Jesse Macht: How Independent Musicians Can Make a Living & Build a Tribe
Jesse Macht (@jessemachtmusic) is a singer songwriter. His melodies are an abundance of stories overflowing with passion, vulnerability, empathy and honesty. In 2014, he released his sophomore album called Suitcase Heart after a scary health event and an unexpected breakup. In July 2016, Jesse successfully signed with Whattaguy Record and has been producing his junior album, to be released in Spring 2017.
If you think this description fits a generic musician's story you’ve heard of before, think again. Jesse caught my attention with his grassroots growth in the music world. He’s smart, entrepreneurial and incredibly authentic. He started his journey connecting with his 1,000 true fans (a wildly popular article by Kevin Kelly, and supported by Tier-1 online marketers and influencers such as Seth Godin, Tim Ferriss, James Altucher).
If you can't see the player above, click here to listen to the MP3.
Jesse was able to connect with so many people through Home Concert. You can invite Jesse to play in your living room or at your event. The sign up information is on his website here (reservation for 2017 is now open!).
This conversation dives deep into Jesse’s music as well as living a life as an independent musician. He talks about members of his family who have influenced him to do what he loves, and other singers, songwriterswho contributed to his growth today.
"Creating is failure all the time." - Brian Koppleman
I asked Jesse how he keeps showing up for his work daily. How does he manage external and internal validations? How do all creative people find the strength and courage to keep creating?
Positivity is an important source of creative energy Jesse never stops focusing on. To generate and sustain that energy, Jesse finds joy in enabling others to discover something of their own, through his music and his stories.
Jesse believes everyone has a story.
[06:00] Can you tell us about the new record you are about to release?
[06:30] What are some of the new ideas that you are throwing into your new record?
[09:30] What’s the release process of your new album? Are you planning any tour on the East Coast?
[14:00] How does the ‘treasure sharing’ works?
[16:00] What is it like to organize your home concerts? What does it take to organize your tour?
[23:00] What about using live streaming services during your live shows?
[28:00] Can you tell us about your origin? At what age did you know you wanted to be a musician?
[30:00] How long have you been working as a musician full time?
[33:00] Do you notice that you are constantly and proactively promoting other artists?
[37:00] What was the process of finding your own identity after playing in a band?
[43:00] Fei and Jesse talking about background stories behind Jesse’s song, and how knowing these stories helps the listeners.
[46:00] How did the heart-episode changed the way you compose and interpret music? In which way did that impact you?
[52:00] How do you manage your own expectations and keep showing up for your work?
[10:30] It was an eye-opening experience, it really influenced my music, it really influenced my appreciation for humanity and how music is translated and communicated and performed. It really changed my entire perspective on how independent musicians can make a living
[12:00] It asks for people to really listen to the lyrics, and try to figure out the metaphors, and that’s A LOT to ask out of listeners, especially in today’s climate: we want things that are easily understood…
[20:00] More people should start doing that in their communities. It’s just a great way to share, and look for people in your life, in your world, in your community, that just has something to share, whether it's songs or something else. I find that setup is a really amazing experience and people are getting a lot out of it.
[28:30] Singing I always did like. I think there’s something chemical and physical that just feels good about singing, and I always enjoyed that.
[32:00] ’We live in the kind of world nowadays where, people are starting to really dive into themselves and find what’s their passion in each of themselves. That’s inspiring for everyone else, so the more we can do that and then yet come together and help each other, hopefully it will just keep growing…’
[35:00] I love promoting and I love trying to bring artists together and help people create home concerts, [...] because for me that’s the magic of life, having these moments that we can really focus on and celebrate art and sharing and community, and what makes it really human...
[42:00] I love singers who are really great and talented, but the singers who I REALLY love are the ones who write great songs, and their voices help communicate the voice of the song. They are GREAT singers because they have great stories to tell, and that’s the journey I’m on...
Transcript of Interview with Jesse Macht
Welcome to the Feisworld podcast, engaging conversations that cross the boundaries between business, art and the digital world.
I think it's a much more reasonable independent musician's business mindset. It was an eye-opening experience. It really influenced my music, it influenced my appreciation for humanity, and how music is translated and communicated and performed, it really changed my entire perspective on how independent musicians can make a living.[music]
You know, more people should start doing that in their communities. It's just a great way to share it. And I find, that sort of build that kind of setup and community building, and it is a really amazing experienced people are getting a lot out of it.[music]
We live in the kind of world nowadays that people are starting to really dive into themselves and try to work for themselves and find what's passion in each of our souls and try and work on it. And that's inspiring for everybody else to see that, so the more we can do that, and then yet come together and help each other ,like, hopefully, it'll just keep growing, you know. [music]
I don't know. For me, that's what life is. That's the magic of life. Having these moments that we can really focus in on and celebrate art and sharing, and community, and what makes us really human. [music]
Fei Wu 1:50
Hello, this is Fei Wu. And I am your host for the Feisworld podcast. Today I have Jesse Macht joining me as a very special guest. Jesse is is singer and songwriter. His melodies are an abundance of stories overflowing with passion, vulnerability, empathy, and honesty. In 2014 he released his sophomore album called "Suitcase heart" after a scary personal health issue and an unexpected break up.In July 2016, just earlier this year, Jesse successfully signed with Whattaguy Record record and has been producing his junior album, to be released in spring 2017. If you think this description so far sounds like some other musicians you've heard of - well, Jesse caught my attention. With his grassroots growth in the music world. He is smart, entrepreneurial and incredibly authentic. He started his journey connecting with his 1000 true fans (a wildly popular article by Kevin Kelly, and promoted by some of my favorite gurus, such as Seth Godin, Tim Ferriss, and James Altucher). It really works. Jesse found so many people through home concerts. Basically, you can invite Jesse to play in your living room, or at an event you host. The "sign him" (?) information is on his website, Jessemachtmusic.com. I've also included this information on Feisworld.com under the blog post for Jesse's episode. This conversation dives deep into Jesse's music, as well as living a life as a musician. He talks about members of his family, who have influenced him to become a musician, and other singers, songwriters, who contributed to his growth and success today. Brian Koppelman said, that "Creating is failure all the time". I asked Jesse just how he keeps showing up for his work? How does he manage external and internal validations? Really, how do creative people in general find the strength and courage to keep creating. Positivity is an important source of creative energy Jesse never stops focusing on. To generate and sustain that energy, Jesse finds joy in enabling others to discover something of their own through his music and ,more importantly, his stories. He believes, everyone has a story. It's only a matter of finding or establishing the right environment, whether it's through home concerts, or a podcast platform, or a simple gathering of people, sharing what makes them tick. An hour went by quickly, and I hope you find your gem in and outside of this conversation. If you liked this episode, please visit Feisworld.com for more stories like this. You can also subscribe to this podcast now ,while you're listening, through a simple click on your mobile phone. It literally takes seconds. All new, full and mini episodes will be delivered to you automatically. And thank you so much for your support. Without further ado, please welcome Jesse Macht to the Feisworld podcast.
Thanks for organizing this with me. It's very nice.
Fei Wu 5:15
Absolutely. I want to thank you, because the holiday season probably is crazy for everybody. So thanks so much for making the time. I'm super glad, I feel like for me the past week or so went from Feisworld to Jessesworld pretty quickly [laughs], because I was able to learn so much more about you. And the one of the things I noticed, is ,I think, you have a new contract, or I guess... I believe that you have a junior record to be released very soon, what has already been out this fall?
Yeah, um, I have a new record that's going to come out this spring. There's been some back and forth and different dates. And some of my fans know, that I've been working on this record for a long time. And I'm going back into the studio ,actually, to record some new songs and add to this record. So we're planning on putting, you'r right, my junior record, which is just in terms of my records. I put out one about four years ago, another one about a year and a half ago, two years ago. Now, this will be my third. But this will be my debut with this new record label.
Fei Wu 6:22
Which is Whattaguy Record?
Yeah, Whattaguy Record. That's it, that's right.
Fei Wu 6:26
Wow, is there any - I know it just like a film, that you don't want to talk too much about it - but what are some of the theme changes, and what are some new ideas that you're instilling into the new album?
You know, some of the older stuff, the last record, "Suitcase heart", that I did, there was two sort of general themes that were going on there. One of which was - I had gotten out of a relationship, that I'd been in for a long time, that had ended. So I was going through the healing process of that, using my art as a way to heal and express myself, but also ,just practicaly, I did a lot of co-writes on that, which means I just did a lot of writing with other artists to write the songs. I probably wrote about 25 songs, when I was preparing for that record. And we ended up using about four, that I co-wrote, and then there was another five that were just mine. And with this new record, these are all songs that I wrote on my own. And for me, that's just kind of exciting, because I felt like the songs, that people really were attracted to - on the "Suitcase heart" record, my sophomore record - were the songs that I'd written on my own. And I think I had some moments of, you know, collaboration, not necessarily insecurity, but I felt like, well, maybe I should do some co-writes and just get some other perspective. And with this record, I really tried to follow my heart and trust my instincts, and trust my sound, and I came out with something that I'm really proud of. With that said, we're going back into the studio to record a few more, because with this new label we wanted to have a few different songs, that I've currently been working on, that I didn't record. They heard this new record, they loved it. And they were like, look - they signed me, promising to put out the new record. And after we signed, they listened to it, and they loved it. But they said, you know, “Do you mind working on four of your newer songs, that we've heard, because we really like those”. And instead of waiting for senior record (as we wanted to put it in the fourth record), let's just throw these on this new record. I'm fine with that. And I'm excited to do that. So we're going to just put together something that we're really proud of for 2017.
Fei Wu 8:29
Oh, wow. I'm super excited for you. And I'm gonna hold off on my million questions for a “Suitcase heart”. And, since we're in a row right now, the talk about the record - I'm somehow on a roll this week. After announcing this conversation, I had several other musical musician friends here. I've been recording almost exclusively podcast episodes with musicians this week. And I have been very touched by this sort of the process of being a musician, and how the difficult sometimes have a career it can be. So with this new record, I guess one of my first questions, I noticed you've been touring quite a bit, and I haven't really seen you tour on the east coast. So what is the release process for the new record? Is there a chance for us to meet in person? [laughs]
for sure, yeah! You know, the music business is a complicated business. And one way that I found to release “Suitcase heart”, my last record, in a grassroots, sort of original way, that was conducive to the style of music that I perform, which comes from a practical business sense - I play with a band, the studio recordings have a full band on them, but I can't always afford to bring a band out with me. It's expensive, obviously, to pay for five people in a van, and going from here to there, and gas, and hotels, etc. So sometimes I have to tour just on my own, which is fine. So one way that I thought, was: Well, how am I going to do this, as opposed to just playing in bars and small music venues, and hustling, and building a fan base that way? I thought: Well, why don't I just reach directly out to my fans, and see if they would allow me to perform in their homes. So I started doing that with the “Suitcase heart” record. And I toured two years on that record, touring around the United States, and then doing some small tours in Europe, and performing directly for my fans in their living rooms. And it was an eye opening experience, it really influenced my music, influenced my appreciation for humanity, and how music is translated and communicated and performed. It really changed my entire perspective on how independent musicians can make a living. The old rules of the music business were: get a single, put it on the radio, and if it's on the radio, chances are, if it gets played for three to six weeks, you can sell between 100 - 500 thousand records at least. And hopefully, you'll make it into the millions and you'll be fine. That business model works a little bit, but not really so much anymore. I’m thinking it was something like Beyonce’s or Rihanna’s, who’s debut sold 17,000 Records, which is nothing. And that was like number 1, 17 thousand. So that's a far cry from hundreds of thousands and millions. That said, I'm sure it's gone on to sell hundreds of thousands. But as opposed to trying to find, you know, hundreds of thousands of people to spend $10 on me, buying a record, I'm hoping to find really a close community, that really gets my music and gets where I'm coming from, and my lifestyle. You know, as opposed to looking for hundreds of thousands of people, my goal has been much smaller. It's looking for 10s of thousand - 10,000, 20,000, 30,000, and try and see if we can communicate on a deeper level, and then offer so much more content to a specific audience. And if I can get a small, tight knit group of people, who are maybe willing to spend $100 on me a year, as opposed to hundreds of thousands willing to spend seven to ten dollars on me. I think it's a much more reasonable independent musician’s business mindset. And it's something that a lot of other indie musicians are doing as well. And it just seems more reasonable as a business. So that's kind of where I came from. My music asks for intimate attention. And it asks for people to really listen to the lyrics and try to figure out the metaphors. And that's a lot to ask out of listeners, especially in today's climate. We want things that are easily understood, we have short attention spans. And I know that I'm asking a lot out of my fans, but the ones who really do it here, the ones who really get me and like listening to me, I think they've got a really dense sense of themselves and dense sense of art, and they want to engage with that. And so I think I want to give them as much content as I can.
Fei Wu 12:49
I'm so glad you're bringing this out. I have to say that I think, what really a part of what you're doing - the touring and the “Treasure hunt” tour - really resonative with me on a very deep level, because I, you know, I did not work in radio… Well, I did when, I was a teenager, but professionally this is not what I do. And one of the reasons I found so fascinating is - at some point, I loved podcasting. But then I was really kind of getting tired and sick of these 25 men trading lip service, and it's always the same story. And, you know, I found out about you through “Treasure hunt” tour, and just the story behind it, which is sort of the training and the bartering process, where people are coming together. And you are performing in front of a small crowd. And you talked about this in an interview (I believe, it was a music blog), that people are coming up to you and sharing stories that possibly they've never talked about before. And you're almost sharing, exchanging treasures with each other. So that's really phenomenal.
Cool. Yeah, that was the idea. Cause “Suitcase heart” - that sort of idea came from that record that we put out - it comes from this idea, that we all have a story in our heart, and we travel around the world with it. And as a musician, very much so. And we either have the courage to let those stories out, tell a lot of people, or maybe we don't have that courage. It's not better or worse. But we all do have a story. So I wanted to bring that idea to the tour and say: Okay, I'm going to come into your homes and perform, and thank you for allowing me in there. But now, if I'm going to share my stories and come to you, then that's fine. But I'm going to ask you to maybe engage with me too. And instead of buying my record (maybe you'll donate, maybe you won't), but without the pressure, I'll give you my record, I'll trade you. You can either give me $10, if that's what it is. But I will also trade you my record for something that's a price of story of yours. Because if I'm going to give you my story, then I want to hear yours. And I thought, wow, let's see what happens. And what ended up happening, was incredible. People were giving me little treasures from their lives and taking me aside and say: okay, so I give them my record with my stories. And then they give me a bracelet, or a locket, or a flower that they had kept in a book, or a little toy soldier or… a bunch of things, just so many different little treasures. And then they would tell me the story along with that treasure. And I felt, like, wow, this is really a rich way to barter. And a really cool way to bring people in and understand the lifestyle that I'm trying to communicate, and say that we all share. And it gave a really cool avenue to the music. And that tour was a lot of fun. So I'm excited to see what I come up with for the next tour. What we'll do with this next record… I have not created the idea yet. I think I got to get the record finished, start putting dates together, reach out to people and see what they're willing to do. But next summer will really see what we can do. But hopefully, it'll be in that same world of the “Treasure hunt” tour.
Fei Wu 15:53
I would love to be able to contribute in some way. And I know this is still work in progress. But I was wondering, what does it take to have you travel to a place - I know, the East Coast is quite far away - but what are some of the ideas and how should someone or an organization go about scheduling that trip for you?
Yeah, I have a form on my website that people can go to and fill out at any time, even when I don't have a tour organized, and they don't see any dates for that necessarily. That flyer is always there. And I will come and do one offs. If I can afford it, you know. Depending on the times, it changes in terms of what I can afford. So if I do a one off home concert in Boston, obviously it’ll be a little more expensive than if I'm already on tour and I'm going up the East Coast. And you know, you say “I want to do a home concert”. Well, then I'm already on the way so I can make it work. But generally, that's what I do. I announce a tour. And I reach out to everybody across the country. And I'm like: Hey, are you interested in doing a home concert? Generally, we try to make them all free. And we say to the host: this is a free concert, I'm going to come to your house when performing in the home, and are you willing to put out a donation bucket? And are you willing to let me sell my CDs and T-shirts, and, you know, stickers and whatnot? And let's try and put as many as we can together for this. Because it's more about sharing this community and creating the music. And I trust that when I come into your home, I'm going to do my job of performing. And I think that people will feel like: Oh, I want to help this guy out. And somehow people donate and it works out. And so far, every tour has worked out that way in the States. So that's how I will probably go for doing this summer. I'll put a bunch of dates up. And hopefully people will reach out and be like: hey, I want you in New York. I want you in Boston. I want you to Philly, I want you in St. Louis. I want you in Florida. And I generally route it, put it together and then I get in my car and I go.
Fei Wu 17:48
I love that! Probably, because I haven't really worked in the music world, this model is very new to me. And perhaps it is on the east coast. Because we're already falling behind a little bit[laughs]. But I could imagine you pack up your suitcase, maybe perform in front of a, like, there's Harvard Square. I don't know how many times you've traveled the Boston, but it's such an incredible scene over there, you know, professionals, non-professionals and during this summer and it's absolutely gorgeous and in New England. It's getting really cold.
No, it's great. I came to Boston and did two home concerts there last summer. And they were great. So I anticipate that I'll be back there doing it again. You know, I just love the idea of people bringing me into their homes and going into living room since like, you just have a party and you say: Hey, can I get 20 friends to come over? And doesn't matter if it's a house or an apartment or condo or a York, I’ll show up. And I just ask the people to bring, you know, 20 friends of theirs at least.And some of these parties turn out to be, you know, 200 people, and some of them turn out to be 25 people. And either way, it's always a great experience. I haven't had one bad home concert. I've played about 80 of them now. And they're really great way to bring in music. And the East Coast is by no means in the back. Some of these home concerts really got started in New York. And there are different little companies that are throwing home concerts all the time. It's something that's getting really popular with the independent musicians. And it's really cool. You know, I've actually host a home concert series, because I felt like I had to put up or shut up, you know.[laughs]. Cause if I’m gonna do this, then I gotta throw some home concerts to for other people. And I started this new home concert series here in Los Angeles called “Sunsets at Great Scott”. I named it that. And it's at my friend's house. His name is John. He's an actor, and a ceramicist and a landscape artist. And we have been throwing these tremendous home concerts at the house. And we’ll have musicians, we’ll have comedians, we’ll have lectures, we’ll have academics, we’ll have all sorts of… it's kind of what sounds like your podcast, what all sorts of different kinds of people performing or speaking in different ways. And Airstream, who are these vintage trailers, that you might have seen on the back of cars, they got wind of these, I reached out to them to see if they would sponsor a home concert tour of mine. And they said: Oh, we just put another artist out doing exactly that. But we'd love to sponsor your home concepts that you're doing, we'd love to help you create them. Because we think it's a great idea. So we'll give you a little bit of money, you shoot them, and we'll post them on our site. So I've already thrown about 10 of these. And now this will be the first one that we've really filmed appropriately. But I bring it up just because it's something that I have a passion for. And I think that, you know, more people should start doing that in their communities. It's just a great way to share. An look for people in your in your life, in your world, that have something to share, whether it's songs or, maybe, I’m a scientist and I'm a researcher and I work on this infectious diseases, you know, project that I'd really love to share and teach people about. And I find that that sort of build that kind of setup, and community building is a really amazing experience. And people are getting a lot out of it. And I'm just hoping that this will be a little bit of a fad that that's created for the next few years. So that not only musicians are doing this, but comedians and all sorts of other talented people are sharing. And that people don't feel tied to having to go to music venues all the time, that people don't feel like they have to go to comedy venues, that sometimes we can just create art out of our homes.
Fei Wu 22:10
Absolutely. I mean, what you're talking about - I feel like this is something that we, especially living in this country, desperately need right now, is to understand one another. Exactly. I mean, not to go into the endless conversation of election, but I feel like there's that kind of a tremendous pressure and just friction between people who don't look alike, it's very sad for me to witness all of that. But before I forget - I recently had some sort of a very mild success with Facebook Live. I had, yeah, no idea. And is it possible? I know, you're going to have a final edited version of this endeavor, but what if you just turn on your phone and we can watch you perform at home. Or it doesn't matter?
That is already a process. We’ll put it up, we'll probably do a Facebook Live, because that seems to be the thing that everyone's doing. I've done a lot of Periscope, which uses the same technology. There's an app called Periscope, so we'll probably do a Facebook Live or Periscope, but don't you worry, I'll tweet it out on my socials and we'll have it up for sure. We'll have just like a master shot in the back. And and people can sort of have a bird's eye view of that, for sure.
Fei Wu 23:24
Yeah, that's wonderful. And I think you'll have a ton of audience watching you perform that way. By the way, I'm like Uber nerd when it comes to technology. And that's something I've been doing professionally for 10 years. And web design development. But you know, Facebook, unfortunately, turn in itself into this pay to play model. And even with thousands of fans on your page, essentially, it's a single digital them a percentage of them, but with Facebook Live… Facebook is actually prioritizing those videos. So you instantly gain so many more views and engagement. Take advantage of it!
Yeah, yeah, I will. I will. I'll get on and this is a process. I mean, anybody who's in the Los Angeles area is welcome to come to this. We have a 100 person cap. So usually right now we average attendance about 50 to 70 people. This next one, for sure, will be a little bit busier. It's going to be a great night. We have the Silver Lake chorus performing, which is a hipster choir out of silver. They're really talented. They are singing all original content, created for them by top indie Radio Artists like Tegan and Sara and bony. So they're going to be performing. And then there's another group called “Story pirates”, which is a sketch comedy group. And they're hilarious. They take stories that kindergarten, first grade, second grade kids have written and then they choose the best ones and act them out. And it's just so fun to watch these improvisers and great talented comedians act out children's stories. I mean, we're talking about dragons that are rolling in milkshakes and saving princes and princesses meanwhile walking down the street and jumping in Ferrari's and then washing themselves with mud. [laughs] The stories just go left and right, you know. You never know where they're going to go, because these are kids minds, so it's very funny to see it happen. I encourage people to tune in and check out the videos and if they're in LA to come check it out. Because it's gonna be great time.
Fei Wu 25:34
Sounds awesome. I think there's a website called “Overheard at home” of parents, sharing stories from their kids. And I just laughed to death each time. I can imagine.
It's funny. Yeah. So this home concert world and business at the end of the day is really growing and spreading out. And especially for me, it's just a world that I really love. And I'm looking forward to getting back out and playing concerts, when this record finally comes out. I know, it's been a long time for some of my really devoted fans, and I'm so appreciative of their patience. And for people who are new to me, it's gonna be really exciting to get out this music forum.
Fei Wu 26:13
Yeah, I'm not sure if you know that the concept or the theory of 1000 true fans? And then Seth Godin, who's probably the favorite online guru, who talks about building a tribe, and that's precisely what you're describing. And honestly, I only wish that so many other people would know this, and just believe in that. And personally, I mean, my podcast is nothing compared to the top 50 and all of that, but I've been able to reach out to you. I know you listen to NPR. I know, that kind of inspired your first album as well. And I got to talk to Chris Tebbetts. And oh, wow.I was giggling out of control. I was so nervous.
Yeah, sure. I'm sure. But this is fantastic.
Fei Wu 26:59
I'm just looking at all these questions. And being able to connect with you… And just hearing you talk about these things is so refreshing to me, because I can hear in your voice how passionate you are about what you do. And speaking of which, I couldn’t cope cause I forgot the internet wasn't all that popular back in even 14-15 years ago. So I try to go all the way back to where. Do you remember a time when… I know, you play music, I watched. I'm a huge fan of the song “This light” and turns out it's everybody else feels the same way on top of the other songs. And especially during this holiday season. You know, just watching you as a little kid, on the video shot of you as a child, hugging your mom. And then, 20 years later, I noticed that you started playing instruments, including the piano and the guitar very early on. Tell me a little bit more about your origin stories. And when you knew, at what age, that this is it, «I'm going to be a musician»?
Fei Wu 28:05
Well, my mom thought it was really important to play an instrument. She thinks it's really important. So I played piano from as far back as I can remember. And I sang from as far back as I can remember. Piano I didn't necessarily enjoy as a kid. I found it to be very frustrating. But singing I always did. Like, I think there's something chemical and physical that just feels good about singing. And I did always enjoy that. And so I played piano. And as soon as I got old enough, and was fighting enough with my mom about not wanting to play piano, she said: “Fine. We got to play another instrument”. So I learned how to play the violin. And I did that for three years. And then I got sick of that. And I said: “Let me play drums”. And I played drums for four years. And I was in high school. And I made friends with two very charismatic, handsome, really awesome guys. And we were joking around. And one day I was like, you know, we should start a band. You guys play music. And yeah, let's start a band. So I invited them over that afternoon, they came over to my house, I sat down at my drums. I was like: “All right, let's do it. What do you guys play?” And they said: “We all play drums”. So we were three guys that played drums. So what are we going to do? I kind of play piano, but I don't want to play piano. And so we drew straws for what instruments we needed. And I drew guitar, my friend drew piano and my other friend got to stay on the drum. So I had to start learning out of guitars. I spent two weeks just learning guitar and fell in love with it quickly, because I could sing right away with guitar. And that's sort of what jumped me into it. And as soon as I had that band in high school, it was the most fun thing I was doing. I was doing a lot of stuff. But that was it. And we eventually added another guitar player. And he took me to one of my first concert in LA for a local band. The band was called Kara’s flowers, and I saw them I was like: “Oh my God, I want to do this. This band is awesome”. And two years later Kara’s flowers turned into Maroon, and Maroon got signed to a record deal and turned into Maroon Five. And, you know, just watching those guys start from an eighth - ninth grade band and turn into one of the biggest bands this country has ever seen, was always really inspiring to me and showed me, that anyone can do it, if you work at it. So that was where I came from. I just came from that LA pop music world.
Fei Wu 30:30
Wow. So I know you’re pretty young. So how long have you been doing this kind of working as musician full time?
Well, I was in a band for a long time. I played in a band for about 9-10 years. And then I started doing my own thing for the last five years. So it's been about 15 years. I mean, I started when I was in my teens. And, you know, I've just kept it going. So the band was awesome. And I loved doing that. I learned a lot. And I miss those times a lot. At the same time, I've never been as fulfilled as I am now. Being able to write my own music solely - that's mine. And go and tour and perform in that way. So it's been a long trek. But now, this next stage of the game has been really inspiring, and hopefully it'll go on for a lot longer.
Fei Wu 31:14
Yeah, in a way I understand where you're coming from. For me, working for corporate America and, doesn't matter - the paycheck was a great thing, but, you know, sometimes your parents or your close friends don't necessarily understand. I basically quit my job and started working on my podcast and really, the podcast is what I do on the freelancing and consulting side, helping performing artists, musicians, and just helping individuals really make their dreams possible. So I personally hope that I can get to do that for the rest of my life. [laughs]
Well, we live in the kind of world nowadays, that people are starting to really dive into themselves, try to work for themselves, find what's passion in each of our souls and try and work on it. And that's inspiring for everybody else to see that. So the more we can do that and then yet come together and help each other, hopefully it'll just keep growing, you know?
Fei Wu 32:12
Yeah, absolutely. And I'm really enjoying this conversation. You reminded me of something: I read so much about you and watched some of the other interviews, watched the music that you played on youtube even four or five years ago, when you were kind of coming into your own. And I noticed a very generous act that you've been doing. Not sure if you noticed, that I noticed in your messaging, that you're always promoting not only yourself, but also a lot of other musicians out there. And I've written down some names, such as Katie Bullock, and yeah, it's beautiful, your voices coming together, just very harmonic. It was beautiful, but I noticed that you're constantly promoting things like Band camp and your collaboration with other singers and songwriters. And do you notice that you're proactively doing what is not just for yourself, but for others around you?
Well, I guess I don't think of it specifically, but at the same time, I am so inspired by the people around me… I guess I did it a little bit earlier, talking about Story pirates and Silverlake chorus. You know, it's funny, when I go and see a movie or go see a band with some friends of mine, I can be very judgmental. And there are times where they're like: “Dude, don't you like anything?”. And I joke with them, you know, “You're right, I am very critical. And I don't want to kill your vibe, if you're enjoying this, and I'm not. I don't want to take that away from you at all”. But when I love something, when I really enjoy a band or an artist of some sort, I just can't shut up about that either. So I have both sides of the spectrum: the things that I really, really enjoy, I've always had a profound desire to share. You'll see in coming months, I have some things that I'm working on outside of my music as a producer that have to do a little bit with that. And fan life, supporting artists and sharing all of these words… I am a songwriter and performer. And when I was younger, one of my biggest idols (not necessarily his music, but more of his lifestyle, that I understood) was Michael Stipe. He was the singer in a band. And then, as I grew older, he created a production company and started producing movies and making all sorts of different art content. That was my dream. I wanted to start with music, make a name for myself with music and then start to spread out. And that is now beginning for me. And it's small way and I'm hoping one day I will have this production company fully thought out. But these sunsets at Great Scott is a version of that. This other project I'm working on, that I'll announce in a couple of months, is version of that. That said, I'm also still working on my music and trying to do videos and all that. So I love promoting and I love trying to bring artists together, help other people create art, help people create home concerts and spread the word of creation. Because for me, that's what life is. That's the magic of life, having these moments that we can really focus in on, celebrate art, sharing, community and what makes us really human.
Fei Wu 35:33
I love that statement!
Fei Wu 36:07
If I were just connecting with you like for the fridge, just hearing you, as some of my listeners listening to this and not knowing exactly who you are, and learning your story… Honestly, I would have assumed that you're the oldest child in the family. And I know that that's far from being true. And you have three siblings, and one thing I noticed with myself (even though I don't really have parents in entertainment, performing arts, but they were both incredibly accomplished), I feel like part of my childhood especially was in a way exciting and yet kind of stressful for me, because there was kind of overshadowing me. And then, sounds like your mom has a very significant impact in your creative life. And your dad's an actor. I know, one of your brothers is an actor, the other is an editor, and then in the past few years you're really coming into your own. What was that process like for you to find your own identity and to declare something that, honestly, I don't think anybody else in the family's doing professionally?
Yeah, music was something that was always a hobby. And my family and my brother, who is an editor, was a big supporter of mine with music from the time I was a little kid. And he gave me his guitar, which we call my guitar. So he was always big on helping me. I think he always wanted to be a rock star in some way. And play music. He loved playing guitar when he was young. So he's 15 years older than I am. And you know, he is my brother, no question, but in some ways, very father-figure as well, along with my dad. But he was always really supportive of me and music. So you're right. I come from an artsy family. My sister is incredibly talented. She started her career as a lawyer and transitioned into being a graphic designer and has always been a great artist and thinks in artistic wats. And is really, aside from just her practical towns of creating art, she also lives artsy, she loves looking at it, creating it, helping facilitate it and we all do. And that definitely comes from my mother. My father is an actor and although he is an artist as well, my mom really was a crafts woman. She always had us working on projects, made sure that we all learn how to play an instrument and took us to the museum. Just a huge art person. And I'll be honest, the home concerts came out of her idea. She was like: “Why don't you just have a concert here in our house and invite your friends over and start it that way?” and “Why don't you go to other people's homes?” [laughs]. And when actually did it, she was like: “No, don't go to other people's homes, that’s not safe, don't do that you're crazy”. And I said: “Well, it is too late, It's your fault”. Um, so she created an environment for our family that was just full of art. And it's funny, because she created an environment full of art, all she wanted us to be were lawyers, but her world was all of art, yet she still wanted us to be lawyers. She wanted us to make the money that lawyers make, but she wanted us to live in a world of art. And her compromise, as I said, is my brother Gabriel. You got to pretend lawyer on TV, I think that's the best you can do. Your daughter was a lawyer and she quit and turned into a graphic artist so you almost got it [laughs].
Fei Wu 39:29
this is so cute! I even didn't write down this, I noticed that you come from a Jewish family and I am intimately familiar with it, my significant other is Jewish, and I couldn't stop talking about the food. I love it! And watching Gabriel in this case kinda - there's always a bagel [laughs]. And when I binge watch, late at night, I'm thinking: “Oh no, it's New York bagels, again! it's killing me [laughs].
Very funny. Well, you know, Jewish people have had their hands in the arts for years and years, and songwriters and musicians. And ,I mean, all cultures have everything, right. But art was always a really important part. And when I was younger and I started music, I kind of asked my mom. I said once, like: “Why do you think I got into music?” Like, “I know you made me do lessons, but I always hated my lessons. What do you think? Why do you think it means so much to me?” And when I was a kid, I actually went to - i'm not religious, I'm spiritual, but I'm not particularly religious. But I'm very proud to be Jewish - went to a Jewish private school my whole childhood, I went from nursery school to eighth grade. And one of the things about going to that kind of school was that we had to go to services, and none of us turned out to be very religious. But we still have to go to services three times a week. So there was a lot of singing that was going on three times a week, and we'd spend that time just singing and joking around, and I had a lot of time to mess around with my boys, make fun of the prayers and joke with my friends, and then sing harmonies. I mean, you had to keep yourself busy in the services some way or the other. And she's like: “You went to services three times a week for 14 years. I mean, it's ingrained in us singing and coming together for music. Art is a huge part of who you are, just because of that school”. And when she said that, it was like, you know, I think that's right. It really is where my joy for it came from. It's almost muscle memory. It's just something I'm very familiar with. And growing up as a Jewish kid, there was a lot of art in our school, there was arts and crafts and theater productions, and talking about the holidays, and creating art for those holidays, and celebrating, and skits and dancing and music. And I just love all that stuff. And it's a huge part of the Jewish community.
Fei Wu 41:53
This is an incredible origin story. And I personally have been to so many bar mitzvahs, and I can imagine, that you probably nail the same singing part at that point.
I don't know about “nailed it”. But I definitely tried hard. My intentions are strong. You know, I'm not a big person to show off about my voice. I don't think I particularly have a great voice. I think I have a voice that is okay. You know, I obviously love singers who are really, really great and talented. But the singers who I really love, the singers who write great songs and their voices communicate with the voice of the song, and that's why Bob Dylan could be so great, or Elvis Costello or guy who I love John Brian. They're not necessarily voices that you would listen to and really think they are great singers. But they are great singers because they have great stories to tell. And that's the journey I'm on, trying to write a great song, always trying to write a great song and something that's appropriate for my voice, something that my voice can translate. What I'm trying to find is, how can my voice communicate a great story. And I think when I find a really true story of existential crisis, or story of journey, or something that I'm really thinking about, that we can all relate to. And I'm able to wrangle that theme into words and melody and lyrics, when I can get all that together. That's when my voice sounds great. Because it's not my voice that there, I think, really responding to, I think what they're hopefully responding to, is the emotion behind the story.
Fei Wu 43:24
I think you're fantastic storyteller. And I'm so happy about what we're doing right now. Because, to be honest, I read so much about you. But this level of details and the hearing in your own voice, to share these stories and the nuggets - it's very, very powerful. I think, as a listener, I understand your songs a lot more because of this conversation. And, you know, thank you for that.
I appreciate you saying that. And I don't say this to pat myself on the back by any means. But I think, one reason why the home concerts go well, and what I'm still trying to figure out on how to do with my records, is sort of what you said. I think that people, what they really love about the home concerts - I don't really just get up and perform the songs, I tell stories, I tell them why I wrote what I wrote, before I tell the song, it's sort of that Nashvillian tradition, where I go into what it's all about. And I think it helps the songs. I think it helps people follow along. And they absolutely have their own interpretations of the songs. And I love that. But I think there's something to knowing where an author was coming from, and being in on the joke, you know, being in on the story, so that when I'm going through it, they can follow along in that way. And that's something that I'm still trying to figure out how to do via Twitter and Instagram. And, you know, I can do it live, I can do it in my concerts. But it's really hard to figure out how to do that with my records and with social media. And one way I'm trying to do that, is with my Patreon, which is like a subscriber site. And I'll put up exclusive content there and write little blog pieces that go along and to help tell the stories and explain where things are coming from, what I really love. Like I put one up today about a new song I wrote, called “West side”, and I tell the story about the guitar solo and how we came up with that guitar solo and why I really love it, what the sound means to me and where that comes from. And now, hopefully, people will watch the video and they’ll be like: “Oh, now I could really appreciate that guitar solo, because I know where he was coming from”. And I love that when I watch other artists, you know, that's why “Behind the music”, that TV show, did so well. And the TV show “Unplugged” did so well. People love hearing the stories behind the music. And I think that tradition continues.
Fei Wu 45:43
As you're talking about, I think, that our conversation definitely deepened quite a bit. And I typically steer away from just the general about and bio, and I couldn't help noticing one of the things that you did mention in your bio is, I believe in 2012, that something really scary and traumatic happened to you after a concert, and you ended up needing a heart surgery. So I was really shocked by that, you know, and thinking about how that potentially change the way you communicate your songs and your stories.
Well, “Suitcase heart”, that record, was influenced by that, and I don't want to go on a tangent woe, because everybody has a story in their way. And my procedure that I had has a very high success rate. So it ended up working out really nicely and I was very lucky, but I just had something called an SPT and my heart would be up to 260 beats per minute, which is about 100 beats per minute faster than the normal heart when you're exercising. And it's about four times faster than when your heart is like at normal rest. And it would just come out of nowhere I had it for 10 years. And I just thought it was normal. And then I almost passed out after a show and I ended up going to a doctor and the doctor was like: “Oh yeah, you have this thing called SPT, we need to do a procedure tomorrow”.
So, all right. That was a wake up call. That was my first real personal, physical wake up call, by no means that I ever think I was immortal. But, you know, we all have this sense of our own physical selves. And when that's broken, and you have a new appreciation for your life in a way that obviously changes our perspective. So that song, “Suitcase heart”, it was the mix of suitcases, this traveling of our stories and telling our stories. And I had that relationship ended about three weeks after the procedure. So I had a figurative broken heart. And I had a literal broken heart, and both are being healed at the same time. And that's what went into that record. So “Suitcase”, “Heart and golf”, all of that.
Fei Wu 48:34
I think I can see just the through YouTube messages and how your sophomore album, “Suitcase heart”, resonated with a lot of your listeners. And maybe some of them knows, that this is the story behind all of that, it made me think just a… Kind of not so funny story, but because Seth Godin couldn't shut up about this guy named Ben Zander, who's a conductor in Boston, he's world famous. So I don't really like classical music, but I went anyway, just for experience. And I ended up just pouring with tears. And I was so emotional, it was phenomenal. And, and then he mentioned, as a teacher, that one of his students (he used to work at Boston Conservatory) literally just went through a nasty divorce, was completely heartbroken and came up to him and ask him for advice on how he could possibly go on with music and his life. And Ben said that he was secretly happy for him, because, he said, especially for an artist or a musician, that once you go through such emotional trauma, sometimes that's when you produce some of your best work that may even be impossible to replicate.
Yes, there's no question, you know, when something happens to you, you can write about it. And I agree with you fully. The one caveat I have to that, is that, it's funny, because one of the arguments I was having with my ex-girlfriend, when I was working on the record, she said: “You know, at least you're going to have a lot of material to write about”. And I got so angry because I thought that was a really self involved thing to say. But what I also thought is that life is going to hit you, no matter what good things are going to happen, bad things are going to happen. And so whether it's a breakup or a hard procedure, or a baby is born, or you get a promotion - if you are an artist mind, if you have the mindset to be creative, if you are a communicative person, you will ingest what happens in your world, and bring it through your filter, and then expel it out again, back into the world for all of us to share, and hopefully learn from and communicate, and so on, and so forth. So I don't really want to believe that you need bad things to happen to you to create, by no means do, I think that bad things that do happen to you, that it can be a godsend, and you can have a really intense, you know, expel of that. That's amazing, too, but I felt like I don't want just to aim for bad things to happen in my world, so I can write a good record.
Fei Wu 51:18
Mm hmm. And I love how you describe. And I know I've taken up an hour of your time at this point, but I want to ask one last question, if that's okay with you. The way you talk about creative work and process… I find that, given that now I don't have a full time job to go to that, coming back to my work, always showing up for my work sounds a lot easier in theory than in real practice. So there are definitely some challenges, and there is a quote by Brian Koppelman, who said: “Creating is failure all the time”, cause there is internal and external validation (the money, the likes, the comments), but internally, I wonder, how do you balance that, if your work represents the idea you're trying to put forward more fully, more accurately? How do you manage your own expectation and keep showing up for your work?
Oh, well, it's a brutal, and his quote is a great quote, I haven't heard that. But it's true, the blank page and failure is really scary. Luckily, the high of the completion of a piece of art, I think, is what keeps us coming back. It's those highs of when we are able to line up with our own moral integrity, and the universe and our community around us. And for me, melody and vibration, you know, the actual physical sensation of playing an instrument and seeing when all that lines up, and the universe stops, that you're in this zone, right? Whether you're an athlete, or an artist, or whatever it is - that zone moment, there's no high that matches that. And I think that's what I come back for. And that's going to be there, no matter what, forever, as many good songs as you write, you're always going to write one, write another one, and as many bad songs is you write, you're going to want to continue to try and find a good one. That's what I keep coming back for. And luckily, that drive I just have in myself, you know. I teach guitar, too. And some parents, are like: “My kid just doesn't have that drive to practice”. And some people don't have that drive, and they need a mom or somebody else to tell them what to do. But I do also have students where I see it, and they have that drive. And then, whether they're eight or they're 17, I think we all have that drive for something in our lives. And it's just a matter of finding what that “something” is. For me that something is creating art and being part of the community that wants to ingest art, and help each other create. And I'm constantly trying to find that, because when I find that those highs, whether it's Katie, who I sing with, or it's a host, that brings me all the way out to Germany to share art, or it's my mom who wants to put photographs and her books, and that connection, whatever it is, I think that lining up to the universe. That intention is what makes life really fulfilling for me, and I try to hold on to that. So when I'm having a long day, the last thing I want to do is pick up my guitar and try to write another song - I think of those moments. And I know, that if I just pick up the guitar and start strumming, and I'm patient, about five to 10 minutes later I'll start feeling that zone. And I'll reach out to it. And it's not always going to work. But the only thing you can do is try, and as long as you try, then it’ll happen. And if you don't try, it won’t
Fei Wu 54:52
Wow. I'm going to listen to this part, a two and a half minute pice. And… when I get stuck doing my creative work - I really mean it, because you brought me back to standing in front of a computer, sometimes two or three in the morning, you know, back then, producing an episode. But before I interviewed you, any of my guests… I just get this high. It's almost like I'm on drugs. You know, it's amazing. It's indescribable.
It is. It is. And it's about trying. I think we're all trying to communicate that, like, go find your high in what we do! I believe that if we are truly passionate and find the passion of the things that we do, it's infectious and it will start it in somebody else. Ii is just transferring energy. And I know that sounds whoo-whoo. But that's what it is. You get inspired, create something with it, pass it on. And then look for the next wave, that's coming your way. It's all circle.
Fei Wu 55:49
Man, we could be evil twins. And what you just said is precisely what happened to me after going to see Cirque du Soleil, and I reached out to, at this point, three-four artists, and it's amazing - inviting them on to the podcast to talk about, you know, when they get scared, when they do fail instead of just the show that we've been all witnessing. And since then, we've been literally best friends! I follow these people everywhere from Vegas to New York to cheer them on and absolutely!
That's cool. Well, we can be definitely spiritual twins in that way, and I think there's a lot of us - hundreds and hundreds. I think we all feel that same. I think that most people feel that, and it's just about finding that little gem in all of us, you know. I think we all have that world, and maybe it's art, maybe it's an athletics, whatever it is. But what's important is for all of us to see that little piece of energy, that little piece of positive energy and pass it around. Because there's the positive and there's clearly a negative one too, that's easy to get on to and pass that around. And the more we can continue to talk about it and be open with it, and talk about our fears, like you're doing with other people as well, and talk about our positive energy… Like, if we can continue that conversation, not hold it in and not resent it, and the more we can communicate (and I'm guilty of holding on to it too I'm guilty of not expressing it too), the more we can let it out, I think, the more positivity we create in our world. And that might not come out as art, but it comes out inevitably and we just keep passing it on.
Fei Wu 57:24
Wow, I love this! I wrote down “positivity”, which is something that, I feel, really represents you very well. And I had no idea that this conversation could be just this amazing I really thankful!
And I'm incredibly grateful, that you gave me the opportunity to talk! Thank you so much for including me in your audience and your world, I really appreciate it.
Fei Wu 57:49
Thanks Jesse, and take care!
Fei Wu (Outro) 58:01
Hey, it’s Fei, I am back for a few words at the end of the show. I hope you enjoyed what you heard. You can visit us online at Feisworld.com or social channels, such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, also under Feisworld, to keep things simple. I personally review and respond to all the messages. Love to hear from you! Thank you and lots of hugs. See you next week.
Do you enjoy this podcast?
If so, please leave your comment below and share the podcast with your family and friends. Your support will keep us on track and bring many other sung and unsung heroes to this podcast.
Feisworld Podcast is now available on all major channels including iTunes, Google Play, SoundCloud, Stitcher.
An honest podcast review will help us tremendously. Please consider providing yours on iTunes.