The glitter on her eyelids shimmered as she leaned over the keyboard and belted out the hard tones of the blues. But this three-time Emmy nominee singing to a house of around 100 Yalies under the red lights at Toad’s Place Wednesday evening was not a visiting rocker. She was a Calhoun senior named Michal Towber.
While Yale is more famous for turning out judges, doctors and presidents than recording artists, several students and recent graduates are hoping to change that. Using the experiences and maturity gained at Yale, a new wave of recording artists are working to make a name for themselves in the industry.
Originally arriving at Yale as a lacrosse recruit, David Kepner ’03 quit the team almost immediately after matriculating once he realized that playing a varsity sport would not leave him enough time to work on his music. Now, six years later, Kepner goes by the nom de plume ‘Hoag’ and plays the drums in the Austin, Texas reggae-influenced rock band Full Service.
Kepner said he has his doubts about the utility of a Yale degree in the music business, but he is nevertheless glad that he got his college degree instead of dropping out and joining his brother in Austin sooner.
“I mean, I don’t think [having a Yale degree] is going to help you get into the music business,” Kepner said. “F—ing Guns and Roses, they didn’t go to college and they did just fine.”
But, echoing the sentiments of other Yalies attempting to make it in the business, Kepner said his class time at Yale was valuable for his music and for his life.
“What I learned in a class about black nationalism, some of that ended up in a song with some lyrics,” Kepner said. “Any time you’re learning about something you learn something else about what you do. Personal knowledge is always going to make you smarter, make you more open to ideas and stuff like that.”
All the musicians interviewed said Yale had a positive impact on their work and on their performances.
“My Yale experiences have been great fodder for my craft, helped me grow both as a person and as an artist,” said Glenton Davis ’07, who shared the Toad’s stage with Towber and Michelle Shaprow ’04 Wednesday night. “The performance is so key in the music that I write, and I’ve gotten much more comfortable with that, more fluid — I think being here has been great.”
Beyond classes, Yale’s wide variety of musical groups lends itself to artistic training and evolution. New York City-based singer-songwriter Elana Arian ’03 said although she had a great deal of classical and jazz training before coming to Yale, she did not develop her current acoustic-folk style until her sophomore year of college.
“I guess I played my first real solo show in my junior year,” Arian said. “Before that I was doing a lot of classical music. I was playing violin in the YSO, I was music director of the Bach Society Orchestra for two and a half years, I was playing in a quartet, and that was my background.”
In her junior year, Arian took time off from the YSO to concentrate more on her responsibilities as the director of the Bach Society Orchestra. She also joined Tangled Up In Blue, which she credits as a great source of inspiration and support for her music.
“The culture of that group was — a very supportive community, musically and otherwise,” Arian said. “I think that my desire to take my own songwriting more seriously and my own performing so seriously really came from my involvement in Tangled Up In Blue.”
Arian was discovered during a gig she played at the Bitter End in NYC’s Greenwich Village after college, but other Yalies did not even need to wait until college for their entry into the industry. Davis recorded a demo while in high school, and Towber put off matriculating for several years after Columbia Records signed her at the age of 17.
Davis has been classically trained as pianist and vocalist from childhood, and Towber was trained as a pianist, although she says she taught herself to sing.
Davis said he generally goes to New York City once or twice a week to work on his album, which can put a strain on his academic career.
“It’s sometimes been hard to balance between being a good professional and a good Yalie, when you want to do both very badly,” Davis said.
While Yale has driven most of these individuals to pursue their musical careers further, Towber at least is strongly considering the more conventional post-Yale path: law school.
Towber said her experience while signed with Columbia Records left her “kind of jaded.” Although she will wait and see what happens to her album when it is released at the end of February or early March, she currently plans to continue pursuing music as only a hobby.
“In terms of recording, if I get the opportunity I’m definitely going to cut another album,” Towber said. “But at this point in my life the romantic notion of getting in a band with four other people and driving around the states and not having any money is not that attractive to me.”
But Towber said she does not want her experiences or her words to discourage other prospective musicians.
“I think it’s great that there are so many artistic people at Yale, and I definitely wouldn’t discourage them from going into the music industry,” she said. “But I would just make sure that they have good entertainment legal counsel.”
Still, while the musician’s lifestyle flies in the face of what one would expect of a typical Yale graduate, Kepner is quick to defend his choices.
“People are like, ‘What are you doing with yourself?'” he said. “And it’s just like, well, ‘following the dream.'”
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