School of Rock Meets Musical Fame: Life Growing Up at Denver School Of The Arts

By: Sierra Voss

I remember my first music photography gig well. I was shooting for BolderBeat at Denver’s local music festival, The UMS Showcase. It was a strange but exhilarating feeling being down in the audience, watching the shows through a camera lense. My life has been filled with music from a very young age, but I was used to being the one on stage. I spent the majority of my childhood- seven years- attending Denver School of the Arts (DSA) as a vocal major. This festival was my first time using a new artistic tool to capture a musical experience I knew so intimately.  

DSA is a public magnet arts high school and middle school that offers rigorous daily involvement in a specialized art form. When I attended the school as a vocal major, students took part in over an hour and a half of their art form (or major) every day. It was a specific type of education that differed greatly from my other friends high school and middle school experiences. Although I didn’t professionally pursue voice after high school, I found art was always an integral part of my life. It was something I felt made up my genetic composition, and was at the core of how I processed and expressed the world around me.  

My love for photography came after my love for singing, but as I grew older it took priority. It wasn’t until this past year that I had the idea to explore merging the two artistic expressions I loved so dearly. It was this decision that landed me at The UMS, ready to jump into the weekend's festivities.

As I looked at the lineup, I was floored by how many acts had members that went to my high school, DSA. I had no idea so many of my peers had stuck around town to build out their musical passions and careers. I had to wonder how DSA had shaped so many of these current artist’s paths, and was so intrigued about who they had all become within Denver’s music scene. So I sat down with numerous DSA Alumni to explore just that.

Jon Shockness- Kid Astronaut (former singer in Air Dubai)

From my own experience, Jon Shockness was no doubt the cool kid on the block in middle school. He practically melted every one of our moms’ and sisters’ hearts during our 2001 “Pop Show” performace when he sang “Ben” by Michael Jackson.

 Jon performing at DSA’s “Peacejam Event” in 2009.

Jon performing at DSA’s “Peacejam Event” in 2009.

How did your time at DSA influence the artist you are today?

When I think about being a singer and my history with voice, I know a lot of it started with the training I got from DSA. Even today, I create some of my vocal tones from arias I sang for master classes in high school. I am definitely influenced by my time there. Being able to harmonize with other artists was definitely learned from DSA. Overall, my time at DSA inspired me to have a lot of respect for artists and different types of voices. It instilled in me a deep respect for my own voice on a deeper level that allowed me to really grow as an artist.

On the hard days, do you have a mantra that inspires you to continue your musical career?

Oh yeah. There was this thing one of my exes told me. She said, “You're always where you need to be.” I was going through a rough time and not sure why things weren't moving the way I wanted them to or thought they should. This was like 2012 before we got signed. Anytime I feel incomplete or like I'm in the wrong place, I remind myself that I'm where I need to be and usually allowing myself to accept my position creates growth.

 Portrait of Jon 2017 per the author.

Portrait of Jon 2017 per the author.

Shane Franklin- Lead singer in hip-hop band SF1

The kid that was always, always playing drums on any and every surface he could find.

 Shane playing drums for his college band in 2009 at Larimer Lounge.

Shane playing drums for his college band in 2009 at Larimer Lounge.

What did you love the most about DSA?

I remember we used to have teachers that would base writing prompts around our major, like, write an essay about how your major correlates with The Scarlet Letter. DSA really let us create a world shaped by our art form and what we loved.

How did your time at DSA influence the artist you are today?

Students were truly limitless at DSA in terms of collaborations and exploring different art forms. We were given opportunities to collaborate across majors. I remember drumming for the vocal department, tap dancing with the dance department, doing music for the cinema majors, and auditioning for musicals. It shaped me going out into this world as an artist. You can't just keep yourself in a box. That's why my music incorporates dance and theatrics. My time at DSA made me into the collaborative artist I am today.  

Do you think you could live life without music? What would you do instead?

Music is life. It's plan A. Plan B is execute plan A!

 Portrait of Shane 2017 per the author.

Portrait of Shane 2017 per the author.

Julie Be- (Julie Almeria) also singer for project STéLOUSE

Julie was the girl who always got the best part in school-wide musicals, and rightfully so. I remember being in awe as I watched her in one stunning musical theater role after the next throughout my time at DSA.

  Julie starring in DSA’s production of  Aida .

 Julie starring in DSA’s production of Aida.

What differences do you notice working with DSA artists versus non DSA artists?

I think there are a lot of generous and nice artists in the music scene in Denver. I think that’s cool because those are the main characteristics I think of when I think of artists from DSA. I definitely think that there is a total sense of comradery between DSA artists though. Like, these are people that I especially want to see succeed. I think we fit very well into a scene that is already pretty generous, and I think we add a lot of good qualities too. DSA artists are just nice people, and nice people are sometimes rare in this world.  

What's your end goal? What if you don’t get there?

The end goal… that's a damn good question, and I ask myself that every day. When I was younger, I defined "success" as being famous, a household name, rich, etc. I doubt I'm alone in that… but now, I see success as being more about how I feel about the work that I am doing as opposed to how other people feel about it. I want to continue creating- releasing my own complete album is a bucket list item for me- and collaborating with other artists in ways that feel genuine to me. If I could do away with my day job and just make music for a living, I would be so freaking happy. Yeah, it would be cool to win a Grammy or to go on a world tour. Do I want those things? Absolutely! But to me, they're not the goal. If anything, they would be a by-product of the goal. At the end of the day, I want to arrive at a place where I can look back at my musical career and say, "I did what I wanted to do, and I did it with integrity".

 Portrait of Julie 2017 per the author.

Portrait of Julie 2017 per the author.

Shilo Gold- (Shayna Goldstein)

I will never forget Shayna’s first-day-of-school-outfit in the 7th grade (think platform sneakers with fire flames going down the side and basketball shorts). Shayna has been many things to me throughout my life: a mentor and a fierce competitor, but above all else, my best friend.

 Shayna singing in DSA’s Vocal Department’s 2007 “Pop Show."

Shayna singing in DSA’s Vocal Department’s 2007 “Pop Show."

What led you to start your music career in Los Angeles, and why did you decided to move back to Denver?

DSA gave me a certain strength that was bred from a really young age. It enabled me to really believe in myself. We were instilled with the ideas of what we could achieve, and were given a lot of power to invent ourselves as artists. I think it gave me the courage to move to Los Angeles and take on a bigger scene.

During my time in LA, I was missing a sense of authenticity. It felt so competitive and stiff. I left on tour and spent a year playing shows in 38 states. There was no doubt in my mind that Denver was where I wanted to end up.

Have you ever consider exploring a different career? What pulls you back to your artistry?

Pursuing a career as an artist is anything but easy or stable. Everyone has different tastes, and no matter how proud or passionate you are about what you are creating, it doesn't mean that it will be widely received. I have definitely questioned my ability to pursue my craft, and in turn, contemplated what other careers would look like for me. At the end of the day, I have realized that music is something deeply engraved in my bones. It is my journal, and the greatest gift I have to give. No matter what I do to pay the bills, or put food on the table, music is the reason I wake up in the morning and the way I make others feel like they are not alone. It's not that anything in particular keeps me dedicated to music, it's that I've done my share of exploring and have come to realize that no matter what path my life takes, writing and sharing music will always be a part of it.

 Portrait of Shilo 2017 per the author.

Portrait of Shilo 2017 per the author.

Nic Hammerberg- Member of SYCDVK & Petals of Spain

Nic was basically my older brother growing up. He drove me to school everyday. We became obsessed with sharing new musical discoveries like Feist, Jack Johnson, G. Love and Special Sauce, and obviously the soundtracks from 'Garden State,' 'The O.C' and 'Grey's Anatomy.'

  Nic performing in DSA’s “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum.” Photo by Edward Davidson 2005.

 Nic performing in DSA’s “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum.” Photo by Edward Davidson 2005.

What connects all DSA students?

We are a special breed. We all have this connection, but how do you put your finger on it? It feels special to me. It's like if we all went to Hogwarts! You know- we have that bond! We are all from the Gryffindor house is what I am saying.

When I see other DSA artists performing around town, I just know so viscerally what they went through to get there. It's not to say that other people aren't as skilled, like muggles for example, they can be super great wizards too. But us magic folk are true wizards. We can just do anything that we set our minds to. We all studied our craft every day for basically all of high school and middle school. How could that be anything else but magical?

Do you have a song that you would say embodies your journey as an artist?

"Sleeping Lessons" by The Shins. That song has often been an inspiration in moments of sadness, and to really light a fire under my ass. There was something so different and mysterious about that song when I first heard it, lyrically and melodically, that acted as a psychedelic to me; opened my brain to new. There is new everywhere, and there is lots of opposition and challenges in discovering yourself. The lyrics are brilliant and provide a new support and resilience: "So enlist every ounce of your bright blood, and off with their heads…  You're not obliged to swallow anything you despise."

 Portrait of Nic 2017 per the author.

Portrait of Nic 2017 per the author.

It became clear after interviewing my peers that growing up in an art school environment truly shaped who these artists are today. They confirmed my deep feelings and beliefs that students from DSA learn and refine skills that allow them to continually re-create themselves as artists. They collaborate with other singers, create an arts community, respect other forms of expression and bring to the table exceptional knowledge of music theory. DSA artists are truly an important part of Denver culture, and are creating a loving and collaborative music scene.

Other awesome DSA artists hidden among Denver’s music scene include: Wesley Watkins (founder of The Other Black and former trumpet player for Nathaniel Rateliff and Night Sweats and), Brittany Williams (of Brittany Williams & The Unstoppable Groove), Halle Spoor (who is currently recording her first album), and Khalil Arcady (Sur Ellz).  

These artists all perform frequently around town throughout the year. Keep an eye on their platforms for updates of future shows!

-Sierra

All photos, videos, and embedded tracks per the artist featured and those credited. This feature was edited for brevity and clarity by BolderBeat.