In the southeastern region of UCLA near the David Geffen School of Medicine is a place where it’s possible for one to get lost in the sounds of wind passing through trees, squirrels playfully running and climbing, turtles waltzing in a pond. And all of the noises from the city outside suddenly fade away.
James Eagle, a fifth-year religious studies student, wandered into the Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden, off of Hilgard Avenue. What started as a soundtrack for him to listen to turned into his album “Garden Music,” which features hip-hop and electronic music with ethereal piano sounds that play throughout each song.
“I kind of just fell in love with the place. I didn’t expect it to be so huge,” Eagle said. “I started going there pretty much every day listening to music and catching up on reading. The music I started to make became ambient and nature-like as a result.”
Before discovering the botanical garden, Eagle decided at the age of 13 he wanted to be a musician and started producing music and beats at 17. Eagle said there is no defining moment of when he wanted to be a musician but it has just always been in the back of his mind. Eagle is now a musician who focuses on experimenting with hip-hop beats.
His dad is a singer and songwriter and was an inspiration for him to start taking music classes at a community college. Besides working on “Garden Music,” Eagle has done some lo-fi acoustic recordings of mostly covers on his dad’s tape recorder from the ’80s.
For further inspiration Eagle listens to some of his influences such as J Dilla, Flying Lotus, Kanye West and Sublime. While also listening to classical music and electronic music, Eagle said he enjoys experimenting and trying to expand outside of the hip-hop genre when he produces music.
With just a laptop and MIDI keyboard, Eagle produced the 13-song album. The writing process only took a week and a half and consisted of Eagle figuring out what sounds incorporated how he felt about certain parts of the botanical gardens. It took another two months to compile the album. What originally began as a four-song soundtrack for Eagle to listen to expanded as he became more interested in other aspects of the garden, like the squirrels running around which lead to the track “Squirrel Games.” “Squirrel Games” has a playful tone with percussion entering and leaving the song in a quick manner like a squirrel would when it encounters food.
“I just tried to think of different things I liked in the garden. (The squirrels) would try to come up to me and lick my coffee,” Eagle said. “I tried to make a song of what it would sound like with the squirrels running around.”
The album consists of steady hip-hop beats accompanied by floating synth sounds that make childlike movements throughout the songs. Eagle’s song “Turtle Waltz” sounds like a merry-go-round song and has a three-beat step that the listener can waltz to themselves. He found inspiration from a pond located in the garden that had over 30 turtles just wandering around and he wanted to make a happy, quirky melody to go along with his experience.
Another song that Eagle said is one of his favorites is “Mom.” It is one of the first beats he made for the album.
“(After visiting the gardens), I made this one particular beat, which was originally called “˜Sun,'” Eagle said. “But then I started to listen to it and thought of my mom. I sent it to her for Mother’s Day. It kind of took on a whole new meaning as I realized the connection between Mother Nature.”
Before finishing the album, Eagle headed back home to Santa Clara for the summer. Eagle was having a hard time finding inspiration in Northern California, but once he found a park near his house, he tried to work through some of the transition problems so he could finish the album.
“I really wanted (each track) to flow entirely through to the next one. I don’t think most people will notice (the transitions) but it drove me crazy,” Eagle said.
During the process of making the album, Eagle confided in only a few people including longtime friend Morgan Braschi whom he thought would understand his reasoning for making an album based on his experiences in the botanical gardens.
Both Eagle and Braschi bond over their love of making music, and Braschi sometimes raps over some of Eagle’s beats. Eagle said Braschi is his number one source to gather opinions on his music because he respects Braschi’s thoughts on music.
Braschi described “Garden Music” as a great mix of synthetic and organic sounds that encourages the listener to enjoy life. He said experimental music can sometimes come out abrasive when trying to get a lot of ideas across, but he said Eagle’s album finds a good balance.
“It can be put on repeat and you won’t notice it has played itself over five times,” Braschi said.
Eagle also shared his music with UCLA alumna and lecturer Nikita Gupta. Gupta taught Eagle last fall in her course, Life Skills for College Students. The class teaches students how to deal with personal issues like stress. During Gupta’s office hours students are encouraged to discuss what they are going through.
“During the conversations he told me his interest in music and I told him he should branch out and put himself out there,” Gupta said. “Last spring he came in for a meeting telling me he was composing this CD. I was really supporting him with that.” Gupta said the album has a playful energy but is also soothing at the same time. She enjoyed the mischievous childlike play that the music gave off.
Braschi and Gupta said they can imagine Eagle’s journey through the gardens as he encountered the “Turtle Waltz” and “Dew” masking the sun. Both listen to his album during down time or during their walks and meditation in a garden.
Gupta said listening to the album reminded her of how relaxed she felt walking through the gardens when she was a graduate student at UCLA. Braschi noted that when listening to the album at night it is calming and he said he can picture the botanical garden Eagle took him to on his visit to Los Angeles.
Eagle said he wants other people to listen to the album while walking around by themselves and enjoying nature.
After graduation, Eagle said he wants to continue to produce and make music. He said he wants to hopefully get a job that relates to his passion for producing or a job that helps him have time to produce music on the side.
“I want to get into performing live. That’s my next frontier,” Eagle said. “I don’t know how it’s going to work but I’m going to push in that direction and see what happens.”