New Commute is based partly in Charlotte, NC, not far from your college town of Columbia, SC where USC is located. What was your time like as a Gamecock and what was the music culture like there? Did your college life influence your trajectory as a songwriter in any certain way?
Yeah, I love that you’re partly based in the Southeast – I miss living there, and still come back often. I’d say it was always a challenging place to be a musician, but also deeply rewarding. Challenging in the sense that there is minimal infrastructure and cultural appetite for a music scene, rewarding in the sense that you can play a key role in building and sustaining the existing infrastructure and community. I really felt like I was part of a scene, almost a subculture, when I lived there – and I’m still connected with a lot of those people seven years later.
So I think living there influenced my trajectory in many ways, but it certainly taught me to see music as being primarily about creative expression and about community. When you start a musical project in a town like Columbia, you don’t begin from a profit motive or from careerism; the idea that you could ever do music for a living seems pretty far-fetched. We played music because we needed to play it, and we shared our music with each other because that gave us life and a sense of belonging. I never want to stray too far from that way of being.
I also had inspirational professors at USC who encouraged me to read Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Faulkner, etc. – spending time with that literature was certainly formative for my songwriting. My senior/honors thesis project at USC was actually a collection of songs, which was the initial step I took with Valley Maker as a songwriting project.
Besides making music, you're also pursuing a PhD in Human Geography in Seattle. How do your two passions intersect? What's your motivation to study Human Geography?
It’s a great question, but it’s hard to know how to answer exactly. They usually feel like compatible, but also somewhat distinct parts of my life. Both involve writing, communication, and collaboration, but in fairly unique ways. I do really like being able to engage with both in the course of any given day.
I started studying Human Geography because I was interested in how inequalities are produced and sustained between different people and places. I pretty quickly focused that question on the politics of migration and borders in today’s world: what happens when people, who by the lottery of birth are no longer able to remain in their homes, try to move across space, across borders, into places like the European Union and United States? What kind of responses and reactions does their movement elicit (resentment, fear, care, etc.)? I think we can learn a lot from migration about how people regard difference and value one another’s lives and life possibilities.
I’m currently writing my dissertation on the role of humanitarianism in how Europe is managing the recent migration ‘crisis’. I will say I’m finding that some of the problematics that inform my research overlap, albeit indirectly, with some of the questions that have always motivated my songwriting. It’s been fairly surreal to study this topic over the last few years as the current administration has risen to power on such an exclusionary, disturbingly anti-immigrant platform – and to see that supported by a majority of the evangelical world I grew up around in the Southeast. It hasn’t exactly been surprising, but it’s been jarring and fairly dislocating. So these kinds of questions about how we exist in relation to one another; how we make sense of our histories; how we move from one form of belief or understanding to another; what possibilities we find for goodness and light in the seemingly ever-expanding darkness…I think there’s value in pursuing those questions from both artistic and academic standpoints. So we’ll see where the balance goes from here, but it’s been meaningful to keep these parts of my brain and life in conversation.