Creation District Records offers free recording sessions in professional studio space for youth
By Marybeth Bizjak
Cain Azazel has just finished recording a beat at a music studio in downtown Sacramento and is listening to it on playback. It starts with lush keyboard strokes, followed by majestic-sounding vocals, then a synthesized arpeggio layered with hip-hoppy drums and ending in a resounding clap! It’s a moody, gothic-sounding groove that Azazel plans to incorporate into an upcoming song.
Azazel is one of hundreds of people in the past year who have recorded music at Creation District Records. It’s run by the Creation District, an innovative nonprofit that offers a place for homeless youth to engage in the arts. Located in a former Zumba studio at S and 12th streets, the Creation District supplies free art classes, workshops and recording sessions for transitional-age young people — that is, between 16 and 24 years old — who are homeless or experiencing housing insecurity.
Last year, the organization served about 450 youth. About 43% of those identified as a member of the LGBTQ+ community and about 73% identified as non-white from various racial and ethnic backgrounds such as Black, Latin American, Hispanic, Native, Indigenous, Arab, Persian, Middle Eastern or multiracial.
Azazel was living at The STAY, a crisis residential program in Arden-Arcade, when a staffer mentioned a studio offering free recording sessions. That was about a year ago. “We’ve been coming ever since,” says Azazel, who uses the pronouns “we/us/our.” The 21-year-old is in the process of recording 10 songs with the help of Damien Verrett, a professional musician who works as one of the studio’s two recording directors.
Sitting at a mixing console in the studio control room, Verrett and Azazel laugh and talk easily as they collaborate. Azazel, who plays the violin and writes lyrics in a small composition book, describes their music as “dark R&B.” The young artist had “teacher problems” in high school and says that “music is one of the only healthy coping mechanisms we have.”
Providing healthy coping mechanisms for homeless youth is why Grace Loescher founded the Creation District in 2015. Growing up in Washington, D.C., she dreamed of becoming a Disney Imagineer. In college, she studied studio art and theater and found her calling doing art therapy at a shelter for queer youth. After graduation, she moved to Sacramento for a job at Tubman House, a transitional housing community for young parents run by a nonprofit called Waking the Village. There, she came up with the idea for the Creation District.
With support from the founders of Waking the Village, Loescher started on a shoestring, leading tiny art workshops for groups of three or four wherever she could find space. Then money started to trickle in: first a $2,000 microgrant, later a $10,000 creative economy grant from the City of Sacramento. (Her most recent grant: $300,000 from the city for a collaborative project with Waking the Village.) While the latest round of funding is helping to keep projects in the works, the Creation District requires ongoing financial support to ensure resources remain available to the youths.
She got an old van, converted it into a mobile art studio and took her workshops to shelters and encampments. There, “every single young person I spoke with had a passion for music and recording,” she recalls. In 2017, she partnered with Verrett to add recording sessions to the Creation District’s offerings. All they needed, Verrett told her, was a quiet space with a door. They went to shelters and asked for permission to record in bathrooms and closets. At encampments, the van itself served as a recording studio.
Loescher, now 31, calls using the arts to reach homeless youth “a radical idea.” Most programs for that cohort focus on either education or employment. There are a few arts-based programs for homeless youth, mostly in California, but the idea has not yet caught on in the rest of the country, Loescher says.
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg champions programs, like the Creation District, that offer support for youth, mental health and the creative economy. In 2017, he visited the nonprofit to speak before a board of youth leaders who meet at the Creation District.
In 2021, the Creation District moved into its current home, a 7,000-square-foot storefront with a large room up front for drop-in classes, groups and workshops, and a studio space in back with tables and a stage where people can create art at their own pace. In between the two is the recording studio, with a small control room and recording booth. In 2022, about 300 youths recorded music there.
Verrett describes the studio as “pretty awesome,” even by professional standards, with soundproof doors, acoustic panels on the walls and software-based outboard gear. He has gotten manufacturers to donate equipment, including microphones and headphones from music company Shure and a “really nice mic” from Lauten Audio. Verrett recently started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to purchase more equipment. The studio needs new monitors; a good pair, he says, starts at $2,000.
Would-be recording artists sign up for hour-long recording sessions on Mondays,
Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. That the sessions are free is a big deal;
booking time at a traditional studio can cost up to $100 an hour — an impossible dream for people who can’t afford a place to live. Verrett helps the young artists do everything from laying vocals over existing beats to recording an original song from scratch. Once a musician records five songs, Verrett prints a CD for free. He also helps artists find a distributor like DistroKid to get their music on Spotify.
The one-hour sessions are “a fast-forwarded version of a traditional session,” says Verrett, who tours and records under the artist name So Much Light. “The changeover is outrageous. Some days I can’t believe I made five things from scratch.”
He has helped young artists create everything from gangster rap to singer-songwriter melodies, with a heavy concentration on hip-hop, R&B and pop. Loescher points to 32-year-old Verrett’s easy rapport with the young people at the Creation District as a major plus. “It’s because he’s a musician and artist, not a social worker,” she says. “He connects with them naturally.”
Creation District Records releases an annual mix tape and holds twice-yearly shows, at venues like Harlow’s and Ace of Spades, to spotlight the young musicians. Loescher says she and Verrett are “pretty pushy” about encouraging them to perform in public, not just in the privacy of the recording booth. She recently gave one shy young woman $50 to perform a song.
“The crowd was over the moon for her,” Loescher says. “She decided on the spot to do another.”
A recording studio is a great way to reach homeless youth, says Loescher: “It gives them a creative outlet in a space where they have control over their own narrative, and where they can reframe their trauma. Here, you’re an artist and a community member. You meet friends and mentors. It’s an accessible way to learn life skills. You can learn about finance by producing an album.”
Loescher sees the youth that she works with as aspiring to rise above the circumstances that are beyond their control. At the Creation District, she says, “you can see how hardworking and dreamy these young people are. Their dreams are huge.”
This story is part of the Solving Sacramento journalism collaborative. Solving Sacramento is supported by funding from the James Irvine Foundation and Solutions Journalism Network. Our partners include California Groundbreakers, Capital Public Radio, Outword, Russian America Media, Sacramento Business Journal, Sacramento News & Review, Sacramento Observer and Univision 19. Take our reader survey.