Young musicians find their footing in producing and performing music
Story by Andrew McMunn • Photos by Christian Lindgren
Getting started as a musician has never been an easy task, and it continues to become more difficult as newer avenues of music production and distribution develop. Some up-and-coming musicians in the St. Louis area chose Webster University as their creative homebase.
Jalen Miles is a hip-hop artist who has been improving his craft since he was in high school. Connor Johnson has played drums since he was in fifth grade and now tries to find balance playing in a band with three other people. Guitarist Gabriel Jackson has formed his first active band with other students in the past year.
Years ago on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day at Pattonville High School, Jalen Miles took the stage to perform a rap written about the famous Civil Rights leader. Many students dressed up as various Civil Rights figures, but Miles decided to co-write a rap with a friend as his contribution to the event. Miles had been rapping for less than a year and would be performing in front of an audience for the first time.
“I was so nervous I was about to shit myself on stage,” Miles says.
In front of a crowd of his peers, Miles bombed his first live performance. Most of the students told him his rap was “alright” because they didn’t want to hurt his feelings. But not everyone tried to sugarcoat his failure.
“I was in the nurse’s office later that day, and this guy told me, ‘you should never do rap, you should quit while you’re ahead and never pursue it,’” Miles says.
Miles did not let the discouragement from his peers affect him. Instead, he began doing what he believes is the most important part about learning to perform: studying the music and developing his passion.
“I was like, ‘man, screw that, this is what I want to do, this is what I’m going to do.’ And I’m dedicated to it,” Miles says.
Although he hasn’t performed much since then, opting to occasionally participate in open mic nights, Miles continues to practice and perfect his craft. Miles studied classic hip-hop idols, rappers like Nas, Talib Kweli, Immortal Technique and each of their musical and performance styles. According to Miles, knowing and respecting accomplished artists, combined with lots of practice, is the key to becoming a better musician.
The artist Miles considers his greatest inspiration is the rapper Logic. Miles says Logic’s style of hip-hop changed his outlook on not just rap, but music in general.
“In his music, there are actual musical instruments and combining of different genres in hip-hop. So it’s more diverse but still hip-hop,” Miles says.
When writing and recording his own music, Miles says he makes every song on his own with no sampling. If there are any other instruments in a song, he’ll outsource and find someone who plays the actual instrument and then arrange the recorded music himself using the FL Studio app. He wants his music “to have a live feel” and not just seem like it was all made in software.
Miles originally wanted to make a mixtape, but decided to scrap the idea and go for a full album instead after he discovered his love for recording and producing. Miles was working on a song with a friend, who is a guitarist, when he decided to record his friend playing a handful of notes. Miles mixed and arranged them into a few chords and then some chord progressions.“
After that, I was hooked,” Miles says. “I just kept on going and going and eventually the project came full circle, and then I built a concept around it and just wrote lyrics for all of the songs.”
Miles recorded an album full of songs over the summer and plans on mixing the album in time for a late 2017 release. Miles, under the stage name Addict Flow, named the album Dark Nights and Summer Days and says the concept of the album comes from his own perspective on life and its obstacles.
“It’s being real about dark situations but giving light to it, saying that it’s possible to make it to where you want to go and achieve your goals even if you are going through that,” Miles says.
Connor Johnson, an audio major, plays in a local band called Seventh Sword. Johnson founded the band with lead guitarist Major Lee Harper through a Craigslist ad in 2014. Since their original formation, the two have picked up a bassist and additional guitarist and have written and recorded dozens of songs.
Recently, the band has been working on producing music and releasing CDs. With the support of family, friends and fans, Seventh Sword gets their music and their name out in the local music scene.
“Every one of us has recorded different things—personal projects and altogether—and so we are used to how that works trying to get really good performances, try to polish something up so we are comfortable sending it to someone or putting out a CD,” Johnson says.
The band has played a few concerts at some small bars and venues, but they prefer sticking to perfecting and practicing their music and avoiding playing too many shows for financial reasons.
Johnson and Seventh Sword played at Pop’s Nightclub in October, and they had to sell at least 40 tickets to get the opportunity.
“Basically we give [the venue] $120 to play the show, and I feel like that’s really discouraging for a lot of bands and local musicians because they really want the stage spotlight so bad that they end up ‘eating the tickets’ as they say, just paying outright to do the show,” Johnson says.
Personal reasons also limit the band’s opportunities to play live. Johnson says each musician in the band has their own commitments and responsibilities such as jobs and kids, and those often win out over musical opportunities.
Gabriel Jackson is a music composition major at Webster and plays guitar in his band, Thames. The band frst came together in October 2016 and began gigging almost immediately. Thames followed up with an EP in 2016 and a second in late 2017.
“We actually had a name and a Facebook page, but the promoter didn’t know that when they made the poster,” Jackson says. “So the poster for the show said the [original guitarist’s name] and Guests. So it’s kind of like a joke, our first show and all we are were ‘Guests.’”
Jackson says he came up with the name of the band while looking up different rivers around the world. Part of Thames’s current success is due to the successful relationship between the band and the now-defunct Cicero’s booking agent. They began by getting booked for concerts on Thursday nights.
“You kinda luck out in some ways, and build really good relationships with venues,” Jackson says.
Jackson says one of their recent big accomplishments was getting booked for a concert at The Ready Room on October 31 of this year. This accomplishment came about because of the band’s persistence, consistency and goal-setting.
“You just prove your worth and prove your pedigree, and then as you get more and more shows, the shows get bigger in terms of who you are opening for,” Jackson says.
All three artists agree practice, persistence and perfecting their talents are important to gaining success in the industry. Miles believes the quality of the music is what makes audiences and listeners come back for more.“The music’s going to be good, the music’s going to be quality,” Miles says. “And when people hear that, they are going to want to share that.”
<< Meet Jalen behind the scenes HERE >>