"I love getting depressed to your album. Thank you." - Kevin Jones
“This is a wonderful record! Thanks for the great music and songwriting.”
- Wendy Wham, KUNC Radio
"I really love your new cd. I can hear a lot of different voices in your music, from Neil Young, to David Gray, to Chris Isaac." - Ralph Lee
“After producing over one hundred albums Russ Hopkins has utilized his musical expertise to compile Sweet Mystery... Co-produced by longtime collaborator Jerry Palmer, this collection of country-tinged folk leaves the listener longing for the time when music was unapologetically raw and organic... The album generates a Western ambiance that never ends... Hopkins’ introspective lyrics and multi-instrumental skills evoke moments spent contemplating the vast skyline and our connection with nature. Perhaps his close ties to the Native American community are responsible for the obvious earthy undertones throughout the piece... This New York native demonstrates his melodic genius by delivering songs that are naturally rich in poetic suggestion and harmonious charm. Each song integrates with one another seamlessly, and the result is an enjoyable album that showcases Hopkins’ talents as a bona-fide troubadour.” By Joshua Espinosa, Scene Magazine
Russ Hopkins has worked with microphones most of his life, even before he opened his own recording studio.
After college, he found work with an oil company contractor, and his job, as a so-called “juggie,” was to travel by helicopter with an exploration team and set up special microphones at locations where the team would detonate dynamite. The geophones, as the mics were called, picked up sound waves in the ground, which analysts would inspect for indications of buried resources.
They were “recording the earth,” Hopkins said.
Today Hopkins records voices and instruments. He owns and operates Kiva Records, a music production facility located in a renovated barn next to the house north of Longmont that Hopkins shares with his wife and son. The studio has a lived-in, comfortable feel. Rugs of all manner of design and vintage cover the floor. Rows of rolled-up cords line a wall. Electronic equipment fills shelves. There’s a working Galaga arcade game in the corner.
Hopkins founded the studio in Fort Collins in the early 1990s. Kiva has since put out hundreds of albums, including several by Hopkins himself, and has become a go-to facility for a core group of Northern Colorado musicians. Hopkins shared awards with Australian storyteller and didjeridoo player Paul Taylor for Taylor’s Kiva-released album “Cooee.” He also has won awards for his sound designs for OpenStage Theatre Company in Fort Collins.
Kiva albums have represented a wide range of genres, but recent releases tend toward acoustic singer-songwriter, meditative, American Indian or native styles.
Hopkins this year plans to release an album, tentatively called “Desert Cinema,” that he produced and recorded with longtime friend and collaborator Jerry Palmer. The next Kiva Records release is called “Oglala Lakota” from Bill Center, a 73-year-old Oglala Lakota singer and spiritual leader.
Hopkins produced and plays guitar on the album, and it’s not unusual for him to serve as producer on Kiva recordings.
“If you care about your client, usually you become their producer,” he said. “I engage my clients.”
Some recording engineers stick strictly to the tasks of plugging in cords and pushing faders. That’s not Hopkins. One indication of this is that no partition separates the engineering and recording areas of his studio. Hopkins is never “behind the glass,” as with most studios.
“I like being in the room with the artist,” he said.
Hopkins’ clients appreciate this approach.
“It’s a very creative space,” said Pamela Robinson, a Fort Collins musician who recorded her “Shifting Turtle,” released in 2008, at Kiva. “We get some magic out of here.”
She said Hopkins “is always right there with you,” indicating that he’s able to intuit her artistic vision.
Robinson last month was helping songwriter Bradney W. Handley, a member of the Fort Collins-based parody group The Mostlies, record his album “Evrythang U No Iz Rong” at Kiva. It was Handley’s first experience in a recording studio.
“Russ has kind of helped me through the process,” Handley said. “Now I’m a studio junkie.”
Hopkins, who grew up in Smithtown, N.Y., on Long Island, studied psychology and filmmaking in college. While still in school he worked at a high-end stereo store. When later he moved to Fort Collins he worked at another stereo store, U.S. Tech, and in 1985 the Coloradoan ran a story about the emerging technology of CDs that featured quotes from Hopkins, who predicted the newfangled devices would someday dominate the market. (His foil in the story was one Rick Duplisea, owner of the Audio Alternative, who called CDs a “joke” and said they “will go the way of the dinosaur.”)
Digital technology at the time was opening new recording possibilities and Hopkins decided to get into the game. He bought what he described as “the bare minimum equipment, but good quality stuff,” and, along with a friend from the stereo store, founded a company called Pro Digital.
Using as a selling point a rebroadcasting arrangement he had made with KUNC in Greeley, he secured permission to record national acts performing at the Lincoln Center in Fort Collins. The artists he recorded include Leo Kottke, Al Stewart, Michael Hedges and Jerry Jeff Walker, he said.
Hopkins said that in becoming a sound recorder he was following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Burt Asbury. Asbury had owned a Concertone Custom Recorder, which Hopkins now keeps in his studio, and, by recording songs from the radio, would make “mix tapes” before that phrase existed, Hopkins said. He still has an Asbury-made recording of himself crying as a baby.
“I got the recording bug from him,” Hopkins said.
The bug finally bit due to Hopkins’ respect for fellow musician Palmer.
“Me wanting to record him is how I started ,” Hopkins said.
Pro Digital transformed into Kiva Records after Hopkins’ business partner moved away. The first Kiva studio was in Hopkins’ Fort Collins basement. He moved to his property north of Longmont five years ago.
After college, Hopkins went to house-sit at his brother’s home in Utah. On his brother’s shelf he found “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” a book by Dee Brown that told the story of how Indian communities were wiped out in America. The book had a profound impact on him.
“I was horrified,” Hopkins said. “Then I was mad.”
The experience led to what has become a lifelong connection to Indian culture, which is evident in the décor of Kiva, allusions in Hopkins’ music and, most significantly, his friends.
In the early 1980s, when Hopkins was, as he put it, “looking for a sense of belonging,” he sought out a man named Andrew Bia, an Indian who taught on a Navajo Indian reservation and whose last name derived from the initials of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said Hopkins. Hopkins hired Bia to take him on a tour of the Canyon de Chelly, in the Four Corners region. The two have remained friends ever since.
Center, the Oglala Lakota singer, was born on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. His father was an Episcopal minister and Center for 20 years was a lay minister at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Denver. He also actively preserves his Indian heritage, in part by leading sweat lodges near Lyons. He officiated at Hopkins’ wedding, which was a joint Lakota and Lutheran ceremony.
“He calls me uncle, and I call him my nephew,” Center said.
Center said he learned much about the recording process working with Hopkins at Kiva.
“He taught me how to control my voice,” Center said. “I learned how to be patient. I never was patient.”
Hopkins last year released “Sweet Mystery,” an album of his own material, and he’s preparing to release another of his own albums, “Space Junk Motel,” this year. Hopkins has been writing songs for years, but it wasn’t until recently that he got serious about recording and releasing them.
The birth of his son, Ian, who’s now 3, was part of what inspired him to finally publish his music. But a prior obstacle, he said, was that he was too much of a perfectionist. Fittingly, it was Palmer, the musician whom Hopkins started out wanting to record, who persuaded him to look past perceived flaws and just put his music out there. Palmer thereby assumed the role Hopkins fills with so many of his clients.
“I needed a producer, I was too close (to the music),” Hopkins said. “Now, nothing’s too precious.”
By Quentin Young, © 2009 Longmont Times-Call