Welcome to freelance Friday! Today I have an awesome interview with Keith Alan Mitchell, a Bay Area singer songwriter who has just embarked on pursuing his musical dreams with more focus and oomph! I first met Keith several years ago through his girlfriend, who was my colleague at Old Navy. He’s super talented, smart and an all around nice guy. I hope you are inspired by his approach to entering the freelance world which is both honest and optimistic. He works hard, which you know I love, and he feels a certain way about Huey Lewis.
DG: KEITH! THANKS FOR BEING MY FIRST MUSICIAN INTERVIEWEE ON FREELANCE FRIDAYS. CAN YOU TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOURSELF AND WHY YOU DECIDED TO DO YOUR OWN THING?
KAM: I’m a performing songwriter - I sing and play guitar. I’ve been involved with music my whole life really, from the time I was about 4 years old and in the church choir, through high school playing trumpet in marching band, and then finally coming to guitar early in college, when one of my best friends brought home a guitar on summer break after freshman year.
I’m also a writer/editor and web project manager in the nonprofit sector and have done that for years. I’m still doing that on a part-time basis now. After doing music more and more, I still wasn’t devoting as much time to it as I wanted or needed. It’s important and necessary to be playing live a lot, and so I need to be able to travel, and obviously need the time and energy to make all that happen. Based on all of that, I went to part-time just a few months ago – starting in October of 2015.
As for why I decided to focus on music - on a more existential level – I guess I’d gotten to the point where it felt like “If not now, when?” I’ve spent a lot of time over the years thinking “Oh, I’m too old” to pursue music in a really dedicated way, but I’ve seen more and more independent artists, from young to old, figuring out ways to do what they love, one way or another. So I made the leap.
DG: YAY, KEITH! CAN YOU SHARE WHAT YOUR BIGGEST CAREER CHALLENGE HAS BEEN SINCE LEAVING YOUR 9-5?
KAM: Honestly, making money. What can I say. The old adage “it takes money to make money” is true to some degree – there are start-up investments that have to be made, and making the decisions about what are the most vital expenses and how to fund those is challenging. And on top of that, you really do have to build a fan base one fan at a time, one show at a time, one song at a time. So it takes time. Keeping all of that in mind and balancing all that… it’s tricky.
DG: THANKS FOR BEING HONEST! IT’S SO TRUE. CAN YOU SHARE WITH US SOME OF YOUR SUCCESSES?
KAM: Right now I’m a really small fish in a big big ocean, so I have to define my own successes based on my own goals. One of my goals is to play at least 75 total shows this year, and I’m on track for that, and am just about to embark on a 9-day tour down to Southern California and over to Arizona.
I’ve released one album at this point and have written more than an entire second album worth of material… with more on the way. So another goal is to put out at least an EP this year, or possibly a full-length album.
I’m playing out frequently and writing new material. I frequently play Off the Grid – the pop-up food truck markets that happen all over the bay area.
I wrote a song back in the Fall for an amazing organization called Sing Me a Story. They collect stories from children who are involved with or served by other nonprofit organizations. Then songwriters write songs inspired by the children’s stories. So fun! I wrote a bouncy and sort of goofy song based on a story about a girl who was going to be late to a fashion show – so late that she ran 15 red lights on the way! Listeners can donate to the associated charity – in this case a support organization for those fighting cancer and their families. Here’s the story and the song: http://singmeastory.org/stories/the-fashion-show?song=557
DG: WOW. YOU ARE HUSTLING AND WORKING HARD. NO WONDER GOOD THINGS ARE COMING TO YOU!
DG: AS A FREELANCER, HOW DO YOU GET INSPIRED EVERY DAY? DO YOU HAVE OTHER CREATIVE HOBBIES BESIDES MUSIC?
KAM: I can’t say I’m the most disciplined person in the world. But it’s rare that I don’t do at least something related to music or to the business side of things every day. I’ve been experimenting with a new morning schedule lately where I bounce pretty quickly between exercise, doing my daily journaling, practicing piano, and then doing a little songwriting.
For inspiration –I’m trying to learn piano now – very much a beginner. Between that, keeping my singing voice in shape, writing new songs, rehearsing old ones… there’s usually at least a little music creation most days.
I’m an amateur baker - primarily bread, including sourdough from a starter I began myself a couple years ago. I’m also a big baseball fan (Indians – I’m from Northeast Ohio originally), as well as basketball (Ohio State and the Warriors). I confess to watching a bit too much TV. There really are so many outstanding quality shows on TV now.
DG: HOW DO YOU KEEP BALANCE IN YOUR LIFE? BETWEEN WORKING PART TIME, PURSUING MUSICAL OPPORTUNITIES AND KEEPING SOME CREATIVE TIME FOR YOURSELF?
KAM: I’m definitely still figuring that out! Luckily, the miniscule (and I do mean miniscule) amount of income I get from making music is from performing almost exclusively songs I’ve written myself. So the “mess around/creative time” is typically spent on writing those songs. I’ve been in cover bands before and for me, it took too much energy and time away from what I need to do my own thing. It was like “I can learn to sing the hell outta this Huey Lewis tune… and then try to learn another 30 songs for this 3-hour cover band gig…. Or… I could write a song that’s never existed before, one that’s uniquely ‘me’, and that maybe I’ll be singing the rest of my life.” Not a hard decision. That’s not to say I’ll never be in another cover band. You never know. (Nothing against Huey either. He’s awesome.)
DG: HOW OFTEN DO YOU WRITE SONGS OR PRACTICE? IS IT HARD TO BALANCE YOUR CREATIVE TIME WITH THE MANAGERIAL PARTS OF BEING A MUSICIAN?
I’m sure some people set aside time daily on some kind of schedule, but for me, inspiration strikes when it strikes. Ideally it happens when my guitar is in my hands, but sometimes it’s while I’m walking or on the train or driving.
As for balance? Uh… I have no idea! I often feel like I don’t have nearly enough time to make music, in part because of how much time the managerial part takes. I hope this will change… but I see other independent artists, and even the ones I consider “successful” are having to be their own roadie, their own booker, promoter, graphic designer, videographer, and on and on. It takes a lot of time – too much time really. At some point, you’re supposed to be able to get a manager and/or a label to do these things for you, but there’s not enough money out there to support this for lots and lots of artists.
DG: WHAT ABOUT A STUDIO SPACE? WHAT DOES THAT LOOK LIKE FOR YOU?
KAM: That’s the kind of nice thing about songwriting - it’s pretty damn portable. Sometimes I’m in the home office, sometimes in the living room on the couch. I remember starting songs or working on pieces of songs in certain places – I started one in a hotel room at a music conference at about 3am. I finished the bridge to another one by the pool at my girlfriend’s mom’s house on a crappy nylon string guitar they had sitting around. And sometimes you see things out in the world that spark some idea – so it’s good to feel like you can do it anywhere.
I spend a lot of time commuting back and forth to SF (where my part-time job is) and I’ll often be thinking about lyrics during that time, or sometimes have a little idea I’ll hum into my phone while I’m walking to BART.
DG: WHAT IS YOUR DREAM CONCERT LINE UP (FEATURING YOURSELF, OF COURSE, AND WHERE WOULD IT BE? HOW CAN I GET TICKETS? HA HA.
Wow. Awesome question. let’s see… I guess I’d describe my dream event as being sort of a cross between the Bridge School Benefit show and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, but in a venue no bigger than the Fillmore (capacity of 1,000 max.)
I love hearing songs stripped down, unplugged – whatever you want to call it when the songwriter just plays the song solo on piano or guitar or whatever their instrument is.
So it would probably be an “in-the-round” festival sort of show with some of my favorites trading songs. Just to throw a few names out there: Bruce Springsteen, Michael Stipe and Peter Buck, Neil Young, Jack White, Tom Petty, Ryan Adams, Lucinda Williams, Sheryl Crow, Andrew Bird, Robert Earl Keen…. this doesn’t even scratch the surface and I’m leaving out lots and lots of current/newer artists, whole genres I love, and a bunch of guilty pleasures that I would probably get endless ribbing for if I listed them! There are just too many artists to mention and none of them would get to play long enough! ha ha.
DG: ANY ADVICE FOR SELF PROMOTION? I THINK THIS PART OF FREELANCING IS THE MOST DIFFICULT FOR ARTISTS OF ANY GENRE.
KAM: Ugh… Can I leave it at that? Haha. Just kidding. But I am a shy dude. And so “self promotion” always makes me cringe a little bit.
But yeah, it’s part of the job. I can’t really put a percentage onto it. It really varies with what I have going on. I – and I’m guessing a lot of other folks – would love to be the recluse who works away at a masterpiece for a year or 2 and then sends one little tweet out into the world and it makes headlines…. But that’s not reality. For the most part, no one’s actually spending much money at all on recorded music.
With music, playing live is itself promotion. It feeds itself to a degree. And it takes time to build up an audience. I’m still exploring and testing ways to keep growing what I do. The internet is scary in that you can just spend all of your time there but potentially get almost nothing out of it.
DG: YES, THERE IS AN ART FORM TO NAVIGATING THE INTERNET FOR MARKETING PURPOSES. IF YOU ARE NOT STRATEGIC, YOU CAN WASTE A LOT OF TIME.
DG: WHO OR WHAT HAS INFLUENCED YOUR WORK THE MOST AND WHY?
KAM: I’d say that in a lot of ways, the most influential thing has been the randomness of what I’ve been exposed to musically. It’s a real mixed bag. From hearing my parents’ Simon and Garfunkel and John Denver records and Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals when I was little; church music; marching band music; friends’ turning me on to stuff like the Smiths and the Cure, and classic rock like Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. Then going back and filling in some gaps that I missed – and I still have so many. Then jazz. I even took some classical guitar lessons for a couple years. Sondheim and opera. Voice lessons as well – that’s been huge for me because it makes me listen to different things – both artists and genres I might not have listened to, and also how I might listen to someone. And studying poetry back in college – which I like to think is somehow coming to my aid when I write lyrics…. So yeah – that diversity of influences that couldn’t really be prescribed. They mostly just sort of happened. I’d say that’s the biggest influence.
DG: LASTLY, DO YOU HAVE ANY WORDS OF ENCOURAGEMENT FOR PEOPLE WHO ARE REINVENTING THEIR CAREER MID STREAM?
KAM: I sometimes have to really steel myself to not get discouraged – so yeah, it can be tough. I really don’t claim to know much of anything, so… grain of salt here…
But I’d say first, be smart and realistic. We’ve all heard the fairytale story of quitting the daily grind and moving to LA to become a famous actress (or pick your variation of the romantic “starving artist” tale.) But really, anything can become a grind and more importantly being hungry isn’t romantic! You can’t make awesome art if you don’t know where you’ll get your next meal. Right now I’m super lucky to have a steady, good-paying, part-time job that happens to be non-musical. If I didn’t have that… well, I’d probably be looking for one - because I don’t know how I’d pay the bills or have health insurance.I don’t take my job for granted one bit. You absolutely must dream and dream big, and take risks. But I think it has to be done in a smart and realistic way.
I guess the “reinvent” part is key. I’m making this change in my life – have started making this reinvention – because I need to be true to myself. And that’s really, I think, where it needs to come from. From inside your heart, your soul.
If you feel like you’re here on this planet to do this one thing, but you spend the majority of your days doing something else… you’re never going to be happy. Or maybe you don’t know what that one thing is yet… and that’s OK too. Then go forth and explore. Explore yourself. Try things. Try things you think you’ll like. Try things that scare you. See what you like and notice what you do already for no pay at all - those things you do just because you love doing them. That’s the stuff there.
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You can also find Keith at: