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Hitting a High Note with David Gillespie

Hitting a High Note with David Gillespie

Natasha Smith

Natasha Smith

July 31, 2018

Havas New York’s Group Strategy Director explains how he’s striking a chord with other music lovers.

"New York was a place where I felt at home in even before I called it home, so I decided to make that happen."

The native Australian turned New York musician talks about his lifelong love affair with music, songwriting, live performing—oh, and advertising.

 

Where are you from, originally?

I’m originally from the Gold Coast, Australia. It’s basically Miami minus the Cuban population and art. I mean, it’s the Gold Coast with its sandy long beaches—but that description could apply to most of the island.

What brought you to NYC?

Um, NYC! I spent most of my childhood in Hong Kong, so I have always felt more at home in big international cities. New York was a place where I felt at home in even before I called it home, so I decided to make that happen.

What gets you excited—personally and professionally?

Seeing people do the things they were clearly supposed to do. So much of both work and life is a distraction. When you make space for people to get better at what they’re already good at rather than raising a lesser skill to a mediocre level, magic can happen.

When did you first discover a love for music?

I’ve never known life without it. In our house growing up, the TV was rarely on, in part because there was very little to watch in Hong Kong at the time. So, there was always music playing.

How would you describe your style as a music artist?

Somewhere between Nashville and New Orleans. I just looked at that route on Google Maps, and it basically runs straight through Muscle Shoals, Alabama, which sounds about right. You may not have heard of Muscle Shoals, but if you like classic R&B and soul, most of your favorite music is from there.

Who are your biggest musical influences?

Prince and Springsteen are my No. 1’s: a and b. Beyond them, I like all the stuff that lots of people like: Tom Petty, Fleetwood Mac, Sam Cooke, and there’s a line that runs from them to modern bands like HAIM and Gary Clark, Jr. At the end of the day, a good song is a good song. I don’t really care where it comes from.

How many songs have you written and how many have your released?

There are only 15 or so out in the world; there are probably about 70 more written, and roughly another hundred sitting on my phone as sketches of ideas, which basically involves me trying to sing a melody or capture a lyric idea as discreetly as possible when I’m doing something else. If you see me sitting in a corner mumbling something into my phone, chances are I’m trying to get an idea down for later.

What’s your artistic process for writing a song and composing music?

There’s a guy, Paul Kelly, who is one of the greatest living songwriters—and a national treasure. Someone once asked him how he writes songs. He replied, “If I knew, I’d be off doing it.”

There’s the initial spark, which is kind of like archaeology—you catch a glimpse of something and you need to get it out. But if you go too hard, you’ll break the thing. So, maybe you get a brush and try to remove some dirt and see how much you have. And sometimes, you have two skeleton forms of songs that need to be separated, and that could take 30 minutes—or it could take years.

New Zealand musician Neil Finn said, “Songwriting is a mystery. And it’s a mystery to me that it’s a mystery. But that sounds stupid.” And he was right.

"The point is not to get rich; it’s to keep working."

Has there ever been a time that you thought about giving up as a musician?

Sure—and I did. I released an album about 10 years ago, which was supposed to be the be-all and end-all. It wasn’t. It went nowhere. It took me a long time to get over that. It certainly wasn’t “Thriller,” but I still believe it was more than worthy of a listen, considering the music that was popular at the time. What I know now that I didn’t know then is that the key is to keep working. I wish someone had said to me: “This is not good enough,” which is different from not having been worthwhile. I think it’s important for any artist to hear that. The point is not to get rich; it’s to keep working.

Any topics that you haven’t tackled in your music that you’d love to take on with your platform?

I think you can always tell when someone sat down to specifically write a song about “X.” It, to me, feels forced. There’s a song on my new EP called “Still Running,” which talks about the 2016 election. Right after the election, my girlfriend asked if we could move to Europe—and she’s from Missouri. I said no, because we needed to stay here and fight. I didn’t sit down to write a song about that, but writing is a kind of therapy. The words arrive, and it’s only with hindsight you realize what it is you were working through. At that point, you can go back and sharpen ideas and make points clearer, but if you sit down and say: “I want to write an ‘anti-this’ song,” it rarely works.

How do you define a successful musician?

I’m not sure. English musician Damon Albarn is pretty interesting: scaled the heights with British rock band, Blur; blended art, pop, and hip-hop with the band Gorillaz. He can kind of just follow threads that he thinks are interesting. David Byrne and Peter Gabriel are cut from that same cloth. St. Vincent seems to be in that mold, too, which I like. So, I guess I would say the ones who find a way to follow the threads that interest them. I mean, if you can pay rent and get a nice bottle of wine and save some money for a rainy day, you’ve had some measure of success. After that it’s a wash, as far as I can tell.

Have you collaborated with other musicians?

Not as much as I would like. I’m starting to, but I’ve always tended to be somewhat single-minded in what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it. It’s like any other relationship: you get used to being on your own; someone else comes along who you kinda like, but they also do things a certain way. It takes some getting used to. I’m trying to spend some time at songwriter camps to force myself into those situations.

Who would you love to collaborate with?

Hmm. That is almost impossible to answer. The heroes that I’ve met are often disappointing. I’d most like to collaborate with some up-and-coming artists that nobody knows. Get in the studio, write together, and help them find their voice. I think that would be more fun than trying to work with Rihanna. So, BETC’s Pop Records should hit me up.

How do you integrate your personal passion for music into your work in advertising?

I’ve invested in good noise-canceling headphones (smiles). But in all seriousness, our recent work with JBL is the first time that I’ve been able to do that. Otherwise it happens around work: 7:00 AM – 8:30 AM Then 8-ish PM until it’s time to go to sleep.

What advice do you have for those who are hesitant to share their talents, like singing or writing, with others?

Some things are just for you, so that is fine. It took me a long time to come back around to being willing to work and to talk about that work. Everybody needs to go on their own journey.

Tell us about this latest album, “Heathen Revival.”

This was about getting the monkey off my back and not thinking about it too much. I had a group of songs that I thought would sit well together, very much driven by a bluesy classic-Stones sort of sound. The title itself: I’m not sure where or when it popped into my head, but like a lot of people, I grew up getting dragged to church, where the idea of “revivals” means basically people flocking to religion. One day the title just popped into my head, and I thought it could be fun to play with the idea of a revival—but it being about what takes place on a Saturday night as opposed to a Sunday morning. It’s a group of songs that I’m really proud of, and they’re a lot of fun to play live.

What’s next?

I have a pop project to try and do something with all the songs I write that don’t fit the guitar-driven bluesy thing. I’m finishing the first two singles there and just found the right girl to sing them. After that there is a three-song Christmas EP, which stems from a song I wrote for my friends last Christmas that went viral within a certain circle. So, I’m going to put that out. And I was in Chicago recently for a screening of, Casualties, a short film I composed for. So, I hope to do more of that. I need to finish mixing that soundtrack and release an original song I wrote to go along with that. And then there’s the next David Gillespie EP, which is already written. With the exception of the EP, all of that music is going to be out this year. So, I have a very busy few months ahead of me.

And everyone should come see me and my band play live on August 16th at Rockwood Music Hall. It’s going to be great.

"New York was a place where I felt at home in even before I called it home, so I decided to make that happen."

The native Australian turned New York musician talks about his lifelong love affair with music, songwriting, live performing—oh, and advertising.

 

Where are you from, originally?

I’m originally from the Gold Coast, Australia. It’s basically Miami minus the Cuban population and art. I mean, it’s the Gold Coast with its sandy long beaches—but that description could apply to most of the island.

What brought you to NYC?

Um, NYC! I spent most of my childhood in Hong Kong, so I have always felt more at home in big international cities. New York was a place where I felt at home in even before I called it home, so I decided to make that happen.

What gets you excited—personally and professionally?

Seeing people do the things they were clearly supposed to do. So much of both work and life is a distraction. When you make space for people to get better at what they’re already good at rather than raising a lesser skill to a mediocre level, magic can happen.

When did you first discover a love for music?

I’ve never known life without it. In our house growing up, the TV was rarely on, in part because there was very little to watch in Hong Kong at the time. So, there was always music playing.

How would you describe your style as a music artist?

Somewhere between Nashville and New Orleans. I just looked at that route on Google Maps, and it basically runs straight through Muscle Shoals, Alabama, which sounds about right. You may not have heard of Muscle Shoals, but if you like classic R&B and soul, most of your favorite music is from there.

Who are your biggest musical influences?

Prince and Springsteen are my No. 1’s: a and b. Beyond them, I like all the stuff that lots of people like: Tom Petty, Fleetwood Mac, Sam Cooke, and there’s a line that runs from them to modern bands like HAIM and Gary Clark, Jr. At the end of the day, a good song is a good song. I don’t really care where it comes from.

How many songs have you written and how many have your released?

There are only 15 or so out in the world; there are probably about 70 more written, and roughly another hundred sitting on my phone as sketches of ideas, which basically involves me trying to sing a melody or capture a lyric idea as discreetly as possible when I’m doing something else. If you see me sitting in a corner mumbling something into my phone, chances are I’m trying to get an idea down for later.

What’s your artistic process for writing a song and composing music?

There’s a guy, Paul Kelly, who is one of the greatest living songwriters—and a national treasure. Someone once asked him how he writes songs. He replied, “If I knew, I’d be off doing it.”

There’s the initial spark, which is kind of like archaeology—you catch a glimpse of something and you need to get it out. But if you go too hard, you’ll break the thing. So, maybe you get a brush and try to remove some dirt and see how much you have. And sometimes, you have two skeleton forms of songs that need to be separated, and that could take 30 minutes—or it could take years.

New Zealand musician Neil Finn said, “Songwriting is a mystery. And it’s a mystery to me that it’s a mystery. But that sounds stupid.” And he was right.

"The point is not to get rich; it’s to keep working."

Has there ever been a time that you thought about giving up as a musician?

Sure—and I did. I released an album about 10 years ago, which was supposed to be the be-all and end-all. It wasn’t. It went nowhere. It took me a long time to get over that. It certainly wasn’t “Thriller,” but I still believe it was more than worthy of a listen, considering the music that was popular at the time. What I know now that I didn’t know then is that the key is to keep working. I wish someone had said to me: “This is not good enough,” which is different from not having been worthwhile. I think it’s important for any artist to hear that. The point is not to get rich; it’s to keep working.

Any topics that you haven’t tackled in your music that you’d love to take on with your platform?

I think you can always tell when someone sat down to specifically write a song about “X.” It, to me, feels forced. There’s a song on my new EP called “Still Running,” which talks about the 2016 election. Right after the election, my girlfriend asked if we could move to Europe—and she’s from Missouri. I said no, because we needed to stay here and fight. I didn’t sit down to write a song about that, but writing is a kind of therapy. The words arrive, and it’s only with hindsight you realize what it is you were working through. At that point, you can go back and sharpen ideas and make points clearer, but if you sit down and say: “I want to write an ‘anti-this’ song,” it rarely works.

How do you define a successful musician?

I’m not sure. English musician Damon Albarn is pretty interesting: scaled the heights with British rock band, Blur; blended art, pop, and hip-hop with the band Gorillaz. He can kind of just follow threads that he thinks are interesting. David Byrne and Peter Gabriel are cut from that same cloth. St. Vincent seems to be in that mold, too, which I like. So, I guess I would say the ones who find a way to follow the threads that interest them. I mean, if you can pay rent and get a nice bottle of wine and save some money for a rainy day, you’ve had some measure of success. After that it’s a wash, as far as I can tell.

Have you collaborated with other musicians?

Not as much as I would like. I’m starting to, but I’ve always tended to be somewhat single-minded in what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it. It’s like any other relationship: you get used to being on your own; someone else comes along who you kinda like, but they also do things a certain way. It takes some getting used to. I’m trying to spend some time at songwriter camps to force myself into those situations.

Who would you love to collaborate with?

Hmm. That is almost impossible to answer. The heroes that I’ve met are often disappointing. I’d most like to collaborate with some up-and-coming artists that nobody knows. Get in the studio, write together, and help them find their voice. I think that would be more fun than trying to work with Rihanna. So, BETC’s Pop Records should hit me up.

How do you integrate your personal passion for music into your work in advertising?

I’ve invested in good noise-canceling headphones (smiles). But in all seriousness, our recent work with JBL is the first time that I’ve been able to do that. Otherwise it happens around work: 7:00 AM – 8:30 AM Then 8-ish PM until it’s time to go to sleep.

What advice do you have for those who are hesitant to share their talents, like singing or writing, with others?

Some things are just for you, so that is fine. It took me a long time to come back around to being willing to work and to talk about that work. Everybody needs to go on their own journey.

Tell us about this latest album, “Heathen Revival.”

This was about getting the monkey off my back and not thinking about it too much. I had a group of songs that I thought would sit well together, very much driven by a bluesy classic-Stones sort of sound. The title itself: I’m not sure where or when it popped into my head, but like a lot of people, I grew up getting dragged to church, where the idea of “revivals” means basically people flocking to religion. One day the title just popped into my head, and I thought it could be fun to play with the idea of a revival—but it being about what takes place on a Saturday night as opposed to a Sunday morning. It’s a group of songs that I’m really proud of, and they’re a lot of fun to play live.

What’s next?

I have a pop project to try and do something with all the songs I write that don’t fit the guitar-driven bluesy thing. I’m finishing the first two singles there and just found the right girl to sing them. After that there is a three-song Christmas EP, which stems from a song I wrote for my friends last Christmas that went viral within a certain circle. So, I’m going to put that out. And I was in Chicago recently for a screening of, Casualties, a short film I composed for. So, I hope to do more of that. I need to finish mixing that soundtrack and release an original song I wrote to go along with that. And then there’s the next David Gillespie EP, which is already written. With the exception of the EP, all of that music is going to be out this year. So, I have a very busy few months ahead of me.

And everyone should come see me and my band play live on August 16th at Rockwood Music Hall. It’s going to be great.

Natasha Smith is the strategic communications manager for Havas Group. She happily represents 404 in the 212.

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