Note: The following story is best enjoyed while listening to our list of the best songs about Ypsilanti.
Ypsilanti's music scene is known for allowing artists to march to the beat of their own drum, to improvise with performance spaces, and to collaborate with other members of the city's sizeable music community.
Instead of branding themselves as the products of other nearby cities, like Ann Arbor or Detroit, many musicians wholeheartedly embrace the fact that they're based in Ypsi. We talked to just a few of Ypsi's numerous musicians about what drew them to the city, what keeps them here, and what their community needs most as it moves forward.
Singer-songwriter and recording engineer Jim Roll, who plays bass in roots-rock band Misty Lyn and the Big Beautiful and his own folk-rock band the Jim Roll Band, moved from Ann Arbor to Ypsi about 10 years ago. He thinks Ypsi's low cost of living has prompted many musicians to do the same thing – like singer-songwriter Annie Palmer, who first located in Ypsi in 2006 for the cheap rent. Palmer, who plays in the folk band Little Traps, has bounced between Ann Arbor and Ypsi since then, but today says she'd want to live in Ypsi regardless of affordability.
Roll thinks one of the reasons he stayed in southeast Michigan instead of moving back to the Chicago area, where he grew up, or elsewhere was because of how comfortable and supported he felt. He believes the music scene in Ypsi is less pretentious and more open to collaboration than in other cities. He even finds it easier to connect with Ypsi's crowds.
"Ypsi does a pretty good job of embracing you," says Roll. "There’s a sense of community there."
Even though hip-hop performer Mark Gholston, who's known by the stage name Louis Picasso, hasn't lived in Ypsi his whole life, he still claims it as his hometown. He says Ypsi was the first place to adopt him when he relocated here about 10 years ago; he started performing a few years after that. He has fun playing shows in Ypsi because he enjoys the "vibe" he gets from his hometown crowd. When he played at Mittenfest for the first time in 2016, he got the chance to do his first encore when the crowd demanded one more song.
"When it comes to Ypsi, we’re just different," says Gholston, who leads local arts collective Hiiigher Minds. "No one sounds the same here. The creative processes are different. It’s like we’re in our own world."
"You can't pin it down"
Since starting the River Street Anthology with the intention of recording Ypsi-based musicians in his basement in 2015, singer-songwriter Matt Jones has recorded almost 400 musicians across Michigan. Throughout his quest to essentially make a musical map of Michigan, he's learned that many areas of the state have distinct sounds. But he finds it difficult to identify one distinct sound for Ypsi.
"This town, for how small it is, sounds like a lot of different things and I think that’s what’s cool about Ypsilanti," Jones says. "You can’t pin it down."
Jones has played in numerous Ypsi-based bands but most recently has been involved in Misty Lyn and the Big Beautiful, Matt Jones and the Reconstruction, and Priest Potion. He believes Ypsi's DIY spirit was born of necessity. Since the city no longer has any dedicated music venues, Jones says people are pushed to do creative things and think outside the box. He thinks some bands choose to proudly represent Ypsi as a "DIY badge of honor."
"It’s a badge of pride because it’s a small town but it also seems like it’s kind of bursting with this really gritty, super DIY energy," Jones says. "You can see things here that you can’t see in Ann Arbor or Detroit."
Ypsi has always been a big part of progressive jam band Stormy Chromer's identity because that's where the band was formed in early 2014 and where it has experienced many of its milestones. The band's first venue show was at Woodruff's, 36 E. Cross St., where Maiz Mexican Cantina is now located, right before it closed. Stormy Chromer drummer Amin Lanseur describes playing shows in Ypsi as "a family gathering" because many of his closest friends come out to support the band.
Lanseur has noticed there’s a lot of DIY spirit in Ypsi’s music scene – especially when it comes to venues, because there aren't very many traditional spaces where a band can play. He thinks artists and musicians are forced to figure out their own spaces to create in Ypsi.
"Everyone’s got to put in the work on their own and the community is willing to do that," Lanseur says.
Jazz funk band Honey Monsoon got its start in Ypsi in 2016, when guitarist and vocalist Ana Gomulka met and jammed with drummer Taylor Greenshields for the first time at a house party she hosted on Cross Street. The band has tried to orient itself around Ypsi's DIY spirit from early on and has played shows in local bars, restaurants, and theaters.
Gomulka says Honey Monsoon draws its largest crowds in Ypsi, a sign of its "homegrown support." Because of that support, she thinks it's even easier for musicians to express themselves. She says there’s a lot of talk about collaboration to form a stronger music community that will benefit every band.
"Everyone you meet has something that they do and that they take pride in and that they’re known for, and it kind of gives everyone their own identity," Gomulka says.
Palmer believes that DIY spirit is what encourages musicians and artists to continue flocking to Ypsi. She's always felt there are opportunities for creative expression, even if they're somewhat nontraditional, and that's exactly what attracted her to Ypsi. She also admires the community's openness to new things.
"It’s a great city," Palmer says. "It’s got a particular personality. There are just a ton of creative, awesome people who live here."
What the scene needs next
Even though many musicians celebrate the city's DIY spirit, most of them believe Ypsi is in desperate need of a dedicated music venue, not just establishments that sometimes double as a music venue. They would like to see another venue that's similar to the Elbow Room or Woodruff's, which closed in 2011 and 2014, respectively.
"A venue that’s really cool always seems to be a part of helping a (music) scene achieve its full potential," Roll says.
Palmer thinks Ypsi residents have done a good job trying to fill vacuums when they arise, like the lack of a dedicated music venue. She has noticed attempts to create opportunities for musicians by opening available spaces for them to play in. But she thinks the Ypsi area has become less of a destination for touring bands over the year since it no longer has a dedicated music venue.
Lanseur thinks a music venue that holds around 500 people is what's needed to elevate Ypsi's music scene to the next level. He thinks the lack of a dedicated music venue is what drives Ypsi-based bands to seek shows elsewhere, like Ann Arbor or Detroit, because it's impossible for them to support themselves just by playing shows in Ypsi.
"As much as I like music for music’s sake, artists need to get paid," Lanseur says. "And it’s really hard to do that without a venue that has a good capacity, … that people want to go to, … (and) that has good sound."
Want to see these Ypsi musicians live? Here's where they're playing next:
Stormy Chromer will play Feb. 16 at the Blind Pig, 208 S. 1st St., in Ann Arbor.
Honey Monsoon will play Feb. 23 at the Blind Pig during an album release party for the Ann Arbor-based jam band Pajamas.
Matt Jones will perform March 2 at Hamtramck Music Festival and on March 18 at Cultivate Coffee and Taphouse, 307 N. River St, with special guests.
Little Traps will play Hamtramck Music Fest March 3 at Trixie's Bar, 2656 Carpenter Ave., in Hamtramck.
Stormy Chromer and Honey Monsoon are playing a show with several other local bands March 9 at Tangent Gallery, 715 E. Milwaukee St., in Detroit.
Priest Potion will play March 9 at PJ's Lager House, 1254 Michigan Ave., in Detroit with The High Strung and Doop and the Inside Outlaws.
Louis Picasso will perform March 10 at the Threads All Art Festival at the Ypsilanti Freighthouse, 100 Market Pl. in Depot Town, and at the festival's after party at Corner Brewery, 720 Norris St.
Misty Lyn and the Big Beautiful will play April 21 at Johnny's Speakeasy in Ann Arbor.
Brianna Kelly is the project manager for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.
All photos by Doug Coombe.