A Field Guide to Making Art & Inevitably Getting Lost, Holden Jaffe of Del Water Gap
Written by Emily Fender
Photographed by Lila Barth
In the middle of talking with Holden Jaffe, I look up to see him smiling and offering me coffee—“Cochecton Center Post Office” is printed on the mug. He goes to make himself a cup when I realize an old tea tag is stuck to the bottom of my mug. It reads: “Plant kindness and gather love.” This proverb seems to have, consciously or not, filtered its way into Holden’s life as he grapples with the anxiety and uncertainty of life as a musician.
Holden’s project Del Water Gap has evolved in the past few years. It started casually in high school, then a college friend convinced him to keep it up, and then it took its first shape with some of his closest friends. “It has changed over the years, people have come and gone, life has gotten in the way.” The project has gone through many ups and downs, and the future has never been quite clear. “About a year ago my main partner in the project decided to leave, just to pursue other things, and we had a show booked at Rough Trade, and I was really considering making that my last show. ‘Cause he was leaving and I was really thinking about maybe different ways I could be spending my time. And then we sold out the show, we had like 350 people there and things started happening right around then. I ended up signing a record deal with Terrible [Records], and there was this spike in that really organic, human fan action.”
Connecting with others—fans, friends, and just about everyone—was a theme throughout our conversation. He’s got a lot of love in him and lights up talking about his friends that he shares the project with. “I’m really lucky that my best friends happen to be really talented, brilliant people.” His journey with Del Water Gap seems to be constantly in friendly company, which only helps in a career with so many uncertainties.
One big change in his past year as a musician is exploring the boundary between his public and private life, as his fans take a more keen interest. He explains that “there haven’t been many moments of it being uncomfortable, but I am starting to be more protective of the access that I give to people.” If you follow Del Water Gap on Instagram, you see pieces of the attention his fans give him, with supportive and enthusiastic fans flying out to New York to see the group’s homecoming show at Baby’s All Right. With Holden’s image being repeatedly associated with the project, it’s easy to see how fans have started looking more towards him. Although not necessarily a negative development, it’s a massive change from when he would go to small cafes in his home town just so he could play.
“I used to hand out my number to anyone that came to a show, ‘Let’s hang out!’, [and I] stopped doing that. My last EP, the name of the EP is a phone number, and I have a flip phone for that phone number in my bedroom right over there, and I get calls all the time. I used to pick up when I was here and that was a thing I stopped doing cause it got weird. I started getting weird calls and people weren’t always that kind.”
Although this might sound like a good case for a musician to shrink back, Holden is still very personal about his music, making the point that “regardless of my intention, I think that [emotional rawness in music] naturally happens. I think the artists that I like, I like investing holistically in the art and the image and the humanity in it.” For him, this connection has been occurring naturally in his own music and is far from forced. “I do what I like and people seemed to have connected with that.”
But there is a more interesting dynamic when performing for Holden. He deeply values the humanity behind music and stresses that “it’s less about putting distance between people and yourself as a performer, and more about maybe trying to remind people you’re a person.” There’s a uniquely personal quality in music that’s really important to him, that fans will often forget about when musicians are mystified. But performing for him is a different type of social encounter in that “it does feel like an extension of my performance. Not that I’m not being real with people, but it’s a very specific version of myself that I am able to slip into.” He connects this to growing up extremely shy, saying that he spent many years growing up barely talking to even his parents. When he was in first grade, his teacher asked him to answer a question and he only whispered in response. Then, “she opened the door of the classroom (I grew up in the country and the door opened up to a field) and she went out into the field and said ‘I want you to say it loud enough so that I can hear it.’ It was one of the scariest moments of my life.” He admits to not remembering what he did, but that this fear dissipated when he started playing music in high school and performing. “Whatever that weird fear was just disappeared when I was on stage.” Although this might sound like an impersonal persona used as a defensive strategy, it is still an honest part of himself he’s sharing: “It feels like suiting up almost. Like when a fireman puts on their jacket, I sort of step into it and I relax, I relax into it and it’s me, it’s my personality.” He does really feel close to the audience in those moments, standing there with a mic and when interacting in that concert space. In this interaction, where everyone there has likely bought tickets to see him play, there’s a sense of calm autonomy that isn’t in other settings. A ticketed concert setting “presupposes that I belong to be in that interaction.”
Music and performing for Holden seems like a dance of taking care of himself. He admits that he goes through highs and lows of self care, having times when he’s “not taking care of myself, not sleeping, drinking a ton, losing my voice, getting freaked out and then like ‘Great!’ So then I quit drinking, I’ll drink tea, meditate, take some supplements and sleep a ton and take care of myself, do a lot of mindfulness practice. And then I forget, and I slip back.” He values self care and says that one piece of advice he has for younger musicians is to prioritize “taking care of yourself, being positive, being nice to yourself.” But in a career that offers little stability, no real routine, and rests on the perceptions of others, Holden is relentless which has certainly paid off. His hit song High Tops, a nostalgic love song, sits at well over 2 million streams on Spotify and has been featured in the US Viral 50 and Indie Pop playlists on Spotify.
“I think one of the hardest parts of learning how to do this career was the lifestyle shit, ‘cause no one teaches you how to do that. People will teach you how to write, how to get a publishing deal, teach you how to play guitar. No one teaches you, you know, what to do on a Tuesday. When you’re sort of in between records, and you have enough money and your friends aren’t around.” This gives lots of dead time which is hard to handle, especially if you have a single drop of insecurity about what you’re doing—it’s time for your thoughts to hit the wall and for the world to start spinning a little bit if you’re not careful. Holden has tried different ways of handling it. “I think you can quell some of that anxiety or whatever you want to call that just by trying to treat it like a job. It’s hard because you also have to treat it like art and you have to be inspired.” Nonetheless, he seems to be arriving at some sort of steady routine: “It’s really helpful for me to just get up in the morning and go on a run, meditate, journal, and then have like a two weeks plan or a month plan.”
Other arts also help him unwind a little bit and take his mind off music. He talks about how hard it can be to take some space, especially in his apartment which needs to feel like home, yet so much of his music has been worked on between those walls. But he does seem to burn through books, with a wide collection piled onto a bookshelf and around the apartment. “I just finished a Rebecca Solnit book which I loved, but it was a little too existential which freaked me out—I don’t need more existential shit! It was a beautiful book, I’d recommend it: “A Field Guide to Getting Lost,” I need to get found though.”
Some people certainly need to lose themselves, but this type of career lends itself to a want for structure. Holden’s way of processing and coping has been mostly reflective over the years: “I journal a lot, I’m just an introspective person so I did a lot of thinking, but i think the positive forces were more external. Once again I have the most incredible circle of loving and creative people around me that I think got me through a lot of those harder times emotionally. Primarily, some of my best friends, Mike and Gabe who I mentioned before, we worked on a lot of music together the first couple of years after I finished school and we really built each other up in a way.” Friends again are a cherished part of his life: “I lean on my friends. It helps me to talk to people, I mean it helps everyone to talk to people. It helps me to explain to someone the world is ending, and they can help me realize that it’s not.” He pauses and smiles.
Holden has worked through a lot of struggles in the past few years; there’s a measured thoughtfulness as he quietly moves through it all. He admits, “I think it’s taken me a lot of years to consider that this is a way that I could spend my life.” He’s always had an interest—I ask if he dreamed of being a musician as a kid, and before I even finish my question he gets the biggest smile and nods his head, “Oh yeah.” But even then, despite all the childhood confidence in the world, our dreams can feel stuck in some unreachable fantasy. However, Holden seems to be proving that feeling wrong despite insecurities. “I think I’m not alone in saying there’s a lot of imposter syndrome, especially early on.” Even then, having dealt through it, he says that he certainly feels more confident and comfortable now, but that “it’s inconsistent. I think there’s good days and bad days you know? Right now, I feel pretty good. The tour was amazing.”
Del Water Gap recently had a five-stop tour of the northeast that was a wonderful show of love and confidence in the group. Not being college shows, they are a more concrete test of the fans outside of New York. He laughs and says “I didn’t know people were going to come—that’s the crazy thing, ‘cause I thought I’d be playing to like a couple of people in every city.” The happiest surprise was the Boston show. There was a massive blizzard that caused the opener to drop out and they were so sure that no one would show up to the show on a Wednesday night in a blizzard, but they were proven wrong. “What makes you feel like it’s actually worth it, continuing a project, the art aside, I think is just the actual human beings that start putting their bodies in rooms to be there.” Despite all of the ups and downs, Holden is still in love with the music. “It’s felt more urgent that I need to be doing this, and that I can do it, and there will be more damage done to me in the long term if I don’t do it.”