Plenty of recording studios in the world have achieved legendary status. Abbey Road. Electric Lady. Sound City. It all comes down to the names of the artists who have tracked their music there and the folks working behind the boards trying to make it sound perfect.
That’s likely why you haven’t heard the name of Scullville Studio. Based in Egg Harbor Township, a small municipality about 20 minutes outside of Atlantic City, New Jersey, the short-lived recording space didn’t have many big names come through its doors during its short existence, but the ones that did stop by left a mark. Levon Helm recorded some tracks there, as did Mavis Staples. Bruce Springsteen and his wife lent their talents to the debut album by sometime E Street Band member Soozie Tyrell. Otherwise, the artists that committed their talents to tape aren’t quite so familiar.
But in the eyes of some of the people that worked at Scullville, in particular Rachel Alina, a recording engineer who learned her trade at the studio, the space took on a much bigger meaning. Alina’s experiences there and in the surrounding area formed the core of her new book of poetry Locals.
Recently published by Styles Upon Styles, the record label that Alina has worked with steadily over the past decade, the collection is rich with details not only of the people that she interacted with as she came into her professional life but also little bits of technical knowhow that plop the reader in the space with her.
“Trident 80C/mixing desk,” she writes. “Have to walk/through/the lounge,/live room/vocal booth/to control room… tape machine/against/the wall.”
“I really believe in the power of myths and looking at our lives as myths and look at ourselves and the people around us as archetypes,” Alina said, speaking recently from her studio in New York about Locals. “These little gods and goddesses in the world. When I started writing these and telling this story, that was the mindset I was telling them from.”
Alina speaks about her book and most things with a sense of bemusement. Like she can’t believe her own luck that this little side hustle of poetry is working out. Like she still can’t believe all the stories she was able to hear and experiences she was able to absorb during her time at Scullville. Like she still can’t believe that she is alive to tell these tales.
In one particularly devastating poem in Locals, Alina admits that she tried to take her own life when she was in middle school after being bullied relentlessly. “Tried to die/with pain pills,” she writes, “to make it stop./Glad the doctor/saved me.”
For as heartfelt and deep as her poems run, Alina still sounds surprised that all of this came out of her. She had dabbled in the medium during her high school years but had diverted her creative energy toward making records. Somewhere along the line, she realized that it felt false to her to be making demands of the people whose art she’s shepherding into existence when she hadn’t forced herself to go through the same process. She soon signed up for a poetry workshop led by author Danniel Schoonebeek. During one class, the teacher arrived with a batch of vintage postcards, encouraging his students to use the picture on the front as inspiration and the small scale of the card to write a short, concise poem.
“There was this one that was a sketched advertisement for this seaside hotel,” Alina remembers. “When I was in high school, I was a chambermaid at this hotel on the Jersey Shore, and I just looked at this postcard and thought, ‘This is me. And I can write about anything.’”
As she focused in on her experiences in New Jersey, making records and dealing with the myriad characters that recorded at Scullville or held court at nearby bars, the memories and poems poured out in short bursts, leaving behind enough for her first book.
Among them is memories of a session she did with Birdie Busch, a folk artist and photographer from Philadelphia. “One mic/Neumann U47/into La2A,” the poem reads, “different setting/when she/strums./Changing leaves,/changing lives.” The simple session left such an impact on them both, however, that when they started to put together Locals, Alina hit on the idea of including the recordings with the book.
“These recordings have been my secret treasure for 15 years,” Alina says. “So many road trips where I would listen to them. They were like my little safety blanket.”
The session came about during sessions that Busch was doing at Scullville for one of her more fleshed out solo records. But the comfort level and friendship that the musician had with Alina was such that she was willing to just sit down in front of that Neumann microphone with an acoustic guitar and let some songs come out.
“What was interesting is that Rachel had been listening to these songs still,” Busch says. “They’re demos through this lovely context with someone who was a novice in the sense that she was just starting out, but also someone that had equal conviction for what she was doing and what she wanted to do. That was the spark between us: this belief.”
The music on the accompanying album, titled If You Swim Far Enough, is saturated with that conviction and that intimacy. It doesn’t feel like a batch of tunes tossed together during some beer-fueled late night. Busch performs them with a steady hand and a steadier voice, built from years of practicing and honing the material for recording. But each squeak of fingers on the guitar strings and slight catch in the vocals makes you feel like you’re sitting right on the couch next to Busch, basking in the music’s glow.
Another element of this recording, and the many albums that Alina has had a hand in over the years, is help put a small spotlight on the inequalities happening in studios around the world. As in most parts of the music industry, male engineers and producers far outnumber their female peers. It’s the kind of imbalance that leads to narrow points of view and sometimes awkward experiences in the studio for some musicians. Something that comes out Alina’s poems as well is how she had to stand her ground frequently with male musicians, even noting the faint praise that Helm had, saying that “the girl” was the only one who knew how to mix records properly at Scullville. “Bet he’d learn/my name if/I was a boy,” she writes.
“There’s so few female engineers,” Busch says of Alina, “that she was really putting herself out there with being so convinced so early on that that’s what she wanted to do. I think both of us bonded in that way. We’re both female, working in this male-dominated world. But we also connected because we were trying to do something that was very unconventional.”