To Eric Lichter, it's no mystery why artists from New York, Boston and Providence come to record their music in an old house on a gravel road, near Cedar Lake in Chester. "There's barely [cell phone] reception here," says Lichter, who is the owner and operator of Dirt Floor Recording Studio. "You don't fall into the same temptation of distraction that you would in a city."
It's a formula that famously worked for Bob Dylan, the Band, and other artists at Big Pink in the Catskills and Malibu's Shangri-La in the '60s and '70s. The similarities between Dirt Floor and these storied houses go beyond the seclusion: vintage tape machines and guitars fill the studio, which started in 2006 with analog equipment only. It moved across town to its current location last fall.
The throwback angle helped bring in clients, and over time, Lichter's work has generated its own buzz. A 2012 feature in "Tape Op" magazine reads, "[Lichter's] work as a producer and engineer has gained Dirt Floor a reputation for being one of the best studios in the Northeast for roots-based music" The Madison native takes a hands-on approach to recording. He coaches his clients, who come to record folk to rock and roll, on their compositions and plays anything that's needed, from keyboards to pedal steel.
"You spend so much time writing and ruminating," he says of his clients, "It's my job to wipe that clean." It's the opposite of studios where an engineer sets the levels, presses record, and gets out of the way for as many overdubs as the lead guitarist demands, resulting in albums Lichter feels are bogged down and over-polished.
He would know. Lichter, 42, lived in New York, Los Angeles, Colorado, and Martha's Vineyard before returning to his home state, and at one point, he was signed to a major label. "I was dropped before anything came out of it, but I was on the hook for the money the label had sunk into the record. I basically became an indentured servant," he says.
Lichter worked off his debt not behind the sound board, but in the label's offices. He recalls, "It was such a drag seeing how the machine was run."
The drudgery planted a seed. "My goal was never to be a producer," he explains. "It was to take matters into my own hands. I'd hear artists or songwriters making records and think, 'What a lost opportunity. That could have been so good. They didn't get it. It sounds like you thought too hard about it. It's not whistling like a breeze through the trees.'"
Lichter's production style is sparse, yet warm. An acoustic guitar sounds rich because it has space to fill. Harmonies have a spontaneous, fireside feel. He uses modern equipment now in addition to the analog stuff because he can — people come to the studio for its reputation these days, not for the gimmick.
Kerri Powers, a singer-songwriter who lives in Newington, was playing a gig in Hamden where some people were talking about Dirt Floor. She'd heard the name before, so she looked into it. As soon as she heard the music, she wanted to record there.
"Eric is doing this for all the right reasons," she explains. "It's more about making art and true grit music, as opposed to being in the fame part of it." Her self-titled album came out in January.
Being down-to-Earth doesn't mean Dirt Floor can't grow. In the last year Lichter has brought in another session musician/producer, James Maple, as well as Steve Wytas, who ran a commercial recording studio in West Hartford for 10 years.
"There are a lot of little studios in Connecticut," says Ed McKeon who has hosted "Caterwaul," a folk show on WWUH for more than two decades, "but all these young artists make their way down to Eric's place." McKeon says albums recorded there stand out: "Nice, un-rushed, produced, but not over-produced."
As the weather warms, the studio plans to have more events that are open to the public. They recently removed a wall to make more standing room behind roughly 25 chairs they can set up for small concerts. Lichter says that like his clients, most of the fans who come to shows at Dirt Floor drive in from out of state, though more Chester residents have been showing up lately. "When I got here, there was a very highly concentrated community of free thinkers," he says. "Word is spreading in town."
Elli Perry and Eric Lichter play live at Dirt Floor Studios, 96 Cedar Lake Road, Chester, Sunday, March 30, at 6 p.m. Donations accepted at the door. Information: dirtfloor.com.