Agrarian Cool

Music producer and songwriter Chris Keup finds inspiration on his organic farm.

Photograph by David Deal

It was in the foothills outside Charlottesville that Thomas Jefferson pursued his dream of an ideal agrarian lifestyle—living close to the land while simultaneously embracing a love of culture and the arts. Two centuries later, husband-and-wife team Chris Keup and Corey Borgman are pursuing a new version of the Jeffersonian ideal in those same foothills. Only this time, the hills are ringing with electric guitars, as their sustainable farm is also the headquarters for a successful recording studio.

Keup and Borgman’s farm is tucked away behind a riot of sapling fruit trees at the end of a rutted country lane in the Green Springs National Historic Landmark District of Louisa County. Their home is a restored 19th-century farmhouse, surrounded by outbuildings (including some that outdate the house itself). The building that houses White Star Sound’s studio is clearly the newest—a Mennonite-built pole barn that will never see a bale of hay. “I wanted to create an artist’s retreat,” Keup says, “and something about being out in the country—being focused and being relaxed—is conducive to getting the best out of people creatively.”

Keup’s transition to music producer and farmer has been a gradual one. A graduate of the College of William & Mary, Keup did starving-artist stints in both D.C. and New York before finding success as an award-winning singer/songwriter. You’ve probably heard his songs (whether you know it or not) on television shows ranging from Grey’s Anatomy to One Tree Hill. Composed on both guitar and piano, though he claims to play neither well, Keup’s songs run the gamut from pop to alt-country. In 2000, the songwriters’ organization ASCAP presented him with the Sammy Cahn lyricist award in a Lincoln Center ceremony (other past winners include John Mayer, Josh Ritter and Lori McKenna). His work has also been showcased at the Sundance Film Festival, SXSW (the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas) and numerous ASCAP events in New York City. As a producer, Keup works with recording artists in genres from rock ’n’ roll to dance music to bluegrass.

     Keup says he built his own studio because it enables him “to make the records I want to make,” without outside pressures. Similarly, his interest in producing other artists derives from his desire “to work with other people to maximize their ability and make the most of their songs.” He began working as a producer in 2001, when he collaborated with his friend Stewart Myers, former bassist for Richmond-based Agents of Good Roots, on a handful of recordings for other artists who were struggling to break through. The partnership with Myers grew, and they eventually blossomed into a full-blown production team: White Star Sound. The pair recorded in Keup and Borgman’s farmhouse prior to the completion of the studio in 2007. “We record everyone from major-label artists to independent acts,” Keup says, “and we also work with a lot of people who have been writing songs and saving money to record as a dream, and want to do it as well as possible.”

      That devotion to doing things the right way is also reflected in Keup and Borgman’s commitment to manage their 10-acre farm responsibly. The couple subscribes to the agricultural design philosophy known as permaculture, which revolves around using crops and animals in a sustainable way that mimics nature. By growing plants with different characteristics, they are able to eliminate the need for artificial fertilizers and pesticides. To that end, they grow a wide variety of herbs, fruits and vegetables, including plums, pears, blueberries, rhubarb, comfrey, peas, garlic, cilantro, lettuce, tomatoes and onions, to name a few.

The farm is also a nice backdrop for Borgman’s own work as a photographer. Her stunning black and white photos can be found in the farmhouse, a stark contrast from the riot of color she oversees on the rest of the farm.

      As Keup explains, “We’ve tried to create a place where people can come and be nourished physically and creatively.” That’s the beauty—literally—of an artist’s retreat.

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