NU students talk OnRecord songwriting competition

Crystal Wall, Reporter

When OnRecord, a national collaborative songwriting competition with a $1,000 grand prize, announced a group of three NU musicians as one of the winners, the students weren’t there to accept the honor. In fact, none of them attended.

“We didn’t expect to win at all, so none of us went,” recent graduate Will Ouyang (Weinberg ’20) laughed.

Instead, this group, which also included Communication senior Ross Patten and Weinberg senior Eugene Kim, found out about their accomplishment after they received an email naming the finalists of OnRecord 2019, Ouyang said.

A competition previously geared toward Chicago area universities, Ouyang said he learned about the event after OnRecord reached out to the student group he founded with friends, The .WAV Company. After all the participants registered, teams were paired based on their “genre preference, skill set, proficiency level” and other traits, according to OnRecord’s website. After receiving their teams, participants had less than a month to write and produce a track to submit.

Given the option to explore any genre of choice, traditional or experimental, Ouyang said the group met at his “bedroom studio” to start working. Within hours, Ouyang had shown his teammates some beats he had saved over the past year, from acoustic to more intense tracks. Patten and Kim pointed out the ones they liked.

Writing the lyrics was a similar process, full of ad libbing and piecing verses together.

“Korean music is my primary influence, and I wanted to showcase that in our project,” Kim said. “Part of it was lyrics that I’d written for, potentially, other songs. I sort of stitched things together depending on the theme of the song and then filled in the blanks.”

Despite writing much of it on the fly, the record they made ended up being the song they submitted — “She,” a hip-hop track with both English and Korean verses.

Patten said it was funny, because they wrote “She” first, then the team spent most of their time writing another song, “Paradise,” that they never released. After that first day, they met again to re-record some vocals, add harmonies and clean up the track. Patten said they think the reason creating the track went so smoothly is because they didn’t go into the process with any preconceived notions.

“We didn’t have any expectations going into it. We were all just excited to get what we could out of each other,” Patten said. “I think we amped each other up too. Like everytime Will played a beat, I’d be like, ‘Oh my god!’”

Some teams did not have the same experience, realizing the difficulties that come with collaboration. Medill junior Emily Wong and her teammates did not end up submitting a song in the end, after realizing they didn’t have much of a concrete track. Even though they spent their last meeting before the deadline jamming for fun instead of polishing a record, she said she learned a lot about the different sides of songwriting.

“I got more exposure to songwriting with mixing and instrumentals,” Wong said. “I never tried to do that or thought I could do that, so it was cool to see other people come up with riffs off the top of their head.”

One of those riffers, Communication senior and teammate Peter McGee, said he wished they had more time to work on the song, but still enjoyed the experience and thinks competitions like these are beneficial for students interested in music and songwriting.

He said his biggest takeaway was probably getting more familiar with the campus music scene. By meeting his teammates and competitors, he got a better sense of what art people his own age were making.

“It’s interesting to see what someone that you know would do and how you can overcome that hurdle of, ‘Oh, this is my friend that’s making a song’ versus, ‘Oh, this is a song!’” McGee said.

As a response to the pandemic, this year’s OnRecord competition will be held remotely, allowing musicians from across the country to collaborate.

With the network expanded, Ouyang echoed the sentiment that competitions like OnRecord help connect student artists. And while the prize money was “dope,” events like these give musicians that extra push and affirmation.

“The fact that we won, it was a confirmation that our music isn’t horrible. And I think that sounds like it’s not saying much … but (writing music) can be very demotivating at times,” Ouyang said. “And something like this where we were able to see a process from start to finish and actually create a project that people like to listen to, it just gives you that little push, like, ‘Hey, you can keep doing this.’”

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