A Harvard Man Makes Some Music



D.A. Wallach and life in the industry

Courtesy of Billboard.com
Courtesy of Billboard.com

D.A. Wallach ’07 wasted no time in making a name for himself. Even before he had graduated and left his Eliot dorm room behind for L.A., he was in contract negotiations with Star Trak, a record label imprint of Interscope run by none other than Pharrell Williams. My first encounter with his work was in October when a music video, “Glowing,” was released anonymously. It’s eerie visuals (directed by Odd Future frontman Tyler, the Creator) accompanied a heartfelt song, more like the Beatles than almost anything being produced today. Only later did D.A. come out as the music maker. In trying to find out as much as I could about where such an incredible song came from I learned about his first band, Chester French, and his status as a young alumni.
I reached him by phone recently to discuss his time at Harvard, his musical career, and his other efforts. When speaking to him he came across as a man whose mind is always on —unsurprising for somebody of his musical talent and background. While at Harvard he studied African and African American Studies and earned a certificate in Gikuyu (he claims it was Harvard’s first). He chose the department as much for its interdisciplinary freedom to study “history and art history and touch a lot of different areas of knowledge,” and due to his background as a Milwaukee native. Milwaukee is, “depending on the measure you use, [the] most or the second most segregated city, racially, in America.” By the time he graduated high school, he knew that he wanted to study African American Studies because he was “fascinated” with race and the personal experience of it.
At the same time as he was writing his Expos papers in Mower, he joined the band that would eventually transform into the duo Chester French. As he tells, it he was the “last person chosen for the band” of five, which as his undergraduate time proceeded was “whittled down to just me and Max [Drummey ’07]”. Together they spent countless hours in the basement of Pforzheimer honing music production skills in the Quad Sound Studio (recently re-finished and re-opened, an effort to which Wallach contributed). Chester French’s first album was produced “almost entirely” in that space.
In senior year they sent copies of their work to various labels and producers, attracting the attention of Kanye West and Pharrell Williams. While both offered them contract deals, by July they had signed with Pharrell and Star Trak after being made an offer they couldn’t refuse: total artistic freedom. Chester French released their first album, Love the Future, with Star Trak in 2009. A second album (this time on Karmaloop) Music 4 Tngrs followed before Wallach and Drummer split Chester French.
The decision to end Chester French was because they “each wanted to work on other kinds of music” feeling that after four albums worth of content, Chester French had “creatively run its work”. Since the end of Chester French (they’re still “super good friends” and “hang out all time time”), D.A. has pursued a solo career. He’s released two singles of his own (“Glowing” and “Farm”) and has continued to collaborate with a variety of other artists. D.A. spoke on how in Los Angeles there was no shortage of other people making a life in the arts, and when I asked him if there was anybody in particular he’d like to work with he replied surely: “You know, I don’t really think so.” He put it down to his prior experience with collaboration. For him there is no need to seek opportunities to collaborate, and the experience of discovering a new artist is already rewarding enough.
D.A. Wallach lives by this creed of unfettered artistic freedom and experimentation. His first record was agreed on that condition, something he admits he was lucky to get, and it continues to be a core principle. With any other musician “other kinds of music” would seem like “irreconcilable differences” covering something deeper. But even listening to just a few songs from his work with Chester French, either of his recent solo songs, and his scattered collaborations with other artists provide absolute support for the truth of this statement. D.A.’s musical versatility is glaringly obvious, and he refuses to be tied to a single genre. Each song seemingly has a totally unique set of influence when compared to the next.
If you follow his Spotify playlist, you’ll see it too. This week (it updates) the list contains, just to name a few, artists as diverse as Janelle Monáe, Neil Young, JAY Z, Fleetwood Mac, and Arif Lohar. And his work at Spotify appears to be focused on giving musicians the experience he’s had. He currently works as artist-in-residence there where he liaises between the company and artists looking to distribute and share their music.

Next week, a second piece will continue covering D.A. Wallach and his business work at Spotify.

Will Harrington ’16 ([email protected]) thinks you should also check out his Spotify playlist “D.A.’s Wild Ride” for some sweet jams.