Carl Durant is a San Diego favorite, and one of the hardest working artists in town. He released his EP 'Last Place' earlier this year. The CD itself was recorded, mixed and produced at Carl's home-based studio and mastered by Paul Abbott (Tape Op, EQ, Sound on Sound) of ZenMastering in San Diego. Counting five originals, it has a lounge rock feel that translates the ambiance of Carl's solo live performance into a true studio-album with a blend of acoustic and electronic sounds.
As a final remark, Carl adds: "It was a lot of hard work and attention for detail, but I think it all paid off. I feel I was able to create my own sound and I just hope someone will like it. I mean, I like it !"
He is a multi-dimensional artist gracing local stages as an engaging solo performer as well as a guitarist and lead vocal for his band.
Thank you Carl for agreeing to this interview, you are certainly a San Diego favorite. Would you tell us a little of your life's journey?
Sure. Originally I’m from Leuven, Belgium, the city of Stella Artois and, more importantly, the oldest (Catholic) University in the world. I studied electronics there and visited the West Coast for the first time in 1999 for a conference. It didn’t seem like a bad place to live. So when I was offered a job in an early phase start-up in San Diego, I decided to pack my stuff and head west. For a year or two, maybe four. That was April 2002, and my PhD thesis was only half written.
I bought a Martin guitar at Buffalo Brothers, finished writing my PhD thesis by the summer and figured out that I needed to do something more with music. My first recordings were only sent to my girlfriend who was still in Belgium. We got married in 2003, on a catamaran out of Point Loma. A while later I discovered the open mic at Hot Java Cafe where I debuted quite a few songs, met some wonderful people and decided to work hard on becoming a better performer.
From there I took a little side road to back up the wonderful Brenda Xu on bass and vocals, playing over 30 shows in 18 months with marked appearances on Java Jams and KUSI. I also discovered Cathryn Beek’s “Game” and that really helped me to boost confidence in my songwriting skills. It wasn’t till mid 2009 that I started playing my own shows. By then our oldest daughter was in preK, our twins were two and the little spare time I had was all going to music.
One of my early live-music experiences here in San Diego was seeing Tim Corley shine at Lestat’s West. I never thought I would get to perform there myself, but after playing at the open mic for quite a while, the amazing Louis (Brazier) gave me a chance late 2009 and I played there many times since.
So far the main magic moments in music here in San Diego have been: playing my CD release for a full house at Lestat’s, our recent show at House of Blues with over a hundred fans and a very intimate and magical open mic at someone's cottage in OB. That was all within this year !
Who musically influences you?
In general, I like to think that I’m more influenced by the production and sound of the recordings that I like than I am by songs or styles. At home it was mainly classical music that got attention. My brother and I really had to put up a fight to be able to tune to a pop or rock station. What I did learn from that early on is that “everything has been done before”, really.
I do love a very wide range of music. My music “icons”, if you want, are still related to my main instrument: the guitar. In my case that would be Jimi Hendrix, Mark Knopfler, Eric Clapton. But then there’s my second love, especially as a DJ: electronic music. For that Laurent Garnier is a top pick. Actually I experimented with keyboards and a TRS-80 computer years before I picked up a guitar.
Personal influence comes as a source of motivation: from the local songwriters here in San Diego and from two Belgian singer songwriters: Milow and Anton Walgrave. Especially Milow is building layer upon layer of success and it’s great to see it working out very well without major label support.
I enjoyed listening to your music – I have to tell you I wasn't expecting what I heard. Your music delightfully defies classification. At one moment I'm hearing an emotional story, with a clean guitar accompaniment, and the next I'm hearing uncomplicated vocal, and instrumental movements, one would expect in a rock song.
Can you give us a tutorial of how one of your songs comes into existence – to the final cut?
It really varies a lot. I’ll give an example how that might go for a “Game” song. I’d first try to figure out what feeling or mood works for me with the title while trying out chord progressions. Then I start humming a melody and write the verse or chorus. After that I try to come up with the missing part.
A commonality in all my writing sessions is that I often push myself to try out different roads, but never force a song to conclusion.
And this is fun related news: for the December 4th Game, I’m putting the whole songwriting process on my blog as a video diary. Check the News/Blog section on my website (carldurant.com). This time, it starts with a hook …
I have heard you perform with just a guitar (which I really like), with a band, and listened to your produced material – all so very different. Who is the real/preferred artist, the truer Carl Durant, for you personally?
Good question since it’s one that I ask myself too from time to time. The answer is that I love them all a lot. Getting better in one aspect helps me for the other two so I’m just gonna keep doing it all.
With the band I definitely want to go for bigger venues and audiences, while solo I’d like to keep it intimate and leave some time for talking to the audience too.
What makes a good song for you?
Most importantly: I just have to feel it. More Technically:The groove, a hook, a lyrical novelty that works well within the song, a great sound, a good production. You won’t hear me say that I can hear a great song through the noise of a poor recording, it’s the whole package. To me lyrics can contribute tremendously to a song in two very different ways. First there’s a negative way, in the sense that one bad choice of a word or sentence can totally ruin a song for me. And then there’s the optimal way where a great song becomes even better thanks to the use of some smart lyrics that don’t become a showoff or a cliché.
What motivates you to write?
The combination of the instant kick I get out of writing and the fact that I can create an emotional bond with other people later on, when I share it live or online. The feeling of accomplishment of working through a song while writing it, is actually quite similar to me as solving a math or physics problem. Also as an engineer (my paying job) I’ve always looked for ways to share my work with ‘the world’ or to work on products that can help people in a positive way. My current job doesn’t allow me to do the sharing bit enough, so I’m glad music does.
Is it easier for you to write music/melody, or the lyrics?
The one that comes first is always the easier one. Sometimes it all comes together in my head at once, but usually I come up with a line or two of melody and words, and work that out to a chorus or verse. Recently, I’ve been trying to pay some more attention to the lyrics since I realized you guys all speak English as first language (smiles).
To come back to the question about the “songwriting tutorial”: while finishing the lyrics, I often close my eyes to visualize the song. It’s like I’m watching the imaginary video of the song.
I am always curious about the rituals songwriters have, when it's time to sit and write a song – do you have any?
Time is one of the luxuries that I don’t have so I write whenever the song can’t wait any longer. I sing a melody into my phone at the zoo, or I type a memo in my phone while at the playground with the kids. The song then gets finalized whenever I can find an hour or two of uninterrupted time. The ritual is very simple: get the kids in bed, make sure my wife has something to do for the next hour (or two), lock myself up in the studio and go !
How about before you perform?
I definitely need the last ten minutes before going on to myself. Maybe do a final vocal warm-up. Besides that, no distractions or talking anymore, just getting into the moment to make sure everything sits ‘just right’ from the first note.
You are such an assessable and likable performer, and your music has that same quality – is that intentional? Is there a darker side to Carl Durant?
Well, personally, I’m an optimist, I guess, so there might be a darker side but I can’t find any use for it.
In my music I’m trying to not write songs for the critics and specialists, but for a broader audience. So yes, part of it is intentional. I do think that a song as “Teenage Dream” has somewhat of a darker hue to it. It was based on a Stream of Consciousness short story that I wrote in high school.
Your skilled musicianship comes across in your recordings and generates a feel, or certain ambiance, if that makes sense – is the music more important to you than the lyrics?
Well thank you for calling me skilled. For this EP I was definitely focused on the ambiance. In general, when I write lyrics I try to make sure they don’t get in the way but still convey the story or the message in an interesting manner. It was a lesson I learned in high school to not embellish a poem with “interesting”, or “intellectual” word choices that don’t really add anything to the overall feel of a story or poem.
I'm really interested in the arrangement choices you make – tell us your process in making those choices.
I love electronic music, both up-tempo and loungy. As I said before, I try to visualize my own music while writing, and that continues when I’m looking for sounds to layer onto the recording. Apparently I’m not agreeing with the “modern” approach of not using reverb on vocals, since I ended up using quite a bit to fill out the sparse arrangement. It all adds up to the mood I was trying to evoke.
You record your own work/tracks, then have it mastered and mixed down at a studio. Given the availability of affordable home recording studios, is there an advantage for a songwriter/performer to do what you do?
Actually I have my full studio at home and mixed it down myself too (Excellent mastering was done at Zen Mastering). I would never recommend the home-mixing to anyone, just like I would never recommend writing your PhD thesis while working in a start-up. But I did both and I’m very happy I did because it saved me money and allowed me to really experiment with sounds and mixing options.
For the next EP I’m planning a simpler approach, but we’ll have to see how that goes.
I, for one, believe a good Producer, one that is in sync with you and your work, is invaluable to an artist. What would you look for in a Producer? What must that person get about you and your work?
I need to hear he’s bringing out of my music what I ‘feel’ is in there without having to go back and forth too many times. And we need to get along too. Basically he should become another band member during the album making process. If he brings good connections, that’s great too of course.
Let's chat a bit about lyrics. Your lyrics are uncomplicated and assessable. I have used that word already and I mean it as a compliment. You use repetitive lyric lines in movements in your pieces 'Getting closer everyday' in your song 'Come Closer' and 'Losing Time' are examples. Give us some insight on that songwriting and arrangement decision?
Well, not too much thinking goes into this. I just go with what feels right. Even after I have the scratch recording down, I keep throwing out unnecessary words while trying out sounds for the various layers in the production. A song like “Appropriate” for instance felt too long so I removed a whole verse that just did not add enough to the story. And I’m definitely never going to tell myself “Hey this song is not finished ‘cause it doesn’t have a bridge in it”. Being conventional is not something I strive for.
'This is the last place
that I will go with you.
This is the last place that you can show me
to try and work things out.'
'Last Place' is a lovely sad song with acoustic guitar, a simple piano, and that smooth honey voice of yours – for me you, uncomplicated, on an acoustic guitar and a light handed arrangement is what really works for you. 'Over you' is delightful.
Having said that, your work with a band is wonderful, but different. I have asked a similar question already, but I want to make a distinction – What is your sense of Carl Durant, in the future, as an artist?
Well, step number one was to have someone call me an artist. Guess I can take that of my list (smiles).
Right now, I’m getting really close in convincing myself that I’m a decent musician, performer and songwriter. I would call that the craftsman side of musicianship. With that as a starting point I want to develop an artistic vision for my music.
So now I feel the need to open up collaboration with other people. I’m looking for a producer to work on a full-band album or EP, looking for time to work on a beat-infused version of a song of mine with a friend, looking for a second guitar player to add to the live sound, …
And in the short term there are some solo acoustic songs that I want to record and release.
'Appropriate' is your most popular song. I am reminded a little, but only a little, of Billy Idol. This song works for me. What elements, for you, make this song work?
Then there’s the song itself: the bass contributes to the melody and ties the whole thing together musically. Story-wise there are repetitive lyrics in the chorus that are still interesting because their meaning changes throughout the story that unfolds in the verses. It starts out seductive, but then gradually becomes more and more a confession of being untruthful in different ways to various people.
Which, I guess, brings you to think of Billy Idol (White Wedding?).
You had told me you produced your EP with the idea of pitching songs to TV and Ads. Is that something you believe all artists will have to do, given the nature of industry today, in order to make a living?
No I don’t think so. Music is ultimately about a personal connection, so I’m convinced touring and playing live was and is the number one tool for expanding your fan base and ultimately get enough people interested to buy your next release, or become a paying member of your website community. Another option is to play bars & restaurants, and there are examples of local artists making a living that way, at the ‘price’ of also playing covers…
How far should an artist compromise to do that?
In that context, I overheard an interesting discussion at a local pizza place. It went about the difference between a craftsman and an artist, and the question whether one of the two is “better” or “higher” than the other. And so the question is: should the artist compromise to “just” be a craftsman? My thought: it’s not the right question. Both the artist and the craftsman can very well be pursuing their dream and passion. I think neither of them should compromise to bring out their talents but both should keep in mind they need food on the table at some point.
In your opinion, where do you see the industry going?
My main believe is that there is true value in music: good songs, great performances and well produced recordings. I think we’ll look back in a decade or so at what will be called the ‘music industry bubble of the 20th century’ as an anomaly, just like the current counter-culture of free music downloads. With services like Spotify, music is becoming readily available at no cost to the listener. And although the payout to the artist is pretty much symbolic at this point, I think it will cement the principle that online-listening to music comes at a price: direct payment, subscription, listening to commercials, visual advertising, etc.
From there on the challenge will be to get back to an increase in revenue from music. From the available data, it’s clearly not a digital vs. CD sales problem but a single vs. album sales problem. I see artists come up with original ways to sell whole albums by combining it with other art forms (book, painting, pictures, LP, Björk’s i-app etc.) and that might be a possible path to go for individual artists.
As far as the industry itself, I think the major labels will continue to lose their grip on the content and money while more and more lifestyle brands will deepen their collaboration with select artists. More of these brands might start to have distinct music sections on their websites and I think we’ll see this music collaboration also become part of the in-store experience.
Here is a question I haven't asked a soul, except to myself, everyday of my long life. Why do you write songs and perform?
I can’t help it. Music is a way to express myself and although I’m always learning to become better at it, not having access to it feels like being handicapped. I clearly remember one of the occasions that this happened: I forgot to take my guitar to a week-long gathering where I was coaching a bunch of new people. Half way through, when fatigue started taking its toll, I realized that I needed music to be able to connect to other people and open myself up further so they get to know me better. And ultimately, I get to know myself better. So there’s your answer: I write songs and perform to get to know myself better.
What is the one thing you want to tell your fans, and future fans, about Carl Durant that they now do not know?
I like my coffee strong with milk, no sugar and of course a small piece of Belgian chocolate. And I can cook a mean meal. And seriously, this is just the beginning of it: check my website for news and free downloads…
Yep! I believe you have hit on ‘the’ songwriting secret – good strong coffee! Thank you Carl for your insights and honesty, wonderful interview.
1. Come Closer
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