If this keeps up, the world will know Norwich as much for the creative young entrepreneurs that it grows (or should we say entrepreneurial young creatives?) as for the Olympic athletes it cultivates. Most visibly these days, 22-year-old Jake Laser is building a big following on YouTube for his videos of the inventions he’s been churning out since early adolescence. “I always had the passion for building stuff,” says the 2015 graduate of Hanover High School. “This is what it’s manifested into so far. I don’t think this is the final step.”
Under the guidance of budding music producer and fellow college undergraduate Phin Choukas, Hans Williams is taking the first tentative steps toward a career in music, already reaching thousands of listeners on platforms like Spotify for the songs he’s writing and singing and recording. “I’m slowly learning how to promote myself,” Williams says. “There’s so much that I don’t know, that I still need to learn.”
And here comes 13-year-old Ezra McGinley-Smith, whom – depending, on the time of year, the day of the week, and the hour of the day – you might find shooting a TV ad or an award-winning movie, or crafting a website for an Upper Valley business, or diving for sunken treasure in Upper Valley waterways, or trapping skunks. “I like to stay busy,” says McGinley-Smith, an eighth-grader at Richmond Middle School in Hanover.
So do Laser, Williams, and Choukas… to the extent that the coronavirus allows these days.
Before relocating to Los Angeles in September, Laser self-isolated over the spring and summer at home in Norwich. And after remotely finishing his undergraduate degree in physics from Saint Lawrence University, he retreated full-time into his workshop in the family basement to tinker with and test a parade of inventions, all the while documenting the processes for his JLaservideo pages on Instagram and YouTube (www.youtube.com/user/JLaservideo).
Near summer’s end, Laser flew an elaborate hoverboard – inspired in part by the craft on which the comic-strip movie villain Green Goblin avoids ground traffic – over Storrs Pond and Fullington Field in Hanover.
And thanks to that video and several that he released through the third week of November, his roster of YouTube subscribers grew to 1.3 million. “With the YouTube income,” Laser says, “I’ve been able to pay off all my college loans.”
In Los Angeles, he’s working on a range of projects with a business partner in a workshop and studio that so far appears to be a safe bubble of creativity. “It’s one of the rare industries that’s actually upticking a little right now,” Laser said. “It’s been decent.”
Hans Williams figured he was maintaining a decent pace himself, until contracting Covid-19 almost as soon as he’d returned to New Orleans for his sophomore year at Tulane University. “I got it the first day of classes, while I was working on the video to go with the song Phin and I recorded over the summer,” says Williams who is majoring in marketing with a minor in music production. “I had to quarantine for a couple of weeks, which kind of set me back. “And I guess I’m going to have to quarantine when I come back to Norwich over the holidays, so Phin and I will have to wait before we can start working on our next project.”
Good thing, then, that the former ice-hockey teammates – “since Mites and Squirts up through high school,” Williams says – devoted an intense couple of weeks finetuning Williams’ latest song, Body on My Shoulders, in the Choukas family’s Dreaded Zig Zag, the studio on Kerwin Hill. “He showed me that song in late July or early August,” says Choukas. “We put it together pretty quickly. He took a while to find the right words. We had a really good time making it before we went our separate ways.”
In Choukas’ case, “separate” meant transporting his recording equipment to California, where he is self-isolating in a small bubble of friends. Between recording projects, he’s remotely continuing his undergraduate studies at Middlebury College where he’s a junior.
Choukas also is using this time to figure out what he wants to do for a living after college. While he’s caught the attention of the ever-evolving music industry for his production wizardry (www.norwichtimes.com/music-comes-home) for the likes of Strafford-native singer-songwriter Noah Kahan, he confesses “I still don’t know if it’s what I want to do professionally. “I’ve been so fortunate to work with really talented vocalists and musicians, but up until now it’s been more about doing it for friends. It’s kind of a therapeutic experience. A relief and an escape.”
Those rewards motivated Williams to ‘midwife’ and record Body on My Shoulders at least as much as any commercial ones that might or might not follow. Back in Norwich, after Tulane sent everyone home for the spring and summer to avoid the coronavirus, he started assembling the song in response to the suicide of a fellow Tulane freshman in a neighboring dormitory suite in 2019. “Being in virtual quarantine over the summer really helped me write it,” Williams says. “And having Phin there for every step, the way he was on my first record (Guardian, released the spring of his junior year at Hanover High) made such a difference. He’s the one who’s hearing all the takes, and has the best ear on all of it.”
According to the online music site Spotify, more than 2,000 people were following the songs that Williams and Choukas were sharing as of Thanksgiving, and more than 75,000 a month were listening. “I’m not too worried yet that some big label will sweep me off my feet,” Williams hastens to add. “I still have a lot to learn. There have been people who came and hit me with ideas for weird deals, things I don’t want to sign. I didn’t think too much about that coming from Norwich.”
While – like his father, a dermatologist by trade – Ezra McGinley-Smith enjoyed still photography, he didn’t think too much about filmmaking until he attended the White River Indie Film Festival in White River Junction a few years ago. “I can’t remember exactly when, but I was still at Marion Cross School,” McGinley-Smith recalls. “I got really inspired by what I saw.”
That inspiration led first to testing his skills with sports-action films, particularly skiing, à la documentarian Warren Miller. Then, during the early weeks of the pandemic, with the free time gained after schools went to remote learning, he shot Willing Hands – a 7½-minute documentary about how the Norwich-based nonprofit, which collects surplus and donated food that otherwise would go to waste, focused on getting that food to Upper Valley residents who lost jobs and income during the Covid crisis. The film recently won the middle-school division’s social-justice award from the Freedom & Unity program, led by Norwich movie director Nora Jacobson. “When it won,” he remembers, “I was like, ‘Wow: there’s potential for this!’”
Indeed, the acclaim led to commissions to shoot commercials for products ranging from electric tea-kettles to Hershey’s chocolate and a Segway scooter. “Having the digital technology that’s available now has really helped,” McGinley-Smith says. “At least while I’m starting out, the modern way seems the most practical way to go, though at some point I want to try the old-fashioned way, to see what they were doing back then.”
One of those more old-fashioned ways he earns walking-around money, is trapping skunks for neighbors, friends, and acquaintances. And at some point, McGinley-Smith might start charging for his free dives into area lakes, ponds, and rivers to retrieve items lost by fishermen, golfers, and other outdoors persons.
“So far it’s been for fun, for the challenge,” he says. “It’s crazy what you find down there that you’re not even looking for: An old phone from a pay phone; a bicycle wheel; an iPhone; many, many, many pairs of sunglasses.”
Jake Laser sums up the same spirit all three of these creatives share. He expects to follow his curiosity and sense of adventure wherever they lead him, commercially viable/viral or no. “I’m always excited for what comes next,” he concludes. “I try to be on the edge, push myself whenever I can.”