This UNC student dropped everything to pursue making music full time

By Michelle Li

String lights on and aromatherapy candles lit, she climbed up to her lofted bed. Her fingers brushed side-to-side over the trackpad, navigating over the same button on the laptop screen. To go to Washington D.C. next semester or to not go? She sighed, wary and unsure, then fell back and stared into the popcorn ceiling. 

At the base of her decision lied two distinct paths – one with music, one without. “Would that make you happy?” “If not D.C., then what?” 

She thought about being 10 and starting voice lessons, doing musical theater workshops and opening for Walker Lukens at Motorco Music Hall at 16.

“The answer became so clear to me,” said the now 21-year-old. Brushing over the trackpad again, she exited the page this time, closed her laptop and let it sink in. 

She made her choice. 

Rachel Despard was a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill when she decided to pursue music full-time instead of studying public policy in D.C., and things haven’t been the same since. 

Despard is one of a handful of students at UNC-CH who plan to pursue a music career after college. Now as a senior, she dreams of recording and performing her music, and so far she is accomplishing exactly that. 

Building the band

She put a band together the semester she would’ve attended the policy program. Some members were high school friends and others she met through organizations, events or class. The original band included herself and five other guys: Andrew McClenney, Arvind Subramaniam, Kauner Michael, Evan Linett and Bryton Shoffner. They would soon become her best friends. 

Ken Weiss, a professor at UNC-CH who previously worked in the music business (Crosby, Stills & Nash (and Young) and Fleetwood Mac), believed in Despard. The gold and platinum award winner quickly became her mentor. At one of their daily meetings Despard was restless, anxiously awaiting a response to a venue booking email. She was eager to share her deep, introspective lyrics beyond her close circle and bring them to the stage, but she’d never booked a show before. 

“You walk in there and say you want to play the gig,” Weiss advised.

So that’s exactly what Despard did.  

Standing below the red awning outside of the music bar down West Franklin Street, Despard phoned her close friend. She needed reassurance, somebody to hype her up before walking in. Entering the sticker-covered, teal-painted music bar, she asked to speak with Stephen. Just a first name she received from Weiss, nothing more. 

“Oh yeah, I am Stephen,” Stephen Mooneyhan, the owner of Local 506 at the time, said. 

“Hey, I would like to play a gig here,” Despard said, confidently, “with my band.” 

“Have you sent us a booking email?”

“Yes, two weeks ago,” Despard said. 

Sure enough, her name came up through the hundreds of emails. After playing her music samples Mooneyhan responded. “Okay, it sounds good. We will have you booked for April 6th.” 

Three emails, two iPhone recordings and one visit later, Despard and her new band delivered a striking first show at Local 506. They’d sold 76 tickets. 

That was less than a year ago, and her band has gone on to play larger shows, opening for Dissimilar South at Cat’s Cradle just weeks later. In a short time Despard became no stranger to the local Triangle music scene, growing loyal listeners. Her indie sound with jazz roots gained the attention of folk-rock singer Sharon Van Etten

As every day passes she is closer to achieving her dreams.

“The mission of her artistic development is hers to manage and she is the one best suited to do it,” Weiss said. “She has grown to understand the influence she can have in making things happen for herself.” 

Despite her parents’ and friends’ hesitations with her decision to diverge from public policy and “traditional forms of accomplishment,” she persevered.

You know, it takes guts to do that,” Subramaniam, often playing the role of manager in Despard’s life, said. “There are so many people who, day in and day out, do something they hate because they feel like they should, or it’s the ‘responsible’ thing to do.”

“You don’t make a lot of money obviously, and that’s fine, but you also don’t have to be like a starving artist making just $30 a night at one gig. There are a lot of ways to supplement income and it’s really just the nature of music,” Despard said. “At first when I made the decision I always qualified it with ‘Oh I’m also going to do arts administration or have this other thing.’ Now I just say, ‘I’m doing music. Take it or leave it.’”

When life gives you lemons, make an EP

Feb. 23, Despard launched a fundraising campaign to record her first EP with her band. Within the first day of the fundraiser, she raised over a third of her $3,500 goal. Despard hopes to raise the full amount of funds by April when they will begin recording with Grammy-nominated producer Jason Richmond (The Avett Brothers, Sylvan Esso, Kate McGarry and more).

The EP is the culmination of a year’s work of writing and arranging with her current band members (original members McClenney and Subramaniam, along with Olivia Fernandez, Jakob Bower and Ben McEntire).

In the EP Despard tells a story about the arc of a relationship—from being swept up with love, to the downfall and personal rebuilding that follows, but a few weeks before Despard was set to perform some of her new songs, a relationship in her life fell apart. 

“That was a really hard time for her, and because I’m her best friend, it was a really hard time for me,” Kelsey Sutton, Despard’s longtime friend and college roommate, said. “The week before her performance we road tripped to the beach. We got to the ocean and I was like, ‘We have to jump in, we have to cleanse you of all of this.’”

Screaming profanities from the chill winter water, they buried themselves in the sand and watched the night sky—a perfect refresh and reset.

“She had all these incredible songs about her relationship, and she re-dedicated them to her friends. It showed her strength, grace and her ability to continually be true to herself,” Sutton said. “They still touched on that time in her life, but were still true in the present. We were in the front row cheering her on, making eye contact. She was glowing singing those songs.”

Songs that could have just become bittersweet continue to celebrate her love for people in her life. Much of Despard’s music speaks to the human condition while simultaneously reflecting her own life.

Following graduation, Despard has her eyes set on Nashville, TN, in hopes that the professional artist and music community will help motivate her next project.

“If she’s on world tours and sold-out shows, great, and if she’s not, also great, because I will be proud to know Rachel as someone that brings music into people’s lives on a daily basis, and doesn’t listen to the hate, but focuses on the passion and drive that has already gotten her so far,” Subramaniam said.

Edited by Maya Jarrell