Multi-talented Charlie Kogen ’23 started to pursue his passion for music as a toddler, when he sat down at the piano for the first time. He, who is a member of The Daily’s humor section, is an instrumentalist, singer, songwriter and producer who has accomplished spectacular feats at only 19 years old. Kogen has released an album of original songs he composed back in high school, put out two singles since he started college, is currently self-producing future music and has an original song featured on television. His work as a singer-songwriter earned him recognition as a National YoungArts Finalist in 2019.
The Stanford Daily [TSD]: What does a typical day look like for you during this pandemic as a musician?
Charlie Kogen [CK]: It’s often pretty boring. For a while, I was setting up a studio space in my new house, but now I have started to record more and work on projects. Oftentimes, it’s just me sitting at my desk with my laptop just trying to tinker around with different synth sounds or adding effects to tracks I have already played. The hardest part for me is probably recording vocals because I think being a good judge of your own voice is very hard. I know it’s ultimately about expressing the emotion of the song, but I can’t help but think about whether I’m hitting all the right notes and enunciating and all that technical stuff.
[TSD]: Let’s talk about your 2019 album “Songs from the Front Seat.” What did you want others to feel after hearing it for the first time?
[CK]: I made “Songs from the Front Seat” with my good friend Jack Riley who goes to Brown University; he is a really awesome producer. We started making it during our senior year of high school, but we did most of it during the following summer. I wrote all the songs on the album, and Jack did most of the production and mixing. We played most of the instruments ourselves. I didn’t specifically write the songs with the album in mind. They were all just songs I had written throughout high school and thought they were good enough to put on the album. We called it “Songs from the Front Seat” because I often came up with song ideas when I was driving to and from school. Several of the songs on it also mentioned or alluded to driving in some way. I guess I want people to listen to the album and be transported back to a kind of adolescent angst and longing that I definitely felt as I was writing those songs. But there are also moments of just pure, unadulterated joy on the album, so I want people to feel that too. If nothing else, I want them to be moved by the songwriting.
[TSD]: Were you affected emotionally by your album after hearing the final version of it?
[CK]: When I look back and listen to the album, I am definitely affected by each track. Sometimes, I can’t even believe I wrote those songs. Whenever I write a song, it usually comes from a strong emotion. When I was writing “I Hope You Miss This Place,” I was thinking about some of my friends in the grade above me who were going away to college. I find that I am often processing my emotions as I write a song, and I am able to see things more clearly after I have started writing.
[TSD]: In what sense does this album connect with our generation?
[CK]: You can tell there is still a lot of life to be lived on the album, but it reflects themes of longing, of loss, of moving on, which I think are evergreen. I’m not sure how exactly it connects with our broader place in the world and society, but I certainly think that it reflected a certain time in my life, and still reflects certain aspects of my life even two or three years after I wrote some of the songs.
[TSD]: Has your musical journey had an intended direction, or did it simply evolve in whatever direction it found?
[CK]: My musical journey has definitely evolved naturally over time. I grew up taking piano lessons, I sang in choir as a kid and I played jazz through high school. I also taught myself a lot by ear, especially on guitar but also on piano. As I learned how to play pop songs by ear, I kind of thought, “Hey, I could make one of these too!” The first songs I wrote were often quite silly in nature, and I still enjoy incorporating some humor into my music, but I began to write more serious songs when I was about 13 — I must have been sad right after my bar mitzvah. I also experimented on Logic a bit during high school, although I am delving much deeper into production nowadays.
[TSD]: What do you think sets your music apart?
[CK]: I think my music is unique in its melodic sensibility. Funny enough, when I write songs I often go out of my way to not repeat certain chord progressions or certain lyrical ideas that I have used before. But even still, I think my sense of melody stays quite consistent. I think I often end phrases in very satisfying ways melodically, which is something I’m quite proud of. I also think my lyrics and my melody are usually very well-matched for each other.
[TSD]: Describe your experience when you sang at Kennedy Center.
[CK]: I sang at the Kennedy Center as a part of the Presidential Scholars Program. I was a YoungArts Finalist in 2019, which then allowed me to apply for Presidential Scholar in the Arts. The arts scholars got there a week before everyone else, and under the direction of John Heginbotham, we basically devised a show from scratch. There were singers, dancers and instrumentalists; each person got a chance to showcase their unique talents, but there were also some interesting collaborations. I performed “Neighborhood,” which was on “Songs from the Front Seat,” and a song called “In Between” that I actually wrote the week of rehearsals. I worked with some amazing people, and I also got to go to the White House, which was pretty crazy.
[TSD]: How did it feel to have a sold out show at The Mint (LA)?
[CK]: The Mint was really cool! I had performed at smaller venues before, including high school “coffeehouses” and open mics, but I had a packed house and an hour to myself. I was a bit worried that I wouldn’t be able to fill that time, but thankfully I did. It made me realize that I actually had a pretty substantial body of work. It was only the first or second time I had performed some of my songs. I think the positive reaction to my music at The Mint was definitely one of the things that inspired me to want to make an album.
[TSD]: Talk more about the process of how you got a song sold to “School of Rock” on Nickelodeon.
[CK]: Well, my dad is a television writer and producer. At the time, he was working on “School of Rock,” a TV series based on the movie. The show always featured music, and at one point, I had written a song called “I Will Never Be Your Guy,” which my dad showed to some people on the show. They really wanted to use it. I was only 13 at the time, and I loved the song so much I didn’t want to give it up. I decided I would write another song that they could use that kind of sounded like the one they liked. In the end, I wrote a song called “You Make Me Smile.” In the episode, it was sung by the character Lawrence at a school talent show, and he was trying to woo a girl in his Spanish class. However throughout the performance, there are all these stage antics and things that go awry and undercut the sweetness of the song. It was still pretty cool to see something I wrote on TV.
[TSD]: Where do you see yourself in five years?
[CK]: In five years, I see myself continuing to write and perform songs, but also hopefully working as a songwriter and producer for other artists. I also maybe want to dabble in television if I can. Both of my parents are TV writers, and they love what they do. I have always enjoyed being around funny people (my parents have mostly worked on comedies). I also was involved a bit in theater in high school and I had written some satires. I don’t really see myself leaving Los Angeles or at least not for very long.
[TSD]: What is your advice to other aspiring singers?
[CK]: If you’re not writing your own songs, try it! I also think the importance of vocal technique cannot be overstated. I have taken voice lessons before, and while I have often been reluctant to do so, I think ultimately they have made me a better singer. And general advice to artists: learn the rules, and then you can break them.
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.