Feature Stories

Inside Modern Electric, the Music Studio Mentoring the Next Generation of Texas Stars

Beau Bedford (left) and Jeff Saenz run the sound board during a recording at Modern Electric in Dallas.
Beau Bedford (left) and Jeff Saenz run the sound board during a recording at Modern Electric in Dallas. Can Turkyilmaz
Beau Bedford remembers what it feels like to be trapped by the music machine. The music producer and Texas Gentlemen ringleader was only 19 when it happened to him. His band, Envoy, caught the eye of a producer at SXSW, who promptly signed the band to a production deal.

“We weren’t able to do anything without him for four years,” Bedford says of the deal.

Columbia and Capitol came along but were unwilling to work with the man who signed Envoy.

“He demanded a six-figure buyout,” Bedford says. “It cost us, and that’s so common in music.”

As a songwriting coach, engineer, producer and co-owner of Dallas’ Modern Electric Sound Recorders, Bedford is trying to make sure that does not happen to Dallas’ rising stars. He and his fellow music veterans at Modern Electric have developed a community where the city’s young musicians have a place to call home, hone their craft and never worry about being trapped.

“I don’t want to see that for these kids,” Bedford says. “I don’t want to see the machine take advantage of them. They’re just discovering who they are.”

Modern Electric opened in 2012 in a historic Uptown space modeled after the classic West Coast studios of the 1960s. The studio, filled to the brim with vintage musical and recording equipment, is an homage to the past and a herald of the future. Shortly after opening, the Modern team hosted Leon Bridges, Paul Cauthen and many more.

“Then the word got out that we were helping young artists,” Bedford says. Remy Reilly kicked it off.

The 14-year-old indie pop singer-songwriter recorded her debut single “26” at the studio.

“They made me feel at home right away,” Reilly recalls. “They just said, ‘Sing like you’re in your room.’”

“I couldn’t believe how advanced her voice was,” Bedford says. “I immediately started plugging her in to our family and community. Once she started working with Jason, his reactions were so classic.”

click to enlarge The recording space at Modern Electric - CAN TURKYILMAZ
The recording space at Modern Electric
Can Turkyilmaz
“We were all like, ‘Holy shit,'” Jason Burt remembers of his first time hearing Reilly. “She blew all our minds. It became our M.O. to help these younger artists.”

Soon other rising stars joined the studio. Modern Electric’s cadre of young musicians includes Reilly, Frankie Leonie, Tippy Balady and Parker Twomey. Reilly and Leonie record with the studio’s team of producers and experienced session musicians, while the latter two artists work at the studio as part of an internship program created with their school, the nearby Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. All four rising stars can be seen jamming, recording and frequently hanging out at the studio, and each of them are mentored by one or more of the studio’s producers.

“[Beau Bedford] encouraged me to make my song 'Johnny Cash' a little more upbeat, a little more driving.” — Frankie Leonie

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Leonie, a 16-year-old country artist with tinges of folk, began recording with the Modern Electric crew in January 2018. Bedford and Burt took her under their wing.

“Beau is the human embodiment of a King Charles Spaniel,” Leonie says. “He’s full of energy. He brought my songs new life, and he always pushes me to be better, to get things done.”

The Texas Gentleman ringleader helps Leonie learn more about the business and develop her sound. At the same time, Bedford gives Leonie and all of his young artists complete agency in the studio.

“He encouraged me to make my song 'Johnny Cash' a little more upbeat, a little more driving,” Leonie says of Bedford. “He bring so much expertise to the table, but it’s always about finding your voice.”

Bedford, Burt and the Modern producers were music celebrities to Leonie before she met them, and now they’re just friends.

“Modern is a family,” she says.

Jeff Saenz, a veteran producer and the studio’s co-owner, believes the key to building that family is simple.

“We don’t treat them differently from any of our older clientele,” he says. “I try not to cuss too much around them, but that’s about it.”

Saenz is consistently impressed by the caliber of local talent he sees at Modern Electric.

“I grew up in Southern California, and this kind of talent was so rare when I was their age. To find this kind of concentrated talent is so rare.”

It’s not only the talent that impresses Saenz; it’s the work ethic. He remembers the first time he met Twomey, the 18-year-old Southern rock singer-songwriter who joined the Modern team as an intern.

“We were dealing with construction in the studio one day, and no one is on the calendar,” Saenz recalls. “But when I get there, the parking lot is full of cars. Everyone is here.”

Saenz was not happy when he walked into an unexpectedly crowded studio, so when someone said, “Hey Jeff, meet Parker, he’s our new intern,” Saenz said “No, he’s not.”

“I just thought, ‘How is someone going to hire an intern without asking me?’” Saenz says, laughing. “But Parker just kind of kept showing up, and now he’s my right-hand man.”

click to enlarge Musician Tippy Balady works with Jason Burt on a recording. - CAN TURKYILMAZ
Musician Tippy Balady works with Jason Burt on a recording.
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Balady, an 18-year-old pop artist, also joined the studio as an intern and can often be found hanging out at the studio, writing songs and strumming her ukulele. She relishes the chance to be around a seemingly endless supply of talented musicians and producers, and singles out Saenz’s influence in particular.

“Jeff is father of the kids,” she says. “And he’s the music wizard. He helps us all retain as much knowledge as we can.”

According to Saenz, that part of his job is easy.

“They’re playing with the same session musicians as Leon Bridges and Paul Cauthen. That raises the bar. They have to keep up with these seasoned session musicians.” — Jeff Saenz

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“They’re all sponges,” he says of the young artists. “We share music, we record, I learn new things and they learn new things. It’s a fun environment.”

But the environment is also challenging.

“We challenge them just the same, to get the same performances that we would get out of someone else,” Saenz says. “They’re playing with the same session musicians as Leon Bridges and Paul Cauthen. That raises the bar. They have to keep up with these seasoned session musicians.”

Those high expectations have paid off. Each artist has earned critical acclaim, accolades and gigs across the city and beyond. This month, Balady flies to Berlin for two shows. She attributes a big part of her success to Modern Electric and the Modern family.

“I’ll remember everyone," she says. "The positivity. The space. I’ll always know there are people out there that will let me be me.”

Burt hopes to keep providing that space for Balady well into the future.

“I’m in Empire mode,” he says. “I want us to continue doing big things for these artists.”

He dreams of a Modern Electric Academy, and a scholarship program to help talented students afford studio time. Whatever the future holds, Bedford believes what happens in his studio reaches far beyond music.

“I have a 14-year-old son, and I want kids to grow up to be strong leaders," Bedford says. "To know what is right, what is wrong. I want them to be righteous people.”

Superstardom is not the goal; happiness is.

“Success is not monetary gain,” Bedford says. “Success is doing what you love, and doing the best at what you’re called to do. That’s all I want for each of these artists.”
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Tyler Hicks was born in Austin, but he grew up in Dallas. He typically claims one or the other, depending on which is most convenient. His work has appeared in Texas Monthly, Truthout, The Texas Observer and many other publications.
Contact: Tyler Hicks