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Social distancing brought musical collaboration for 9-year-old

Ukulele player and budding songwriter Louie Phipps connected with adult musicians, who agreed to help him put out an album.

Louie Phipps, who is 9, started playing the ukulele at age 3. By kindergarten he started to write songs. During the pandemic, a songwriting exercise with a professional musician led to Louie recording an album. (Family photo)
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For Louie Phipps, it all started with a toy.

“When I was 3, I got a plastic Elmo ukulele,” the young musician recalled. “I would go around the house,” he said, “making chords and then singing Johnny Cash songs.”

Louie soon upgraded that toy ukulele — or “uke” for short — to a basic model.

“And then Mom thought my dad would play, so she bought him a nicer uke,” the now 9-year-old said. When Gabe Phipps didn’t, Louie made the instrument his own.

The Northampton, Massachusetts, third-grader is a budding singer, songwriter and ukulele player. He’s releasing his first album this week. “Louie Phipps and Friends: We Are Together” is a collaboration with 20 professional musicians and features songs by Louie, who has been writing songs since he was in kindergarten.

Sometimes the ideas just come to him — literally.

“We have this red-tailed hawk, female or male, we don’t know,” he told KidsPost. Last fall, after noticing that the bird kept flying by his house, Louie wrote the song “Hawk” in honor of the feathered visitor. It “must have a nest nearby,” he said.

Trading songs with a pro

During coronavirus pandemic lockdowns last spring, a chance meeting prompted Louie to connect with other musical artists. On a walk one day, Louie’s family encountered Anand Nayak, a Grammy-nominated musician, songwriter and producer. Nayak knew the family through his brother-in-law Matt Fiveash, a musician and friend of Gabe Phipps.

Nayak’s bandmate Corey Laitman had been Louie’s mentor at Northampton’s Youth Performance Festival. Nayak suggested reconnecting with Laitman, so Louie did.

“We started to do a song trade,” Louie said. Each week, he sent Corey five themes. “Corey would pick one, and we’d both write a song about that theme.”

Mandolinist Chris Thile, who was hosting the radio show “Live From Here,” asked listeners to share their musical performances from home. Gabe Phipps sent videos of Louie, and Thile was so impressed that he invited the boy to be a guest on the show in May. The two performed what sounded like a duet of Louie’s song “Berry Bushes,” with Thile dubbing himself singing over Louie’s recording.

After the show, the family reached out to other musicians about collaborating on an album, and the response was enthusiastic. The artists’ generosity “has blown us all away,” said Louie’s mom, Annie Salsich.

Though some artists knew Louie before the project, many did not. The album features Thile and Chris Eldridge of the Punch Brothers, Laitman, the Suitcase Junket and others.

The artists recorded themselves at home, but on the album it sounds like they’re in the same room as Louie. “That’s where the magic of [album co-producer] Anand Nayak comes in,” Gabe Phipps said.

Donating profits to climate group

Louie plans to donate the album’s proceeds to the Sunrise Movement, a youth movement to stop climate change. He’s passionate about protecting the Earth and encouraging other kids to help. He suggests starting with simple actions, such as biking more and planting trees.

It’s nature that inspires much of Louie’s songwriting, which he does for baritone ukulele and guitar. In addition to “Hawk” and “Berry Bushes,” he has written about a chickadee. But nature sometimes stumps him. That’s true of Louie’s favorite birds: bald eagles. “The only rhymes I could think of was beagle and seagull, so I never wrote a song about them.”

Learn more

You can check out Louie’s songs at louiephipps.bandcamp.com.

Louie recently performed at the (empty) Wang Theatre in Boston, Massachusetts. Watch his performance here: youtube.com/watch?v=P5P9vN9wn5w.

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