Clark Mahaffey, third-year CM, used to get stage fright before performing his music live. But at Tech’s homecoming concert on Wednesday Oct. 20, where he and two other student-artists opened for Blackbear, he felt strangely calm.
Standing on the stage at McCamish Pavilion under the bright lights, he could only see into the first three rows of people, but it was the largest crowd he had ever played for.
“I just had so much fun,” Mahaffey said, “I could hear my friends in the crowd yelling my name and singing along. It was such a cool feeling.”
Mahaffey started playing piano when he was young, but he did not start producing until he was in high school.
The initial impetus came from a visit to the Apple store in his hometown of Peachtree City, where he got to try GarageBand for the first time.
Throughout high school, Mahaffey continued to make music — “it was all really bad,” he said — eventually independently releasing his first album, “Greenscreen,” during his senior year.
Once he got to Tech, Mahaffey continued making music. On campus, he found for the first time a community of people who were also passionate about producing.
His second album, “Ocean Waves,” was ready to go when the pandemic hit in March 2020. But Mahaffey persisted, dropping the album shortly after students were sent home.
During the months in quarantine, Mahaffey kept on writing songs and honing his skills, drawing inspiration from what he calls the “depressing pandemic.” He also learned to play guitar, a sound that he does not think can be accurately captured by software.
By the time he returned to campus in August, his third album was well underway. But Mahaffey, a self-described perfectionist, was not ready to put it into the world yet. With campus life ramping up, it took him another year before he was satisfied with the album, “My Tears Put Out the Flames,” which came out in August.
With a 14-song tracklist clocking in at almost 44 minutes, “My Tears Put Out the Flames” is Clark’s longest album yet. It is also his favorite so far, and the one he thinks sounds the most professional. Mahaffey cites Billie Eilish and Ariana Grande as influences and describes his sound as “a mixture of pop and RnB with a little bit of electronic.”
Rather than looking inward, Mahaffey uses “My Tears Put Out the Flames” to people-watch sonically, telling a story external to himself. Many of the songs are inspired by fictional scenarios or circumstances that he has observed his friends experience.
For example, the title song came from seeing the Snapchat story of a friend shortly after she went through a breakup. Mahaffey was struck by the permanence of the idea of burning a memory away; “My Tears Put Out the Flames,” the song, is about wanting to hold on to something despite trying to get rid of it.
“Oh I try to burn the photographs,” Mahaffey sings, “But every time I strike the match/I still want you to stay/And my tears put out the flames.”
The opening track on the album, “RGB,” is a play on the principles of color theory Mahaffey has learned in his computational media classes. It also ties “My Tears Put Out the Flames,” which has red cover art, with “Greenscreen,” his “green” album, and “Ocean Waves,” which is blue. But Mahaffey also hints that “RGB” stands for “Really Good Beginning” and “Really Goodbye.”
After “RGB” and “My Tears Put Out the Flames,” the album unfolds into a succession of different stories and themes. “Clone,” inspired by an acquaintance who had a breakup and then started dating someone a little too similar to their ex, samples “Frankenstein.” “The Internet” pulls sounds from 90s commercials to talk about the experience of online dating.
“Looking for love on the internet,” Mahaffey sings, “What you see ain’t what you get/Once again feel like an idiot.”
“Nightmare,” inspired by the weird and often spooky sounds that Billie Eilish uses on her music, incorporates creaking doors and foosteps. On “Cloud 999,” Mahaffey tried to capture the euphoria of a long drive home with the windows down.
The album also includes two musical interludes, “Flames I” and “Flames II,” which Mahaffey used to experiment with various harmonies and beats.
Mahaffey says that he is always in a state of making new music. He has a folder in the Notes app on his phone called “Songs,” with 939 notes in it.
Occasionally, one of those notes will become a full-blown song that he’ll work out the chords and harmonies for and then produce on his computer.
Typically, he saves the singing (which he says is the hardest part) for last.
With last Wednesday’s performance under his belt, where he sang a mix of old and new songs, including a remix with Fly Montag of “Cloud 999” that will be released soon, his main goal right now is to keep performing his music live.
When asked what his advice is for other students who want to produce music, Mahaffey says to just get started.
“Start messing around, you don’t have to show it to anybody,” he said, “The worst thing that could happen is that you make a bad song.”