Being a Musician in Chiang Mai – Follow Joel’s journey and hear his thoughts on the CM music scene

Musical Beginnings

I was born in St. Charles, Missouri, about 30 minutes outside of St. Louis (USA).  When I was 5 years old we did a stint in Oklahoma for a year because of my dads job.  Then right back to St. Louis until I moved here (Chiang Mai) at the age of the 31.  

As a kid, I played soccer, a little baseball and hockey, I was a sports guy. I rode BMX then soccer became my main thing.  There was a point where I was playing on two different traveling teams. I would play 3 games a week when I was 10-12 years old.  During that time I got burnt out with soccer and I started shifting to music.  My dad’s guitar made its way out of the closet and I starting strumming it.  It was at the time Oasis released their album, (What’s The Story) Morning Glory.  Nirvanas Nevermind was a cassette tape that I had at the time.  I started listening to those bands.  I started figuring out the song Come As You Are by Nirvana on the guitar.  My dad heard me, who was pretty proficient at the guitar, starting teaching me songs from Nirvana, Oasis, Bush, some of the grunge era stuff.  We moved to a new house so I went to a new school.  At that point I quit sports and shifted to doing music.  Then I started taking guitar lessons.  At that point, I was the new kid at school; my friends didn’t associate me with sports or soccer like they did at my old school.  People started associating me with music more.  It was a nice natural transition for me to get into music. 

I took guitar pretty serious; I started to learn all the basic scales, chords and music theory.  Then I got really into writing my own music.  Fast-forward a year later and I was in a band.  At 12-13 I started my first band called For Sale, it was 3 of us bass, guitar and drums.  After school we would go in my friends basement that had a drum set and jam.  We ended up writing some songs, groovy instrumental stuff because none of us could really sing.  We played some shows and that is what really got me into music.

I got serious with bands, at one point I was in 3 bands, writing music for them, playing a lot of shows.  I went through High school doing that.  I went on my first tour when I was a senior in high school.  It was a week and half stint around the Midwest, 7 different shows over a 10-day period.  That was crazy.  I remember being in van feeling like shit the whole time (just had my wisdom teeth taken out) but playing a show and feeling so good. I got off on the adrenaline of it. 

Music Teacher at a Young Age
Studying Music at University

When I graduated High School, I auditioned at a University.  You can usually go one of two tracks, its either classical or you can go jazz.  I didn’t quite fit in either, because I was in bands playing progressive rock.  I chose the jazz route because it was a better fit.  I got accepted into Webster University, which is a liberal arts school in St. Louis.  It was the coolest program because I could choose classes that were music technology and also jazz studies.  I took music productions classes, which introduced me to basic physics, microphones, mixing counsels, studio design and speakers.  I was also doing all the jazz theory, jazz composition, and the jazz performing side of it.  For 4 years of that I was this hungry dude that was eating up all this new stuff.  I was still gigging and still teaching which was my main bread at the time.  I started taking on a new position where I would record bands.  The house I had in St Louis was a loft style house so I set up shop and bought a bunch of gear.  I started experimenting with recording indie rock stuff.

My whole livelihood at that time when I was graduating was from playing music, producing music, and private teaching.  Which is not uncommon for a lot of musicians in St Louis because you cant make a good living just gigging.  You can’t make the most creatively satisfying living teaching.  They both got hand in hand, teaching was the left hand and performing was the right hand.  They both feed each other.  The performing fueled the creativity where the teaching paid the bills.  Through teaching you get re-inspired, teaching music to kids that looked up to me, re-inspired me to take the craft more serious.  That started making its way into my performing and my producing. 

I went back for a master degree.  At this point I felt like I wanted to get out of St Louis and I started scoping out other places.  I feel in love, got engaged, so I stayed in St Louis for my master where I did my undergrad.  I got a grad assistant position, which was cool because I got to teach some classes.  I got to run live sound at all the concerts that happened on campus.  It gave me a chance to sharpen up on the live production side.   The grad program gave me a lot of creative freedom because I knew the entire faculty there.  They knew what kind of music I was into so they really let me shift my composition focus into being whatever I wanted it to be.  I did a lot of independent studies with basically badass teachers that I knew could whip me into shape. I spent two years doing that.  I got a masters in composition under the jazz umbrella.  That took me to a point where I was driven to consider a doctorate in music. 

My PHD options were choosing the experimental composition route, which I didn’t have a lot of experience in, and then there was the other more classical route which I also didn’t have much experience in.  My master’s was in a boutique thing that the school catered for me.  I went to a couple different states, Louisiana, Florida, Nebraska and Colorado to do auditions for the various PHD programs. I auditioned my composition portfolio one week and the next week I was onto guitar and jazz.  The main thing that fueled my drive for the doctorate is I wanted to have the credentials to teach at a University, get a full time professor position.    I didn’t get accepted into the couple of PHD programs I applied for.  

Director of Education & Trying to Make Pop Hits

I got a job offer from a community college in Florida, which I liked, the pay was going to be okay and it was a good stepping stone to get into a University.  After that offer, I went back to St. Louis and I got a phone call from someone asking if I knew the rapper Nelly. The person said he has a music production college in St. Louis that just opened up.  I called the college that day and the campus director at the time answered; I sold myself to him over the phone and he invited me to come down to the campus.  He was really chill which was way different than all these interviews and auditions that I was having at these Universities.  It felt really nice walking in, shaking hands and taking a tour with the director. They had this millions dollar studio parked right in the middle of the campus.  That was the first room he took me into and I could get my way around the room because I had been producing music for a while.  He was excited to see that I could operate the room and had the academic background.  He didn’t have a degree, he made hit records for Nelly, he was Nelly’s engineer. I ended up getting hired there as an adjunct professor, taught a term.  They liked my work ethic and how I taught and promoted me to program director. It was similar to a curriculum coach, writing the courses, helping the faculty. After about of year of that, I was promoted to director of education.  It was badass because I had the college teaching gig that I always wanted without having to do the PHD route.  The past 5 years of my life, prior to moving to Chiang Mai, that’s what I was doing, directing this college.  It awarded me so much; it was like getting a PHD.

I pondered if I actually want to take that director of education role because you are the head of academics and you are between admissions and the accrediting body.  You have be cognizant of how many enrollments the investors want for financial sake and I had to make sure everything is ethical, are students getting good grades to graduate and get jobs for the sake of the accreditation.  It’s the typical for profit system.  That wore on me for a while but some of the perks were that I got to work with some big names.  I found a production partner who did a bunch of tracks for Nelly and was tight with Nelly.  He took me under his wing and we built a production team.  We developed artists and he let me do a lot work with him through his publishing company.  We did a few trips to LA and I got to work in cool studios there.  I signed a one-year record deal where I was a writer for country stint, where a lady opened a label in Nashville.  I got to dip into the country scene; I got to dip into the LA pop scene.  I was getting my hands all into the St. Louis hip hop scene.  It really taught me how to be a producer and I felt really wanted to do more of this.

I got interested in pop music industry and my new goal was to get billboard type hits.  So this teenager who picked up a guitar, who wanted do learn some weird scales, create all these progressive rock bands gets into pop production.  Which was a little left wing for me, pop guys don’t always come form that background.  I was reprogramming my musical brain but at the same time learning a lot.  My production partner was super good at hip-hop beats.  I could play cool cord progressions on the piano or play guitar to add this depth to the hip-hop tracks.  Our music together ended up being this cool sound.

We worked with this artist, didn’t sign him but worked with him on a handshake basis, which is all too common in the pop industry.  We spent about 2 years building music for him, got him signed to a management company.  This manager is huge in LA and she worked stints with Michael Jackson’s team and a bit with the Rolling Stones.  She had her hands in a lot of things and had huge connections.  She flew us out to her mansion in the hills of LA and were like holy shit we made it.  She loves the music; we are having conference calls with her every couple of weeks about the progress of the album with her artist.  After doing all this work for free, the artist who is like 19 wants to change his sound.  Because Drake starts popping off at this time, this teen pop sensation who at this ripe age, ready to go, waned his interests.  We had to go back to the drawing board.  We rebuilt some music to make it more urban and got the artist in the studio to sound more Drakeish if you will.  His manager doesn’t like it, ends up shelving him, pushing him to the back and we start to loose touch.  None of that music gets released which means basically we don’t get paid for any of our time.  That was a wake up call for me because that was my first time in the pop world and seeing how shit actually works.  I got a bad taste in my mouth.

Making Music for Himself Again
The Move to Chiang Mai

Big Changes in my life, divorce, which really pushed me into making music even harder.  I was more driven to try a new chapter in my life. I chose Chiang Mai because I’d never been to Asia and I really wanted to dive into a culture that was completely new to me. I left my job at the University in April 2018 and was here in Chiang Mai June ‘18, 3 months later.  It was a pretty big transition and I was willing to cut my ties in St. Louis to move here for a new way of life. 

Back In St. Louis I was gigging 2-3 nights a week with my best friend.  This was the balance that kept refilling my soul; he and I were like musical blood.  If I would play something, he could play it right back.  Our musical connection was so deep; we have been playing together since we were 16.  We would sit down to play; 3-4 hours a night and we could play non-stop without ever having to rehearse. We wouldn’t have to think of what songs we were going to do because we would improvise, make all these songs our own.  That was creatively refilling over all those years, to be able to play with my best friend. Moving here was hard to leave my musical companion. 

A New Musical Chapter
What’s Joel working on now?

The music industry has been in this interesting state since 2004 with Napster, LimeWire and not needing to buy physical albums which crashed the old model of the industry.  It was like the dark ages until Spotify got leverage by being a digital library of music.  Spotify helped streaming royalties, artist are finally getting paid, again.  You can sustain being an independent music creator like myself more than you could back in the old industry model.   Because you don’t need a big record label to give you an advance, put you on tour and sell records.  If you have good music, if you have a drive, have some talent, a little bit of savvy doing marketing you can get a decent amount of spins and make a return from streaming royalties. 

One of my projects now is steady releasing music, flushing out music, creating and releasing. Eventually I can sustain part of my income from just releasing music.  That would entail regular releases, getting placed on big playlists that have hundreds of thousands of listeners to hear my music, save it and follow.  The more I release the more likely the Spotify algorithm will favorite the music and start getting spins.  That’s a benefit of where we are now in music.  Which is awesome because moving here to Chiang Mai has awarded me the mindset to do that. 

Teaching has always been dear to me. I have a job teaching here in Chiang Mai; sure it’s like going to work, on the other hand its like going on a walk for me.  Because teaching is my bread and butter, when I’m in here with the students it doesn’t feel like a job.  But, at the end of the day, its time spent doing things that I feel like I am growing out of, quickly. 

I’m finishing an eBook right now, that is focused on a plan for a beginner artist to get their initial streams on Spotify.  Which is something that I have been grinding on for the past 8 months to a year of my life. I have a lot of fresh information that I complied up for a friend which is 18 pages. I decided to go ahead and make it an eBook.    This week I finished up an outline to a course that I am building.  On Saturday, I’m recording video for this course that I will put on skillshare and udemy.  I will be teaching until I die, as a musician that is expected of us.  To pass that on, to show people our creative process. Teach people ways to hone in on their craft, instruments or if it’s a creative conception.  My next chapter will be getting out of the academic institutions.

A New Form of Successes

I have a whole series of guitar-based courses that I going to push out and then production based courses.  Eventually pump out 5-10 courses a year and see how it does using skill share and udemy.  Then team up with someone that does the marketing.  Or figure it out myself where I wouldn’t need to use skill share/udemy I would have my own funnel set up to pull traffic into my website.  That’s my next wave, that’s how I am going to launch out of here and into a life that’s a little more free. 

Favorite Live Gigs

A place back home, we played every Thursday for about 8 years.  This place in St. Louis called Stanley’s Cigar Lounge. I started playing there in 2009-2010, I met the owner, he and I got on and he invited me to play at his bar.  The reason I love that place so much is because downtown St Louis goes up and down, places close and open back up, shootings can even happen. This place always stayed open, always had their own community.  There is a lot of racial tension in St. Louis with the whole Michael Brown thing.  At the cigar bar you would have black people and white people, sports fans, not sports fans, polar opposites getting along, hanging out, loving life.  We built not just a fan base or regulars but over the 7-8 years a family.  They were apart of the experience, every Thursday everyone would turn up and we would kick it like a family gathering.  It took years to get that, but that was the most rewarding thing, when your music is providing the backbone for people to come together and just feel good. It doesn’t matter how much shit is falling over around you.  That was a cool gig in St. Louis.

I was in a city called Ajaccio, which is the capital of CorsicaIt was my second time overseas; I was in this fresh mindset, freshly divorced and had this whole crew of cool people I was just meeting.  I’m at this bar in Corsica and we noticed this trend of nylon classic guitars hanging on the wall of every bar we went into.

Local Corsica Music Scene & Mafioso’s
Playing live shows in Chiang Mai

I did a couple gigs at Corner Bistro, Kevin there is really cool, he is the owner.  He is the kindest cool dude.  I met Kara there who is my girlfriend. She lived in Chiang Mai a year before me.  She introduced me to a load of people that weren’t just the teachers I met here.  She introduced me to a lot of nomad type people.  When I had this gig, she brought a good crew out and I brought out handful of teachers, it was a good turn out.  It was just me and I didn’t have my musical companion there that I was used to playing with.  It was good show and Kevin was like you can play here once a month.  But, I was hesitant to play, it didn’t feel the same.    Performing is in my soul but I’m not much of a take a guitar, sing and play type of guy.  I knew I didn’t move here to pursue that outlet.  I moved here for to become musically more reclusive in a way and creating music to release, not to perform. 

Fresh Musical Perspectives
US to Thailand and Back

I went back to the States in the summer after living in Chiang Mai for a year.  I didn’t really think much about it. I played gigs at my regular places and people were welcoming and supportive.  But when I went back it was crazy, I had this out of body experience; same people there and none of them had changed.  Not that it’s a bad thing, nothing had changed, it was like I had never left.  And at the same time I had the hardest time connecting.  What the fuck am I going to do, in one night catch up with 40 people on what my life has been for a year, I can’t.  I can’t put into words what it is like living in Chiang Mai because it’s so different from the States.  I started to do that and felt like man this isn’t getting anywhere.  I had this sort of out of body experience where after a couple nights of playing, I felt a bit out of place and not in a bad way but that I have grown out of that and definitely closed that chapter; I’m on a new wave in my life.  What felt good was reconnecting with family but no so much to walk the same steps I already walked.  I just finished six songs about that experience that I call returning to leave. It’s the idea of going back and realizing that’s its no longer home, sort of, and that home takes on a different more deep meaning that it ever did.

Growing Mindsets & Valuing Change

Coming back to Thailand for the second time, it was like wow, I could really see the value, what I am really getting being here.  Not just Thailand, sure Thailand is the shit but being abroad that whole feeling of it.  Being in a different culture, experiencing that, especially after going back home and coming back, it’s re-inspiring.  Then all this music poured out of me because I was so inspired by that weird month of whatever just happened back home in the US. 

Stay in Chiang Mai or Plan to Move On

Chiang Mai is such a great place to have as a home base.  It’s a great place to come back to and live the type of life where you have the freedom to travel the Asian side of the world.  Sticking around this area for a little while longer is definitely something I see myself doing.  I know the travel bug in me wants to spend little segments of time, maybe a year or so in a couple different pockets, Lisbon seems appealing, South American is appealing.  The main reason that I would vacate Chiang Mai would be to immerse myself into musical cultures that I am fascinated by like the Fado music of Portugal, the Flamenco music of Spain, or the Irish music of Ireland, or Brazilian music.  That would be something I would want to do, that’s why I would leave Thailand. 

Expats Love the Way of Life in Thailand
Future, Dream Project

I would like to have a space where I have my studio set up.  Moving here I had to get rid of a lot of stuff and I’m not sure of how long I will be in a certain place to collect more instruments.  The dream idea would be to have a central location, my place, maybe that I own, where I can always create music.  Bring in talent without having to pay studio fees, have my own studio.  Be able to create music constantly and be able to sustain on just that.  Then the education part of it, taking on personal clients that know my style.  Building courses that have all of the legwork completed, the shooting of video and editing is all down by somebody else.  That way I could focus on creating a program then handing over the content to someone I trust to do that part. Creating the music, shelling it out, continuing that process.   I am getting there; the idea is to strip out unnecessary steps when I have enough momentum to do that.  In summary, make the shit out of music and keep educating people that want to learn what I am doing musically. 

Advice for Musicians Coming to Chiang Mai

Coming here as a foreigner you can’t just go to a bar and expect to get paid, a lot of times as a foreigner you are not going to get paid, unless they are going to pay you under the table, cash.  They could pay you in drinks or food but you can’t sustain the same life gigging here, as you would playing in your home country.  That’s something to look out for anyone coming here.  A big reason I was excited to come here was to find authenticity in the music of Thailand. You can find that but a big thing to be aware of before coming here, is that a lot of music you are going to see is Thai people playing western music.  When coming here don’t expect Thai musicians to be spewing out authentic Thai music.  A lot of them will be playing western music, which isn’t there native tongue, its just not going to be the same.   I think a lot of musicians that want to come here would want to experience this different musical form but it’s going to be hard to access that.  If you go to a district in Lisbon, all you are going to hear is Fado music or if you go to Spain you are going to hear a ton of Flamenco music but here you are not going to hear loads of Thai music.  For someone that is really into music should know that before coming here.

Advice for Creative Western People Moving to CM
Live Music Recommendations

North Gate – Some nights I go there, wow, speaking of salsa there was a sick salsa band just playing there.

There is a place; right across from the Maya mall, a guy that plays there every night.  He is a Thai dude playing his guitar and he is awesome.  He plays all this stuff that is so nostalgic for me, Oasis, Nirvana, Radiohead, and as a Thai dude doing it, he does it so fucking awesome.  Scope that place out, right across from Maya.

Thapae East has some cool stuff coming through too.  That’s about what I cycle through for the most part. 

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