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BC's Best - (From left) Julian Kiani, Andrew Leonard, Matt Gibbons, Gabriel Shirley. Not in picture: David Brites. (Photo by Sean Smith)

Features From the Fest: BC's Best

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By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor
Published: April 23, 2010
On Thursday, April 29, the Boston College Arts Festival will kick off for the 12th year, with literally hundreds of BC students, faculty, staff and alumni exhibiting their talents in music, drama, dance, painting, film, photography and other arts. Here's the first in a series looking t some of the featured acts of this year's festival. For a complete schedule of events, see http://www.bc.edu/artsfestival.

WHO: Gabriel Shirley '12, Julian Kiani '10, Andrew Leonard '10, Matt Gibbons '11, David Brites '10

WHAT: Finalists for the "BC's Best" singer/songwriter competition

WHEN & WHERE: April 29, 8-10 p.m., O'Neill Plaza (also includes a band competition)

WEB: Gabriel Shirley - http://bit.ly/9uo0gb
         Julian Kiani - http://bit.ly/c2DbRK

Q: When did you write your very first song, and what was it about?

GIBBONS: Back in sixth grade, I wrote a couple of classical piano pieces, one of which made it to the finals of a local young composers competition at home. But the first song I ever wrote in this singer/songwriter style was back in sophomore year of high school. It was a cheesy love song -- how little things have changed!

LEONARD: I've always messed around on the guitar and I've played the piano for a while, but I never really wrote songs down.  I'm a music major and I've taken a few theory and composition classes, so I guess my first songs were written for those classes, but those used more classical forms. My first real songwriting has been with Julian for this event.  We decided we wanted to tell a story in our song, so we just wrote about a man traveling across the US.

SHIRLEY: I wrote my first song in sixth grade with a friend. It was called "Reality," performed by our middle school band "Cold Fire." It was a high quality artistic statement that addressed the problems with reality as far as our sixth grade minds were capable of perceiving it.

BRITES: I wrote my very first song a couple years ago. It had something to do with a little boy who'd lost his mother and brother and now he had to take care of his grief stricken (alcoholic) dad. Real light stuff. I had never been into country music, but after that I figured maybe I'd give it a look.

KIANI: I wrote my first complete song in seventh grade for a girl named Vanessa.  It was an outpouring of three years worth of built up romantic feelings.  My band and I performed it for her at her 13th birthday party, where my hope was that she would listen closely to the lyrics and captivating melody and realize that she had felt the same way about me all along.  Instead, once the song ended, she asked if I wanted a piece of cake.

Q: Name your most significant songwriting influences.

KIANI: I have always been drawn to the underlying emotion in music.  I usually compose the music to any song first, trying to illicit an emotional response before I pen lyrics.  Some artists who have been able to do this seemingly effortlessly and evoke pure emotion within me are Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Led Zeppelin, Jeff Buckley, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Jimi Hendrix, to name a few.

SHIRLEY: Sufjan Stevens is probably my favorite artist. When you listen to an artist long enough they begin to influence your own writing subconsciously. I think his narrative lyrics and melodic structure have informed my own style. I also grew up listening to the Beatles, so am sure they have somehow influenced my work, probably in form and melody.

GIBBONS: Right now, I'd say John Legend is one of my most significant influences. It's rare that you find a guy who can really captivate a crowd so well with just him and a piano. The same goes for Ben Folds, too, but in a very different way. Ben Folds and Billy Joel have always been influences of mine, as a piano player. But right now I'm really into John Legend's style.

BRITES: A few of my guys are Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan and Bob Marley.

LEONARD: I like anything with a good melody and some colorful harmonies, but overall simplicity is key.  My favorite songwriting influences are bands like Cake and Spoon.  They write simple, but really enjoyable, songs and they don't take themselves too seriously.

Q: Do people have certain assumptions or preconceptions about songwriters? Do you get a lot of "Write a song about me" requests?

LEONARD: I think people expect singer/songwriters to be somewhat morose and quixotic, writing songs about unobtainable love and devastating heartbreak.  That's certainly not how Julian and I go about writing songs.  We just like to have fun with the songs, avoiding anything too heavy or serious.

KIANI: People seem to associate men who are singer-songwriters with overly sensitive, emotional types.  That's why I wear sunglasses when I perform -- so that nobody notices when I'm crying.

But in all honesty, I have never introduced myself as a singer-songwriter.  I consider myself a musician, first and foremost.  I never want to come off as pretentious, which I think is a risk one runs when introducing himself/herself as a singer-songwriter.  It's like telling someone, "Yes, I can tell you about myself, but why don't I just sing it to you instead?"  The heart of the craft is honesty, and if people realize that you are sincere and honest, they will never ask you to write a song about this or that; they will trust you enough to be genuine with your subjects.

BRITES: I think all preconceptions go out the window when the performer has an impact in the live environment. It's the effect bands, musicians, singer-songwriters have on everyone else; you can see them do their thing live. It's happening right in front of you. There's no second take, it's not hanging in a museum. Whatever someone thought before can be heightened or shattered by seeing an artist in motion. Expectations are foolish. When you can experience something with someone you admire you're sharing a place in time. You can know something with certainty, what you heard, what you felt, what you saw. And no can ever say you weren't there.

GIBBONS: I keep my singing and songwriting as kind of a secret actually; I'm primarily a jazz player and few people know that I'm not afraid to sing, as well. However, it seems to me like people expect singer-songwriter piano players to be comedians at the mic, kind of like Ben Folds. The guitarists get to be cool while the pianists are mostly goof balls. I can be cool, too!

SHIRLEY: I know there is a stereotype that unestablished singer-songwriters are overly emotional, self-pitying, "misunderstood," ineffective writers. In my experience, though, there is a lot of great music out there that has never been recorded and probably never will be. The Boston music scene is living proof -- walk into any open mic around the city and I'm sure there will be at least a few acts that blow you away, often by those who you least expect it from: an old man with a banjo, a 14-year-old kid with an electric guitar.

Q: What is one thing you will absolutely never write a song about?

SHIRLEY: I don't know if I can promise anything -- I wouldn't want to pierce a hole in a blank canvass. However, I would definitely be surprised if I ever wrote a song about the BC national hockey title.

LEONARD: No whiny love songs. 

KIANI: I will never write a song about the difficulties of writing a song, or about the streets of Philadelphia.

GIBBONS: I'll never write a song solely about feeling sorry for myself. I'm very blessed, what do I have to complain about? There's a difference between writing a sad song and whining or complaining. Nobody wants to hear that.

BRITES: I'll never write a song about love succumbing to death. It just doesn't.

To read about our next Arts Festival Featured Artist, click here: http://bit.ly/cWkv8f