Edgehill Lets the Water Smooth Itself Out
How Vanderbilt’s hottest band navigates existential crises, overdue homework assignments and their very different personalities, en-route to success beyond the Vanderbubble.
November 27, 2022
It’s a few minutes after 5 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon in September, and while munching on a flaky croissant in the cozy outdoor seating section of Panera Bread, sophomore Chris Kelly is doing the thing again. The “thing,” of course, is going on lofty, existential tangents. He’s a psychology major doubling in child studies. Oftentimes, he tells me, people applaud him for wisdom he barely sees in himself. But between being the guitar-slinging frontman of the Vanderbubble’s hottest band and juggling intense readings with studies on undeveloped prefrontal cortexes, there’s a lot of life to be accounted for when he decides to open up. Typically, this “opening up” tends to come out in one of two ways: (1) the psyched-out sing-along rock anthems he crafts with his four-man crew Edgehill or (2) the verbose soliloquies that take their stead when no studio equipment is within reach. On the menu at Panera today, there are no electric guitars, microphones or drum sets.
“I had a period of realization where I was kind of like, ‘Who the fuck am I?’” Kelly says, midway through a lengthy spiel about recent changes that have made his life more difficult, as his bandmates nod along. “What makes me happy? It’s hard to figure that out. But… I guess life isn’t as complicated as you try to make it. Life is the best when you just let it happen, I guess. A good quote I really like from my friend is that, if you have rippling water, you can’t put your hand over the water to smooth it out. It’ll just create more ripples.’”
“I’m going to say two quotes, actually—I’m going to have my Johnny moment,” Kelly continues. (By a “Johnny moment,” he’s referring to the monologues of sophomore Jonathan Wilson, the band’s bespectacled, musical genius drummer who also functions as a traveling rock music encyclopedia.) “If you’re always anxious, you’re never really taking in what the world has to offer.”
I think the band is not the source of the waves—it’s oftentimes the solution.”
Active since Fall of 2021, the band’s current core consists of singer/rhythm guitarist Kelly, drummer Wilson, senior bassist Andrei Olaru and lead guitarist/background vocalist Jake Zimmerman (‘22). In a little under a year, they’ve skyrocketed to the hot-college-band stature you tend to see in Disney specials. In the loosely-interconnected (and rapidly-growing) grassroots music circuit catered to Metro Nashville’s fun-seeking young adults, the name “Edgehill” has grown to be a celebrated mainstay: several students assert that it has become fairly easy for them to book shows. One night after my interview with them on September 15, the band is slated to play at Bummeroo (not to be confused with Bonnaroo), a DIY backyard music and arts festival held annually at varying Nashville locations.
But as the bookings keep getting bigger, it’s also growing more difficult for the group to keep the show on the road. Our interview takes place within one of the rare pockets when Zimmerman, who graduated last spring and now lives permanently in Washington D.C., is back in town and couch-surfing to make things work with the band until he has to go back home. The group routinely squeezes all of their rehearsals and recording sessions into the increasingly slim windows in which they are all in one place—and when they aren’t together, they either have schoolwork or existential crises to handle. As much as Edgehill is growing, sacrifices remain necessary. Practices are often held in the basement of Branscomb Quadrangle, an eerie catacomb haunted by the ghosts of the cockroach corpses lining its stained floors and sophomores of Vanderbilt past. The basement features three shoddy music rooms that can fit a drum set and a guitar amplifier if you pray hard enough. Every time Zimmerman is in town, it goes without saying that something, whether a rehearsal, a songwriting session or a show, must happen… and fast. With several grade levels represented among the group, varying schedules and workloads must be balanced with a jam-packed, rock-star itinerary. And when scheduling isn’t the issue, there will always be overdue readings to be done on undeveloped prefrontal cortexes in Kelly’s case.
But Edgehill is in it for each other—and as long as that’s true, they are willing to do anything to make it work.
“The band itself has been going smoothly,” Wilson says. “We’ve all had some personal issues that sometimes get in the way of that, but I think the band is not the source of the waves—it’s oftentimes the solution.”
Before they were dealing with their own waves, they were making waves online. Last Fall, freshly stuck between the casual stature of a friend group that occasionally jams together and the sneaking question of potentially taking it a step further, they got together to make a modest Instagram account for themselves. Two days later, Zimmerman and Wilson agreed on the idea to promote their music on TikTok. The second of two videos they posted that day, a modest cover of Declan McKenna’s 2017 ballad “Brazil,” went viral, racking up one million views and garnering the attention of McKenna himself. (McKenna commented “very cool.” “I look up to you in like 500 ways,” Kelly replied).
The cover led to the band gaining a crazy influx of new TikTok-transplant-Instagram followers, who had also begun to turn an ear to Edgehill’s own music because the first video the band posted to TikTok that day featured an original track. The original song in question was “Shooting Glances,” the more popular of two songs the band has released. As of print, it has been streamed upwards of 250,000 times on Spotify. It’s a lovestruck narrative buoyed on the double gut-punch of Kelly’s existential lyricism and electric guitars that leap from modest arpeggiations to fuzzed-out, arena-ready outbursts. Ultimately, the band’s all-out, erratic, philosophical lead vocalist arrives at an ending note quite similar to his life philosophy: “Well, I might be foolish,” he sings to an unnamed love interest, “[But] Screw the chance that I might be wrong. If I don’t do this pretty soon, I know you’ll be gone.” Olaru’s bass slithers its way up and down octaves that may as well be heartstrings; Wilson drums like he’s fighting for his life. And by the time Zimmerman’s squealing guitar is left to pick up where Kelly’s rasping voice leaves off, you get the sense that—no matter how much homework, existential crises or scheduling hurdles are to be contended with along the way—the stormy water flowing underneath Edgehill will smooth itself out in due time.
It’s a miracle that Edgehill ever met, and that miracle is called the Music Room. Founded by senior Christiana Gatbunton and Camren Hall (‘22) in the Fall of 2021, the student-run organization seeks to help music-loving Nashvillians find one another and mold, from the ground up, a burgeoning scene catering specifically to their college-centric demographic. It began as a Vanderbilt-only endeavor and has since expanded to other local universities—its current executive board features upwards of 60 students from schools including Vanderbilt, Belmont and Lipscomb.
Every other week, the Music Room hosts a bring-your-own-instrument jam session on the Peabody Esplanade, where throngs of student musicians lug their instruments to the lawn and engage in impromptu jam sessions with fellow instrumentalists they’ve never met. It was out of this tradition that Edgehill was conceived. All of the band members had shown up to one of the earliest Commons Lawn jam events and managed to find each other in the maze of people (and instruments) represented. Upon realizing how well they clicked, it didn’t take long for there to be a consensus: this couldn’t just be a one-time thing.
“I feel like once we met, it was meant to work,” Jake muses.
“Yeah, that’s why I’m so appreciative,” Jonathan adds. “Like, Chris… I don’t think we would be friends (had we not gone to the jam event),” Jonathan adds. “I definitely wouldn’t know Jake. I would maaaybe have found Andrei.”
“We listen to Radiohead,” Andrei says.
“We both listen to ‘Creep’… a lot.”
“I’m a creep.”
“You’re a weirdo.”
Before this, I was definitely a believer in ‘there is no meant to be; things just happen randomly; there is no reason.’ And I still lean into that camp—but this band, and the crazy coincidence that led it to work so well, has definitely made me question.”
The personalities that make up Edgehill aren’t necessarily as uniform as they sound when melded together into anthemic guitar ballads. Of the four, Kelly comes off as the erratic all-out existentialist, Zimmerman the voice of reason and the Wilson-Olaru duo the lawful-neutral Radiohead aficionados who might find themselves jamming for five hours straight. But something snapped into place when they met on the Peabody Esplanade, and it went on to grow more powerful than the combined efforts of all their personal differences.
Kelly and Zimmerman were the first to click with one another, and soon after the event on Commons Lawn, they had come up with the loose makings of a song. Not too much time later, Kelly spotted Wilson at Rand Dining Hall and asked him if (1) he was the kid who brought the drum set to Commons, and (2) he would be willing to add a beat to what Kelly and Zimmerman had come up with so far.
“At first, I was like ‘He’s not going to text me,’” Wilson says. “People are always like, ‘Yeah, we should totally jam,’ and then don’t actually follow through. It’s so easy. Talk is really cheap.”
But Kelly did wind up reaching out, and soon after, Olaru was added into the fold.
“Sometimes it strikes me as extremely bizarre, and it definitely makes me question my own beliefs about whether things are meant to happen in life,” Zimmerman says. “I’m not really sure what I believe. Before this, I was definitely a believer in ‘there is no meant to be; things just happen randomly; there is no reason.’ And I still lean into that camp—but this band, and the crazy coincidence that led it to work so well, has definitely made me question.”
As a founder of The Music Room, Gatbunton witnessed much of Edgehill’s formation as it happened and was compelled enough by them to adopt her current role as their manager. When I meet her at the Starbucks nextdoor to Panera a week after my interview with the group, she’s dwarfed behind a laptop and a pair of water cups, a half-filled cup of coffee sitting off to the side.
“When Jake, Chris and Johnny came together and added Andrei to the band, I was like, ‘This is crazy,’” she says, beaming. “This is the exact reason why I made the Music Room. I wanted people to be able to meet, and have a place to. They never would have met if it weren’t for the jam session. They’re just very different people who never would have found each other. That was my entire goal of the organization: to bring everyone together.”
Gatbunton is a busy woman—juggling school work among various other demanding endeavors, Music Room leadership and Edgehill management—but much like the members of her campus-rocking crew, she is adamant about doing all that is necessary to make things work. A large part of her vehement belief in the group is hinged on her firsthand witness of their tricked-out synergy and the individual talent that comprises it.
“First of all,” she explains, “at the jam session, I heard Chris Kelly and Jake Zimmerman sing their songs. And I was a fan. I was like, ‘I love their stuff.’”
Her frantic scroll through her iPhone camera roll to find videos of their song performance at the jam session is peppered with comments that make her sound like a proud mom, and by the time she lands on a year-old clip of Zimmerman—who had, like Kelly, been performing solo up to then—strumming through a gut-wrenching ballad on the Wyatt steps, she might as well be.
I ask Gatbunton different versions of the question “Why Edgehill?” several times, and on every try, her answer seems to circle around a simple line of logic, which also happens to be a question: Have you seen them? Much like the college-band Disney storylines they emulate, for Edgehill to be as good as they are after only one year together seems too inspirational to be true. But when the guitars mellow out and the existential verses fade to silence, all Edgehill has is each other—and for them, that will always be inspiration enough.