Monday, April 9, 2012

Drew William : The Artist Interview

I'm starting a new experiment here on Kate Roth Writes. Themed weeks. This week's theme is music!

It's no secret that I am inspired by music in my writing. I'm also inspired by people like me. People who live regular lives and have normal jobs but pursue creative endeavors with drive and passion. So, that being said I introduce you to Drew William. He's a 26 year old Indiana native, songwriter and hip-hop artist who is also earning his MBA at Vanderbilt University. I've known him for quite a few years now and even got to play one of his first songs at my wedding! He was nice enough to grant me an interview and I am thrilled to share our conversation with you.

So much of what he has to say, I can relate to as a fellow creative type. His candor and answers may change the way you look at hip-hop music and the people of my generation. Not only is he incredibly well spoken and grounded, he is also a very talented musician. Be sure to check out the links to his music at the end of the interview.
Have you always been interested in music? When did you start pursuing it more seriously? Did something cause you to want to delve deeper into music despite your other career plans?

As a listener, yes, I’ve always been very interested in music. Some of my first memories are from when I was 5 or 6 years old listening to my parents’ Monkees records with them. I also remember calling in to a local radio station late at night with my brother and requesting “Downtown” by Petula Clark. My favorite song for the longest time as a child was “Two Faces” by Lou Christie. Which is hilarious if you know that record. I guess the point is, I’ve always had a pretty unexpected and eclectic taste in music and it’s always been distinct in my memory, not because my parents were big music fans or I was exposed to it all of the time, but just because I feel like there’s some kind of natural fit there that exists between me and music.

Another part of the equation is that my brother played in bands while I was growing up. He’s definitely been a huge influence on me and my musical taste in the way we’ve been able to share music and communicate why we like something. That’s ultimately, why I started to pursue music more seriously. Because he was so good at producing sounds and more so, sounds that I enjoyed, that I really felt compelled to find a way to fit what he was doing lyrically.

I sang in choir toward the end of elementary school and played clarinet in middle school. Also hilarious. But, it’s funny that those experiences have really equipped me well for rapping in the way that I know how music is read and understand tempo and rhythm, unlike rappers who just pick it up. Rapping just happened. I can carry a tune, but I’ve never had a voice melodically to set myself apart in singing. Rapping made sense because hip-hop was my generation’s rock and roll in a lot of ways. I grew up on the Def Jam era in music that served as the perfect form of rebellion for me and my friends. From there, I quickly found that I was just better at it than most and kept getting better.

The reason that I began to delve more into it is kind of two-fold. One, like most artists, writing is an outlet for me. It helps me to put my mind in a space that I wouldn’t otherwise go and kind of explore ideas and concepts in my head that stretch beyond everyday thought. Second, however, is that I live for the feedback I get from people who listen to my music. Not in the sense that I thrive off of compliments and people telling me that I’m good at what I do, but in hearing people tell me how they interpret different lyrics and the enjoyment they get from hearing certain songs, etc.There’s really no greater feeling than knowing that you provoked thought. I’ve always said that if our music positively impacted one person, then it would all be worth it. Those are things that keep me going and have made me more involved in the craft.

How do you balance your school life/studies and working on your music?

It’s not easy. Going to graduate business school has been more academically rigorous than I could have imagined. In many ways, it’s more difficult to pursue music than when I worked full-time professionally just from a pure time commitment standpoint. It’s not just class, but it’s out of class work, it’s meetings, it’s networking events, and on and on. It can be difficult to have a life, let alone a hobby. So, since my brother and I both have pretty similar demands in terms of school as he’s a PhD student at UCLA, we’ve utilized holiday breaks and the summer to get the bulk of our music done. I think it’s been good for us in that it gives you a way to recharge and find inspiration as it comes rather than forcing creativity.

I know your brother has been pretty involved in your music, what do your parents think?

I always say my brother is at least half of the operation. Not only because he produces every one of the instrumental tracks, but because those tracks and his ideas serve, in a lot of ways, as the source of inspiration for my writing. He may be the only person on this planet who understands my musical taste and what I’m trying to do as an artist.

My parents have always been supportive of what we do. I don’t know that they get it because it’s difficult for their generation to understand hip-hop. So their support is really more about them being very happy and proud that their sons are pursuing a creative endeavor and have something that they’re passionate about and believe in.

I’m very grateful that they kind of support it blindly and have shown that they’ll be proud of us regardless. The background on my phone is a picture of me performing in front of 300 or 400 people with a mic in my hand and my mom in the background smiling as she watches. I look at that every day as a reminder that she’s going to be proud of me and support me no matter what I do in life.

What/who inspires you?

First and foremost, it’s those listeners that I mentioned earlier and the feeling that they give me that no one or nothing else can. My brother is a huge influence, as I’ve said. And that extends beyond what he does musically. It’s really about the way that he’s shown me the way to attain my goals and how to want more for myself. It’s not difficult to end up in graduate business school when you grow up with someone whose intellect and aspirations are PhD-level. My parents inspire me not musically but by the way they’ve sacrificed over the years. There have been countless examples of them doing the right thing at their own expense. They’re the type of people who make you want to make the world a better place.

Artistically, I’m very inspired by Drake. He’s not only better than just about anyone else out there as a rapper, but he continues to try new things and really push music into a new space. He’s the most relatable artist to me in that he really represents much of what I do. Being vulnerable, having uncertainty about the future, acknowledging that we all have many different sides and emotions as human beings.

It’s so difficult to put yourself out there as an artist nowadays because it’s so easy to find out so much about you. There are few secrets. And no secrets when you’re a superstar. In fact, I love this line Drake has in the song “Lord Knows” when he says “…They takin greats from the past and compare us. I wonder if they’d ever survive in this era. In a time when it’s recreation to pull all your skeletons out the closet like Halloween decorations…” It takes an entirely different level of tolerance and discipline to remain grounded as a celebrity today.

Other sources of inspiration are my favorite R&B songwriters who really understand the intricacies of creating a song, beyond just piecing together lyrics. Those favorites are Miguel, The-Dream, and Rico Love. Ryan Leslie is a brilliant guy as well. Plays all of his own instruments, sings, raps, creates the whole body of work on his own. But I like him more because he actually graduated from Harvard and chose to pursue music instead of a traditional career. Another guy kind of like that is my brother and I’s favorite producer at the moment, Clams Casino. He really just started making beats while he was in college and got really good at it. Now he’s one of the best and does it for a living. So all of those guys inspire me, guys who value education but make sacrifices for their passion. That’s where I lie myself.

I often feel like non-creative people have a hard time understanding artists and their craft. Did you/ Do you ever struggle with people not taking you seriously? How do you overcome that?

Absolutely. I think that feeling is even intensified for me because I deal with so many stereotypes related to being a white person who raps. I think what makes it most difficult is that many people assume that if you’re doing something in the entertainment space, like making music, that you have these delusions of making it big and becoming a star. And that’s what you want. That’s what your goal is. When, in fact, I do it for completely the opposite reason. I do it because I enjoy it and it’s an outlet. I’ve never wanted to make any money from it. And one of my greatest fears is attaining fame, regardless of why. So, I struggle with that a lot in a just being subjected to people’s comments and dispositions towards it.

Most people don’t truly understand the vulnerability that accompanies creating something in the arts and then sharing it with people. That’s all I’ve really ever wanted from listeners is not for them to like my music, but to understand and be sensitive to the chance I’m taking on myself. That stuff takes its toll on you and really can work to temper your ambitions. One way I’ve dealt with it is by relying on people who I really trust and understand. My brother and some close friends have always kind of been the people to stand by me and tell me to keep going no matter what. The other way is by really just forcing myself into maintaining an unwavering self-belief in the face of tough circumstances. And with that, knowing that I stand to benefit much more as a human being by putting myself out there and taking chances than otherwise. I look at it in those terms a lot of times. What do I have to gain as a human being vs. what do I have to lose as an individual?

People might wonder why you would give your album away for free online. Explain why you did that.

It comes down to the cost/benefit of recouping costs and providing access. As I stated earlier, we’ve never been in this to make money. We did, however, have our album available for sale to start in order to both recoup the costs of recording the first album and fund future projects. We waited six months after release date to make a decision on what to do. I didn’t recoup the costs, but decided that it was much more important to build interest in and gain exposure for what we’re doing, especially in light of the fact that we’ve recorded some new material since the album. I want to remove any barriers that prevent potential listeners from hearing our music. So, we’re working to move into more channels and make everything more available. It’s still available for sale on iTunes, as well as for free download. This digital music movement is a fickle thing. We're learning, just as music execs still are today, what the best way to price and present our music is.

Name an artist or band that your fans might be surprised to hear you like (aka a guilty pleasure)

I’m usually pretty open about liking stuff people might find to be pretty embarrassing. It would definitely be something pop, however, because I’m a huge fan of pop music. Just yesterday, I heard the new Justin Bieber single “Boyfriend”. Not even as a listener, but as a writer and artist, I think that’s a super dope record.

The two more consistent ones that come to mind are Katy Perry and the Black Eyed Peas. What people don’t understand is that these pop music producers are truly some of the best musical minds in the world. The guy that’s behind all of the latest Katy Perry and Pink songs, and everything else on the radio is a guy named Dr. Luke. Phenomenal, phenomenal producer and writer but he’s not well-known amongst listeners.

There are a lot of really great records that are on the radio. And they deserve to be there. There are also a lot of really great records that don’t get radio play for whatever reason. But let’s not let these irrelevant factors dictate our tastes in music. In regard to the Bieber record, it’s well-written, with a bad ass track, and he sounds great on it. What are you so afraid of liking? Music isn’t made for certain people to like it. There may be a target audience, but it’s made for whoever gets enjoyment from it. That’s it.

What do you do to prepare yourself before writing? How do you get in the right head space?

Many times, I’m just driving and not thinking about music at all and an idea pops into my head. Then, it just kind of starts flowing and I’ll try to run with it that day and jot notes into my phone or come home and flesh the idea out in writing. What’s more important to me than anything is just realizing when I’m in that zone, then capitalizing on it. I’m very aware of not rushing and forcing ideas. I will say, however, that I always write standing up and pacing. And I always write either on a computer or on the iPhone, never pen and paper anymore.

What is your creative process? Do words or beats come first?

I have a huge advantage in that the man who creates all of my instrumentals is my brother. So it all usually begins with a phone conversation between us in which we throw out some ideas and roughly define the direction that we’re going to go in with the song musically and content-wise. Then, he’ll throw together a sample loop of the verse and hook. I take that and begin to develop the writing of the song. What the final concept is going to be and how I’m going to structure. Usually, as I start my process, we’re going back and forth deciding what needs to be done to the track and it’s developed further and further until I settle on specific lyrics and he’s settled on a final composition and we’re ready to record.

It’s kind of a parallel process that he and I take on simultaneously. Which is great because I think we both really feed off of each other’s ideas and it shows in the final product. I’m very particular about not writing anything until I hear the actual music. I’ve had full ideas that served as the basis for creating a song and then I’ll get the track from my brother and scrap the idea completely when I hear it.

What advice would you give to others who have a creative dream that maybe doesn't fall in line with their day-to-day careers?

I think what’s most important about putting your craft into perspective is to think about it in a gain frame rather than a loss frame. For me, I can look at what I do and question why I’m subjecting myself to the vulnerability and worry about guarding against colleagues knowing what I do. Look at the resources, in time and money, that I’m devoting to doing this. Or, I can say “Hey, I’m getting to perform impromptu in front of hundreds of people as a result of this. And that’s had an immense impact on my public speaking ability and confidence as an individual.” I’ve gotten to meet people and develop relationships, have conversations that I never would have had if I didn’t do this. It’s made my relationship with my brother that much tighter. I’m better at using criticism to improve and have developed creative ideas that have helped me to develop ideas in business. I think it’s easy for a lot of artists or creative people, no matter what their craft is, to judge their work on external criteria – reviews, how much money and fame you attain, etc. But when you focus on the intrinsic benefits that you get and how valuable those are, that helps you to make much better sense of it all and continue on undeterred.

Once again many thanks to Drew William!

Be sure to check out his music via these links:

Barometer for purchase on iTunes

Listen to and download each song from Barometer

Listen to and download new Drew William songs

Find Drew William on Facebook, Twitter and his blog

Also, coming summer 2012, a new place for all things Drew William

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