Sophia Catsambi

I met Louis DeFelice ’19 on a warm, Saturday afternoon, the first proper day of spring. He walked briskly, purposefully, his overflowing amount of energy seeking an outlet in his every move with every step turning into a tiny jump. As we walked up the stairs, he made small talk, asking me questions about myself and making me forget briefly that it was me who was supposed to be interviewing him.

He welcomed me into his apartment, a simply furnished space with a couch, a coffee table, a piano, a set of guitars and a banjo lined up against the wall. The room derives much of its character from the numerous New Journal articles plastered on the wall and, draped over them, a row of string lights. Jason Isbell softly played in the background as Louis sat across from me.

***

Louis grew up in South Carolina and was very influenced by the folk music scene that thrives there. He used to frequently attend shows by bluegrass bands and believed they deeply shape the musician he has become today. Among his biggest musical influences are Paul Simon, The Avett Brothers and Damien Rice, as well as smaller bands like The Lone Bellow and Jump Little Children.

He explained to me that the commonality he finds among all these artists is their candor, their aversion for conflict and their soft-spoken and well-worded manners, attributes he seeks to cultivate in his own artistic persona.

His first introduction to music came from none other than his father.

“My dad had a guitar, and he would play some Simon & Garfunkel songs and some songs that his friends had written in college and in high school and … that’s what I do now, I play some Simon & Garfunkel songs and songs that my friends wrote in high school,” he joked.

But, this story is far from a typical one about a folk musician’s finding his grounding.

In his last few years of high school, Louis enrolled in a ballet conservatory, and it was during then that music came to play an even more central part in his life. He also had quite an adventurous upbringing, having lived in London, The Hague and Washington, D.C. in addition to his native state of South Carolina.

“I would travel all the time,” he said. “I moved away from home when I was 15 years old. I lived in Utah, in London, in Amsterdam, in Washington, D.C., sometimes for long periods, sometimes for months. So my guitar and my banjo were always something solid, there was always a guitar everywhere I went. It connected me with my friends.”

When Louis talked about his time in the conservatory his eyes lit up, his gaze drifted away and seemed to be replaying the memories in his head. His voice sometimes ran off, mid-sentence, leaving thoughts and ideas lingering. But, his mind promptly returned to his sunny apartment, remembered that I was sitting here listening to him and resumed his stories.

***

“Louis is very independent,” his roommate and former staff reporter for the News Eliza Fawcett ’19 told me. “He is a very funny and outgoing guy and he’s very easy to talk to. But he also has a lot of determination and a strong sense of self.”

Fawcett explained that she and Louis met during their first year at Yale because they were placed in the same FroCo group. They were not very close until one day, when they sat together in the dining hall, their conversation picked up and led to a two-hour discussion. And there was the beginning of their friendship.

Fawcett also let me in on another interest of Louis: financial literacy. “He’s not a finance bro by any means,” she laughed when she told me, but he does care about saving money and being intelligent with his finances so that he can do the things he wants to. Louis wrote several guest columns on financial literacy for the News, exploring how different professors at Yale approach financial decision-making. His goal was to make up for the fact that, in America and especially in the South, many parents fail to provide their children with the necessary skills to make their own decisions on financial issues.

“Louis is very sweet,” Fawcett said. “He is a great listener and he’s very emotionally intelligent. He is a great person to turn to for advice.”

These are skills that he brings to his music as well, she added. He is very good at drawing people into his music and finding people to work with that really bring what he is looking for to his work. He is a very pragmatic person and, while he does not major in music, he has produced an album every year he has been at Yale. Fawcett said when Louis works on an album, he gets very obsessive, channeling all his energy into one thing.

“It’s a good kind of tunnel vision,” she explained.

***

While Louis has been into music from a young age, he only came upon songwriting in his senior year of high school. He spoke of his first attempts at songwriting as something that came quite naturally.

“It’s like telling your diary to a guitar and making it into something that people want to listen to,” he said.

Louis reminisced fondly of his time in high school, of the memories he cherished from his years traveling and practicing ballet and of the friendships he made. One friendship, however, stood out.

“I had a friend in high school, Peter Phillips, who was an amazing songwriter. He was really really talented, I haven’t seen anything like him since,” he repolied as soon as I ask him about his initiation into songwriting. “And I was going through a break-up, and I was venting to a guitar, on a guitar, trying to write and trying to be a little bit like Peter, and I’ve been writing ever since.”

***

From the first few minutes of our conversation, it becomes apparent why those two are so close. Much like Louis, Phillips is very kind, soft-spoken and easy to talk to. He also got a little caught up in his memories when reflecting on the past and apologized several times throughout our conversation for losing his train of thought.

However, he was incredibly eloquent and willingly walked me through how he and Louis first met at a summer program before they both enrolled to the same boarding high school. He told me he initially did not think Louis liked him very much but, with time, they discovered their mutual affection for folk music and grew to be close friends.

When I mentioned to him that Louis describes him as one of his biggest influences, he humbly conceded that “in an objective sense” he was the one to introduce Louis to songwriting but insisted on the collaborative nature of their work. He painted for me a scenic picture of the two of them sharing songs and exchanging ideas or singing bluegrass tunes in the halls of their high school.

Phillips is a pragmatic guy and does not get too flowery with his words. He is very prudent with his words and thinks for a long time before answering a question. One thing, however, that is evident from talking to him is how highly he thinks of Louis.

He told me that Louis is a goofy guy, disinterested in transient things. He described Louis as having a very particular idea of what music is about. To Louis, the purpose of music — or of his music at least — is to convey feeling. His music is “free-flow,” and his lyrics honest and heartfelt. Writing and singing for him is an “uninhibited process of catharsis.”

Most importantly, he tells me Louis “has been a rock in his life,” and he and his family took him in for a time when he was experiencing some difficulties.

“Louis seems like he’s seven or eight years older than he is and has always set very high standards for himself,” Phillips said. “ He’s very down-to-earth and wants to cherish the little moments that would otherwise go unnoticed.”

***

When I asked Louis to walk me through his typical songwriting process, Phillips came up again, this time as context to one of Louis’ most successful songs titled “Windows, Faces, Cigarettes.”

He spoke of how, when writing a song, it is usually a product of a process he called “collecting.” He would come up with an idea or an anecdote from his life, linger on it, work it out in his head and, eventually, when he has the right melody, produce a song.

“Windows, Faces, Cigarettes” describes Louis sitting in a hot, stuffy room in Farnam Hall during his freshman year, missing Phillips and seeing people walking past his window, looking all dressed up and glamorous. He had no idea where they were going but felt that they existed in a different plane. He did not smoke but had saved a cigarette that Phillips had given him, put it in his drawer and promised himself to only smoke it on a day when he particularly missed his friend, or on a special day of some sort.

His thoughts were collecting, he told me. As he tried to play a song by Civil Wars, he got the chord wrong, but it was a good chord. So he developed it and liked it and realized he could play it on a loop, and so “Windows, Faces, Cigarettes” came to be.

***

I asked Louis how his music has developed since he started writing. This question threw him off for a while; his easy, comfortable narrative disrupted for a bit. He confessed he has not thought about it before but eventually settled on a response.

He pays a lot more attention to detail now. He is better at picking out interesting details, and the ones that stand out to him are not the usual ones. He told me he wouldn’t notice things like how a woman’s hair falls on her cheek but will notice things such as how she is always barefoot when she’s in the kitchen. He thinks those points of focus, specific and original, are a lot more appealing.

He described to me how when he was 16 or 17 years old, he spent New Year’s Eve with a girl, and they were drinking champagne at a party when a 25-year-old drunk started getting aggressive with him. He felt threatened and left, shaken by the experience. He later wrote a song partly inspired by this girl. In it he mentioned a soldier berating him. It is a weird detail, he admitted, but it makes the song a lot more interesting.

While Louis’ attention to detail has developed, the structure and content of his music has remained mostly the same. He still writes lyrics that explore the nature of relationships, of friendships, of heartbreak and loss.

He does not really write political songs — he does not want to come across as preachy or alienate his audience by dictating what they should and should not do. He does not think his music is what people turn to for political messages but sees his genre as more of a means of processing emotions. To him, the role of the artist is to experience the full intensity of emotions, vocalize their pain and express their anguish in a way that makes his audience feel like they don’t have to because the artist experiences them in their stead.

But, while he tried to abstain from politicizing his music, he agrees that there is something wrong with a culture that glorifies substance abuse.

“What I’m trying to say is,” he told me, “‘Hey, what if we all talked to each other? And what if we turned the music down a little, and we didn’t drink hard liquor? What if we went somewhere together?’ Our culture is built on numbing, just numbing, numbing, numbing everything. It’s exhausting, and I’ve seen it destroy so many people. I’ve had it chosen over me, [and] that never feels good. But it’s weird, I can’t figure out how to write about it. There’s one song about it on the new album, but I don’t want to become some kind of weird sobriety writer. But I do want to be able to say something in my music.”

For now, however, Louis sees music as a way of processing his own emotions. Listening to his songs and talking to him about them, it is evident that he is very frank about his feelings and experiences.

I asked him how he can write songs that are so personal. I wondered if it makes him feel vulnerable.

“It’s hard when people are listening,” he said. When he plays at the Radio House, he makes a conscious effort to put on a high-energy show. He does not think people notice his lyrics too much at these events, but he deliberately creates an atmosphere where people will not notice him as much. It is a show, and he does not want people to feel an obligation to devote their time to him.

But there are times when his songs are too personal even to himself. There are lyrics that he cannot sing without closing his eyes because he is afraid that if he looks at someone while singing them, he will allow that person to see too much of him.

He is honest with his lyrics and tries to be fair in the way he depicts people and situations. When something is too close to home, he has developed a technique to protect those parts of him that are too personal: obscuring the date of the song. He admits that because of the details present in his songs, if someone knows him, it’s easy to tell what the song is about. So he will either omit the date, or lie about the date, or give a vague response that makes it impossible to tell when the song was written.

In some small way, that is how he makes up for the sincerity he pours into his lyrics — a small temporal barrier to protect the intimacy of his memories and the vulnerability of his emotions.

***

Louis’ new album, to be released on May 1, is titled “Morning Airs,” which is intended as a double entendre. “Morning Airs” could signify the newness of the day, the freshness of the morning time, the serene daybreak when everything is calm and peaceful. But the title could be also be interpreted as “Mourning Heirs,” which could signify the grieving of those left behind as the day opens.

The album is the product of a particularly challenging year for Louis, marked by his loss, grief and self-discovery. 2017 started with two deaths in the family and, with its close, marked the end to a loving, long-term relationship. Louis encapsulated his frustration, pain and process of healing through a series of nine songs.

Each song has a unique flavor, and many of them are results of collaborations with other musicians at Yale and beyond. The artists involved in the production of the album include saxophonist Hersh Gupta ’20 and pianist Jaylen Pittman ’19, among half a dozen other student musicians.

One fascinating juxtaposition in creating the album is between the process of songwriting and of recording and production. Louis spoke extensively about how many of the songs in the album express emotions that are still raw and how they result from a long process of emotional exploration.

But, in inquiring about the album’s production, I discovered that much of it was characterized by an easygoing and improvisational attitude. That is not to say that the work was rushed or inattentive — just that many of the anecdotes related to the album seem to have resulted from the individual flare that each collaborator brought.

For instance, the song titled “John’s Apartment” includes a piano solo by Pittman. One day, Pittman was visiting Louis’ apartment, the very apartment I was in while hearing this tale. He was about to move away for some time and Louis told him that, if he were to be included in the album, he would have to record him that same day. So Pittman took a quick listen to the song for half a minute and improvised a piano solo to accompany it, which Louis recorded. Unfortunately, the two forgot to set a metronome, so, while the solo was perfect, it was, naturally, slightly off-beat. Louis suggested that they record it again, this time with a metronome, but Jay was not really feeling it, so they agreed to do so later.

That second recording never happened. Still, Louis liked the solo so much that he included it in the album regardless.

***

Gupta, the saxophone player from “Morning Airs,” confirmed that the album is a patchwork of the artists included in it. While he emphasized that the album was predominantly Louis’ work, he explained how his own part in it came to be.

Having met Louis just earlier this semester, Gupta got to know him a lot better through working with him on the album. He told me that working on the album felt very personal, that he and Louis thoroughly discussed the songs. It was the process of getting to know Louis well that allowed him to meaningfully contribute to his project, since he believes a large part of making good music comes from fostering a good relationship between the musicians who work on it.

“My part was pretty improvised,” he said. “I think a lot of it is my own voice as a musician reflected through Louis’ perspective and adapted to fit his vision for the album.”

Gupta also emphasized the nostalgic nature of the album and the long thought process involved in remembering a certain moment and capturing it.

From the descriptions that both Louis and Gupta gave me, I understood that the album was very much a result of a long process of recording, tweaking and editing. Individual musicians were recorded separately and ultimately woven together to all fit in the same collage of sounds.

First, Louis recorded the drums, since they are the musical base of the song. The viola was recorded multiple times, each recording laid on top of the previous to create a sense of a string ensemble. Following that, each artist recorded their part individually and, finally, they were all stitched back together to make up the final melody. Just listening to them describe the process is enough to make one realize how much time and effort this project must have required.

***

Louis’ songwriting process, however, is not always a slow progressive cognitive exercise of ruminating on an idea and ultimately coming up with the right words to express it. At times, a song idea may surprise Louis. At that point, he urgently jumped out of his chair and started heading to his room, paused, remembered I was still there, turned back and asked me to follow him.

On his wall are dozens of song lyrics sheets.

“A lot of the lyrics will come all at once,” he explained. Some of them are written on lined paper, others on airplane sickness bags. Sometimes they are complete songs, barely edited with a few cross-outs here and there, but mostly left intact, others are just thoughts, some even Louis himself cannot categorize.

But usually the lyrics come before the music. Louis has a lot more ideas about lyrics than he does chord progressions, and that is what pushes him to constantly want to improve his musical skill. He needs to keep finding original ways to write the music that accompanies his songs, otherwise they will become repetitive, so he is continuously trying to cultivate his musical skills and incorporate new ideas into his music.

***

As we conclude our interview, Louis offered to play me one of his songs.

“Have you seen the little blue…” he asked absentmindedly as he looks for his guitar pick. I see it on the coffee table next to me and hand it to him. He grabbed his guitar and shifted around a little, moved to another chair, put down the blue pick and picked up a red one.

“Oh,” he said with a little laugh, “and this one was written … at some point.”

The song starts quietly, softly. He sang with his eyes closed. As he stroked his guitar strings and began to sing, his nervousness melted away. The music picked up, his voice smoothly traversed along with the notes escaping from his guitar. He slowly came out of his foil, his eyes now open and was looking at me more confidently, fingers masterfully stroking his guitar, leg tapping along to the beat of the song.

Sophia Catsambi sophia.catsambi@yale.edu