FYIG Chats With Composer/Songwriter Derek Schmidt

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Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Well, I’m a musician – songwriter and composer, mainly- and I’ve lived in the Bay Area for 19 years. I stayed in the Bay Area after graduating from U.C. Berkeley, got involved with the Oakland art and music scene, writing and playing in lots of different projects. I live with my husband in the Mission with my two cats Aleister and Nimüe.

You’ve been a leader and writer of three different bands over the past 15 years. What did you learn in your time with those groups that you’re bringing to your latest project?

I learned so much! I learned how to communicate my musical ideas, I learned a looooot about my ego and to really confront a lot of insecurities when you put your ideas out there.  The great part about this project is it combines a lot of my more folk-based acoustic songwriting with my electronic projects. I feel like I honed a lot of songwriting in these years, and really gained a lot of experience building synth sounds, understanding music production, etc. Major Arcana was the first time I had an aha moment that I could combine that all.

Your next project in 2019 is an album called “Major Arcana” which is slated to be a 22-track album. What can audiences expect from this album?

They can expect an album that’s trying to capture the symbolism and wisdom in each of the trump cards, combining acoustic and electronic elements. It’s trying to strike a balance between the personal and the transcendent. It’s different than anything I’ve done so far. I really am having a hard time categorizing it, genre-wise, so maybe people can expect something kind of different? I really wanted to make an album that required really active listening, even with some pop music inspiration, that it didn’t have to be the same songs about love, etc.. It would love it for the listener to just sit and listen through the whole work, or listen when they pulled or feel drawn to a specific card.

The 22 tracks represent the 22 trump cards in a tarot deck. Talk to us about why this symbolism is so important to you and the process of creating a whole album around it.

Surviving an evangelical Christian upbringing as a queer kid, I’ve always been really into the big questions because they were all around me. I wanted what felt like truth and wisdom that had a place for me, so I just feel like I went searching. I got really into the tarot at like age 19, and I loved the coherent system of the whole deck, that covered all these aspects of the lived experience. I would do readings for myself and friends, read books on all the different interpretations, and still I’d be mainly writing music that really didn’t touch any of that directly. About 6 years ago I had an aha moment when writing the Moon, and found out my songwriting was really inspired by going through all of the cards. Over the years, it feels like the process has been ritualized a little bit, like preparing for a spell, meditating on the card and all of the symbolism, how the card’s aspects (bravery, fortune, change, intuition, etc.) have played out in my own life.

What can you tell us about tarot decks for those that might be unfamiliar with them?

I’d first say that you don’t need to or believe in the tarot as some sort of prediction. They’re a collection of wisdom, one (among many) systems of organizing human experience. Don’t’ worry about if they’re effectively telling you your fortune, I say use it to just understand things from a different angle. There just might be some synchronicity as to why you pulled a certain card, and at the very least you’ve thought about your question or issue. However you feel the cards are speaking to you, that’s how they should be, and that’s the right interpretation. But really appreciate and enjoy the millennia of thought and energy put into this work, it’s worth jumping into.

How instrumental was the San Francisco Arts Commission’s Individual Artist Grant in getting “Major Arcana” off the ground?

Not so much off the ground, but allowing me to really finish the project, that I’ve been working on now for over 6 years. The grant gave me funds for professional recording and production of all of the songs, which were produced mainly at my humble little home studio (aka, living room). It also felt so legitimizing to receive it, along with a cohort of some of the bay area’s best composers and musicians. We all know it’s so hard to be any kind of artist and work so hard. I’ve had so many projects and even though this was the largest one I’ve done so far, I was ready to just quietly finish it and move onto the next chapter. My partner Kevin and a lot of friends really pushed me to dream bigger, to take myself seriously enough to apply for these kinds of arts grants, and I feel lucky to have all these supports.

In addition to your work in music, you’ve also been a featured composer on independent film and performance art projects including a feature film called “Home and How to Break It”. What are some of the similarities and differences between composing music and composing for a film?

To me, composing for a film is all about capturing the feel that the director wants for each scene. It’s one more degree of separation from my personal projects, where I put a lot of my self into. Music for film is more of an abstract challenge where I bring everything I’ve learned and written and use what I can to make it all work. Composing music for myself, my most personal artistic projects, is more complicated, but I truly love mine and other artist’s pieces that were made just for themselves and their vision. There’s a lot of “art for art’s sake” ideas in my compositions, but I gain so much practice and experience when I apply all of that energy to other people’s visions.

What’s next for your career beyond “Major Arcana”?

The biggest thing is that I start a grad school program for composition in under a month! I haven’t been in school for years and I’m really nervous. I’m hoping to gain more composition and musicianship skills and explore areas I’m interested in composing for. I’m really interested in composing for chorus, and I can see arrangement Major Arcana for large-scale chorus too, that would be awesome! I guess my career is just more growth as an artist, however, I can find ways to do that.

What advice would you have for aspiring singers/songwriters?

Man, I don’t know if I’m qualified for this question. Like a lot of creative people, I spend so much time in self-doubt. I’m really discouraged by the trends of consumption of music in this country, and everything has become more conformist and beige in music. Also, the increasing responsibility on the artist to not only make good art but be some amazing businessman is very discouraging for a lot of us, where people just want to see the hustle, not the quality. Don’t get bogged down in the hustle! The only thing I’ve been able to hold onto is my joy at actually making the thing. Don’t think too much about where all this will take you, but really enjoy and be thankful that you have a passion and inspiration, to make something that’s completely yours. I’m trying to believe everything else will work out, but stay tuned!

What’s your life like outside of the studio?

I’ve got a great life in SF, with lots of amazing friends. I love going to art shows, music shows, reading fantasy books, being a political junkie, and I’m really just a big nerd. I’m now playing in a few Dungeons and Dragons games, and I am so into this collective storytelling. There’s still a really thriving queer nightlife scene in SF, with drag and other performance art. Even though the city has gotten tough to stay in, there’s still a creative pulse and I’m glad I’m involved in it.

Let the readers know where to find you online.

Let’s see, I’m on Bandcamp and Soundcloud under my name, and there are a few Major Arcana songs up now to give you a sense of the work. I’m on Instagram:  derekfschmidt, facebook on www.facebook.com/derekschmidtmusic/, and I’ll have a newly revamped website coming up really soon at derekschmidtmusic.com.