By Justin Gray (Songwriter/Producer/Founder www.mdiio.com)
I’ve made some light of the fact that I did not grow up as a kid hoping to become a songwriter and music producer.
I… Like many young maple syrup-blooded Canadian boys had dreams of playing in the NHL.
And I got close. Especially considering I was born with clubfoot. I was never even supposed to be able to walk.
Despite that, I actually left home at 15 years old to play professional hockey. My mother cried the whole ride to my new home of Cornwall, Ontario Canada. But at the same time she understood that in my heart, it felt like it was my destiny. Many players I grew up playing with and against, ended up in the NHL and the Hockey Hall of Fame. I was right there with them…Until fate intervened and altered my trajectory. Or maybe it didn’t. In every way, where I am today feels like where I am meant to be.
Shoulder injuries sent my dreams careening into a brick wall.
But the fact is, that going back to as early as five years old, I loved playing the piano, and it was music that was truly in my heart. I just happened to be reasonably talented as a hockey player.
I was in the closet. Musically speaking. Being a piano-playing, head-bashing, body-checking songwriter was just so...cliché. I couldn't let my teammates know about the fact that I was a sensitive artiste.
Music was in my home constantly. I was exposed to it every waking hour. I would lay in bed on weekends listening to CHOM FM in Montreal (a local pop music station), for hours voraciously consuming the hits. Researching the bands, the songwriters, the producers and even the musicians, mixers and engineers. I was a 7-year-old reading cassette sleeves to understand EVERY single nuance of every recording. I was obsessed.
My love of music came from my Dad.
My father was in several bands in Montreal, and even had a record deal with RCA records in the 60s. But like so many young men in his time getting married and looking to start a family, my mothers father, a.k.a. my grandfather would not tolerate his daughter marrying some mop-topped rock musician.
So my dad did what most men in that situation do… He chose his love of my mother (girlfriend at the time), over his love of music, and went into my grandfather’s family business. The glamorous world of lamp manufacturing.
Needless to say, the fire of music was never truly extinguished even up to the last weeks of his life, when he would go into my Toronto studio to work on his own songs….and some of mine.
To say he was unhappy, would be an understatement. Born from holocaust survivors, he always felt like what he did was not good enough for anybody. The truth is that we grew up in a relatively comfortable middle-class existence in Montreal, and then moved to Toronto when he opened up his own lamp manufacturing business. Then we struggled…I can confidently say that I learned my tolerance for professional risk from both my parents.
I know a thing or two about starting a company with 98% ambition and 2% financing. Sleep is rarely an option.
He was a tough hockey dad. And if you’ve had a hockey dad, you know what I’m talking about when I say “Hockey Dad.“ But he always had a remarkable belief in me as a songwriter and artist. Unwavering.
Although our relationship was tenuous, tumultuous, and beyond complicated to say the least, we always connected on music. We would sit in the car together on rides to hockey games and practices, and he would subject me to his favorites like Buddy Holly and The Crickets, Ritchie Valens, Danny and the Juniors, and many many others from his heyday of music..the 1950s.
But then he also introduced me to other music. Cooler music. Stuff from the 60s like Vanilla Fudge and Jimi Hendrix. Although I don’t recall, I’m assuming he hated disco, but he loved Blondie. Like really loved Blondie!
As I said, our relationship was complicated, but I do give him the credit for fostering my music passion. He played the guitar, and in fact, his 1962 Gretsch Tennessean is hanging in my studio to this day.
It serves as a reminder of my roots, and I still use it from time to time on records I’m working on. I will say, although we fought all the time, he really really loved my music, and believed in me always.
When I decided to leave university after my second year to pursue music, he said to me “as long as I see you working every day to make your dream happen, you can live here for free.”
He was a serious guy… And so I took him seriously.
For the first several years, I had many jobs as I pursued my dream.
Chicken wing cook
I did these in order to help me do what I really wanted to do. Which is to earn the money to pay for the studio time, to go in and make the records.
Too many people look at their jobs as the dream killer. I always thought it was the other way around… My day job allowed me to do the things I really wanted to do in life, which was to make it in music. Regardless, of where my path would take me. Every time I clocked into work, I was investing in myself. Too many people don’t see it that way.
Several years into my dream chasing, I realized that the thing I truly loved was songwriting and producing. If I’m being honest, I was never really a great singer, and I was a mediocre musician at best. But my superpower was songwriting, and hearing it all come together in my head before even one single note was played. There is a difference between staring at the blank page, and staring at the blank page with a notion of what’s to be drawn.
And I started to get good at it.
So the first thing I did after I got myself deep into debt, getting studio time that I couldn’t pay for was to take all of those songs and use them as a calling card for what would become the genesis of my music production and songwriting career.
Even in high school, I had started producing other bands in between my hockey practices and studies. I thought I had figured out a glitch in the system. It turned out that ANYONE could go into a studio as long as they could pay for it. So I rallied my friends, and their friends, and other bands from other high schools and convinced them to let me take them to the studio I had discovered on Queen and Ossington in Toronto. X-It studios. They charged me $25 an hour, and so I charged my "clients" $35 an hour. No one was the wiser...and with that clever move, I was PROFESSIONAL! My mom was driving me to the studio. Hahaha.
The early rooms reeked of weed, and let’s just say the locals were…Interesting.
Fun fact…when the first session was done, the engineer asked if I wanted a recording to take home. But I hadn't budgeted for the DAT tape. After all, we only had barely enough for the studio time.
For those born before 1995, a DAT tape was one of the earliest digital recording mediums. Basically, it looked like a super tiny camcorder tape. A camcorder was a personal recording device used to videotape things…videotape was …oh never mind.
Back to the story…we didn’t have the money for the DAT tape, but I did have an old Type 1 Cassette laying around that we bounced the mix to. I listened to it over and over again literally until the tape ripped. I was hooked. I was in love…the moment I heard the sound of a microphone in front of a Kick drum pushing air through those shitty NS-10 speakers.
My parents believed in me and in my music. But I also think they saw my vision and thought I could execute it. They bailed me out of studio debt too many times to count.
But at the time they saw something in me that perhaps I hadn’t even yet seen in myself.
And it wasn’t necessarily talent…I never considered myself that talented, to be honest.
I think it was more of my insane commitment and ludicrous ambition.
Sadly my father never did get to live out his passion, but in so many ways, his sacrifices helped me to live mine.
See ya next week…and until then, stay in the creative light!