Jack Staffen, a Gallatin sophomore and Brooklyn native, is also one half of the young songwriting duo Jack + Eliza, whose sweetly nostalgic harmonies harken back to Motown, the Beatles, and lots of other music from way, way before their time. He and his collaborator, Columbia University sophomore Eliza Callahan (who, at 15, became the youngest ever winner of the international John Lennon Songwriting Contest in 2011), were childhood acquaintances who started making music together in high school after reconnecting through the Third Street Music School Settlement.

The group’s debut EP, No Wonders, produced by Chris Zane (of Passion Pit, The Walkmen, and Mumford and Sons fame), had already earned mentions in Vice, Nylon, and even Time magazine in advance of its release on September 23.

Meanwhile, Staffen, who at the start of his second year hasn’t quite settled on an academic concentration, has been sinking his teeth into a mix of music, history, and political science courses. NYU Stories caught up with him to chat about that ’60s sound, balancing schoolwork with performing, and what he's listening to at the moment. (Listen to a Spotify playlist he and Eliza put together here.) 

Are you tired of Jack + Eliza being compared to the Mamas & the Papas?
I love the Mamas & the Papas, so I consider it a compliment. I guess if people said you sound just like the Mamas & the Papas over and over, that’d be something else. I hope that we are somehow branching out and building on what they did. That’s the goal.

Do people ever have a hard time telling whether your music is a sincere homage to the ’60s sound, or more of a parody?
Yeah, I’ve hard this a lot: “Is this an ironic thing? What’s the deal?” It’s not ironic. I just find that sound to be classic and timeless. A lot of the music, especially Motown and the Beatles, is very theoretically complex, but comes off really simple. I was really drawn to it, Eliza as well. So we have a fixation with that aesthetic, but we try not to be totally stubborn about it. We want to also give it a modern spin.

Do you like contemporary music as well, or just the old stuff?
Oh yes. Grizzly Bear, The xx, Tame Impala—those bands have had a tremendous impact on us and our songwriting, and we’re thankful for their existence. Mac DeMarco is another one. A lot of times we’ll want to take a song in a certain direction, and say something like, “This will be our Grizzy Bear song,” or “This will be our Tame Impala song.”

How did you get into music?
I guess I started to do musical theater when I was 7 or 8, because my parents wanted me to. I was obsessed with that for a little while, but eventually I started to realize it wasn’t the dialogue that I liked—it was the music that excited me. So I started to play music myself and I wrote my first song when I was 9 or 10. It's called "Close My Eyes." I didn't show it to anyone for a while, and when I finally did, they were like, “this is not bad!” You should consider writing more songs.

Do you remember your first public performance?
Oh yes. Grease, the musical, at summer camp. I think I played Kenickie or something.

What kind of music did your parents listen to when you were growing up?
Eliza grew up listening to the type of older, retro music that we make—she always had the Beatles and the Stones playing in her house, and a lot of Motown. But for me it was different. My dad works in advertising, so he’s always naturally inclined to listen to what’s happening at the time. Growing up I listened to a lot of ’90s music—Fountains of Wayne, Weezer... and the first record I ever bought was Britney Spears, the one with “Hit Me Baby One More Time” on it.

Your music now sounds pretty relaxed, but most teenagers have an angsty phase. What was yours?
Radiohead had a tremendous impact on my music and my songwriting. Especially on the album Kid A, they're kind of relegating the actual catchiness of the songs to vibes and textures, that’s something I learned from them. Nirvana also had a huge impact on me. When I was in 7th grade, I wanted to be Kurt! I had a journal and long hair and I’m sure I was the angstiest kid around.

Has it been tough to balance your life as a student with your musical career?
In college you’re given a certain amount of time to allocate to whatever you want, and we’ve both decided we’re going to dedicate that time to music, so it’s working out well. Also, it’s great going to school with so many creative people and songwriters I’m meeting through taking classes in Clive Davis. We’ve played shows with The Roofer’s Union and Del Water Gap before—those are NYU bands. And my roommate is an amazing songwriter, which is great because if I see him writing a song while I’m reading Plato or whatever, then I think I’ve got to write a song too.

The recording industry has changed so much over the past few decades. Do you worry about making money in the age of Spotify and YouTube?
Not right now, but looking into the future it's certainly something I worry about. I think Spotify is terrible, but at the same time I love it, and it’s definitely enhanced my music writing because it allows me exposure to so much music. And as a musician, of course, the pro is that more people are going to listen to your music, which is great. But at the same time, you get $.007 dollars for every listen—so with a million listens you only make $700. I think that’s kind of unfair. In order to really make money you need to license your music, or get your music sponsored a little bit. “Will this song sync well with a commercial? Will this song sync well on Gossip Girl?” That’s increasingly what people are thinking about.

What’s it like to write songs with Eliza? Do you ever get into disagreements about your work?
The dynamic is great. I couldn’t imagine writing music with any other person. It's very easy and we're each really able to add on to what the other person is doing. But at times it can get a little tense. Sharing your song with someone is like sharing your baby with someone, so when they say, “I like the chorus but I just don’t know about this verse,” it can really hurt. But in the end the product is something that ultimately we’re both more proud of.

What do you envision for yourself five years from now?
Other than my Louis Vuitton line? [laughs], I just hope more people are listening to us and respect us and like our music.  

Check out this Spotify playlist of some of Jack+Eliza's favorite songs.