Local musician Ryan Turk transforms personal tragedy into creative triumph after unspeakable loss
Ryan Turk has a baffling amount of energy. The longtime Jacksonville musician, recording engineer-producer, and DIY polymath is wired for all things sonic.
In the mid-‘90s, the teenaged Turk worked at Warehouse Recording Studios, a facility tucked away in an actual industrial park, off Emerson Street deep in blue-collar Duval County. Just over a decade later, he and his wife Angela would purchase the studio and turn it into a fulcrum of underground music, with the space also providing band rooms for a veritable flipbook of known and unknown groups. As he meticulously upgraded the studio’s vintage-albeit-worn gear to digital, he began attracting popular bands like Tomboi, RICE, Opiate Eyes, Robin Rütenberg and Wild Life Society. From hip-hop to loner shoegaze, Turk’s involvement with players that were usually his peers cultivated a lo-fi cooperative of sorts. He and Tom Essex created the Skinny Records imprint, turning the recording studio into a hermetically sealed and aggressively prolific label, pumping out a barrage of catch-it-if-you-can CD and vinyl releases.
“I’ve probably worked on about four dozen released projects,” says Turk, when pressed for an impromptu discography or his credits as both producer and musical collaborator. “But who knows? It’s a blur.”
Turk’s innate familial vibe is hardly a coy business model. His parents are both considered to be renowned and progressive spiritual and activist leaders. Decades before it was accepted, viable, or even proven effective, the late Rev. Doctor Richard M. Turk worked in early drug recovery and prison programs in Philadelphia. Ryan’s mother Rev. Davette L. Turk was the first ordained woman priest in the state of Florida. Both of the elder Turks were fueled by their passion for the Episcopalian priesthood, their early involvement with the Civil Rights Movement, and decades-long community impact that has remained an influence-as-example to local religious and non-profit groups.
Angela Turk was raised in an equally close-knit, and also unique family: from the 1930s-1980s, her father’s family owned and operated Abe Livert Records, the largest independently owned record store chain in the area. So Angela and Ryan’s children’s relationship seemed almost pre-ordained—or at least expected—to be driven by family, music, spirituality, and community; at times indistinguishable.
On March 17, 2020, at the beginning of the global shutdown, all of those things were put to the test. Ryan and Angela discovered that their 13-year-old son Liam had died in his sleep from what they now know was Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy (SUDEP). Two years earlier Liam began experiencing mild seizures, was promptly put under medical care and was prescribed a successful medication regimen.
“You know, we used to jokingly call them ‘brain farts,’” says Turk. “He would talk gibberish for three minutes and then come right back. His death was an unpredictable occurrence that could happen to anyone who has epilepsy. It’s all unimaginable. But it happened.”
The Turks were left trying to navigate the loss of their youngest son at a moment when family, community, even music, were systematically and universally cloistered and closed. Daughter Jillian, then nine, was at home when Liam’s body was discovered by her hysterical parents. Oldest son Jude, now 21, was a student in the quarantined dorms at University of North Florida that day.
“We’re all in different stages of grief. Jude and I talk a lot but he’s pretty destroyed. He adored Liam. Being Liam’s big brother was such a part of who he is. Jillian handles it by going into her room and having these short bursts of anger. She’ll yell at God: ‘Why did you take my brother from me?!’ And yeah, it’s heartbreaking for us to hear that. Angela and I have spent the last year just crying, you know? Just crying. And that’s hard for Jillian to see. So we just try to sit together and be with it as a family.”
As the world was closing down around them, closure wasn’t granted for the Turks. Unable to have an in-person funeral service for their son, they were forced to schedule the oddly paradoxical live-streaming memorial for their recently deceased child. “We made sure to schedule the service before school started so his friends could see it. Liam had a lot of friends.”
All of the Turk family share a love of music and all are performers. A burgeoning singer-songwriter and guitarist, Liam Turk was a much-loved student at the LaVilla School of the Arts. The local magnet middle school boasts an impressive arts-centered curriculum that in turn sends many of its graduates to its de facto sibling high school in Jacksonville for creative adolescents: DASOTA (Douglas Anderson School of the Arts.) Both Ryan and Jude Turk are DASOTA grads. Liam had recently received his acceptance letter from the school.
“Liam was going to make his first solo album during spring break. But he needed to bring up his algebra grade to get into Douglas Anderson. So we opted to put the brakes on recording and focus on studying and record his album in the summer. Then he died on St. Patrick’s Day.”
Enter community. Cue music. Last July, the Turks released the 34-track compilation Stay Gold Ponyboy; which includes the demos that Liam recorded prior to his passing. Opener “Gold Ivy” is a haunting, minor-key acoustic ballad with a chorus wondering, “When did we lose our mind? / When did we lose our time? / When did we get so old? / When did we lose our gold?” Liam’s old-soul lyrics and strong performance are bittersweet, a document of what could have been, a legacy in under two minutes that reveals a gifted child whose life was cut short during the blooming of obvious myriad talents. The entire Turk family are featured on Stay Gold: including Ryan and Angela joining forces for “I Miss You,” and Jillian’s plaintive eulogy “Tear Shed,” while Jude covers The Doors’ “Break on Through (To the Other Side).” A dozen local musicians are featured performing Liam’s unreleased music and also tackling cover versions of some of his favorite songs by Big Star, Cheap Trick, and the Misfits.
Liam’s girlfriend, 14-year-old Ava Rae Clark, is featured on her original rocker, “Shamrock,” which conveys her loss and commemorates his St. Patrick’s Day passing. Due to the pandemic, Clark’s vocals were recorded at the Turks’ home, DIY-meets-COVID style. “She came over to do vocals, and I actually built a vocal booth in my garage out of one of the kids’ tents,” explains Turk, of distancing measures that included disinfecting her microphone before and after each session. When Clark would hear a car passing on the street she would signal Turk, they would pause the take, resuming once it had passed.
“There was almost a point where I couldn’t finish it, because while it was healing to hear Liam’s voice,” says Turk, his voice cracking, “It also got really hard to be hearing his voice all day long working on that.” Turk credits musicians Jude Kahle (from local rockers Shangri-La) and Rick Colado (aka rickoLus) for offering to take on the task of finishing the album. “I told them which Liam songs we wanted recorded and they worked with bands.” The ever-prolific Colado arguably won MVP, finalizing and then mastering the album.
As the pandemic lockdown somewhat lifted, Turk began working with former RICE bandmate Michael Lee Martin. Under the moniker NapTime, the duo recently released the full-length Proof in a Butterfly on their Rainbow Road Records label. Over the course of the album’s 13 tracks, many of which were co-written by Martin and Turk, Liam is eulogized through dreamy-psych ballads or crunchy, fuzzed-out rockers. “The Yo La Tengo song ‘Tears Are In Your Eyes’ was really hitting me hard since Liam died,” says Turk. “So I like to think we touched on that kind of energy.”
“When did we lose our mind?From the Liam Turk-penned ballad “Gold Ivey” from the compilation album Stay Gold Pony Boy.
When did we lose our time?
When did we get so old?
When did we lose our gold?”
As a collaborator, Martin was tasked with bringing his own ideas to the table while also comforting and helping his old friend through unimaginable grief. “Divine intervention would be the term I would use,” explains Martin. “Given the circumstances music became a real outlet for Ryan and me. Now it feels like I have extended family and I’ve really grown a deep connection to Ryan, Angela, and Jillian.”
Divine intervention and the paradox of death and life, even rebirth, are at the forefront of Turk’s life now. His progressively religious upbringing aside, Turk is as apt to namecheck Krishna as he is Christ. The title alludes to what Turk believes is spiritual contact from his late son. “Right after Liam passed, and I mean, literally the next day, we started to experience a single butterfly land right next to us and sit with us for a minute or have a cardinal or blue jay fly down. At this point it’s undeniable and almost absurd. Now we’re so used to this, we will say, ‘Hey Liam, how are you doing today? We love you, baby.’”
One person who validated the Turk’s possibly mystical experiences and gave them the green-light to aim their fury at a supposed all-loving God was longtime family friend, Bishop Edward Robinson, Sr. “He told me: ‘Doubt is divine, Ryan.’ And that being mad at God actually means you truly believe.” The resulting NapTime song “Doubt is Divine” is a swerving performance that pumps the proverbial dark night of the soul through a 50-watt tube amp.
Like the deepest grief, Liam’s death has created an indelible presence through his very absence. Skate and the punk rock ethos permeate Jacksonville and the Turk family are no exception to this Duval County cultural given. The city is home to Kona State Park, the world’s oldest operating skatepark, where Turk runs live sound for their popular all-ages, skate-punk concerts. “Liam would help me run sound and he could set up mics, set EQ levels, and strike equipment from the stage within minutes,” Turk laughs.
In the backyard of the Turk family home, the construction of halfpipe that was halted after Liam’s death is now complete. Ava Rae Clark and Liam’s best friend Jack Webb are considered official Turk family members. “They’re coming over and skateboarding all the time. So it’s really nice. Now that we’re vaccinated, we have a ramp in the backyard to have his friends come over and we can stay close with them and they can work through all of this grief and change together. Because there’s a little bit of Liam inside of this.”
Last year the LaVilla School of the Arts presented their inaugural Liam Turk Award, fittingly a trophy recognizing students who practice the principle of kindness.
While Stay Gold Ponyboy is currently available as a free download, the Turks are hoping that interested music fans would simply donate to groups that raise awareness about SUDEP, as a way to honor Liam’s death and hopefully educate and comfort other families. The family are also readying for this year’s Walk to End Epilepsy, an event hosted by the Epilepsy Foundation to raise money for a common neurological condition that still receives ten times less research funding than other brain disorders.
Ryan Turk is dealing with an odd sort of survivor’s guilt. Liam’s death has ignited a spate of creativity. Along with these two new albums, Turk has completed an additional three records.
“I’ve been more prolific in the last year than I have in the last 10 years,” says Turk. “And is some ways I hate that. The first year was shock and now the anger. But I’m tired of being angry at God. I know God didn’t ’kill’ my boy. A lot of times people ask me how I’m doing and the only thing I can say is, ‘I’m breathing, man.’ The whole family is just breathing through it.”