Within the small but thriving music community at Boston College, a handful of students write and release their own music. These artists and their music showcase just some of the talent present at BC.
Meet our artists: Melissa Mao and Uncommonwealth. Melissa is a solo artist who releases a variety of genres of music on Spotify. She currently has several singles and EPs out. The band Uncommonwealth formed in the fall of 2020, with Ben Austen, Cole Dumas, and Tommy Lynn all collaborating to write original songs. They have released a single, currently available on Spotify and Apple Music, and have plans to release an EP in the future. While the artists differ in their styles, they all together show the importance of music and artistic expression.
Melissa Mao MCAS 23’
Stella Si: Can you do a little introduction of yourself and what you do as a musician?
Melissa Mao: I'm Melissa Mao, I write mostly acoustic things. So it's like sad, chill vibes. I write deep lyrics that I want to comfort people with. I have released a lot of acoustic-sounding songs on Spotify in the form of singles or mini albums. I want to step up for the next album in terms of production and add more instruments to it. Maybe make happier sounding songs for a change.
When did you start writing music?
I have always wanted to write music, but I felt like everything I wrote was so bad. So I have songs from middle school that I listen to as motivation that I have to write more. I always had trouble with writing lyrics because they always sound stupid to me. I wrote my first actual song fall of my freshman year of college.
What is your approach to writing music?
Some people start with music, and some people start with lyrics. I will usually think of a line or a melody and then build everything around that. Or I'll start with a chord I really like, and listen to what sounds good with that chord, building something with that. But making up a melody to go with chords is hard. It feels restrictive. With lyrics, I pick a topic and write about that. I don't really like writing bluntly, so I'll try to make it as poetic as possible while still making sense. All my topics are usually like nature, nostalgia, heartbreak, you know, all the typical folky things.
What is the biggest obstacle as a musician?
For me, I cannot consistently write. I'll have one or two weeks of insane intense writing where all of my ideas are coming out. And then three months where it's so dry, I can't write anything because everything sounds bad. So it's really a hit or miss for me. When I get my hit, I have a week of everything working out.
When do these inspirations come out?
I think it's really random. It usually comes in the middle of the night when I'm not allowed to record anything. I'll just write a bunch of ideas down for the next morning, and then figure them out.
Anything in particular that inspires your music?
Things, happy things that I remember that also make me sad. In high school, I'd go to this coffee shop all the time. That was probably the best time of my life, and I've written basically the whole Signature Blends album about that experience.
What's your motivation for putting music out?
I want people to feel comforted by my music like they have the same feelings and relate to it. I'll keep you company when you fall asleep or when you study. When people say 'I listened to this when I study,' or 'I listened to this when I doze off,' that's the best feeling. When it has a purpose for other people.
Tell me about the first time you put out music.
It was January of 2020. I think the first album sounds bad. I had written the one song Cold Brew, and I really wanted to record it. I went to O'Neill basement where there is a little recording studio. I recorded and wanted to write more. I wrote the four other songs from seven that night to midnight and then recorded them. It was very rushed. I was like, ‘alright, let's put it out.’ I was so excited to get something out there. I always want to get things out there as soon as possible. Now, I'm holding on to songs to save them for a bigger album. I'm learning that it's better to just wait a little bit and make it sound good.
How has coming to BC influenced your music?
I don't even know if I would have put out music if I didn't come to BC. When I joined the Music Guild, Alex, the president of the club at that time, really pushed me to get more involved in music. Through the Music Guild, I met many other people, and they write really good stuff. I thought that was so cool. I wanted to get to that level and pushed myself to do it.
How have you grown musically in the past few years spanning from high school to college?
When it comes to music taste, I listened to everything because I had phases. I listened to one type of music and then moved on to another. I was the emo kid in middle school. Now it's all meshed together. It sort of influences my music in that it's not just acoustic. Sometimes it's a little darker, or sometimes it's lighter. There are no bounds to what an acoustic song should sound like, and because I listened to everything and I can make it sound like anything.
I'm starting to get into the electric guitar a little bit more. I also picked up bass. I've been adding bass lines to my songs which adds a lot more depth than just a whiny, acoustic guitar. I love vocal harmonies! I use vocals as an instrument like a background instrument.
When did you pick up the guitar and started singing?
I started playing acoustic guitar at the end of middle school with a really crappy $80 guitar. Even though I'm not great at guitar, I am explorative with it. I'll make chords that don't really exist, and I play with different tunings. Singing was such a private thing for me. I'd sing when I was completely alone, like when my parents weren't home. Over time, I realize that people don't care. I will sing in the house with my mom in the next room. I started performing at the end of high school at coffee shops. I was super nervous and messed up all the time. I started performing at Music Guild open mics freshmen year, and I'm more confident now.
Do you see yourself as a musician now?
No. I see myself as someone who plays with their guitar and likes to make melodies with their voice. I sometimes put it out for other people to hear. I kind of just make things that I think would sound good. Hopefully, other people find some sort of peace in it. I'd say I'm a musical companion, a therapist perhaps.
Is there anything that you're working on right now?
I have written the whole album over winter break. But since school started, I haven't recorded anything. I'm still writing things that may or may not go on the album. I might put out singles in the meantime. I want my album to have a storyline. I hope that it could come out by summer.
Uncommonwealth: Ben Austen MCAS 24’, Tommy Lynn CSOM 24’, Cole Dumas MCAS 24’, Michael Vaquero MCAS 24’, AJ Morgan MCAS 24’, Spencer Bono CSOM 24’
Tell me a little bit about yourselves. What type of band are you and what have you been working on recently?
Ben: We are Uncommonwealth. Tommy is a guitarist. Cole is a guitarist, and I am a guitarist as well. Cole, Tommy, and I have been writing music as a band. We also have AJ who is our drummer, Spencer who is our bassist, and Michael who is our keys player. They help us record the parts that we write. We are working on an EP, trying to get that out in a month or two. We released our first single today called Phoenix From Mars. It's out on Apple Music and Spotify.
What’s your process of writing music as a band?
Cole: It usually starts with one of us developing a chord progression, or something like a lick. We then try to get a verse or a chorus. Or we write our own songs and bring them to the band. I've been a little bit shy about writing lyrics. So I'll usually just have music and then we'll do lyrics and the rest of the arrangement with the band.
Tommy: For me, It starts with an idea. And you branch out from there. I have plenty of songs that started out as a singular phrase. We have one song where Cole wrote the chord progression. Just out of nowhere, I started singing notes with random words, and I thought, I'm gonna turn that into something that is meaningful to me.
Ben: My process is usually fooling around on the guitar trying riffs and chords. I get a melody from there, and then the lyrics come later. There are rare occasions. I was reading the Bruce Springsteen autobiography for school before my freshman year. I learned that he wrote about what was meaningful to him, and what he was into at that time. I had just started my lyrical endeavors. I'm a political science major. I follow politics all the time. Why didn't I try to write a song about that? And then I ended up writing like two or three political songs.
What is kind of the biggest obstacle for you all as musicians and as a band?
Cole: We have a rather large band. We have three guitars and keys. So, we need to make sure all the different parts are not boring and overlapping. That can be a struggle sometimes.
Ben: We have all very different styles of music. It can be hard to work with each other. In our EP, there is going to be a hard rock song, some light, pop-y, soft rock songs. There's gonna be a blues song on there... There will be something for everyone.
Tommy: If we were to release an album, that would have to be a much more coherent idea. I think that'll be our biggest challenge.
Where are you in the process of growing as a band?
Ben: We went through the cover phase. Now, we are recording our originals. It’s different. When I write a song by myself, I record each piece into a program, and it builds up into a recorded song. And so that's the next step, you take these demos and include everyone from the band.
Tommy: One of my goals is to sound better live. If we get into a rehearsal, can we play it fully in time? And we're going to have similar dynamics. That's the next step that I'm hoping that we take. And that just happens through, constant rehearsal and practice. We've been grinding.
What’s your motivation for doing music?
Cole: It’s mostly just for fun for me. I've been wanting to play in a band seriously for years. It's really great to have this opportunity and to have other people who are so excited about making music.
Tommy: My favorite part of music is rehearsing and practicing. It motivates me when I get a really difficult lick that I couldn't play before on the guitar. Or, I finished a song that I'm writing. Or as a band, we are not only playing the notes but have a full understanding of what we are playing.
Ben: Performing at concerts is my primary motivation. In high school, I was in a cover band. Playing at my school, seeing people singing along, and being energetic is huge for me. When a performance works out and is able to share it with other people. I think that's super magical.
You are currently working on an EP. Does it give you a sense of purpose?
Cole: For me, it was a drive to write more songs. I had some bits and pieces here and there, but when we decided to release an EP, I was like, I need to really take this seriously. But at the same time, I'm happy to just write songs just to write songs.
Has coming to BC influenced your music in any way?
Ben: It was different from high school where I didn't think I have the talent to be very good. I did form a band with my friends at the end, but I think it was much different coming to BC. I can call myself a musician because I started writing songs. You also meet people who are really talented musically. Like, Tommy has been playing guitar for seven years. That's not very common back in my high school. Now, I like to push myself musically with these people around me.
How have you grown musically over the years? What does music mean to you now?
Tommy: I fully confess that I used to be quite elitist with music. With a lot of music, I felt like 'I cannot listen to this.' I learned that you never dismissed a good idea, even if it's a genre that you don't particularly like or go for first. I started out with classical blues jazz-rock. I always thought that older music was better. It's not better, it's just that there are certain elements to the music that I am drawn to. You can find similar elements to music that's being released today. The best thing that ever happened to me was expanding my musical horizons beyond to all time periods and all genres of music. I love it.
What does the future hold?
Cole: I definitely want to have some guest musicians on in the future. We have a few friends who are really talented, and we'd love to have them. Maybe we can incorporate some kind of quirky instruments here and there. I think that would add some flavor. We have a friend who's a very good harmonica player.
Ben: We are all a bit timid in terms of what our future holds. I think we all are on the same page about taking it one step at a time. We just released a single, and we're going to do the EP, and then we'll try to write songs together and put them into an album. Simultaneously, we will do more live shows, practice with each other because it's fun. It's difficult to juggle everything with school. Maybe we could end up like the typical dad's band, or we could end up like Vampire Weekend.
You are not ruling it out as a possibility?
Ben: Oh yeah, if some of our stuff starts making waves. We're gonna stick with it. That's for sure.