Just Getting Started: An Interview with Singer-Songwriter/Producer Dylan Gardner
Emily Koopman: Thanks so much for taking the time to do this. I had Adventures in Real Time on repeat for months after its release, and it was the same routine for Almost Real. You have a song on the latter called 'Breakup Symphony' -- if you were a conductor, what would your breakup symphony be playing?
Dylan Gardner: Fun question! It would be playing an Elliott Smith song like "Miss Misery" or "The Biggest Lie". Elliott's melodies are so gorgeous and as much I resonate with his vast catalog of great songs when I'm in a good mood, he speaks to me like no other artist does when I feel alone.
Emily: You've done some songwriting and producing for a few pretty big YouTubers, is there an experience that really stood out for you? Is this something you'd like to do more of, or are you focusing on yourself and your own music at the moment? Is there an artist, mainstream or otherwise, that you'd like to write/produce for or with?
Dylan: When I first started making music when I was 14 I had a mental bucket list of what I wanted to accomplish someday. One of those goals was to produce other artists. I want to be a producer as much as I want to be an artist, so when the time came where I was asked to produce Shane Dawson, Gabbie Hanna, and Joey Graceffa, it was a fun break out of my comfort zone in trying that sort of pop music. What stands out for me is the bonding experience I got to have being on the other side of the mixing board being the producer, instead of always being the artist on the other side and I got to play the mentor/coach this time which was fun to do with them. I'd love to work with Jack Antonoff, Ariel Rechtshaid, Ludwig Goransson, and Rostam off the top of my head.
Emily: I read that you spent a lot of time in records stores as a kid and eventually became obsessed with record collecting. Do you have any specific memories of hanging out at any of those stores or any songs/albums/artists that trigger memories of those times? Do you know why that specific music reminds you of it? If nothing specific comes to mind for the record stores, is there another important memory to you that has that kind of attachment?
Dylan: My first experiences with record stores were when I was a kid going to places like Crow's Nest and Disc Replay in Illinois. The happiest moments of my life around then were when my Mom would let me go to Disc Replay while she shopped for clothes in the next building over and I'd flip through all the vinyl and CD's and just study for hours until they closed. I remember the first record I bought there was Pink Floyd's The Wall when I was around 10. I still have that copy. When I first moved out to LA, Rockaway Records and Freakbeat Records instantly grabbed my heart and I felt apart of a community of amazing people there. Record stores are my church.
Emily: What has been a defining moment in your career thus far?
Dylan: I think the accomplishments have been the millions of plays on Spotify and the time I was signed to Warner Bros. Records (since then, I asked and was granted to be let go from the label after realizing everyone was about to be fired). I believe I'm in the defining moment of my career right now. I just finished a record that if I made no more music, I'd be proud of this period specifically and I know it'll be the step forward in my career that I've been hoping for.
Emily: When you're writing, do the music or lyrics generally come first? I realize it probably varies, but is there one that happens more than the other? Does it differ if you're writing by yourself or if it's a collaborative effort?
Dylan: Music usually comes first. The melody will spring up in my head all of the sudden and from there I flesh it out. It usually has a piece of lyric stuck on it though. I then try to find the vibe of the production pretty instantly afterwards, which is where I feel the song blossoms. It's been that process usually through all writing, collaborative or not.
Emily: One of your singles from Almost Real is called "I Want It Like That". I was wondering if I gave you some options, you'd tell me which one you'd "Want It Like That". Like Would You Rather, but with a Dylan Gardner twist.
Option 1: Have a massive online following (ie: tons of YouTube views/subscribers, Instagram followers, etc.)
Option 2: Have a massive in real life following (ie: lots of people attending your live shows)
Dylan: Easily option 2. I personally hate the social media world of living by numbers. If I didn't try to run my own music career I'd have a private insta that has 4 photos on it. I want real human interaction, and live shows are the single greatest experience I can ever have, especially when the crowd is into it with you.
Option 1: Be a one-hit wonder and be able to live off big residuals for the rest of your life
Option 2: Have a steady musical career but no chart-topping hits
Dylan: Again, easily option 2. I don't care about hits. I care about albums and respect, which is exactly what I read when you wrote "steady musical career", because that is not what one-hit wonders have. The hit song game is not one I prefer to play. I want to craft an album experience. If I happen to write a song that's catchy enough to be a hit, that would be an awesome coincidence.
Option 1: Only be able to produce for other people
Option 2: Only be able to write for yourself
Dylan: Option 2. That's pretty much the way it goes for me any ways. I love writing for myself. A great songwriter told me that you know you're a true artist when other people can't sing the songs you write like you can.
Option 1: Write a popular song that everyone seems to hate (ie: Baby by Justin Bieber)
Option 2: Write a less popular song that has a cult following (ie: Myself by Bazzi)
Dylan: Option 2. My favorite songs are "less popular" cult songs. Take "Nights" by Frank Ocean for example. That song has a cult of people (including me) that know every word and would bow down to Frank in the street for writing it, but you're not going to heart it when you turn on your radio. The great times in music are when both worlds collide like "This Is America" by Childish Gambino or Lorde.
Option 1: Always be a quarter-tone flat
Option 2: Always be half a beat behind
Dylan: Option 2. Being behind the beat is awesome, that's how you get J Dilla or a lot of funk records. Besides, I have perfect pitch and being a quarter tone flat would send me into a musical coma. In the age of quantizing, I think being behind the beat is the single most underrated thing about playing music, it's where all the feel comes in. I always play bass and drums a little behind the beat so it's a bit more relaxed and not so uptight sounding. Something I learned from Prince.
Emily: I'm sure there are quite a few songs that don't make it to the final cut of each album, but is there a song that you regret leaving off either album? If so, what is it called and what's it about?
Dylan: I have yet to regret leaving a song off a record. Someday that will happen, but I know exactly what I want with what I have when it comes time to compile the songs, that no truly great song gets left behind. as I grow more critical of my own work though, the bar is higher.
Emily: Throughout your career, who have been some of your biggest supporters? What would you like to say to them?
Dylan: I really appreciate the fans that have been there since the beginning, and I know who they are. the people that were listening in 2014 have a special place in my heart because they were the initial group of people that pushed me further to follow my dreams.
Emily: Everyone has a different story about how they were "discovered". What's yours? Was there a moment where you thought, "Oh my God, this is it!" but it turned out to... not be? Was there a time where you thought it was never going to happen and then it did?
Dylan: When "Let's Get Started" organically got 10 million plays on Spotify that was an amazing feeling. But I never felt like "oh my god, this is it". I've heard from most people that you never feel that feeling because you're always looking forward while you're slowly moving up. Becoming successful isn't an overnight thing (unless you're really lucky) and it's usually so gradual that you don't realize where you are until you look back.
Emily: On a blog called Disc Makers, I remember reading a songwriting interview and one of the questions was, "How do you know when your song is done – it’s time to stop revising and put it down?" What's your take?
Dylan: For me, a song is done when by brain and body go "aaah" in relaxation. It's the only way you know, it's a body reaction. I learn to trust that reaction the more I make records, because it's your brain telling you subconsciously that that's what you actually want.