Chapter 5: Graduation
Writing music gradually went from writing lyrics and melodies to making instrumentals on my laptop as I continued on. One day my mom, my brother, and I were shopping at Target and out of the corner of my eye under the electronics section I saw a computer program called “American Idol Jam Trax.” I was 15 years old and had very little understanding of music production but I knew what American Idol was so I was interested. I convinced my mom to buy it for me (“Is this something you think will help you get better?” -every investment needed a purpose) and with her support I went straight to work that night.
This “digital audio workstation” was relatively uncomplicated for a freshman in high school. I learned how music loops were pre-recorded little sound bytes you could repeat over and over to create bars of music. By this time my familiarity with song structures was well-seasoned from writing hundreds of lyrics and melodies so I clicked on the first synthesizer loop I found and my jaw proceeded to drop.
The first sound I found was nearly the exact synth line I had made up in my head from a song I’d written a month prior! I was flabbergasted and excited. Taking it as a sign I was on the right path, I began creating songs by grouping these loops together based purely on what felt right to my ears. No musical training, just going off of intuition. Soon enough, one song became two then 30, and so on.
Of course I wrote lyrics to nearly every instrumental I made, but there was still one problem. How do I get my vocals on these songs? I had very little concept of how recording worked, let alone the mechanisms to make it function on a laptop, but surely if I could do that, I could finally create an entire full-length album, right?
I saved up any money I could find, did some odd jobs for people, and again with my mother’s support, I acquired some additional cheap, beta equipment to help me put it all together. My mother hadn’t really even heard me sing at that point but she recognized a drive within me and gave me space and support from afar to figure it out. Something that would eventually come to save me one day not too far in the future.
I practically had zero concept of what I was doing. People would talk to me about musical instruments and chord progressions and I didn’t understand a single word they’d say. YouTube was in its infancy and tutorials for recording were extremely hard to understand unless you were a trained producer and musician, both of which I was not. I skated by in choir by mimicking my designated parts from those seated near me rather than reading sheet music (a language I still barely understand although eventually gained some elementary knowledge on the subject after high school.) I had all this musical desire and inspiration that I kept largely to myself as a shy kid. Nevertheless though by the end of of freshman year, I managed to scrape together my first studio album, “Intertwined.”
The album is ROUGH. In hindsight, I’m not sure real melodies actually exist on it and my vocals can’t really be considered as such but I’m proud of it regardless. It’s a little time capsule of a teenager not knowing what the hell he was doing. My childhood artist friend gifted me with an album cover for fun which I of course, used. Again, I had no clue about how to do music promotion especially because performing live wasn’t much of an option. I lived in a city built for alt-rock music, I was too young to perform in clubs and no one in my circle understood what a backing track was. I was also very shy. Still determined to try though, I burned every CD and cut out every single album booklet myself.
Eventually I created my second studio album, “Convulsion Heart,” another time capsule of teenage angst. I was a sophomore and junior during this time and even though it’s still very rough around the edges, unbalanced, and off-tune in parts, it’s still the product of someone who put their mind to it and created music. I found an online music distributor which got my songs up on iTunes for more sale which was very exciting!
However, people kept calling it “techno music” which at the time felt like some kind of derogatory slur, until I realized many years later that it wasn’t one. It absolutely was techno music but I always did my best to put my pop star dreams in to it. Neither of my albums went anywhere or got any radio play but I did manage to put together a music video (again by myself in private) for “Convulsion Heart” using the photo booth app on my Apple laptop. 2009 was a long year.
It was long because of coming out as gay and my not-so-secret-secret relationship. I really wanted love like every teenager does but something was off from the beginning. I found myself lying to those around me more often, making excuses for bad behavior, and hiding even more. My sophomore album felt darker because it really was a dark time for me, as cliche as that is for every pop artist to say. Psychological and emotional abuse seeps its poison into every aspect of your life without you knowing and my songwriting always seemed to know things before I did.
I was just a kid. All of my friends got to be in relationships, why was mine destroying everything that I knew? Was it “the gay thing” that made me feel like the family shame or was it something more? Was it both? I was so confused and conflicted. The biggest eye opener was when my boyfriend tried to run me over with a car as he completely ignored my pleas to stop. Luckily, I had the sense about me that day to jump out of the way.
That is not normal.
Eventually, after numerous other events including cheating on me with the guy down the street from me and telling me I deserved it, I broke up with him and chose myself over what I believed at the time was love. During this time, I wrote another album called “This Summer Air” (a lighter-toned body of work) my senior year in more of a pop-rock style after a song I’d made called “Somebody” strangely seemed to make people pay attention to what I was singing about.
The album chronicles my realization of realizing that even though sometimes things can feel really good being young and in love, abuse is abuse. One song in particular, “Revolution (Part 2)” represents the moment after I realized internally there was no going back. I’d written it 8 months before I finished the album and it was originally going to be the last song on the album. My songwriting oftentimes feels like little messages to myself from my subconscious. Something I know deep inside but might not be ready to learn.
However, I didn’t want to end this “lighter” album on a dark note, so at the last minute, I wrote a song called “Celebration” because it captured the heart of what I imagined love COULD be. The album was much more accessible to different age groups I was finding and I had slightly more of an idea of what I was doing so it became my best-seller at the time. However, after it was out, it immediately didn’t feel 100% right to me sonically. It felt like I was covering something, a habit that most abuse victims know all too well. It felt like I was telling the story I thought people wanted to hear. I love “This Summer Air” and still treasure those songs deeply but at 18 years old, I was done not doing things for myself.
I began to take back control of my life as the end of my high school career approached. I was lighter in apparent stress to those around me but fury waged a terrifying war inside me. A war I would go on to fight for an additional ten years in silence. I was heartbroken. I was betrayed. Manipulated, bullied, afraid, silenced, confused, and embarrassed. It felt like I came crashing out of a cocoon into another world. Who was I?
Everyone was telling me I needed to be this, that, or the other thing. I needed to go to this college, and “live the life we didn’t.” They got so busy telling me what I needed to be, no one stopped to ask what I wanted. I had just escaped this traumatizing relationship and I felt I couldn’t say anything simply because my being gay was a taboo subject. Truthfully, I just didn’t know how to communicate what I felt either. I once again was silenced in my own emotions; trapped within my own body. All I wanted was to be heard. Eventually that fury turned into strength when I realized that the past could stay right where it was because the only thing that began to matter to me was my future.
I dove immediately back into my electronic sounds and writing. Soon enough the lyric “I am a machine but not a robot for your operation” came to my head and I began writing a song called “Graduation” (literally the week of of my high school graduation, fittingly.) I showed the instrumental to my brother one afternoon and he immediately asked, “Wait… Do you have lyrics for this? That’s really good.”
I knew it was good. I felt it in my bones.
After recording it, I then showed it to my sister who proceeded to tell me it was the “best song I’d ever written.” My siblings were hard to win over sometimes and to have their support in this way meant a lot but this song spoke to me in ways that even still to this day I continue to discover. I poured every ounce of my desire to be heard and passion for freedom into every moment, lyric, melody, and sonic in that song and just let loose.
For the first time, I did not care about anyone’s feelings but my own and my art was beginning to reflect that. My siblings’ support was just a small cherry on top. I still felt like a prisoner to my abuser though. I wanted freedom and my music was going to take me there.
Three months after “This Summer Air,” I dropped an EP called “Rising Eon” that still remains as one of my favorite bodies of work that I’ve done because it’s nothing but emotion. I learned how to update my own songs, re-record things and modernize them. It’s growth on high octane and after showing a specific song on the EP called “If You’re on the Same Level” to my mom, she eagerly told me it was time to do a full-length music video and show the world my music.
The goalpost for an artist is never a far-off place in the future of financial security, fame and fortune. Those things come with time through work and a little bit of luck. Instead, the goalpost of the artist is to never give up on the dream that inspired you to take a leap of faith in the first place. Life tests you incessantly to see if you’ll give up on yourself, but you mustn’t give in. Never stop chasing your dreams but never forget what led you to chase them in the first place.
“Take a leap of faith and hope you fly.”
A phrase that echoed in my mind when my phone rang one September afternoon with the voice of a businessman saying they’d like me to come down to Los Angeles and write music soon.
To be continued… #BookTwo
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