Sound & Vision: Vashon Island’s Remoteness Fosters a Unique Artist Community

Sound and Vision
12/12/2019
Emily Fox
Zola Jesus // photo by Melissa Wax

KEXP's Sound & Vision airs every Saturday morning from 7-9 AM PT, featuring interviews, artistry, commentary, insight, and conversation to that tell broader stories through music, and illustrate why music and art matter. You can also hear more stories in the new Sound & Vision Podcast. New episodes are out every Tuesday. Subscribe now.

Listen to the full segment at the 35:45 mark below.

 


This story was produced by Drew Pine.

Vashon Island sits in the middle of Puget Sound between Seattle and Tacoma. It’s just a quick 15- to 20-minute ferry ride from either city. Although only around 11,000 people live on the island, its main town is flush with galleries, venues, restaurants that turn into venues and there’s even a $20 million Center for the Arts. This island attracts creatives and a lot of big named musicians and producers such as Ian Moore, a guitarist and singer-songwriter who has a large following in Texas. 

There’s also British-born audio engineer, producer, and musician Martin Feveyear. Since moving here, he’s worked with Mark Lanegan, Mudhoney, Damien Jurado, Brandi Carlile, and many others.

There’s also Pete Droge, the nationally-recognized singer-songwriter who was on a major label in the 90s and has opened for Tom Petty. His songs have also been featured in movies like Dumb & Dumber and Zombieland.

Droge and his wife Elaine Summers moved to Vashon Island in 1995. They originally built their home studio as a space to record demos to aid in the songwriting process during Pete’s time on a major label. However, that purpose began to shift as they started to settle into life on the island.

“Around ‘99 I started to get more serious about recording,” he says “and I was pivoting towards wanting to be able to make records here.”

Droge started working with other recording artists in the mid-2000s out of his Puzzle Tree Studio. Vashon Island became a retreat for his clients. It returned them to nature and a more relaxed way of life.

“We would have outside artists come out here, and that was a really, kind of a magical time,” says Droge. “Interestingly, most of the clients that we ended up working with were from other cities; so we had folks come from New York, and LA, and Chicago, and Baltimore, and Portland. We had like really cool deals going -- like you could rent a teepee at the youth hostel, and, you know, it was like ten bucks a night.”

He’s talking about the American Youth Hostel Ranch on the northwest side of the island that actually does rent out teepees and cabins. 

“I think it’s 20 acres out there,” says Droge, “it’s this beautiful, hippie commune kind of youth hostel vibe. It just kind of gave it a special charge, when people are really, you know, getting away, and certainly, you know you couldn’t really talk about Vashon and creativity without just talking about the nature. And that’s just the big thing that Elaine and I just always enjoy, and it really, it feels great to share that with other people.”

While they’ve recorded albums for artists across the nation at their home studio on Vashon Island, they’ve also written and recorded original material that’s seen some success. Their song “Two of the Lucky Ones” was featured in the movie Zombieland. 

The song is about Droge and Summers’ daily life on Vashon Island.

“The lyric is ‘standing on a hill, staring at a mountain, swallows dive and turn, trying to catch what we can’t see’ and I mean that’s it you know we’re just standing on this hill and we’re looking at Mt. Rainier and there’s swallows diving around,” says Droge.

The couple ended up on Vashon because they were looking for a place to unwind after tours/   

“The idea was, ‘well, let’s buy a house in the kind of place where you would want to go decompress after a tour’. And that’s really what we found here. I love coming home to Vashon,” says Droge.

The island has attracted other artists for other reasons, like Nika Danilova, the woman behind the project Zola Jesus, who was looking for a temporary escape from life in L.A. back around 2012. 

 “I wanted to just go somewhere totally different,” says Danilova, “so, I found a short-term rental on Vashon Island. It was just so beautiful and so I took the chance and I moved there.”

Danilova describes the island as a hermetic retreat and wanted to go somewhere where no one knew her.

“But then there were other people that were living on the island around the same, like other musicians, but we never connected while I was there. It was very isolated – consciously isolated,” she says.

Danilova was also inspired by the island. She wrote her song “Lawless” while living on Vashon.  
 
“It’s really about just -- overpopulation, and it’s about living in areas that are densely colonized and just wanting to break free from that and to live somewhere where there’s space,” Danilova says. “And there’s space, not only physical space, but there’s this emotional, and psychological, and spiritual space within a natural world and I felt that as I was on Vashon Island, writing it, looking out at the Sound and not seeing a house in sight, and feeling like humans just aren’t able to experience that enough these days.”

She says even though Vashon is right next to Seattle, it seems a world away.

“It’s just a really special place,” says Danilova. “I’ve tried to find other places like that, especially when I was looking to buy a house in the Seattle area, but Vashon is just this enclave of a bunch of weirdos and interesting people, and it’s really beautiful.”

Though conscious isolation on Vashon Island helped fuel Zola Jesus as an artist, the difficult logistics of a ferry schedule and the end of her short-term lease ultimately caused her to leave the island.

“The ferry doesn’t run 24-hours a day,” she says, “so it’s really impossible to live there if you, like me, have to get on early flights in the morning. There are times when I wanted to go to Seattle for a show, but the ferry would stop running at like 3 am or something like that.”

Danilova has since moved to another place where she finds calm isolation -- a farm in her home state of Wisconsin.

Chris Ballew is the former lead singer of the popular 90s band The Presidents of the United States of America. He and his wife, artist Kate Endle, are about to move from West Seattle to live on Vashon Island full time. 

“I discovered Vashon way back in high school,” says Ballew. “The guitar player for The Presidents, Dave Dederer, his family had a little shack out there. And so, we used to go out every weekend for quite a stretch and just kind of walk on the beach and hang out and that’s when my eyes were first opened to ‘whoa this is like close to the city and feels like I’m a million miles away, this is cool!’ It struck a chord with me, although, you know I was a teenager so I didn’t really know what having a chord struck felt like, or meant, actually.”

Ballew and Endle are currently working on renovating their dream home in Paradise Cove, an idyllic, quiet, private, beachfront neighborhood on the Southwestern side of the island, the perfect spot to watch the sunset behind the Olympic Mountains. 

“Yeah, it’s magical,” says Ballew. “I use Vashon more as a place to turn myself on. I feel completely, for lack of a better term, switched on when I’m there. My sensory feelers are hyper-sensitive out there to creative ideas, because I don’t have all the noise, literal noise and visual noise, of living in the city.” 

There is a large and thriving artistic community of all disciplines out on Vashon. If you ask Ballew about this.

“Well, we like to call Bainbridge the Professional Island and Vashon is the Amateur Island,” says Ballew. “We don’t really have our act together. There’s a lot of amateur-ness about the island, and I think that’s kind of relaxing for creative people.”

A rural community within reach of the big city that lives solely at the mercy of the ferry system. It’s not for the faint of heart, but for creatives who feel the urge to distance themselves from the noise and commotion of the city, Vashon Island has proven to be a haven, an inspiration, and its home to an incredibly unique community of exceptional artists. 
 

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