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Rachel Despard opens up about music's influence on her life

Rachel Despard is a music student at UNC and a local musician. Despard performs and records original work with her band, while also balancing music studies. Photo courtesy of Spencer Zachary.

Rachel Despard grew up surrounded by music, from bluegrass to indie rock to soul. Now a senior at UNC studying music, Despard has found a unique identity in her songwriting and her sound. 

Despard's interest in music started at young age, participating in musical theater and taking voice lessons at the age of 10. She attended Durham School of the Arts, where she was able to perform at Durham Performing Arts Center and participate in musical programs with Duke University. She was in the school choir and was the leader of an a cappella group. 

“In high school I knew I loved to sing, and I was trying to develop my technical skills and do whatever I could get my hands on,” Despard said. “Then when I started recording and doing more songwriting I was like, ‘Oh this is the one. This is what I should be doing and what I’m most passionate about.’” 

She recorded for the first time at age 16. 

Once she reached college, Despard took a step back to decide what direction she should take. For a while, she directed her attention toward public policy and considered law school after graduation. This didn't last long, and Despard said she quickly turned back to her roots. 

“I eventually realized that it was always going to be music," Despard said. "I wasn’t going to be happy doing anything else.” 

Music at UNC

During the second semester of her junior year at UNC, Despard said she started to really engage in the process of exploring her own musical identity and sound after many years of technical training and exposure to various styles of music. 

Growing up, Despard attended festivals such as MerleFest and FloydFest with her mother, surrounded by bluegrass and folk music. Her father, a drummer, was a Grateful Dead fan that was very much into the indie rock scene. Despard said the combination of her mother’s bluegrass and folk, her father’s indie rock and her own personal training with soul, gospel and R&B have blended to help shape her current sound. 

At UNC, her voice training is classically-focused, but she has also participated in both Carolina Choir and Charanga Carolina. Despard said her music at UNC does not always directly carry over to her personal projects, but helps to strengthen her overall technical ability and musical character and continues to introduce her to a variety of styles. 

Her personal music career

Right now, Despard and her band perform and record under her full name, “Rachel Despard.” They can be found at local bars in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area, and they are quickly expanding. 

“We’re really just trying to play and get experience and try to integrate ourselves in the local scene,” Despard said. “Meet people and make connections.”

Despard has several methods for songwriting when she works alone.

“I have an idea for a song — there’s something I’ve been thinking about or a theme that keeps coming up in my life and I want to write a song about it," Despard said. "I use songwriting as kind of a cathartic process and for processing things that are going on with me. I’ll have an idea that usually becomes the main idea of the song that I work around, and then I’ll bring it to the piano and start writing the melody and progressions.” 

But sometimes it does not always start with an idea beforehand. Despard said that she often writes songs just by sitting down at the piano and experimenting. 

“I work off of basic skills and adding ornaments,” Despard said. “Then I think of a melody line and then think, ‘What does this sound like? What is this song supposed to be about?’”

Her songwriting process with the group is mainly with two of the band members, bassist Andrew McClenney and saxophonist Arvind Subramaniam. 

“Rachel wants an open environment,” McClenney said. “She’s great to work with and it’s a very collaborative and open space when we’re in rehearsal. We’re all pretty free to explore and sound like ourselves.”

Subramaniam said he enjoys the environment and everyone’s positive attitude about pushing creative boundaries. 

“We sometimes think maybe this is our precipice, and we cannot go any further, but somehow we are able to find different avenues to keep climbing and raising our bar," Subramaniam said.

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Despard said McClenney or Subramaniam may send her a melodic idea or concept that she builds on and puts lyrics to so that a larger idea can be brought to rehearsal and taken to the next step of refining. 

“When I bring a song into rehearsal it changes a lot,” Despard said. “Everyone is adding their own stylistic choices and their own background and inserting that into the music.” 

Between her studies and personal career, music plays a large role in Rachel’s daily life. 

“Apart from these outward facing ways of expressing music, it is also very personal to me,” Despard said. “Whether I’m listening to music or writing music, it’s almost like emotional regulation for me ... When I’m writing that also helps me process everything that’s going on around me. Music is very deeply personal to me and acts that way in my life.”