UNION COUNTY, NJ — Despite the difficulties the music industry has faced during the COVID-19 pandemic, the upstart New Jersey country music trio Southpaw has charted its own success. Born and raised in Ridgewood, the band’s lead singer, Christine Radlmann, moved to Union County 13 years ago and currently lives in Westfield. She admits her journey took her in many directions before she found country music.
“I’ve worn many hats in my adult life, but the primary one I donned before devoting myself full-time to music was that of a literary editor,” Radlmann said on Saturday, May 1. “I got my start in magazines, as a staff editor at The Atlantic, and went on to copyedit books, including the ‘Twilight’ series. Throughout most of my literary career, I moonlighted as a singer.
“I was always a singer — in school plays and such as a kid, and later in cover bands,” she continued. “People would often comment that I had a natural twang to my singer voice. It was totally unconscious, but it’s always been there. Eventually, I became a lead singer in a country cover band, singing June Carter, Dolly Parton, Miranda Lambert and all the old and new greats in country music. My dad was a big southern rock fan, so I grew up loving Alabama, ZZ Top and the like. One of my first concerts was Lynyrd Skynyrd.”
Originally from Pittsburgh, Emmy-winning sound designer and Southpaw keyboardist Sean Garnhart, who also lives in Westfield, is best known for his sound design for major movies. Garnhart grew up around music and art.
“I’m originally from a town just outside of Pittsburgh. I grew up in a very artsy family. My dad was an art teacher and my mom was a piano teacher,” Garnhart said on Saturday, May 1. “I started playing when I was 2 years old and started lessons at 3. When I turned 16, I started playing professionally in piano bars and restaurants. After college, I moved to Los Angeles and spent about eight years there before moving back East, where I landed in New Jersey.
“Music has been a love of my life since I could breathe. Given my upbringing, playing, listening, performing, producing and arranging have always been in my blood,” he continued. “I’m so grateful that I can pursue something that makes me happy. When I’m not making music, I’m doing sound design for major movies and TV shows that I’m sure you’ve seen and heard. I’ve worked for the Coen brothers, Judd Apatow and M. Night Shyamalan. I’m fortunate to be able to use my creative skills across various media.”
The third member of Southpaw, guitarist Colin McConnell of Cranford, was born in New York, spent his childhood in rural Pennsylvania and has lived in New Jersey for his adult life as an award-winning advertising professional. However, music has always been a part of his life.
“I grew up in a musical family, traded in a trombone for a guitar in ninth grade, and songwriting and performing have been a part of me for as long as I can remember,” McConnell said on Friday, April 30. “I had a successful career in advertising and media. It was a great way to apply my creative skills without being a starving artist. Now, I’m an artist, but I’m not starving.”
After singing in cover bands for several years, Radlmann was a guest performer with Garnhart and McConnell’s prior band. The chemistry was palpable, leading to the creation of Southpaw.
“Colin and I had been playing together before we met Christine. When Christine started singing with us, we instinctively headed down the country path. Her voice is pure country. We started writing and recording together, and the rest is history,” Garnhart said.
“I’m a storyteller and a guitarist. That kind of makes me a country musician,” McConnell said. “It just took me years of playing other genres to figure it out. When Christine, Sean and I started performing together with a different band, it sort of pointed us at Southpaw — kind of like a Ouija board.”
Formed at the end of 2018, Southpaw released its first entirely self-produced album, “Unhitched,” on Sunday, Feb. 14. It peaked at No. 3 on Amazon’s Hot New Country Releases chart. A full-length music video was launched on Thursday, March 11, and has already garnered 15,000 views. Although the pandemic has hindered touring and shows, the band members say they have used their time wisely the past year.
“I used to perform at live gigs very often. COVID put the kibosh on that for the past year,” Radlmann said. “But my bandmates and I were able to pivot and spend the time creating an album. A year ago, I wouldn’t have guessed that I’d be hearing our songs on radio stations across the United States and abroad today.”
It proved fortuitous that, as an award-winning sound engineer, Garnhart, whose nickname is Squack, had a professional recording studio in his home, so they did everything there themselves.
“We went right into the studio working on original material. We were about five tracks into the album when COVID hit, so all the success we’ve had has been in spite of COVID and comes with a lot of hard work,” Garnhart said. “Each of us brings a wide range of creative skills, from songwriting to production, videography, editing, social media marketing and so on. So, we were able to hunker down and get a lot done with just the three of us while staying safe. Technology enabled us to work closely together, even when we were in the peak of the lockdown. It’s a lot like running a start-up company: You just get it done.”
“Our music video for our song ‘Within You’ was a labor of love,” said Radlmann. “We shot it ourselves outdoors, smack dab in the middle of winter, throughout scenic New Jersey. Not having extra hands, owing to COVID, to help direct, film and edit, there was a lot of pressure on Squack and Colin, but the two of them rose to the occasion and produced an excellent video. For me, the difficult part was performing the song thousands of times, for very long stretches, while chilled to the bone.”
“I’m so grateful for the reception that the video has received,” she continued. “The message of the song is resonating with people through the video. ‘Shake’ is all about fun, letting it all hang out and not caring too much about what other people think. That sentiment seems to be striking a chord with audiences right now. A New Jersey dance studio actually choreographed a whole routine to it called the ‘Southpaw Shake’ that got a lot of attention in social media.”
According to a press release outlining the group’s success, tracks from “Unhitched” have been selected for airplay on radio stations in Texas, Washington, North Dakota, New Jersey, New York, Michigan, Kentucky, Canada, the United Kingdom, Luxembourg, Australia, Ireland and the Netherlands, and have been syndicated on more than 400 other stations worldwide. Southpaw’s music has also been featured on several international podcasts.
“It’s been three months since the launch of our debut album, and we’ve hit just about every success metric we set ourselves,” Radlmann said. “So far, presale of the album was far better than expected. … Radio play has been great. Our social media following has grown really fast, and the reception to our first video had us over the moon. But we’re just getting started and we’re excited to get out in front of audiences and really blow them away.
“We’re already at work on a cover song, a second album of original music and another music video, and we’re going to be scheduling live performances. It’ll be a busy summer for Southpaw,” she added.
Garnhart said the band was thrilled at how rapidly the fan base is growing due to the group’s success.
“Feedback on the album has been fantastic. Airplay on radio stations across the U.S. and Europe is an exciting testament that good country music has fans everywhere,” he said. “We’re super excited to get out in front of live audiences, now that the pandemic is lifting.”
With New Jersey lifting its restrictions this season, McConnell spoke about his anticipation of performing on stage again.
“I just can’t wait to get out in front of a huge crowd and blow everyone away,” he said. “Stay tuned for that. It’s coming soon.”
Photos Courtesy of Christine Radlmann