The modern music industry is not the organized, global powerhouse it once was. Digitized music, including streaming platforms and YouTube have changed the avenues from which labels, and more specifically artists, make their revenue. The modern musician has consequently had to adapt in order to make a viable and lucrative space for oneself by encompassing the use of recording and producing software in addition to diversifying one’s role. Composer, producer and guitarist Jonathan Lee is a prime example of what it takes to make it as a musician in this day and age, combining his technical experience in music with an eagerness to apply his talents to new media. From touring in Asia, Europe and the US to working on an ad campaign for Coca-Cola, Lee has successfully made a niche for himself and continues to widen his horizon as he plans to produce for television. We had the opportunity to ask Lee about his accomplishments, as well as gain some insight into the life of an ambitiously busy musician.
What is it about the genres of jazz and Arabian classical music that sparked your continued interest and passion in comparison to other genres?
Both genres share a heavy emphasis on improvisation, which is something that really peaked my interest. Improvisation allows one the freedom to take the song anywhere they please, and to play the role of a musical ring leader who guides the listener through this aural journey. I think having the responsibility to make the audience understand what you are doing musically at each turn closes that gap even more between the performer and the audience, and is something I find beautiful and very rewarding. Aside from that, the historical depth of both genres really helps give context to the music that you are playing or making. This is something that is very important to me and something that I still retain in my everyday music productions for film/TV as I think knowing where the music comes from elevates the end product. Lastly, it is the depth of the music theory in both these genres that really interested me. The complexity of it helps to expand your mind and your understanding of music as a whole. Learning both these genres forever changed the way I compose and perform. It flirts between the line of mathematics and art, and shows how they are always intertwined, which I find very beautiful.
Where did you perform with Grammy Award-winning artist Vijay Prakash and what role did you fill? How did audiences receive the show?
I performed with Vijay Prakash in Boston, Massachusetts for a sold out show of 1,200 people at the Berklee Performance Center. I was the oud and guitar player for the one-and-a-half hour-long set where we played a fusion of classical and contemporary Indian music that is combined with elements of jazz. We received a standing ovation from the audience, as it was a treat to those who grew up watching films with music composed and performed by Vijay Prakash. To see him in person with such a huge ensemble of musicians of different backgrounds, each with their own musical traditions really made an impact on the audience. People were singing along from start to finish, and it was an amazing feeling to know the joy you can bring and the nostalgia you can invoke through music.
Over the course of your career, which venues or shows stand out to you as being some of the most notable and interesting?
I would say performing in the Palau de Les Artes Reina Sofia in Valencia, Spain with the incredibly talented flamenco guitar player, David Minguillón, is one of the most memorable shows I’ve ever played. The energy of a flamenco show, the interactions between the musicians on stage in a flamenco show and the authenticity of the music was something absolutely new to me at that point, but one that I absolutely loved. And to be able to play in such a beautiful venue with amazing natural acoustics was a real blessing. It was also my first time performing in Europe and the challenge of combining classical Arabic music with flamenco was inspiring and that much more rewarding when performed live.
Are there any major differences between performing in the US versus Europe or Southeast Asia?
I think the comfortability of the audience with the musician or performers and the interactions you have during the show is always a very interesting aspect of live performance in different countries for me. For example, in Spain, when playing flamenco music, the audience is a part of the show in a way, and their feedback is a very important part of the show as it basically tells you where you should take the song from there. It influences your decisions in improvisation; You have to read the room and adjust the intensity of the music proportionately. Whilst in the US and in Southeast Asia it feels more like you are given the full responsibility of deciding the best course of action for the music that you are playing and you are the sole leader in this musical experience. You decide how the music will start out and you decide when and how you will end the song. Having this huge responsibility pushes you a lot as a performer, and it is very rewarding when you see the crowd reacting the way you hoped they would. Both are incredibly interesting and both definitely teach me a lot about my role as a performer and what I lack as a musician in different ways, which is always great to see and to use to improve.
Who would you say you have learned the most from in regard to taking your career to the next level after graduating from Berklee?
I think all the people I have met since I moving out to Los Angeles, and all the incredibly talented people that I have had the opportunity to work with here has all taught me a lot and has influenced my career in one way or another. I would say the most important thing I have learned is what it takes to make it in today’s age as a modern day musician. It is not unusual to work 16 hour days, juggling eight projects all at once, all whilst maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle. This realization really helped push me to work harder, but more importantly smarter, so that I get the most out of my time. Making active decisions to prioritize things that are worth more of my time and being able to acknowledge things that are not has really streamlined my process as a working musician in my live performances, production and compositions.
As a composer and producer, how do you successfully adapt in collaborating with a wide array of artists with varying personalities and musical/cultural backgrounds? Do you find that music makes it easier to get past any barriers of language or experience?
I think music is such a universal language, regardless of differences in musical/cultural traditions because it taps into the foundations of our emotions as human beings. There are minor nuances in how we perceive these feelings from culture to culture that make their way into the music we listen to, which is fascinating to me, but it is for this reason that I love collaborating with different people with different stories. I think people are surprised by how similar we are as people and though technically the music might be different, the use of it is the same, to evoke certain emotions that allow us to see life more philosophically.
How did your work end up being used by Coca-Cola on a Saudi ad campaign? Can you tell us a little bit about creation of the song the company used, “I Got That Feeling?”
When I first moved to LA, I was working for a period of time with Sony/ATV Writer/Composer and ex-Boys Like Girls member, Morgan Dorr, on this and several other projects. It was through Morgan that we received a brief for the project, and after our first version of the song was approved, we sent in a couple of different versions of the song with directions from the campaign managers, and not long after, “I Got That Feeling” was chosen to be used in the Saudi campaign of “Taste Has A Change!” A big part of the process was understanding what was required of us as composers, to understand the vision of the campaign manager all while maintaining musical integrity and our enthusiasm when we first started working on the campaign. The campaign was also very important to me as it was a huge step in right direction for women’s rights, not just in Saudi Arabia but also for the rest of the world as the campaign was released not long after King Salman’s decree which allowed women to drive for the first time in the Kingdom’s history.
Is there any advice you would give as far as getting consistent work as a musician?
I would say working very hard, being ahead of the curve both creatively and in time management, a willingness to learn and finally to assess without bias what one lacks musically are the most important things in getting consistent work in today’s world as a musician. I make sure that I am improving everyday in one way or another in any area that I am unfamiliar with so that I make the most of my time. Everyday I work to improve my capabilities in music production by finding new ideas and sounds to create and manipulate. I also work to improve my engineering skills in the mixing of the music and even finding ways to stay more organized to learn about the music business, including the legal aspects of music because in today’s world you need to know every aspect of your business if you want to be successful and keep all your own assets accountable. All that being said, I personally believe that it is very important to stay humble and open minded. This helps you not just as a musician but as a person, to be open to improvement and to put yourself in a place that allows you to grow in your field.
Do you have any current projects in the works you would like to tell us about?
Well I am currently working on a few projects focused on film trailer cues and alternative scores for film/TV that I am getting ready to pitch. I recently worked with female cinematographer and director Madeline Kate Kann on her project, “Specular” as part of the ARRI Inspiration Challenge, which turned out beautifully. She is an incredibly talented cinematographer who I admire very much because of her drive to increase female representation in the film industry and someone that I am very grateful to have had the chance to work with. Currently I am composing a piece of music for Wales based, female director/filmmaker, Sharifah Aleysha, on her project titled, “Sayang,” which is a short film dealing with topics such as same sex relationships in a Muslim community as well as the experience of an immigrant in a foreign country with conflicting moral values to one the individual is accustomed to. I plan to launch my artist project titled “Alowbelow” by the end of the year with three singles to follow, with much of the music inspired by the likes of Mura Masa, Kaytranada, Flume and Sango. Lastly, I will also be working with more artist and writers such as Tyzo Bloom, PomPom Music and Elsa Curan on projects where I act solely as the producer as opposed to an artist. It will be interesting to be in a position where I can take a step back and assess the situation without bias, which often happens when being an artist as you are that much more attached to a piece of music or work.