On Oct. 17, 2017, Duke University freshman Sara Held ‘17 walked onto the stage of Duke Coffeehouse and stopped at the waiting microphone. Held was about to sing two of her original songs for the first time. And if she could impress the executive board of Duke’s student-run record label Small Town Records, she would be named one of the label’s four signed artists of the year.
Held pulled it off, and about a week later, she officially became a signed artist.
On Feb. 10, 2018, Held released her first single, “Never Do Better,” on iTunes, Spotify and Soundcloud. Currently, she is working on the release of her EP (a recording that contains multiple tracks but is shorter than a full album) for late April.
A Life on the Stage
Held’s experience as a singer extends far back into her career at Hockaday. She joined the Hockaday choir in Middle School, where Choir Director Bonnie Jean Coleman noticed Held’s vocal versatility.
“[Held] would sing soprano, but she was such a good musician that I could move her around,” Coleman said. “She has a full sound without having to belt. Her voice has a beautiful natural quality, and she’s had a mature sound since she was quite young.”
In Upper School, Held was a member of the Upper School Concert Choir as well as the Madrigals, an audition-only group. She was named a member of the Texas Private Schools Music Educators Association All-State Choir four years in a row, a feat that Coleman calls “quite unusual.” And, during her senior year, she played the lead role of Belle in the Upper School musical “Beauty and the Beast.”
“Musical theater and choir at Hockaday prepared me a lot in terms of technique and confidence because I was able to put myself out there,” Held said.
A classically trained singer, Held took the opportunity to explore more musical genres by performing in both Hockaday and St. Mark’s Coffeehouses. However, she had not yet experimented with writing and performing her own songs prior to arriving at Duke University.
“Coming to Duke, I was overwhelmed because there were 1000 things to try,” Held said. “I signed up for around 30 clubs, and after the first few weeks settled on three to four different activities to pursue outside of class.”
One group that caught Held’s eye was Small Town Records, Duke’s own independent student-run record label.
Becoming a Signed Artist
Duke students interested in joining Small Town Records have the option of joining a variety of sects ranging from music production to technology support. Most roles require a training session and an interview. However, for those looking to become one of the label’s four signed artists of the year, the process consists of three steps.
“First, we had a prescreen due at the beginning of October,” Held said. “For the prescreen, we had to send in a few videos or samplings of our music, which could be original or not.”
Only a handful of the 36 who submitted prescreens were invited to a live audition in front of Small Town Records’ executive board. From the live audition, eight artists were then invited to perform for the public at the Signed Artist Audition Show at East Campus Coffeehouse on Oct. 19. At the Audition Show, audience feedback would be considered as part of the selection process.
“I got through the prescreen, and barely through the live round I think because I didn’t have a lot of original music prepared at the time,” Held said. “Then, the [Audition Show] was super fun because for the first time, I got to perform original music for my peers.”
On Oct. 29, Small Town Records posted on its Facebook page the names of the four signed artists who had been selected: jiggy riKo (Travis Smith), Good Coffee (Cole Heathcott), MC4D (Matt Drake) and Sara Held. According to Small Town Records, each signed artist would receive “a budget to record, produce, distribute and perform their music as well as a manager, marketing rep, engineer, producer and other support to help kickstart their music career.”
“I was so humbled and excited to be one of the signed artists,” Held said.
Held explained that the choice to retain her given name as her stage name was a natural one.
“I think the music that I wrote is pretty honest and straightforward, so I think it always made sense to be the same way with my name too,” Held said.
From there, Held met Daniel Kim, a Duke senior who works extensively with music production for the label. The two clicked in terms of music writing and production and, in December, began to work together on Held’s EP.
The Making of a Song
Kim, a senior at Duke, is the music director for Small Town Records. He plays guitar and keys, playing music professionally since he was in high school and beginning to work seriously on music production for the past two years. Kim was one of the people who listened to Held’s recorded prescreen submission for the first time last fall.
“She’d listed Maggie Rogers as one of her influences in her bio, and so I kind of knew right then that I really wanted to work with her,” Kim said. “Listening to her recording afterwards pretty much set that in stone.”
Working with Kim presented Held with an opportunity to explore songwriting. According to Held, at first, songwriting did not come as naturally to her as it might to others.
“Hockaday English was always something that I had to work really hard at, and songwriting has to rhyme or nearly rhyme,” Held said. “But I learned how to force myself to sit down and do it, to free-write and get something on the page and draw from there. You get inspired from the music that you listen to and push yourself in ways you didn’t think you would.”
For Held, songwriting typically happens at night when she is winding down from her classes and processing everything that has happened throughout the day. Ideally, Held tries to spend about two hours a week writing.
“After free-writing, I might give myself a night to think, and then random words become an idea,” Held said. “Personally, I find it easier to match a tune to certain syllables rather than getting words to fit a certain verse length, but the process varies for every person.”
After coming up with lyrics and melodies, Held sends quick recordings to Kim.
“I’ll take [the recording] and cut it up with software and put it to music,” Kim said. “When I build a track I usually start with a key aspect of the track in mind first—something like a really catchy hook, a drum sample that sounds interesting, or even something that I know will be thrown into the background but adds a really neat character to the song.”
Kim uses the following programs: Logic Pro X for producing and mixing, Ableton Live for producing, Omnisphere for synths and Kemper for guitar effects. After finishing the arrangement, Held then steps into the recording booth, a process which Held describes as depending on “if you’re in a good mood and feeling very musical or not.” Held estimates that she spends about three to four hours in the studio each week.
“In the booth, the arrangement will be played, and I’ll lay down the verses and the chorus and record it,” Held said. “Then, it depends—after you record every take, you listen back to see if you’re satisfied or if you want to put background vocals on it, re-record it, or layer it.”
From Song to EP
According to Kim, the entire process of creating a song usually takes “a couple of weeks to a month start to finish.” However, Held’s first single, “Never Do Better,” was finished by the team in three weeks and released on Feb. 10.
“For this first single, we were lucky. We found something we both liked really quickly and were able to get it out,” Held said.
Overall, releasing “Never Do Better” and working on the EP has been a significant growth experience for both Held and Kim.
“This is the first project that I’ve mixed top to bottom, which has forced me to grow a lot as an engineer,” Kim said. “I think ‘Never Do Better’ is the best work I’ve done so far.”
Coleman, Hockaday’s choir director, also praises her former student’s vocals on the single.
“She sounds wonderful on it,” Coleman said. “She’s not belting, and it’s just a beautiful sound.”
Looking forward, Held and Kim are hoping to release the next single in a few weeks, depending on how their schedules work out, and plan to release Held’s five-song EP in late April or early May. And while Held will be working with marketing and social media in the meantime, she asserts that this is not the most important aspect of her career as an independent artist.
“I really want people to listen to my music because they see it and it sounds interesting to them, not because they’re bombarded by it,” Held said. “I wanted to keep my Instagram as my regular Instagram. I made another Facebook page where you can learn about shows and singles coming out.”
Held’s favorite part of her experience so far has been surrounding herself with other student musicians and getting the chance to click with others musically.
“With a contemporary music setting, some people think it’s a very individual process—you sit in your room and mess around with a song,” Held said. “But it’s not. It’s such a collaborative process. And I think a lot of finding success is being a kind and genuine person so that you can find the people who will support you and help you put yourself out there.”
“Never Do Better” is available on iTunes for 99 cents, Spotify and SoundCloud. To stay updated on Held’s EP, follow Held’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/SaraHeldMusic/.
Story by Elizabeth Guo, Managing Editor
Photo provided by Sara Held