For centuries, music has been one of society's most powerful ways that people share stories and ideas that create bonds while transcending geographic, personal or economic boundaries. However, in a time when our increasingly connected world has muted those limitations, new possibilities have emerged in ways that can change the way we communicate and in many cases, stimulate social action.
Case in point: Professional classical composer and conductor Eric Whitacre, in his March 2011 TED talk, knew he wanted to be a musician since he was a child, but quickly realized there was no college degree program for that interest. Nevertheless, he hesitantly accepted an invitation from a friend to join his college's classical choir; he recalls his first performance as the first time in his life experience where he felt he was something bigger than himself. With the desire to replicate that experience for others -- armed with the genuine connections he made during his professional music career -- he launched the wildly successful and viral "Virtual Choir," a global musical effort that changed how individuals across the world can contribute to a larger, meaningful movement with people they may never have met in person.
Whitacre is not alone in his desire to leverage music to influence social change. Mayday Radio's song "Don Quixote" is titled after the famous Spanish character, who, after finding a suit of armor in his shed becomes a knight in an attempt to revive chivalry, no matter what others had to say.
Much like Don Quixote, musician Jeff Ting is living the life he wanted to live. A Cornell University graduate, Ting moved from Massachusetts to New York City to immerse himself in the city's cauldron of creativity. Influenced by bands like U2, Pearl Jam and Coldplay, Mayday Radio's songs explore issues ranging from capitalism and religion to human rights and global poverty.
And Mayday Radio hasn't gone unnoticed. In addition to receiving songwriting awards, Mayday Radio has performed across the country in notable venues like New York City's Rockwood Music Hall, Cake Shop, Bowery Poetry Club, The Bitter End and more. In Boston, they've graced the stages of Harper's Ferry, Great Scott, All Asia and others.
In a recent Q&A, Ting talks about his personal motivations that influence his songwriting process as well as his commitment to design music that pushes the collective social consciousness and strives to change worldviews in meaningful ways.
Laura Cococcia: What motivated you to create a career as a musician?
Jeff Ting: I began dabbling in songwriting my senior year of college and fell in love with the process. To me, it was like solving a puzzle with no borders and no set number of pieces. Organized chaos! It was fascinating to explore that balance between creativity and structure. I also found songwriting extremely cathartic (I assume most songwriters do). I discovered that writing songs made me feel better about myself. If it was something negative, then writing helped me move forward. If it was positive, then writing helped me highlight it. I have always been in awe of the power of music; the way it can alter one's mood with a single chord or lyric. I felt if I could create songs that connected with other people in a positive way, then I might find more meaning in my own life. To this day, my favorite part of being a musician is sitting down with my guitar and just writing a song.
LC: Art, in all of its forms, has the unique ability to unify people across cultures, geographies and communities. How do you see music playing a role in changing the way we look at the world?
JT: There is such great power in music because almost everyone listens to or plays it. I know from my own experiences, certain songs have affected me in profound ways. On my new album Don Quixote, there are two songs in particular that I feel make strong statements. "Insiders & Outsiders" is a song critiquing our political system and the exorbitant amounts of money that often influence policy in Washington.
The other song is called "Wine to Water." It is the name of a charitable organization that brings clean water infrastructure to third world countries in need. The charity started off having wine parties and using the profits to fund their efforts. I thought the juxtaposition of words was genius, because the original saying "Water to Wine" implies that wine is the more valuable commodity. However, since water is absolutely necessary to sustain life, it is really the more valuable of the two. As much as we might think so, we don't need wine to live.
We have so many problems in the modern world and people love to complain about them. It's really a shame that we can't do better as a society. We spend endless amounts of time watching TV and sports and movies, but can't be bothered to volunteer an hour a week to do something positive for our own communities. I am involved in Big Brothers/Big Sisters in NYC and am a volunteer math tutor in Harlem -- both are extremely rewarding experiences.
LC: What inspires you to write?
JT: I feel like my catalog of songs breaks down into two categories: personal experience and world views. "Personal experience" obviously speaks for itself and themes include love, self-doubt, frustration, inspiration, fear, etc. As for my "worldviews" songs, I obviously pull from personal experience but I read a lot of non-fiction so I gather a lot of ideas from books and magazines. My recent fascination has been on economics, both micro and macro. The more I read (and listen to podcasts) about it, the more I feel that economics explains almost everything about how the world works. It explains taxes and lobbying and politics and overseas jobs and immigration and war and... I could go on.
LC: What established artist made you want to perform (make music, write songs, etc.) and why?
JT: U2 is my favorite band and has been since I was very young. I find their music to be very uplifting and inspirational. I was particularly impressed by how political their songs were in the 80s [e.g. "Sunday Bloody Sunday"], they really seemed to write songs that had cultural significance. My favorite song ever is "Pride (In the Name of Love)." I remember watching the video on MTV and just loving the song. I thought the guitar hook was unbelievable and I loved the passion in Bono's voice as he screamed the chorus. Years later, my respect for the song was elevated to another level when I discovered that it was about Martin Luther King, Jr. Since then, my goal has been to write songs with interesting and dynamic musical elements while also saying something meaningful in the lyrics.
LC: For those who have never heard your music, explain your sound in 5-10 words.
JT: Indie Rock with a Rebel Cause.
LC: What's the biggest challenge you currently face in your professional career?
JT: The biggest challenge is finding ways to reach new fans in a way that's economically feasible. I've been lucky enough to do some touring in the Northeast, Midwest and on the West Coast, but without more exposure, it would be hard to tour in the South or the Central U.S. or overseas which I would love to do. Obviously, getting my music into TV shows, commercials or on mainstream radio would be ideal, but that is not a simple task. It can often be an expensive one as well. I would love to play more festivals or open for more established artists -- all I can do is keep working, gigging and promoting. Hopefully the right people will hear it, be moved by it and help me move my career forward.
LC: What advice do you have for anyone looking to start in today's music industry (whether musician, singer, songwriter, etc.) based on your experience?
JT: My advice is the same for the music industry or any other profession: Make as many genuine friends as possible. For me, life is about people and the connections you make with them. These people might be the ones who drive two hours to come see you play, they might let you crash on their couch, they might re-post your iTunes link on their profile -- every little bit of love feels pretty fantastic. Six of my friends lend their voices to the new record Don Quixote. I cannot tell you how many gigs I've gotten because I was referred by a friend. As a musician, you need to lean on so many people to make things happen, so it forces you to appreciate and truly cherish the bonds that you make throughout your life.