(March 8th, 2020)
I've just shipped the stems for the seven tracks of my upcoming release, Atlantic Time EP, to Jason Boshoff, the mix and mastering engineer on this album.
This point in time is a good milestone for reflection for two reasons: first, because Jason's about to work his magic on my raw productions, and in a few weeks, I'm going to find out whether I provided the parts for alchemy or merely illusion; but second, because I haven't really talked to anyone about it.
In fact, I still feel a reluctance to say anything substantial at all—I've noticed myself become incredibly closed off to the world since my previous relationship ended last summer. Despite my inner life having become richer and richer, I've grown more socially distant and more inaccessible than ever.
One of the most consequential realizations I've had recently about my own limitations is that I can only feel things when I'm by myself and in my own space. And since the Boston chapter of my life started four years ago, I've accumulated a world of feelings that I never processed properly because I've not had a real chance to be by myself in any meaningful way since I got on this rollercoaster ride.
I was starved, and it had cost me dearly.
This last year, then, has been me making space for all that emotional content and telling my story with all of its ups and downs to the one person who really needed to hear it all—myself.
And to that end, I've succeeded. I've succeeded in finally feeling the claustrophobia, uncertainty, frustration, insignificance, hope, redemption, determination, revelation, discovery, elation, defiance, joy, inspiration, doubt, darkness, hesitation, combativeness, injury, scarring, equivocation, loss, anguish, noise, exhaustion, tears, apology, trauma, regret, nihilism, perspective, consistency, dedication, confidence, reflection, integration, reminiscence, generosity, kindness, revival, and, of course, love of the past four years.
Yes, I finally felt all that and tried my best to distill it down to 30 minutes of a sonic story told in a very personal way—a totem of a hard-fought personal struggle, lest I forget these feelings again, which is a very real concern for me and a constant challenge.
So what happens from this point on—the mix, the release, the reception and interpretation by others—is squarely in the bonus rounds, for this has been a significant journey of personal growth already complete.
I'm going to assume that you've already listened to the album so that there are no "spoilers"—if you haven't, I highly recommend you give it a shot. It's designed work perfectly for a 40-minute walk (30 mins of content + 10 mins of reflection), which is a big part of how I've had to write and consume music this past year, walking to and fro in 40-minute increments.
Since I'm highly unlikely to get anyone writing my genius.com page for me, I'm going to have to be my own "scholar." My aim in this section is to provide just enough direction and imagery for each track to help you focus in on the progression of the story; for everything else, there is no right answer as the main reason I release my work to the public is so that others can connect to it in whatever way makes sense for them.
For the first couple of years in this new city, I commuted through Davis to Kendall on the Red Line. I wanted to memorialize the rush of that iconic routine when I'd try my best to hurry up simply because it was what everyone else was doing. The feeling of getting swept up into the movement of the crowd and wanting to get ahead despite not knowing why really stood out to me.
What I'd often think about on those commutes as the train car got progressively more packed was why the hell I was even in Boston to begin with. Clearly I had not been fully satisfied with my life in Portland or else I wouldn't have agreed to do this crazy thing and move out here with the promise of, well, nothing at all.
From July to October, I spent months trying to make the best of rebuilding a personal life in a place I didn't really consider home in any way whatsoever. The morning mass-migrations on public transit and long workdays slowly killed any sense of adventure I had.
My sense of despair had grown steadily until one fateful day, I stood waiting for the elevator in our co-working building and a girl walked out into me thinking it was the ground floor. Aside from having a name that left an impression, over the course of the autumn and changing seasons, the purity in her spirit brought a sense of peace and reassurance in me. I took this all as a signal that I was meant to be in Boston after all.
Life would take us in different directions, but the last time I saw her, I gave her a poem that I had written because she had mentioned to me when we first met that she liked poetry—who even leads with things like that these days? Indeed, the only gift I've ever been proud to give someone is the gift of words, and those words, handwritten on heavy paper stock, stuck with me over the years and are the centerpiece to this track.
Going into 2017, my meditation practice had gotten pretty intense and serious. It got to the point where a 40-minute sit felt entirely present, though I never really pushed it past an hour. In line with this inner work, I was experiencing some major changes in my brain chemistry, and as a result, my outlook on life.
This track means to capture some of that unbridled joy that comes with revelation, and is an ode to the spiritual practice that allowed me a glimpse into that which lies beyond the Matrix. Coming face to face with Insight into Impermanence attained through dedicated practice was a life-changing experience.
In the weeks and months following that peak, I ended up backing off my meditation practice because beyond the pure joy of seeing clearly, I found that I now had more pronounced access to duality in my feeling, which left me not "wanting" things as much as I had previously and instead painted an equanimous wash over everything.
To top things off, I had finally met someone who said yes to my crazy adventures without looking back, and I couldn't have been more excited about it.
It was all up and up from here. ... Or was it?
We now fast forward a couple of years. The mood is noticeably more somber and conflicted. As you may have figured out by now, throughout this album, "The City" represents striving, challenge, opportunity, meritocracy, mechanism, control—just to name a few things. The "Choice" is of course a false one, but our beloved protagonist can't admit it yet. The result is a veil that contrasts with the saturated vibes of the previous track, underpinning the drama of a turning point.
The situation at the time feels impossible despite having conquered many challenges internally and externally, as well as having been witness to the level of determination and grit that I was capable of. Yet, competing interests were starting to come to a head and I felt forced to choose. From calm waters and sunshine in my head to unabated noise and my mind like a birdcage, it ended with defeat and trauma for all involved.
Except The City, which continued to loom inanimate and uncaring over sensitive souls.
This track was extremely difficult to put together and put out there, not just because of the emotional content behind it, but because I struggled with the production being able to adequately convey the emotion I was feeling.
Ultimately, I love this track and the sound in it and to this day the trumpet solo with the 808 bass line rumbling underneath is one of my favorite sections. That and when the live drums come in for the first time in the album, set against the raging piano and everything goes to hell against the truest lyrics I've ever written and performed is how I hope I did justice to making the torture of that choice come alive.
As the titular track of the album, Atlantic Time represents the resolution to the ideas and conflicts introduced earlier in the story.
The meaning of "Atlantic Time" is so multilayered that I can't do it justice in just a few paragraphs, but the original inspiration for it came from experiencing the early sunrises in Boston and subsequently learning about a minority viewpoint that Boston should really be put one timezone forward into the Atlantic Time Zone, along with e.g. Halifax, Nova Scotia (fun fact: I've lived in Halifax as a kid, so Atlantic Time has always been close to heart, it turns out).
The idea that nature was really pushing Boston to be an hour ahead really resonated with the ideas of striving, pushing forward, and getting ahead, and at some point, I just started saying to myself that I was "on Atlantic Time" as a metaphor for the life that I was leading in Boston.
Being able to see my story through this lens allowed me to explore what I gained while on Atlantic Time and certainly what I lost as well.
At the beginning of this song, after you hear a hand-off from the piano in the previous track, you'll notice an electric guitar plugging in for the first time. This is an intentional sonic reference to a track called Proof That Journeys Never End from The Every Mile Made Yours EP (2013). This time, however, I'm plugging in something slightly nicer:
You'll have noticed that as the album progressed, the mechanical nature of the sounds have progressively backed off, and I hoped to make that particularly apparent by this track, which is the most honest and transparent by far.
My initial meaning (though many more layers have since emerged) for doing so was to create a sense of how our memories will structure and perfect the narrative that we tell ourselves, and for that ego-conforming force to let up as we get closer to the present, which is the only reality we have.
As a result, everything about this track, from the live feel to the loose timing to the imperfect, introspective vocals just captures all that time I spent in reflection about what had happened. During this time, I literally ended up just wearing some variant of the same outfit everyday and felt super content in that routine, which became a nice metaphor for the song.
I had also just turned 31, which really made me think about what getting older means to me, and felt like I could lean into my ability to be consistent everyday and bring my best self to all situations. This track is a celebration of non-attachment and equanimity.
Finally, we've come to the end of the story. This track is the last one I recorded and produced. I was creatively exhausted by this point after seven months of nonstop work and effort on the album, so it took a lot to muster one last push in the depths of winter during what felt like a perpetual darkness over Boston in order to get this over the finish line.
I won't say too much about the story implications because I think the best endings should be left to interpretation, but in terms of songwriting and sonics, there were two things I wanted to accomplish:
The first was to do a spoken word bridge. As I'm figuring out what my "sound" is as an artist, I've realized that the spoken word over lush instrumentation is something I think I do well, so I want to lean into that more as a trademark of sorts. This all started back in The Every Mile Made Yours EP on Proof That Journeys Never End and I wanted to do a 2020 edition of that style.
Second, I spent a lot of time in the voice lab with my talented (and patient) teacher Hannah Meloy who in the span of a few months got me from total dread about my vocals to "if you give me 12 takes while no one is watching, one will probably turn out decent"—which is just the thing I needed for my current skill level and ambitions. So in this track, I wanted to show my range a little more as it develops and build some vocal arrangements where I didn't have to hide my voice behind anything.
So yeah, that's the story behind the album. Hope you enjoyed this guided tour and that you found enough interest in it to listen again for some of the deeper layers. There's a bunch of easter eggs and motifs and referential associations in all the tracks that you may enjoy searching for. My goal production-wise was to make the album listenable enough that you wouldn't mind going on that quest. I hope I was able to get close!
In retrospect, I'm a little sad that it took such an upheaval for me to take up music again. As I started coming to terms with the impending end of my relationship, I remember finally being able to hear a small, repressed voice on the inside saying, "I want to make music again."
I think hearing that voice scared me initially, for so out of touch was I with my need to process all the emotions from the last few years. I worried that if I pulled on that thread, I would start unraveling the fragile structure that was holding a certain identity at bay that I didn't want to deal with at the time, and the identity in question was that of the artist.
Even to this day, I feel like putting my music out there is exposing myself unduly and unnecessarily to public opinion and scrutiny. This feeling is made worse by my own insecurities as a startup founder and technology executive who hasn't "made it" yet.
There are thousands of reasons a startup can fail, and coupled with the fact that most startups do fail, I worry that if that fate were to befall us, having verifiably pursued and developed a talent on the side ("Hey, it says '2020' right there—wasn't that the year you missed on X, Y, Z? Were you too busy making your feelings sound good instead?") will be held against me.
Being capable of art implies a certain sensitivity that is at odds with the prototypical image of the businessman, who is supposed to be ruthless, not sensitive; rational, not emotional; extraverted, not introspective. Being dedicated enough to produce a piece of gratuitous work that spans months betrays the lionized myth of the startup founder who does nothing but eat, sleep, and breathe his company with no regard for self-care. Well, I tried that myth for three years because that's how long I thought the marathon would last. Turns out three years is more like a 10k—that is to say, 75% of the marathon still remains and I didn't get very far on my naive strategy.
Ultimately, I don't know if these worries are justified, but certainly the numbers are not in favor of having artistic pursuits in the business world. There is occasionally patronage (and therefore appreciation) of art at the extreme upper echelons, but no one seems to be generating any art on the side as individuals, which gives me pause.
And so, like everything else that I've intentionally brought into my life against the current of the mainstream, there are few, if any, reassurances on this road less traveled.
I ultimately decided to face my fear of failure and ridicule (practice riding the rough waves of a startup does make this part relatively easier, I must admit).
I decided that, with this album, I'm going to own my identity as an artist—because equivocating about why I'm here and feeling like I have to choose between two parts of myself is borne of a scarcity narrative that I'm ready to disavow. I see now very clearly that this album was only possible because of my unusual life circumstances in Boston, and, conversely, that if our venture succeeds, it will be because I successfully integrated disparate parts of myself into a more capable whole that let me meet the unnatural challenges of what's looking to be a decade-long venture. For who can truly compartmentalize themselves for an entire decade? It must leak out sooner or later, and usually in unhealthy ways.
And so, when I decided all this, I finally cracked open my Spotify Artist profile and hit the "edit" button for the first time. It was time to tell my story properly.
I wrote most of the words and music for this EP in the fall of 2019; however, I've gotten way better as a producer, songwriter, and vocalist throughout this process, and the ideas available to me now are very different (and better) than those which were available to me in constructing this album.
I hope to build on this momentum to keep working on music; however, this time, I won't batch the release into a one-time event like I did with this album. I can't afford to not live life for a year at a time again, staying at home for, like, 40 weekends in a row (hey, still only 80 days if you think about it!). Instead, what I plan to do is to produce and release tracks one at a time on SoundCloud, and when I have enough for an EP, do a Spotify/iTunes release at that time.
So the challenge going forward will be how to integrate an incredibly demanding job, continuing to tell my story through music, and not shying away from life.
(April 22nd, 2020)
The irony in the last paragraph does not escape me—in the same way I cannot really escape the confines of my physical isolation for the time being.
It is of course now over a month into the Coronavirus pandemic (American Edition) that will surely go down in the history books, and as I have no desire to turn this post into a reflection on current events, I will simply remark that I am still waiting for the initial mix of my album at this time.
I intended to write Part 2 (and still am, I suppose) once I got my tracks back so that I could record my candid reactions.
Part 3 will be written when I finally see the album showing up in Spotify, Apple Music, and the such.
And so although I am deeply, deeply curious about what it will sound like once Jason's had a chance to work through it, I have made it very clear to him that I am in no way intending to create any time pressure whatsoever given the circumstances. "Safety, quality, then speed" has been my mantra.
An interesting sideplot during the past couple of weeks has been the discovery of my name doppelgänger in all the major music streaming services.
I've been grooming my artist page and bio in Spotify in anticipation of the release and wondered at what point I would show up in the search results. For example, would I appear if I typed "Moha"? What about "Mohan Zh"?
Well imagine my surprise when a "Mohan Zhang" avatar popped up that I didn't recognize as my own. It was the album cover of a newly released album, called The Myth of Sisyphus. And wait a minute, I didn't release this album!
It actually took a few frame flickers in my mind before I landed on an interpretation of the world consistent with all observations that didn't involve any overt conspiracy, incompetence, or malice: oh, this must be another Mohan Zhang who just so happened to release an album a couple of weeks ago.
Talk about low probability event! But this is 2020, after all.
Well, of course I had to listen to The Myth of Sisyphus to find out what it was. I truly had no expectations, but what it turned out to be seems even more improbable: I would describe it as an artful Chinese mumbletrap album. It sounds like it's been bedroom produced and from what I could understand of the lyrics (not exactly a scholar in Mandarin over here), mostly deals with an introspective look into the emotions of a particular romantic plight. In short, I dig it. In fact, I really like it. It's pretty much lit, if I'm honest. I've listened to it several times through now.
So now there's two Mohan Zhangs publishing music out there. What are the chances? And as if I needed anymore headwinds in building an audience—I'm choosing to take it as a sign to up my production and output over the next couple of years. On the other hand, my brothers tell me it's time to change my name as that would be easier.
Well, at least it's good to be able to say the sentence "Mohan Zhang makes great music" and know for sure that it's a 100% true statement ;)
(July 11th, 2020)
I now finally find myself on the other end of a milestone that I imagined back in March when I first started writing this series. At that time, I originally decided that I would save Part 2 for after I heard a mix that I believed could cross the finish line.
In a pre-COVID-19 world's timeline, today would have been an early day in April perhaps when I received my first mix draft back, but instead, a whole three months have passed in between, with the world having changed significantly in many ways.
My own life has (fortunately) not been too changed, though I did move through NJ, Boston, and now find myself knee-deep in Portland's glorious summer.
But the star of this part of the writeup isn't me; instead, it's my mix engineer Jason, who after enduring a real lockdown in Barcelona (not a fake one like we had in the US), juggled through a giant backlog and didn't once cut me short in seeing the mix to perfection (or as perfect as it could be given the limitations in my performance and production skills for this project!)
And now, after hearing the whole album together for the first time after being transformed by a talented professional, I am profoundly transformed in turn. I think with Atlantic Time EP, I am no longer going to be sheepish about letting people know that I make music: I have stories that define me, that I stand by, that are unique and authentic to myself. And if you don't feel at least something when you listen, then you weren't paying attention—this much I am now sure about.
In many ways, I had reserved an entire "part" for this section because I assumed I'd have a lot to explain—why this again didn't reach the level of quality I had originally hoped for; or what you needed to know so that you could enjoy the album properly or as I had intended. Instead, this part has been brief because I am glad to report that the album can speak for itself, finally. You may hear the warts and think they give the tracks character, or you may not even know they are there at all.
To put it into context, let's say that on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 is my high school Battle of the Bands recording (btw, if I ever get over 100k plays someday, I will publish those recordings on SoundCloud) and 10 is a commercial release that gets national radio play, then The Every Mile Made Yours EP was probably a 3/10 (maybe 4/10 if you heard the potential in it). My 2015 release Western Hearts Pacific Skies EP clocks in to my current ear at a 6/10.
Atlantic Time EP, however, is a solid 8/10, which means I expect it to stand as an equal amongst other indie artists' debut EPs. Perhaps if you really like singer-songwriter storytelling, you may even think I am underselling it a bit and might give it a 9/10. But I do trust my ear and judgment much more now at this stage in my study of music production and I think I am being pretty objective as a result.
The best part is that I am actually fairly certain that I can do even better now, which brings me to...
I had originally envisioned taking a little bit of a break after a grueling year of nights and weekends of artistic struggle (imagined or real), but as it turns out, being in quarantine for a couple of months at my parents' house actually allowed me to make tremendous progress on my next project.
Additionally, seeing my productions go through a professional mix process for the first time, supplemented by pretty fastidious ear training and music theory study during this time (that did not necessarily benefit Atlantic Time EP per se due to the timing of when I made certain production decisions), I am, as a result of completing this project, reaching a level of fluency for the first time that I feel would be a shame not to capitalize on further.
In addition to having some time in Portland now with daily access to a home studio and plenty of inspiration from all that I've learned this past year, I've decided to commit to write and produce my next project in two parts over the next few months. I'm therefore expecting another release in 2020 and a follow-on effort in early 2021.
In brief, I feel I've finally reached conscious competence as an artist and producer and I'm eager to keep telling my story in ever-more accessible ways. Atlantic Time EP will certainly accomplish some of that, but the best part is that I am now convinced I am far from having peaked as an artist and producer. My goal is for the next release is therefore to clock in at a 9/10 on the aforementioned scale: good enough to gain a niche following on streaming services, but not necessarily good enough to be on the radio. For the 10/10 release that gets radio play, I'll see you in, say, 2025 :)
Until then, I look forward to having you explore the very personal story that is Atlantic Time EP. I hope you enjoy it.