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Freshman-year essay leads student to backstage meeting with Dave Matthews

James Serra, E'17, got the opportunity to meet his idol, Dave Matthews, thanks to an essay he wrote freshman year. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

In 2013, James Serra wrote an essay for his freshman “College Writing 1111” course about how Dave Matthews’ music had influenced his own life and musical pursuits. He handed it in and didn’t think much else about it. Three years later, James found himself shaking Dave Matthews’ hand backstage after a concert, all thanks to that very same essay.

“Meeting your idol like that; it was a dream come true,” he said. “It’s something I’d imagined, like ‘What would I say if I ever actually met him?’ but I always just shooed it out of my mind because it didn’t seem like anything that would ever happen.”

A self-described “huge Dave Matthews fan,” James, E’17, was introduced to the music for the first time by his other brother, Joseph, when James was in elementary school. They would sit in Joseph’s room, listening to the band’s music, learning the lyrics, and parsing out their meaning, James recalled.

Joseph took James to his first Dave Matthews Band concert when James was in sixth grade, and the two have only deepened their brotherly bond through their shared love of the music, going to dozens of shows together since then.

Inspired by the music, James decided to teach himself how to play guitar, modeling his style after Matthews’.

James studied in Thessaloniki, Greece, for his first semester at Northeastern, part of the N.U.in program at the university. There, he purchased a guitar so he could keep playing, and started writing his own songs as a way to articulate his new experiences—being 5,500 miles away from home, making new friends, and living on his own for the first time.

So during the spring semester, when he was instructed to write an essay about how his writing style had evolved, James opted to write about his songwriting style, and the transformation it underwent while he studied the performances of his idol, Dave Matthews.

“Although I have never met him, I know that any song I compose or any lyric I write will have a foundation built off of the style he presented to his fans,” James wrote of Matthews in 2013.

“I shook his hand and just thanked him for his music. It’s had such an impact on my life,” James Serra, E'17, said. Photo courtesy of James Serra

“I shook his hand and just thanked him for his music. It’s had such an impact on my life,” James Serra, E’17, said. Photo courtesy of James Serra

Impressed with his brother’s work, Joseph sent the essay to the DMB fan club, The Warehouse, which ran the essay in one of its publications.

“I thought it was a phenomenal essay,” Joseph said. After Warehouse representatives posted the essay, “I never really gave it another thought,” he added.

Fast-forward three years. The Serra brothers were driving across the country to Irvine, California, to spend a long weekend attending back-to-back Dave Matthews Band concerts.

That weekend, Joseph got a call from a representative at The Warehouse. He stepped away to take it, but returned with the call on speakerphone.

The representative on the line said, “‘Hey James, great essay,’” he recalled. “At that point, I had no idea what she was talking about. Suddenly it clicked, and then she said ‘How would you like to get it signed?’”

In his head, James quickly ran through the logistics of printing out his essay and mailing it to the fan club, he said. “Then she said, ‘No, how would you like to go backstage and meet Dave Matthews?’”

“It was such a shock,” James recalled.

Joseph said, “I was just blown away. Here was this thing that happened three years ago, coming back now? It’s not like I ever followed up on it, or anything. It was just really cool.”

The brothers went to the Saturday night show that weekend, but hardly absorbed it. As James put it, “We were just thinking about what was going to happen the next night, what we would say to him.”

After Sunday’s concert, the brothers went backstage with roughly a dozen other people, and Matthews walked around to meet with each group.

“I shook his hand and just thanked him for his music. It’s had such an impact on my life,” James said. Throughout the roughly five-minute meeting, the essay actually never came up, though Matthews did dispense some pearls of wisdom.

“He just said, ‘If you work as hard as I do, anything could happen, you could be in the same place,’” James said. “As soon as I got back I decided, ‘I have to keep writing.’”

The experience, he said, was only made better by sharing it with Joseph.

“Especially getting to share it with someone you’re so close to,” James said, “It was the perfect experience to get to share it with my brother, who introduced me to the music in the first place.

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