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Eight Forty-Eight

Local Musician Finds Inspiration in Coffee Shop

A local Emmy-winning composer finds inspiration for his work in the darndest places. And whether or not you know it – watch it. You could be the spark. Eight Forty-Eight's Eilee Heikenen-Weiss has the story.

Meet Steve Rashid:

RASHID: I'm really wired for sound for some reason.

Virtually everywhere he goes, he's collecting sound…

RASHID: That's a bit of an overstatement, but yeah…

A vacation to Hungary,

His son's college baseball practice,

Or out in the New Hampshire countryside:

Rashid's been in love with sound since the 8th grade when he first heard Louis Armstrong.

RASHID: And when I heard his trumpet, it was so unlike anything I heard. It's hard to describe, but it was one of those immediate moments where it felt like this is what I have to do—I have to be a musician. 

RASHID:  I didn't turn out to be exactly what I imagined I was going to do when I grew up, but I would say I'm not so far off the mark where I was wrong. (aughs)

Rashid had a couple of hit kid's songs in the 90s, but now, his work mainly falls into a couple of categories—

There's the small independent music production company he owns in Evanston. The music he writes for TV shows or documentaries…

RASHID: And then Café Underscore was sort of my newest little Brainchild (cackling)

Which brings us to where we are now—The Unicorn Café in Evanston. Rashid's seated at a small table towards the back with a birds-eye view of the café.

RASHID: I'm using a Mac Book Pro. I have a little 2-octave keyboard on my lap—it's sort of under the table almost…

His spontaneous recording studio isn't all that fancy, but it allows him flexibility which in turn often provides inspiration.

RASHID: I was sitting here at the Unicorn Café one day, writing music for a television show, the deadline was fast approaching. I was drawing a blank, I could not figure out what to do next.

He tried all of his regular tricks to get things going, but no luck. Then the cashier caught his eye…

RASHID: Glancing at this guy, I thought, “What if that guy working behind the counter were actually a character in a movie. If that were the case, what would the music be like underneath this scene?

RASHID: So I made up this completely fictitious character in which he was a spy working in a coffee shop.

RASHID: And it was just enough of a distraction that I thought, “Oh, that's perfect.” It kind of rebooted me and got me to get back to work.

But he kept up with the exercise every now and then.

RASHID: And eventually, I came up with this sort of little gallery of musical portraits of people that I had no idea who they were.

Rashid's virtual gallery, Café Underscore, features a collection of songs inspired by strangers he's observed at the Unicorn Café.

Yep, all strangers. Sound a little creepy? I ask one of the subjects, Antonio Valone.

ANTONIO: I definitely called the police at first (laughs), no I'm just kidding.

RASHID: Different people had different reactions

Rashid's told all the people whose songs are up on his site. Valone says his song sums him up pretty nicely.

VALONE: I think it was a pretty excellent sketch. It's very flattering what he did. He made me seem cooler than I really am …

One of Rashid's subjects had a curious reaction when Rashid told him about his song:

RASHID: Without missing a beat, he looked me straight in the eyes, and said, “Is it Gregorian Chant?” And the truth is, it kind of is—it's not actually modal, but it's based on chant

RASHID: And he said, well I very much enjoy Gregorian Chant, in fact I write Gregorian Chant.

The man turned out to be a Northwestern University professor of religious studies. Rashid says the professor's wife told him he nailed it.

RASHID: She just smiled and said, “You know my husband is very interested in birds.”

When Rashid wrote the piece, he says he imagined it taking place outdoors…so he included audio of Hungarian birds he recorded on vacation 10 years ago.

Startlingly accurate, I'd say…So to I ask to see him in action…

RASHID: Am I feeling the muse?

He's not. But earlier, there was one couple that caught his attention …

RASHID: They had stacks of books and papers, they were kind of intently talking, she was gesturing with her hands, BUT they were kind of quiet about it. I don't think he was aware he was doing it, but occasionally he'd kind of look over his shoulder, and I thought, “Planning a bank heist!”

Post bank heist song Rashid plays me their song—a work in progress he started before I arrived.

Post bank heist song Rashid sees Café Underscore as a way of maintaining creative balance.

RASHID: It goes back to that whole thing about hearing Louis Armstrong and it was like magic. If I can maintain some of that and keep a place for it in my life, then it's OK. It's perfectly OK if then for the next month I'm beating my head up against a wall against deadlines and trying to get the music that fits what five people on some committee want me to write.

So, keep an eye open the next time you take a trip to your local café.

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