Steven Whitaker has been writing songs almost since the first day he picked up a guitar. He played in a rock cover band for years, but continued to write original songs on the side and recorded rough drafts of his song ideas in his home studio.
But he never released an album.
The working schedule of a UPS delivery driver doesn’t exactly provide much room or leftover energy for extensive writing and recording sessions so the years went by as Whitaker’s recording computer got the best of his talents as the pile of song ideas piled up. He kept telling himself, someday I’ll dust off some of these ideas and record an album.
Until this year.
Whitaker dropped his first album Edge of Oblivion – a complete full package commercially released album consisting of great chord progressions, catchy rhythms and serious melody that competes with anything on radio today. It’s got hard rock, modern rock and a few ballads that take the edge off but keep you hooked.
Whitaker used a rather unconventional method to getting the album recorded. In fact, he’s never met the contributing drummer and bassist. He started with an extensive category of songs he’d already written, picked 13 he thought would not only be fun but resonate with today’s popular music and, with a vision in mind, he sought out some session players and worked with them via the world wide web to get his freshman effort down.
And this is just the beginning. He’s already started writing his second album and promises an even stronger effort. Plus, thanks to some critical feedback, he’s dropping his solo artist stature and embracing a band name, Echo-1 for his next studio album.
In between writing, recording and of course delivering packages, I got to talk to Whitaker about his recent album, how it all started and what’s next.
Hometown: Tigard, OR
Instruments played: Guitar and piano
Discography: Edge of Oblivion
- How did you get started playing music?
My mom started me in piano lessons in 4th grade. I stuck with that for about a year then played trombone for four years in elementary and junior high school band. By my 16th birthday, I was into hard rock and heavy metal so I asked for an electric guitar for my birthday. I’m sure my mom probably couldn’t afford it, but she got me one anyway. I just wanted a black one with a whammy bar. That’s all I cared about. Little did I know then, but cheap guitars with whammy bars have horrible tuning problems so I probably spent more time tuning that guitar than playing it. From the very beginning, I have always gravitated more towards songwriting than just playing guitar. The guitar, to me, is just a vehicle to deliver a song. As soon as I could afford one, I had a little 4-track cassette tape recorder and was trying to put together full songs.
“Tom Sawyer” by Rush was the first time I heard a song that really caught my attention and curiosity. They are an amazing band and I love much of what they’ve done, but that’s never really been my sound musically. My musical influences are all over the board as I’ve always been drawn to great songs rather than just die hard band following.
- It took you a while to finally record an album. Were you waiting on the technology or was it a now or never type decision?
I’ve been telling myself I was going to do an album for years, but just kept putting it off or getting sidetracked on other things. I played in a cover band for years playing anything from the Beatles to Metallica and even though I was writing original songs the whole time, the band’s focus was primarily on cover songs and gigging so we never spent much time on my original stuff.
After the cover band days, I spent a few years helping a friend who wrote a couple horror movie scripts and was getting some pretty solid interest from Hollywood. I wrote three songs for two movies as well as scored and edited a movie trailer for his second film “Brutal” which is still in the can, but has no distribution deal as of yet. Two of the three songs were fully produced and recorded. My song “This Thing That I’ve Become” was written for the movie “Brutal” 2012 and my song “Scream” was written for the movie “The Haunted Caves” but he blew that deal and the movie was never shot.
I’m not exactly sure what got into me, but about a year and a half ago, I reached a point where I felt a sense of urgency to finally stop talking about it and as the saying goes “just do it.” Call it my mid-life crisis little red sports car or whatever. I got sick of listening to my own excuses for why I hadn’t made an album yet. The technology of today certainly made it a much more affordable process than it would have been10 years ago.
- Some bands start with an EP but you dropped a 13 song full-fledged album. Was this by design?
I simply have a huge library of songs I’ve written over the years and wanted to get as many as I could on this first album. I have enough songs for probably four albums so I tried to pick ones that were more on the rocking end of the spectrum. I wanted my first album to rock. The last song on the album “State of the union” is really an odd pick for the album, but the subject matter of the song and the video I made for it is very important to me and I wanted it to be on there. I also thought it had a lot of relevance with an election year coming up.
- How the album came together is interesting. Tell us about it.
I didn’t want my first album to sound semi-pro. I decided that if I was going to do it, I was going to do everything I could, within reason and within my means, to make the album compete with major label albums. All the drums were done by a drummer named Matt Dean, who lives in the UK. I sent him rough drum examples of what I wanted and he did his best to give me what I was after. It took a lot of back and forth but most songs came out pretty close to what I wanted. All bass guitars were done by session players in a Nashville studio called Nashtraxx. I would send them rough bass guitar examples to lay down the basic groove and they would send me back finished bass tracks.
I recorded all the guitars, vocals, synths, sound design elements and did all the editing at my home studio in Tualatin, OR. The album was mixed by James Lugo in North Carolina and he streamed to me live during the mix so I could make comments in real time. Technology certainly gave me the ability to produce an album that I can feel good about at a price that is a fraction of what is spent on major label albums. Producing this album cost me about $10,000.
- How did you find the right musicians?
Honestly, just a bunch of Google searches, listening to example tracks, reading bios and of course, price. I had to find guys who could work within my budget and lucky for me, there are a lot of talented people out there who will do quality work without charging an arm and a leg. If things went well on the first song or two, it was full steam ahead. I used the same drummer and bass players for the whole album.
- OK, it’s not like you guys are in one room hashing out melodies so did you send them sheet music or samples of what you wanted?
I sent rough mixes of my songs with drum and bass tracks that I played to get them in the ball park. Then, they would take my rough draft examples and run with them. Sometimes they sent me back something different than I expected, but it was great and sometimes I had to play another example and send them back to the drawing board. I found that playing producer requires great patience and immaculate communication.
- This sounds like an unconventional means to writing and recording. But is it?
It is certainly not the classic room full of guys jamming around on a song and working out parts until everything gels. I think it’s probably very typical for people like me, who don’t have time to put together a band and deal with all of the headaches that come with trying to get a room full of creative people to gel on a song idea. I’m sure that with the right group of guys, my songs could have been even better than they are, but dealing with the democracy of a band, I may have had to fight tooth and nail to see my vision for each song come to life in the end. I usually have a pretty clear idea of where I want a song to go. I just need the right people to let me play producer and get them to where I need them. It’s also nice to be able to work on my songs at a mellow level and to not have to deal with standing next to a drummer beating the hell out of his cymbals in my ears like in my cover band days.
- The album is absolutely solid. How did you approach the writing process?
Most of the songs were written years ago, but I only recorded rough drafts of a few of them so most were just lyrics on paper and everything else was in my head for years. One of the most challenging parts of making this album was the guitar solos. I really hadn’t practiced or done any lead guitar playing for many years just mostly strumming on my acoustic guitar and even that was rare. It took a good chunk of time to get my fingers working at least semi-proficiently. I’ve never been much of a lead guitar player so as simple as the guitar solos on this album are, some were very challenging for me and there was a lot of swearing during the recording process.
Overall, my philosophy on songwriting is that the song is king and everything I do should make the song better or the part should go. Sometimes I’d have a second guitar part I would think is awesome and really grooving with the song, but then listen to it the next day and ask myself, “What the hell was I thinking?” From a lyrical standpoint, my motto is “Say something worth hearing” meaning if you’re going to write a song , write one that tells a great story, has a great message or has a deep meaning within the lyrics. I want people to read my lyrics and really think about what I’m saying because there is usually more going on than just some music and some words thrown in there thoughtlessly.
One thing I did on my web site to try and give people a little more insight into my songs is under the “Lyrics” section, there is a paragraph talking about how I came up with the song idea and what the song is about. This is something I wish all bands would do because there are so many songs I love, but have no idea what inspired them. I want people to tap their foot, bang their head a little, but I also want them to think about what I’m saying and ponder the deeper meaning of the lyrics. Maybe I’m having way too high of expectations for the average listener, but I hope my songs will connect with at least a few people out there.
- You told me you’re a small fish in a big sea. You’re clearly an example of how technology has worked in your favor but it seems anyone with a guitar can now record songs. How do you become a bigger fish or do you even want to be a bigger fish?
Yes, pretty much anyone can record their own songs these days. I think that’s great because now people across the whole financial spectrum can record at least decent sounding songs without having to spend a fortune going into a professional studio. The downside, of course, is there are countless bands and artists scattered across the internet all fighting for that big break at a time when streaming and piracy has made most of those “big breaks” a lot less profitable than they used to be for the most part.
To become a bigger fish and to really get noticed, I think it takes a lot of hard work and determination, but more than anything, I believe it takes a great song. A great song will knock people on their asses because it makes them feel, it makes them move and it pulls them into the emotion of the song. The internet has made it possible for a great song written by an indie artist to be heard by millions without having to get signed by a major label. Video is more important than ever though I believe. I great song with a catchy video can make a star out of a band in little time if people dig it and start sharing it.
Do I want to become a bigger fish? Yes and no. I don’t want to be a rock star. With mass piracy and insanely low payouts for streaming royalties, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for anyone other than the major label megastars to really earn a serious living from sales. Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” has been streamed over 175 million times and the guy who wrote the song has received about $5,600 from streaming royalties so that gives you a good idea of what an indie artist like me is up against. Because I don’t have time or the ability to tour with my job at UPS, my only hopes of ever earning a living at this is going to come from album sales and sync licensing. A lot of people don’t realize how much piracy hurts us little fish.
Just finishing this album was a huge triumph so anything else is icing on the cake. I do this because I love it and want people to connect with it, but I must admit, it would be awesome to be able to sell enough albums to pay for the next album.
- Any thoughts about touring or playing local gigs?
Again, it’s a time thing. My girlfriend endured a mad scientist of a boyfriend for over a year while I worked on this album and I think trying to put a band together and play steady gigs might just be a little more than I could ask her to tolerate. If I achieved a high level of success to where I could quit my day job, I would absolutely put a band together and play live. It would be an awesome feeling playing my songs live and having an actual audience to play to instead of a computer monitor. But, it’s just not realistic for me in my life at this point.
- What’s next? You have material for a second album?
A lot! I have some animators working on a video for “Of Fleas and Men” which is coming together pretty awesome. It should be done in November. I’m also brainstorming on ideas for another music video for one of the songs on the album.
I’m already writing material for my next album which will definitely lean more towards the modern rock end of the spectrum. I will be doing a lot more of blending guitars with electronic and even some dub step elements so my next project should have a very modern sound to it. What I’m working on so far sounds like Trent Reznor and Sixx AM thrown in a blender. It will be, without a doubt, rock, but there will be more going on than just guitars, drums and bass etc. The song arrangement and production will be on a higher level than this album also. I learned a lot about production this past year and it will help me to make my next one even better. I’m also doing some serious training on learning mix engineering so I will be mixing my next album.
My next album will be released under the band name Echo-1. I used a company called Audiokite to get random, unbiased reviews of my songs and a lot of people didn’t like my name for a band or artist name. I have to admit, I agree with them. It’s just a dude’s name and it’s not
that unique sounding. I had a number of songs that rated highly, but they lost points due to my name. I missed out on some radio play opportunities just because of this one factor so lesson learned. It will still be me writing and producing using studio musicians for drums and bass, but will sound more like a band than a 46 year old dude in his home studio.