Working for the Song: John Oates Partners with Students for Innovative Cowrite

As part of his two-year stint as the 2015–2016 Herb Alpert Visiting Professor, songwriting legend John Oates cowrote and recorded a song with a team of students in a live setting.

April 21, 2016

In 2015, when legendary songwriter and performer John Oates was on campus for the first of two weeklong installments of his stint as the 2015–2016 Herb Alpert Visiting Professor, he had a couple of hours of unscheduled time. Stephanie Kellar, associate professor of music business/management, asked him, “So what do you want to do?” His answer: “I want to write a song with the students.”

Oates's two-year residency overall centered around working with students, whether in performances that spanned genres from pop, rock, and blues to swing and big band, or in clinics that focused on the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer's long music career. 

Performing the Art of Songwriting

The songwriting session extended the typical borders of collaboration in ways that surprised all involved, and pooled efforts from eight student songwriters, a recently graduated engineer, and two videographers from a video course taught by Ben Meyers, assistant professor of songwriting. The resulting song, “Smoke and Mirrors,” was written, arranged, and recorded in roughly four hours—two hours in 2015, and two in 2016. “I’ve never done anything like this before,” Oates said of the experience, in a recent phone interview, and was excited to see how well everything came together. “The unique thing,” he continued, “was that we did this communal songwriting project in public in front of other students. It was a cross between performance art and songwriting.”

Kellar mentioned that while the song isn’t going to be released for purchase—though there may be a chance it will be released for a charity down the road—the point was to give each student a chance to work with a songwriting master and a professional experience that will echo far beyond their résumés. 

Focusing on the Song, Not the Self

And what was it like cowriting with a musician who is no stranger to the top of the pop charts? “I just keep thinking, 'How can a legend be so humble?'” said Lilian Caputo, a sixth-semester professional music major from Rome, Italy. Caputo helped cowrite the track and also provided backing vocals during the recording session, and observed that Oates's humility was a product of his deep love and respect for the craft of songwriting. “He continuously reminded me that when you're working on a song, you're almost working for the song and not for yourself at all,” she said.

Josh Nachbar ’14 engineered the recording session and mentioned that he’d never taken on a project quite like this. Regarding his role, he described it as feeling “like a cross between a DJ, arranger, and a tech hacker,” due to the fact that he was making edits and adjustments in real time, and working with eight different laptops, all contributing to a single session. “This was one of those times that truly validated the concept of 'learning to continue to learn,’” Nachbar said. “You really never know what's around the corner and how you can combine ideas and new skills, in ways such as this.”

Writing Out of the Box

To round out the arrangement, Oates brought in keyboardist Alex Olsen, a sixth-semester music business/management student, and even though Olsen had never taken part in a songwriting and recording combo session like this, he dove in and ended up giving the track the instrumental hook it needed. “I wasn't totally sure what to do, but John made it super easy,” Olsen said. In fact, after hearing the riff, Oates scrapped his idea for adding a guitar track, noting that Olsen’s contribution had nailed it. “One thing I’ve learned is that Berklee students are far more savvy than I ever was and they have it so much more together,” Oates said, reflecting on his residency experience overall.

As he concluded his visit, Oates was convinced that the future of music is “alive and well,” and encouraged the students to have a long-distance perspective on their careers, and to keep trying new things. In fact, that’s why he was excited to come to Berklee in the first place: “I wanted to do things out of the box—if I can’t do that at Berklee, then where can I do it?”