Senior roommates and songwriters Joe August and Zach Caldwell have known each other for years.
Today, they occasionally write and collaborate together, and most recently they performed individual sets at Stone Way Cafe on Oct. 28.
The crowd consisted of SPU students and other Seattleites, many decked out in full costume with Halloween spirit. Caldwell warmed them up, and they cheered readily at the end of the six songs he played.
Caldwell’s energy and humor consistently delighted the crowd. He regularly jumped around on stage, putting tremendous force into his vocal delivery, regardless of whether or not his voice cooperated 100 percent of the time.
A single flute player, SPU senior Mikaela Henderson, accompanied him.
The songs Caldwell performed on Friday employed lyrics that were often melancholic but simultaneously shot through with an appreciation of natural wonder: “Gazing at the moon / in the afternoon / everything ends too soon.”
They were consistently melodic, although very emotionally raw, and honest.
August’s set Friday night was mainly delivered with his acoustic guitar, though he occasionally alternated between ukelele and an electric piano.
Two female background vocalists accompanied him — junior Erin Beattie and his friend Zoe Wolf.
Though they usually stick to their own bands and respective performances, when the roommates do write songs together, the result is both humorous and slightly unnerving.
Caldwell described an experience he and August had together their first year at SPU, which ultimately inspired a song and led to years of reminiscing.
“We were downtown … and we hopped on this bus and were overwhelmed by the smell of whiskey. And the bus driver’s very enthusiastic — he’s asking questions, he’s telling jokes. And Joe realizes the bus driver’s drunk … then he says ‘hey man, do you think we should get off this bus?’ and I say ‘no man, let’s ride it out.’ We went back … and sat and wrote this song in 45 minutes.”
The song — aptly titled “Drunk Bus Driver” — is a personal favorite of Caldwell’s, who said that the show at Stone Way was probably the first in years that he didn’t play it.
Though they have separate influences and reasons for beginning to write songs, both turned to songwriting early in their lives as a creative outlet.
In an interview following the show, August described how, when he was just 11 or 12, he would wake up every morning to play “Guitar Hero” on his Xbox.
At that point in his life he had never tried learning to actually play guitar.
But one day, someone broke into his house and stole both “Guitar Hero” and his Xbox.
August was pretty upset, but his father, a musician, saw it as an opportunity.
“The next day I woke up and my dad had put out an electric guitar for me and he said, ‘Why don’t you start learning the real thing?’”
It was on that day that August said, “‘I’m gonna do this’ … but I realized quickly that ‘Guitar Hero’ was a lot easier than real guitar. It didn’t translate as well as I hoped it would.”
As soon as he had a tentative grasp of the guitar and how it could be used, August began writing songs. He cited the Beatles as a major influence, as well as Jack White, who he saw play live with the Raconteurs for his first concert when he was 11.
“That was a defining moment in my life,” he said. “I was transported by his performance … that was when I really considered being a musician.”
In a separate interview, Caldwell described how, similar to August’s, his early inspiration to write songs involved listening to a lot of good music.
“I was 14 or 15 … after a while, from finding what you like, [to] listening to all the great songs … you start diving into your own stuff,” he said.
When asked what sparks an idea for a song, he answered without hesitation.
“It’s always personal experience … sometimes I’ll make a faint fabrication out of a personal experience … a fictionalized personal experience. But really most of the time it’s straight up — this happened, this is how I felt about it, now it’s a song.”
Of course, using literal experiences naturally puts a songwriter in an extremely vulnerable position, and Caldwell is very aware of this.
“Really everything I write is too real … it gets me in trouble,” he said.
He even went on to admit that two of the songs he performed at Stone Way were written about people sitting in the audience that night.
“I was terrified … it’s weird when you write songs about people and then they have to hear them,” Caldwell said.
But he holds to his faith that the key to being a good songwriter, one of the most important qualities someone can cultivate, is honesty.
But while Caldwell’s approach to songwriting tends toward literal representations of events or slight embellishments, August mentioned an inspiration for a song that was much more strange and mysterious.
He claims to have written it in a dream, and that it also happened to be in Spanish.
“I don’t even speak Spanish,” August said.
But somehow he knew that that was the way it was supposed to be, describing it like a gift that had landed at his doorstep waiting to be carefully unwrapped and revealed.
“As soon as I woke up I grabbed paper and pen and I just wrote this poem in English … and I remembered in my dream the chords, and I remembered the melody. I translated that English poem to Spanish, and it sounded exactly like what I heard in my dream,” August said. “It was very strange but in the best possible way.”
Regardless of how or why, Caldwell and August continue to be inspired by the most unlikely of circumstances and create songs that reflect their lives and the world around them.