It is easy to romanticize that it’s a lot of fun to live the life of a singer-songwriter. Mike Vitale possess all of his special gifts, and is out performing thoughtful songs for audiences 300+ times a year, it’s the kind of stuff rock n’ roll dreams are made of.
For the release of his new acoustic album ‘Empty Circle,’ I wanted to have a chat about his new collection of songs, and check in with him to see how the dream is going:
Jewell [LBI]: So let’s get into this and start by talking about why you decided to do an acoustic album…
Mike Vitale: For years I’ve been playing a lot of shows all over the place. I’ve found it is often a battle to be heard, especially when performing without a band behind me. Depending on where I am playing and who I am playing for, people might be talking over the top of me, especially if they are not there to see me in the first place. I suppose in some regards it doesn’t matter how talented someone is. I see this a lot in Los Angeles—to be honest, I see it a lot everywhere. There will be people I go out to support, who are stellar talents, and there will be people talking over the top of them. Sometimes folks are just out to socialize and talk to their friends and consider musicians background noise. Despite all of this mentioned, I enjoy the challenge of trying to connect with people. I take great pleasure in finding the people whom of which my music speaks to on a personal level. This album came from a place of wanting to connect with the listener—to say, yeah, we all feel the same way about love, and loss, and whether or not there is a God, and every other subject I try to tackle on this album.
LBI: I get that. Your goal is to have people not just hear, but listen.
MV: Yeah. My goal is to connect with people who listen to my music. I feel all of my dreams are balanced on that human connection. In order for people to get to know my music they have to be able to listen to it, a lot. Ultimately my hope is that they will like the songs enough to come out to hear them being performed live.
LBI: What are some of the positives of offering your music in an acoustic format, on streaming services, as opposed to the way you’ve done bigger productions with your full band?
MV: Well, I mean, let’s face it. Streaming is great for consumers, but horrible for professional musicians in terms of making money. Spotify pays approximately .333 cents for every song streamed. That means a consumer has to listen to 3 songs to make one penny. That is hardly a sustainable way of recouping the cost of paying a band and a mixing engineer and a mastering engineer and a recording engineer and a graphic designer and a photographer and a publicist and so forth, to make a piece of art like an album. Also, playing with musicians of the caliber that I have access to, has its own challenges. Great musicians are in demand, and we are all out trying to work as much as possible. Musicians need to be paid for their talents, and its difficult to pay them what they deserve when you have zero profit margin being built on a release that is streamed digitally and sells less and less every year because streaming is becoming the predominant form of taking in music as a listener. It makes musicians more reliant on merchandise and ticket sales at live shows.Putting out an acoustic album, is something I feel I can more easily sustain in terms of touring to support it and so forth, as well as the initial cost of production and advertising afterwards is less of an investment. It still ends up costing a lot of money and it is difficult hill to climb in terms of return-on-investment, but I am trying to offset many of these costs by using crowdsourcing platforms such as Patreon.
I wanted an album that was easier to tour on. I wanted to put out something in a way that affords me the ability to do hundreds and hundreds of shows across the U.S..
LBI: Speaking of shows, you’ve been doing a lot of house shows. Is your plan to build your tour on more intimate shows like the one you will be doing in our friend’s backyard this Saturday?
MV: You know, I play all manner of shows like country clubs, resorts, and private parties. What I like about intentional places like the Timmerman’s backyard show this Saturday, is that everyone who attends, is there specifically to see you. They’re not there to just hang out, or to socialize with their friends. They are there to see and hear some live music. The house shows are the perfect way to build an audience, especially when it is intimate music being performed.
LBI: I’ve noticed your supporters growing, like with Patreon. Is that working well for you?
MV: Yeah I think the more people learn about crowdsourcing and understand how it works, the better it gets. It is the antithesis of the people who say things like, “you just need to get in front of the right people.” As nice as that sounds rolling off of someone’s lips, its not about that in this day and age. You, as a listener, have the ability to help elevate what you like. You don’t have to pass this duty off on some taste-maker or personality that elevates musicians. You can do it yourself by joining others and elevating what you like in the artist community. It’s very empowering if you think about it. Another thing I hear a lot of from people is, “You are so talented. You should be on The Voice,” not realizing that when a musician participates in those shows, the network owns the musician and their music afterwards. They make them sign away an awful lot in order to participate in a show like that. The end result is that the musician is once again in a circumstance that a record label would put an artist in: Record Label gets 95% of the cake; musician get 5% of the cake. I prefer connecting with people and having them want to help me on platforms such as Patreon. As an example, I was out playing a backyard show a while back, and someone saw me perform the song “Infinite Jest.” They liked the song so much, that they have been contributing as patron on Patreon since I first joined that crowdsourcing platform roughly a year ago. It is people like him that help me to release music consistently.
LBI: Is ‘Infinite jest’ your favorite song on this album?
MV: Well, all of my songs are my favorites! They’re like my kids I suppose. I watch them grow up. They start off as just an idea in my head. Then they become something else entirely when I record them; maybe that’s like adolescence for them. Once I produce them into a song on an album or as a single, I release them into the world to grow their own legs and run; it’s like sending them off to college. When one of them does well I feel like saying “Oh my God! I’m so proud of my kid!”
LBI: I love your songwriting. Let’s talk about a little about the span of genres in the songs on ‘Empty Circle.’ How does that eclecticism all fit together for you?
MV: I love all forms of music. I’m very much a songwriter through and through; I very much enjoy exploring wiring in as many styles of music as I can. I also don’t like repeating myself.
I think I’m most excited when I’m saying to myself “Wow. I can’t believe that just came out of me.” That is what I want. I like being excited about doing something I didn’t think I was capable of doing. I might spend quite a bit of time writing country, americana. or folk music, and then turn around and write a latin song or a rock song.
LBI: As someone who has listened to you for a longtime, my idea of you as a writer is that you exist in this constant space of play and experimentation.
You’re one of the few people I know who would make sense playing an indigenous world music kind of song, then some bluegrass if you had a banjo. Wait… Do you know how to play the banjo?
MV: No [Laughs] but I’m not against learning one of these days. I love music. I love learning new instruments. I love where new instruments take me. I don’t ever try to copy things. In retrospect I might see a connection to something, but not while I’m creating it.
LBI: For example?
MV: Like with the song ‘Puppy Love.’ After I wrote it I thought it reminded me of a Hank Williams song. I wasn’t thinking about that at all when I wrote it though. I only had the melody in my head.
I was going through a notebook and saw that I had written the line “Puppy love tore up the garden digging up old bones.” I saw that and thought, that is definitely the title of a song. From there the rest came pretty quickly.
LBI: Do songs usually come quickly for you?
MV: There are some that I work on shaping more than others, but for the most part they do come pretty quickly.
‘Running away from home’ was fairly easy to write. It started off as a Christmas present. I already knew the story. I just had to figure out how to say the story. It was the first song I ever wrote entirely in my head. I didn’t have a guitar in my hand. I literally wrote the song with an iPad, sitting in my chair. I wrote it over the course of a few days. On the other hand, a song like ’Time machine’ came to me really quickly after a drive home from a gig. I probably had most of the version you hear on the album, written, in about 20 minutes.
LBI: What do you want to accomplish as a writer?
MV: With most of these songs I’ve just wanted to be open. Open to being a channel for wherever these creative nuggets come from.
The comedian Bill Hicks has this really great quote that I love. He said “Today a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration, that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively, there is no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves. Heres Tom with the Weather!”
What I like about what he was saying is that we are all one consciousness, and that we are all experiencing ourselves subjectively. That is just a thick idea to me. As an artist I feel like when I create music I’m channeling from that great big oneness. It is an idea that might sound completely ridiculous, but I take comfort in seeing other creatives over the ages express a similar feeling when discussing creativity and where it comes from. P.L. Travers and C.S. Lewis are both people that expressed that same notion. That feeling of being like a lightning rod when making something, whether it be a song, or writing a novel. It’s almost a feeling like I didn’t write the song, the song wrote itself, or it already existed: I just pulled it out of that great big oneness that exits. Whatever you want to call it. God. The Universe. The amalgamation of everything.
Mike Vitale can be found on most social media platforms @MikeVitaleMusic