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:: Spotlight :: Interview with South Florida singer-songwriter SJ

By: Mark Rasmussen

South Florida-based acoustic singer-songwriter SJ blends melodic folk, a chill vibe, and diverse arrangements creating an acoustically soulful groove and sound. His music has been compared to artists such as: Jack Johnson and Donovan Frankreiter, and acoustic material from John Mayer and Dave Matthews.

Blending a spectrum of sounds from acoustic/folk to soul, and lighter pop to modern rock, SJ's raspy vocal hooks and acoustic groove have firmly planted him on the national music scene. Although SJ played music as a hobby since he was 15 (he had been working for the past decade as an international corporate attorney) - in 2009, when family and close friends heard a demo recording, they encouraged him to share his music with others. The shift from lawyer to singer-songwriter had begun. SJ now focuses on pursuing his passion of writing and sharing his original music with friends and fans. And after reading his very honest answers below and hearing his music, you’ll be glad he made the transition.

Background question: What does SJ stand for?

SJ is, simply, the first letters of my first and last names. I chose it for my artist career in honor of my grandfather who had the same initials and who was an amazing musician and person. And, I just like it a lot better for me.

1: Your music has been described or likened to that of Jack Johnson, Donovan Frankenreiter and John Mayer, which I imagine is quite the compliment. How do you view yourself and your music?

It’s an amazing compliment. The funny thing is that those guys got to play music for the last 10+ years and live the life of a commercially successful singer-songwriter. I did just about the opposite until the last few years, but yet we are all about the same age. I feel like now I’m really pursuing what I should have been all along – what they have actually been doing. The most important point is that I am connecting with people genuinely through my own music, my own art. If I can do 1/100th of what they have each done, then that’s a huge success.

2. As a former lawyer, was the change to being a musician a big leap or simply one that felt organic and right?

That’s a great loaded question! I’m actually not a former lawyer, but rather very properly licensed in two U.S. states to practice law, let alone the federal bar. I just don’t practice law full-time, because, well, try launching a commercial music career yourself and practicing law full-time. It doesn’t work. No matter how you skin it, it is a huge leap. It’s scary, challenging, rewarding, daunting, exhilarating and incredibly insane at all once. Yes, it feels right, but that doesn’t take away from all of the other emotions – it just helps you stay on course.

3. What kind of music do you like or get inspiration from?

I love acoustic music and vocal talent; the kind where you hear the talent in every pluck of that steel vibrating on wood, where you hear a believable emotion behind a soulful, naturally in-tune voice, where the master is not overproduced. That’s the kind of music that inspires me. When I hear it, I can barely wait to grab my guitar and start playing and humming along. Modern commercial music has largely lost that, but those type of artists are out there fighting to be heard, and some are emerging and it’s awesome.

4. Is there any kind of music that you don’t enjoy or get inspiration from?

Well, at the risk of offending certain people, yes, there is. I’ve never been able to understand the extremes of music: death metal, hardcore rap/hip hop, overly depressing slow tempo country, or dance/house tracks that play the same loop 100 times. I’m not an extreme person – never have been. I can be very intense but I’m not extreme. I think that that those expressions of music are just conveying or catering to states of mind and experiences that I simply don’t access and have no reason to do so.

5. How much time do you spend listening to music compared to playing or recording your own?

I spend much more time listening to music than I do recording, but I probably spend as much playing. It’s tough to find time, though, for playing and recording. I have arrived at a point now with all that’s going on that I actually have to plan and schedule it, other than picking up the guitar for 20 minutes here and there. If I actually got to be an artist and play for several hours a day, then I wonder how much better I could actually be. I think many artists have this same dilemma though. There’s just not enough time to do it all and to progress and mature as fast as you know you could.

6. Do you ever listen to the radio? And what are your thoughts on today’s music on radio compared to when you grew up?

I do listen to the radio, but from many sources – terrestrial, satellite, Internet, etc. There’s a lot of great stuff out there, but you have to search for it. I think that everyone knows that the major labels more or less control the major market radio in most countries, and that the stations have narrowed their playlists so that the same few songs for a certain amount of time get the maximum amount of repetition so to become familiar to people. When you’re playing at that level with those investments and budgets you have to manufacture hits by infiltrating human psychological predispositions. It’s the same thing in almost every industry, with almost every product. When I was a kid, sure it was a lot of the same thing, but I do feel like the playlists were a lot bigger and that the songs actually had to be a bit better. I used to love to sit in my room on the weekends and records songs on my blank tapes from my cassette/radio. I loved it. Those were the days.

7. Do you listen to music while you are songwriting or recording to either inspire or get ideas? If not, where do you find your song/lyrics inspiration from?

I do get inspired by good songs, but I don’t listen to music to get inspired. I usually wake up in the morning with melodies in my head – really, it happens all of the time. I also get inspired all day long in different places, while doing random things. I’ve learned to hum melodies into my phone’s recording app or to type out lyrics into a note on my phone.

8. Which is more important to you, the sound or the lyrics or do both compliment the other in your opinion and why?

It’s both. It has to be both. Melody and sound create the mood; they are essential. It’s like anything in nature – it first has to be pleasing to the eyes (in this case, the ears). But then the lyrics get you hooked and truly evoke an emotion, and convey something genuine. If you have the first, you have basic pop music that you can bounce around to, but it feels superficial and empty. If you only have the second, it’s like non-accessible folk, country or what I call desert music. If you have both, you have a hit. (And I mean a true hit, not a manufactured one).

9. Who are some of your favorite musicians and influences, and why?

Some of my favorite musicians include Dave Matthews, Nick Drake, John Martyn, Counting Crows, Colin Hay, David Gray, Ben Harper, James Taylor, the magnificent guitar trio of John McLaughlin, Paco de Lucia and Al Di Meola, and many, many more. I stuck there with listing those who are at least older than me.

10. What are a few of your favorite songs or artists, and why?

“Holiday in Spain” by Counting Crows. I could listen to it over and again, and really wish I had written it.

11. Here's a random, out-of-the-box type question. Do you like singing Karaoke? Why or why not?

Before I started my professional music career, absolutely yes – now, not really. Something changed for me after that and I don’t prefer to sing now, but I do like to go and listen to other people. Karaoke will always be fun.

12. Growing up, we all hear so much music from our parents that more often than not resonates decades later. Did you like any of the music that your parents listened to and do you feel it possibly influenced your style and music?

My dad loved Johnny Cash and Elvis. He would play them over and again. My mom loved Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and groovy-sound bands like The Mamas & the Papas. My childhood nanny listened to Willie Nelson all day. I think it all influenced my musical tastes and tendencies, but I don’t think I can point to one thing in particular about it all.

13. You’ve earned quite a few awards and nominations along the way for your music. How does that always make you feel to know other people and critics respond to what you make?

Well in many ways it helps me move forward and believing that I have something that’s worth releasing and sharing with the world. I’ve been a competitor all my life – sports, law, etc. – so I don’t necessarily like the idea of competitions and awards, etc. with music, because I don’t want my music career to be about competition. However, it’s a true honor when people recognize you, and it’s the best way to get recognition for your art when you’re trying to make it and reach a lot of people.

14. In 2012 you recorded your first full length album. Tell me about the process you went through from song inception or idea, through to choosing and recording which songs you wanted on the album?

Well, it was a big learning process on the production side. I co-produced all the music and was the executive producer of everything, running budgets, contracts, musicians, schedules, etc. I’m glad that I did that. I got to work with incredible musicians and engineers and really learn the entire process of recording on both the artist and producer sides. The songs had been ready for some time in my head and I knew what I wanted on the album, so it wasn’t too difficult to choose. The challenge was producing them and knowing when to cut it off. Fortunately, I’m not plagued by demo-itis or procrastination; I can’t stand it. I know when something is a fit, and we go with it. I’ve seen way to many talented producers and musicians never master and release a single song because they don’t want to make any final decisions. Life is too short. There’s always another album around the bend.

15. Touring is a very different beast to recording, where you are invariably safe in your recording studio cocoon. What are some of the best (and worst) experiences you have had on the road?

The touring road is a rollercoaster marathon. The worst experience I had on tour was driving two days to get from northern Minnesota to Indianapolis just to play for the opener, the bartender and the doorman. This was a pretty famous venue but the local booker switched my day last minute (and I stupidly agreed), and the original local openers cancelled. So all of the promotion was for the wrong day, and we had no local openers to help with the draw. We were paralyzed, exhausted and embarrassed. I felt horrible and worthless but luckily I had watched Pat Monahan of Train on VH1 a few nights earlier in a hotel, where he told some similar stories about early touring days with Train, even when they were signed with the majors. So, I felt a little better. The positive takeaway was that the bartender actually chased us out to the parking lot after the show and apologized! I was astounded because they acted upset all night but she gave me a huge compliment about my voice and said that she hoped I came back under better circumstances. Touring is like that – extreme disappointments followed by moments of connection and empowerment. It’s absolutely insane.

16. You are heavily involved in social media and music with your own blog and books. Is this something you feel musicians today must also incorporate into their skills if they want to be heard or reach a bigger audience? If so, why?

I think that my unique background puts me in a place where I have something to say that actually might help people, so I’m working on developing my blog The Musician’s Hypothetical, and publishing my first music business-related book in 2013. Yes, it helps me connect with more people who might actually become fans of my original music but I do believe that I am helping people who need it. The music industry is a completely dysfunctional industry and you not only have to know how to avoid scammers and bad faith deals, you more importantly have to be smarter than other people’s ignorance.

17. Tell me more about your foundation, ‘ One Acoustic World’ and what you are trying to achieve?

One Acoustic World is a concept I developed recently as a way to give back through my music and also bring others together to do so. It’s in its infant stages and needs a lot of work, but the whole point is to bring acoustic musicians together to support meaningful charitable efforts. We’re hoping to make some announcements in 2013 about our first efforts; we’ve actually been in talks with some folks about some cool initiatives.

18. Is making music invariably more enjoyable and relaxing for you compared to being an attorney or do you think that it’s just as hectic and busy as your former career, maybe more so given the amount of time new musicians have to spend on the road to build up a following?

Making music is absolutely more enjoyable. The music business – which is actually 90% of what you have to do – is very tedious, hectic and time consuming. It’s still mostly more enjoyable than practicing law. The thing that gets me the most is the rampant dysfunction and unprofessionalism in the music industry. You have to dig to find professionals; it’s not the other way around. I have a hard time working at that level, very hard but you have to deal with it regularly. I used to represent Fortune 500 companies in complex deals and cases. When a venue or press agent won’t return a simple email, or when people try to sell me promotion services that are completely worthless, or when people send me contracts that need to be completely re-written, I get a little frustrated. I don’t do business that way, but in music it’s par for the course and you just have to deal.

19. Does it ever feel like work? If so, do you think there might come a day when you step away from it to concentrate on running your own law practice or are those days done forever?

I don’t wish to return to the full-time practice of law. I’ll do it part-time for as long as I need to do it until music can sustain everything. I joke that if I’m ever lucky enough to be nominated for a Grammy, an American Music Award or something like that, in today’s industry I’ll be fielding a client call from my seat there. That all being said, I’m building Acoustic Soul Entertainment Group to be able to support other acoustic-centric artists like me in the future. I imagine that my music career will not stop with just me as an artist; hopefully I am just the start of something much bigger in terms of a niche, quality acoustic family of artists and brands that strive to become successful small businesses and brands through their genuine art.

20. What do you hope to achieve not only this year, but beyond with your music career?

I don’t think that it’s a state secret that it’s a 10-year marathon to become a commercial success, if you do mostly the right things and get a little lucky. I do want to be a commercial success as an artist within the next 5 years or so. But in the long term, I do want Acoustic Soul Entertainment Group and its affiliate label and publishing companies which I created to thrive as niche, indie music companies known for a top quality acoustic-centric and lyrically/vocally-driven catalog.

21. Any musicians you would love to work or collaborate with in the future?

There are really a lot. I always thought that I wanted to have Natalie Merchant sing with me, but then Brett Dennen pulled that one off. And then I thought that it would be cool to have Norah Jones sing with me, but then I talked to a lawyer who knows her and said she doesn’t really do that. I’d love to work with David Gray on some of my next productions – his last albums were just so cool on the acoustic production side, and whoever mixed the acoustic guitars on Alanis Morisette’s Jagged Little Pill Acoustic deserves some kind of “I’m the King of the Universe” award in my book. But there are too many people to name here.

22. Who inspires you and why?

I’ve actually been more inspired by events and acts than people, and it’s been that way my entire life. As a huge sports kid I was always more inspired by an amazing slam-dunk or goal or touchdown catch, rather than the actual athlete. I’m inspired by amazing moments in movies, and less by the actual actors, no matter how good they are. I’m inspired by amazing acts of kindness and compassion, especially when there’s really nothing to gain or a greater agenda at play. We’re all just vessels for something else much more complex. It’s what we produce that inspires me, not the “who”. I think that all of us are way too flawed to be any kind of genuine inspiration.

23. Any lasting thoughts to young, would be musicians about how to go about breaking into this industry?

Yes. Plan for a 10 plus year marathon of 5 plus quality albums, a lot of touring, and at least a half a million plus in marketing, spent very wisely – that’s if you want to be a commercial success. If you want to have a career doing what you love, or even as a decent hobby kind of thing, then just chill, enjoy the ride, meet as many people as you can, and don’t spend money on promoting, marketing, etc. Record music you like, play where you like, and enjoy life. It’s two completely different paths. I started music really just to enjoy it, but when things start taking off a little and you realize that you could have a greater commercial career, the competitive instinct kicks in, and you’re now in the race. Spend a lot of time deciding whether or not you even want to be in the race. It’s higher stakes and potentially bigger rewards, but it also takes away from enjoying the journey.

24. If people want to see you perform or listen to your music, where can they do so?

You can find me at www.sjacoustic.com, and basically connect with me from the links there to any social media site.

25. Any tours or upcoming albums in the process?

I’m focusing touring on Colorado in March and April, with a stop in Austin for the RedGorilla Music Festival, and then in the summer I plan to tour a lot in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. The fall is up in the air right now as there is a lot under discussion. It’s possible that I will connect with some other artists for some pretty cool openers. And, yes, another album is in the works. I am very excited about it, but that’s all I can say right now.

26. Finally, any lasting thoughts or pearls of wisdom you'd love to share with our readers or something we don't know about you?

Well, I’m not going to pretend to know anything. I will say that lately I’ve been thinking about relationships – all kinds. I’m old enough now to have enough experience to notice patterns of behavior and true motivations. Some people are inherently better at sports, or math, or music, or whatever. And the same seems to go regarding morality, courtesy and civility. Environment will tip people one way or another as well, but some people don’t really have to try to be moral, courteous or civil; they just are inclined as such. They don’t need external things like religion, fear, or reward to make decisions that are basically right. My point is that if you are one of those people, I think that a lot of tension, stress and frustration in life is caused by the fact that you have to deal with those who are not like you – those who make decisions based on ulterior motives and agenda and false pretenses, and allow negative emotions like jealousy, hate, anger, sadness, the urge for power/control, etc. to govern those decisions. So, I guess what I’m saying is that if you’re a dolphin, you’re better off with dolphins; you’re not going to be able to communicate effectively with the sharks, unless you’re smacking them with your nose really hard just to be able to swim away in one piece. Some things are just the way the are, and in relationships it seems that the toughest part is just finding the right ones in an imperfect world where you can flow and excel to your potential, and enjoy life the most.