When Ezra Huleatt became the first artist-in-residence at the new Safety Harbor Art and Music Center, his musician pals had no idea what he was doing.
"A lot of friends, when they heard about it, were like, 'So … you're not writing music? What direction are you going in?' " Huleatt said.
Their confusion was understandable. Artist residency programs tend to be geared toward writers, playwrights, visual artists and creators in other disciplines, not pop musicians like Huleatt, the singer of New York dance-rock group Black Taxi.
But it didn't take long for word to spread. With Huleatt about to wrap up his monthlong stint living, writing, recording and performing out of a guest home in Safety Harbor, SHAMC founders Kiaralinda and Todd Ramquist have already fielded inquiries about the program from musician friends across America.
"We know so many who would probably do it," Kiaralinda said. "We would probably give first dibs to the ones we probably know. As long as the center's open, this will be happening."
Opened in November, the Safety Harbor Art and Music Center is a colorful performance space and workshop a couple of blocks north of Main Street. Initially funded by a $50,000 grant from Pepsi, the structure took five years to build and decorate, often by volunteers, and often by hand. It has already hosted several concerts and community events.
The Ramquists always planned for SHAMC to have artist-in-residence of all disciplines. But over the past decade, they'd hosted many touring musicians in their colorfully decorated guest house, dubbed "Casa Loco," and decided that would be a good way to get the program off the ground.
In a field where making ends meet can be a challenge — Huleatt said he sometimes earns extra cash by writing custom songs for fans — any chance to immerse themselves in music with little overhead can feel like a windfall.
Black Taxi has played plenty of Tampa Bay gigs over the years, building a following strong enough to pack clubs like Skipper's Smokehouse. But last year, as some members began exploring new life paths, Huleatt realized he didn't have a clear time line, or even an outlet, for his next musical project. So he sold his apartment, downsized his possessions, and hit the road.
Around that time, the Ramquists reached out about the residency.
"It didn't take much of a pitch," Huleatt laughed.
Over the past month, he has fleshed out his residency with gigs around Tampa Bay, not just at SHAMC but in Dunedin, St. Petersburg and Ybor City. He has reconnected with friends in the Tampa Bay music scene, blogged about his experience on his website, and spent windy mornings kitesurfing on a borrowed rig. Restaurants like the Whistle Stop Grill and Bar and Pizzeria Gregario have donated meals to cut down on his grocery bill.
"Compared to New York City, where you're working 80 hours a week just to get by, it's been really amazing," he said.
And the fruits of his labor? He came in with a lot of ideas, some just germs, others well in progress. But he also let his new environment shape and inspire him, from the palm trees outside to passers-by peeking in his window.
The day before Valentine's Day, he wrote a few bars of a sweet "three-chord ditty" called Love More. "Recorded it, put it up, people were like, 'Oh, that's kind of a catchy little melody.' The next day, Ramquist asked if he'd play a show at SHAMC that week. He finessed it a little more, added some more instruments, figured out how to play it live. "It was one of the ones that people loved," he said.
"For so long, I would only bring out a song when it was totally done," he said. "Now I'm enjoying the process more. I played a show the other day with unfinished stuff, but that's where the magic happens, too."
SHAMC's next artist-in-residence will be Daphne Willis, a Nashville songwriter who will stay for a little less than a week in May. "She'll write a little bit, but she mainly wants to come and teach other musicians," Todd said. They've discussed hosting bigger names like Joseph Arthur and Parker Millsap.
"Somebody said, 'Why do you think they don't want to come here and just go on a vacation?' " Kiaralinda said. "It is, but it's a working vacation for them, so why not? Because they do like to perform and they do like to share their craft, so of course they're not just coming here to go to the beach. Or if they are at the beach, they're probably writing a song. But in our space, they're definitely performing."
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.