Middle age is supposed to be comforting, right? Not in the, "My youngest daughter is pregnant, my prostate aches, and I have more hair on my shoulders than on my head"-type of comfortable. More like, "I've found my station in life, things are going smooth, don't rock the boat, hope the first heart attack doesn't kill me."
So, what would you call a man who, nearing 40, decides to put his career on hold, and become a full-time, professional musician.
Such is the case of Rich Weiss, a guy who's put in 16-hour days as a retail store manager, and had Valerie Simpson (of Ashford and Simpson fame) back him up on vocals.
A unique blend of conventional and unorthodox in every sense, Rich has been performing in the Tri-State Area for almost 15 years. As a songwriter and cover artist Rich's music runs the gamut from rock to pop, folk to funk and beyond. He prides himself on reaching deep into the musical lexicon to find that rare hit you haven't heard in years but are glad you did.
His own songs are just as diverse since he believes that the subject matter of the song should dictate the style. From the original showcase clubs in New York City to the pubs and cafés at the Jersey Shore, Rich's experience level is as high as his professionalism.
What made you decide you were going make music your full-time career?
I was breaking up with my most recent girlfriend. I initiated the breakup because I thought we made a lousy couple, but she brought up things about me that I didn't know bothered her. She asked me if I would be in retail for the rest of my life and why don't I do something that I'm passionate about.
In the weeks that followed, those questions stuck in my head. I did a lot of soul searching and figured out that music is the only thing I've ever loved since I was a child. All the other things I've done were just distractions orchestrated by or to appease other people. A friend then asked me, "If you could do anything, what would you do?" I told that person that I would be a recording engineer primarily and charge people to record their music, or record my own works, which may be jingles, songs to sell to other artists, or my own projects. I'd also do occasional gigs to supplement income and have fun. If need be I'll teach beginner guitar. These are the things that musicians do, and that's what I want to do.
What makes you think you can pull it off? What's your back-up plan?
I know I can pull it off because I believe whole-heartedly that music is what I am meant to do and it's in my bones. As I said, I've gotten distracted over the years, but I've always known that I have an aptitude for it. Now I'm gaining the ambition and the focus necessary to go forward with it.
And, it's not like I'm quitting my f--king job tomorrow. This transition may take a while and I'm not going to rush it. My plan first is to take a course on Protools to learn how the industry standard program is used. From there I'll start practicing using my knowledge on my own projects to perfect my craft. Once I feel confident I can make someone else's music sound good I'll start advertising my services for hire. All the while I intend to step up my gigging to about 3-4 times per month. Eventually I'll have my own recorded music to sell at shows and even online.
Were you, like, one of those douchy child musical prodigies?
No, I was not formally trained in music, though I used to participate in school choir and plays. I had solos in some of those choir performances. In fact, here's a cute little story.
So I had a solo one year, I think I was in 2nd or 3rd grade. I went up to the microphone which was on a stand at the front of the stage. When I went to sing into it, nothing happened. The mic wasn't working. So I laid the mic on the stage and sang the solo anyway to a full auditorium of classes, teachers and parents. My father said that everyone could hear me, even at the back of the room. Never let it be said that I sing too softly.
Getting back to my musical learnings, I started playing guitar when I was 22, after I graduated college (majored in Political Science). I was living with my father in West Bumblefuck, NJ and bored to tears because all my friends were at least 45 minutes away. I asked for a guitar for the holidays that year. One friend from college was (and still is) a very good blues guitar player. He taught me chords and scales and eventually we started writing songs and forming bands together.
What's the funniest thing that has happened to you at a show?
I went to this jam that is run by a friend of mine who is a very capable lead guitarist. He has a house bassist and a drummer, but the drummer had just ordered some food, so he put up this other 21 year old drummer to play with me. I turned around to ask him if he knows "Domino" by Van Morrison. He said he doesn't know covers, to which I replied that it's a rock & roll song and he should just follow us. I started playing the two chord vamp that is the rhythm and the rest of the band jumped in. When the drummer started, he was playing the right beat but it was way, way too busy. Like Neal Peart was about to jizz all over his crashes. After 30 seconds of this I stopped everybody and turned around to the drummer to ask if he could simplify what he was doing. He said (paraphrasing), "Don't tell me how to play the drums" and proceeded to get up and walk out a back entrance to the bar to go outside. I was dumbfounded. We got another drummer to play my set, but I just couldn't get over how ridiculous this kid was.
Wanting to be the bigger person, I went over to him after my set and introduced myself. I said I wasn't trying to tell him how to play, just that it was impossible to sing over what he was doing. He said he has his own style and it's just a jam. I then told him that if he wants to do anything in music he's going to have to learn to listen to criticism (a skill he hasn't mastered yet). I'm sure I won't be the last person to tell him this.
And then I punched him in the balls, while yelling, 'You'll never upstage me again."
Did you really?
This isn't the first career you've bailed on, right?
I started out subbing and doing long term sub jobs in NJ. That summer NYC schools advertised that they had offered about 5000 of the older teachers and early buyout to make room for new teachers and free up a lot of salary $$$. So I decided that was my best bet. I remember going to the office in Brooklyn to see about getting one of those jobs and looking around the room at my competition. It looked as if some guys who had just gotten off the boat came from their previous appointments at the taxi companies, were told they had to wait a few days for license processing, and then came to apply for teaching jobs.
Eventually I ended up in the Bronx figuring that I could still live in NJ close to the GWB and commute to the Boogie Down. So I went to District 10's office in the Bronx and sat in their waiting room for about 2 1/2 days straight until they finally got tired of seeing me and sent me to PS 7. See Mr. Fein the principal, they said.
I went to meet Mr. Fein and he reminded me of a short, jolly, Jewish grandpa. He was a fixture in that community, having been the principal of PS 7 for over 25 years. Nervously, I told him that I had been sent over from the district office by the head of H.R. He said something like, "Leave me your resume and we'll call you". I decided at that moment that I wasn't leaving the building without a job offer. I told him that I had heard that the city was on a big arts push and that I sing and play guitar and was looking to incorporate that into my classroom. I spoke for another minute or two and he said, "OK, you've got the job". Sweet!
That first year I had a third grade, self contained class. I worked my ass off and cared very deeply for those kids. They were basically good kids, to varying degrees. But they loved me and I often played songs for them on Fridays if they did their work. I usually played one of my original songs, 200 Miles which is essentially a country song and thought that it was funny that these inner-city kids eventually went gaga for this tune.
MORE TO COME!