REVIEW: ‘USC Songwriters’ Forum in perfect concert

Picture of the songwriter's forum Volume IV album cover. In the middle is a circular picture of the sky. The background is red and blue.
The Forum released its fourth album at the end of the fall semester, concluding its latest testament to the artistry of cooperation. (Photo courtesy of Songwriters’ Forum)

As Trojans, we enjoy a wealth of artistic excellence around us every day. With incredible programs and professors, access to top-tier resources and a long list of spectacular alumni, it’s no wonder that USC cultivates a rich landscape of artists year after year.

But inside that sprawling scene and set against the massive art world of Los Angeles, it’s remarkably difficult for an artist to stand out.

That’s not a problem in USC’s Songwriters’ Forum, a student organization that pulls together members to meet other artists, craft songs and share ideas to ultimately produce an album each semester. When working with the Forum, every artist helps another shine.

Nowhere is that shine better heard than on its fourth album, released this December. The outcome of at least 23 student artists, “Volume IV” is a testament to the beauty of collaboration.

Over the course of the semester, members were invited to workshops, crash courses, recording sessions and panels with industry professionals, as well as general meetings where they could meet other collaborators. That sort of hands-on production is what Forum president Jaja Tong envisioned when she founded the club in 2020.

“When I arrived at USC, I noticed that there wasn’t really an organization for music creators,” she said in an interview on the Forum’s Instagram page. “There were acapella groups and other performance groups, but no [group] was really dedicated to writing and producing music.”

On “Volume IV,” the group delivers on that intention with a fantastic record. The tracks vary in style and tone, but a common thread of invention runs throughout. Of the 11 songs, 10 have at least two credited artists.

The tracklist kicks off strong with “Hand Me Downs,” by Via McBride and Roy Gantz. Its driving grand piano melody underscores the song’s instrumental exploration through gentle choral passages and the powerful guitars and synths riffing over the chorus. Via’s singing remains stoic and refined for the song’s duration, highlighting the emotional journey the music takes.

Other songs take on a completely different sound, revealing the disparate influences and voices among the Forum’s members. For example, “LAX to JFK” by J. Morales and JC features relaxed singing and rapping over a low-key trap beat, a stark contrast from the drama of “Hand Me Downs.”

While more energetic than “LAX to JFK,” “Good Without You” by Chandra, Ethos and Mackenzie Jaimes influenced by trap production elements. The stuttering hi-hats and 808 kicks provide a great base for the earworm hook, singing “I know you don’t believe me / but I’m good without you” — the track is a radio-ready breakup anthem.

As an album by a songwriting club, it’s no surprise that a number of other songs in the tracklist can be classified under the ‘singer-songwriter’ tradition. Over lovely acoustic guitar and string tracks, songs like “First Time” by Hayley Brooke and Paul Khairallah or “Night Unknown” by Lyra Steiner and Jazmin Polido deliver intimate performances throughout the tracklist. Joni Mitchell fans, tune in.

Equally lovely are the album’s lyrics. Lines like “Somehow / I found myself / But have I lost more than I found” (“Take a Look At Me Now” by Ingrid Griffin, Alejandra, JCR and Isaac Griffiths); “If you wanna run away / I’ll be ready any day / Sweep me off my feet, show me how to fly” (“Hypnotize Me” by Annie Wiener and Goldlove) and “These timezones / They get in the way / Of us talking all night / Or waking up to the same day” (“Timezones” by Jenna Chung and Jazmin Polido) communicate the heartfelt truths of college life and relationships with maturity far beyond the artists’ age.

“Full Moon” by Karly Ramnani and Goldlove doesn’t just have a few memorable lines but dedicates its length to conveying the narrative of the singer on a drive, complete with a sudden implied ending. It sounds like the hit ballad from a musical cast recording — one which I hope the artists continue to write.

For me, the buried diamond in the tracklist is “the butterfly effect” by Morgan Stewart, Addie Lillard and Natasha Singh. The gorgeous singing is laid tender and smooth over a slowly evolving bed of ukulele, keys and vibraphone. The song is a group hug for the ears and truly epitomizes the artists’ ability to compliment each other.

The track ends on a playful note, with the absolute jam “Turn a Whole New Page” by Cameron Davidson. There’s only one featured artist here, but the instrumental is so colorful and eclectic it’s as if he collected together dozens of elements and inspirations from the other Forum tracks. It’s a song to smile at, pure and simple.

The dense, 38-minute album is packed with dozens of voices, ideas and lifetimes of influences. The result is a wonderful listening experience and a masterclass in the value and execution of teamwork in art. I look forward to “Volume V”!