Jack + Eliza: The Best of What’s Next

Music Features

Members: Jack Staffen and Eliza Callahan
Hometown: New York, NY
Albums: No Wonders EP
For Fans Of: She & Him, The Mamas & The Papas, The Beatles

As college sophomores, Jack Staffen and Eliza Callahan just released their debut EP. They have a record label and a PR team that does social media for them when they’re feeling too embarrassed, helping their single rack up more than 100,000 streams on SoundCloud without even having a release to support it.

For listeners, each new fact gleaned about Jack + Eliza seems to necessitate replaying The Faces’ 1973 “Ooh La La,” a folksy ditty about generational wistfulness. In its impossible-to-forget chorus, Ronnie Wood wistfully sings, “I wish that I knew what I know now when I was younger.”

It’s easy to think back on Ronnie’s prophetic lines and yearn for the youth of the two singers. Yet somehow, those lyrics seem vastly irrelevant to Jack and Eliza. Even at their young ages, they pretty much have it together.

For the most part, anyway. Eliza is late, racing back from a sculpture class at Columbia University for the conference call. A visual art and English literature double major, she meets Jack in her parents’ living room and the two fumble with the dial-in and access numbers while trying to figure out if they should just share a phone.

Before Eliza gets back, Jack tells me about his own studies at New York University. He, too, is double majoring in political science and history, although he’s not sure which era to specialize in just yet.

It’s just a few days before Jack + Eliza released their debut EP No Wonders on vinyl and through iTunes. The two childhood friends signed with Yebo Music during their freshman year, but their musical collaboration actually began much earlier. Both started playing music individually at young ages for completely different reasons—Jack subscribed to the YouTube methodology of watching his idols like Kurt Cobain in order to learn how to play loud rock and roll, and later began singing lead in an barbershop quartet. Eliza studied the Suzuki method of playing guitar. Both, too, began writing very young. “The first song I wrote, I think I was about 9 or 10 and it was called, ‘Close My Eyes,’” recalls Jack. “The poppiest of pop!”

Eliza, who later became the youngest winner of the prestigious John Lennon Songwriting Contest “Song of The Year” award at just 15 in 2011, remembers, “My [first] song was like a 10-minute George Harrison impersonation attempt and I was singing in a British accent!”

Growing up in the West Village, Jack and Eliza didn’t meet through in school or living near each other. In a seemingly simple twist of fate, they met through music. As Eliza begins to tell the story of how the drummer in Jack’s eighth grade band walked out of rehearsal, Jack tries to curtail his laughter.

“My sister played guitar in that band and was like, ‘Hey Eliza, wanna play drums?’” she says. “I am really not a drummer, but I filled that void and became the drummer in that band.”

After that band fizzled, Jack and Eliza both continued writing and playing music on their own or with other friends. It took until late in high school for them to regroup; since then, and for the past two years, they’ve been writing and performing as Jack + Eliza.

In less than 20 minutes, No Wonders manages to evoke both ‘60s psychedelia and the ‘00s alternative. Using just their two voices and two guitars (and “a few tambourine hits here and there,” adds Jack), Jack + Eliza create a five-track freeze-frame of nostalgia that easily inundates listeners with vintage warmth. Producer Chris Zane, known for his work with Mumford & Sons, The Walkmen and Passion Pit, treats their songs delicately—lightly shading No Wonders with subtle stokes of reverb exemplified on closing song “Heading West.”

But Jack and Eliza’s vocal interchanges distinguish the two friends from other boy-girl duos. “Our songs really revolve around our vocal parts and that’s what we wanted to be at the forefront,” says Eliza. “We wanted to treat Jack’s guitar part as the rhythm and my guitar part almost as the percussion in a weird way. I kind of play a bass part usually on the guitar, but I’m usually accentuating rhythm and hopefully trying to fill that kind of void. The goal there is to keep the songs extremely simple production-wise because we wanted the focus to just really be the interplay between our vocals and between our guitar parts.”

Although they mention their fandom of current indie bands like Tame Impala and Father John Misty (while also making jokes about Ke$ha), Jack and Eliza both cite their love of ‘60s doo-wop, vocal groups, and The Beatles as fundamental to their songwriting.

“The Beatles have always written very interesting vocal harmonies,” begins Jack. “That’s something that Eliza and I really try to shoot for in our songwriting.”

Continues Eliza, “John and Paul jump around each other in their vocal harmonies. One person doesn’t necessarily have to take the low part or the high part.”

For all of their musical knowledge and buzz in the industry, Jack and Eliza remain youthfully giddy, and maturely gracious and humble. Their classmates don’t recognize them (yet), and Eliza modestly maintains, “I think that there are a lot of people who are doing things that are a lot cooler than what we’re doing!” while Jack audibly agrees.

And so for now, they’re living in dorms and staying in school because they love to learn. They’re rehearsing in Eliza’s parents’ living room and gigging around New York City so that they can stay close to classes and close to home. They’re writing new music and trying to figure out what to do with the two additional albums worth of tunes they already have.

But lest the wisdom of the two college musicians gives off some sort of Freaky Friday vibe, their idealism serves as both a reminder of their youth and an inspiration to those around them. Summarizes Eliza: “If I could support myself and write music, I’d probably be the happiest person!”

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