Luke Wyland of Portland rock band AU directing the Camas High School choir.

Luke Wyland of Portland rock band AU directing the Camas High School choir.

Young Audiences of Oregon & SW Washington/Dana Valatka

Last year, the Camas High School choir (and adventurous choral director Ethan Chessin) participated in a program called Joined Voices that paired their choral program with contemporary composers, including local indie rock musicians Alan Singley and Sama Dams. The payoff was a series of sprawling and fascinating performances that defied expectations.

This time around, the program has enlisted the help of Portland’s AU and their charismatic front man Luke Wyland. In addition to underwriting the writing and performances of an original composition from AU and the choir, the grant-funded program was also expanded to include a music business education component for the students involved.

On paper, it seems like a fascinating pairing. For a little context, listen to AU’s song “RR vs. D” from their 2008 release Verbs here:

AU and the Camas High School choir perform in Portland, Oregon on Friday, April 15th along with special performances from Edna Vasquez and Luz Elena Mendoza at the Yale Union Building (800 SE 10th Ave).

I sat down with Luke Wyland ahead of the show to discuss his unique collaboration with Camas High School and Young Audiences of Oregon & SW Washington, as well as the unexpected return of his band AU:

Excerpts from our interview:

How does this differ from the grant last year that included performances from Alan Singley?  

… My understanding of it last year was that the project with Alan was more around the art of composition, allowing the kids the opportunity to see what it’s like to write music from scratch. This grant this year was split. One half was pretty much the same thing, so I wrote about 45 minutes of original music for the five [Camas High School] choirs to sing. And then we also came up, in collaboration with Young Audiences, a curriculum around exploring and showing the kids the business of music. [We taught them] the varying aspects that go into putting on a show of this size— promotion, PR, booking, live sound, tour managing, record label stuff. And we brought in a few professionals… to help the kids get a sense for the jobs that are available [in music] outside of just being a performer.  

I have to imagine that this is an entirely different experience than writing and performing with just AU. How was it different and were there any kinds of roadblocks or different ways of attacking songwriting that you didn’t expect that unfolded [as you began working on the project]?  

Yes. Writing for AU throughout the years, I pretty much just followed my muse as freely as I wanted to. But this was definitely different. I had to meet the kids and write music that they would want to fully engage in. I spent months and months writing. I probably wrote 30 songs and scrapped a lot of them just because I wasn’t getting the sense that it was going to be music that the kids would enjoy singing. So it was definitely a challenge to meet them there. But I’ve been in the classroom [with them] since September and slowly gained a sense for who they are and what sorts of music and sorts of melodies they enjoy singing. It definitely directed me into some pretty surprising places, but it was a challenge I will admit.  

Was the sheer scope of the project overwhelming at times, because you’re dealing with 155 pieces?  

Yeah—and different skill levels. There are five choirs [at Camas High School]. Some of them are freshmen and just learning how to sing and some of them are incredible singers. I believe the advanced choir just won some award up in Washington. They’re phenominal singers—and they’re all great singers. But writing music that they all can sing well and that is engaging, it was definitely a fun challenge. There was a moment or two where I was doubting myself pretty thoroughly. I don’t have any experience with this sort of music. I was not in choir in high school and primarily write for instruments, but I was very pleased with the result.  

Is AU working on new material? You’ve mentioned earlier that the band has been on hiatus for quite a while.  

Well, this is the new material. [Laughter]  

We will be recording the evening and we’ll be mixing it afterwards and hope to walk away with a great album.