Shane Cooley ’10 is on an island.
Here at the Newport News Jazz and Folklife Festival, he is standing alone on a converted dock, his only company a guitar, a microphone and an assorted display of pumpkins, gourds and bales of hay.
He is surrounded by emptiness on all sides, with a lake to his left stretching as far as the eye can see. In front of him is his audience, a smattering of 25 or so festival-goers, ranging in age from four to 84, seated on bleachers fit for Little League baseball. They have taken a break from visiting the dozens of stands offering lemonade, barbeque and sweet corn to find him performing at the farthest point of the festival’s grounds. He is separated from the audience as well, a ravine and 30-plus yards keeping them apart. Cooley does his best to connect, however, filling out pauses between songs with anecdotes and jokes, eventually getting his audience to clap and sing along with him.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Cooley handles the situation with such ease. After all, his college experience has been a 400-level course in dealing with isolation.
To call the College of William and Mary’s reception to Cooley mixed is to put it lightly. Since arriving on campus two years ago as one of the Class of 2010’s most accomplished members, the singer-songwriter has been labeled arrogant, self-promoting and very much in love with himself. Behind the strength of the school’s marketing of him and a subsequent Flat Hat article, Cooley’s reputation grew to one of a “famous” freshman.
“I was billed as someone who was famous,” Cooley said. “I’m not famous. I’m increasingly well-known because of all the performing that I do, but I’m not famous and I never thought I was famous. But because everyone heard that on campus, everyone ended up knowing about me and forming their own perceptions.”
A regional artist in high school, Cooley had recorded albums and toured part of the East Coast, but his celebrity status was certainly not equal to what some on campus thought. The record he had produced his senior year of high school, “Flying Naked,” had been pushed to a number of labels, but was ultimately rejected. Once at college, he decided it would be fun to start a campus rock band, so that’s what he did, by forming “Shane Cooley and the Aviators” with Christian Amonson ’09 and Will Murphy ’10.
Cooley’s next actions, while innocent in nature, did nothing to change the negative perceptions some had of him. Trained since he was a young musician to always heavily promote every gig he had, he printed off hundreds of fliers and created a Facebook event to publicize each show he played. And he played plenty, never turning down a single offer on campus. Chris Rini ’09, chair of the UCAB Homebrew committee (the school’s Thursday night concert series that features student performances), believes that these acts had a lot to do with the negative feelings some students had toward him.
“When you do that, you have to be cautious about how that’s going to go over,” Rini said. “He set himself up for disappointment. Everybody saw him coming, and people saw him as very self-promoting. People and musicians — the music scene — didn’t react well to that.”
The Aviators broke up on amicable terms in the fall of 2007, principally because Cooley had every intention of trying to make it in the music business while his bandmates did not. Cooley then began transforming himself into a solo artist and hired an impressive list of studio musicians (John Mayer’s keyboardist, the bass player for Lifehouse) to help him record his full-length album “Whirlpool.”
After traveling to Charlottesville every weekend during October 2007, the result was a professional-quality record that was well-polished in just about every facet. The CD has drawn positive reviews as well as limited radio airplay.
Despite this success, however, Cooley still struggled to gain student support at the College. During the spring semester, he auditioned for Homebrew — as he had every semester — but did not receive a show.
“The [Homebrew] committee felt as though something about his presence was lacking [from what it had been before],” Rini said.
Cooley began to feel less and less comfortable performing on campus after that experience. When opening for the band Sparky’s Flaw at Fridays@5 last spring, he experienced stage fright for the first time in his eight years of performing.
“I only have stage fright now when I play at William and Mary,” he said.
In the midst of what was a struggling semester musically, Cooley had some good things happen in his personal life. After his roommate and good friend Thomas Harrington ’10 dragged him to a friend’s party, he met his current girlfriend, Amanda Costigan ’10. Costigan, having never met Shane before, had held the opinions many did of Shane — he was arrogant, aloof and thought himself to be better than everybody else.
“But then I actually met him,” Costigan said. “And he was nothing like that at all. He was just a really nice, really sweet, quiet guy.”
Cooley represents an interesting case study into the College’s music scene, and campus culture in general. Certainly, by his own admission and by the assessment of others, Cooley’s rock-star persona and his heavy-handed promoting tactics played a role in the less-than-favorable reception he’s gotten from some of the student body. But Cooley also wonders how much of his troubles would have happened to anyone, how much of it has to do with a campus culture that impacts not only the music scene at the College, but also sports, theater, and even Matt Beato’s ’09 failed City Council campaign.
“Being a musician here is just like being a football player here,” Cooley said, noting that both groups earn a minimal amount of appreciation. “There’s a lot of people going here that do a lot of cool things outside of school, and nobody cares.”
By all accounts of those who know him, Cooley has made a number of improvements in his life during the past year.
“I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and say, ‘He’s doing so much better now,’” Costigan said. “I think he’s doing better personally and musically.”
It’s not as though he still doesn’t deal with the same perceptions others have of him — he does. But after progressing from the naïve freshman to the reclusive, somewhat jaded sophomore, he’s settled in more comfortably in this third year at the College.
“He alternates between welcoming the infamy and having it really piss him off,” Costigan said. “But I don’t think it bothers him as much as it used to.”
Even the photo shoot for this article provided an example of the notoriety Cooley still faces. Several passing students slow down to stare as he poses for photographs, a sign that yes, he is just another student, but he’s the only student having his photograph taken in the middle of the Sunken Garden. He’s also not without his quirks — for example, a borderline insomniac, he sleeps on average only four hours per night.
Of course, his trademark outfit of a skinny tie, vest, blazer and yellow aviator sunglasses doesn’t help with efforts not to attract attention.
“I know I’m asking for it,” Cooley said with a laugh. “But now, after all of this, I really just don’t care what people think of me anymore. I kind of stand out. I’m not going to change that. I can’t now; it’s too late. I’m not going to not be myself.”
In the meantime, he is just going to keep doing what he’s doing now: spending time with Amanda, exchanging obscure “Spinal Tap” references with Thomas in their mess of a Ludwell apartment, performing sets with his mock death metal band, “Choking Pig,” and doing everything he can to make it in the music business. This entails writing songs year-round, touring in the summer and playing music festivals up and down the East Coast during the school year. He’s not turning huge profits (“I get by. Barely,” he said), but is doing well enough to sustain himself in the hope of catching the proverbial “big break.”
Now that he’s just a solo artist, his sound has taken on much more of an Americana, folk sound, fitting for a self-described “hick” from the Northern Neck of Virginia.
He no longer plays extensively on campus, opting instead to take a one-performance-per-semester approach. He is holding a solo concert Wednesday, Oct. 29 from 9 to 10 p.m. at Lodge 1.
“It’s going to be all new songs,” Cooley said. “I certainly won’t have anything to hide behind. It’ll just be ‘Take me as I am.’
“I think it will be nice.”
And this time, he won’t put up so many fliers.