There are generally two types of people in the world — people who like to talk about doing things, and people who are actually doing things. I’m part of the former, but I’d like to be part of the latter. In order to find out what makes those types of special people tick (and how I can become one of them), I’ve started interviewing people I know who’ve stopped talking about doing things and started doing them.
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Not much is known about Quinton Kakaley’s past. Rumor has it he took out three entire ninja villages when he was but an infant. Others whisper in darkened corners of his dealings with unicorns and other fantastical creatures. What we do know for sure is this – the man is a recalcitrant rock god and is worshiped as a minor deity in certain rural areas of Singapore as the patron of elephants. When he’s not busy running the very life core of servers, he’s serenading your girlfriend with his acoustic singer-songwriter music.
You can visit his Facebook page, or if you want to watch him play live, you can see him at the Q Cafe in Seattle on March 11, at 8 p.m.
How long have you been playing guitar?
Off and on since I was like eighteen, now eight years, which is scary. But I basically wasn’t playing guitar now for at least three years. I literally didn’t even pick up my guitar.
Some people have a very regimented creative process. Do you have some kind of schedule that you follow, or do you have rituals that you do for the creative process?
The creative process for me never really stops. It’s always present. For example, tonight I went and saw my friends play a show, and I knew the first thing I’d do when I get home is just sit down with my guitar and play something that reflects how the night made me feel. And it’s probably something about the longing for wanting to be there on stage like he was. So, for me, it’s always a reflection of my emotional state. Your emotions are never turned off, especially for me, so actually the creative process is I’m always thinking, “Oh, that could be a song there.” I’ll literally think, “Hey, that would be a good song title. What would that song title inspire?”
It never stops. I’m constantly thinking about it. And honestly, if I’m not at work or hanging out with friends, I’m sitting at the computer with the microphone turned on writing something or working on something. It’s not really a schedule; it’s basically all of my spare time.
So, you’re a performer now. You’re not some guy sitting in a basement cranking out songs and putting them on YouTube. You go out and you perform live. How did you get your first live performance?
Well, I’m definitely fortunate enough to have friends who are musicians and have booked their own shows, so I asked for advice. I asked, “How do you go about doing that?” It’s pretty much exactly how you think. You just check out their venue on their website and find whoever the contact is for booking, and you email them, and that is like an art. It’s hard because you have to, it’s like a cover letter for any other business or employee or position in that you’re trying to basically paint yourself in a good light and brag but not be obvious about your bragging. And venues, they care about the same things any other business does. They don’t care how good your music is, they just care if you can bring in a good draw. So I didn’t really know how all that worked. My first, the first time I was just like, Hey I play music and I figure you probably want some samples so here’s a link to my website.
I was lucky enough that the first place I contacted, this small cafe called the Q Cafe over in Queen Anne, I had seen a couple shows there and it seems it was a good place to play a show, and I got a response, and so that’s how I booked my first show. After that, it was a long drought, and I realized it’s not easy. I was lucky to have booked my first show on the first email I sent. It’s really tough, how to write those stupid emails to the venues.
So it’s not your favorite part.
No, it’s probably my least favorite part, by far the least favorite part of the whole creative process of being a musician, trying to book yourself. Obviously, writing is my favorite part. Performing is just a notch, just a hair below that, and the other parts, the business side, is trying to get yourself booked, and that’s even less enjoyable.
Right now, the whole goal for this year is I want to release an EP, about seven or eight songs, maybe more, maybe less, it all just depends, but I want to get that done by the fall, probably by Semptember or October, and even that process of searching out a producer I find more enjoyable because, I dunno, it’s kind of like a journey finding another person. It’s a relationship, rather than it’s this place and you give your all and they just kinda take and it’s what it is and you just play. But a producer, it’s this interesting working relationship. You can have someone help you perfect your idea of what your music should sound like. It’s more creative, where a venue is more just pure business.
Can you describe the first time you went up on stage? Were you nervous, were you excited?
Do you mean the first time I went up on stage as a musician ever or this most recent reincarnation as a performer?
How about both? Does it change?
It totally changes, and I don’t know why. The first time I did it was at, I can’t even remember, oh! It’s the Cave, the Cave at PLU [Pacific Lutheran University], which was the school I went to, and it was just a small coffee shop. They would occasionally have performers up there, some musical acts. I remember they asked me to do it because they knew I played music and I was excited and not really nervous, was not nervous at all, and I think honestly it was because I wasjust so naive. I was just so ignorant of how much better I could be that I was supremely confident that I was good. I got up there, and was pretty relaxed, and had a good time, and was really at ease, and I still haven’t rebounded to that point where I’m like that up on stage.
Now I’m like, a couple different things, right? I’m much more aware of myself as an artist and where my place is in the totem pole of artistry. Another thing is, this is my life now, this is what I want my life to be. It’s a pursuit, I have real goals, it’s not just something fun that I’m doing for the heck of it. And also, you’re not in such a warm and fuzzy place anymore. You’re not at school where you know everybody. You’re at, you’re in the real world where you’re being judged by the people that will judge you and either make you successful or break your dreams.
I think that’s why the first show that I did at the Q Cafe, I was so nervous, and being a musician and being a vocalist and being nervous, that is not a good thing. It’s not conducive for singing. You need to have an open diaphram and everything has to be loose. When you’re stressed, everything is tight and you just, you lose like, half your voice. Luckily, the last show I had, I feel like I definitely loosened up and was able to pretty much, almost be as good as it can get live. I was really happy with that. But it was definitely nerve wracking. I definitely had this idea of, “This is it, if I don’t do well, this is all over.”
You talked about awareness as an artist. Recently on your Facebook you asked the question, “Does insecurity and artistry go together hand in hand?” Could you elaborate your opinion on that?
The exact quote I said was, “Is it our destiny as musicians to always be insecure about our art?” But you can insert anything, any creative profession. It doesn’t have to be musician, it could be painter or author or poet or whatever.
Yeah, it’s funny, I actually posed that question because I believe it and I wanted to see some feedback from my creative friends because one of my favorite bands is a local band called Fleet Foxes. They have a Twitter account, and he is Robin Pecknold. He had recently tweeted something about “What percentage of the time do you think your songs are actually good?” and somebody had written back to him and he had retweeted it, saying, I think like, 5%, and he was like, “Oh good, I don’t feel so bad anymore.” Clearly he falls in probably around that range, which I find amazing, because here is this ridiculously successful band. They released one studio album, they’re just releasing a second one this year and they’ve sold out all their tour dates in a matter of days. They had to add shows in London and New York City and Seattle and Vancouver because they sold out so fast. So clearly, not only are they critically acclaimed, but they have popular appeal with the masses, so of any band of all of them, they’re one of the few where I think, “Why are you insecure?” But they feel insecure about their songs, and so it makes me feel better.
I’m not saying my music is any less great than theirs, but certainly, judged by sales, they’ve done very well, and I’m not them. It makes me feel better about my own art, that it’s okay to feel insecure about it, and a huge part of that is that we’re inside our own minds, and we know the potential of what we think it could be and sometimes it’s easier to dream it than to get it onto paper, or get it into words. You measure yourself against that perfect, idealized creation, wheras everyone else just hears it for what it is and they don’t have this measuring stick of you’re short this much on this area, because for them, their expectations are not the same as your own. That’s why it’s so much easier to say, to other friends who are other musicians, “Wow, you guys are great, you’re so much better than me,” because I don’t know what’s going on in their minds, and they don’t know what’s going on in mine, so they can appreciate my art more than their own. It’s an interesting thing.
This is kind of a touchy question. In one of your songs, I remember you telling me during the writing process of the song, that it’s about suicide, that the person is contemplating suicide. When you first played it for several people, they mentioned it was a very depressing song. So you changed the chorus. “I’m trying not to die” is the way you perform it, but you originally wrote it as “I’m trying to die.”
I forgot about that. But that’s true.
There’s that age old debate, Does the artist write and perform for the artist, or does the artist write and perform for the audience? Who comes first?
Right. I mean, I think I have a strong opinion about this. I think the artist should write for himself. I definitely feel strongly about that, because if you didn’t start thinking about yourself, I have a hard time thinking of you as a true artist rather than someone who is trying to fill in a void where there’s popularity and financial gain from that.
I dunno, I, I certainly try not to allow the influence of the audience to seep into my music too much. Actually, I think you have to every so often check yourself. “Am I writing too much for the audience, what they want to hear, and am I not writing enough for myself?” At a certain point I think that really sucks you dry and tires you out as an artist because you’re not fulfilling yourself as an artist, you’re fulfilling yourself as someone who is a performer and you’re just performing for other people to clap you on the back and say, “Good job.”
Hello Mother, I wrote that song for me, and because it was how I was feeling, and I always write my music for me and how I’m feeling in the moment. Suicide is such a touchy subject for most people and so the idea of saying I’m trying to die, whether or not I meant that literally, most people didn’t like it.
At the time, it was more of a metaphor for like, I don’t want to feel this crushing vacuum that is life at the time. A lot of us, if you’re reading, are probably in your mid-20s, you probably graduated just a few years out, and you’re just floating and you don’t even know what you want to do, or maybe you do and you’re not even close to doing it yet and you’re feeling you’ll never be able to achieve it. You feel like you’re growing up, but you’re nothing. You’re inbetween. You’re not established, and you’re not young, but what are you? And that’s a really hard thing to deal with and I wanted to get across the point that it’s so depressing, and it almost feels like you’re trying to die. You’re not trying to do anything, you’re doing nothing, and it’s a heavy feeling.
I thought that people would hear that, and if they really listened and pay attention, they’d be like, “Wow”, but instead they would instantly be drawn back and not accepting of the message, and not really listen or pay attention to the song anymore, or even really enjoy it anymore because they are so overly concerned about the person that was singing it. [Laughs].
I thought that it could be almost as effective if I put in “not.” Because “I’m trying not to die” means you are dying, and that you’re trying not to. And it’s still an incredibly depressing thought, but at least people aren’t like, well, this guy is suicidal, and he wants to, you know, off himself. It still fit the flow of the song for me, and honestly, I don’t even know which way is right now. That’s what I love, that there is no right or wrong, and I haven’t gone back and performed it for a while, because, like a lot of my music, it’s very much an in the moment thing. I haven’t felt that exact way in a while. I feel like I wouldn’t be able to give that performance justice like I would have been able to when I first wrote it. I’m a little more distant from that feeling, although I definitely write incredibly depressing songs still. [Laughs] It’s just a slightly different flavor.
Instead of existential agnst, perhaps, it’s about another depressing subject.
Right, it’s like, the job is giving you a hard time or whatever.
When you write, since you specialize in depressing music, do you feel that the singer is you? Or do you feel like the singer has perhaps, become someone different? Perhaps, someone similar to you, but someone different. Do you ever feel like the song has evolved beyond just your own personal feelings and into something bigger than that?
Well, I feel like when I first write it, it’s me, but once you actually put those feelings into words, it cleanses you. It draws that feeling out, and now it’s contained in those words. It’s interesting in that it’s not really me singing anymore and I know that because when I get ready to sing I have to be in chraracter almost, and it’s actually really draining. It’s tough, you have to put yourself in that mindset of where you were and who you were.
It’s kind of like it’s a shade of me. It’s me, but it’s a different quality, a slightly different aspect of my personality that I have to try and find again. Like I said, when you actually write the song, it’s very real to you at that specific moment of time, but just like any moment in time, you can never have quite exactly that same moment again. The words become this self-sustaining thing and its own creature and its own person. It’s definitely someone I was, it’s someone I was when I was writing it. It’s not like I’m thinking of some other character that is expressing these feelings. It’s me, but when I have to go back and sing it, I do have to find that specific me that is logged away in the old filing cabinet.
Do you ever get people concerned?
[Laughs] My mom has told me that she has friends that are like, “I’m really worried about your son,” and my mom is like, “Oh, you don’t need to be,” because she understands that for me, the concern should arise when I stop writing. Because then I have no outlet for those feelings. I’ve felt incredibly healthier and happier since I seriously took up song writing because I’m an incredibly emotional person and now I have a way to express those feelings and emotions in a really constructive and fun way.
I think to be an artist is to be someone who feels with an incredible depth and breadth that other people cannot understand, and I think that universally, they are touched by that, and they feel it, but they could not come up with that feeling. It resonates. If you come up with an incredibly depressing song, it’s not just that you write a depressing song, it’s you’re writing a depressing song in that it resonates with people, and people get that. I think that’s what makes you an artist. You’re able to touch upon those feelings in an interesting way that people understand but maybe would never have thought of if they hadn’t heard that melody or those words.
At what point during your trek as a singer-songwriter were you like, “I can do this forever. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life”? How did you find that out?
The point that I seriously decided to pursue being a musician as a career was a year and a half ago, and I started taking up my guitar seriously again two years ago. I remember it, actually, because I had my old guitar that I had since I had when I was 18 8 years ago and it was a piece of junk. It was the most horrible thing to learn how to play guitar on, and that’s exactly the problem. It’s really difficult to learn on a crappy guitar, and it’s not something conducive to learning because it’s hard to play, and as a beginner you need something that is as easy as possible because it’s going to be hard anyway, you don’t need to make it anymore difficult on yourself.
So I remember two years ago I was really excited about buying a new guitar because I had enough monies because I had just gotten a full-time job and I was going to have enough money where I could buy a really nice guitar. I was excited, and there was about six months there where I was working and just trying to really, yeah, I’m honing my guitar skills and this is fun and I haven’t done this in forever, it’s just great.
So it wasn’t even really through the process of writing songs or performing or anything where I was like, “Yeah, I want to do this for the rest of my life.” The epiphany was at work one day when I was just like, “This is not what I’m thinking about when I go home, all I can think about is music.” What am I spending my spare time doing? It’s not thinking about work or this 9 to 5 job. I’m thinking about music.
Life is way too short to spend all your days working, doing something you don’t love. You’re going to spend most of your life doing this, so why not make it something enjoyable? The work is always going to have its ups and downs, but at the end of the day, you want to be able to look in the mirror and say, “You know, I really enjoy what I’m doing, even in the low points,” and I realized music was that for me.
I always loved music, but it sounded like one of those things where if you say, “I want to grow up and I want to be a musician,” it’s one of those things I said when I was seven. You know, like, “I want to be a professional baseball player!” It’s like, nice dream kid, but that’s not really going to happen. But I realized, why not? Why not try? Because you really got nothing to lose. At the worst, you fail, and you’re going to go back doing a 9 to 5 corporate gig, and that’s what you’re already doing. So failure doesn’t seem so bad. At the worst, you keep doing what you’re doing now. But at the best, you get to do something you’ll love for the rest of your life.
And even if you fail, at least you tried. You didn’t just say, I’m never going to try that. And I didn’t want to ever have that regret of, that maybe if I put my mind to this, I could have done this. I think you have to be almost psychotic and crazy and naïve and just crazy believe in yourself because there’s too many reasons to give up otherwise, and if you don’t believe that you can improve every day, that you have something really important to share with the rest of the world, you’re just not going to be able to sustain yourself through all the ups and downs.
And there’s going to be a lot of downs. There’s going to be a lot of hard work. The great thing is, I can spend all weekend working on music, literally at least 24 hours over the weekend, and not feel like I even spent an hour, or a minute. It’s just, “Where did my weekend go?” I just enjoyed it so much, I had so much fun. Not to say that there aren’t moments that are incredibly frustrating, where you’re working on a song and you just can’t find the right words, but you know they’ll come because you believe in that, and you can just work on something else. It’s self-sustaining. Music feeds me. It’s passion, it’s work, but it’s also my hobby. It’s what I do to relax and enjoy myself.
When you decided, I’m going to try to turn this into a career, do you think it changed the way you look at music? For better or for worse, or did it stay about the same?
I was so scared when I started out. I asked myself, “You know, you think it’s fun now, but will it stay fun when it becomes a job?” And it is very much a job right now. Even if I’m not some touring musician, it’s very much a job because I spend just as much time on music as the job I get paid for regularly.
I don’t think it’s actually changed that much, thankfully. Yes, you have more goals. Before, you were writing this song because you feel this way. And if you never finish it, then it’s okay. Now it’s like, I really want to finish this song because it has a lot of potential so I should probably work at it. Any time in the equation when choice is taken out, it makes it a little more “work-like.” So yes, I have less choice in music now than I did before, because I can’t just write half a song a hundred times over and be happy with that. I now have to have some finished, completed product. At the margin, yeah, it’s probably gone from less carefree fun to more work.
But overall, has that difference been all that noticable? No, because there’s something really rewarding about it. Before it was for fun and myself, and maybe a few friends, but now I get to actually stand up in front of people and perform it and have people come up to me and say, “That really meant something to me,” or “That really touched me,” or “That song was tremendous.” And to be able to go up to like-minded people, you know, other musicians, and have them say, “That’s really great,” having that respect from your peers, that peer group. You’re trying to join the club and if you can get them to say, “Hey, this is good,” obviously their opinion carries an extra weight because they have expertise in this as well.
So no, for me right now. Obviously I can’t say that wouldn’t be different. When I release my EP, I’m probably going to have to support the EP and play some music from that and be a little more focused on that, and if I ever get signed by a label, I can’t imagine. Any time you have choice taken out of that equation, it becomes less fun I think, because you don’t have absolute freedom. Clearly if you sign with a label, something’s going to give. You can’t have as much artistic freedom as you did before. But maybe what you gain from that is so worth it.
I don’t know yet. I haven’t had the opportunity or fortune to be signed yet. I hope to, I hope the EP will help me get there. It definitely won’t hurt. And I don’t know what it’s like to tour, how exhausting that will be. Is that going to be just as bad going to work everyday, Monday through Friday? If you’re touring, there’s no such thing as a weekend. You’re going to be playing or traveling somewhere constantly or doing something to market your music because you’re trying to sell it.
So I don’t know. It kind of sounds like that might be exhausting, but it might just be so awesome, and I might be so excited that I get to pursue my dream that it would be totally worth it, so hopefully I’ll have that opportunity to find out.
For people trying to “join the club,” what advice do you have? Or is there no good advice?
You know, it’s tough I think. I think the best advice is make sure that you’re willing to just stare people in the eye and tell them, “I don’t believe you,” when they say you’re not good enough or you won’t make it, because you’re going to have to work hard, and you’re going to have work harder than anything else you’ve ever worked for in your life. It’s a mixture of how much natural talent you have, how hard you’re going to work on improving that talent, and then just some random-ass luck, it really is. You know, being at the right time at the right places is a really huge part.
I don’t think I’m really at a place where I can give good advice yet. This is like one of those paradoxes. The lack of advice you get is a test. You know, all of those stumbling blocks that show up in your way. If you can overcome them, then I think you have a pretty good shot. Kind of like, the secret of the art, you don’t tell them because they won’t be strong enough. It’s like Yoda’s cave on Dagobah. That’s what it is, you have to face Vader and Vader is you! [Laughs] As ridiculous as it sounds, it’s kind of like that.
Almost like if you don’t have the drive –
Exactly. If you don’t have the drive to try to overcome those obstacles and figure it out, you’re not going to make it. I mean, some people have it easy, easier than others, but for the most part, we’re all just trying to make it. Just make sure it’s really you. You’re going to have to give your whole self to this. If it is really you, then it could actually be kind of easy, even.