Posted On 25 Mar 2019
Schmidt creates his most most ambitious work yet on the electronic dream-pop project Major Arcana, released earlier this month on March 1st. Comprised of 22 original tracks, the album draws inspiration from the symbolism of all 22 trump cards in the tarot deck. Schmidt explores each card’s specific meaning through unique and enchanting electronic compositions, while also weaving together lyrics that are both personal and revelatory.
Schmidt presents a reverent offering to the concept album tradition, joyfully borrowing from a multitude of genres, and creating a singular immersive art piece meant for the active listener. Major Arcana is a five year project that saw completion through the San Francisco Arts Commission’s Individual Artist Grant, one of SF’s most prestigious awards for individual artists.
Derek Schmidt is a queer composer and songwriter that has been working and performing in the Bay Area in solo performance and as leader and writer of three different bands over 15 years: folk band All My Pretty Ones, queer electronic band Adonisaurus, and Oakland electronic band Partyline. He has produced over 8 albums of work over many genres and has been a featured composer on independent film and performance art projects, including the feature length film Home And How To Break It.
Learn more about Derek Schmidt in the following All Access interview:
Thanks for your time today! Where does this interview find you?
Thanks for your interest. This interview finds me pretty busy and just humming along with lots of music, between getting Major Arcana out there and grad school.
Now that 2019 has started, what musical goals do you have for yourself and your music this new year? Did you make any new year’s resolutions?
I guess musical goals would be to play lots of shows in the summer for Major Arcana, probably regionally in the Bay Area first but then with an eye towards the northwest and the southwest. Creatively, I just want to grow as fast as I can as a composer and find my voice, and most likely I’ll start another long term concept project like Major Arcana, just because I love being in that space. I didn’t really make new year’s resolutions, probably because I knew this year would be tending to everything I’ve already set in motion.
Growing up, how important has music been in your life? Can you recall the moment when you decided that you wanted to be a musician? Was it an easy or difficult choice to make?
Music has always been important to me. I feel like I came to music organically because my family isn’t very musical, but the women in my family always took piano lessons. My older sister taught me everything she learned. I would also just make up little songs all of the time on piano and didn’t really know what I was doing till my brother asked me to play something specific I’d made. I think that I didn’t really have any models for what being a musician was, so I didn’t identify with that till much later, pretty much during college. I realized that I couldn’t think of anything else I absolutely had to keep doing, the necessity of it for my mental health and my soul. It was easy in a sense that I was in the east bay already making music, coming up in a scene of artists and musicians all around me and I more realized I wanted to continue to be in that creative space no matter what.
Was there ever a time when you thought about doing something else? If you weren’t a musician today, what could you see yourself doing?
Yes, since I didn’t really know what being a musician looked like and because I was always really into school and did well, I always thought I’d go a more academic route. I love researching, studying, thinking, and maybe at some point teaching. I just like to be inspired and I think a lot of my inspiration not only comes from other music but also from philosophy, poetry, religious studies, politics. I think I’m learning in school that I’m on the intellectual side of composers, and I love a good concept!
What has been the biggest surprise so far about making music your career? What has been an unexpected or welcome challenge to it all?
Have I had a big surprise? I’m not sure. I had some initial naivete about it all, an idealism about being the dedicated starving artist. But I think maybe the biggest surprise is the requirement that most of us have to work insanely hard at what we love, even when it’s not completely paying the bills, that there are also many many requirements that aren’t about the creative part at all. The hustle is a totally different skill, but one we’re required to have. It’s the acceptance of things as they are, not as we wish them to be I guess. At any rate, the most welcome challenge would absolutely be watching my creative vision expand and get more and more ambitious in its form and subject matter. The satisfaction of artistic growth when you’re making it the priority will always be one of the best feelings.
How do you think you and your music have been influenced by your hometown and where you live now?
My hometown is a pretty conservative SoCal suburb, and as a queer kid really into reading and playing music, I always felt a little alienated. But the great part about the suburbs is that you find the other creative weirdos, and I made a lot of amazing friends at that time that always wanted something bigger for themselves too. The Bay Area, and especially my initial time in Berkeley and Oakland, was very formative to me – going and playing warehouse shows, being around all of these creative awesome people that wanted something different for themselves, that was the first time I saw that life and I wanted to be all in. Right now, San Francisco is going through so much change, and so much of the counterculture has left as it just got economically impossible to still be here. There’s still pockets here and I love my chosen family here, still putting on great shows, creating great art and music. And I think SF’s amazing cultural history still inspires me when I see influences of psychedelia, interest in the occult and paganism, and even political activism in my songs.
How have your different bands All My Pretty Ones, Adonisaurus, and Partyline have helped you to grow into the musician and performer that you are today?
In my mind, it’s been a clear progression of gathering skills. I started songwriting for myself just like my compositions, but when I took a lot of those songs and put them in electronic/synth contexts like in Partyline and Adonisaurus, l learned a lot about my own style, how to play and sing in front of people, how to explore different timbres and rhythms through analogue drum machines and synths and now all of the software out there. With All My Pretty Ones, I learned how to arrange my music for ensemble, almost like a chamber group. It was then I really fell in love with harmonies and singing with other people. It was the most social of my projects and at some point, I’d like to be there again. With Major Arcana, it takes the folk/acoustic arrangements of All My Pretty Ones, but puts them in an electronic music setting, it’s a combination of my experiences put together, and it felt right when I realized it.
Let’s talk about your forthcoming album, “Major Arcana.” What was the inspiration for this collection? What was it like putting this collection together?
I’ve always been drawn to spiritual and metaphysical things, reading a lot of philosophy, being an undergraduate religious studies major, etc. I got into tarot with a good friend and roommate in Berkeley and I just fell in love with the symbolism, the big ideas in the tarot. For years I just used the tarot for myself and readings for friends, but it finally occurred to me when I was writing the Moon that I loved the whole process and wanted to keep being in that creative space. It felt good to not just write another personal songwriter-y song, but to think about these profound subjects felt good and felt right. Since I was mainly doing other musical projects and studying composition, Major Arcana was the hidden pet project that I worked on at my convenience. It was for me and I didn’t have expectations with it for a long time. It was almost meditative to spend months on one card, thinking about all of the symbolism, the wisdom, how it related to me. It was my labor of love that I slowly realized other people might be into.
I would love to know more about completing this project through the San Francisco Art’s Commission’s Individual Artist Grant?
The SF Art Commission is one of the main arts organizations in the Bay Area that offers financial and professional support for artists, musicians, and cultural events. Since Major Arcana felt like a strange hybrid of pop music and conceptual art, I thought maybe finding funding for its completion could be through presenting it in a more “fine arts” kind of way. I didn’t receive the grant the first time I applied, but the best advice I got was to keep applying, and I got it the second time. Besides the money to professionally record and complete Major Arcana, it felt so validating to have a panel of respected bay area artists and composers judge your work and find it good enough to fund out of a lot of applications. That alone gave me so much affirmation that I’m on the right path. The money was used to professionally record and work with a studio to shore up my production and give it some polish. Some of the funding was also used for publicity purposes like website and PR, as well as also an artist fee for myself, which is incredible to get paid for all your work. I encourage any musician or composer to think and dream big and look for this kind of funding in your area!
How did your single “XVIII The Moon” come together?
It was the first one, the one where I was transfixed in trying to capture the essence of the card. I liked what I was creating, electronic-wise, but I loved writing the song over the skeleton of a simple ukulele progression. It just felt organic and inspiring the whole time, and I realized I could write songs about these really large abstract concepts and that I loved to do it. With the Moon, it’s about mystery, a little bit of trickery, illusion, but also intuition and the subconscious. The song felt like an honest interaction between my own experience and the card’s aspects, and I loved attempting to get this epic feeling in the music. I was definitely hooked, and there’s something so Moon-like about starting there, not realizing what I was doing on a conscious level till later.
While it’s difficult, can you pick out a few of your other favorite songs on this collection and talk about their inspiration and how they came to be on this album?
The first one I can think of off the top of my head is the Star. I just love how this one came together. I used NASA audio renderings of the “sound” a star makes, the message of the Star card is all about independence, this unbridled optimism, and confidence in your own abilities. It’s really a celebratory song. I love the simplicity of the Empress and I thought it fit the quiet strength of the card, and about its uncompromising open heart of an effective leader. As a queer man, I’ve thought a lot about what it means to be “masculine” or “feminine” and tarot has reflected this binary in ways that can feel conventional, but how I can hold both in me at the same time. The Empress feels like an expression of my “feminine” inside of emotional strength and honesty.
What has it been like keeping up with your social media accounts and all of the different platforms? Is it hard to stay up to date on it all? What would you say is your favorite way to connect with your fans now?
It’s difficult to keep up on it all, for sure. I’d much prefer to just be making music, and as I said earlier it’s hard to reconcile the amount of non-creative work we’re required to do and still make the actual art. But I also love social media and have found so many inspiring people that way, so I’d love to feel connected to everyone that Major Arcana resonates with. I think Instagram has currently felt the most connection with people, and a great way to keep up on everyone’s lives and work.
Who are some of your favorite artists or rather, what musicians have continued to inspire you and your music? Who would you absolutely still love to work within the future?
I love Joni Mitchell, Dolly Parton, Bjork, Animal Collective, Nina Simone, Kate Bush, Leonard Cohen, Black Marble, Dirty Projectors, Planningtorock, Fever Ray, Pentangle, and probably a million more I return to. Right now, I’m listening to so much historical music for school, I feel like I’m in a space where I don’t listen to too much newer pop music, and feeding a different side of my creativity. I’d love to work with Bjork and step inside that magical vision, absolutely. Any of the Animal Collective musicians would be amazing to work with and just learn from.
Where can fans see you perform next? Do you have any kind of a 2019 tour scheduled yet?
Unfortunately, no tour plans just yet. There might be some shows in the pacific northwest and the southwest in the summer. I’ll be performing a good amount in the bay area this summer, but I’m always open to travel if space or event is a great fit.
If you had an unlimited budget and your schedule was free, what would your dream music video look like?
Oh man, I think it would be to continue working with amazing video artists. It would definitely be really psychedelic and probably would need a lot of special effects to capture this epic feeling I’m going for. I’d want it to be just a dreamy short film that incorporates the tarot imagery as much as the songs do.
If you were going to be stranded on a deserted island, what musical item would you take with you and why?
Ooof. It’d have to be my piano. I love playing and writing on guitar and ukulele, but piano has always been the most therapeutic for me, and if I’m gonna be stranded, I’d pass the time playing and writing on a piano.
If your music was going to be featured on any TV show that is currently on right now, which would you love it to be on? Or if you prefer, what is a movie that you love that you wish your music was featured in?
Oooh, probably something really witchy, like Sabrina or even the new Charmed series. And if it was a movie, then some really abstract art film, like Holy Mountain, by Jodorowsky.
From Major Arcana, I want people to take away the specific feel and energy of the tarot card in question, but that I captured a little bit of the magic of those cards, too. I also think it’s really important that people know the sincerity of this piece, that it really is my voice and it was a pleasure to just follow my own muse the whole time, and that I was able to express my unique self through this study of the cards. I put as much magic in there as I could, and it would be great if people felt that a little, a little sacredness, a profundity that’s missing in a lot of our popular music.
Would you like to share anything else with our readers about your music?
Not really that I can think of, other than they shouldn’t get used to any one sound or genre to pin me down with, I love exploring all types of music too much to stay in one place for too long, but the journey for me is worth it, and I hope it is for others, too.