Literary Lyrics

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JMU professor’s skills in prose carry over to his song writing

STORY | ISABEL OLIVER

PHOTOS | EVEN MCGREW

The calm and cool vibes emanating from Jared Featherstone, coordinator of JMU’s University Writing Center, are unmistakable.

This avid enthusiast of literature, meditation and Buddhist philosophy is inherently someone who can produce amazingly warm and intellectually stimulating music — essentially a natural.

Featherstone is an assistant professor in JMU’s School of Writing, Rhetoric and Technical Communication. On a daily basis, his responsibilities may include teaching courses in different types of written communication and supervising students and staff in writing of all kinds. But for those who’ve met him, it’s pretty easy to tell that he likes to rock out every once in a while.

For Featherstone, writing prose and making music are hobbies that developed into careers. The two art forms have remained almost completely intertwined throughout his life.

“It’s hard to answer which came first, because it’s been integrated from seemingly the beginning,” he says.

And it shows.

Featherstone produced a third album, “Lullaby for Afterlife,” in May 2014 under his solo project Starlight Drive.

From each track to the next, his whispery vocalizations float effortlessly over the sound of synthesizers, sensory drum beats, and intricate keyboard riffs.

Metaphorical references and ideas are laced throughout the lyrics toward literature, which is evident in his albums from start to end. There are allusions to an Emily Dickinson poem in his song “Tunnels Toward Light” and Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Telltale Heart” in the track “Skin of Leaves.”

After approaching creative writing and writing music in different ways, Featherstone realized that his lyric writing could benefit from the incorporation of literary tools like metaphors and vivid imagery.

His musical style has been likened to A-list alternative rock bands like The Smashing Pumpkins, Death Cab For Cutie and Radiohead, who he says have all been big influences on him. Featherstone’s tunes are for anyone who enjoys music from these bands and others like them, or anyone who can appreciate dreamy rock with an edge.

As an undergraduate studying journalism at the University of Maryland, he wrote music and concert reviews, but his blending of music and writing didn’t stop there.

Featherstone has maintained a successful career as a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter in different indie rock groups since the 1990s. He’s played shows at noteworthy venues, such as Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club and New York’s CBGB. And of course, local venues like The Little Grill Collective and Clementine Cafe.

Another writing project currently in the works is a memoir about his experiences as a live-in tutor for a family while Starlight Drive was at the height of its success.

“There’s a lot of music stuff throughout it, and I ended up teaching the kid guitar lessons,” he says.

Another one of Featherstone’s writing projects is a novel that centers on the life of a fictional musician. Featherstone actually wrote music that the main character would play in the novel.

“If I want to get into a character, I’m going to write his music,” he says.

Featherstone has even performed two of these songs at a well-received performance at Black Swan Books and Music shop in Staunton in November 2014.

During this show, Featherstone showcased his ability to go unplugged. Between sips of tea from a University of Maryland thermos, he crooned covers of “Pilot Driver Waltz” by The Arctic Monkeys and another of “Engine” by Neutral Milk Hotel, among others.

He also performed original pieces on his acoustic guitar (which has a strap made of Chinese silk, no less). There were some chuckles from the crowd as he told them that he would try to point out all the literary devices in his songs so that they could “put it together and buy the corresponding books.”

Featherstone currently resides in Staunton with his wife, Sarah, and their sons, 2-year-old Rowan and 3-month-old Weston.

“A lot of times when I practice, I kind of set [Rowan] down in his chair and he listens … I just want him to be exposed to it, so from the time he was in the womb he’s been exposed to my music,” Featherstone says. “He seems clued into it, but I’m certainly not going to force it on him. I think he thinks everybody does this. Everybody just gets up in the morning and plays guitar at the breakfast table.”

Featherstone seems to be living a well-balanced and busy life while cultivating a love for music and writing in younger generations.

In his spare time, he guides weekly meditation sessions for Madison Meditates, which is open to JMU students, faculty and staff. He also enjoys “just doing nothing” with his sons. For someone this multitalented, Jared Featherstone still manages to keep it undeniably real.