Ariel Zevon is demoing a new love song. It's a pretty little thing, with light, lovelorn lyrics set to a melancholy melody that sticks to the ears. That is, until she gets to the hook. As the song reaches both an emotional and musical crescendo, something is off. The melody, which previously charmed with music-box simplicity, stumbles into dissonance against a swell of sustained electronic piano tones. Zevon's voice and piano lines derail from the precise, metronomic beat of the click track in her headphones.
At the end of the take, Zevon leans back from her keyboard, shrugs and shoots a bemused look at the recording engineer seated across from her, as if to say, "Got any ideas?"
Indeed, she does.
Kristina Stykos removes her headphones and rises from behind the console of Pepperbox Studio, her solar- and wind-powered, off-the-grid mountaintop recording studio/home/lair in rural — like, really rural — South Washington, Vt. Momentarily lost in thought, she runs a hand through her long salt-and-pepper hair. Then a smile softens the sharpness of her features. "We can fix that," she says.
Stykos, 60, huddles with Zevon, offering words of encouragement as the two troubleshoot the offending passage. She suggests Zevon play the section on a loop. Once the singer nails a usable take or three — which she eventually does — Stykos can cut and paste those digitally into the original track, replacing the wayward passages.
It's recording science by way of Dr. Frankenstein. But the patchwork solution succeeds. Conjuring unconventional fixes to problems is something of a Stykos specialty.
The recordings Stykos produces at Pepperbox — many of which she releases on her own label, Thunder Ridge Records — comprise a motley crew of Vermont artists. Her projects range from acts virtually unknown beyond Orange County to revered players and songsmiths such as Zevon, roots rocker Bow Thayer, acoustic guitar whiz Doug Perkins, and singers Susannah Blachly and Patti Casey. Some, such as Thayer, fiddler Patrick Ross and drummer Jeff Berlin, are among her regular ringers — musicians whom Stykos can call on to add a little extra to a recording when necessary.
"She's collected this wonderful cast of misfit characters," says Robert Resnik, host of the long-running music show "All the Traditions" on Vermont Public Radio. He presumably means the term "misfit" lovingly, since he's among their ranks. The multi-instrumentalist recorded his own album, Playing Favorites, with Stykos in 2012.
"It really is a group of misfits," confirms Thayer. "But it's also a family."
That "collection" didn't come together by accident. Stykos actively sought out many of the artists on the Thunder Ridge roster. Quite a few others have sought her. That's no small thing, given the remoteness of her studio.
Particularly in the winter, Stykos advises visitors to Pepperbox to follow her written directions instead of GPS. Otherwise, they could find themselves at the impassable end of a steep, miles-long mountain road that's sometimes unnavigable even when plowed. To tweak an old Yankee aphorism, you can get there from here, but you'll need time and good tires, and you might have to hoof it the last mile or so.
"There is just no quick way to get to her," says Resnik. But he's one musician who considers the destination worth the inconvenience.
"She's building this shining tower of excellence," he continues, "regardless of the fact that she lives halfway to the moon on that dirt road that lasts forever."
Stykos is a talented recording engineer armed with a music production certification from the Berklee College of Music and an insatiable curiosity and desire to learn. Her work ethic is as formidable as her unorthodox lifestyle suggests. When she's not in the studio, Stykos runs her own landscaping business, which accounts for half of her income. Resnik believes she does this backbreaking work not just for money but because "she appreciates the aesthetics."
"When Kristina adds guitar or mandolin lines to somebody's record, it's like she's planting zinnias," he says, drawing a parallel between her music and landscape work.
Stykos is also a fine songwriter and musician in her own right — "the best female guitarist in Vermont," in the words of her friend and collaborator Blachly.
In short, she's a pro.
If Stykos' professionalism is a strong draw, so is her studio itself. With spectacular mountain vistas outside and homey warmth inside, Pepperbox feels like an artist's retreat in a giant tree house. The rustic space's quirks and personality often play a role in recordings there.
Listening to a take, Zevon announces that she can hear the squeak of a chair against a hardwood floor in the background.
"There's a lot of chair noise on my albums," Stykos says with a smile. She seems to be joking, until Zevon chimes in: "There's one on my album!" She's referring to her 2018 Stykos-produced record The Detangler.
A certain amount of ambient sound is part of the package at Pepperbox. Other albums feature rain on the roof or the chirps of birds and crickets outside.
As a result, records made at Pepperbox tend to exude an atmospheric sense of place. The studio's catalog offers not only a cross-section of styles but a reflection of Vermont itself. From the sophisticated mountain jazzgrass of Perkins' Music for Flat-Top Guitar to the pastoral twang of Thayer's Shooting Arrows at the Moon to the back-porch charm of Mary McGinniss' Red Tails and the Road, Stykos helps craft musical portraits that are as quintessentially Vermont as the view from her backyard.
But behind the idyllic beauty of Stykos' home lurks another side of Vermont: a darker, harsher version that you don't see on postcards. That quality is also evident in the Pepperbox recordings written and performed by an artist who is familiar with navigating life's more daunting landscapes: Kristina Stykos herself.
'I was sort of a wannabe.'
- Sarah Priestap
- Kristina Stykos' house in South Washington
Stykos describes herself as someone who has always had a hard time fitting in. She grew up in Ithaca, N.Y., as a "Cornell faculty brat." Her father was a sociology professor at the university, and her mother ran the school's volunteer office.
Her introduction to music came early. Dad was a jazz musician who tried to steer his daughter into classical guitar when she was young. But Stykos was far more interested in folk, rock and blues.
She indulged those interests by apprenticing at a guitar store and later hanging around a coffee shop that regularly hosted touring musicians. Stykos caught some of the biggest names of the late 1960s and '70s at Cornell, including Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, and Crosby, Stills & Nash.
She also took guitar lessons from Cornell undergrads, many of whom were just getting into the blues.
"A lot of them went on to become famous musicians," Stykos says. "But at the time, they were just these dweeby little undergrads."
Russ Barenberg is one of those dweeb instructors-turned-stars. The Grammy-nominated bluegrass guitarist remembers an adolescent Stykos as someone who was "serious and focused about learning music" and "clearly had a drive and passion for it." Many of her contemporaries today echo that impression.
Stykos went to Boston University but soon dropped out and became immersed in the Rounder Records folk scene in Cambridge, Mass., where she gigged all over Harvard Square. Along the way, she met a hotshot young banjo player named Béla Fleck. They dated on and off for four years.
"Then I dumped him," Stykos says with a bemused chuckle. "I sort of regretted it later."
Regrets aside, touring with Fleck, who is widely regarded as one of the finest banjo players alive, opened a world of possibility for Stykos.
"That jettisoned my music appreciation to a whole new level. It set the bar high," she says. "I was never going to be a bluegrass guitar player, even though I knew a little about flatpicking. But I knew I wanted to do something great with music."
She just didn't know what yet, and finding greatness in Boston would prove difficult.
"I was sort of a wannabe," Stykos says of her time in the city. "With my self-confidence issues, it was always hard to push my way in. Also, being female, there wasn't a lot of support. You weren't treated like an equal; you were a groupie — you must be sleeping with the musicians, unless you were a virtuoso."
She continues, "I've never fit into any of the various scenes that I hung out with, which has at times been disappointing, because I try so hard to enter a scene and be a part of it and belong. That's just not my path, evidently."
Instead, Stykos' path brought her from Boston to Vermont, where she initially came to attend a meditation retreat in Maple Corner. She fell in love with the state and a like-minded community around the retreat, and she soon relocated to Burlington. But things didn't go as planned.
"I thought I was going be some evolved spiritual hermit," she says of her 1980 move to Vermont. "But I ended up with some shitty job in Burlington."
Evolution comes slowly, even for spiritual hermits. Eventually, Stykos began to find her niche, gigging with regularity. She switched from waiting tables to working for the now-defunct newspaper the Vanguard Press, an evolutionary forebear of Seven Days. One of the musical connections Stykos made in the Queen City was with Chuck Eller, keyboardist for the acclaimed local jazz band Kilimanjaro.
At the time, Eller had just opened his own studio on Burlington's South Union Street after serving as the engineer at North Ferrisburgh's Philo Records. He would later move his operation to Charlotte and build a reputation as one of the state's premier engineers. Stykos was one of his first clients.
Eller recorded her debut album, Crazy Sorrows, in Burlington and deployed an all-star backing band that included bassist Stacy Starkweather, guitarists Robin Gottfried and Paul Asbell, saxophonist Dave Grippo, and Eller himself. Recently married, Stykos brought her then-1-year-old daughter and a babysitter to the studio every day.
"It was very '80s," says Stykos of that record.
She's not kidding. The LP cover art is reminiscent of the cover of Linda Ronstadt's 1980 album Mad Love, which features a black-and-white image of that singer staring with smoldering intensity into the camera. Stykos says she's heard the Ronstadt comparison more than once.
"It's very poppy and sort of campy," she continues of Crazy Sorrows. "Like, I'm waiting for it to become retro enough that I can reintroduce it."
"The musicality is solid, and I'd like to think the tunes hold together," says Eller of the record. "Kristina was one of my very first projects," he adds, "and one of my favorites, for sure." (Three decades later, Eller and his keyboard would turn up on another Stykos album, 2013's Wyoming Territory.)
Record in hand, Stykos set about making her way in the music business. Unfortunately, she found something other than success.
"Disaster," she says.
'Life got really derailed.'
- Sarah Priestap
- Kristina Stykos
Crazy Sorrows would prove prophetically titled. The record didn't do well, struggling to receive radio airplay. Worse, Stykos' life outside of music began to crumble.
"Life just took a big turn at that point, so my music career went in the gutter," she says. Specifically, "I got in a bad marriage and had two kids. Life got really derailed."
Stykos divorced her husband and fled with her kids to "a shack" in Corinth so she could send them to the Wellspring Waldorf School in nearby Chelsea, which had opened a year earlier. It was a bumpy landing.
"I remember getting there the first night like refugees," she recalls. "We arrived, it's the middle of the winter and there's no door on the woodstove. We survived that."
Her music career, however, did not — especially when she got pregnant again with a boyfriend.
"Now I'm a single mom with three kids. I stopped playing for a while," she says, citing both the practical time constraints of being a single mother and the emotional scarring from her failed marriage. But things eventually began to turn around.
Using money from her divorce settlement, Stykos built a house and a small cabin in Chelsea. She found a couple to live on her property in exchange for helping out with the kids.
"That made my life work a little better," says Stykos, "because I could get out a couple nights a week."
She started attending weekly Celtic music jams in a friend's kitchen in Montpelier — but as a guitarist, not a singer.
"I thought, Just go play your guitar, have a good time and learn how to be with people," recalls Stykos. "That was a nice way to get back into music and not face the struggles of a solo singer-songwriter.
"You've got to have a lot of self-esteem [to go solo], and I just didn't have it," she concedes. Her favorite aspect of the jams was the anonymity they afforded her.
"With Celtic music, you can just show up and play; you're not in the spotlight," Stykos explains. "It was great. It was healthy. It brought back a lot of psychological health. I highly recommend it."
With renewed confidence in her abilities, Stykos began collaborating with other musicians, largely as a rhythm guitar player and backing vocalist. Those collaborations included her runs with Wagtail, a central Vermont folk band fronted by Blachly; and Lunatique, a Celtic fiddle band with Nikki Matheson, Gigi Weisman and Resnik.
Around the same time, Stykos began producing fundraising concerts for the Waldorf school featuring the likes of famed folk singer Cheryl Wheeler, and even her old flame Fleck.
"It was a cool way to connect with a professional level of musicianship," Stykos says of promoting concerts. "Even though I'm not playing nationally, I can make those connections, network and be inspired by it."
Inspiration would soon strike, coming from an unlikely source. In 2007, Stykos was in attendance when country-rock songwriter Jackson Browne played a fundraiser for Zevon's now-defunct nonprofit LACE (Local Agricultural Community Exchange) at the Barre Opera House. Browne had been a close friend of Zevon's father, the late rock icon Warren Zevon.
By this point, Stykos was living in her current South Washington home and was married to Froggy Bottom Guitars founder Michael Millard, who had donated a guitar to the fundraiser.
"I wasn't really a Jackson Browne fan," she says. "But when he started playing, I just started gushing tears. I realized that he was an archetype for me, that what he does was pivotal to what I feel I am."
Stykos made a promise to herself that night to return to songwriting. She set up a rudimentary studio in what is now Pepperbox and began recording herself.
"I wanted to create a laboratory for myself," she explains. "I wanted it to be private."
Stykos is leery of the spotlight in general. But at this point, her desire for privacy stemmed from a more jarring concern. Namely, she had begun having problems with her voice. The pure tone she sang with in her twenties was gone, replaced by a deeper, rougher timbre.
"I'd been in a few bands with Patti Casey, Susannah Blachly and that whole crew," she says. "And they sing with these beautiful, pristine voices. But I just couldn't conjure it up anymore. I couldn't sing with them."
So she began to sing by herself.
'If I can't sing, I'll talk.'
- Sarah Priestap
- In the recording studio
Pepperbox perches on the top floor of Stykos' home, which itself clings to the side of a windswept mountain. Approaching along the snowy, sun-dazzled pasture below, the looming three-story building emerges from behind a grove of spindly trees.
Against a brilliant blue sky, the rustic wooden house stands tall, exuding a warm, magical radiance — as if the Burrow, the Weasleys' home in the Harry Potter series, had been transported to a mountain in Vermont. It's a setting that fosters creative flights of fancy.
The house feels like an extension of Stykos, and not just because she gutted and renovated it many years ago. She raised and nurtured her families here — meaning her three children, as well as the vast collection of singers and players who have called the place a musical home over the years.
"She kind of is the mother figure," says Thayer.
Redolent with a pleasant musk of woodsmoke, the house is filled with relics of Stykos' past. Floor-to-ceiling shelves flanking a large hearth overflow with books, records and framed photos. Pots, baskets, snowshoes and other country knickknacks hang from exposed wooden beams in the large, open kitchen. A massive, antique, wood-fired cooking stove dominates a far sitting room. Nearly every one of the numerous nooks and crannies holds a musical instrument. The whole interior is humble, warm and inviting, much like Stykos herself.
One can easily imagine how bright and full the large house has been over the years. Stykos' contra-dance parties are the stuff of local legend, and many a recording session has ended with a hearty home-cooked meal around the large kitchen table.
But it's also easy to sense how vast and lonely the house can feel when it's all but empty. As daylight fades, eerie winter twilight gives its surroundings an icy air of desolation — or at least of isolation. Outside is quiet, cold, barren. The sheer size and darkness of the house intimidate, casting strange shadows that play tricks with the senses. It's haunting.
Stykos has battled her share of personal demons in this house. She recently gave up drinking, as she recovered from a divorce from Millard three years ago. The songwriter penned her most personal and vulnerable album, a stark meditation on loss and aging called Horse Thief, between these cavernous walls in the aftermath of that split.
"It's a lot to deal with sometimes," says Stykos of the property, seated before the first-floor hearth. She reveals she's been thinking about selling the house and moving closer to Burlington, to be nearer to the city's music scene and her now-grown children.
If the house can be a burden, it's also where Stykos rediscovered her voice, literally and figuratively. She was recently diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia, a disorder that manifests in difficulty speaking or singing. It's the same affliction that has famously plagued iconic British folk-rock singer Linda Thompson.
Last fall, the condition got so bad Stykos couldn't even talk on the phone. With the aid of a specialist based in Atlanta, Stykos has begun to reclaim her vocal facility. It's unlikely she'll ever recapture her past songbird glory, but she's OK with that.
"I'm learning to use what I've got," she says.
Demos for her forthcoming album, River of Light — which she's recording with Browne's guitarist, Val McCallum — show that sentiment has borne fruit. Stykos' tuneful rasp lends gravity to her Vermont-gothic-style songwriting, long one of her strengths.
"Kristina has a serious poetic streak," says Thayer. "Her writing stands on its own without the music because she has such emotion in her wordcraft."
The Vermont Community Foundation thought so, too. Last year, Stykos received a grant from the organization to write a book of poetry.
Stykos also cohosts a weekly talk-radio show, "11th Hour Radio," on low-power South Royalton community station WFVR-LP 96.5 FM. Every Friday morning, Stykos and Emily Howe riff on everything from national politics to hyper-local topics such as the condition of Stykos' mountain road and confusing farm names. You might also hear the duo musing on poetry or philosophy or, as on a recent episode, a squirrel with a puppy-dog face.
"We kind of just go with whatever is on our minds," says Stykos. "It's a little random and lot of fun."
She adds that conversational speaking — like on a quirky local radio show, for example — is good vocal exercise and likely won't damage her voice any further. "I mean, how much worse could it really get?" she asks, both rhetorically and sarcastically.
In fact, it could get worse — Thompson lost her voice for two years in the early 1980s. Thayer, however, counts himself a fan of Stykos' hoarse delivery.
"I think she struggles with it, but I don't think she should," he says. "Celebrate every croak and wrinkle."
"When a woman gets onstage, people expect her to have a pretty voice," says Stykos. "So it's hard to buck that, and it's discouraged me from performing, feeling those expectations."
She adds that her speech therapist believes her dysphonia is neurological and triggered by trauma.
"I'm a survivor, and I don't ask for help unless I really need it," she says. "But looking back, I've had a lot of emotional trauma in my life."
Stykos believes that the cumulative effects of those hardships finally caught up with her. "It's just been a slow fall for me, and I basically hit bottom."
"Kristina is tough," says Resnik. "But she's also not so tough."
Stykos sees "special meaning" in the experience of losing her voice.
"The idea of not having a voice is symbolic; it's a feeling that you're not being heard," she explains. "As a female musician, I always felt that I was struggling to be heard, on the margins, not fitting in. So maybe it's a metaphor for my core issue.
"If I can't sing, I'll talk," she continues. "Maybe I'll never sing again, but I have a lot to say. I have a lot to write and to teach and share with the people that come here to work with me."
Pepperbox Studio: a Selected Discography
- Kristina Stykos, Horse Theif
Kristina Stykos has recorded dozens of albums at Pepperbox Studio. Here are seven essential titles — most released on her own Thunder Ridge Records imprint — to serve as primer to that growing catalog.
- Kristina Stykos, Horse Thief (2015)
Stykos' most recent album is also her best. It's a raw portrait of solitude and loss made all the more vivid by her gravelly vocal delivery.
- Doug Perkins, Music for Flat-Top Guitar (2012)
A rustic yet sophisticated record made by world-class players, the jazzgrass guitarist's magnum opus might be the quintessential Pepperbox album.
- Ariel Zevon, The Detangler (2018)
Songwriting is obviously in Zevon's DNA. But Warren's daughter carves out her own folk-rock niche — with plenty of help from Stykos.
- Erin McDermott and the Dixie Red Delights, Bear Hoot (2008)
Formerly Montpelier-based, McDermott now calls Nashville home. The songwriter's twangy debut is evidence that the Music City long beckoned.
- The Cousins Project, Beautiful Blood (2013)
The record is a beautiful collaboration of Stykos and Brooklyn songwriter Steve Mayone. The two are second cousins but only realized it in 2006, thanks to a chance meeting through mutual friend Bow Thayer.
- Bow Thayer, Shooting Arrows at the Moon (2009)
Thayer didn't want to make a stripped-down solo record. He only did so at Stykos' insistence. The result is among the most compelling and intimate of his long career.
- Kristina Stykos, Wyoming Territory (2013)
Stykos' country-rock gem, her fifth solo album, is a spiritual and stylistic cousin to Lucinda Williams' own fifth record: the 1998 Grammy winner Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.