From Ehringhaus to Cat’s Cradle

Print and post promotional flyers. Check. Burn music to CDs. Check. Set up DJ and merchandise tables. Check.

In Ehringhaus dorm’s lobby, an 18-year-old Holland Gallagher waits for the show to begin. His suitemates — designated as “hype men” tonight — pump up the growing crowd. On this mid-November evening in 2012, Gallagher plays music from his first album “Evoke,” a mostly instrumental, keyboard-heavy record, which he passes out to show attendees for free. The lobby grows louder and more crowded, filling with Gallagher’s friends, his friend’s friends and random passersby.

A great show, he thinks afterwards.

Three years later, Gallagher recalls the evening with a laugh. “Honestly, that show, that album — it was really bad, objectively speaking.” With three albums, two EPs, a handful of live shows and a short film under his belt, Gallagher has grown from freshman newbie to refined, multi-talented artist.

Now 21 years old and a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill, Gallagher has transformed from screamo band member to rapper, to screenwriter to music producer — and along the way, he’s set an example for what aspiring artists can do with the abundant resources available in Chapel Hill.

 Senior Holland Gallagher keeps a Maschine studio in his room to arrange and mix beats and tracks. Photo by Amy Tsai

Senior Holland Gallagher keeps a Maschine studio in his room to arrange and mix beats and tracks. Photo by Amy Tsai

It was late August of 2005. The levees had broken, allowing water from Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River to flood the city between them. Eighty percent of the city of New Orleans would flood, and many homes would become submerged in 10 feet of water.

Almost 500 miles away, an 11-year-old Gallagher sat in an Atlanta hotel. After evacuating New Orleans with his parents, Gallagher wondered how many days would pass before he would be able to return to his home. He twirled the cord of his headphones on his fingers and turned up the volume.

The music that provided a source of comfort to Gallagher during the months after Hurricane Katrina have become much more 10 years later.

“After going through all that, he could be one of the most mean, hateful people, but he’s not, he’s the opposite,” said Ace Henderson, Gallagher’s friend and musical confidante since meeting at a Local 506 show in 2014. “He’s so energetic and helpful, a real good, gold-hearted dude.”

The same energy came through at his first live show, performed at Ehringhaus dormitory in 2012, under the name Gentleman Contender.

With the knowledge that one of his rap influences, Childish Gambino, had created a stage name by using an online name generator, Gallagher decided to do the same. Gathered with his suitemates, he entered their names on into the “Wu-Tang Name Generator,” made some tweaks and claimed Gentleman Contender as his stage name. It was with this name that he would go on to headline shows at Cat’s Cradle and Local 506 and release multiple full-length albums and self-directed music videos.

Gentleman Contender was short-lived, however, and ended his musical journey in September 2015, less than three years after his debut in the lobby of Ehringhaus dorm. But Gallagher — the musician, the artist, the student — continues just as strongly now, after Gentleman Contender, and just as strongly as he did before Gentleman Contender.

That Gallagher has immersed himself in the arts is no surprise. An only child with two parents in arts-related careers, Gallagher grew up surrounded by his father’s recording studio and his mother’s art museum. His father, Jay, built a studio from the ground up in New Orleans and recorded artists like Aaron Neville, Trombone Shorty and even a young Harry Connick Jr. The parents enrolled Gallagher in piano lessons and had him sing in his elementary school’s choir.

After evacuating New Orleans, a brief transition period in Charlotte and finally settling in Raleigh, Gallagher picked up singing and piano again. He posted a video cover in which he sang and played piano. Then he got a call.

On the other end of the line was a member from Morning Conclusion, a screamo band started out of a nearby high school in Durham. They were recruiting a vocalist. Screamo music often featured both screaming and singing; Morning Conclusion had the screamer, but lacked the latter.

“I guess someone had shown them the cover video I put on Facebook because they just called me up and asked me to sing for them,” Gallagher said.

He accepted what would be his first of two stints in screamo bands.

“We played two shows,” Gallagher said. “I think that’s where I started to recognize that I really liked to perform.”

As is characteristic of the fickle high school heart, both bands dissolved quickly, paving the way for electronic music to make its mark on popular culture and Gallagher. With the rise of electronic dance music, or EDM, Gallagher found that its laid-back, ambient electronic sister genre resonated more with his personal style. To this day, much of his music uses elements of that musical genre.

After arriving at UNC-CH, he took classes called Beat-Making Lab and Rap Lab to improve his production techniques. They are two of the alternatively-focused music classes offered at UNC-CH.

“For years, there have been opportunities to explore different types of music: classical, jazz, opera. But if you look at a college campus and count the opera singers and then count the rappers, there’s a huge disparity,” said UNC-CH adjunct professor Pierce Freelon, who co-taught Beat-Making Lab for three semesters. “Prior to 2011, there wasn’t a space for hip-hop artists to be reflected in the courses.”

Now, however, that has started to change. Gallagher is a music and arts entrepreneurship double-minor who has been able to use his professional musical pursuits for course credit.

“We provide, specifically, instruction on how to use equipment, how to create songs, how to market and promote your work, and access to equipment and professional connections,” said Dr. Mark Katz, who pioneered these music department courses. “We’re providing an opportunity for them that they wouldn’t have otherwise.”

UNC-CH is one of the few research universities in the country that offers courses such as these, and Gallagher recognizes the opportunities they’ve given him. “UNC and Chapel Hill in general have offered me so many resources to make and get my music out there,” he said.

Gallagher played his first live show in his first-year dorm, Ehringhaus, in 2012. Though he has moved on from dorm life and former stage name Gentleman Contender, Gallagher continues his his musical and artistic pursuits. Photo by Amy Tsai

Gallagher played his first live show in his first-year dorm, Ehringhaus, in 2012. Though he has moved on from dorm life and former stage name Gentleman Contender, Gallagher continues his his musical and artistic pursuits. Photo by Amy Tsai

After Gallagher’s Ehringhaus debut, Gentleman Contender booked shows around Chapel Hill. He credits Local 506 as a huge source of support during that time.

“I had been making music for a while, but I was always so excited to perform. At heart, I’m a performer,” Gallagher said.

Local 506 owner Kippy Perkins said helping newer artists book shows is part of her main goal in operating the music venue. “What we’re really trying to do, especially with Holland and guys like him, is to give them more opportunities to perform live and establish a local fan base,” she said. “Once (they’ve) done that, (they) can expand and move further and further and start touring.”

Playing local shows with the hopes of expanding is one of two common strategies that hip-hop and electronic artists use to make it big, Gallagher said. He employed this strategy for the three years he performed as Gentleman Contender.

Gallagher “works really hard, and he has a very DIY approach,” sad his friend Henderson, also a musician. “He actually helped me realize that making good music by yourself is very possible, because I had become dependent on others for parts of my music. But we started swapping techniques; we’ll work on songwriting together and he’ll give me some production tips — that’s really what our relationship is all about.”

This back-and-forth, relentless work toward more technically refined, interesting and true-to-self art is evident in everything Gallagher says about his musical journey.

“If you make a song, you think people are entitled to listen to it, but really no one cares until your music is actually impressive,” Gallagher said, speaking more to himself than to anyone else. “You’re not going to be good at it your first try, you’re just not. But at some point, if you keep trying to focus on getting better as an artist, you’ll figure it out and someone will notice.”

It seems Gallagher is well on his way to “figuring it out.” He’s confident in his music. His style is more focused, his influences clearly derived from synth pop bands Purity Ring and CHVRCHES and electronic musician Shlohmo.

Henderson describes Gallagher’s sound as something that reminds him of a carefree beach trip with his friends. “His music — it’s very reflective, but also very imaginative. It leaves just enough space for us to be like, ‘Damn, can’t we all just be young people having fun?’”

“Hundredth” from Gallagher’s new project titled Vacay

His music isn’t the only thing that has shifted paths; his career strategy has changed, too.

Instead of focusing on establishing a local fan base and then expanding, Gallagher has begun sending his beats directly to artists and record labels in an effort to become more well-known in music production circles. Ditching the name Gentleman Contender was more than just about shifting gears musically, Gallagher said. “It’s about shifting in my efforts, being more professional and kind of graduating from my earlier stuff.”

But he hasn’t limited himself solely to musical endeavors.

For much of the latter half of 2015, Gallagher wrote and developed a screenplay for a short film, which was shot in December and is in post-production now. The film follows an aspiring filmmaker on a short vacation with his girlfriend, when he receives a call from a well-known rapper, offering him the chance of a lifetime.

“On a fundamental level, the film is about career versus relationships,” he said.

The film, which is expected to run about 15-17 minutes, was shot — partially at Local 506, thanks to the generosity of its owners — by a professional videographer. With the majority of the dialogue being presented only as subtitles, the film retains the experimental nature that is so characteristic of Gallagher’s work. The score, produced entirely by Gallagher, is dreamy and affective, glossy and atmospheric, with unmistakeable hip-hop influences.

“Look At You Now” from the score for Young Ppl, Gallagher’s short film

Henderson plays the lead role, supported by singer-songwriter Katie Garfield, who is Gallagher’s friend from high school, and rapper Well$, an up-and-coming artist from Charlotte. “Holland is the only guy I know who would be working on music, and be like ‘Hold up, let me just stop and do this short film ‘cause this is what I want to do right now,’” Henderson said.

Gallagher and the team hope to send the film to festivals after its completion. “Even if we don’t win or get in anywhere, it’ll be cool — it’ll be awesome just to have done it.”

As for what’s next for Gallagher, he’s not entirely sure. He has a go-with-the-flow attitude that carries over into his plans. He wants to launch an indie R&B project, maybe do another film, keep producing music for an independent label. His roommate and longtime friend Jimmy Wyngaarden sees him thriving in the arts culture in Durham. “It (Durham) has a big arts scene that I know he’s attracted to, and he’s gotten involved in it in the last couple years as well.”

Despite being fuzzy on the specifics, everyone who spoke about Gallagher was confident and optimistic.

“Holland is an extremely talented individual with unique sound,” Local 506’s Perkins said. “Everyone who encounters him knows he’s an amazing, creative person, and I know he’ll do well.”