Dave Babak pulls his music studio out of a suitcase. "The last CD was on analog tape -- a nightmare and expensive time," he remarks. "This new technology is great, because now I can go to them. If somebody's homeless, you can't just call them up. You have to find them or try to meet them somewhere."
For this recording session, he sets up everything on a folding table in the basement of the Forum, a downtown apartment building given by the city to the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, a nonprofit that provides affordable housing for people moving back into the work world. As Babak fiddles with the many knobs and switches on his portable digital recorder, the air conditioner kicks on, and sounds from a nearby TV filter in.
Babak points to the walls. "We're going to hang elevator blankets about four inches from the wall to deafen the noise," he says. "Once, during my 'first psychotic break,' I thought it would be a good idea to use some old carpet from the alley for the noise. Did it smell!"
Wes and Curtis, two of the guys working on the album's first song, chuckle. Formerly homeless, they now live in the Forum; they know about those alleys.
A vocational counselor and therapist since 1974, Babak works closely with both homeless people and the mentally ill to help with their transition from isolation back into society. Babak and his one-man company, Starfish II LLC, contract with assorted agencies on specific projects: Sometimes Babak helps people get jobs, sometimes he organizes sports teams, sometimes he arranges social events so that people can feel part of a group. But he always tries to create a sense of hope.
This isn't his first attempt to instill hope through music. Babak produced a CD once before, in the late '80s, called Art of the Gifted. "I did a lot of recording with bands over the years," he says. "And I thought this would be a good thing to do. Some people that I worked with had some musical talent, and I thought, 'Let's record it.'"
The songwriters and musicians featured on Art of the Gifted all suffered from severe mental illness. The project was a powerful, positive experience for the people he worked with, but Babak thought it was too narrow. So in the years that followed, he expanded the scope of his dream. "I want it to be a community project, including homeless people and those with mental illness or physical disability," he says of the new CD, Starfish on Broadway.
"'Homeless' goes past normal thinking," he explains. "A paycheck two weeks from now might as well be next year. The window of forward-thinking shuts really quickly. People develop that vagrant stare, the look of ambivalence. If you give people something to care about, you give them hope."
The recording work has already made a difference at the Forum, where people are becoming more social. "This project is positive, because it not only gives people a sense of accomplishment, it also really brings people together," he says.
Not all of the participants live at the Forum. One of the songwriters, who suffers from mental illness, stays in a shelter. "This guy is really bipolar and incredibly talented," Babak says. "He's outstanding. His song is kind of a throwback. It's '70s folk-style, a lot like Loggins and Messina." A trio of women are collaborating on a folk ballad with flute, guitar and vocals; the three songwriters didn't know each other before Babak put them together.
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Babak finds most of his contributors though word of mouth and signs them on immediately, before they disappear back into homelessness, back into mental illness. "I put the word out to case managers, therapists, people on the street," he says. "You know -- 'I know so-and-so.' It's not a real sophisticated screening process."
When the CD is finished, Babak plans to sell it in local stores and over the Internet. He's not looking to make a profit -- just a difference. "The money will go to songwriters and performers and back into the production of a new album," he says. "That is the contract everybody's signed."
Babak already has four solid tracks, with a fifth on the way; the final CD could have as many as fourteen. But the project is moving slowly. While Art of the Gifted had a variety of sponsors, including Babak and several agencies with which he'd worked, so far he's provided all the backing for Starfish. "Without more sponsors, the project will probably take over a year to complete," he says. "With them, maybe half the time.
"Anyone who wants to be involved with the project will be throwing a starfish back into the sea -- giving someone a second chance at life," he concludes. "We're born, we live, we die. The rest is about quality."