It begins with a descending piano line, two falling notes that spill into a chord. Then the voice melts over the piano: “Lonely, but not when you hold me.” The melancholy is understated—far from weepy. Later, she sings, “Lovely, I can't believe you love me / On a warm spring night you stunned me,” as the piano gets a bit louder, the poetry of each syllable more insistent.
“One of One” is the most popular song on the Spotify profile of duendita, also known as Candace Lee Camacho, a senior at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music and an alum of the institute’s Future Music Moguls program for high school students. (The song has surpassed 750,000 plays on SoundCloud.) Duendita’s status as an up-and-comer was solidified in October, when Spotify chose her as one of five emerging stars to feature in a video announcing the public launch of Spotify’s “Spotify for Artists” platform.
The experience, duendita says, also helped her confidence.
“That gave me hope,” she says. “Things like that make me feel like I can be myself in any space that I enter.”
The duendita moniker, which began as a high school nickname, is a play on “duende,” a concept that Spanish writer Federico García Lorca explored in a 1933 lecture (translated here). He described it as an intrinsic reaction to art—chills and emotion, or soul.
Growing up in Queens, New York, duendita was exposed to music early on, thanks in no small part to her father, who was a DJ in the South Bronx. She listened to artists like Donna Summer and Stevie Wonder, studied classical music and jazz, and learned to play the piano. Then, as a junior at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School, a visual and performing arts school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, she applied to NYU’s Future Music Moguls program.
Future Music Moguls is a free 14-week workshop for high school students in the tri-state area, one of eight such arts-oriented programs that NYU offers. It gives students a taste of the Clive Davis Institute’s recorded music curriculum, and one of its goals is to extend NYU’s impact to students in underserved communities.
Since it started in 2010, it has helped launch the careers of several promising young artists, including Topaz Jones, another alum of Future Music Moguls who, like duendita, went on to study at Clive Davis, and was also among the five artists featured in the October Spotify video. To date, Jones has amassed more than 12,000 followers on SoundCloud, and his song “Tropicana” has been played nearly 2.5 million times on the site.
“We are looking for students that we believe to be underrepresented at NYU, but also underrepresented in the industry and the world at large,” says Marat Berenstein, Future Music Moguls’ lead instructor and a faculty member at Clive Davis. “So we’re looking for young women, we’re looking for students of color.”
In 2012, they were looking for duendita.
“She applied, we met her at the interview, fell in love,” Berenstein says.
Duendita continues to appreciate the program’s emphasis on diversity. As a woman of color and the granddaughter of immigrants from Puerto Rico, she is acutely aware of the importance of representation in the arts, and in culture and society more broadly.
“I’m interested in representing myself and telling my own story,” she says. “I’m not going to let anyone speak for me, because I have the resources to speak for myself.”
Some of those resources have roots in Future Music Moguls. Through interactions with instructors from Clive Davis, guest speakers, field trips, and more, duendita complemented her musical instincts with technological expertise. She recorded her voice for the first time, and found the process empowering. Technology allowed her to give shape to what she believed had long existed within her.
“I feel like a lot of my songs are in my body through ancestral memory, and I feel like I’m constantly tapping into my bloodline or just singing songs that naturally live in my body,” duendita says. “A lot of it deals with talking to my ancestors and just meditating and thinking and emptying my body for expression to flow through, like a vessel.”
The product of that process is an eclectic mix of genres and traditions, a portfolio that includes classically-trained vocals and piano, soul and jazz and R&B. Her song “Yikes!,” for instance, layers vocal acrobatics over a strong bassline and barely-contained percussion, undergoing a metamorphosis every few seconds.
Abhita Austin, founder of Hidden Chapel Studios and former technical instructor for Future Music Moguls, recalled that duendita was compelling even as a teenager not only because of her passion and enthusiasm, but also because of qualities more difficult to categorize. She was an energetic old soul.
“I pride myself in having the talent of knowing when somebody’s great, so now it’s just unfolding,” Austin says. “She was great when she was 16, she’s great now.”
After Future Music Moguls and her senior year of high school, duendita’s next step was Clive Davis, where she is now a senior. (She took a year off between her sophomore and junior years, and preaches the benefits of setting time aside to nurture mental health.) And although duendita has now built a small support team, including a manager and a producer-engineer—and is eager to give them credit for the role they play in her work—she is in control. Whether alone or collaboratively, she composes, writes, records, produces, engineers, and performs her own music.
“I have a very specific way that I want to express myself,” she says, “so that’s what I do.”
And now, with less than a semester and a half left in her time as an undergraduate, duendita is looking to the future. She plans on releasing her forthcoming EP in January 2018, and putting out a single or two before then. She’ll spend her last semester at NYU studying in Berlin, and has no plans to slow down after graduation.
“I just really want to get out there and start working right away, because I’m ready, and I think I wouldn’t have been ready if I didn’t have this place and I didn’t have years of experience with Future Music Moguls and taking a year off,” she says. “All those things combined just made a perfect recipe for me to just kind of step out after graduation and just do it.”
One thing she’s especially looking forward to is going on tour to make and meet fans—a process she views as essential to her artistic project.
“Being an artist is like having two heartbeats,” she says. “One for the world and one for yourself.”