’s band, Come On Caboose, played a back-to-back set with Fine at a benefit for the University of Dayton’s Appalachia Club. Fine was a graphic design student at UD and belonged to the club; a member of Robinson’s band happened to be related to the benefit host. 

Robinson approached Fine after the concert. The pop-y yet genuine resonance of her performance impressed him. She recognized his technical and expressive musical ability. Admiration for bands like Chicago, The Beatles and Bob Dylan sealed the bond. The two began writing music in Cincinnati the following day.

As Robinson and Fine generated material, they drew together a full band that comprised of acoustic and electric guitar, horns, electric bass and drums. The ensemble wrote music and played shows all over Cincinnati.  

After just three months together, the Young Heirlooms were nominated for the 2010 Cincinnati Entertainment Award. The band even produced a seven-song album that nearly made it through final production—but the music didn’t sit right with Fine and Robinson.

“The sound we made wasn’t good for the songs or the story,” Robinson says.  

It was too big, too congested. Fine’s lyrics and Robinson’s melodic styling cried out for a simpler format. The two walked out of a studio mixing session in January 2011 knowing that the band was going in the wrong direction.

“It was a delicate subject,” Fine says. “Should we stick it out with our friends or be true to ourselves?”

In the end, Robinson and Fine walked away from the band. The members scattered—two moved to Los Angeles, one stayed in Cincinnati as part of the Pinstripes, and another in the Saturn Batteries

By the early months of 2011, the Young Heirlooms were again a duo, and they began to rework their material from scratch.  

“At the very core is us,” Fine says. “Us” means a guitar and two voices. Mandolin plays a large role as well because it's an instrument with a high end that reaches beyond and accents the musicians’ vocal range.  

The simplified format puts Robinson and Fine in a position to write music that touches the truest parts of themselves. Honesty is central to both the lyrics and music, which Robinson labors to infuse with mood and melody that are technical while remaining accessible.  

“We start with a musical idea and quickly follow with words," he says. "The question is always, ‘How is this going to work and sound like us?’”

Fine’s connection to Americana and folk grew out of her experience with the UD Summer Appalachia Program. Shortly before formation of the Young Heirlooms, she spent three months in Salyersville, KY, where she worked with teenagers at day camps and seniors in a nursing home.  

“It was like something out of fiction,” she says. “I met these storytellers who looked exactly like Mark Twain. And people playing the mandolin, the dulcimer.”

Immersion in the Appalachian music and storytelling tradition changed her relationship to music and lyrics, and redirected her from pop into something more subtle and profound. The Young Heirlooms grow out of this tradition.

“It’s honest storytelling," Fine says. "That’s why we call it folk."

Fine and Robinson lost access to the original Young Heirlooms recordings when the band split up. The point of conception for the new record came when Robinson crossed paths with Santengelo at the 20th Century Theater in Oakley. Robinson taught guitar lessons there—something he’s been doing since high school—and Santangelo was working on the production of one of his many projects. Robinson brought him a few rough recordings he and Fine made in April 2012.  

“I knew right away that I wanted to make this recording,” Santangelo says. The three set to work immediately, and began doing rough takes in Santangelo’s attic.   

“The songs were brilliant," Santangelo says. "Christopher is very subtly talented, with melodic sensibilities advanced beyond his years. And we didn’t need to change a single word of Kelly’s lyrics. It was remarkable; that just never happens.”

Once Santangelo became familiar with the music, the trio moved recording to Lausche Recording Studios, where Santangelo has been doing work since the 1980s. There he had access to quality, vintage recording equipment that has been used by jazz and acoustic artists over the years.  

It was important to preserve the raw beauty of the music, he says, so he captured the sound with classic RCA 66 ribbon microphones and placed as little in the signal path as possible. They didn’t use any computers, and played all the songs live, capturing them with 24-track analog on two-inch tape.  

“People know the sound of analog,” Santangelo says. “It’s warm and smooth, and a clean picture of what the music really is.”

The recording occurred sporadically over nine months, and took place whenever Robinson and Fine could find shared free space in their busy schedules. 

On top of recording, booking, promoting and playing as many as three shows per week, Robinson teaches guitar lessons and waits tables to support himself and the music. 

Fine works a heavy grab bag of jobs, including tutoring at John P. Parker School in Madisonville, freelance graphic design, two nanny jobs, audio and video production, and reception at a hair salon.  

“It was an insane schedule,” Fine says. “I had all these jobs plus recording for like three months.”

The upswing of the album’s extended timeframe was that it allowed for added guest musicians. Several songs incorporate band friends Benjamin Thomas on banjo and Kyle Elkins on upright bass, both from the College-Conservatory of Music. “Gypsy jazz” guru Paul Patterson of the Faux Frenchmen, also makes an appearance with a string quartet he wrote and performed for the song, “Father’s Hill.”

Since completing the record, Robinson and Fine have taken a short furlough from touring to catch their breath and regroup. 

“We’re excited to see what comes next as writers and a touring band,” Robinson says.

Drawing on the studio experience and a more mature vision of the band’s core musical values, they’re taking slow, deliberate steps to rebuild a full band, incorporating banjo, bass and percussion. And with tentative concerts scheduled in New York and return tours to Chicago, they’re hoping to expand their fan base out of the Midwest and onto the national scene.

“Music has always been my full-time dream," Fine says. "I can’t wait till it’s the only job on my long list."

“It’s taken a lot of sacrifice and growth,” Robinson adds. “Between leaving friends and everything, we had to go through some fire to get where we are now. But this is a better blend of our true selves. I haven’t ever felt more honest about a project.”
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