One of SAW’s most accomplished members is just 17 years old. In the last 15 months, Calista Garcia has been named “Outstanding Teenage Artist, Vocals Singer Songwriter” by the national YoungArts Foundation, was named a Strathmore Artist in Residence, won the Berklee Performing Songwriter Showcase, and was named the Bernard/Ebb 2017 Young Songwriter of the Year. Most recently, Calista wrote and music-directed a full-length musical—book, lyrics, and music—called Crystal Skies, which recently premiered at H.B. Woodlawn HS in Arlington, where she is a junior.
As an aspiring musical writer myself, I had to check out Crystal Skies and its preternaturally talented writer, so I scored a ticket to opening night. I found the writing to be remarkably mature and the play completely entertaining. A few days later, I found Ms. Garcia, relaxed, voluble, and confident, at an Arlington coffee shop.
SRC: So you’ve written a musical. How cool is that?
CG: Actually I also wrote the music for another musical, but that was in middle school.
SRC: Middle school?!
CG: Yeah, actually the drama teacher asked me to come up with some music in between scenes or something, but it was like a disconnect and I thought he wanted me to write songs for the show. And so I just did it, and he was like “oh what?!” and he made it a musical. I’ve written a few songs for other shows.
SRC: But this show was your idea?
CG: Yeah it was all me.
SRC: I know a lot of people in SAW who have said “I’d like to write a musical someday,” but few have actually done it. And just for the record, you’re how old?
CG: I’m 17. It’s hard. It’s a lot of work. I think in the future I wouldn’t try to music-direct it because it’s really hard to direct your own content. I was like organizing harmonies and teaching it to the band—
SRC: And leading the band
CG: And leading the band. It’s a crazy process. I was honestly really involved in the entire process. I was like “they have to be 70s clothes, they have to be bell bottoms.”
SRC: What is your connection to the 70s? That was a very successful element of the show. It wasn’t just the look and the story, it was the theatrical style itself, the types of songs, and the group scenes especially had very 70s feel.
CG: That’s what I was going for. I was kind of raised on that stuff, the Beatles and everything. My dad was a big classic rock fan. In sixth grade I was Janis Joplin for Halloween. In seventh grade I was Stevie Nicks.
SRC: Did anyone know who you were?
CG: Not really. I told people I was a witch. But I was in a band that did covers—and it’s really more late 60 and early 70s rock. It’s just something I connect with, and even the “artist” stuff that I write and play out is kind of 70s inspired. So I figured, if I’m going to write a show with 17 songs, the way I’m going to connect it all, as a design concept, that seemed like the way to go.
SRC: So what’s the capsule description for Crystal Skies?
CG: Oh God! I‘ve had a hard time with this. I guess… “a 1970s supernatural love story centered in a hippie witch coven.” We’ll go with that. “Supernatural” because the whole invisibility element is hard to explain.
SRC: Yeah, you do kind of have to make that leap right at the beginning. So what was it like to actually see it happen? Or were you too busy to even pay attention?
CG: No, I was paying a lot of attention. I was facing the cast I was facing the band. I saw it all. I even gave the cast some cues. It was honestly amazing. It was so worth all the struggle.
SRC: What do you think is the key to finishing something big like this?
CG: You know I think the reason people don’t finish a musical or something like that is because of all the choices. You think “I guess I could do that, maybe” and then you chicken out. It’s sort of like committing to it—and then letting go of it. So I’d make a choice, like “in the first number they’re going to say ‘Jimmy’ a lot of times in the chorus, okay that sounds cool, okay let’s just record it for now,” and then I sent it in. I tried to stop myself from thinking too much about it. And suddenly this song I wrote in my room, I’m seeing this huge cast doing it, and the whole thing that was “I think I could do this” becomes kind of real, and it actually kind of works.
SRC: So you were satisfied with it in the end?
CG: Yeah, well there are definitely things I would change. But it turned out well, I believe.
SRC: What was your relationship like with the directors? Was it hard to give up control? Did they run with it?
CG: At first they were skeptical, because the show wasn’t written when I pitched it. They were like “okay, what is this? It’s gonna be about this invisible guy, and what?” But we went with it together. There’s a lot of respect between all of us.
SRC: So is it a done project now? Are you ready to move onto the next big achievement?
CG: Well, I’m not writing a new one any time soon. Right now I’m recording the soundtrack, working with some session vocalists. Then I can release it and put it out on Spotify and people can hear it. And if someone wants to do it…
SRC: So you’d like to see another production someday.
CG: Yeah! With rock vocalists, and a band led by better guitar players than me.
SRC: So how long did it take to write, start to finish?
CG: Well, I said I was going to start in June, but I went to Berklee over the summer and didn’t really start working on it in August. I had a complete draft by about October first.
SRC: Wow! The first draft of the songs or the whole thing?
CG: The whole thing.
CG: Of course there were rewrites, and some songs came in later. I changed the ending. It’s really completely different from the first draft. But it was done by December, and we started auditions.
SRC: So are your friends totally amazed by this, or is Woodlawn just so full of amazing people that you don’t really stand out?
CG: I don’t know. I’m not a very outgoing person. My friends that I spend a lot of time with have known me from the very beginning when I was just learning guitar, so they’ve seen the growth as a slow process.
SRC: You clearly have talent, but you also have clearly had support over the years. So let’s ask the question we always ask songwriters: How and when did you begin?
CG: I started taking piano when I was six. I started learning guitar when I was eight, with my dad teaching me. I began taking lessons when I was ten when I had sort of exhausted what he knew. I took lessons at Bach to Rock, I was in a band there, an all-girl cover band, we won the battle of the bands a couple of times. I started writing when I was ten or eleven. Started playing out when I was ten.
SRC: At that time, early on, who were the people in your universe that you thought of as ‘songwriters’?
CG: Songwriters? When I first started playing guitar, I was a big fan of Taylor Swift, to be honest. I lived in Texas. She was the only one I was enough of a fan of to look at her biography and see how she came up. And she was saying “I’m a songwriter. I write songs” and I didn’t understand that was something unique about her, that all those other pop girls didn’t write. But other than that I was listening to rock, and it was like, if you want to be in the business, you have to write songs.
SRC: So when people ask who were your major influences…
CG: It’s interesting to think of my influences, because there are things I didn’t realize influenced me that I just listened to all the time and I hear in my writing so much now. Like I grew up listening to the “Once” soundtrack, the musical by Glen Hansard, and if I listen to my writing now, it’s very inspired by that. And classic rock, Tom Petty, Bon Jovi, what my dad listened to basically.
SRC: What instruments are you most comfortable on?
CG: Guitar, and kinda keys. I play ukulele, I play harmonica, but guitar is my main thing.
SRC: Has the school music program been important for you, or has most of your development been outside of school?
CG: Chorus experience helped me music-direct my show, because I had to learn how to teach choirs to sing harmonies. That was a big thing I would not have gotten outside of school. Also getting started with classical voice before doing rock stuff, so you can stay healthy, so I’m not doing the Joplin thing and shredding my vocal chords.
SRC: So how do you see music fitting into your life as you become an “adult”? Do you see it as a sideline or is it the thing?
CG: It’s the forefront now. It’s going to continue being the forefront. I mean there are so many things I want to do with it.
SRC: Do you see yourself being a singer-songwriter? Do you want to be in a band, do you want to do more shows?
CG: I want to do all those things. I think it’s a misconception that you have to do one thing with your life. I love writing. I love performing. I did this show and could do more stuff like that. I like doing the artist stuff right now the best. I already have a borderline professional musician thing, with paid gigs and session singing.
SRC: So what is this benefit you’re doing in California?
CG: Oh yeah, that’s this weekend! My dad is former Navy, and he is involved with this organization that helps wounded warriors and veterans with PTSD through surf therapy. So they’re having a benefit, and they’re friends with the guy from Third Eye Blind, so I’m technically doing a show with Stephan Jenkins. It’s kind of a crazy month for me. I’m recording an EP, and I’m working on recording the Crystal Skies soundtrack.
SRC: So is that going to keep you busy all summer?
CG: All that will have to be put on hold because I’m going to Berklee again.
SRC: What’s that all about?
CG: I’m studying voice and I’ll audition for the songwriting showcase, which I was in last year. But it’s more about meeting people, because the high school students who are going to Berklee now and are serious about music are going to be the ones in the business later. And they’re from all over the world, so it’s not like just going to open mics in DC.
SRC: Speaking of DC, do you have anything nice to say about SAW?
CG: SAW’s great! I’ve been to a lot of SAW events; I know a lot of people from SAW. Every city needs an organization like SAW.
SRC: Is there anything SAW could do better to reach out to a younger crowd?
CG: I think you need younger people to do the reaching out. I think you have to find out where high schoolers go naturally. At my school there’s a songwriting club that was started by a history teacher. So there is interest out there. And open mics are important for them.
SRC: Are you getting a lot of people saying “you know you can’t make a career out of music”?
CG: No. People haven’t given me too much of a hard time about it.
SRC: I think that’s a sign.