Student Band Night Hawk Sings the Stories of Edward Hopper Paintings

By Rebecca Goldfine
Both Peyton Semjen ’24 and Colter Adams ’24 have always loved Edward Hopper paintings, finding much to imagine about his brooding, lonely figures set in angular spaces pierced with shafts of light.

They also both love to make music, a proclivity that started when they were kids. As a twelve-year-old, Semjen frustrated her classical music teacher when she played her own compositions instead of practicing Mozart. At five years old, Adams ran down to his basement as soon as he got home from school to plunk the keys of an out-of-tune piano that had been left behind by previous tenants.

The two met their first semester at Bowdoin, becoming good friends by gathering around the piano in Quinby House with its residents for sing-alongs. When they had to move off campus during the spring semester due to the College's COVID protocols, they gave themselves an assignment: to write a series of new songs inspired by Hopper's art.

"We started looking at Hopper paintings together, and there is that weird spooky feeling, that dark undertone in many of them," said Semjen, who is an art history minor and government major. "But there is something beautiful, too, the way the light always shines through. We realized it was perfect for our music."

Adams added: "Hopper's work is so beautiful, but in a lot of ways it is a blank canvas for storytelling because of the ambiguity he plays with among the stark geometric lines. We thought it would be really cool to try to write stories from inside his paintings." Adams is an environmental studies and government major and a music minor.

"It was a songwriting exercise," he continued. "It kept us busy and kept us writing while we were isolated through COVID."

The bandmates in Night Hawk.
Night Hawk bandmates, top, left to right: singer and songwriter Peyton Semjen, bassist Shea Sewall, guitarist Alex Kozic, drummer Courtney Burnett, guitarist Zach Leibowitz. Bottom, left to right: songwriter and guitarist Colter Adams and cellist Layla Rafimayeri ’24. Photo by Alex Spear ’24.

Though they were living apart, Semjen in the suburbs of Boston and Adams near Washington, DC, they spent hours discussing the characters in Hopper's scenes, wondering about their relationships and what cities they were in, asking questions like, "Who is this mournful melancholy figure by the window looking out? What is she thinking?" Adams said.

They've not yet released all of their Hopper-inspired songs, but there are several available on Spotify that take off from Hopper's NighthawksAutomat, Morning Sun, and Soir Bleu"His work spans from 1915 to the 1950s, and we were going all across the Hopper canon," Adams said. Night Hawk songs can also be streamed on Bandcamp.

Though the specific scenes in Hopper's paintings and the mysterious characters provide fodder for the two students' lyrical stories, the art also serves as a kind of visual metaphor for what they strive for musically.

"So much of our sound was developed around his aesthetic: the stark imagery and ambiguity of our lyrics, our color palette, and the way we play with warmth and light with our songs," Adams said.

Night Hawk bandmates
Colter Adams describes the songs of Night Hawk as mellifluous and ethereal. "We love to play with vocal lyrics and layering, we play with melancholia, ambiguous loss, forlornness. We like to write songs that are grounded in a story and, as we write them, they become more ambiguous." Photo by Alex Spear ’24.

When they returned to Bowdoin their sophomore year, they planned their first show in September on the porch of MacMillan House. With their friends playing bass and guitar, they were astonished by the hundreds of people who came out.

Though Semjen credits the turnout to students "starved for an activity," and Adams says they benefited from the show being the same night as the annual Student Night at the Museum event, Semjen says the performance was "the most encouraging thing in the world. That is what really jump-started our desire to be musicians."

From then on, the two focused even more intensely on songwriting and performing. They've recorded and produced songs at a Maine-based studio, which gave them a student discount, and have played many times at Maine venues, including Space, Blue, Geno's Rock Club, and The Apohadion Theater in Portland. (Check here for upcoming concerts.) They also played a show at Pete's Candy Store in Brooklyn in August. They are regularly joined by bandmates Shea Sewall ’24 on bass, Alex Kozic ’24 on guitar, Zach Leibowitz ’24 on guitar, Layla Rafimayeri ’24 on cello, and Courtney Burnett ’26 playing drums.

The band is currently recording their debut EP (extended play), Everything Good Ends, which will be released January 21.

"Sundress" by Night Hawk. Directed by Aadhya Ramineni ’23.

While many of Night Hawk's songs are still colored by Semjen's and Adams's love and fascination for Hopper's art, more recently the two students have been writing songs that are more personal or inspired by other influences, including Stephen King and Semjen's sister's wedding. "We’re finding our way," Semjen said. "Our songs are about confusion, isolation, where are we? Our songs are about who we are."

"We wanted to imbue the songs with more of our own personal stories," Adams added. "There is just so much happening with our lives that it felt a little bit disingenuous to use someone else’s art as a starting point."

For the most part, the two friends split the creative duties of songwriting, with Semjen focusing on lyrics and Adams working on the instrumental side of the music. Nonetheless, they are close collaborators on every aspect of their creative project.

"Peyton is really good with evocative imagery and turns of phrase, and that is what makes the stories so accessible to listeners. Because, even if you haven't had the exact experience she’s recounting, the way she plays with words and her ambiguous imagery paints such a picture. That is also our connection to art, because our songs are really visual," Adams said.

Semjen said their parents tend to refer to the two of them as twins. She agrees their artistic sensibilities complement one another. "We’re opposites, but like puzzle pieces, we fit together super well," she said. When her songs sink into darkness, Adams "throws in a little light at the end of the tunnel in a lot of songs, which brightens them, turning them into optimistic, hopeful things." 

They are also equals on the business end of the band. As they move close to graduation, they're spending up to twenty hours a week "writing, planning, making calls, and networking," Semjen said.

They're figuring out how to build a career path in music even as they walk along it, soaking up as much advice as they can from other musicians and producers they meet on the way. "Networking is how you figure it out," Semjen said. Otherwise, "there’s not a lot of info out there" for aspiring musicians.

As they prepare for life after college, they're planning a tour from Portland to DC. Adams sends out emails almost daily to schedule shows, and they're also planning to play at a couple of festivals. "It is going to be difficult, and we’re ready to play some empty venues!" Semjen said. "The starving musician trope isn’t a myth, and we’re ready for that."

But they're committed to supporting themselves with their music, because there's nothing else they'd rather do.

"Whenever I am not doing music I am thinking about it," Adams said. "I'm a total daydreamer, I constantly find myself thinking of melodies or of a feeling from a concert that is not dissipating." Rather than pursue an office career or something a bit more predictable, he added, "It feels really good to trust your passion and put it front and center."