A Tupelo native combines his love of art and music to create handmade wooden voice recorders and unique instruments.
Written by Leslie Criss | Photos Contributed by Brand New Noise
Tupelo native Richard Upchurch is a connoisseur of sounds. A visit to brandnewnoise.com will yield plenty of proof. But beware: It won’t be a quick trip. Hours can be spent checking out Upchurch’s handmade wooden creations.
A lover of music, Upchurch toured for a time with the Emma Gibbs Band as rhythm guitarist after attending Wake Forest University. In 2004, he moved to New York City, and in 2009 he decided to attend New York University and work on his master’s in audio technology.
“It was mostly software-related,” he said. “And I didn’t love it. I was more interested in physical musical hardware and circuitry. I loved building stuff.”
It was while living in Brooklyn in 2010 that he created his first voice recorder. It may not have been his intent for a Christmas gift he crafted for his nephew to turn into a successful, well-tuned business; but that’s precisely what happened.
“What I built that long-ago Christmas was a rudimentary voice recorder,” said Upchurch from his Dallas, Texas, workshop/studio. “My nephew took it to school for show and tell, and his teachers wanted to know where they could buy one. So, I built five for his teachers.”
His sister encouraged Upchurch to put his voice recorders on Etsy. He did, but business only trickled for a time. He sold a few in a row, including one to singer and instrumentalist Justin Vernon. Then a connection with a contact at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City opened things wide for Upchurch.
“An email was sent to the buyer for the MoMA store about my work,” he said. “My connection told me not to get my hopes up. But 10 minutes after the email was sent, a response came asking when we could meet.”
The next day, the MoMA store buyer asked Upchurch how many voice recorders he could make for the store. He asked how many she wanted. Her request for 1,000 recorders took Upchurch by surprise.
“At that point, I was making five or 10 at a time,” he said. “I did the woodwork on the roof of my apartment building and the electronics in my kitchen. But after the order from MoMA, the business kind of grew.”
Upchurch opened a shop in Red Hook, in upstate New York. His works could be found in the MoMA store and several high-end boutiques. For a time, they were even carried by Square Books in Oxford. And more musicians were buying Upchurch’s creations.
In 2015, Upchurch married Jill Montgomery, a Dallas pianist and music teacher whom he’d first met when they were kids in Tupelo. Along with a wife, Upchurch got a 7-year-old daughter, Reagan Buvens, “a total joy.”
“Jill convinced me over Tex-Mex and margaritas that Texas was the place to be,” he said. “So, I joined the two of them.”
Since then, Dallas has been home to BrandNewNoise. There, Upchurch has two shops and a handful of employees. The main shop is a 1924 decommissioned fire station.
“It’s not a big business,” he said. “We make a couple thousand units a year. I’m kind of a one-man band: If you call our tech department, you get me. I’m also the chat bot on our website.”
The designs for his voice recorders are as fun and funky as the sounds they make. Look long enough and you’ll notice most resemble a face. Upchurch likes for his work to have a sort of human quality. For example, Frankie looks like Frankenstein, a tribute to Mary Shelley, one of Upchurch’s favorite writers. Frankie comes complete with neck bolts that can be turned to manipulate the sounds.
And there’s Lil’ MIB (message in a box) that comes complete with a red flag to raise when a voice message awaits someone. The red flag addition came after a trip to Tupelo to visit his parents, Robert and Joann Upchurch.
He asked his now-17-year-old daughter when she was 7 what sort of recorder he could make her. Her response? One with a purple mustache.
“It remains one of my most popular recorders,” Upchurch said.
He’s added a small harmonica to one of his creations, and he’s working on a new percussion-oriented piece. Some of his instruments and recorders have been used in movie and TV soundtracks, including “The Lego Movie” and the “Westworld” series.
His recorders are often made with Baltic birch plywood, but it’s been more difficult recently to procure it. The pieces are built by hand, from the wooden box, the design and the screen print to the installation of the electronics.
Upchurch’s approach to his art has always been to keep it as simple as possible.
“What can I give to a 4-year-old and a professional musician that will be fun and useful to both?” he said.
Not long ago, Upchurch learned country singer Brad Paisley followed him on Instagram. Upchurch reached out and asked if Paisley would like to partner for a limited edition voice recorder.
“In 10 minutes he let me know he would love to,” he said.
The Paisley-signed recorder is designed in a purple paisley pattern and proceeds from the sale go to The Store, a free Nashville grocery store for those in need, opened by Paisley and his wife, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, in partnership with Belmont University. Upchurch also has done a limited edition recorder with Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac.
Whenever a new design is completed, Upchurch has a surefire way to determine whether it will be successful or should be relegated to the refuse receptacle.
“I send a new work home with an employee,” Upchurch said. “Is it fun? Can he or she set it on a desk and be compelled to think, ‘Oh, man. I have got to fiddle with this thing?’ It has to be exciting and fun for it to be successful. That’s always the key.”