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

China to Chapel Hill: UNC student turns maps into art around the globe

By Katie Clark

UNC-Chapel Hill senior Reid Brown, 21, is a typical senior. A student, musician, environmental scientist and world traveler who spends his spare time hanging out with friends, playing music and talking with his girlfriend. However, he also has another hobby that makes him, well, not so typical.

He creates artwork with maps.

Brown is in the business of creating original cartographic prints, he said, his smile then slightly more determined as he proudly laughed over a cup of coffee in a bustling bagel shop. Artwork that, in his words, is “a tangible embodiment of who he is and where he’s been.”

“Basically they’re black and white; that’s the art style, so it’s minimalist,” Brown said. “It’s just to show a city or town’s character through its streetscape.”

He will graduate from UNC-CH in May with a bachelor’s degree in environmental science and a minor in statistics. He also studies music and is a self-taught pianist.

During his studies, Brown learned how to use a program called ArcGIS, an information system that works with maps and geographic material. Through the Geographic Information System, or GIS software, Brown finds and edits portions of maps for his posters before personalizing them in Photoshop.

“It’s maps by geospatial data,” Brown said. “Kinda nerdy, but it’s really cool.”

Brown was fascinated with what the GIS system could do and wanted to use it as a medium for artwork.

“It also kind of reinforces what we learned in our [environmental studies] classes,” Brown said. “It’s fun, it’s an application of stuff I learned.”

Brown spends lots of time in Davis Library building maps in the GIS system for his artwork.

“At its most basic [GIS] is a piece of software to make maps,” Philip McDaniel, GIS Librarian in Davis Library, said. “You can use it to optimize behavior, travel time or service areas around places like hospitals, and then you can use it to communicate all this.”

McDaniel has seen other students use GIS for fine art projects and to study certain landscapes. Students and professionals who use the programs for their studies and products, but not for an on-the-side side business.

The artwork Brown creates, however, may be referred to as a “side hustle.” He does not predict a strong profit from his art, but continues to make and sell pieces for friends, family and any fellow students and community members who commission him.

The birth of an idea

Brown does not call himself an artist, and said he never spent much time doing arts and crafts as a kid. Instead, the map art began during his world travels while working in China.

“This past summer I got to go to China and work in a research lab,” Brown said. “In the period between school and going to China, I was like, ‘I’m going to set this little challenge for myself.’ I wasn’t sure what it was at the time.”

While in China, Brown learned that Chinese culture largely involves gift giving. This inspired him to give gifts to those he met. He made cartographic maps for each of his mentors. These pieces encompassed portions of maps from Kai Fung, China, to Nigeria and Ghana.

The artwork is also a way for Brown to face certain fears and to challenge himself as a person. He is nervous about his inability to follow through with certain projects in his life, and thinks that perhaps these maps can help lead him to a place of confidence.

“I don’t want to be too serious about something and not have it work out, so I see this as a continuation of things I’m into,” Brown said. “It’s really just following through. I’m competitive against myself because I like studying a goal and then realizing it. This was one of the first times I really committed to something that big.”

His favorite piece of artwork that he has done is a map of Chapel Hill. The map was one of his earlier pieces and did not come without challenges.

“The biggest hurdle was getting it printed. The first piece looked terrible, it was on copier paper,” Brown said, recalling the weeks of planning, editing and trial and error. “It’s just been getting better every time. Nothing is ever as easy as it seems. There’s a lesson in that.”

Bringing lines to life

According to Brown, other companies who make cartographic pieces may have maps that are more detailed, but they are much less personal.

“I have to have a whole conversation with someone asking, ‘What do you want? Does this look good to you?’” Brown said.

Other companies also sell pieces in a more streamlined fashion, but Brown claims they charge almost five times as much as him.

“I sell them for like $15 to $25 each,” Brown said. “I probably should charge more, but I don’t want to gouge anyone. The reason why I made this is because I felt it was way too expensive for other ones.”

Elias Tymas, a sophomore at UNC-CH, saw the artwork and immediately took a liking to it.

“My dad was an artist, so I have an appreciation for art,” Tymas said. “The art is so cool, and the fact that you can choose your own town is awesome. It shows that the person is talented.”

Tymas stated that he would pay $20 for a student-produced piece like Brown’s.

The business of making, selling and delivering personalized map art is not something that Brown foresees as a steady future income. In the short term, however, he has plans for a website, possible streetwear and to get his cartography into businesses on UNC-CH’s campus.

“I don’t see it getting crazy big, but the eventual goal is to get them in the student stores,” Brown said.

Brown believes that Student Stores would provide more visibility for his work. For now, he plans to sell his art around campus and would like to set up tables in the Student Union.

“I can ask students, ‘Hey, you wanna support me?’” Brown said.

Kat Doan purchased a map of Jinan, China as a gift from Reid last year. She saw the artwork on Brown’s Instagram, and thought that it was unique.

“I try to support local artists, and I insisted on paying for his work. The price was very fair, in my opinion,” Doan said. “He kept me really involved in the decision-making and the recipient and I are really happy with how it turned out!”

Brown likes to teach himself new skills and said that others should try this too.

“I think everyone has something they’re into. If they haven’t found it yet, they’ll find it eventually,” Brown said.

If you are interested in Reid Brown’s art, you can contact him at reid98@live.unc.edu or by phone at 336-847-9484.

Edited by Maya Jarrell