Ian Sanchez-Herasme has been a staple on the local stage for years, but thanks to COVID-19 and quarantine measures, he likely won't grace the stage anytime soon. For Sanchez-Herasme, however, the break was a welcomed one.
Sanchez-Herasme, 25, played roles such as Bernardo in “West Side Story” and Seaweed in “Hairspray,” both at the Ephrata Performing Arts Center, and most recently at the end of 2019, sang hits such as “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” by Stevie Wonder and the Temptations’ “My Girl” at Prima Theatre’s “Motown Legends” showcase. He is also a Company Leader at Teatro Paloma, a theater company in Lancaster focusing primarily on Latinx-centered productions.
But at the start of 2020, Sanchez-Herasme had something of a different goal entirely – to work on music of his own creation.
“I was kind of relieved (about the quarantine), because I was going to do a bunch of theater this year,” he says over the phone. “I was excited to do it, but I felt as if I did need some sort of break from the extracurricular activities, I guess you could say.”
Sanchez-Herasme was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic in 1994 before moving with his family to Lancaster in 2000, where he has lived ever since. Along with the standard music and choir classes befitting any future stage actor, Sanchez-Herasme also took AP Music Theory classes at his alma mater, J.P. McCaskey High School, where he honed his songwriting skills.
In 2017, the songwriter-in-training took virtual lessons in the craft from Greta Morgan Salpeter, songwriter of one of Sanchez-Herasme's favorite bands growing up, the Hush Sound, where he learned techniques for conveying emotions through lyrics.
“Songwriting is my favorite, I love it,” Sanchez-Herasme says. “It's like a puzzle, it's a beautiful process.”
With a welcome reprieve from the stage in place due to quarantine measures, Sanchez-Herasme began networking in Lancaster’s surprisingly vast musical community. Through mutual friends, he started talking with local musician Ben Oaks.
As Sanchez-Herasme began tinkering with demos and song ideas, the death of George Floyd lit a fuse across the nation.
“One day (Sanchez-Herasme) hit me up asking for something ‘old school’ sounding that could work as a protest song,” Oaks says.
Oaks, having worked on protest songs of a similar vein in honor of Philando Castile and Michael Brown in the past, sent Sanchez-Herasme the base track of what would become “BARS (I Can’t Breathe).”
In the song, Sanchez-Herasme provides the haunting hook that should instantly be familiar to anyone paying attention to national news in the last month.
“I wasn’t sure at first what I wanted to say,” Sanchez-Herasme explains. “Living in the heart of Lancaster city, I heard protesters chant ‘No justice, no peace’ and knew that it had to go in the hook.”
The song, which also features rappers Android Eddie and 66notes and Lancaster musician Ben Roth on guitar, was released in June. Funds from the track benefit both SafeHouse Lancaster and the Philadelphia chapter of Black Lives Matter. The trio of Roth, Oaks and Sanchez-Herasme recently recorded a live version of the song for Station One Center for the Arts’ virtual music event SOCA Fest, which premieres online on Saturday, July 18.
“It feels really empowering, and I feel like this is the best way that I can do it,” Sanchez-Herasme says. “I just tried to find my strength and play onto that, because I do want to respond in meaningful ways, but I also don't want to do something just to do it.”
In addition to being one of the first pieces of music of Sanchez-Herasme’s to be released, it also features the debut of a separate musical nom de plume – PINK i.
“I thought ‘pink’ because I wanted something that was a little gay, because I'm genderqueer and non-binary and thought that would make a nice visual,” Sanchez-Herasme explains. “The 'I' is obviously for my name, but also because pink eye is very infectious, like my music is supposed to be."
There’s a space, and then laughter.
“That's the joke, anyway. It's bad though,” he adds.
It’s not the first musical idea that, in his own words, Sanchez-Herasme says started as a joke and grew into something real.
Though he now works at the United Way of Lancaster County, Sanchez-Herasme’s day job of six years was at the Lancaster Lebanon Habitat for Humanity ReStore. According to ReStore store manager Ben Mathus – yes, a third Ben – Sanchez-Herasme would usually be heard before he was seen.
“He's been acting for years at EPAC and other various local productions, so we were all aware of him going out for auditions,” Mathus explains. “When he worked for us, he was always singing, especially along with Whitney (Houston) and Mariah (Carey). Around a year and a half ago, he came to me with the jingle.”
“ReStore Theme Song,” Sanchez-Herasme’s jaunty two minute ode to the non-profit furniture and building materials center was initially written two years ago, but eventually made its way to the internet last month.
Armed with a glass of red wine and his phone’s recording app, Sanchez-Herasme sat at his mother’s piano one night and composed a song about ReStore, to play for his boss the next day as a joke.
"He said, ‘Yo, this is dope! Not verbatim, though," Sanchez-Herasme says with a laugh.
“Oh, I loved it,” Mathus actually says. “The song is so unbelievably catchy. If you hear it once, you'll be singing it all afternoon. I just loved his enthusiasm.”
In February, Sanchez-Herasme got in touch with Jon Sambrick, owner and engineer at Thornwall Studios in Lancaster, to record the song. The two had first met at Millersville University when they briefly overlapped in the Music Business major.
“Ian is very reserved about his musical abilities, so he approached it like, ‘Hey, I wrote this song, I think it's pretty cool, but I don't know how it'll turn out,’ Sambrick says. “And then he sent me the cell phone demo and it was amazing.”
“ReStore Theme Song” is more akin to television themes of the ‘80s and ‘90s, songs that stretched to sometimes absurd lengths so as to explain everything you need to know before you experience what is about to unfold.
Before his time at ReStore, Mathus was a camera operator in film and television, with IMDB credits including “The Fault in Our Stars” and 26 episodes of “Gossip Girl.”
Naturally, there had to be a music video.
“I had the technological know-how, and he had the talent,” Mathus says. “We knocked the whole thing out in roughly two days.”
Filmed in and around the store, the video was to premiere in the spring, traditionally the business’ busiest season. Instead, it served as a “Welcome back!” message in June when the store reopened after closing temporarily for COVID-19.
The video now has 10,000 views on the store’s Facebook page.
“Songwriting for a business is cool, because I don't really have to be introspective and think of myself as an artist, I just look at it as a task,” Sanchez-Herasme says. “Finding a way to bring the essence of a business into song is kind of the art of it. It's a lot less pressure than writing and releasing my own stuff.”
When it is eventually released, Sanchez-Herasme says that his music will look closer to the hip-hop of “BARS (I Can’t Breathe) than the pure pop of the “ReStore Theme Song." In conversation, he hypes two other upcoming songs created with a local DJ coming later in the year, one closer to house music and pop and the other experimental neo-soul.
Despite the release of two very different songs with more on the way, Sanchez-Herasme isn’t getting ahead of himself.
“It's sort of a hobby, so I'm not trying to set crazy expectations for myself,” he says.
“Ian's a super humble person, and it's really cool to find a talented person that's that humble,” Sambrick says. “Because I think it makes the music that much more special.”