There’s a sense of freedom and discovery in the videos and songs coming out of Pachyderm Music Lab. In “Tiger,” 6-year-old Liam, in matching animal face mask and ears, prowls and growls in front of green-screened footage of forests and tigers. Over blurting electro-funk keyboards and hip-hop rhythms, he recites a reverberating dada poem: “Stripes look nice/ Powerful bite/ Day and night.”
Two 7-year-olds, Evelyn and Cadence, celebrate friendship with “Butterfly Cockroach BFFs.” Over bouncy ’80s synthesizers and a chunky bass line, the two girls sing and shout about how the titular insects bonded over their shared love of ice cream. The accompanying video features bright colors, frenzied dancing and plenty of butterflies and cockroaches.
Thirteen-year-old Logan’s ethereal “February Sun” features imagery so haunting that a video is not necessary. Over pensive, pulsing indie-rock instrumentation, Logan’s airy vocals spiral in freefall: “Gaze through the window as I spill upon the ground/ Fill to the brim, I could sink until I drown.”
“As the song progresses you hear her voice get stronger until the end when she yells,” Logan’s teacher Krystle Baller says. “You hear how she found her power voice.”
Helping students like Logan find their voice through music is a mission for musician, mother, teacher and TED-talker Baller, who founded Pachyderm Music Lab (PML) in Indian Trail in 2016 then relaunched in Optimist Park in 2019. The LGBTQ-friendly school teaches music to students aged 5 through 50s, or at least that’s the range at the moment, but anyone is welcome. Baller and her team operate out of a renovated house on East 22nd Street, teaching students to play instruments, write songs and gain the confidence to access their inner power.
Fifteen of those riotous, pensive and powerful tunes are compiled on the music school’s first album, Elephant in the Room, which drops on Bandcamp and the PML website April 2. Pachyderm Music Lab will also unleash a Facebook livestream the same day.
“Think Headbangers Ball meets TRL,” Baller offers. “We’re adding all of these cool transitions with animation and claymation of the PML [logo] and interesting sound clips like back in the golden days of MTV.”
Proceeds raised by the album go to scholarships for families that can’t afford regular lessons at PML. T-shirts featuring the album’s elephantine cover art, done by local artists Elizabeth Palmisano and Lo’Vonia Parks, will also be available for purchase.
In addition to running PML, Baller is the founder and frontwoman of the band Hey RICHARD. The all-female, queer-friendly group, comprised of bassist/vocalist Baller, keyboardist Savanna Baxter, guitarist Sarah Kuhaneck and drummer Laura Staples, plays blistering hard-rock songs about equality and women’s issues. A five-song debut EP, Hey RICHARD, is coming out at the end of May.
Baller is also music director for Girls Rock Charlotte (GRC), which amplifies the voices of girls, women, and gender-diverse youth and adults. With its popular series of summer camps, GRC moves the needle for inclusion and gender equity.
The premise of the rock camp is that kids form a band over one week’s time. The newborn band then writes an original song, practices it to get up to speed, and at the end of the summer session plays the song in front of an audience.
“Through that process you see their confidence explode,” Baller says.
Cooking in the Pachyderm Music Lab
With the help of local arts pioneers and property owners Ruth Ava Lyons and Paul Sires, Baller was able to sign a lease on the Pachyderm Music Lab’s current location on East 22nd Street in February 2019. The house is perfect, Baller says, as it’s right off the light rail and a bus line, but initially the building needed work.
DPR Construction donated manpower and material to build a wheelchair ramp and an outdoor stage. They also renovated the dining room and kitchen, encased the asbestos ceilings, widened door frames, and set up a security system and cameras.
In all, GRC and PML received $250,000 worth of donations and labor from the community. Pachyderm Music Lab set up shop with six teachers including Baller. Delana Turner, Celeste King, Olivia Conti, Marissa Barrett and Mitch Moore rounded out the staff.
The GRC board helped PML by buying 40 lessons from them at the beginning of the pandemic and lockdown. Baller began teaching virtual lessons but says it was like pulling teeth to get teenagers to show up. She determined to resume face-to-face lessons as soon as possible, and in August PML returned to in-person lessons with safety protocols in place.
Baller would have loved to host a live concert on PML’s stage to showcase students’ work, but that wasn’t going to happen with COVID an ongoing public health crisis. Instead, she taught herself how to produce music, using Logic Pro and Soundtrap Pro software, and decided to release an album featuring 15 student songs. Along the way, she also taught herself video production to create videos for some of the songs.
“As soon as I [said], ‘We’re going to make an original song. We’re going to produce it together,’ all of the kids are overflowing with excitement.” Baller offers. “I have lethargic teenagers skipping out of their cars.”
Baller met in-person with each student for their respective recording session, during which they gradually added layers to the tracks.
The resulting songs are pensive, funny and surreal, each crackling with the energy of someone discovering their voice. Seventeen-year-old Damyen conjures spiraling grimy guitar riffs on “Chains that Bind.” Riding a prowling bass line provided by Pachyderm Music Lab student Ruby, and a dry declaratory vocal, the melodic metal tune suggests a meet up between Tool and latter-day King Crimson.
“It’s about all the toxic masculinity [Damyen] deals with when he plays video games.” Baller says of the song. Sixteen-year-old Cecelia’s “Sirens” is a hypnotic cross between folk and art rock. As her airy alto entwines with a cascading whirlpool of cross-picked guitars, striking lyrics emerge: “I have raised the wrath of the demon.”
“Cece listened back to that [song] and she hates it,” Baller says. “She’s like, ‘I sound like a child.’ I said, ‘That is ridiculously beautiful. I’m crying listening to it.’”
Other videos, like Alex’s “Mashed Potatoes,” features deranged puppet animation and an appearance by Mr. Potato Head. Baller’s 7-year-old daughter Cadence raps on “Magic Sushi,” a song where a flying pig gets a stomach ache from eating too many stars. The winged porker finds relief in a magic sushi roll.
Baller’s ambition for Elephant in the Room is that listeners will find inspiration to unleash their own voices; if a 5-year-old or a 7-year-old can write and record a song, so can they. She also hopes they’ll be energized by the fun tunes that make them laugh and moved by the deep songs that touch their heart.
One such song is Logan’s plaintive “February Sun.” Baller recalls that Logan’s mother brought her music-loving LGBTQ daughter to Pachyderm Music Lab feeling it would be a good fit. To spur the writing process, Logan brought her favorite book, a volume of poetry called Sparrow. Baller had Logan go through the book and circle certain words. Those words were used to formulate lyric lines.
The song builds in quiet intensity until Logan unleashes a cry of yearning and frustration. Baller remembers that lesson, and the fact that Logan felt too shy to yell. Nevertheless, Baller urged Logan to release her pent-up feelings.
“I said, ‘Sometimes you need to yell to get stuff out.’” Baller also urged Logan to move her body when she sang, to wave her arms and raise them to the sky. When the pair listened back to the track they had just recorded, Logan was stunned.
“She asked, ‘I sound like that?’ I said, ‘Yeah, you just found your power.’ When she left the music lesson, she went out the door with her arms in the air, yelling to her mom, “I found my power today.’”
Creating a safe space
Even for someone who keeps their iron in as many fires as Baller, 2018 was a busy year. She was running Lady Rockstars, which she had launched in 2014 for GRC volunteers who wanted to keep making music after camp ended. With a shoestring budget, the members met at The Cube’s former location in NoDa and started playing on the venue’s stage.
Baller was also married with a daughter, and running an earlier iteration of Pachyderm Music Lab in Indian Trail that she had established in 2016. But the accomplished musician, mother and businesswoman harbored a secret.
“I felt like a fraud because I’d do all this work to empower women and then go home and be disempowered constantly and being made to feel worthless and small,” Baller remembers.
While she was finding community, befriending supportive and creative people, and making progress with her business, she was going home to be ripped apart emotionally by her husband.
“My marriage was terrible and my ex was trying to constantly dim my light,” Baller maintains.
Then, at work, one of Baller’s students told her that her parents abused her.
“I did everything that you’re supposed to do in that situation; I got social services involved,” Baller recalls. “In the process I got triggered from all my past stuff that I haven’t dealt with.”
Baller realized she was working to create a safe space for kids because she needed that safe space herself. Meanwhile, she struggled through her own depression, turning to alternative healer Rachel Langhart.
At Langhart’s home, Baller underwent chakra therapy. In Hindu and esoteric tradition, the chakras are centers of spiritual power at seven points of the human body: the root, sacrum, solar plexus, heart, throat, third eye and crown.
As the practitioner pressed on Baller’s heart, Baller saw the image of the painting “Cache Cache” by Pavel Tchelitchew. The eerie painting depicts a tree that harbors the ghosts of children. A little girl holds her hand up on the base of the tree and she’s about to touch a moth.
Baller realized what the painting meant. When she was 14, Baller’s art teacher gave her a poster of the painting. At the same time that Baller accepted the macabre gift, she was trapped in a toxic relationship with an older man she considered her boyfriend.
“This guy groomed me and was raping me repeatedly,” Baller says. Memories of the violation came flooding back, but this time Baller recalled how it actually happened, and rejected the version she had been telling myself where she was at fault.
From Trent Reznor to TEDx
Growing up impoverished in West Virginia, Baller kept her bisexuality secret from her family and peers. After she was raped, Baller, who already lacked confidence in herself, plunged into alcohol and drug use. Help came in the form of music, initially the dark musings of Smashing Pumpkins, White Zombie, Coal Chamber, Korn and Rage Against the Machine.
“Hearing Trent Reznor sing about dark things, just knowing that other people felt the same way that I felt, helped me,” Baller says.
She pestered her parents into buying her a bass guitar, and when she got the instrument, she taught herself to play from songs downloaded on Napster and guitar tabs she found in Guitar World magazine.
Too shy to play in front of people, Baller also turned to art, reasoning she wouldn’t have to be present when anyone critiqued that. After studying graphic design at Fairmont State University, she decided to get out of West Virginia.
“I felt like if I don’t get out … my life is just going to blur together. I won’t have memories of anything other than being here and being miserable,” she says.
Baller saved up $2,000 and hitched a ride with a friend to Hilton Head, South Carolina. There she worked waiting tables and would often go out at night to dance to a popular covers band. One night, she had enough alcohol in her system to pick up a bass beside the stage and start playing it. Her skill on the instrument wasn’t lost on the band members. In short order, Baller became the band’s new bassist. The first song she played was a cover of the Gorillaz’ “Feel Good Incorporated.”
“It was so scary but I was exhilarated,” Baller recalls. After playing in the band for a year, Baller yearned to live in a city. She moved to Charlotte in 2003 and was initially disappointed in the city’s oversaturated music scene, finding it impossible to book gigs for herself.
Baller took a retail job she hated and fell into a marriage she didn’t really want. At age 28, Baller got pregnant, and when she discovered she was having a daughter she was devastated. She remembered all that had happened to her as a young girl, and how hard it is for a woman to navigate a patriarchal society. But when she looked at her newborn Cadence, Baller’s fears melted away.
“I remember … [thinking] she’s completely perfect and nothing about her needs to change,” Baller says. “It’s the world that needs to change, and I’m going to do it.”
In 2014 the newly formed Girls Rock Charlotte put out a call for volunteers. Baller showed up and was instantly anointed bass teacher, despite her protestations that she didn’t know how to teach. The first year at rock camp, Baller was on fire. Every kid she taught went out and got a bass.
Soon Baller was traveling to homes, earning a fee teaching children to play bass. It inspired Baller to see how each student came out of their shell and found their voice through music.
After launching Lady Rockstars in Noda and Pachyderm Music Lab in Indian Trail, and still suffering through a failing marriage, Baller was at a crossroads. At the urging of artist and trans activist Lara Americo, Baller applied to give a talk for TEDx Charlotte, and waited for approval or rejection from the not-for-profit corporation.
Flash forward to minutes after her therapeutic breakthrough with chakra therapy: Baller was in her car, crying her eyes out, but the pain from the past was gone and the reality of her situation was clear. At that moment, an email came through on her phone.
“Congratulations, you’re a TEDx speaker,” the message read. Baller decided her TED Talk had to be about dismantling the patriarchy.
“When you give a woman a microphone, she’s afraid to be the most powerful voice in the room,” Baller says in her talk, entitled Women Turn Up the Volume. “This fear stems from girls being conditioned to silence their voices. We live in a world that teaches girls to be perfect, not powerful.”
Baller’s soon-to-be-ex-husband didn’t come to see her speak. Subsequently, Baller’s daughter Cadence asked her, “Mommy, why is daddy so mean to you?” At that point, Baller realized she had to get out of her marriage, even if it meant closing her business.
Fortunately, the community of kids, parents, music lovers and musicians that Baller created for herself came to her aid. Ruth Ava Lyons and Paul Sires — gallery owners, artists, art patrons and unofficial godparents of NoDa — reached out to Baller just as she closed Pachyderm Music Lab in Indian Trail. Ava Lyons offered the use of a house in Optimist Park, which GRC and PML decided to split, signing the lease in February 2019.
Baller, a woman who lost her confidence in childhood, and worse at 14, had gained the power to help others find their voice.
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