Updated: Feb 2
By Justin Gray (Producer/Songwriter/Founder www.mdiio.com)
Quitting my day job was terrifying. And I didn’t even have any real bills to pay…yet!
I trace the genesis of my professional career really back to my first paid project. Achanti. It was the first time that an artist I was working with was signed. I still wasn’t really writing songs for other people. That would not come for a few years still.
If 2023 Justin came back from the future and said to 1984 Justin:
“You just wait. In 40 short years, it will all start to come together for you. I promise.“
I probably would’ve said, “fuck it.”
(1984 as the keyboard player of my grade 8 band "True or False)
It took two more years to decide to jump into the deep end and start drowning…I mean swimming…in reality, it was barely floating.
I called my (then) girlfriend. She was the same girl who had come to my listening party two years earlier. We were now dating. She was so out of my league. I didn’t want to let her down, so I confronted her with a major life crisis.
I had contemplated quitting music and going to law school. She said something that forever changed everything. It’s incredible how wise she was considering we were only 23 and 24 years old.
She said, “if we’re gonna get married one day, I don’t wanna be married to an unhappy person. If music makes you happy I support it 100%. I don’t think law school will make you happy.“
Smart decision number one. I listened to her and decided to stay the course. She hasn’t let me down in almost 24 years of marriage. But I had to re-evaluate my approach based on the pieces on my chess board. There is not a day that goes by still that I don’t try to live up to who she thought I could become back in ’96.
(Daphne and I, 1996)
I was frustrated. I didn’t feel like there was the type of growth that I had hoped to see. I was young, arrogant, insecure, and entitled. I had had a bit of success, but mostly in my microbubble of Queen Street West. Not much else to be honest. But the one thing I was always good at was seeing the crack in the door. I always refer to the crack in the door as the sliver of opportunity. In the dark, it’s where that little bit of light cuts through. In retrospect, I always seemed to know how to leverage a small opportunity into a bigger one.
After all, my talent was a five out of 10, but my tenacity was a 20 out of 10. I remember from my hockey days that it wasn’t always the most talented kids then ended up making it. Most of the time it was the ones that just outworked everybody. To this day, I won’t be outworked.
After our Redline Recorders recording sessions, Elie and I realized that we had some ability, and we made for good partners. The one thing that we lacked was our own studio and so we needed to figure out how to be able to reduce the cost of the recordings, while improving the quality of the work, AND make a living. Fortunately, I was still living at home, but Elie was older and married, and had rent to pay.
We had at the time made enough money to put a little bit of gear together on our own. And if memory serves, we borrowed $1000 from Elie’s in-laws to complete our first setup. We had a Kurzweil PC-88 and Mac 6200 running Logic 2.5. Elie had an Alesis HR-16 drum machine. We had our first setup in the guest bedroom of his house. I don’t remember what speakers we had. But it was amazing! And It was ours.
We couldn’t make records there, so we found a studio in downtown Toronto. It was located in the basement of a house on the corner of Jarvis and Church Streets. Less than a block from the infamous “Hooker Harvey’s.” The studio was called Number 9 Sound. It was owned by a couple of producers, George Rondina and Jim Zolis. George was a slick-talking businessman who knew a thing or two about building a business. And Jim, his partner, was a quiet engineer and mixer.
Number 9 had the most incredible cappuccino machine. George prided himself on it. I once asked him,
“How come you have this incredibly expensive cappuccino maker in the studio, but the console is kind of falling apart?”
He said, “people come for the coffee, not for the studio.”
We had gone to them and made a deal that we would bring every project we were doing into their studio. Within a matter of months, we became their biggest clients.
It was Number 9 where we would record JackSoul’s debut album “Absolute.”
I am actually listening to this link as I am writing this. I can close my eyes and can literally picture those sessions all those years ago. I am just now remembering Haydain Neale, the lead singer, and leader of the band going to his bank to cash his tax return refund to pay for the studio time. I can still picture how the band was set up on the floor. The idea was to try and capture the magic live on tape. It’s trippy listening to this.
Hip Hop, Rap, Acid Jazz, Funk…It still stands up. This shit was so funky…Roger Travassos on Drums, Justin Abedin on Guitar, and of course Brent Setterington on Keys, Dave Murray on Bass, and Adam what’s-his-face on Sax.
Check out Eastside, but also Unconditional. I was always steamed that I didn’t do that one. It was produced by the talented Brent Bodrug.
Because of the success of JackSoul’s album, and their Juno nomination that year for best R&B/Soul recording, a manager from London Ontario took notice of us. His name was Vic Sinclair. And to this day, we remain friends. Vic was a radio programmer from London, Ontario and an avid music lover. He also had this family/boy band he managed called The MacAuley Boys. We would make another transformational record with them. Another Juno and another record deal. This time with famed Canadian music icon Donald K Donald and his label Aquarius Records. Donald was a legend, as was Aquarius. Another sliver, another opportunity. I went out of my way to meet and connect with Donald. And so I drove to Montreal, where Aquarius was headquartered, and set up a meeting to discuss other projects he may have for me. Strike while the iron is hot.
I cut my teeth at Number 9, including early collaborations with a songwriter and producer named Stephan Moccio who would go on to write gigantic hits for Celine Dion, but most notably “Earned It” by The Weeknd and “Wrecking Ball” by Miley Cyrus (also more than 20 years later).
It's a marathon...not a race.
Elie and I worked on more than 50 projects over the course of our Number 9 residency. We worked with anyone who would let us work with them. Rock, Metal, Folk, Country…it didn’t matter at all. Clay, Bob Bigwood, Ian, and Harris. Some were special…most not so special. Some memorable, most forgettable.
Unfortunately. In 1997, Elie and I split up. Stupid feelings. Stupid egos. Each of us probably would have handled it differently. Professionally I’d learned a ton from him, and hopefully he from me, but it just was no longer meant to be. Our split was acrimonious and unfortunately ugly. I’d lost a friend and mentor. Ego sucks. But it was time. Elie moved back to Israel and became a serious tech dude. Fortunately, we reconnected in Israel in 2017. More than 20 years later, and thankfully, shortly before his unfortunate and untimely death. It was nice to feel like a chapter was closed, even if it took 20 years to do so.
(Elie, his wife Orit, and me in Tel Aviv 2017)
Achanti led to JackSoul. JackSoul led to MacAuley Boys, and MacAuley Boys led Beat Factory Records.
I think you’re starting to see a pattern here. Identify the opportunity, and follow the path.
The signs are right in front of you…
See ya next week…until then stay in the creative light.