Kyle Ollah had to switch gears.
The multi-instrumentalist went from working as the Duluth Folk School music director and playing solo shows, folk dances and headlining with Charlie Parr to nothing during the shutdown.
It was like a lightswitch flipped, Ollah recalled.
What started as a pre-pandemic side gig teaching lessons and repairing instruments turned into his main source of income. He launched K.O. StringWorks, and turned his studio at the folk school into his base of operations.
Also this past year, Ollah received a Minnesota State Arts Board grant for equipment to produce instructional videos, which introduced Ollah to a new way of offering music.
And it’s been a work in progress.
While he had watched many YouTube tutorials himself, he never had the time or need to produce his own before COVID-19. “I still had a flip phone; that’s how interested I was in a virtual reality,” he recalled.
But now, he’s recording and editing his videos himself. He launched an Instagram account and a YouTube page for his works and his business.
As hard as the process has been, he’s enjoying it. “I don’t have any other outlet for music at the moment,” he said.
After Day 1 on Instagram, he connected with a banjo builder in Jamaica.
He now has students in Alaska, L.A., Seattle and St. Louis — a shift he didn’t expect.
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Still with the silver linings, creating an online presence has been tricky reconciling entertaining and educating while maintaining his authentic self in his videos.
“It takes a certain amount of ego to put yourself out there, and it takes another kind of ego to try to just be found. … I had to swallow my idea of who I thought I was, and honestly, I guess the pandemic made that decision for me.
“I didn’t know what I was doing and if it was the right decision for me, but if I wanted to maintain myself as a musician, what else was I going to do?” he said.
So Ollah has walked cautiously into the online world. “Because I’m new to it, and I could see myself getting a bellyache from all the sugar,” he said.
This is carving a new road for Ollah, who has been performing shows since he was 12.
While many artists have shifted to virtual concerts, Ollah is passing for now. Teaching is the next best thing for him. It gives more purpose to his time spent with his instruments, he’s sharing ideas that make him feel capable and happy to make music, and it’s giving someone access to a universal language.
“It might be more of what I decide to keep doing as a musician,” he said.
On a Tuesday evening, Ollah walked Tim Rubin up to his studio. A broken guitar with the K.O. StringWorks sign hung above Ollah’s door. Banjos, mandolins and guitars hung from walls of exposed brick and cream. Some instruments were to be shipped, others were still under construction. Warm illumination came in through a skylight window that looks out into the Folk School.
Ollah’s recording equipment — laptop, mic, camera — rested near his record player, an album labeled “Ethnic Folkways Library” at the ready. In a display case stood music books, an old Land O’Lakes creamery box, a greeting card with “Mr. Kyle” written across the top. There was a photo of Ollah’s great-grandfather, Toivo Merila, a Finnish farmer and fiddler. They were born on the same day.
“That’s a Normal Rockwell,” he said of a picture of a barber shop scene.
While some of his belongings are from the dump or estate sales, Ollah has made some of the furniture. He stripped chalkboard paint and oiled his oak studio table. Ollah also built the light brown shelves and workbench, which holds tools, glues, rosewood dust and a Polaroid of Ollah and a friend. His latest instrument restoration project was a guitar he bought from Savers; it still had the sticker.
Rubin carried in his guitar case and amp before setting up and sitting next to Ollah, both wearing face masks. The Duluth man said he enjoys coming to this part of town at the folk school and in the Lincoln Park Craft District. The studio says, “Let’s play music,” he said.
Rubin was taking lessons from Ollah for a couple months before the shutdown. “I don’t know how I would’ve survived COVID without lessons, Kyle and my music to practice,” he said.
Musically and personally, Ollah is very gifted, and Rubin said he has improved as a bass player and an overall musician; and having the studio to go to reinforces his purpose while he’s there.
Before renting at the folk school, Ollah taught in a basement under an alley near the downtown YMCA. Students had to walk through a “labyrinth” to get in, and some of his instruments cracked from the heat.
Ollah never dreamed he’d be using his new space as he is, but he’s thankful to have a creative location for his music and his livelihood. Save for random homeowner tools and basic things, all his possessions are there. And it’s a sacred spot, where he spends hours concentrated on his craft.
Ollah used to think he’d be an old man with a studio of his own to work on instruments and teach. “It came sooner than I thought," he said, "but it’s been a dream of mine to have a space like that.”
ARTIST SPACES is a series featuring artists and where they live or work. If you are an artist or know an artist with a space worth showcasing, send your info to Melinda Lavine at email@example.com.