You may have heard of Bellingham’s local musician Harbor Day, but even if you follow the artist on Instagram or have seen them perform live, the musician remains a bit of a mystery. Most people don’t even know their real name is Austin Colwell. It’s time to get to know the person behind the pseudonym.
Colwell first got into music when he joined the school band in the fifth grade, which he was pushed into doing by their sister. He played trumpet and tuba before he was introduced to the guitar at the age of 13. This was also when he first started to write their own music. Their music career really started to take off when they began attending Western Washington University.
Colwell graduated from Western Washington University in 2020 with a degree in linguistics with a focus on Spanish and a minor in Arabic and Islamic studies.
“I think it makes me think about the attainability of understanding the lyrics even if you’re a speaker of a different language,” Colwell said regarding their degree. “It really impacted ‘Still Life,’ which is a track that I made [where] the opening verse is in Italian. Working in other languages really made me reinterpret rhythmic structures.”
Colwell works in the tech industry when they’re not making music, but in their free time, they still stick to the arts.
“I’ve been really into writing poetry recently,” Colwell said. “I got a typewriter like a couple years ago from Value Village. I’ve been using that just, like, for short-form.”
He said he was also into acrylic painting for a while and even considered a graphic design major or attending DigiPen Institute of Technology in Redmond, Washington. Their dad, however, said it was too competitive.
“Lo and behold, I ended up in the music industry later on, which is way less competitive, right?” Colwell joked.
Sticking to music has worked out for Colwell, as they recently reached a total of two million listens on Spotify and released their newest album ‘Ivy League’ on Nov. 18, 2022. Still, it’s been a long journey for the artist to get to the point he’s at, and there’s more he wants to do.
The beginning of Harbor Day
Colwell first began producing music in 2018 with the help of local producers, Barnes Blv. and Ice Cream Cult, and a friend who he credits for helping them to grow their recording skills.
“That led to me meeting the guys at Hockey Teeth, who I played with for a while,” Colwell said.
Colwell did backup vocals and rhythmic guitar for Hockey Teeth from 2019 until they left the band in 2022.
After leaving the band, Colwell was able to focus on making music as Harbor Day.
Colwell laughs at the fact that many people think Harbor Day is their real name. The stage name is actually something he conjured up after spending a lot of time at a park on the water north of Bellingham during what he describes as tough times.
“I don’t know the name of it, but it’s right by these warehouses, and it’s got like a gravel entrance and everything,” Colwell said. “Whenever I was going through a really tough time or a depressive episode or anything like that, I would drive out there in the middle of the night, and I would just sit by the water.”
Colwell said the cold would help to shock them out of whatever mental funk he was in at the time.
“Music slowly became a similar therapeutic process for me, so I wanted to have a name that was like, OK, I want my music to pull people out of whatever they’re in in the same way this place pulled me out of the hard time I was going through.”
Using music for something deeper
Colwell said their music has progressed from what he would describe as R&B and lo-fi beats to more surf rock with “larger than life elements” due to their history with electronic producing.
As their music has progressed, he’s been able to learn and grow with it, particularly through their coming out process.
“I’m bi, and having that be not known within the realm of my music makes it harder to … I don’t want to sound silly or pretentious or anything, but there’s a certain amount of lyrical depth that I feel like you’d be missing out on if you didn’t realize that I belong to that community,” Colwell said. “I feel like everybody’s first queer song ends up being too on-the-nose, and mine was a very very blatant coming out song called ‘Call Me By Your Name,’” he continued with a laugh.
Colwell was largely inspired by one of Vampire Weekend’s founding members, Rostam Batmanglij, to use their music as a way of navigating their journey as a queer person. He takes a lot of inspiration from the band; Colwell described their newest album, ‘Ivy League,’ as their “Vampire Weekend fan album.”
“I wanted this to feel like a refined identity of this point in my life and what I enjoy,” Colwell said about the album. “I can say that I’m really proud of how it turned out because I feel like I was the most articulate that I’ve been yet with what I wanted to say.”
With this album, Colwell strived to use their songs to speak on topics that are important to them.
“I want to make sure that I’m standing for things and saying things with my heart, especially now that I’m realizing I have a bit of a platform to do so, and I shouldn’t squander that opportunity,” Colwell said.
He said the track “Looks” is about environmentalism and has a bittersweet “enjoy it while you can” kind of message in regard to the planet. “Harvard” is about universities and how Colwell sees them as businesses trying to sell the idea of college as a “transitory step into the real world.”
The recording process
Colwell records all of their songs in a makeshift studio in the garden shed at their apartment, which is where the production name “Garden Shed Music” comes from.
The space can fit three people comfortably. Decor consists of an old sewing desk from the ‘20s that acts as a production desk, old furniture, framed pieces of art, hanging nautical flags to fit the Harbor Day theme and about 20 instruments.
“I try to dress it up to feel like a playground or just make it feel as close to what was childlike wonder to me,” Colwell said.
Collaborations and performances
Though Harbor Day does all of the production and recording of their music by themself, he certainly doesn’t shy away from getting involved in Bellingham’s music scene or working with other artists.
Colwell is currently working with the band Supermissive to record a remix, and he’s also creating a soundtrack for a Western student’s film.
Last year, Colwell collaborated with Lark Pascual, who performs drag in Bellingham under the name Feather Fatale, to record a double single release ⎯ meaning two songs ⎯ titled Nightingales.
“I had such a lovely time working with Austin,” Pascual said. “I have nothing but good things to say about them. I admire their work ethic and their hustle for it.”
Pascual emphasized the significance to them of working with a fellow queer musician like Colwell, whose work is visible and cared for by the community.
“It was very liberating,” Pascual said. “I know that queer art is so cathartic to not just the artists but the community, and I would argue that sometimes in the music scene, that’s not always the main focus of the artist’s intention.”
He said that was not the case with Colwell, though, and that working with them felt just as good as doing drag.
This sentiment was shared by Joslin Keim, a graduate from Western’s journalism department who took the photos for Colwell’s album art, one of which ended up being the album cover for “Ivy League.”
“I’ve worked with people who were frustrating to work with, and it was just super easy working with Austin,” Keim said about the photo shoot. “I think we had a good understanding [of] what each other’s creative vision was. I think I can join the list of speaking highly of working with Austin.”
Colwell has also performed at many local venues in Bellingham, including the Wild Buffalo, the Bluebird House and the Underground Coffee House on Western’s campus. He put together a live band in the early fall of 2022 specifically for these kinds of live performances, which consists of Gabe Massey and Calla Avens from local band, The Hobby, and Avery Colbrunn, who was the drummer for another local band, The Hookups, before they broke up.
Colwell said leading a band for the first time has pushed them to show up to practices with more mastery of the material than ever before.
“If I’m not the person that everyone else can look over to for cues and making sure everything’s all good, then like ‘Oh no,’” he said.
Harbor Day’s impact
Colwell hopes to make their music more of a full-time gig.
“The goal for this year is actually shipping stuff out to labels because I have more standing power than I’ve ever had before to actually have that conversation,” he said.
Colwell’s original wish for their music, which in connection to the Harbor Day name was to help listeners through their own struggles, seems to have come true.
“People have reached out to me through DMs and been like, ‘Hey, your music helped me through a really tough time,’” Colwell said. “It’s stuff like that that are moments that keep me going. It’s really sweet being able to be such an … not even an important part of people’s lives, but like, I just like being a part of people’s lives and just helping them out a little bit because it’s a tough, dark, terrible world right? If you have the opportunity to change somebody’s life for the better, even if slightly, that’s the closest to divinity that you can get in existence.”
Katie McNabb (she/her) is a senior reporter for The Front this quarter. She’s a fourth-year double-majoring in English and journalism. Her past reporting has focused on science and the environment. In her free time, she enjoys reading, exploring Bellingham with friends and experimenting with plant-based cooking.
You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org