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Princeton student musicians find opportunity and relief through original music

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<h5>Sam Spector ’24 and the Degenerates performing at Terrace Club.</h5>
<h6>Candace Do / The Daily Princetonian</h6>

Sam Spector ’24 and the Degenerates performing at Terrace Club.
Candace Do / The Daily Princetonian

“I’ve been wanting to perform ever since I could open my mouth,” said Sam Spector ’24.

At Princeton, Spector found more than a rigorous academic experience — she found a stage and a ready audience. Spector is the lead singer of Sam Spector and the Degenerates, a band with four other Princeton students that performs her original work, often at eating clubs like Terrace. 

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The band is one of many groups and solo acts who make music on campus. These students write and record their own songs in communal studios or even dorm rooms, often debuting these songs on streaming platforms and at live venues on campus. Although they differ in their instruments, genre, and performing styles, these Princeton student musicians have all made original music an integral part of their college experience, while balancing the academic and social commitments of college life.

Eating clubs, radio stations, and dance shows: Performing live on campus

On campus, students have performed their original work at dance shows, eating clubs, and even over the airwaves. Akiva Jacobs ’22 performed a live set on WPRB last semester with Jeffrey Gordon ’22. The duo played original songs, written by Gordon.

Jacobs and Gordon are both members of Julien Chang and the Deep Green, a band led by Julien Chang ’22. Jacobs says they all met in their first days on campus.

“Julien was looking for a band to play his music with, and within two days of being at Princeton, we all met,” Jacobs said. “We had our first rehearsal a week after getting to school as freshmen.”

The band has also performed on the Terrace stage fairly frequently. “The first time we played at Terrace was the most exhilarating night of my life,” Jacobs said.

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Although their origins are rooted in Princeton, Julien Chang and the Deep Green have massively broadened their audience since their founding. They went on tour during Fall 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, playing in New York, Boston, and even Europe.

Much like Spector, Jacobs, and Gordon, many other student artists have taken the opportunity to share their music at Terrace. Jimmy Waltman ’23, the music manager at Terrace Club, emphasizes the importance of live music to the club. 

“For me, the main draw of Terrace has always been the music,” Waltman said. “Seeing friends perform at a couple shows and being in the physical space while hearing the amazing music other students were making really made me fall in love with the sense of community that live music makes.” 

Waltman recalled watching Chang’s band perform, and the energy it brought to the club.

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“Seeing Julien Chang and the Deep Green perform is something else,” he said. “There's a kind of unspoken communication that you get to see firsthand. The energy [of] the musicians reflects in the audience and it makes other people want to have a good time and dance.”

Rohit Oomman ’24 has DJed at various eating clubs, and often works with singer-songwriters on campus during the production process. He also produces his own work from his dorm room. 

“In my dorm we have a studio setup, with four speakers, guitars and a ton of keyboards — it’s a mess in there,” Oomman said. “My roommate and I have a few people over now and then to record, and I record a few times a week for my singer/songwriter class. It’s always very impromptu.” 

Oomman, who also plays jazz sets and DJs at clubs in New York City, finds the music scene at Princeton much more intimate. 

“We’re in kind of a bubble on campus, because if there’s a show going on everyone kind of knows about it,” he said. “It feels much more like a community where you’re allowed to make mistakes because you're around your friends.”

Student artists have also seized other opportunities on campus to perform original music. Charlotte Kunesh ’24 recently sang at a diSiac Dance Company show, which was the first time she’d performed original songs for a large group. While she’s done musical theater for years, which she says is her biggest passion, singing her own lyrics is different.

“I was never scared to perform for theater, but now the character I’m acting is myself. This is so different because I’m basically reading diary entries,” she said. But, now Kunesh says she’s ready to record and perform her songs.

“I’m just reaching the point where I feel ready to share the music with more people.”

The creative process

Spector says the timeline of writing a song varies for her.

“For ‘Scalding,’ I literally wrote the whole first verse for it in the shower. I got out with the conditioner still in my hair and sat down with my guitar and notebook and wrote the whole thing in 20 minutes. But there’s a song I released in May called ‘Slip Away’ that I worked on for over a year.”

Kunesh has had similar experiences with her own song-writing process. She is currently recording an EP using Ultraviolet Recording Studio, located in the basement of Bloomberg Hall on campus. 

“Some come together in two hours, some I’ve been working on for months,” she explained. But she usually starts with just one line.

“I start with something that I think would be such a good lyric, I make a tune for that, and everything comes off of that. My notes app is filled with lyrics that I want to use in songs one day.”

Spector also explained that the production of her songs, once written, occurs in pieces.

“Once I have chords and lyrics and a general song structure, I go section by section and add guitar layers and drum parts,” she said. “Then from there I normally let it sit for a week or two, listen to it a bunch, then if I like it I record it. I start with drums, then add bass and guitars, then vocals, and finally auxiliary stuff.”

With students releasing songs on platforms like Spotify and performing at city venues, the community of Princeton songwriters takes on an air of professionalism. But student artists have also emphasized the importance of prioritising stress relief, rather than added pressure, during their creative process.

Michael Salama ’24, who started working on his 2021 EP “Forking Paths” over his gap year last year, believes that the songwriting process is not something to take very seriously.

“For me, music is just something I like to do, never anything more,” Salama said. “My songs have helped me make sense of a lot of things in my life, and that’s why they are so important to me.”

In line with these values, Salama tries to keep songwriting separate from his academic and professional ambitions.

“I would never take a music theory class at Princeton, because I would never want to make music something that I have to do,” he said.

Similarly, Jacobs chooses not to put deadlines or demands on his songwriting.

“It’s been coming very slowly, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing even though everything here is so fast paced. Every couple of months, I write a song, and I’m happy with that.”

The multi-faceted life of a student musician: Balancing it all

On top of classes and other commitments, the student musicians interviewed all expressed that they have struggled to work songwriting into their schedules and find a balance. 

“Being a Princeton student and having homework and extracurriculars, it’s hard to make time for songwriting,” Kunesh said. She tries to find a window almost every day “for twenty minutes to sit down and try to write something.”

Jacobs says it's hard not to prioritize music, which to him “is what things are centered around.”

“I don’t like going through a week of not playing much music because I’m doing too much homework,” he said.

Though it may be difficult juggling it all, many of these student songwriters turn to creating music as stress relief.

“It’s definitely a catharsis and my choice of releasing all the stress that I feel,” Kunesh said. “Whenever anything happens to me, songwriting is my way to get it out.”

For Spector, music has also been a positive outlet, and an integral part of her life. “Music has been an amazing creative outlet. I don’t know who I would be if I weren’t making music,” she said. 

She doesn’t expect to ever stop.

“1000 percent, I’m always gonna be writing, recording, and playing shows. That’s not something I can see myself living without.”

Paige Cromley is an assistant Features editor and a writer for the News and Prospect sections of the Daily Princetonian. She can be reached at pcromley@princeton.edu.

Reva Singh is a staff writer for the Features section of The Daily Princetonian. She can be reached at rbsingh@princeton.edu.

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