Vinny Cavalcanti is an outspoken, energetic punk rocker and Nick Miller is a soft-spoken, jazz-trained guitarist. In their case, opposites attract attention.
Despite their differences, the two teenage members of the band Mystique managed to put together a funk-inspired, anti-substance-abuse rap that took first place in the Grammy Foundation and MusiCares Teens! Make Music contest, earning both a trip to this year’s Grammy Awards.
Growing out of an early songwriting exercise in Spy Hop’s Musicology program — which each year gives a handful of teens the full experience of being in a band — the writing of “Psychological Cool Guy” mirrored its award-winning message.
“The song definitely demonstrates the progression from something that’s just fun and messing around to something that’s a serious problem,” Miller said.
Cavalcanti, an 18-year-old senior at West High School whose background in music includes Johnny Cash and mariachi, said Mystique shelved the early concept for the song because it seemed sort of silly. It was Cavalcanti who eventually revisited the song months later with a fresh, autobiographical interpretation.
“From the perspective of a young person, it’s easy for adults to kind of be like, ‘Well he’s an adult, I can’t say anything about it,’ ” he said. “But at any age you should be able to tell your friends, ‘Dude, you have a problem.’ ”
It was something Cavalcanti had tried to do for a friend struggling with alcohol abuse. Musicology mentor Jeremy Chatelain, himself a touring musician for most of his life, worked with Cavalcanti, Miller and the rest of Mystique to hone the song’s direction. Ultimately, Chatelain said, the message of “Psychological Cool Guy” captures what only a band like Mystique could.
“It sums up the entire teenage experience like an adult could never do,” he said.
For all its recognition as a unique portrayal of the dangers of drug and alcohol use, Miller and Cavalcanti didn’t set out with any profound social commentary in mind. Miller, a junior at Rowland Hall who was just 15 when he entered the program, said he and Cavalcanti have actually been surprised by the attention the song has garnered and that it wasn’t until after they had written it that its full weight became apparent.
“The genesis of the song was just, ‘Let’s do this because it’s fun,’ ” Miller said. “And then we listened to it later and it’s like, ‘Wait, this is really poignant. How did that happen?’ ”
For five years Chatelain has urged Musicology students to consider those questions, to think about the message they’re putting out into the world.
“One of my mantras for the class is, ‘If you write a song and you don’t really care about it, who else in the world is going to care about it?’ ”
True to Chatelain’s mantra, recognition for “Psychological Cool Guy” appears to have increased consistent with the duo’s own appreciation and application of the song’s message. Miller said that ultimately the song is a cautionary tale about how a person’s decisions affect other people, but Cavalcanti also said that tale isn’t one-sided.
“It’s easier for someone to tell other people there’s something wrong with them than to admit it to themselves,” he said. “Writing this song has definitely helped me personally to look at myself in a different way.”
Going to the Grammy Awards
Each September, Spy Hop auditions teenagers for a handful of spots in the 10-month Musicology program in which students are formed into a band to learn the ins and outs of writing, rehearsing, recording and performing live.
Vinny Cavalcanti and Nick Miller, together with mentor Jeremy Chatelain and Mystique bandmates Angel Nolazco, Austin Wolfe, Emme Nelson and Liam Elkington, wrote, recorded and promoted their own full-length album, “Which Boots? Which Boots,” from which “Psychological Cool Guy” was selected as this year’s Grammy Foundation and MusiCares Teens! Make Music winner.
This award came on the heels of the band’s first honor — first place in the worldwide Adobe Youth Voices contest for another song from their album — and carried with it a trip to the Grammy Awards’ backstage rehearsals, an iPad and cash prizes.