By Nancy E. McCarthy
Just before the Covid lockdowns in March 2020, the multiplatinum-selling rock band Daughtry was on the road. The band, which includes keyboardist/guitarist Elvio Fernandes of Webster, had just begun a North American tour to promote their fifth studio album Cage to Rattle. They returned to their homes to wait out what they thought would be a two week pause. But the tour was cancelled. All live events were.
What was a musician to do? For Fernandes, it was a creative and productive time. He wrote and co-wrote many songs (with writing partner Johnny Cummings, Chris Daughtry and others), including “Heavy is the Crown.” It would be the second single from Daughtry’s next album, Dearly Beloved, primarily recorded remotely and released in 2021. “Heavy is the Crown” would also be Fernandes’ first number-one charted song.
Being anchored in Rochester also afforded Fernandes the opportunity to physically expand his Rochester-based music school, ROC Star Academy (RSA). RSA had burgeoned from the kids’ summer music camp he launched in 2009 to a year round performance-based and artist development music academy for young musicians in 2017. “Our current space was built out during Covid and there were extensive renovations that were done to make it work,” says Fernandes. Construction took about a year. The new facility in East Rochester opened in the summer of 2021 and features a performance venue, rehearsal and music instruction spaces, and a recording studio.
Lockdown also provided more time with his family. Music is important to Fernandes but so is family. And his family played a big role in his success as a musician. His early love of music was sparked by his mother and his grandfather, both guitarists. Later in his life, it was his wife Jessica who championed his music career. When Fernandes was invited to join Daughtry in 2012, it was a risk to leave a stable job and steady income. He almost didn’t do it. But Jessica insisted that he follow his dreams while she held down the home front and cared for their two sons. “She’s the true rock star of our family and is the reason why I’m able to tour and do what I do,” says Fernandes.
Family and Music
Fernandes, born in 1972, was raised in Gates with his brother Daniel. Their parents were Portuguese immigrants. His mother sang and composed Fado music. “It’s a traditional, very expressive and melancholic style of Portuguese music, almost like our (American) blues,” Fernandes explains. She and his grandfather sang and played guitar together. After Fernandes began playing instruments, he would join them.
When he was growing up, sports were considered cooler than music amongst his peers but Fernandes loved both. He played baseball, basketball and was captain of his high school and college soccer teams. He still plays soccer and is an avid golfer.
At 3, Fernandes began playing a toy piano. He eventually upgraded to a real keyboard and also learned accordion. He started singing and writing songs in high school and picked up guitar while in college. Fernandes never took formal lessons and plays by ear.
After graduating from SUNY Geneseo in 1994, Fernandes worked for a graphic arts company but his heart was with music. To carve out the flexibility to play gigs with Uncle Plum (the band he formed in 1999) Fernandes switched to a real estate career so he could make his own work hours.
Uncle Plum was popular locally, attracting crowds and loyal fans for about 13 years. They headlined large festivals and sold out big venues. The band played pop/rock cover tunes but also sprinkled in their own songs. They independently released two CDs of original music and, in 2009, was named “Best Original Band” by CITY Newspaper.
“I really thought Uncle Plum had a legitimate shot at making it,” says Fernandes. The band was even invited to showcase for a major record label in NYC but nothing came of it.
“It’s about relationships and it’s about recognizing that when that door creaks open you gotta kick it open and go for it,” Fernandes tells his ROC Star Academy students who all aspire to be professional musicians and performers.
Fernandes’ remarkable transition from playing local venues to a European stadium tour with Daughtry happened organically and, over time, through networking. After R&B artist Brian McKnight listened to an Uncle Plum CD, he wanted to meet Fernandes. McKnight was developing another musician’s career, Ace Young, and he introduced the two. Fernandes and Young became songwriting partners. In 2006, Young appeared on American Idol’s fifth season along with singer Chris Daughtry. During down time, Young played some songs he cowrote with Fernandes for Daughtry. It planted a seed with Daughtry who placed fourth that season and was signed to RCA Records later that year.
Daughtry formed a band (called Daughtry) and recorded their first album (yep, titled Daughtry). It was the fastest-selling debut rock album in sales-tracking history, number one on the Billboard 200 chart, sold more than 4 million copies domestically (and more worldwide) and was nominated for three Grammys.
Fernandes and Daughtry stayed in touch. They co-wrote “Crazy” together for the third album, Break the Spell. That started a working relationship and Daughtry offered him an audition for their 2012 tour. Fernandes got the gig.
After the tour, Fernandes officially joined the band and over the past decade toured, recorded and contributed songs on the three albums that followed. “Elvio has been an invaluable addition to this band since the Break the Spell tour – not only as a writer but as a player and vocalist,” says Chris Daughtry. “Our music has always had piano, keys, and a ton of background vocals so having him on stage every night allows us to accomplish that sound live.”
Fernandes is living his dream and his storied career is an inspiration for the young performers that he and other local musicians coach at RAS. RAS provides music instruction with a focus on live performance: combining playing chops and self-assurance. “This changes kids’ lives. To me that is the most important thing I do other than being a husband and father,” says Fernandes. “I hope that someday my legacy is that I helped kids gain more confidence and gave them an opportunity that most kids don’t get.”
When Fernandes isn’t performing or recording with Daughtry, he is guiding young musicians toward the music career of their dreams. “That’s really where my heart is,” he says.
Follow Fernandes on Instagram @elviofernandes. For more information about ROC Star Academy, visit rocstaracademy.com
Future ROC Stars
During his Uncle Plum years, Fernandes’ would invite kids onstage during family friendly concerts and ask the audience to make them feel like rock stars. Then he handed his microphone to one child and the crowd would go wild. That joy and confidence the young performers experienced inspired Fernandes to start a music performance camp. That led to his full service ROC Star Academy.
RAS coaches are currently developing 16 bands with musicians ranging from 8 to 22 years old. The students perform about 10 shows a year. Some of the more seasoned bands are already playing the local Rochester club circuit.
“BB Dang is by far our most successful band and my first band that I ever formed at the academy,” says Fernandes. Own the Night is a close second – their front man/vocalist is high school senior Max Doud. Many more are climbing the ranks.
“Elvio and multiple staff members took me under their wing to teach me their real-life experience of what it takes to be a working musician,” says Isabella Barbagallo, lead singer of BB Dang. “ROC Star Academy built a strong foundation for the work I am doing today in both BB Dang and my solo work as a musician.”
Follow BB Dang and Own the Night on Facebook and Instagram. Visit Isabella Barbagallo at isabellabarbagallo.com, Own the Night at otnroc.com and Max Doud at maxdoud.com