By Gerard Marcus
Del Water Gap’s new record “Don’t Get Dark” is a beautiful collection of 6 tracks exploring love, loss, and personal development. We sat down with the project’s mastermind Holden Jaffe to talk about his start in music, his development as an artist, and where he wants to go next.
ThrdCoast: How did you get started in music?
Holden Jaffe: My earliest music memory is being at Walmart and getting my dad to buy me the self-titled Smash Mouth record.
HJ: It’s not really a record that has hits on it–it’s a weird album–but I think it’s really special. Production-wise, it’s really of-the-era. A lot of the songs are really dark, but dressed up in a sort of bubblegum way. They’re Smash Mouth, but a lot of the content is about having eating disorders and being depressed. And I think, in my child-brain, I connected with that contrast of very bombastic production with dark lyrics. I remember listening to that CD a lot on my Walkman. From that, I slowly started to become curious about making music. My parents wanted me to be a classically trained violinist for a while, so when I was little I did that, and then secretly started playing drums at school. Did that for about ten years then ended up going to a summer camp at Berklee, which is where I really started songwriting.
TC: The famous Berklee Summer Camp.
HJ: Did you go? (Laughs)
TC: No, but I had a lot of friends who have gone.
HJ: Didn’t play very much music there. Mostly just started smoking cigarettes and made out with girls.
TC: Sounds like summer camp.
HJ: But I did write my first few songs and performed singing for the first time. I came back from that program and was incredibly inspired to make music.
TC: Where did you grow up?
HJ: Northern Connecticut. a town called Sharon. Super rural dairy town, picturesque New England. Not much to do… played with cap guns, biked around, and all that.
“I was really sad and melancholic about that transition, so a lot of the songs were about wanting to be younger, wanting to know less.”
TC: So how old where you when you went to the Berklee summer camp?
HJ: I went in 2010, so I was 17. I dated a girl the year before in High School who I really loved, sort of my first love. She was a songwriter who used to write me songs, and she did the Berklee program. I worshipped the ground she walked on– thought she was so cool. And since she did the program, I saw it as a pipeline where one could put themselves into it and come out like her. So I went.
TC: Was the music you were writing then in the vein of that early Walmart influence, or had you transitioned?
HJ: It was really nostalgic, somewhat sad music. I experienced a sort of quarter-life crisis transitioning out of young teenage-hood and into old teenage-hood when I was turning 17 or 18. Getting more responsibility, falling in love, maybe starting to have sex, going to college for some people, driving around New England. I was really sad and melancholic about that transition, so a lot of the songs were about wanting to be younger, wanting to know less. Which is funny, because now to me 18 feels like a child, but at the time I felt like some things were slipping away. I was also listening to Tallest Man on Earth and a lot of Bob Dylan, really just a mix of roots-y folk music, classic folk, modern folk like some of the early Justin Vernon records. So, stylistically, I think I was channeling those.
TC: I think there’s something about those late teen years that truly start showing the meaning of “ignorance is bliss,” so you end up wanting to know less as a reactionary response. A lot those years in my life are a straight blur–mainly from personal lifestyle choices. I look back now that I’m older and just think “wow, you were really trying to not engage.”
HJ: Yeah, right!
TC: Really trying to not deal with what was going on around me.
HJ: At the time, you think you’re building an identity, but I agree that with a lot of the ways I acted out I was just trying to differ.
TC: Which in itself can build an identity.
TC: You’re retroactively hit with all of these things that have already started to define you.
HJ: Yeah totally, that’s true.
“I needed to build a foundation myself as an artist, and not lean on other people so much.”
TC: So what was your path after high school?
HJ: I finished High School and kept performing. Early on, I developed this underdog notion about myself. I wasn’t a great singer, and I wasn’t a great player, but I was a great writer. That was an interesting thing I felt early on that stuck with me. That age is when we start to develop these identities. It’s like a grudge you have, or something that you think is a strength or weakness, chips on your shoulder, etcetera. Some of those things stay with you through it all, and me being a writer above everything else is something that stuck with me. It allowed me to show up at Clive and get obsessed about writing, and concentrate on writing.
TC: Is there anything specific you think lead to you thinking of yourself that way?
HJ: Most of the people I knew at the time who made music their life were very good singers. When you’re a kid, the most predictable move to make is to do things you’re already good at, right? Like, if you’re a good athlete you do sports, if you’re a good singer you do music. So I think a lot of my peers were just better performers than me and had been doing it for longer. And, I mean, I wasn’t a good singer (Laughs). You know, just playing live and listening back to the recordings and not feeling great about what I was hearing. I feel better about my singing now (Laughs).
TC: I was about to say, from listening to the new record, I didn’t hear anything wrong.
HJ: I had to learn, though! I really had to learn how to sing.
TC: It’s a skill.
HJ: Yeah, it didn’t come naturally to me.
TC: So you decided you’re a songwriter. At what point did you explore that in college?
HJ: I put out a record in high school which was the first Del Water Gap release. It started circulating a little bit at the school and in New York where I got on a couple of little blogs. Then I came to Clive Davis and wanted to study to be a producer / engineer. I hadn’t totally decided that I wanted to take my music very seriously, but a friend of mine at the time, my best friend, she was pushing me to make the project a real project, to play live and concentrate on it. For a few months I was saying no, and eventually she said “ok, what if I do it with you?” And I said “sure, I’ll play shows if you do it with me.” So we ended up doing it together for about a year. She ended up leaving, but it really took someone holding my hand to get me to put a band together. After that, I started reaching out and met the people who I would play with for about six years; a bass player and a drummer I met in my freshman dorm and played with until about a year ago. It was interesting–a crazy couple of years. Played a lot of shows, wrote a bunch of music, and now I’ve been pushed out the other end of that experience with this project that I’m really proud of. It’s changing, but it’s still a big part of my life.
TC: What were you exploring with this band you developed in New York versus what you were doing in high school?
HJ: We were really trying a lot of things out. The first show I had maybe five or six people on stage, and for every show after that it would change. I would have different players. I tried having a horn section, I was really experimenting to try and find my identity. I looked at other bands I admired, like Edward Sharpe, to see if that would make me the thing I wanted to be. But, ultimately, I think what I really needed to do was just practice, learn, and write a lot of songs. That’s the thing that ended up giving the project legs. Getting good enough to build an identity of my own. Not that people that I was surrounded with weren’t completely necessary and a part of it, but they also helped me see that I needed to build a foundation myself as an artist, and not lean on other people so much.
"I came very close to turning it off and I felt ashamed about that for a while, but I think it’s a natural part of this lifestyle, letting yourself walk up to that line.”
TC: So would you say you learned that through the experience? That developing yourself the way you did helped guide a deeper maturation?
HJ: Yeah, 'cause I think leaning on people a lot and then having them disappear, it’s like going through a break up. Its cliché, but people say after going through a break up you tend to get a really heightened sense of self, which I think is true of creative relationships too, you know? When you build an identity around other people and then they disappear, you really see what you’re left with. I was fortunate to have that happen a few times early on. It forced me to build a foundation for myself.
TC: What did you do at the end of that development?
HJ: For a while, I decided to concentrate my time on writing and producing music. I started a boy band with two of my good friends. We made a record, which I love still to this day. Right around the time we finished that record and I was doing a lot of writing and production work for other people, I played a couple Del Water Gap shows in New York that went really well, and I started getting some record deal offers. So I really sat down with myself–amidst considering moving to LA and leaving this all behind–and wondered if this is something I would be willing to let go. In the end I decided no, I didn’t want to let it go. I decided I had another Del Water Gap record in me, and that I should make that record, sign this deal, play the shows, and see how I felt out the other end of that. Which is where I am now, and I feel really good! I feel like it’s the most reasonable and viable creative outlet for me right now, and it’s slowly but surely becoming a life. I came very close to turning it off and I felt ashamed about that for a while, but I think it’s a natural part of this lifestyle, letting yourself walk up to that line. You have to let yourself in order to see how you feel.
TC: What turned you around?
HJ: I really just looked back over the last few years. Having my creative partners leave made me ask “did I continue to do this because of these people I was working with, or did I continue to do this because I got something greater from it.” And, ultimately, I got something greater from it. And a lot of people that love and care about me had the patience to sit down with me enough times and say “I really think you should see this through.” I wouldn’t have gotten out of music completely. I really considered taking a pub deal and trying to make music for other people. In retrospect, I think that would have been absolutely the wrong decision. I wouldn’t have been happy. But at the time I needed to consider it.
TC: So you sit down to write this new Del Water Gap record–what’s going through your mind? After all that development in your musical life, what do you decide to explore?
HJ: Well I was starting a new relationship and falling in love while falling out of love with someone else, and that was both sad and exciting. I was also coming of age outside of college, and learning how to support myself, which was an interesting process. A few of the songs are about that. Coming back to reality in the middle of the day alone in my apartment, having people move away, having friends get sick…
TC: An analysis of early post-college adult life?
HJ: Yeah, you know, feeling sad but hopeful.
TC: Is there a new sound you experimented with for this record?
HJ: It’s a little more minimal, and less rock. It’s a little more laid back, influenced by a lot of the new indie music that’s come out over the last few years. A lot of the really important, culture-shifting music. The Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus’s of the world. Really trying to produce thoughtfully arranged guitar music.
TC: I know that, working with a label, there can be a long time between recording an album and its release. Now that the new record is coming out, and you’ve had time to process it outside of the excitement of producing it, what have you learned from it?
HJ: The main thing I’ve learned is that I need to let go a little better. You can spend years obsessing over a song–I have trouble with perfectionism. I’m not a perfectionist, I think that’s the wrong word…
TC: You just appreciate perfection…
HJ: I appreciate perfection, (Laughs) yeah. And I think I’m missing this clean vision that some of my peers have of just knowing when something is right for them. I’m still discovering what that means and feels like. I would like to start working with people again to try and get out of that vacuum. I spend a lot of time working in a very negative headspace and sprinting towards the finish line–which is a necessary part of any process–but I want to try and bring the ratio up on the side of enjoyment and creativity.
“I mean, ultimately that’s the dream, right? To make something meaningful, but also have it change your life.”
TC: Do you know what you’re looking forward to with future collaborators?
HJ: Optimism (Laughs). I think I need cheerful energy, patience, and respect. The same thing everybody else wants. Someone that’s able to see that there’s a point to all this craziness we put ourselves through would be helpful, ‘cause there’s a lot of cynicism in a lot of young musicians. I definitely fall on the cynical side.
TC: What sparks creativity in individuals is so varied.
HJ: It really is, yeah. And I think it’s an interesting thing to start asking people, why? Like, why are they motivated artistically or creatively? Why make the sacrifices that one makes to pursue an artistic life?
TC: That seems like something that can get lost in the conversation about making art or music. I feel like we’ve gotten so comfortable with blasé answers to that question, that people just blow it off.
HJ: I think the really common and somewhat unfortunate answer is often along the lines of “I want to play big shows.” Or “I want to be as big as the 1975.” A simple want of fame is an unfortunate answer, but also it’s hard to not have that be the primary answer, right? Especially when you’re young. Wanting what someone else has. Or the trappings of it. Although think it really hard to go though what you have to put yourself through to achieve the trappings unless something else is pushing you.
TC: Something that’s truly driving underneath the want of fame.
HJ: Yeah. Or maybe you just get really lucky. Want the thing, then get it. But for most people, you do need to find the seed.
TC: Some of my favorite artists have found a way to toe this line between doing things big, but also having something to say. I feel like it’s hard to both have something to say and make it big, but if you do, it’s immediately respected.
HJ: Absolutely, I completely agree. Completely agree.
TC: Hopefully you can find yourself at that point someday (Laughs).
HJ: I mean, ultimately that’s the dream, right? To make something meaningful, but also have it change your life.
TC: So now that the records out, what are your expectations for it post-release?
HJ: Trying not to have any. I hope that people will find it, and that it will find people. I hope to tour. I want the record to be a space for me to make other content like video, which I’ve already started the process of making. I hope people who already know my music will like it, and I hope that it opens up a potential for new relationships, you know? And I hope that once the record’s out, I’ll get some clarity on what I want to do next creatively.
TC: I think you’re heading in that direction. If you keep pushing forward and exploring your own journey through life with your art, you just keep creating more and mo re things that resonate with listeners trying to explore themselves. Congrats on the record. It sounds really great. You titled the album “Don’t Get Dark,” where does that name come from?
HJ: It’s something that the guys in that boy band I mentioned used to say to me before we would leave each other. One lived in Massachusetts, one in New Jersey, and I lived here, so we would all travel quite a bit to see each other. That was always the sign-off. “Don’t get dark! Stay light about all this.” Because we were all scared, you know? I was catering, the one from Jersey was assisting in a studio, the kid in Massachusetts was finishing college because he spent two years touring with a band that fell apart. We were all in interesting spots in our life. So when I was trying to think of what to call the record, I couldn’t think of anything. A friend of mine said “you already know what the record is called, you just haven’t found it yet, but you know what it should be.” I was working on the music the next day and looked down at where I had taken a label maker and labeled my interface with my name, number, and the phrase “Don’t Get Dark” to remind myself of that when making music. I saw that and said to myself “that’s the name of the record.”
TC: And done!
HJ: (Laughs) That's that!