The young eTown troubadours

eTown’s Handmade Songs Series inspires high school students to convey emotions and personal experiences through original music

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Chloe Southern in the recording studio.
Nicolas Tapia/ Reverse Curve Media

The doors to eTown Hall might be closed on a gloomy weekday afternoon, but while the stage is vacant and the curtains are drawn, the performances haven’t stopped. Behind the scenes, 15-year-old Chloe Southern is getting ready to professionally record her music for the first time.

For the past four years, eTown has hosted the Handmade Songs competition that gives high school students a chance to perform and record their original music. On April 6, 25 high school students performed on the eTown stage, and five were selected to professionally record for the Handmade Songs album. Southern is one of those five finalists.

“Have you ever recorded before?” eTown Producer John McVey asks Southern, who walks into the studio for the first time, gazing at the various buttons on the soundboard.

“Not professionally, but I played around with GarageBand,” she says.

In the studio, Southern has to record multiple times, sometimes playing piano to her voice and other times singing to her music. Normally, Southern plays both parts at the same time, but today, she gets to hear every component of her song separately.

In between sessions McVey and Southern discuss the process. While listening back to the track, Southern says she hears her vocals start to sound strange — it is the moment she realizes she was recording in a professional studio for the first time.

“It’s like riding a bike: the minute you realize you’re doing it, you crash,” McVey says, with a laugh.

This is the first of many sessions for Southern to record her original song, “Lullabies and Blues.” The song was inspired by a boy Southern liked and how far she’d go to get noticed by him.

“I wanted to write a song that a lot of people could connect to, so it wouldn’t just speak to me, it would speak to a lot of other people and what they were going through,” Southern says.

One of her favorite verses in the song reads, “I would give the stars, the moon, the lullabies and blues, for another day, another day or two.”

The song’s creation wasn’t so easy.

“In the beginning I had the chorus, that was set, but I couldn’t figure out the first verse,” Southern says. “There was something weird about it, and I hated it, so I took a giant pen and I crossed it out. I sat with it for awhile.”

But all of Southern’s hard work paid off when she was selected as a finalist. Nick Forster, eTown host and co-founder, says the songs and musicians were chosen because of their strong lyrical composition.

“I don’t think there’s another program like [the Handmade Song Series] in that we are really focused on the songwriting more than the performance. … It’s more about what’s going on in these young peoples’ hearts and minds,” Forster says.

Dafna Margalit  at the April 6 eTown performance.
Dafna Margalit at the April 6 eTown performance. Courtesy eTown

Another winner of the series is 15-year-old Dafna Margalit. Her song, “Fever,” is a portrayal of social standards and how people with depression might feel in those contexts.

“I wanted to take depression and portray it as something physical, like a fever,” she says. “In high school, as I was growing up, I started realizing things about all of the social norms. If you stay home because you have a mental illness then you’re lazy, but if you stay home because you have the flu, you’re fine.”

The songwriting experience was overwhelming at times.

“I guess I didn’t think it would be so depressing, but then stuff just kept falling out of me,” she says. “It’s just scary thinking what’s in your mind, and you don’t even realize it.”

Winners of the Handmade Songs Series competition Harper Corum-Var, duo Sidney and Caitlin Powell, Chloe Southern, Harper Powell and Dafna Margalit.
Winners of the Handmade Songs Series competition Harper Corum-Var, duo Sidney and Caitlin Powell, Chloe Southern, Harper Powell and Dafna Margalit. Courtesy of eTown

The Handmade Song Series has three goals: to inspire and to educate high school kids, and to help them communicate with music professionals to learn how to make music.

“I thought about, ‘Is there an opportunity to celebrate the poetry and artistry that teenagers create, in private, that might help them feel connected to a bigger community?’ That certainly became part of the inspiration for the Handmade Song Series,” Forster says.

He goes on to explain that eTown uses its studio space and equipment to teach the student finalists. The team also strives to connect them to an audience that is composed of fellow songwriters, both old and new. Connection is one of the most important parts of the process.

“We live in a very divisive and divided era, and there’s lots of opportunities to separate out and imagine that you’re a part of one group and not another,” Forster says. “I think what music does is it cuts through all of that stuff.”

But music and art aren’t always prioritized when it comes to school. As school budget-cuts are made, the first programs to go are usually the art ones.

According to an education study from 2014, Colorado has “held the line” with the provision of art studies. That being said, an estimated 28,000 students in Colorado attended schools that offer no formal arts education. Only half of enrolled high school students are in art classes and the arts community is still struggling for funds and time in the school day.

Many studies have proven there is a positive correlation between participating in inventive classes and doing well in school. One study from the University of California at Los Angeles used a federal database of 25,000 students to show that students with arts education did better in exams. In addition, they found that more of these students didn’t rely as much on technological entertainment throughout the day.

“We observe all of this [technology] but the reality is that’s passive. It doesn’t engage us in the same way as actually playing music with other people,” Forster says of the benefits of music.

The audience at the April 6 performance was as much a high point for the finalists as the actual performance. Margalit says one of her favorite parts of the experience was the support that she got from the crowd and other finalists.

“It feels sort of like you’re at home,” she says. “Everyone there is there for the same thing that you are.” 

Harper Corum-Var at the April 6 eTown performance.
Harper Corum-Var at the April 6 eTown performance. Courtesy of eTown

Seventeen-year-old Harper Corum-Var, another finalist, also felt the sense of community between young songwriters. Before the performance, he was nervous, even with hours of practice under his belt. Backstage however, those nerves were calmed by the energy of all of the other contestants.

“The night of the performance, I was a lot more comfortable. It’s always an exciting atmosphere. There’s just something about the energy. …” he says. “It’s always interesting too, to see that everyone is different. It helps people connect in that way.”

Corum-Var says one of the highlights of the night for him was the sense of validation he felt. Both the performance and the recording are part of an exciting process and he believes that support and teamwork, especially between musical experts, is vital in the field.

“I think a lot of the art in music comes from collaboration and at first it is those relationships that you work on for awhile,” Corum-Var says.

The finalists all agree that one of the biggest keys to music production, especially for a younger generation, is perseverance. Margalit, who is part of a family that has performed in the competition many times, emphasized that with a piece of advice for other songwriters.

“Don’t give up. My family has done this for five years and none of us had won anything,” Margalit says. “If you want to try it, go for it. You don’t have anything to lose. If anything, you just gain experience.”

Look for eTown’s newest volume of the Handmade Songs Series album out sometime this fall.