Where else would a high-school senior and two graduate students make an entire EP together? Look no further than the Frost School of Music’s Young Musicians’ Camp, the place where soon-to-be high school graduate David Vandelay met UM alumni Erik Gunnarsson and Camilo Salas.
Recent graduates of the masters media scoring and production program, Gunnarsson and Salas taught a production course at the summer camp last July. As their final assignment, students in the class wrote and produced original songs.
“I had used my computer to record it in class, so I had David’s vocals on my computer,” Gunnarsson said. “So that summer after that camp, me and Cami remotely built out a demo production just because we wanted to.”
This song, now titled “Sweet Pacifist,” marked the summer program’s culmination. What Vandelay didn’t know then was that it would also jumpstart the making of his first EP.
“I remember when they sent me the demo of the song — it’s called ‘Sweet Pacifist’ — and it was such a vibe switch,” Vandelay said. “When I did it myself, it felt like a 90s ballad-type thing and then it turned into this really R&B soulful thing.”
The following semester, Salas and Gunnarsson were tasked with producing an EP in their production class. Vandelay was sitting in his dorm room when the pair reached out to collaborate.
“I looked over at my roommate and I was like, ‘I think I just got a mini record deal,’” Vandelay said, laughing.
The trio recorded six songs together during the week of Thanksgiving. The EP’s first single — “Hot Pursuit” — drops this Friday, May 26, the same day Vandelay graduates from the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities.
Few would guess that the voice on the track belongs to a 17-year-old.
“I think we found a very complete and mature package with him — a person who writes really well, who sings really well, and who is willing to make more music and release music and build a career,” Salas said.
Gunnarsson echoed these sentiments, noting that Vandelay holds a wide range of musical skills.
“A lot of people can sing well, but to have really compelling lyrics, I find to be even more rare,” Gunnarsson said. “Having the pop sensibilities, good melodic instincts, having a more mature voice and being able to actually have an interesting story to tell.”
The storyline of “Hot Pursuit” draws from real-life students at Vandelay’s school. Though he planned to release the song before attending the summer camp, his self-produced version was “light years behind where it is now.”
“For some reason, I thought I was so late because Taylor Swift released her album at 17,” Vandelay said.
After “Hot Pursuit” drops on Friday, the trio plans to release a song every month leading up to the EP’s release. Though details have yet to be finalized, Vandelay wants the EP to be “fun.”
“It’s not a super lyrical album — It’s more just fun, vibey songs,” Vandelay said.
Working titles include “Are You Having Fun?” or “All Fun All The Time,” a phrase Vandelay and his father used to say frequently.
The South Carolina native learned the piano from his father, who enrolled him in music lessons after noticing his son’s growing passion for music.
“I learned guitar, bass and drums…and once I had all the instruments, I wanted to make songs,” Vandelay said. “And then I learned GarageBand and Logic, and that just inspired me to write songs.”
The father-son duo frequently play at local venues like restaurants and country clubs, performing both Vandelay’s original music and covers of pop songs.
His musical inspiration comes from Olivia Rodrigo’s “SOUR” album, Tom Misch’s jazzy, funk-pop tunes and Joshua Bassett’s heartfelt pop ballads, among others. Artists like Bazzi, Dua Lipa, Ariana Grande, Ella Fitzgerald, The Weeknd, Bruno Mars and more decorate his dorm wall.
“I just love all pop music,” Vandelay said.
The popular genre influences both his sound and his songwriting, skills that the 17-year-old is still developing.
Recalling a moment in the studio where he questioned some song lyrics, Vandelay remarked how advice from Salas changed his perspective of both music and daily life.
“Cami said to me, ‘There’s really no reason to be nervous about releasing lyrics now because this is just where you are in your life, and that’s just the truth of the situation,’” Vandelay said. “I am so much less ashamed of all sorts of stuff day-to-day because this is who I am right now.”
Reflecting on how this advice impacts his everyday life, Vandelay recalled how the song “You Belong With Me” brought him to tears at a recent Taylor Swift concert.
“[It] is not a sad song at all,” Vandelay said. “You listen to it when you’re happy, but when that chorus hit and it was so loud, and the bass was so — just the production of it all is so well done. I literally burst into tears.”
Core memories like this motivate the young musician and his producers. For Gunnarsson, one of his first memorable music moments involves a clock radio and late night listening.
“I’d stay up past my bedtime just so I could hear ‘Larger in Life’ by the Backstreet Boys come on again,” Gunnarsson said.
Talking about what drives him, Gunnarsson said moments like that encompass “a lifetime of listening to music and being curious about it.”
“[It’s] certain moments in songs that give you a real burst of energy and a real strong emotion, and just trying to recreate those moments,” Gunnarsson said.
Until coming to Miami, Gunnarsson only did music in his free time — his statistics background landed him a job at a software company. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, he found himself working from home and exploring music further.
“Everything up until coming to school had just been me in my free time on my own making music,” Gunnarsson said. “The biggest thing I was hoping to get out of school was a chance to be with other people, other musicians, other producers…to get in touch with the community, and that’s what I got.”
Salas, on the other hand, started music composition in Colombia where he worked as a music producer.
“Miami is such a great place for me to develop as a producer, as a songwriter,” Salas said. “I always wanted to make music in English.”
The Colombian native sees music as a painting.
“[It] creates a visual, tangible moment of your life that you release and that is gonna be there forever,” Salas said.
After graduation, he expects to stay and find himself as a producer in the U.S. Vandelay also plans to pursue a music career after high school.
“I can’t envision doing anything else, so why not?” Vandelay said.
For the next year, Vandelay has a post-graduation plan figured out: he’s taking a gap year to study in Spain as a foreign exchange student.
“My family had a foreign exchange student — Vera — from Sweden stay with us this past year and she was so awesome,” Vandelay said. “I just decided, ‘I wanna do this too,’” Vandelay said.
What comes after Spain is less certain. After not getting into UM or New York University — his top two choices — he’s set his sights on Middle Tennessee State University.
“I hope to make music everywhere…I wanna come back to the U.S. and record an album full of music I wrote in Spain,” Vandelay said.
The ambitious teen has already attended music camps at NYU and Berkeley along with getting a prestigious education at the Young Musician’s University in South Carolina and the Governor’s School. Even with these accolades, the budding artist stays humble.
His secret to making a hit? There isn’t one.
“I don’t think music is that hard,” Vandelay said. “That’s the secret. I actually don’t think anything I do is that difficult. I think I’m just fooling everybody.”