Where I Started
At my parents’ insistence that I learn an instrument, I started playing piano when I was in middle school. Thinking I was destined to be the next US Open champion, I stopped taking lessons to focus on training for tennis. For a few years, my time was not spent on musical or artistic pursuits—unless you make the argument that my crosscourt backhand was a masterpiece (although I certainly wouldn’t make that assertion for myself). But despite how many hours I spent on the court, I kept feeling like I was missing something. By the time I was 16, I decided my next pursuit would be to learn how to play the guitar.
Every day, I would play. Before school. After sports practice. Before dinner. In between homework assignments. Before bed. It wasn’t long until the guitar became a staple in my life. It became the only consistent life component that I could rely on fully, that I could invest myself in, and that I could depend on to express myself in a way other than spoken language. I had a vague end goal of wanting to write songs, but for the most part I didn’t have defined expectations. I recall watching a video of Hozier performing “Cherry Wine” and thinking, “If I could ever play this song, I will have become the guitar player that I want to be.” At that time, I had decided that song was my method of determining when, for lack of a better term, ‘made it’. At that moment, “Cherry Wine” was the ceiling. Within a few weeks, I was playing Cherry Wine from memory. Within a few weeks I had “made it.” But that’s the funny thing about “making it”—you never do.
The pursuit of any skill revolves around a cycle of defining your expectations, surpassing them, and then redefining them. When you start learning anything, the beginner views their skills (or lack thereof) as a burden. The beginner is not yet at a skill level where their abilities are helpful. It’s a struggle. It’s a battle to keep going. It can be so easy to become disheartened. But then at a certain point, you have an incredible moment where the realization hits that you, in fact, have learned so much in such a small window of time. At a certain point, you begin to view your skills as an asset rather than a burden. There is a particular moment that occurs with language acquisition where the pieces fit together seamlessly, and you feel the magic of fluency. “Cherry Wine” is such a special song because, to me, it represents the first moment in which I felt fluent in speaking with my guitar as a language. There was no longer a separation between what I felt capable of playing and the music that I heard being released professionally, and that was an unexplainably empowering moment.
During my last two years of high school, I became interested in musical creation. I started writing songs on the acoustic guitar, as painful and horrible as they were. Over time, I wrote songs about people I cared about and life events that I felt unable to process otherwise. Soon, it became a form of therapy for myself and a form of communication that guided my interactions with others. I began to record these songs in my bedroom, in hotel rooms, or wherever else I found myself inspired. These songs quickly became some of my favorite possessions. They were little time capsules that I could look back on and remember exactly how I felt in one particular moment.
Songs are jars of memories. You write them, put them on the shelf, and revisit them later. I think the reason that I’m drawn to songwriting is related to the reason that I’m also drawn to photography. To me, there is something fascinating about the art of capturing the world exactly how it exists at one moment. One day in the future, after life has inevitably changed, you can look back at the world and reminisce on how it once was. Among other things, songwriting is a form of time travel.
By the time I graduated high school I was still writing songs and I was still playing every day, but I was frustrated—I had songs that I was immensely excited about, but I didn’t have good recordings of them. It was painfully frustrating to feel that there was an incredible song stuck somewhere but that it was trapped, confined by my lack of ability to record it. I had voice memos of dozens of songs, but I felt unable to finish them and release them to the world because I didn’t have access to a multi-million dollar studio nor did I know how to record them myself.
It became my mission to teach myself music production—to educate myself and get to the point where I could take my music to the next level. My goal was to transform my songs from an internal dialogue to an external one. During the fall of my freshman year of college, I became devoted to learning everything about Logic Pro. I spent countless hours watching tutorials, finding interviews, studying mix sessions, looking up definitions, and reading articles about everything I could find. I didn’t know exactly what I needed to know, so I decided I’d try to learn everything.
I started with the building blocks of production—EQ, compression, limiting, gain staging, etc. Soon, I had moved on to concepts like auxiliary bus routing, tape saturation, stereo imaging, phase cancelation, modulation, harmonic excitation, etc. Every bit of knowledge became exponentially more exciting over time because every new skill could be combined in an infinite number of ways with everything that I had previously learned. Throughout this experimentation process, I was fascinated with the old school ways of recording and the way that those analog devices have influenced the way recording technology is reproduced digitally. What started as an interest in production became a full-on obsession. It wasn’t long before I became interested in electronic music production. I loved playing guitar, but there was something extremely intriguing about music that was completely created on a computer. Something that simply existed in code and yet could have such an impact on the world and other people. As I typically do, I dove in head first. I began rearranging my previous acoustic songs into electronic compositions. Somewhere along the way, I convinced myself that these new productions were infinitely better, that they were perfect, that somehow they were polished in a new way. But this started a huge problem. For months on end, I spent every day obsessed with my songs. When I was in class or at the gym (or anywhere really), I would count down the time until I could get back to my make-shift studio. I would make new mixes, stack more synths, and create huge 150+ track mix sessions for songs that started out as just one guitar and one vocal. It wasn’t long before I had dozens of songs with fifty slightly different mixes for each. I spent hours switching back and forth, trying to figure out which was right and which was wrong. That wasn’t sustainable. It wasn’t long before I burned out.
Often the creative process is enlightening, but other times it can feel overwhelmingly frustrating. When I write music, I usually get so involved with it that it becomes my obsession for the time being, and ultimately, I burn out. I tried to produce every song perfectly, naively operating under the illusion that my art would be completely flawless and immediately groundbreaking. Every day, I mixed new versions of the same songs—versions that aren’t necessarily better or worse than the previous, just different. The only thing I end up with is frustration, and a hundred versions of the same song, none of which I’d release because by that point I was sick of it. The problem was that I never knew when I was done with a song, because I could always add more synths, more pads, more keys, or more anything. Production is infinite and while that was exciting, it was also crippling because I hadn’t yet learned how and when to let go and decide that a project was finished. Metaphorically, I felt like an architect who stopped designing new houses because he walked into one and kept re-painting the kitchen a slightly different color.
It’s so easy to forget that music isn’t meant to be hoarded or kept behind closed doors… nor is it supposed to be perfect. It’s meant to be shared, collaborated on, and released. Music captures a moment, but not a perfect one. Our lives aren’t flawless, so we can’t expect our art to reflect perfection either. Sometimes becoming too engrossed in one project leads to a proximity effect that is ultimately detrimental.
I used to think that poor recordings made poor songs, but that is so unbelievably wrong. I’d prefer an honest, compelling performance recorded on a phone than a lie of a performance recorded with the best equipment that money can buy. What makes music valuable is the human element.
I’m glad I became interested in electronic music for a short while because that closeness provided clarity and showed that I’m interested in music that is created by humans, not computers. When I revisit my old electronic productions, I feel nothing but discontent. I don’t stay proud of my electronic songs because to me, they don’t pass the test of time. After a week, or month, or year, they don’t feel genuine or real or honest. But when I go back and revisit songs that I wrote on the guitar, I am not dissatisfied with them, regardless of their production quality. I view them as a portal back in time, and I am not ashamed of where I was at that particular point in time because as the famous old quote says, “every expert, at one point, was a beginner.”
Moving forward as a musician, I’ve recognized that less is more. Quality is not dictated by sheer number of tracks or plug-ins; quality is dictated by the honesty, the emotion, and the conversation. That’s what I’m focusing on. That’s what I want to be committed to.