On my third day here at Wesleyan, amid the chaos of orientation, I sat outside of Usdan, anxiously awaiting my turn to perform an original song at the open mic. Growing up in a community where being a songwriter was a novel concept, I was absolutely in awe of the volume of exquisite, individualistic songwriters on campus. This prompted me to ask the question: at a school chock-full of music-writers, where are we similar and where do we differ? Are there common threads in our inspirations and how we define ourselves, or are these things radically different from person to person? Through interviewing nine songwriters on campus, I learned a bit more about the fundamental values and desires of songwriters, and how different and uniquely meaningful each person’s experience with writing music can be.
The Argus: Can you tell us a little about your inspirations?
Mikaela Marcotullio ’23: People definitely inspire me the most. Every song I’ve written is about someone or some experience I had with someone. Songwriting is very, very therapeutic for me. I only write songs when I’m feeling very intense emotions because otherwise, I feel like there’s not enough truth to it.
Daniel Goldelman ’23: What inspires me most is stories…. Generally stories of success or failure.
Ben Togut ’23: Stuff that happens in my daily life, feelings of isolation. I wrote an album that had a lot of themes of isolation, coming of age. And also very political—I wrote most of [my songs] after the election.
Sammy Osmond ’22 (of the band Mother’s Friends): Musical stimulus. So like I write over, my roommate and I write music together—he’ll create tracks and melodies without words so I’ll be inspired by those [to write lyrics]. The lyrical content is very important to me.
Leslie Rosario-Olivo ’22: My own life experiences, mostly. I find that songwriting is just the way that I communicate. I find myself a very clumsy communicator in other forms, like just talking with people one-on-one…. I find myself tripping over my own words…. I find that when I’m writing songs, it comes out the way that I just wish it would have come out in day-to-day talk.
Audrey Mills ’23: My own confusion. I write songs to figure out what emotion I’m actually feeling. I meditate on my day. I meditate on my own emotional state.
Gabriel Ballard ’21: I write my songs under the name of G Flores, so it’s not personally my Gabriel Ballard story to tell, it’s my G Flores story to tell…. I take bits and pieces of things I see throughout the world and relate them to my own personal life. A lot of college experiences influence the stories that are told so like, figuring out where I stand in the world, love, loss, identity.
Bodhi Small ’22: Sounds that I like, and when I hear them.
Clara Babbott-Ward ’20: Oh my god! That’s such an unfair question. I love it! I’d say the concept of coming of age and time.
A: How would you describe your songwriting process?
Marcotullio: I have a thought or an idea that I can put an image or a metaphor to. Then the lyrics and the melody and like, how it’s gonna sound kind of flows from that.
Goldelman: Generally I start with a baseline…. I’ll record it on my phone and put it to sheet music later using the MIDI keyboard in my room. From there I’ll go to drums—I’m mainly a drummer, so once I have a baseline down, the drums come naturally to me. Then I’ll go to lyrics and fill out the melodies.
Togut: Normally I’ll hear music in my head or I’ll come up with a chord progression and then I’ll come up with lyrics for that. When I was younger I used to hear music in my head all the time…to the point where my mom had to take me to a whole bunch of doctors to get a whole bunch of MRIs, but I was just musical!
Rosario-Olivo: Sometimes all come up with a little riff on the guitar or bass or I’ll come with a line and build everything around that. It’s a lot of little tiny puzzle pieces that come together.
Mills: I’m driving or I’m in the shower or I’m on a walk and then a melody slams into me and I go “AHH!” and I go into a private place and record it on my phone. And then sometimes lyrics slam into me and I write them down immediately and then I go home to make a franken-song.
Ballard: I’m a big fan of writing words before I put any music to it. I feel songs should [place] more emphasis on the lyrics.
Small: Recently most of my songwriting has been all production-based, and very little of actually writing the song before making it. I find something I like and I keep working on it until I like it more, then I try to make a B-section.
Babbott-Ward: Sometimes there are a lot of tears, but really good ones, you know? I’ll have a day where I’ll just dissociate from my hand and write and then go over it and be like, who wrote that? I like that.
A: How would you define your genre or style?
Marcotullio: Indie, probably. I kind of try to take some R&B influence.
Goldelman: My main focus is making people feel. In my experience, drums are one of the instruments that can really help extrapolate that for people. I’d describe my genre, or really it’s my “feel,” as making other people feel the way that I want the story to feel.
Togut: My genre of original music is, like, alternative piano ballad. If you think of like, Tori Amos meets Sufjan Stevens.
Osmond: Well, my roommate and bandmate says it’s a combination between Flying Lotus and John Mayer…like hip-hop-y and singer-songwriter-y at different parts.
Rosario-Olivo: I’d probably say, like indie bedroom rock? Like a combination of Música Ligera, which is a special type of Spanish rock, and Clairo.
Mills: Other people have called it LoFi indie rock…. I guess I make rock music.
Ballard: In this day and age, I feel like genres are just going out the window. There’s so much blending that it’s hard to pinpoint. If I had to say….poetic emo sounds really cool. I just decided on that right now, I just made that up.
Small: I don’t know, inconsistent?
Babbott-Ward: I’d say kinda folky-alternative-y, I really like acoustic stuff.
A: Tell us about your favorite song that you’ve written.
Marcotullio: “Kisses In Hospice.” It just discusses my relationship in high school and how difficult it is to know that high school is a temporary entity. Hospice care is where someone goes when you know they are going to die, so that phrase “Kisses in Hospice” really created the song for me…. It also has a cool piano melody, it’s definitely one of my more melodically developed songs.
Togut: A song called “Ocean of Pain,” which is kind of about preaching tolerance of marginalized people. It’s kind of a gospel song that I wrote and I was lucky enough to be recognized by NYSSMA® (the New York State School Music Association) and go to Rochester to perform it.
Osmond: Right now my favorite song is…one called “Sight to See.” I didn’t actually write the hook, my roommate wrote the hook, but it was interesting to go off of a hook that wasn’t mine.
Rosario-Olivo: This song called an “An Unfinished Story.” It’s quite short, it’s like a minute and thirty seconds. I wrote it for a friend who challenged me to write a song in under an hour. He was like, “You can’t do it,” and I was like “Bet.” I wrote it about him and some stuff we had been talking about, stuff he was going through.
Mills: A song called “Houston”…. It’s tango…. It has two key changes, and I’m so proud of the lyrics because they really defend my hometown, which I can get super nationalist about sometimes. So now I don’t really have to give my spiel because I just have it and it’s solid.
Ballard: When I’d write a story I’d always write using “I” pronouns…like “I feel this because you did this!” So I tried to create this song using no personal pronouns.
Small: There was one where I crossed the line from just making dumb things to like, it sounds like other people other than me will like this. It was just kind of nice to have vocals here, and it sounds like something that can be sung along to.
Babbott-Ward: It’s about this girl who I knew personally. Her name was Audrey, the song is called “Audrey” or “The Color Blue”…. Basically, she was going through a really hard time.and we bonded over writing poems. One day, she was like…my grandfather is dead. We hung out by a fire and wrote notes to our favorite people who had died, and then burned them so they could read the smoke.
A: Can you tell us about your songwriting goals, both in the Wesleyan community and beyond that?
Marcotullio: I would definitely want to perform my songs for people. Performance is one of my favorite aspects of anything…just so rewarding. I want to showcase them at events. Any time I have the ability to share the songs and people are willing to listen…. It’s a crazy dream to think—being a performer. Hm, it’s not necessarily something I think about often because I have a lot of different interests…like environmental conservation. That’s always what I’ve envisioned for my future. I’d definitely put out an album if I had enough songs that I was proud of and I was given the opportunity to record them.
Goldelman: I want to be able to perform songs in bands, and just share certain stories I hear…. Just making people feel.
Togut: A lot of my songs are very angsty and sad, so I hope to make people feel things. Honestly, they’re just a way for me to express myself and kind of have an outlet for a lot of creative energy that I don’t know what to do with…[I want] to keep writing, keep singing, keep pursuing music on campus in whatever form that may be. I want to get better at the piano.
Osmond: If you told me this time last year that we’d be playing a show with bands who are our friends…. I’d be very happy and excited to hear that…. It would be really cool to have a song that got a significant amount of plays on Spotify. We have one song that got, like, 2,000 streams.
Rosario-Olivo: I haven’t done much…. It’s something I do mostly for me, but I would like to work with Red Feather and…do the labor of love to record something the way you hear it in your own head. I really wanna create an album called Liminal Spaces Fanclub because I love liminal spaces and there have to be people who are as obsessed with them as I am. Creating a full-length album, sorta conceptual, around that idea.
Mills: I intend to write a musical, I intend to collaborate and jam with as many people as possible. I’m recording an album right now for charity, for the International Rescue Fund. Career-wise, I want to take a much more stable path. I want to do TV writing, or artist management, slightly actually more stable. I’m never gonna stop writing songs and if I ever got the chance to become a contract songwriter—hopefully for a boy band—I would definitely do that.
Ballard: Before coming to Wesleyan, I wrote stuff but I never shared anything. The Wes community has really allowed me to feel comfortable sharing things and be able to receive from others. I think songwriters shine when they’re acoustic…. I think we should have more things like the Acoustic Bedroom. When I’m recording stuff and putting it on Spotify, I’m not doing it for the fame…. I’m doing it because it’s an emotional outlet for me and I hope listening to it can be an emotional outlet for others.
Small: Very little so far here, but I’m working on it…. If it gets to a point where I am happy with it—having a goal later is a goal.
Babbott-Ward: I came into Wes when I was a freshman thinking, “I’m gonna be able to connect to people very quickly because I have this awesome universal love of music,” and that didn’t happen for the first three years of being here. In the past few days of being on campus for my senior year, I’ve felt a lot more myself on this campus because of meeting people…and creating spaces for people to share their music. [Note: Clara hosted an event called Acoustic Bedroom a few days before this interview.] I’m excited for my senior concert in the spring, where I arrange a bunch of songs I wrote for a bunch of instruments and see how it goes. I also wanna do a bunch of mini concerts, like backyard stuff or maybe one in Espwesso. I feel really happy to meet this wonderful community of songwriters. I just wanna keep making music videos and YouTube Videos, I’m an avid YouTuber…subscribe to Clara Babbott-Ward on YouTube! I hope to always be doing that no matter what I’m up to in my life. I’m hype that some of my stuff is on Spotify. I just want to help it always be a thing, a community thing, and we’ll go from there I guess.
Lilly Gitlitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.