Turn up the music: 5C singer-songwriters on self-expression, success

A woman sings in a studio while other two musicians accompany
María José Najas PO ’24 draws on her Ecuadorian heritage to produce her music. (Courtesy: Rebecca Suárez)

Looking for new tracks to add to your playlists? Singer-songwriters at the 5Cs have you covered. From reimagining traditional Ecuadorian songs to performing in indie bands, students on campus are actively involved in creating music.

María José Najas PO ’24 and Alex Albrecht CM ’23 both have unique stories of their songwriting journeys, motivations and processes. However, what they have in common is a dedication to balancing music with full-time academic responsibilities and a passion for sharing songs with the world.

María José Najas PO ’24

Latest release: Album “Serenata” by Majo Najas, available on all platforms

The most emblematic music genre in Ecuador, Najas’ home country, is the pasillo. Through Pomona College’s Remote Alternative Independent Summer Experience (RAISE) Program, Najas created renditions of traditional Ecuadorian pasillos, releasing a full album of covers in her own style.

“I finished my freshman year, went back home and was in my house all day. I didn’t know what to do,” Najas said about the first summer after the COVID-19 pandemic started. “So I applied for RAISE with this idea of making a project that would be a tribute to my country’s music, and it got approved, and I ended up recording my album.”

Najas listened to the pasillos in order to recreate them so many times that she internalized their emotions and meanings. Many of the pasillos’ profound lyrics, which she would read over in detail, originated from poems. By studying the origins of the pasillo and the history of her own culture, she has gotten to know her identity better.

For Najas, music is also tied to her connection with her family.

“There was always music in my family,” she said. “Music is such a big part of my relationship with my dad and my mom. Everyone on my mom’s side sings, and I think that I sing because of her. My sister also sings [and] my brother plays the guitar. We’ve performed countless times together.”

Now, away from home, Najas still forms connections with others through music. She serves as a music director for the Claremont Shades a cappella group and often jams together for fun with other students.

Of all her songs, she recommends listening to her rendition of the pasillo “Nunca” as it retains many traditional elements of Ecuadorian music, serving as a good introduction to her culture’s music but also her unique voice and interpretation of the song.

“To be able to represent [my culture] gives me so much pride because I can now share a part of my country, a part of where I come from, with the world,” she said. “Knowing that people from the U.S., or all the different international students from Pomona, now have listened to and are aware that the pasillo exists because I was able to share that part of me with them is one of the greatest feelings in the world.”

Alex Albrecht CM ’23

A young man with an acoustic guitar stands in a clearly photoshopped background of a garden surrounded by four white puppies.
Songwriter Alex Albrecht CM ’23 hopes to connect the 5C student music community. (Courtesy: Alex Albrecht)

Latest release: Single “Amelia” by Alex Albrecht, available on all platforms

For Albrecht, music is both a way to take his mind elsewhere and a tool to process the events happening in his life.

“If you’re listening [to music], there’s millions and millions of songs out there, so it’s always fun to find one that makes you feel a certain way,” he said.

There are even more options when he is the one creating the music.

“You can kind of customize where you go with your music if you’re making it,” he said. “It’s like there’s a dialogue between music and my own life where they each add to one another. It makes my life richer emotionally. That’s probably why I love music.”

Albrecht began writing songs at the very end of high school. His usual process starts with a smaller snippet of music — such as a riff or chord progression — that he plays over and over in slightly different ways until he has cobbled together enough parts to create a song.

“I think the hardest part for me is fitting lyrics at the end,” he said. “When I’m playing the music, it could be anyone, and the music itself sounds good, but once I hear my own voice singing over it, it always feels a little bit silly and strange at first. So the part that is the hardest for me is finding words that take the song where I want it to go.”

This process has changed since coming to college, where Albrecht currently plays in two bands. While he still prefers the personal nature of writing songs alone, his collaborations with other musicians have helped him streamline the process. 

“It used to be very piece-by-piece,” he said. “Now, if I come up with a guitar part or bass part, I can hear counterparts or accompaniments more easily now.”

While Albrecht finds the 5C songwriter scene pretty small, he has met many passionate people who have done incredible things for the community.

“In my freshman year, we had a music room at CMC, but it was kind of dingy and dirty and full of junk and broken equipment,” he said. “Then my friend ​​Deaglan DiMurro [CM ’23] basically took on that room as a pet project. He spent a lot of time fixing up that room, and now it’s really nice. Having a great place to play with a drum set and a bunch of instruments you can try out has been so valuable.”

Albrecht hopes for more people to come and support their fellow students at shows this year, and also wants to work with other musicians.

“If we could connect all these bands and establish a bigger 5C student music community,” he said, “that’d be really cool.”

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