Central Ohio politicians come together to record patriotic tune

By Allison Ward, The Columbus Dispatch
The only time Ed Leonard had been in a recording studio before Wednesday was to record public-service announcements -- most likely about avoiding scams or improving a credit score.

In those instances, there was no piano track in the background. No headphones to hear his tenor voice. No room of directors and sound engineers critiquing his tempo or key.

Still, the Franklin County treasurer belted out "God Bless America" confidently, aware that his fellow singers in the studio were just as unfamiliar with the music-recording process as he was.

Leonard was one of six elected or appointed officials who laid down a track of the patriotic tune at Groove U -- a post-secondary music-career program in the Short North -- to celebrate the Fourth of July and bring some lightheartedness to the current political climate.

Providing the vocals were Leonard, state Sen. Charleta B. Tavares, Columbus City Councilman Michael Stinziano, and Franklin County Municipal Court Magistrate Kathleen Graham. Municipal Court jury commissioner Tom Shields played the bass. Last week, State Auditor Dave Yost recorded the piano.

"The hardest part was getting used to listening to yourself -- you can hear yourself in the headphones," said Leonard, who sings with the Harmony Project, a community singing group, as well as his church choir. "It's about being comfortable with your own voice."

When Leonard was approached by Groove U about recording the song, which will be released Monday on the music platform SoundCloud, he didn't hesitate.

Besides helping young students get a foot in the music industry door -- a half-dozen students will produce it and add more instruments to give it a "pop music" feel -- he thought the experiment could ease some of the recent political strife.

"How can you be angry, how can you have anything else in your heart but joy, when you sing?" Leonard said. "How can you focus on differences?"

That's exactly the sentiment Groove U hopes to convey through the informal project, said school director Dwight Heckelman. He said that school officials contacted roughly three dozen elected officials from different branches, political parties and levels of government. Although interest was high, scheduling proved difficult.

The idea was borne out of a conversation that Heckelman had with colleagues about the presidential race.
"We were saying, 'Too bad this isn't a band competition,'" Heckelman said. "It would be a lot cooler. There wouldn't be all this divisiveness. People would just give us their best.' "

Shields was a bit leery when first asked about bringing his bass talents -- he's been playing four decades --but after learning more about Groove U, he was onboard. "Anything that draws the country together ... is a good thing," he said.

The experience allowed Tavares to see the musical talents of other officials, and that even though they might be on different sides of the issues, there are similarities.

"It brings out a different lightness in my colleagues," she said.

After shaking off some initial nerves, the group found their groove: "You're warming up and cooking," Heckelman said.

They rehearsed for roughly 45 minutes before recording several takes.

Each of the singers, as well as Shields and Yost, was recorded individually, too. That was the most nerve-racking part for Graham, who sings with several local groups including the Sweet Adelines, an a cappella barbershop-style singing group.

She was reassured by her producers that they would clean up her vocals in post-production.

"Somebody said they'd make me sound like Beyonce or Mariah Carey," she laughed. "They must be good."