The Sunset Sessions

Undergraduate singer/songwriters find their voices—and a growing audience
Watch excerpts of the Sunset Sessions music videos of students Hayes Peebles, A14, Maeve Bell-Thornton, A15, and Emma Scudder, A14. Video: Ian MacLellan, A12
April 20, 2012

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Music majors are not the only ones at Tufts hitting the good notes. The music culture on campus is rich and often transcends academic backgrounds, says Emma Scudder, A14, who is bringing that music to a wider audience along with her friend Ian MacLellan, A12.

“I spent my first year feeling like there were not many others who shared my musical interests,” says Scudder, an American studies major and folk singer/songwriter in the brother-sister duo The Omaha Folk. “When I really took the time to uncover it, I found that there is actually a huge music scene on campus, and Ian and I wanted to be able to share it.”

And so began the Sunset Sessions, a series of videos showcasing acoustic music by students. MacLellan, a geological sciences major and member of the Institute for Global Leadership’s Exposure program, is the producer.

Scudder says when they recorded her acoustic session last October, it didn’t start out as a Sunset Session, named for the time of day and filming location, a rooftop garden atop MacLellan’s garage on Sunset Road in Somerville. Instead, it was more of a lark.

But more than 400 YouTube views later, MacLellan says, people began to reach out to him, wanting to see more Tufts music.

“We invited friends up to perform, and then a few friends of friends found out about it and wanted to perform as well,” he says. “Before we knew it, we were trying to set up gigs with bands outside of Tufts around the Boston area.” Now they have recorded seven Sunset Sessions, four featuring Tufts talent.

Among them is Maeve Bell-Thornton, A15, a freshman from Nashville, who recently joined Jim O’Donnell, E15, and Leif Inouye, A15, in starting her second folk band, Young Excursion.

Growing up in a city known for its connection to the music industry, Bell-Thornton remembers being “surrounded by sound.” She started piano lessons in kindergarten and quickly moved on to the violin.

“It wasn’t until recently that I fully realized the power of the human voice,” she says, having honed a smoky blues sound after singing in her high school jazz band and later forming a band with friends called Bea, Rita & Maeve.

“At first when I came to Tufts, I was apprehensive about finding a music scene that would welcome my interest in songwriting,” she says. “But when I was asked to play in Sunset Sessions, because they had heard my music from back home, I was thrilled.”

Musical talent is nothing new to Tufts, known as the breeding ground for popular artists like Tracy Chapman, J86, and the early ’90s graduates that formed Guster and Papas Fritas. More recently, the group TimeFlies, comprised of 2011 grads Cal Shapiro, A11, and Rob Resnick, A11, reached the number eight spot on the iTunes pop chart last fall with the debut of their album, The Scotch Tape.

Creating a Community

Coming to Tufts from the New York City music scene, Hayes Peebles, A14, says little by little he has tapped into a close-knit community of musicians with a lot of passion.

A self-taught guitarist, Peebles, a philosophy major, played his first concert as a teenager at the Rockwood Music Hall in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He started out writing for acoustic guitar and vocals, but recently has begun recording with additional instrumentation, becoming more of a one-man band.

“Once I started getting to know the musicians here, it became increasingly easy to find and play gigs, and for the most part, people are willing to come out, listen and be respectful of all the acts—which is something that definitely didn’t happen as often back home,” he says. Working with the Music Collective at Tufts, Peebles has played a couple on-campus gigs at Distler Hall, Hotung and Brown & Brew, as well as some more spontaneous gigs in the off-campus houses where classmates and fellow musicians live.

“Hearing other talented musicians from Tufts in the Sunset Sessions was eye-opening for the possibilities I had here,” adds Bell-Thornton, who hasn’t yet declared a major. “I am hopeful that Young Excursions can take advantage of the widening Tufts and Boston music scene.”

As they continue production of the Sunset Sessions and uncover more talent at Tufts, Scudder says filming on the rooftop garden encapsulates the Tufts experience for her.

“There are kids walking back from class with their backpacks. You can hear friends talking to each other, and sometimes they even yell at us for being too loud,” she says. “But that’s a good thing, because we’re making it known that here at Tufts, there are amazing and talented musicians who need to be heard.”

Kaitlin Provencher can be reached at kaitlin.provencher@tufts.edu.