Alumni bands build careers in the music world

The five men of Darlingside live together, create music together and, as they like to add, even cook for each other. Offstage and on, the band, made up entirely of alumni from the College, share an easy familiarity that often makes them seem more like brothers than anything else (or like spouses, as one band member suggested). During an impromptu performance at a career panel last weekend, they arranged themselves in a casual arc, grinning and turning towards each other as they played. Also appearing at the panel was another member of Darlingside’s proverbial family, singer/songwriter Caitlin Canty ’04. “They’re like little brothers,” she said of the boys, who range from three to five years younger than her. After the informal performance, the musicians talked about how they ended up at this point and where they see themselves going.

That Darlingside would end up together today was no sure thing – the group, which originally formed during the members’ time at the College, drifted apart in 2007 only to reunite a year and a half ago in a slightly different iteration. Darlingside currently includes Sam Kapala ’09, Harris Paseltiner ’09, Auyon Mukharji ’07, Dave Senft ’07 and Don Mitchell ’06. While at school, music was something they all did because they loved it (four of the five were in the Octet and all took Bernice Lewis’ singer/songwriter class) but none of them really considered that it might become a career.

“You almost relate it to like, when you’re initially interested in a girl who’s cute and you make an indication that you’re maybe interested, and you look for the sign that she’s interested,” Senft said of the period when they first started to talk to each other about the possibility doing music professionally.

In fact, the development of this “relationship” was waylaid for a few years as each of the members continued to flirt with pursuing other passions and opportunities. Mukharji traveled the world for a year studying traditional music with a Watson Fellowship; Paseltiner spent a year at Oxford; Senft nearly ended up spending a summer at Morgan Stanley; Mitchell spent some time farming, writing and bird-watching (among other things); Kapala was a pre-med religion major. Nevertheless, they ended up together again and decided to try to make something substantial of Darlingside by treating it like a full-time job.

“I’m still getting comfortable with the idea that this is my career and not just a post-college joyride,” Sam Kapala ’09 said. Pursuing music professionally is certainly a non-traditional path, particularly for graduates of the College. Others, often older individuals, often express a skepticism similar to Kapala’s own.

“We get a lot of these parents like, ‘That’s a really good thing to do when you have the time,’ [but] that is my job,” Paseltiner said, his fellow bandmembers chuckling in recognition. “I put all my effort and time into it.”

Canty also traveled a winding road, in part due to other interests and skills: Out of college she started at a music-industry job organizing shows. After a couple years there, she took another job at an environmental consulting company. Ultimately, she gave that up too in order to fully pursue a career in singing, which previously she had tried maintain on the side.

“I tried to do the good jobs and the smart thing,” Canty said. “[But] even when I’m trying my best to avoid [music], I just can’t – I love it.” Canty recognizes that singing and writing is far from a sure thing, but for her, the risk seems to be worth the reward. “I don’t think I can do anything else anymore,” she said. For now, in order to make her passion viable as a full-time career, Canty supplements the income from gigs and CD sales with singing for commercials or other ventures.

Similarly, when the men of Darlingside committed to pushing forward, they realized they would have to think beyond merely creating the music if the band was to be a sustainable venture. Though the College is no business school, they felt that the education they received here was valuable and highly relevant. “There are few people who are as well-outfitted to go into anything as kids who go to great liberal arts colleges,” Mukharji said. “What you’ve been doing for the past four years is learning how to pick things up. It came quickly too us largely because we know how to work and we were excited about it.” Though they had no real experience in the music industry, with liberal arts skills in hand the men of Darlingside began strategizing for success.

“We said, we’re Williams kids, so we’re going to treat this as a business. The average band – they jam in a basement once or twice a week and occasionally book a gig,” said Mitchell. “The chances are still very slim … but we were thinking, what if we did this differently?” Accordingly, the guys have thrown themselves into the business end of the music industry, divvying up the tasks to cover booking, website design, budget management, fan communication and all the other myriad aspects of running a band. “Right now we’re thinking a lot more about financial stability and how we can extend the window of opportunity for ourselves,” Kapala said.

Having at least found geographical stability in a house in nearby Northmampton, Mass., the guys’ thoughts have also turned towards the broader community. “[We are] looking at ourselves as more of a local business that wants to have a positive effect in the community,” Mukharji said.“Here at Williams you sort of naturally get involved in the community … in Northhampton we’ve been kind of isolated,” Mitchell said. “It’s important to us to get involved and get to know people.” Among other things, Darlingside has done special shows to support art galleries, has befriended the owners of the local bakery and pizza shops, and has visited schools to educate kids about career possibilities in music and other industries beyond the standard tracks.

This latter element is particularly meaningful to the members of Darlingside, all of whom credit the College with playing an important role in showing them that each individual can create their own path, rather than following one already laid out for them. “It was fun to realize that there were a lot smart, hard-working, capable people at Williams … who [wanted to] actually get serious about things that [were] fun,” Paseltiner said. Even knowing this, the members of Darlingside and Canty both felt obliged for a long time to meet the expectations they felt were demanded of them before fully breaking loose and doing their own thing.
“It does seem like there is the perception that if you don’t jump into grad school now, maybe you’ll never end up going,” Mitchell said (when Darlingside decided to get back together, most of them were applying to grad schools). “Or if you don’t get on a career track job, that that career track is not going to be available to you in the future.” They have come around to the conclusion that not only is it acceptable to try something different, but that such adventures even provide them with valuable skills for potential future careers. This is the message they emphasize to students.

“I think the most important thing is for kids to hear us talk about our formative years at a similar age,” Mitchell said. “It’s cool for them to see that there are more opportunities than, you know, I’m a clerk at the grocery store or I’m a firefighter, or a lawyer or a doctor. Kids need to see some alternative career paths.”

When you think of the rock-and-roll lifestyle, “financial stability” and “community outreach” may not be the first things that come to mind, but Canty and Darlingside may be more than your average rock stars. From the way they tell it, both Canty and the members of Darlingside are constantly working: drafting emails, scouting out new venues, updating their websites – and, of course, writing music. Even road trips in the Darlingside van, Chauncey, are no longer free from the ever-present laptops, since one of the guys recently received a prepaid mobile wireless hotspot. Perhaps realizing that the productivity-crazed work-a-holic image they were projecting didn’t quite jive with the stereotype of wild and carefree musicians, Mitchell suddenly added, “If we’re boring you with too much business talk and you want to hear about fun stuff, we are actually really fun too.”

Having seen them rock out at Goodrich, I have no doubt of their “fun-ness.” What impressed me equally, if not more, was that Canty and the members of Darlingside own up to the dirty little secret of success: Even with talent, it requires an immense amount of effort to get anywhere, much less somewhere. And even then, they all know that for all their work they may still end up back where they started, but that is a risk that these musicians are willing to take. “The time limit is when it stops being fun or when it stops moving in the right direction,” Kapala said. “I think there are people in the world who think that’s not a realistic way to look at a career but … I’m going to do this until I’ve reached the highest point that I can reach, and I find something else that I’d rather do, then that’s the time to move on.”

With all this talk of their brave adventures and endless labor, Senft offers a relevant reflection. “It does feel as if we’re taking the easy route as often as it feels like we’re taking the hard route,” he said. They may be taking a risk; they may be living simply; but they are doing what they love.