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July 2024
Vol. 23, No. 10

Featured Stories

The  Particular Answers I was Looking for that I Just Happened to Find in a Bottle of Whiskey

by Carina WheatleyJuly 2024

Thea Tochihara

I can’t imagine that anyone will argue with me that in 2024, post the Thousand Day Pause of the worst of the pandemic, it’s even harder for creators to support themselves financially through their art. Anyone who has had the misfortune of seeing my social media rants regarding San Diego’s local music remuneration, know I am a vocal proponent for venues to pay talent a fair living rate or at least be honest about the fact that they don’t. Additionally, as with everything on the planet, costs to record and produce music has increased while opportunities to recoup those costs diminish to next to nothing with the decline of the CD and the miniscule per stream payout from Spotify and other streaming services. How can an artist stay motivated to create and tour in these circumstances?

Thea the Band

Thea the Band at the Distillery: Jeff Litzman, Thea, Erik Frank, Chiko Medina.

This was exactly the malaise that Thea Tochihara (Thea the Band) was confronting during the late pandemic years. She was working hard, doing all the things that are expected of musicians these days… songwriting, recording, releasing, socials, and touring. But a full-time job, life in the city, and running her music business was wearing on her. By the end of 2023, she was ready to quit music. When she and I sat down to talk the other day, Thea shared that when she would leave the city and head “up the hill” into Ramona, she would always see the hawks soaring above the trees and it lightened her. Her self-declared totem spirit animal, they brought her hope and a peace that she lacked in San Diego. The pandemic brought one good thing—the ability to work remotely and she found that life began to brighten as she and her husband took the opportunity to move to Ramona where she could live surrounded by nature. “It helped my marriage. It helped my music. It helped my overall health and sanity”. It was a revival.

Whiskey Revival, the Song
In 2022, Thea wrote “Whiskey Revival,” a deep dive into the merits and evils of alcohol as a portal to opening our psyche. “Some of my deepest buried secrets were brought to the surface with a bottle of whiskey as the vessel that got them there—and I don’t know if healing would’ve ever taken place without it—so for me, the particular answers I was looking for I just happened to find in a bottle.” The song examines the question of “Did too much truth come out or am I finally healing?”

“If you’re looking to be saved, Drink up. If you’re struggling from the weight, Drink up.
Oh, if you wanna see the light you best start looking with your vice.”

—“Whiskey Revival,” Thea the Band.

Thea is an enthusiastic fangirl of Jesus, and her love for Him is a frequent, if subtle, influence in her music. “Whiskey Revival” is an homage to the big-top revival movement where folks were first encouraged to have their own relationship with Jesus, rather than through the lens of a middle man, such as a priest or pastor. She feels that whether adorned with Sunday dresses or the cowboy-hatted friends who frequently sidled up to the local bar, both are “church” in the way they create community.

Sunshine Spirits

Thea & friends raise a glass.

Once settled in Ramona, Thea soon discovered San Diego Sunshine Craft Spirits in an industrial park west of Main Street. As enthusiastic as she is about Jesus, so she is about whiskey—single malt specifically. Enthusiast or aficionado, she states that in a town known for its wineries, she found her place in the tasting room of Paul and Amanda Markham’s distillery. Thea could hardly believe she had stumbled upon one of Ramona’s best kept secrets. “When I find good secrets, I kinda like to keep them secret,” she demured.

The distillery has actually been open for nearly a decade. A machinist by trade, Paul started small, building a home-sized still, which has served as the model for the huge one now seen through the glass windows from the bar stools of the tasting room. Sunshine’s mainstays are a single-barrel rye whiskey, which made this Canadian girl’s taste buds sing. Artisanal small-batch vodka, they offer a selection of seasonal brews with whimsical names such as Apple Pie Sunshine and Blueberry Honey. Amanda and Paul are a hardworking, down-to-earth couple, balancing growing their business and the joyful demands of a growing toddler. Between a pandemic baby and the “big pause,” they stated that life had started to become fairly singular. Paul works in the back most of the time while Amanda works in the tasting room. Like many of us, they had forgotten how to “be out” and enjoy themselves even as Ramona’s music scene burgeoned.

Whiskey Revival, the whiskey
Early this year, Thea envisioned a new type of whiskey pairing—Whisky Revival, the song and Whiskey Revival Single Malt Whiskey! Not knowing how to approach Sunshine with this proposition, she enlisted the business savvy assistance of Ramona Radio. She initially had her heart set on a private label whiskey for Thea the Band and Whiskey Revival. Across the counter in the Sunshine Distillery, Paul, Amanda, and Thea brainstormed how to make Whiskey Revival Single Malt a reality. Thea soon learned that a private label arrangement was much more complicated than initially thought and so, with the guidance of her advisors at Ramona Radio, they settled on a licensing agreement. The Whiskey Revival label features Thea the Band’s signature nestled into the outstretched wings of a landing hawk silhouetted against a setting sun with Sunshine Spirits tucked into the side. Once the recipe and label were approved, they were ready to rock. Serendipitously for Thea, the single malt whiskey she insisted on was already in the works, moving the launch forward by months, if not years!

Up next for the “Whiskey Revival” song and bottle are a West Coast tour. As an important contributor to the project, the song releases exclusively on Ramona Radio before it becomes available on other platforms, on July 5th. The Thea the Band Whiskey Revival Tour kicks off at The Barn, 344 Main Street, Ramona on July 6th.  On June 21st, Sunshine Spirits and Thea the Band hosted a sold-out whiskey pairing, single listening experience and a whiskey infused BBQ.

Win, Win, Win

Thea and hawk at the Sunshine Craft Spirits.

For Thea, the licensing agreement opens up another revenue stream, a necessity in these difficult times for original music singer-songwriters. As she tours, cases of whiskey work their way through Sunshine’s distribution channels to meet her in Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, Washington, and of course San Diego County. For each bottle sold, Thea gets an agreed-upon cut. While she’s out busking Whiskey Revival, she will be promoting Whiskey Revival Single Malt Whiskey and the Sunshine Spirits name.The collaboration with Thea has been positive for Sunshine Distillery as well. They are experiencing growth in new areas and are hopeful for an expansion in the distillery’s capacity. Amanda states that as they are broadening their customer base, they are also enjoying going out to listen to local music. As they have interacted with their fellow Ramonians, they discovered that most people have never been to Sunshine and weren’t aware they had a tasting room. Most people are under the misconception that this nine-year-old business was strictly a manufacturer. Amanda says brightly, “I think it’s awesome! We are bringing in a whole different kind of crowd, not just whiskey lovers but music lovers too.”

We all agreed that art in all forms can be solitary work. As the brewer at Sunshine, Paul concurred. He stated that after many years of being the creative force behind the brewing, he felt that he was too isolated working in the back. Missing the human connection, he now works one day a week in the tasting room to keep the connection with their customers.

As for Thea, she expressed that this project has been more tangible than the solitary work of songwriting and the constant slog of promoting through socials. She reflected that working with other people motivated her and brought new ideas. “It makes you want to be more professional in all sorts of ways. Others are counting on you, another company is counting on you, you really don’t want to fuck up.” She is proud of launching this innovative way to brand herself and hopes to be an inspiration for other musicians looking for new ways to grow their brands.

Whiskey Revival, the revival
We reflected again on Thea’s faith, her thoughts about love, music, and community. “When I really started to ask the question of what freedom really is, what fear really is, and what love really is, music came into my life and has been a consistent guide in unraveling those questions and what the answers are for me. It’s pretty amazing, the more freedom, courage, and love you give yourself, you find you have so much more to give to others.” Who’s to say church can’t be found in bar stools as well as pews?

Here I go again looking for answers in the bottle.
I can smell ’em on my breath with the whiskey and regret.
Ain’t it sweet, oh so sweet.

Well pull up your bar stools and gather round.
I’m bringing a new kinda church to town.
Whiskey River, Thea Tochihari

Jon Hasz, guitar
Bass and Drums, Jeffrey Litzman
Backing vocals, Cathryn Beeks, Chloe Lou, and Thea the Band
Guitar and vocals, Thea the band

Recorded with Jon Hasz and Chris Hobson, 2024.

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