Stephen Antonelli doesn’t know if it was the spirit of God that first drew him to music, but he remembers the moment it happened in a Southern black church.
Antonelli walked into the church one morning as a 6- or 7-year-old and was enveloped by the raucous praise music.
“I remember the cymbals flopping … the only thing I could do was laugh,” said Antonelli, now a music producer and engineer in Catonsville. “Something hit me. I thought, ‘I want to do this.’”
Since then, Antonelli has lived in Nashville and New York City, working in the music industry and, he said, gaining the experience necessary to open and run SongBuilder Studios at 709 Frederick Road.
SongBuilder is the only listed music studio on Frederick Road, though Catonsville is not short of music and instrument shops.
The studio in Catonsville opened in 2010. Since then, Antonelli has worked with clients who need help finishing the lyrics to songs, some who want to discuss what it means to be in the music industry and others who have the vocals down but need someone to mix in some instrumentation.
Antonelli, who lives in Catonsville, said he likes to work with “anyone,” but has a special affinity for musicians who have a message or style that he personally can “believe in.”
“I want to be able to really dig my teeth into something,” he said.
SongBuilder Studios offers a variety of of services, including help with songwriting, full production of albums, mixing tracks and classes and training in how to work in the music industry. For a simple recording session, clients can expect to pay $60 an hour. A more intensive session, with conversation and help songwriting runs $85 an hour, Antonelli said.
For some clients, like Hunter Rich, a vocalist and songwriter currently studying at American University in Washington, D.C., work at SongBuilder is largely focused on recording, mixing and engineering songs.
“We started back in May, just laying some tracks,” Rich said. “We’re working on finishing up mixing right now.” Rich said his current project with Antonelli is a three-track EP that he hopes will be out within a month. He said 10 percent of the album’s proceeds will go toward The Andrew McDonough B+ Foundation, a nonprofit that provides emotional and financial support for families experiencing childhood cancer.
Rich said that as a performer in the “singer/songwriter” genre it’s easy to get lost in the shadow of performers like John Mayer, Jason Mraz or Jack Johnson. But, Rich said, for a singer to break out, there has to be “something different.”
“Rather than try to follow that gold standard, you try to make your own,” he said. “Steve was kind of like, ‘OK, this is how I hear this, let’s try to add this component to make it different.’ That’s been incredibly helpful. It’s something that I couldn’t have done on my own.”
Maureen Droney, managing director of the Grammy Producers and Engineer Wing, said some of the best qualities in a music producer are patience and humility.
“There can be stress, anxiety, dissension, but somehow you have to keep it all together and keep your eye on that you’re really [in the studio] for the sake of the music,” Droney said. “It’s not about anybody’s ego or anybody’s decision being any better, you’re there serving that song or that album.”
Rich said he sees those kinds of qualities in Antonelli, and that they’re able to get along because they both focus on improving the music.
“We have very similar philosophies about how we think people should be treated,” Rich said. “It just always made sense, and every time I step into the studio with him it just makes a little more sense.”
The project and the community
Dr. Richard Hinton, medical director of MedStar Sports Medicine, has been a practicing physician for decades.
“My dad used to sing or whistle around the house all the time. I catch myself doing the same,” Hinton said.
About two years ago, Hinton started working with SongBuilder Studios to produce the Common Man Project, a nonprofit and musical enterprise that seeks to inspire “Americans to find joy, entertainment and well being of their own creation, by their own hands and through their own activities.”
Before partnering with SongBuilder, Hinton had “never sang publicly, professionally or in the church choir,” he said.
But now he’s got a recorded album, a website and a nonprofit with himself as the public face.
“I’ll be honest, I have a very busy job,” Hinton said. “I find Steve’s studio a respite.”
Hinton said that when he’s in a session at SongBuilder, as much as 40 percent of the time will be spent “talking about the messages behind the music.”
“We always have a lot of the conversation about what a song is about before we even start writing the musical side of the song,” said Hinton, who wrote the lyrics to the songs. “Each song has started with a lot of conversation.”
The Common Man Project has an upcoming fundraiser, which Hinton is headlining with a band. The concert event is scheduled for Sept. 8 at the Hayfields Country Club in Baltimore County.
Tickets are available online and proceeds are going toward The Foundery, a maker space in Port Covington that provides access to crafting tools like drill presses and 3D printers and that also hosts crafting classes, from woodcutting to knife making.
Hinton said he finds maker spaces like The Foundery “intriguing” and that they connect with the message he’s trying to spread.
“We are looking to inspire Americans to find joy, entertainment and a sense of well being of their own creation,” Hinton said of his project.
Antonelli said he knew Hinton was on to something the first time he heard him sing in the studio.
“He explained that he had these songs for 30 years, and that he was a little nervous about singing, because he hadn’t sang in front of anybody,” Antonelli said. “But then I was like, ‘Woah.’”
Nate Lanzino, a freelance artist who used to work at SongBuilder, collaborated on the original album with Hinton and Antonelli.
“We’re getting some shows together, we’ve played a few already,” Lanzino said. “We’re just kind of seeing where that goes with no real expectations except maybe getting more people involved in the thought process behind the project.”
Twice a month, Antonelli goes to to The Children’s Home at 205 Bloomsbury Ave., to work with kids at the long-term care facility in a music studio on the home’s campus.
The children have access to the songs they record, but as of now, they are not published publicly.
He said working with the kids at The Children’s Home can be “heartbreaking,” because so many of the children sing and rap about things like being homeless, going hungry or having alcoholic family members when they get to the studio.
“That stuff comes out in their music every single time,” Antonelli said. “It’s just powerful. Anybody with a heart wants to help those kids.”
The partnership between SongBuilder and The Children’s Home has been ongoing for about two years, according to Bruce VanDervort, a spokesman for the home.
VanDervort said the 144-square foot studio cost about $4,500 and was paid for by a donor.
“They don’t charge us a cent, and it provides our kids with some positive outlets to express themselves,” said Andre Cooper, executive director of The Children’s Home.
Cooper added that Antonelli is a good fit for the volunteer work because of the way he works with the children.
“He kind of gets our kids. I know that our kids are very challenging at times, but he never has a negative thing to say about the kids, even times when some of their language can be offensive, some of their behaviors can be trying,” Cooper said.
Antonelli said he likes going to the studio at The Children’s Home campus because he sees the kids there having a good time, and getting things off their chest that they might not otherwise express.
“It’s just powerful,” he said. “It is a really good feeling.”
In May this year, Shea Winpigler, 25, quit her full-time job in online retail and started working with Antonelli at SongBuilder.
“It was just super hard in the beginning to make a decision,” she said. “But music has been something that I wanted to dedicate myself to for a really long time.”
Winpigler is the studio manager at SongBuilder, working with clients, managing calendars and handling marketing. She’s also a musician herself, a singer/songwriter who plays ukulele and some guitar.
In the near future, she and Antonelli will be taking SongBuilder on the road to teach classes in the Catonsville area. Winpigler said the studio is working on starting a children’s music class that would be hosted at a local business.
If the first class is successful, Winpigler said, SongBuilder might expand and offer more classes to a wider age group, including adults who may not be able to commit to a full studio session but who are interested in music.
Antonelli said in the future he’d like to work with artists from around the country, not just from the Maryland and D.C. area — though he doesn’t want to pick up and move.
“Mostly that means working with acts that are touring nationally,” he said. “I just want to sort of be a Baltimore, D.C., hub for larger acts.”
And, looking ahead, Antonelli said he has a clear vision for his production career.
“My goal is a Grammy [award],” he said. “That’s my goal.”