Student musicians self-publish songs amidst the pandemic

Claire Collins ’22, Henry Phipps ’21 and Matt Haughey ’21 discuss their experiences producing music.

by Mia Nelson and Julia Robitaille | 5/27/21 2:03am

5-26-21-artsheadshots-courtesy
Source: Courtesy of Claire Collins, Matt Haughey and Henry Phipps

The closure of in-person events has made live performances almost impossible for student musicians wishing to promote their music. Despite this challenge, Claire Collins ’22, Henry Phipps ’21 and Matt Haughey ’21 are writing, recording and producing music remotely.

Claire Collins ’22 took the previous school year off to avoid online classes and to work on her music. She already has two folk albums out on multiple platforms — Spotify, Apple Music and Napster. Her newest collection that she created during the pandemic aligns closer with indie rock than folk.

Collins’ second folk album, “Rough Edges,” took inspiration from student life at Dartmouth. This year, however, that life didn’t exist for Collins — instead, she was writing songs in her parent’s garage.

“I think it’s funny — you would feel like the pandemic would be a great time to be inspired, but I was very upset with the state of the world,” said Collins. 

The isolation didn’t just affect her writing material — it exacerbated the disadvantages of being a solo artist who writes, plays and produces her own music. Performing live, she said, was her primary way of receiving feedback before the pandemic.

“Playing live is a really nice way to get feedback — if you play a song and it bombs, you know what people think,” said Collins. “Right now, though, it's a vacuum — in one way, that's cool because I’ve been able to develop what feels like my sound. On the other hand, I haven’t had as much of a sense of whether or not people will buy into the sound.”

Producing music without live shows created another difficulty for Collins — garnering an audience.

“Live shows were a great way to get people into your music, but now it’s TikTok, which is really stressful because you have to rely on an algorithm that is unclear on how it works,” she said.  

TikTok’s mysterious algorithm can privilege certain kinds of music, like pop, that Collins’ work doesn’t fall into. 

The lack of musical diversity in viral songs on mainstream social media platforms and a lack of clarity on how, exactly, one goes viral is frustrating for Collins — especially since garnering a following is integral to pursuing music post-college.

“I believe very deeply in my music, but the part I have the most trouble with is selling my music and advertising,” she said. “To really hustle, you need to leave a lot of humility at the door, and I have a hard time with that.”

However, the time she had during her gap year did have some advantages. 

“During the pandemic, I had more time to listen to other people’s music than I normally do,” she said. 

Collins cites the bands Peach Pit and Pinegrove as inspirations. And, looking to the future, she has grand aspirations. 

“My dream is to be a quote-on-quote rockstar,” she said.

Collins’ younger sister Freya interrupted our Zoom interview to put a damper on that dream. She pushed her way into the camera to give me her opinion. 

“I can’t believe you’re interviewing Claire — maybe one-fourth of her songs are good, maybe,” Freya opined. 

Henry Phipps ’21 has been producing music since high school. He didn’t anticipate continuing this activity in college, but then he met fellow classmate and musician Max Fuster ‘21. 

“He saw all of my music equipment and immediately knew that I was a producer,” said Phipps. “He shared some music he made, and I was super excited about it.”

During their freshman year, Phipps and Fuster, in collaboration with Ellie Briskin ’21, produced “Find You.” Then, in 2019, Phipps and Fuster founded Nextlife, a band creating mostly electronic music. 

Phipps has produced music for multiple artists at Dartmouth. One of these collaborations resulted in a friendship between Phipps and singer-songwriter Matt Haughey ‘21. 

The two students first collaborated on Nextlife’s song “Know Her Better.” Then, during their junior fall, Phipps and Haughey collaborated on “Make You Happy.” Haughey recorded his vocals and recruited fellow musician Jeffers Insley ’21 to play the piano track. Phipps stitched the vocals and piano together and produced the song for release on Spotify.

Haughey will also be graduating this spring. He started writing songs in high school and has been producing music throughout his college career. 

With the production assistance of Phipps, Haughey released “Heart of Gold” in spring 2020. 

Haughey noted that, in terms of production, his musical process has not been that different from normal during the pandemic.

“I made that with him deep in quarantine, so we were sending stuff back and forth,” said Phipps. “We may have never even talked on the phone.”

Phipps enjoys the production process, despite the challenges of remote work.

“Every time Matt Haughey sends me something, it’s a good day,” said Phipps. “I will go into my room, throw on some headphones, turn off the lights and get ready to really give it a full listen.” 

Phipps and Haughey say they have found their groove producing together. 

“Producing a song in quarantine is very solitary,” said Phipps. “But I think with Matt it actually works really well,” said Phipps. 

Haughey wrote “Sorry” during winter 2021, and it took off when Phipps posted a clip of it on the Nextlife TikTok account. The video received over 1.8 million views and 400k likes. 

“The rest of the world obviously agreed that ‘Sorry’ was pretty special,” said Phipps. 

In terms of production, Phipps adds everything to a song besides vocals, and occasionally samples from other artists. 

“Certainly, with Matt, my genre falls into indie pop, but also singer-songwriter,” said Phipps. “It's like the Hans Zimmer-esque, orchestral sound that I’m channeling in conjunction with Matt’s really stripped down ballad-writing that I think makes for a pretty unique result.” 

After graduation this June, Phipps will work for a startup in Los Angeles, where he will continue to pursue his musical goals. 

“I’ve gotten very comfortable in this role of producer, where an artist can just send me a vocal, and I can get back to them with kind of their finished song in just a few days,” said Phipps. “So I hope I can continue doing that with artists that I love and respect in LA.”

After graduation, Haughey will live in New York, pursuing a full-time music career, and hopefully writing for other artists. 

“The end goal is to make a living doing it,” said Haughey. “I’d like to write for people who have big social media presences and who are better at that side of it.”

Haughey’s upcoming song, “The Kid That You Loved,” is set to be released in June. 

“Who knows if the TikTok kids will like it, you know, but I do,” said Haughey.