Imagine being a 14 year-old aspiring musician and waking up one day to find out that your voice is on the biggest pop album on the planet. “I was really excited because I knew it could potentially happen, but I didn’t think it would happen so quickly and with such a big artist,” Marija, 14, tells Billboard about her vocals — and the singing and playing of 13 of her friends — being included on the song “It’s Nice to Have a Friend” from Taylor Swift‘s Lover album. (Billboard is only using Marija’s first name because she is a minor.)
So how did the Canadian teen end up on the fastest-selling album of the year? Marija is a student at Toronto’s not -for-profit after-school Regent Park School of Music (RPSM), which provides low-cost musical education to children in Toronto. Last year, she and some fellow students spent three days in a studio with Toronto-born producer Frank Dukes recording an album called Parkscapes, a collection of haunting instrumentals featuring their voices, horns, strings, steel pans and harp as park of Dukes’ ongoing Kingsway Music Libary project, which aims to provide artists with sample-ready beats and beds for their original compositions.
“Frank knew he was going to be working with Taylor Swift and we knew there was a chance [she’d use one of the student’s instrumentals] — we always dreamed this would happen,” says Richard Marsella, executive director of RPSM, of the long-shot possibility that Dukes would be able to place something form Parkscapes with an A-list act. “It resonated with her, and he started talking so passionately about what we do here.”
RPSM provides a community-based opportunity for more than 1,000 students in Toronto to get highly subsidized music lessons. Parkscapes was hatched as a potential means to provide additional funding for the school, using Dukes’ compositions and the students’ playing.
But what RPSM also does now is appear on the most talked-about album of the year. “This is an example of Frank Dukes getting really creative with Taylor Swift, and how cool is that?” says Marsella, who noted that in addition to the royalties, licensing fees and residuals the school will receive from the use on “Friend” of “Summer in the South” off the Parkscapes album and the student’s singing and performing on the track, Swift’s team also called on Friday with what he said was a very generous personal donation to the school from the singer.
“This will benefit us for years and years,” says Marsella of the two-campus school, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. “It allows us to keep lessons as low as $1 a lesson. Some of these kids come from very challenging situations and we try to prop them up and make them feel like superheroes and what is more superheroic than playing on a Taylor Swift album? It will inspire students in generations to come with the power of what music can do to change people’s lives.”
“Summer” is one of 11 songs the school’s students recorded in partnership with Dukes as part of an initiative put together by ad giant BBDO Toronto to create a kind of “Sample School.” The firm’s associate creative director, Rana Chatterjee, tells Billboard that in addition to being a a long-time hip-hop fan, he is also friends with Dukes and one of the instructors at RPSM, Jasper Gahunia. “We were hanging out one night and Jasper was telling me about his work with the school and I was so moved that by instinct I asked, ‘How can BBDO help spread the mssage and draw attention to the school and raise some funds?””
The answer was creating what Chatterjee describes as a kind of “stock library” of music featuring the students that could then get licensed, with fees going to support the school. Knowing that Dukes was already building a sample library with Kingsway, he figured that partnering with the Grammy-nominated producer would increase the probability of making that happen. “I pitched it to Frank last September at a birthday party and he loved it and said, ‘Let’s try to get it banged out before I move to Los Angeles in January,'” says Chatterjee.
Fast-forward to last week, when Marija says she didn’t find out the “Summer” sample and session had made it onto the finished album until Lover‘s release on Friday (Aug. 23). “I didn’t really think we’d be able to hear our sample like that. I thought that they would really change it, but right away when I heard it I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s us,'” she says of the song’s summery, steel pan-driven groove and the prominent children’s choir backing vocals. A longtime violin student at the school — and, not for nothing, a lifelong Swiftie — Marija says being a professional musician “definitely” feels like an option now and being included on the album has only expanded her interest in pursuing a career.
“When kids my age listen to these songs we never think that maybe it could be us on there one day,” she says. “But this kind of brings in the realization that we might not be the singer, but you could be part of the background and be involved. For the record, “Friend” is, of course, also one of her favorite songs on Lover. “Hopefully this will inspire more people to use our compositions, who knows? In such a short time we were able to be on one of Taylor’s albums,” the teen notes, adding that it would be pretty cool if another well-known local musician, Drake, was interested as well.
The students on “Friend” range in age from 9 to 18 and they play violin, steel pan, cello, drums, guitar, xylophone, turntables, saxophone, harp, piano and viola.
“It sounds hauntingly good and it’s really reflective of the beautiful music programs we have here, teaching everything from harp to steel pan, organ and DJing, helping kids find their voice on whatever interest level they have,” says Marsella, who dreams of seeing the 14 hand-picked students recreate the tune live when Swift inevitably comes to town on tour. “It will change these 14 kids’ lives forever.”
In the notes to the Parkscapes album, Dukes wrote, “Samples have always been used to create songs. We hope you’ll use these ones to create change.”
If you are interested in finding out more about donating to the school, click here.
Check out the thank-you video the students recorded for Swift, as well as their original composition and “Friend” below.