It's an interesting coincidence that St. Cecilia Studios is located right next door to the Chicago Music Store on West Congress Street, because the famed retailer is where it all began for St. Cecilia owner Steven Tracy.
"I bought my first guitar from Chicago Store when I was a teenager and within a few months I bought my first reel-to-reel recording (machine)," he explains. "For me, the recording and music were always linked; there was no separation. I didn't sit around practicing scales or I didn't geek out about gear—there was no line between the two. There was only one way to accomplish what I heard in my head and that was to record it—that was one more instrument to use."
As a young man, Tracy played in a multitude of local bands that were around "for a minute," he says. He relocated to Seattle in 2002, forming the grandiose alt-rock band the Myriad and getting work in what was then called Ironwood Studios, which "did a lot of the bigger bands from that area. All the stuff you'd expect, like Alice in Chains or Pearl Jam, that kind of thing. That was my first time making records, at least for a living. And when I wasn't on tour I was always producing other people and other artists."
The Myriad went on to midlevel success as a recording and touring act, peaking in 2008 with heavy MTV2 rotation for the single "A Clear Shot." "We got picked up by a small label, put out a record, moved on to a bigger label for the next, and basically spent the next eight years on the road," Tracy says. "We were an indie band but got some love from MTV and some love from radio. Our drummer died a few years ago and it felt weird just going on like it was business as usual. Since I'd produced records before, it just felt natural to just jump back into that and just sleep in my own bed for a while."
He spent some time in Atlanta doing production and engineering work, but at his brother's suggestion, he packed up his equipment and came home. "This building became available and my brother said 'Why don't you move your studio out here?' I came and visited and just got superexcited about everything happening downtown. Tucson just felt like ... everything I hoped for it to be when I was a kid, and it just feels like it's really on the crux of something amazing," he says. "There's something really magical about Congress Street right now. Just being able to get work done during the day and then ... 10 years ago, I don't know what (the artists recording in the studio) would have done at night. There's always been a handful of places, but there seems to be a lot more places to get into trouble right now. I feel like there's something really magical happening here and any way I can participate. ... It's not even a tangible thing. It's just something I'm really excited about."
After eight months of Tracy working mostly alone to turn a somewhat decrepit building into a beautiful, comfortable recording space, St. Cecilia Studios officially became a legal business on Friday, May 9, and hosted an open house the following night. The studio has two recording rooms, a lounge and a living area upstairs for out-of-town acts tracking there or even for touring bands coming through the city with no budget for a hotel room. St. Cecilia's first sessions begin at the end of the month.
Though the rooms are full of top-tier musical equipment, the only piece of gear that seems to really excite Tracy is the main mixing console—and only because it once belonged to Merle Haggard. Other than that, he says, "My job is to help make great music. I've found that I don't know anybody who works at their best creatively when they're staring at their watch, thinking 'How much did that just cost me because I messed up that guitar part?' So, we're not gonna worry about going a day or two (into overtime), because ultimately what's best for the project is what's best for everybody."
With St. Cecilia, Tracy appears to be most interested in putting that last statement into action: What's best for the project is best for everybody. Subsequently, he doesn't have one particular way of working; he does what's necessary for the recording.
"Sometimes I'm just a monkey pushing buttons. If someone has a real clear vision of what they want to do, then I just get out of the way," he explains. "Other times I'll just jump in and get really invested. Everything from what it sounds like, to the arrangements or lyrics or whatever. I'm there to help fulfill what they have in their head. I can play on the projects and I'm also really lucky to have some great folks that are amazing players that can participate, too.
"It feels like there's a change happening here, where people seem to be interested in doing things that are uncomfortable for them and new, which is where I like to be, in that tension. And it feels like that's where Tucson's at. It's very under the radar but I don't think that's gonna last much longer."