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INTERVIEW: Composer and Dreampop Artist Derek Schmidt

Hi Derek, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?

I’ve just been really busy! I’ve been working hard to finish up the Major Arcana recording project, had a great show presenting it at the Center for New Music in SF, and also preparing for my first semester of graduate study. Currently, I have a few more studio sessions to get as many small details right for Major Arcana, and busy getting ready for those.

Can you talk to us more about your song “The Moon”?

“The Moon” was the first song I wrote for the project. It kicked off the whole thing. I had really been into the tarot since I was 19 and had just moved to Berkeley for school. “The Moon” just caught my imagination, the trickster energy to it, the mysterious and the intuitive. I realized I wrote a song that was sort of a meditation on the symbolism, but also a song that was still about myself. I was excited to explore both the symbolism and the personal language I was creating from my own interaction with the card.

Did any event in particular inspire you to write this song?

No, I’ve written a lot of songs that were inspired by what I was reading at the time: Flannery O’Connor southern gothic work, a lot of poetry, etc. But tarot was something I was into for so many years and I didn’t really put it together that I could participate in the thinking.

Any plans to release a video for the track?

I’ve been working with an amazing video artist named Mason Buck to create a visual element when I perform Major Arcana live. They’re abstract and psychedelic and incorporate a lot of symbolism into them too. We’re working to release these videos with the songs at some point, because they’re quickly becoming integral to Major Arcana.

The single comes off your new album Major Arcana – what’s the story behind the title?

The entire album is large concept album/project, where each of the 22 songs corresponds to one of the tarot trump cards, also called major arcana cards, from the Fool to the World/Universe. It encompasses all of the symbolism and wisdom teaching from all of the cards that are all aspects of the human experience: values, challenges, virtues, etc. It just made sense to name the album what it was.

How was the recording and writing process?

Almost all of the music started with songwriting on the ukulele. I’ve liked the restriction of writing for the ukulele- it made the songs more simple in structure, with repetitive fingerpicking, it felt almost trance-like. Then I start writing electronic arrangements, creating synth sounds, writing parts,etc. I liked the mixture of acoustic and electronic elements and I’ve always wrote for either separately, and I liked the novelty of combining them. I’d make drafts of each song at my home studio, and have now almost completed recording them at professional studios. I’ve been working with Different Fur Studios in SF to really ramp up the production quality as much as I can to get these songs as perfect as possible.

What role does San Francisco play in your music?

So much! The Bay Area in general, from moving to Berkeley to go to school and loving the counterculture there, to being a part of Oakland’s amazing art and music scene. I lived for a few years at an art live/work space where we just wanted to just be a part of all the it, and it inspired us to keep making more art. Playing my music at warehouse spaces, and at house parties were the first ways I got my music out there. I helped start and hosted a regular queer songwriter showcase at Martuni’s in SF for six years, and got to perform regularly and played many works in progress of the Major Arcana songs, connecting with so much of my queer creative community.  And I have to mention of course that it’s a grant I received from the SF Arts Commission that’s allowed me to finish the Major Arcana project, the Individual Artist award. It feels good to be validated by the city I’ve lived in for over 10 years and wrote this entire album in.

Do you tend to take a different approach when you are scoring a film than working in your own original material?

I do. With scoring, my favorite challenge is to create the right mood that corresponds to the scene, but also just getting the visual artist what they want. It’s like writing exercises that ultimately make me a better composer and songwriter in general. With scoring, it’s not fraught with so much ego and personal involvement like with my own original material. That distance helps me move forward a little more bravely with that much less self doubt.

What made you want to go for a much, say, spiritual direction with this record?

Well, it’s been a long path: I was raised in a really restrictive evangelical household, and as a queer man it had a lot of layers of trauma. But it really forced me to start looking from an early age at really large questions about where we come from, what kind of a world I believed in. I took that exploration to college and majored in religious studies, and was always drawn to alternatives to Christianity and really engage with all of the different wisdom out there. In the past some of my songs took on these large topics, but it just didn’t occur to me for a very long time that I could really dig into it in such a long term focused way through my music.

How did you get to capture the esoteric themes with the music?

Over the years, the creative process has become a kind of meditation on each card as I’m building the songs, thinking about the symbolism, thinking about how I’ve drawn the cards and a specific aspect of the card has impacted me. And with all of the electronic arrangements, I realized I could use samples that were symbolically related to the card at hand: a lion’s roar, a NASA audio rendering of the pulse of a star. It’s a form of sympathetic magic, where you perform a ritual with components that represent the energies at play, or the outcome you want to have. It’s helped to ritualize the song making process for this particular project.

Where else did you find the inspiration for the songs and lyrics?

Aside from all of my books on tarot, I found inspiration in other writing on mysticism, magic, and ritual, that really helped shape the process. My songwriting process in terms of lyrics always focuses on aspects of my life with my loved ones, or just large philosophical thoughts I’ve trying to think out, not necessarily solve, but just capture in a song. I’ve really started paying attention to all audio samples out there, and start to use what doesn’t immediately seem musical and then make it fit into a song.

Any plans to hit the road?

None in the works, just yet! After my first semester of grad school, I’ll have time in the summer to play some shows in the bay area, and maybe in SoCal and the Pacific Northwest. I would really love to play unconventional music spaces, like galleries and other community spaces, so I’m going to look into those opportunities.

What else is happening next in Derek Schmidt’s world?

Finishing the final production touches on the songs, currently! And getting all my ducks in a row for the release. And then I start a grad program very soon for music composition, and I’m nervous and excited for that new chapter. I feel pretty lucky that I’ve been able to focus on music these last few months due to the SF grant I got, and I’ve just been working, working, working on Major Arcana, instrumental compositions on piano and synths. But really, school is going to be the biggest change so far, and I’m ready!

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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