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From Stewart Gym Rocker to Classical Composer

The versatile Nathan Michel ’93 writes indie-pop hits as well as Beethoven-inspired scores for TV ads.
During his freshman year at Episcopal, Nathan Michel ’93 and friends Brooks DuBose ’94, Marshall Foster ’93, and Rob Lesman ’94 started a rock band that performed for other students in the old Stewart Gymnasium.

From then on, Michel knew that his future was in music. Rock would be part of that future, and his first major recording would earn raves from Rolling Stone magazine. But he could have never predicted that he would become best known as a classically trained composer and would one day write the score for a Super Bowl ad. Or that he would combine a Beethoven sonata with a famous rapper’s ode to Kobe Bryant for an acclaimed advertisement honoring the basketball legend.

It all started simply enough. After majoring in music at Bowdoin College, Michel traveled to Amsterdam, where he studied under Louis Andriessen, a renowned Dutch composer and pianist. Michel went on to earn a master’s degree in music from Yale University and a Ph.D. in composition from Princeton University.

In 2004, Michel moved to New York City with his wife, Amber Papini, whom he had met while they were both at Yale. He began writing music for television commercials, and after a few years in the city, the two teamed up with bassist Brian Betancourt to form the indie pop band Hospitality. The band’s first major release earned raves from critics, including Rolling Stone magazine, which called it “aggressively adorable” with melodies “stickier than hot tar.” Time magazine in 2019 declared its song “I Miss Your Bones” one of the 10 best of the decade.

In 2014, Michel moved with his family — he and Amber now have two children — back to his hometown of Charleston, S.C., where he teaches at the College of Charleston while still writing music for commercials and film. Michel’s music has been featured in many well-known commercials, including last year’s “Sisters” Nike ad highlighting the careers of Venus and Serena Williams and Bud Light’s famous “Bud Knight” campaign, which premiered during the 2018 Super Bowl. “That was pretty exciting,” Michel says. “Getting a Super Bowl ad is sort of the Super Bowl of advertising.”

Most recently, Michel wrote the music for a Nike ad in August — a tribute to the late Kobe Bryant that featured a spoken-word piece by rapper Kendrick Lamar. Writing music for commercials and films, Michel says he enjoys playing with the interaction between the music and the visuals. The ad had a fast-paced edit, with Lamar rapping over it, Michel says. “But the ad agency wanted a take on Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata,’ which is slow. So that was an interesting example of playing against the video edit.”

“Not all ads are as cool as that one,” he adds, “but I do get to work on some pretty interesting stuff!”