e’re all used to hearing about transformative abroad experiences. We sit and smile and nod patiently while our friends gush about how much their lives have changed just from being away for a few months. Yet for Isobel Knight, a senior at the University of New South Wales who’s studied abroad at Boston College for the spring and fall of 2019, it’s not an exaggeration to say that her time in the United States has changed her. Knight has been writing and performing music since she was young, but since arriving at BC, she’s found her footing as an artist and kickstarted her music career.
Knight has established herself as a fixture of BC’s arts scene, performing at open mic events and Music Guild showcases. Last spring, she won BC’s Best and got the chance to open for Chelsea Cutler, Ayokay, and Jeremy Zucker at Modstock. And all the while, she’s been writing songs and working on a professionally produced album that she plans on releasing in the coming months.
Knight was surrounded by music at a young age. She grew up in a small town in the rugged Blue Mountains of Australia, in what’s called “the bush.” Her parents, avid musicians themselves, introduced her to the music of iconic singer-songwriters such as Bob Dylan and Carole King, and Knight recalls being surrounded by music at family gatherings. She started writing her own music when she was young, and by the time she was 12, she began performing. Her peers growing up were also heavily involved in music. She created a folk trio with two of her friends, while others around her were dabbling in genres as diverse as psychedelic rock and rap. Sometimes, her trio would even perform alongside metal bands.
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lthough Knight was already a seasoned performer, it wasn’t until the end of her first year in college that she decided to begin recording her music. Her first album, The Nest, was finished in 2016 but not released until 2018. An album that Knight describes as centering around ideas of home and creating a home, it was fittingly recorded in Knight’s own childhood house over the course of two days. All of the musicians that play on the album stayed in the house, and they and Knight recorded the songs live as a group. The effect is an organic-sounding collection of songs that emphasize capturing the moment above all else. The release of the album marked a turning point for Knight.
“I used to be much more closed off,” Knight said. “People wouldn’t know that much about me or get that much access to my internal monologue. And then suddenly I released this thing of eight songs that are deeply personal and singing them to rooms of people and sometimes strangers, as well as people I know.”
Much of the appeal of Knight’s music comes from its intimacy. On The Nest, many songs find Knight collaborating with what she calls her “nest eggs,” a group of musician friends who contribute violin, piano, and even saxophone in a jam-session style approach. But the main focus always remains on Knight’s voice and her frank, poetic lyrics. Knight doesn’t shy away from discussing episodes from her own life in her songs.
“I think it’s kind of freeing to be able to be that honest, especially because when you write a song, you’re trying to articulate what you’re thinking and feeling in the best way and most succinct way possible,” Knight said.
Performing such personal pieces, essentially revealing her inner emotions to a crowd of people, is always an unforgettable experience for Knight.
“The most magical moments, why I love doing this, is because sometimes you’ll lock eyes with someone in a crowd, or you just know, you can feel that people are in it with you, and there’s this level of connection that I don’t feel like you get in any other sphere,” Knight said. “There is something kind of transcendent about the way that people can connect through a song that they wouldn’t if you just told the story.”
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ongwriting can be a way for her to process negative experiences, such as the one alluded to in “Kitchen Table” from Knight’s upcoming album, Here Now. But some songs that Knight has written are not meant to be performed. Knight cited a song that she has only ever performed twice, both times at open mics hosted by the BC chapter of To Write Love on Her Arms, a national non-profit organization dedicated to spreading awareness of mental health issues. Knight didn’t want to relive the experience described in the song over and over again by playing it constantly.
“To perform it, honestly, is kind of harrowing,” Knight said.
Yet she still found value in sharing the song with others.
“I think with some negative experiences, there’s an incredible level of connection and catharsis that a group of people can get from it,” Knight said.
While Knight sometimes uses songwriting as a way to work through difficult experiences, she takes a more lighthearted approach with other songs. Knight performed improv throughout high school, and some of the games required Knight and her group members to compose music on the spot. Knight credits improv with teaching her how to jam with other musicians and improvise effectively, and she often draws upon her improv background during the songwriting process.
In rare cases, a song will come to Knight fully formed, like a track from Here Now called “Still Know Your Heart” did. Knight was walking down Seventh Avenue in New York City when the song popped into her head. She quickly pulled out her phone and sang into it before she could forget it. In that first recording, you can hear the sounds of traffic and pedestrians walking past.
“It’s often like I’ve clearly been thinking and feeling something, and then it gets articulated suddenly,” she said.
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or Knight, being in the United States has been thrilling if only for the fact that she’s stepping foot on the soil that her musical idols once walked upon.
“Just to see places that I’ve heard other people sing about or talk about is so cool,” Knight said. “There’s a really rich history of guitar-driven storytelling music here. I think the folkier side of my music, a lot of my influences are American—Bob Dylan, Woodie Guthrie, Joni Mitchell.”
Knight has found support and camaraderie on campus through Music Guild, and she’s also connected with the music scene in the greater Boston area. It’s been a remarkably productive period: Knight thinks she’s written more songs this year than she did in the last two years combined.
She’s also found success. When Knight opened at Modstock last year, it was the first time that Knight had performed on such a large scale alongside well-established artists. She jokes that it was also the coldest she had ever been while performing.
“I think being Australian, my guitar is just not happy—I take her outside and she’s just instantly out of tune,” Knight said.
Early this year, Knight released her second collection of songs, an EP titled Talking to Myself. The songs on it are inspired by Knight’s life as a student in Sydney and her relationship with the voices in her head.
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fter the release of Talking to Myself, Knight went on a small tour over the summer. With just her guitar and a backpack, she hit Boston, Providence, New York City, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. Knight found performing at Rockwood Music Hall in New York City a particularly exciting opportunity, since many up-and-coming artists pass through the venue on their way to the top. Although she performed live with her folk trio in Australia, it was still nerve-wracking to be on stage alone with just her guitar. Yet it was also an adventure, and through a serendipitous encounter with a recording engineer at an open mic event during her tour, the chance to professionally record an album with him fell into her lap.
Since the school year started, Knight has been shuttling back and forth between New York City and Boston, working on Here Now while still studying full time at BC. The album is a product of Knight’s time living abroad and her journey toward becoming more grounded in her surroundings.
“It’s about being present and being joyful and excited that we get to be here,” Knight said. “It reflects a lot of experiences both good and bad over the past year and a half. It’s about family and friendship and love and connection, and also about the States and feeling distance from people.”
The album features BC musicians and alumni, such as Rachel Moon, MCAS ’19, from the band Unit One, and Dan Pflueger and Peter Toronto, both MCAS ’20, from Word on the Street.
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hile still singer-songwriter driven and anchored by her vocals and acoustic guitar, Knight is excited about layering new sounds and instruments into the album.
“What needs to sing through is that central performance,” Knight said. “If you strip the rest away, what you could hear, me playing alone in a room, would be me on a guitar or me on a piano telling you a story. And if that comes through in the way that it can and should, then it will feel as intimate. I think these are some of the most honest songs I’ve written.”
There are rock influences and little homages to her heroes scattered throughout the work. Knight wrote one track, “Song for Woody,” after reading Woody Guthrie’s autobiography. It’s a nod to both Guthrie and Bob Dylan: Dylan also recorded a song dedicated to Guthrie entitled “Song for Woody.”
Knight hopes to release the finished album in the coming months. She’s returning to Australia after this semester and plans on playing a few shows there, but she ultimately wants to return to New York City to focus full time on her music career.
“I’d love to be based in New York, gather a band, some new nest eggs, and tour,” Knight said. “There’s just nothing to lose in giving it a shot.”
Featured Image by Celine Lim / Heights Editor