Real artists work: A Q&A with Joshua West
*Editor’s note: the Don Gibson Theatre is in Shelby, North Carolina, not Nashville, Tennessee. The article has been updated to reflect the correct information.
Joshua West was selected as one of the Top 12 finalists in The Don Gibson Singer-Songwriter Symposium 2018.
By: Terry Rader
Joshua West of High Point will be competing with 11 other finalists at the April 7 Don Gibson Singer-Songwriter Symposium 2018 event. Each finalist will play an original song and one pre-approved Don Gibson song on April 7 at the Don Gibson Theatre in Shelby, North Carolina. Judging is based on the performer’s original song, and the winner will receive the Don Gibson American Music Foundation Award, a $1,000 cash prize and an opportunity to open a future show at the Don Gibson Theatre.
When I heard this news, I had to call Joshua, my friend of 20 years to congratulate him. I’ve long admired his loyalty to his music. Joshua has been performing in various bands, venues and as a solo singer-songwriter since 1989. I’ve seen how he has continued to embrace his love of music while balancing his New Tree Creative advertising and design business and always putting his beautiful wife and two kids first. Joshua was very happy to share his story with me. This is the first of many stories I hope to capture from singer-songwriters, poets, writers, artists, and craftsmen doing original creative work.
As a former creative director, I turn to my first love of words and the original art of storytelling in the form of a one-on-one conversation. During this interview with Joshua, I found myself laughing out loud at things he revealed. I was amazed at how much I learned about my longtime friend that I never knew. Now his family, friends, and fans can hear it, too, 100 percent straight from his mouth.
Terry: Joshua, how did you find out about the Don Gibson Singer-Songwriter 2018 Symposium?
Joshua: My friend Andy Turnbull, who just moved to Shelby, North Carolina, was walking past the theater when he saw the poster for the contest and texted a photo of it to me. He added, ‘Hey man, I thought of you when I saw this, you should go for it.’
Terry: What took you so long to enter a song contest after all of these years?
Joshua: I’ve always shied away from competitions as a solo artist. I just didn’t want to put myself out there like that. When you write a song, it’s so personal; it is a part of you. It’s hard to take a chance and give someone the opportunity to tell you that you’re not good enough or worse, that it sucks. It would be insulting a part of me. I did win a battle-of-the-bands contest in high school, in 1989 and 1990. One of the prizes we won was studio time to record four songs. Covers were all we performed back then. The night before we were scheduled to record, I wrote a song and played it for my co-band brother, Jonathan Wilson, and he wanted to record it with three covers, so we did. Jonathan has been touring with Roger Waters of Pink Floyd and his band for the past year.
Terry: Wow, I never heard that story, congrats! Do you play your original songs with your cover songs at venues today?
Joshua: It depends on the venue. Some places are more receptive than others. People who have heard my music or have my albums will often request my music over the covers.
Terry: What do you attribute to having the confidence to finally submit a song?
Joshua: I joined a weekly songwriting group, the Monday Morning 3 a.m. Music Club in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, two years ago. It has really helped me go in a new direction. I’ve been recording albums and performing songs for years, but this circle has taken my songwriting to a whole new level. Songwriting is like using a muscle; the more you use it, the stronger it gets. I am writing a song or two every week. The collaboration with everyone doing the same thing and supporting each other gives you more confidence. Every round has a different story. Our mediator, Doug Davis gives us all support and deals out prompts to write to each week. Sometimes it’s a simple phrase, a style, a character picture or a revised draft to take a song from where it was a week before, to go deeper.
Terry: How would you describe the heart of your music?
Joshua: That’s a very pertinent question, and it goes along with how I decided to cull my songs onto my next album, I am presently recording. I feel like my songs are pieces of my heart that I put out there for people. At first, I thought about making a digital double album for the next project. I’ve been writing a song a week for the last couple of years
Terry: That’s amazing
Joshua: I looked at a hundred decent songs to start. I culled those down to 50 songs that felt good and solid. From there, I cut it to 25 songs. I began thinking about what songs would make a good album. I decided to go with a certain sound and chose the top 10 to 12 songs and have started arranging them to fit that sound so that it conveyed the feeling I wanted it to have. Then I developed the songs and went with two albums. One is an R&B pop record, and the other is a rock album. One song that I wrote recently has the same title as a quote by John Muir: ‘The mountains are calling, and I must go.’ My wife, Anneli, told me that listening to it felt like a religious experience to her. I want people to feel that strongly about the song.
Terry: Why do you write songs and music, Joshua?
Joshua: I have to. I don’t have a choice now. I have all these stories, and if I keep them inside, they’ll die. It becomes almost like breathing, if I didn’t do it, I’d wither up. My new album with a working title of ‘White Buffalo’ is a song-story that includes Prince and David Bowie. I was really moved with how they were originally rejected for expressing themselves so uniquely in their stage attire and music.
Terry: Who were your biggest music influencers back when you first started as a teenager and now?
Joshua: Prince. I was and will always be a fan. He was huge in my formative years. I loved watching him and was inspired by all of the instruments he could play and play so well. It drove me to learn to play as many as I could. I was especially moved by Paul McCartney’s bass playing and writing sensibilities. From Foo Fighters to Radiohead, I have been influenced by modern music, but the Beatles have remained a constant, even now. Eliott Smith is such a personal inspiration to me. I have written a couple of songs to honor him and his style.
Terry: Joshua, how did you learn to play guitar, did you take music lessons?
Joshua: I never took music lessons. Growing up as kids, we were never allowed to play the musical instruments in the house. I learned to play guitar by ear, and I would play and sing along to cassette tapes of songs. My guitar lessons went like this. I would play along with a cassette to the end, take it out, flip it, put it back and play it again to the end and take it out, flip it and play it again to the end and on and on.
Terry: That is a hilarious, but beautiful visual, way to go. How many musical instruments do you play?
Joshua: I was 16 when I bought my first instrument. It was a bass that my drummer friend, Steve Worley and I found in the Thrifty Nickel for $120 and it weighed a ton. I learned to play bass on Rush cassettes. I believed their songs were the hardest ones to play bass by and if I could get those down, I’d be a better bass player. My Mom had a book of chords from the ’60s with finger positions that I still own. I used that to learn to play bass notes before I played the guitar and I taught myself how to figure out G, then the C and so on. I also play piano, drums, harmonica and some mandolin. Anything can make a sound.
Terry: I didn’t even know you played bass.
Joshua: Yeah, I actually love playing the bass, it was my first love. I have more basses than I have guitars, but I do have plenty of guitars, hee hee. I have an upright bass, two Hofner basses (like Paul McCartney plays), a couple more four-string basses, and a 12-string bass. If I’m going to sit down and just play an instrument, it’s almost always going to be a bass.
Terry: Now tell me again, because I was laughing too hard to write it down when you told me earlier, how did you learn to write music for your first songs at age 16?
Joshua: When I wrote my first songs, I figured it out this way. These are the chords that I know, so these are the chords that will be in the song.
Terry: How do you write your songs now, do the lyrics or the music come first?
Joshua: Both. Sometimes the music is first, and sometimes the song comes first. I often write the music first and then add the lyrics and melody. With some songs, it’s the complete opposite, I just get a phrase, and that gets the gears rolling. In a recent round for the songwriting group, I took a word prompt, and I wondered if this was the hook or the first verse and then I would write down a line. After that, it would start to flow, and in the second verse, it would start to become clearer.
Terry: How do you feel when you’re singing your original songs to a live audience versus singing cover songs?
Joshua: I make covers my own in how I sing and play them. As far as emotions go, I have a much stronger connection to the songs that I write. What a song means to me changes over the years and can take on a different meaning. Growing as a person, as a father, a husband and in experiencing loss of family, the circle of life takes on different ways of how I feel about a song.
Terry: Do you have any regrets for not ever taking your music to a full-time profession?
Joshua: Yes, partly, I suppose I do. I wonder how much work I would have created by now if I’d discovered this songwriting in my early years. My high school friend, Jonathan who did it is now touring with his band in Europe. I don’t have much regret for not making some of the sacrifices, because I have an awesome family. My wife and kids are what makes me who I am today, and I wouldn’t trade that for the world.
Terry: Looking ahead, do you see yourself getting to a place where your only work is your singing and songwriting and music?
Joshua: Yes, I’d love to do that. I’ve explored many avenues of art, but music is what brings me joy. It’s what I’m best at. I’ll perform until I don’t feel like doing it anymore. I’ll be 45 years old this May, and I’m not over it yet.
Terry: What advice would you give to new, aspiring singer-songwriters?
Joshua: You just have to decide to do it. Just write and keep writing. Don’t be afraid to go back and make the song better. Join a songwriting circle, as they can be incredibly supportive. Sing your songs, belt them or sing them softly and do a rough recording, even on your phone and listen to it. If it doesn’t work, do it another way until you’re happy with it. Don’t be afraid to do a rough demo. Sometimes I play guitar, sing a song and record it on my phone. Then I take it into my studio and put on my production hat and figure out how to make it a full song. Just do it.