Art Works Blog

Art Talk with 2018 Musical Theater Songwriting Challenge Winner David Volpini

As the song goes, “The world’s not ending. It’s adapting. Don’t say goodbye. Try not to die. Aaaaahhh.” That song, called “Day Number One,” tracks the early days of a zombie apocalypse and won first place for its composer, Michigan high school junior David Volpini, at the final competition of the 2018 Musical Theater Songwriting Challenge this past April. Volpini, who attends Chippewa Valley High School in Macomb, was one of six finalists selected from the 196 burgeoning songwriters who participated in the challenge this year. We spoke to him a few weeks after his victory as he settled back into the routine of music and school.

NEA: Describe that moment at the final competition when they announced your name as the national songwriting champion.

DAVID VOLPINI: Shock, mostly. After they announced third and second place, I was nervous. I was very nervous. It was in the front of my mind that I could've placed, but after Tucker [Donelan] and Eliza [Corrington] and Braxton [Carr] got third and second [place], I thought the chances of me placing seemed less likely. So when I heard my name I was very shocked but also excited.

NEA: If you had to describe the kind of music you're interested in writing in three words, what would they be?

VOLPINI: Funny, clever, and weird. Sometimes I write weird songs.

NEA: How long have you been writing songs?

VOLPINI: The first song I ever wrote I wrote on my 15th birthday. I was at my birthday party and I had a bunch of friends over. My baby brother came downstairs so I was holding him just because I'm good with babies so I didn't mind holding him. I offered my friend David if he wanted to hold the baby and he started freaking out. He was so scared that he was going to hurt the baby if he held [him]. He didn't want to be drooled on. So after I put the baby down, I got my ukulele and on the spot sang a song to him about how everyone was a baby and so he shouldn’t be afraid.

NEA: What have been the subjects of some of your other songs?

VOLPINI: The song I wrote after that was called “The Sand Song,” which was a rap about me complaining about sand. I actually wrote that song when I was at Blue Lake Fine Art Camp. There was so much sand [there] that I wrote a song about how much I hate sand. I wrote a song called “Pain” which is just making fun of teenagers who are super angsty. I wrote a song called “Fever Dream Girl” which is fun. It's about someone who’s super sick but they’re also in love. That song was kind of inspired because I was actually super sick and I wanted to write a love song. But in between writing the lines of a love song I’d be like, “Someone please help me. I'm so ill.”

NEA: Where did the zombie song start?

VOLPINI: After I wrote the first few songs… on my ukulele, I actually got into Hamilton and I started listening to other musicals like Heathers and Be More Chill. I thought one day, “Why not just write a musical?” I already had a story about the zombie apocalypse I had written when I was younger and so I thought I would give that story a shot and rework it a little bit so it was good. The first song I wrote for the musical was called “Death’s Temporary,” which was the bad guy of the musical basically saying he was going to kill someone. But they shouldn’t be worried because they're just going to come right back as a zombie. That song sparked the whole rest of the musical.

NEA: How do you think being with the other finalists and the mentors during the mentoring weekend in New York City change how you think about your work as a songwriter?

VOLPINI: My mentor, Max [Vernon], really helped me understand how a song needs to be structured, like it needs to tell a story. One of the problems with my song when I actually submitted it was that the story was all over the place. The emotions of the character would change around quite a bit… and there wasn't really a linear flow of story around it. We rewrote the whole second verse so it would make more sense. And we changed a few choruses so that you see this change from the main character being afraid of the apocalypse to embracing it and being excited about what's going on.

NEA: What surprised you most about the mentoring weekend?

VOLPINI: I think what surprised me most, honestly, was just how different the world of musical theater is from what I thought. Because I came into it thinking that everyone on Broadway wanted to be Lin-Manuel Miranda and wanted to direct the next Hamilton. But after meeting all the mentors and doing the panel [discussion with other musical theater artists], I realized that they all just enjoy writing musicals and they're okay with not being on Broadway, as long as they make something they're happy with and other people like.

NEA: Do you feel that musicals are more of what you’d like to do?

VOLPINI: Yeah, for sure. I do. I think this is something I can keep doing for the rest of my life.

NEA: So now that you understand what the musical theater world is like, how does that impact other songs that you may write that don't necessarily fit into a musical?

VOLPINI: I don't think there's much difference between my songs I write for anything else versus songs I write for musicals. I see the biggest difference is that the songs for a musical have to fit into a story. Songs I write individually, that's kind of one whole story contained in itself. Every song I write for a musical is a part of a puzzle. But they’re still very similar in that I try to keep the same kind of flow and fun throughout all my songs.

NEA: If there was somebody who’s thinking about entering the competition next year but they’re nervous, what would you say to them?

VOLPINI: It's good to get your music out there and to have people listen to it. Even if you don't get into the competition, it's good to open yourself up to begin to enter into competitions for your songs and work your way up to things. Then if you do get into [the NEA’s Musical Theater Songwriting Challenge] then the experience from it is incredible. Every part of the whole trip was great.

NEA: Are you going to keep writing songs and putting them out there?

VOLPINI: Well, I do have my album coming out with all of my comedy songs. I don't have an exact date for when that's going to come out. I have to finish that one song for the [zombie apocalypse] musical still, which is tormenting my every waking moment. But after I finish songs for the musical, I'll probably start on a new one or keep writing more songs for the next album.

NEA: Anything else you’d like to add?

VOLPINI: For anyone interested in applying for next year, I want everyone to know that they don't have to write songs that fit into a certain cookie-cutter style. They don't have to be afraid to write something out of the box. I wrote a song about zombies and I won the competition. The most important thing is that the song is what you like and it means something but also it needs to fit into the context of a musical. It still needs to be part of a greater story. It needs to be part of [you] and also part of the story.

Learn more about the NEA's Musical Theater Songwriting Challenge--in partnership with the American Theatre Wing and collaborators Playbill, Inc., Disney Theatrical Productions, Samuel French, and the National Music Publishers Association--here.

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