Lana Nauphal (COL ‘19) began her set in the Voice office with a cover of “For the Sake of the Song,” a folk number by Texas crooner Townes Van Zandt. It’s a ritual for her, she says. Even when she’s alone, she sings it before anything else, to warm up her vocal chords.
“Why does she sing her sad songs for me?” Van Zandt asks in the lyrics. He answers his own question: “Maybe she just has to sing, for the sake of the song.”
Nauphal has loved the song for years. Like her own work, it is poetic and sung simply with an acoustic guitar. That’s her style. “That’s just what I do,” she explained after the performance. “That’s what comes out when I write.”
The origin of Nauphal’s love and talent for the kind of soft, country-folk of Van Zandt or Leonard Cohen is not immediately obvious from her background. She was born in London to Lebanese parents, and studied at a French school there throughout her life. While she credits her mother for giving her a guitar at age 13, it was Bob Dylan, she says, who introduced her to folk music.
“I always say that [Dylan] was my first love,” Nauphal said, laughing. “I’m still obsessed. The music world opened up to me in that way.”
The first song that Nauphal learned on the guitar was one of Dylan’s — “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” She taught herself the simple chords in her bedroom, captivated by the poetry of his lyrics. It’s a quality she emulates in her own music.
Davis Wong (COL ‘18), a close friend of Nauphal, stresses this aspect of her work. In a band at Georgetown himself, The Trophy Wives, Wong met Nauphal last spring at a gig they both played in a friend’s backyard — a lowkey, DIY kind of affair where he didn’t expect much. But Nauphal’s performance impressed him. Over the next months, they developed a close friendship as musicians, workshopping each others’ songs and discussing their plans for the future.
“She’s a very good lyricist,” Wong said after some thought. “Songwriting is all about who you choose to steal from, and I think she’s taken that from the very best.”
Nauphal is majoring in English and helped to found Bossier, a literary magazine that promotes the work of women and femmes. She loves writing, she says, and she speaks with the articulate grace of someone who deeply understands words. But although her mother pushed her to pursue it professionally, for Nauphal, writing is a vehicle for her love of music.
“Whenever [writing] is tied to music, that’s when I feel my most honest, and when I feel like it comes out the most naturally,” she said.
Nauphal’s lyrics feel humble and organic, dressed up only by her voice. “Joni sings of false alarms, and I’m not sure where to turn,” begins her song “Better Love.” It’s a reference to the song “Amelia” by Joni Mitchell, another of Nauphal’s idols. She had it playing on repeat when she wrote “Better Love” this past summer, at the same time that she began to see herself pursuing music seriously. Just a few months before, she had been set on going to law school.
“Something clicked where I just saw myself doing this,” Nauphal said. “I realized that I didn’t think anything would make me as happy.”
Songwriting for Nauphal is an emotional process; it starts when a feeling wells up, or there are words that she needs to speak. “I’ll go to my guitar and I do what you’re doing,” she said, nodding at the phone between us. “I press record on my iPhone and I let it come out.”
In December, Nauphal wrote another original she played for the Voice, “Be It As It May.” “It was the most cathartic writing process I’ve ever had,” she said. “It kind of scared me. It’s exactly what I wish I could tell this person, and it was very emotional.”
This honesty, she says, paid off. People responded well to the song. “I want to keep being as exposed going forward,” she said. That kind of vulnerability is important to her.
Nauphal intends to spend her first year or so out of college focusing seriously on music, a decision she came to gradually, talking through her thoughts with Wong and other musician friends. Wong is similarly committed to music (as Nauphal puts it, “he already acts like a rock star”) and encouraged her plans. “I’ve always told her that I really think she’s good enough,” Wong said. “And she should, you know, because she really loves it. And I think that she can really do great things.”
Nauphal played two takes of “Better Love” poised on a stool in the cluttered office, looking stylishly out of place among stacks of yellowed newspaper and peeling posters. “I screwed up the ending,” she said after the first take, still smiling. None of us had noticed.
Video Credits: Danielle Hewitt (Executive Producer), Amy Guay (video), Kayla Hewitt (audio), Alex Lewontin (audio)