The Constellation Collective: An organization of minor stars

Boulder songwriters collaborate at The Laughing Goat

Left to right: Robison, Farmer, Donovan and Hawk are the core songwriters of The Constellation Collective.

When Kyle Donovan ran sound for a group of soulful songwriters at The Laughing Goat Coffeehouse in the summer of 2016, he knew he wanted to make music with them. It was the third Friday of the month and, just like any third Friday of the month, rich harmonies drifted through the door and out onto the patio of the cafe.

Donovan approached the performers after the show, complimenting their vocals and asking if they could get together to play.

“I joined them the next month and every month since,” Donovan says. “It’s been an evolving experience from there.”

The Constellation Collective, a group of songwriters based in the Boulder area, takes a “strength in numbers” approach to a typical singer/songwriter act. On the third Friday of the month, the core four — Dechen Hawk, Colin Robison, Kate Farmer and Donovan — along with a rotating set of featured artists from across the Front Range, present a collaborative set of originals to The Laughing Goat’s faithful attendees.

Hawk has been booking music shows for the cafe for the last 10 years and has been part of the collective since its beginning. He and Robison had been collaborating within other singer/songwriter groups in the Boulder area before they broke off to claim their own night at the cafe, wanting to diverge from the Americana folk set that they felt dominates those groups.

“I have the Jeff Buckley singer/songwriter side but also a Stevie Wonder side, which is more soul and funk and R&B,” Hawk says. “I’m more of a neo-soul artist in that regard, and Colin has a very bluesy approach to his songwriting. … We’re all a little outside of the norm. You can strip any genre down to singer/songwriter because there’s someone that wrote it. At its core it’s a melody and all of the genre stuff disappears at the end, but we all have our angles that we bring.”

While some of the monthly nights feature only the collective’s core songwriters, the group frequently brings other artists and friends into the sphere. Before the collective formed, Robison and Hawk collaborated with Colorado songwriters such as Ramaya Soskin, Jarrad Menard and Gregory Alan Isakov at Penny Lane, a coffee shop that used to be on the same block The Laughing Goat is now. In the years since its beginning, the group has included Menard, Soskin, Andrew Sturtz, Lauren Joy, Megan Burtt, Julian Peterson, as well as other Colorado artists. “The group belongs to everybody,” Donovan says.

Although Hawk and Robison had been singing originals with the rotating members for over a decade, it wasn’t until Farmer and Donovan joined that they found their interstellar name.

“We were trying to think of a name for it, and we looked at the definition of a constellation, and it was ‘an organization of minor stars,’ which we thought was kind of ironic because it was unknown artists who had been making music for a while,” Hawk says.

Outside of their work with the collective, each member has their own independent music career, as well as other collaborations. As a producer and arranger, as well as a performer and talent buyer for Boulder venues, Hawk has written hundreds of songs and released seven albums with his various bands and songwriting projects. Robison has also played with numerous bands, most recently Colin Robison and The Heavy Hearts, a classic blues group that includes Hawk as one of its members. Farmer makes up one-half of The Farmer Sisters and performs her originals with Robison at venues across Boulder County. As the recent winner of the Wildflower Arts and Music Festival’s people’s choice award for his original music, Donovan has plans to release his newest album, Then and Now, later this year.

The members of the collective back up one another instrumentally and vocally with seamless blends that add a full, almost choral tone to the folk and blues pieces.

“I don’t think people get the chance to hear big vocal arrangements very often,” Hawk says. “There are a cappella groups, but, unless you’re in church, you’re not really getting that choir feel over original singer/songwriter material. It’s rare, and it feels great to hear and be around.”

Hawk hopes that listeners can find catharsis and connection within the collective’s music, especially at a time where many people feel disconnected or divided.

“If your day is stressful or challenging, you may come and listen to music and find that your body relaxes, your heart rate drops, you may have a release in crying or joy, or a combination of the two. It allows you to move through the trauma of life and it allows you to create joy as well.”

Donovan believes there is something to be said about the presence that comes with a listening room show, particularly in a setting as intimate as The Laughing Goat. As the group sings from the platform in the back of the cafe, he reminds the audience to bring not just their attention to the moment, but their intention as well.

“We can do that at any time. We can treat each other with that same respect, and we can really listen to each other and be good to each other. Remember that we’re all on the same team at the end of the day, and there’s a lot more that unites us than divides us, and that we should give each other that attention and that intention when we need it most,” Donovan says.

Like constellations help us make sense of the night sky, music helps us make sense of the world. And though stars on their own can be awe-inspiring, when gathered in constellations, they take on a new power in relation to one another. Music has a similar ability; a study published in Frontiers of Neuroscience even reported that when choirs sing together, it is common for their heartbeats to sync.

“It moves people. It moves their hearts. It can take you on a range of emotions and there are people that come down consistently for that experience, to share their appreciation for it. For us, it’s a similar thing of consistency. It’s important for us to show up every month no matter how we are feeling and what’s going on in our lives,” Hawk says.

The June 15 performance also marks somewhat a birthday celebration for the collective, with Donovan’s birthday the day before and Hawk’s birthday two days after. The date of their performance also marks the birthday of Hawk’s father, a singer and trumpeter who died when Hawk was 14 and largely inspired his son’s love of music. “I feel like he’s here more than ever,” Hawk says.

This love of music brings the group together, as they learn each other’s melodies and layer their voices to create something bigger, something lush and communal. But for its members, the collective is more than a way to make music with a group of talented musicians — it’s a way to spend time with one another.

“Most of us are so busy being musicians, hustling to make a living as an artist, that we don’t have a lot of time to spend with each other, so we can play music and we get time to see each other,” Hawk says.

So they meet at the stage of the coffeehouse where familiar faces return month after month to see the newest material from the group of minor stars.

“I would say the infrastructure in place at The Laughing Goat is very supportive of songwriters,” Donovan says. “We’re really all songwriters, and from the lights to the sound to the stage, it really lends itself to a place where songwriters can be heard and respected.”

Though old members are often welcomed back, the collective is geared toward featuring young artists. It helps promote musicians who are early in their careers while also keeping the collective fresh.

“We want to feature them, get their music out and let them out of the nest. We’ve seen numerous people leave the collective and go off and do their own thing and continue to blossom and have their careers get larger from there,” Hawk says. “It’s fun to support younger artists and younger musicians and also create something that is consistent and sustainable for the audience. It’s always changing and always evolving as we bring in new artists and new music.”

If you’re interested in hearing what rich harmonies the latest constellation of players is producing, the next gathering is Friday, June 15 at The Laughing Goat.