If you’ve been following PensEyeView through our nearly 1,000 features, you have probably heard me say that Sirius Satellite Radio, helps us find more artists than any other media outlet. One channel especially is the Coffee House Channel, which is where I found today’s artist; the Miami based singer songwriter, SJ, while listening to one of my favorite new songs of the year, "I Like You". "I Like You" - his hit single off his new album, "Coffee" has received a best folk/acoustic song nomination at the 2010 Hollywood Music & Media Awards, and was a grand finalist at the 2010 Festival4Stars in the UK (just a few of the nods SJ has received). When I got home, I immediately downloaded “I Like You” and have since collected the rest of “Coffee”, then was flipping out when I heard we will be featuring this incredible artist.
Described as an “acoustically soulful folkster”, SJ says, “Vocally, people have commented that they hear soulful undertones throughout my songs, and not so much always a traditional folk storyteller tone or poppy tone… I only can really sing songs that have a deeper emotional or intellectual meaning to me - like from the soul I suppose.” And with one listen of “Coffee” it's clear that SJ's soul is much deeper than he lets people know. Even the story behind his initials have a deeper meaning (I'll let him explain). "Coffee" also shows that SJ made the right decision to leave his life as lawyer in the rear view, putting music ahead of the priority list. “I think that Coffee expresses the music that's in my head most of the time and appropriately captures the songs - a lot of warm acoustic tones and softer vocal mixes coupled with a percussive pulse that doesn't dominate things but just moves everything along, and definitely with a brighter mood, even when the song is about a darker point.”
With that, I leave you with one of PEV’s favorite new artists. Check out his XXQs to hear why… and to get the story behind his initials (intrigued? I think so).
PensEyeView.com (PEV): You have been described as an “acoustically soulful folkster” and with that, how would you describe your sound and what do you feel makes you stand out over the others?
SJ: I am most drawn to more stripped down, acoustic music, and that's what I feel most comfortable playing, so that's what comes out musically - and acoustic, down-to-earth modern folk sound. Vocally, people have commented that they hear soulful undertones throughout my songs, and not so much always a traditional folk storyteller tone or poppy tone. I think that is cool because that means that the songs must sound genuine and believable in terms of performance; I only can really sing songs that have a deeper emotional or intellectual meaning to me - like from the soul I suppose.
PEV: Based out of Miami, Florida, what kind of music where you into growing up? Was anyone your main influence?
SJ: I've been in Miami for the last seven years, but I spent significant time in Arizona, Ohio and Pennsylvania. I've always had a wide range of influences ranging from 50s era music through the 90s alt rock/grunge days, and including Latin rock, classical, flamenco and Brazilian jazz. I'm really all over the place. For my particular music, though, I think that the most influential artists on me have been the acoustic troubadours like Nick Drake, John Martyn and Dave Matthews, and I think that in terms of production and songwriting I've also been really inspired by Counting Crows over the years.
PEV: What was it like for you when you first started out in the music business and trying to make a name for yourself? Any “war stories” from those early years?
SJ: My back-story is a bit unique. I've played for nearly 20 years, and been performing for about 15 (since college), but music was always secondary or tertiary. I pursued other careers and athletics because that's just what I did, and I didn't think that music could be a career for me. So, now, I'm in my 30s and pursuing my true passion - music - for the last few years. Your perspective on these kinds of things is quite different from your perspective in your 20s and definitely your teens, when most artists start pursuing music. I've had the typical experience of being rejected by this festival or that venue or that contest, etc., but I think that that is just par for the course. After spending 10 years in the legal field, I'm not really sure what I would consider a "war story" with my music career, but I'm ready and excited for all the challenges that lie ahead.
PEV: Do you remember the first time you thought to yourself – “I am really onto something!”?
SJ: Yes. It took me years to muddle through music and lyrics I wrote to complete a dozen original songs and put out a demo album. When I did, I noticed that most people responded quite positively, and mostly to my voice and my lyrics, which was my first huge boost in confidence to continue. The sound production quality was poor because I did the mix myself not knowing what I was doing, really. But the real first time that it hit me was when I wrote "I Like You", which has now gained national charting and international recognition as my first commercially produced single.
I wrote the song in one evening, and when I was done with it I knew that something was going to happen with it - that I was truly onto something, maturing as a songwriter and, more importantly, a hook writer. When I began to play it for people live, their faces would light up and respond like I had never seen before with my songs, and they would sing along - I knew something was there.
PEV: With that, what can fans expect from a live SJ performance?
SJ: I prefer to play my originals, but I do throw in covers that I like to mix it up. I play a lot of smaller venues with duo and trios these days, and I love that intimate, listening room feel. It's nice to rock out (acoustically, that is) in larger spaces with multiple musicians backing me - that's a whole other feeling and how upcoming tours will be more like. I try to give my best to every song I play at every show. I like to have fun, and I like to interact with the audience and watch how they react to my songs - I'm very vigilant and attentive even if it doesn't seem like I'm looking at anyone in particular. I want to make sure that people are feeling the music and enjoying it for taking the time to listen to me.
PEV: Your hit single, "I Like You", is a Top 20 song on Sirius XM's The Coffeehouse Channel. "I Like You" also received a best folk/acoustic song nomination at the 2010 Hollywood Music & Media Awards, and was a grand finalist at the 2010 Festival4Stars in the UK. What has it been like to receive such good praise from one of your songs? Did you ever think people would react so well as they have?
SJ: Well, I did feel that there was something special about "I Like You" right when I finished it, but of course, you have no idea where it will go or how people will react. It's my first commercial single, and to see it chart in the Top 10 in a major U.S. radio chart (FMQB), have success on The Coffeehouse Channel that spins some of my most favorite artists, and to win awards, just blows me away. I really hope that it's just the beginning for the single, and I'm excited to see where it might go and how many people it might reach and affect in a positive way. It's all about connecting through music.
PEV: Tell us the story behind the name, “SJ” or the reason why you go by those initials.
SJ: Well, SJ happens to be the initials to my full name, which is a longer Eastern-European name not suited so well for music. I decided to go by "SJ" because, for one, I couldn't make up a name, and, most importantly, those are also the initials of my paternal grandfather with whom I was quite close. He was an amazing man, and an amazing musician.
PEV: What was the underlining inspiration for your music? Where do get your best ideas for songs?
SJ: I write the lyrics to most of my songs after I write the chords progressions or picking patterns; not always the entire song, but at least sections. After I play the guitar a bit, I start to get a feel of what the notes are expressing, and that in turn helps me think of a story, a message, or whatever it is I want to express through the melody. The guitar tells me what I should write about in a particular song. And so I play around, and it's often an expression of introspection about a relationship, or the idea of a relationship or some aspect of life or a viewpoint.
And sometimes it's a bit existential - I am in my 30s after all when all of that mindset seems to take hold. Sometimes it's a bit more folky, touching on a current event, politics or an anti-religion sentiment, but even at that almost always disguised through metaphor. I guess I'm inspired most by sound, tone and patterns, and then I can always find something to write about that makes sense for that music, although I am incredibly picky about the words I ultimately use and will change them over and again until I am satisfied.
PEV: Tell us about your latest release - what can fans expect from this work?
SJ: "Coffee" is my first fully produced commercial LP. It was co-produced by me, Oszy Carmona and Peter Finley. It was mixed by multi-platinum, multi-Grammy Award winning producer/engineer, Bob Rosa, and mastered by Sterling Sound's Ryan Smith. Some 17 people made it happen, and I couldn't be more excited. It is an acoustic album through and through, but it is produced, with layers of percussion, strings, keys, harmonies and other instrumentation.
I think that it expresses the music that's in my head most of the time and appropriately captures the songs - a lot of warm acoustic tones and softer vocal mixes coupled with a percussive pulse that doesn't dominate things but just moves everything along, and definitely with a brighter mood, even when the song is about a darker point. We soft-released on May 31 of this year, and now we're getting ready for a hard launch in 2012.
PEV: Do you ever find yourself getting writer’s block and if so, how do you get over that?
SJ: Actually, I find that I don't have enough time to write all of the music that is in my head or even finish the songs I've started writing in any sort of reasonable time period. I like when songs just sit a while - if they stick, I feel they are good enough to pursue to finish. But the problem is when they sit for too long. Because I'm actually juggling a lot still as a part-time lawyer and a full-time DIY musician, the time for songwriting is unfortunately suffering. I goal is to achieve a level of success where I can actually free up some of the professional/business time I have to spend on things, and settle into getting out more of what's in my head.
PEV: What’s one thing we’d be surprised to hear about SJ?
SJ: Ha ha. This is a good one. I'm debating between the fact that I really don't like birds and feel very uncomfortable around them, and that I have a black belt in one of the world's oldest kung fu forms which is actually called "Eagle Claw" kung fu. I'll let everyone else decide on that one.
PEV: You have played music as a hobby since you were 15, but have been working in the legal field for the past decade. Juggling both careers, was there a certain point in your life when you knew that music was going to be a career for you?
SJ: It's been transitional overall, but just over 30 I began to question really what I was doing, why I was doing it and for what, and if I really liked it and wanted to do it for the rest of my life - or at least during my 30s, which they say is the new 20s! I just realized that I'd rather spend the majority of my creative and intellectual time being in an industry that was exciting to me, where I could share something real and have a lot of fun doing it. I'm still transitioning out, and working hard at it, but I like the road I'm on now.
PEV: What one word best describes SJ?
SJ: Seriously? Hmm, ok. I'm just going to go with "butterscotch". How's that?
PEV: How is life on the road for you in the music world? Best and worst parts?
SJ: I love being on the road; it gets addictive. I love playing new venues in new cities where I get to meet an occasional old friend and some new fans. It's really cool. I guess the downside is that it can mess with your sleep, your eating, etc. I don't like when you literally feel like your stomach is expanding because of the junk snacks and excessive coffee. But I suppose that there are ways to manage those things, so I'll just get better at it the more I do it.
PEV: Is there one area you wish you could travel around and play that you have not yet?
SJ: There are lot of areas I want to tour; I'm just getting started so there's a lot of places to go. I'm really looking forward to Europe.
PEV: How have all your friends and family reacted to your career? What’s it like when you get to play at your hometown?
SJ: I have been very lucky that nearly everyone I know has been super supportive. I have some pretty down-to-earth friends and family that don't hold back; if they didn't think I should be doing music, they would be the first ones to tell me. It's cool when you have a day job like being a lawyer and your friends actually say, "man, quit your day job!".
PEV: What can we find you doing in your spare time, aside from playing/writing music?
SJ: I like to play sports, run, watch movies and read non-fiction, mostly in the philosophy/psychology/
PEV: Is there an up and coming band or artist you think we should all be looking out for now?
SJ: I recently started listening to Matt Hires and I really like his album. I also like new albums that I recently got from Sean Hayes and Frazey Ford. I think that they all have the "it" factor.
PEV: If you weren’t playing music now what do you think you would be doing as your career?
SJ: I'd be teaching at a university. I would have left the law practice behind and comfortably sunk into a career as a professor - I always liked being in college.
PEV: So, what is next for SJ?
SJ: We're now getting our marketing and publishing apparatus in place, and getting ready to attempt a respectable hard launch in 2012 of "Coffee" and more robust national/international festival, showcase and tour dates. People ask me all of the time how it's going, and the best thing I can say is that it's like building a house one brick at a time - whether it's getting one new fan, one new show, one new licensing deal, etc. The momentum builds and one day you notice you have build a wall. So, what's next is that we're just going to continue building and see how far we can go.