Q & A: Holden Jaffe, AKA Del Water Gap

May 27, 2019

Where are you from?

I’m from Northern Connecticut. Up in a small, sort of dairy town, really agrarian area in Northwestern Connecticut.

How’d you get to New York?

I got into a music program at NYU when I was 18, and I moved here, and I haven’t left.

How did you get started in music? Who were your first influences?

I got started in music because I was going to this school upstate and it was a pretty, like, athletic school. I wasn’t very good at sports. I always played drums — I played drums for, like 10 years, and I was in band and stuff, but I never really considered writing or singing or making music of my own.

And then, my sophomore year in high school, I got my first girlfriend, really nice girl from a town called San Miguel, Mexico, and she was a jazz musician and a songwriter. And she used to write me songs and I just thought it was the most romantic gesture. So I said, what if I tried to do this? So I started writing songs to impress her and communicate with her in a way that, you know, 16-year-olds communicate romantically, and eventually I did a Berklee program, and that’s when it really started clicking in my head. Like, ‘I can write, I can perform,’ and then I put out the first Del Water Gap record sort of the end of high school.

And when I moved to New York, I was convinced by my best friend at the time to play some shows and I’m still doing it.

Was it called Del Water Gap when you first released those?

Yeah, so my first few performances I was just playing under my name. But the first record that I actually put online, the first release I did, was as Del Water Gap. I mean, speaking of influences at the time, I was listening to a lot of these singer-songwriters that were using project names, like Bon Iver or Tallest Man on Earth. I liked the removal that gave the artist. It just seemed like it had this sort of mystery or maybe some safety, and more room to build a world. So, I decided to take on that name rather than using my name.

And it doesn’t have any connection to the Delaware Water Gap?

It has a connection in that I was spending some time around the Del Water Gap when I was that age. I was in a band in New Jersey — I was playing drums in a band — and I started seeing the name and I just thought it had a nice ring to it. I thought it looked … aesthetic written down. So I added it to my list of band names and eventually, it was the one that I stuck with.

You mentioned your first girlfriend as your first influence. What do you think you would credit now as your biggest influence?

That’s a good question. I think it’s probably a combination of things. Exploration and creativity is a really dynamic, breathing organism. So I fluctuate between, I think, being inspired by literature — I read a lot, and I always start songs with words — so often that’s very inspiring for my work.

I go through periods of time where I listen to a lot of music. I don’t spend a lot of time listening to music like the music I make; I listen to a lot of instrumental music. But when I do find myself listening to records, that obviously influences my work.

More recently I’ve been listening to a lot of these sort of culture-shifting, important indie projects, like Phoebe Bridgers. I just started listening to Japanese Breakfast and all of the Better Oblivion [Community Center] records. I think those records, even passively, start influencing what I’m doing. And I think the third piece is a lot of the conversations I have ultimately can be inspiring. A lot of my friends are creative, so we talk about what’s going on and a lot of that starts to come in.

On that note, I noticed that a lot of the music from Don’t Get Dark on it had other musicians and friends that kind of helped it come together. Do you think that influenced the sound or style or anything at all?

I wouldn’t say they influenced the lyrics, mostly because I wrote most of the songs myself, but as far as production goes, it’s everything. I made a lot of demos for the current songs and I fleshed them out with a few people. But ultimately, a record is the sum of the people that work on it, and I’m lucky to have a lot of similarly talented friends who are talented in different ways than I am. They can really bring something new to the table.

What was the first song you wrote for Don’t Get Dark?

“Don’t Let Me,” I think, is the oldest song on the record. I wrote that in ‘14 or ‘15. That’s the oldest song. We were playing it live for a little bit and then we did an acoustic video of it on a rooftop in New York City. So that song has been floating around for a little bit, but there hasn’t really been a formal release of it.

Was there a reason for that? What made you decide that it was ready for a formal release?

When you’re in a band — and my project was a band up until about a year and a half ago — a lot of songs are considered for releases. A lot of times, songs that are great just sort of get pushed aside and the timing isn’t right or your instrument doesn’t feel like it fits the identity of the project. It just was one of those ones that I always really liked and people seemed to like but it didn’t quite get the push. Then finally, when this record was coming together, I re-approached it and actually pushed it through.

Can you talk about the significance of the name of the EP?

Yeah, so I had about like two days to choose the name because I really couldn’t think of one and the label was pushing me think of a name. I was talking to a friend of mine who’s an artist and she was talking about naming her record and she said, “You already have the name. It’s already in you. You don’t have to think of something in your brain, just relax, it’ll come to you.” And I had a moment where I was on my computer and I was doing something, I looked at my recording interface — the equipment I used to make my record — and on that interface, I had printed a label above the knob that said “Don’t Get Dark.” And it was a reminder to stay light while I’m working on music, ‘cause it’s often a very solitary process, and take time for yourself and let your creative brain sink in.

It’s a phrase that came from some friends of mine, my friends Mike and Gabe. Right when I graduated from school, we were putting a project together — it never ended up coming out, but — it was sort of our sign off. We’d work seven, eight hours together, doing this until two or three a.m., and we’d say, “All right man, see you soon, don’t get dark. Just stay light about all the spots where you’re really struggling and fighting.” So it’s been a reminder, sort of a mantra, that I’ve used for a couple years, and it really seemed to represent the era that happened during the making of the record.

So out of everything that you’ve released, what do you think stands out for this EP specifically?

I think my favorite song on the record is called “To Philly.” I just really like the personality of it, it’s a narrative song, and it’s a song, effectively, about the detail moments of a connection to someone, and how these little cinematic moments can come to represent a whole relationship. I think a lot of the work I’ve done in the past has kind of led up to this — this song in particular just seems like the best version of a song that I’ve written many times.

So the first single was “Laid Down My Arms.” Did you know at the time of its release that it would belong on Don’t Get Dark, or was it more of a gradual process?

I’d been working on a record — not even a record, just a collection of songs — for a while. It had been a couple of years since I’d put music out, and it was time. Then, the label that I ended up working with, Terrible Records…they approached me about doing a proper album, a 12-song album, so I was considering that for a while, but we sort of eventually agreed to strip it down and just do a few songs. So, yeah, I went into the process of releasing that song knowing that it would be a single for the record.

What was it about “Laid Down My Arms” that made it the best introduction to the new “era” of Del Water Gap, so to speak?

I think the personality of it is “old” Del Water Gap, and I think the arrangement of it, the more musical characteristics of it, feel like a step up. I think it’s a little more mature and it’s just a livelier song. Which may be a cop out answer, but it’s nice to be able to move around a little bit with each single.

You just recently finished up a few shows and there are a couple more coming up. Do you think there are a lot more added in the near future?

Yeah, we’re doing a couple festivals, a couple college festivals this spring and summer, and I’m doing a New York show and an LA show soon, and then we’re gonna begin some more touring.

Are there any cities that you really wanna play that you maybe haven’t before, or that you just want to go back to?

Yeah, all of them, really. Mostly like LA and Chicago. I want to play in Dallas, and there’s just a lot of cities that, you know, people reach out from and give me some sort of numbers, and I know I have people there. And just as a person, music aside, I’d just like to see more of my country. Haven’t seen much of it.

So have any of the places that you’ve toured given you any inspirations for songs?Have there ever been places that you feel so compelled to discuss through your music?

That’s a really interesting question. I haven’t really thought about that. I think yes. I’ve done some of my better writing when I’m outside of New York, I spent some time in … a neighborhood in LA, and I did some great writing there. I think I was less inspired by actually being there and more inspired by being outside of New York because that always kind of shifts your perspective.

And then, I lived in Iceland for a few months, just working at a studio there, and that was incredibly inspiring, in relation to my writing. I think, similarly, it was more the time away from home than the actual location.
But I’m really interested in, sort of, the resonance of different cities and places, and I think that’s something I will try to take more into consideration as I travel.

So this is kind of something that I like to do for some interviews. They’re more random, off-topic questions that help people get to know you. So, if you could collaborate with any artist, dead or alive, who would they be?

I mean, honestly, I think if I could do anything, I would take my friends Gabe [Goodman] and Samia and make a supergroup. They’re just two friends of mine, Samia has a project, Gabe has a project, but they both put out some music today and I just love their music so much. I love them as people, obviously, and we joked around about starting a band together, so honestly them. I think we all have our own stuff to attend to but, in a perfect world, to just have six months in a house with them, and just make a record together.

Is there anything you do to sort of psych yourself up before writing or before shows?

I try to put my phone away, honestly. It’s nice to not attend to all the day-of-show texts, you know, about free tickets and everything. But that’s a good ritual. And then just the normal things that people do to take care of themselves, I like to run the day of a show if I can, just eat well and meditate if I can. Do some reading.

Is there a certain person’s opinion that you tend to value over anyone else’s?

That’s a really good question too. Yeah, I think my dad. I don’t think he would ever say a critical thing to me about my work, I think that he would just not say anything. But when he does say a nice thing, it is so moving to me. He’s a quiet man, and he’s extremely loving, but he’s not quick to talk about me about my work and compliment it, so when he does, it’s very, very meaningful to me.

Finally, do you have any recommendations that you’ve read, listened to, or watched recently?

I just found an amazing film that my friend Charlie recommended called My Own Private Idaho. River Phoenix is the star and it’s just a really beautiful, aesthetically pleasing, sort of emotionally beautiful film directed by Gus Van Sant. It was really inspiring for me, I want to watch it again this weekend.

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