AARON CLARKE / MOUNTAIN BOY
Singer/Songwriter + Producer – Mountain Boy
Born in Melbourne, Australia, my family moved to Hamilton, New Zealand when I was sixteen years old, which actually really solidified my passion for music. I don’t know if it was the scene in Melbourne at the time, or I was just growing up around the wrong people, but there wasn’t really a lot of music around me and the people I knew there.
No one in my entire extended family is musical, but I grew up going to a christian church where music was a really big deal. After seeing the church band play at age ten, I couldn’t believe that these sounds I had been listening to on CDs for years, were being played by real people on instruments. Obviously, drums look the coolest when you’re young because they’re the loudest, so I asked my parents if I could learn to play and they brought me a kit and signed me up for lessons. I switched the drums out for a guitar at age fifteen and really enjoyed playing, but never actually thought of music as a serious career option, it was just something that was a bit of fun.
We moved out to New Zealand when I was halfway through year twelve, meaning that I had a few months to earn 80 credits in order to pass – I failed. Because I didn’t want to repeat year twelve, I started looking into alternative tertiary education and discovered Vision College. They offered a Bachelor of Music, but had a requirement that you had to have passed NCEA Level 2 and be at least seventeen years old, so I never thought I would be accepted, but I auditioned and got through and it was over those three years that I became extremely passionate about music and honestly, none of that ever would have happened had I not moved to little old Hamilton.
After finishing my degree, I turned to what most music graduates do and started teaching guitar and drums. Ever since I started playing music I wanted to be a songwriter, but after spending eight hours a day teaching other kids, the last thing you want to do when you got home is sit down with a guitar and write a song. So it came to a point where I realised that I had to either keep teaching and give up songwriting, or quit teaching and focus on writing, which is what I did. Soon after that I made the second classic musician move and became a barista. I now understand why it’s such a good job for a creative though, it’s great to do something completely different that doesn’t use up and take away all of your creative energy, it’s a great compliment to songwriting and I really enjoyed it.
I floated around a few worship bands for a while, with a group called Wilderness Love acting as my only creative outlet for a period of time. I became very frustrated in that group, because it was with eight other very strong headed people, so I felt like a lot of the ideas I was contributing, were getting morphed and destroyed to a point where I ended up having no creative voice in the project. From there I decided that I really needed to do something to push myself to learn and thrive in songwriting. At the time, a friend of mine was working on a design project, creating a different piece every day, so I thought about what my limits were and what I could possibly accomplish if I truly pushed myself and came up with the idea for Project Sinai, to write and produce a song a week for a year.
Again, I quit my job and created a Patreon account, which is basically a weekly Kickstarter type of fundraising, where people become a patron to you and donate $1 a week and receive the song at the end of each week. Patreon was fantastic, because it created a sense of pride in myself and my work and became a big reason as to why I kept going with this project. I had about 120 people following the project and donating to me, so although it wasn’t massive, the fact that what I was doing was public and all of my closest friends could see it, meant that I didn’t want to go back on what I said I would do.
I’ve heard a lot of established songwriters say that the role of an artist is to look at the world and then tell everyone what you see, so Sinai to me really became about looking at my surroundings deeply, both inwardly and outwardly. I ran out of ideas at week four, so from there it basically felt like I was starting from scratch. I started journaling and would spend up to three hours a day just sitting at a cafe and writing about what was going on around me and what I was feeling. It was also a very emotionally hard year for me. I moved out of home and had my heart broken, both for the first time, so there were a lot of hard experiences that I drew on when writing. Another factor that I had to come to terms with was my friends knowing about everything that was going on in my life, in real time. Because I was writing and releasing each of these songs per week, my struggles were truly on display to everyone, which taught me a lot about how to be more open and honest, not just as a songwriter but also a person.
I often tell people that I believe inspiration is a lifestyle. I think you can set your life up in a certain way, by choosing to do and not do certain things, that can lead to inspiration hitting you more often and you being ready to capture it. Being able to write full time was a big step for me, because when I was teaching or working at a cafe and inspiration struck, I often couldn’t just stop and write it down immediately, so it took me sacrificing a consistent wage and practicing those habits and disciplines of watching less television and just sitting still and writing, that really inspired each song.
The goal behind project Sinai was that I wanted to become a better songwriter. We’ve all heard that it takes 10,000 hours of doing something to become a master, and I felt like the only way for me to get better at writing was to do it. It was not only a great opportunity for me to grow as a songwriter but also a musician and a person. I was once told that the first fifty songs you write will be trash, so I thought I may as well get them out of the way, and I believe that’s not far from the truth either, because the first song I wrote that I actually liked, was number 42. Writing so many songs in such a short period of time also gave me the opportunity to really discover my sound and I believe that anyone listening will see and hear the gradual improvement from week to week. Occasionally you would have a bad been or write a bad song, but it was just as important for me to learn that not all of your ideas have to, or will be, amazing, because that is part of the honesty and transparency of trying to be a great artist.
Since completing the project and experiencing for myself how hard songwriting really is, I have an even greater respect for artists and anyone who can write a song, because there’s so much uncertainty and not knowing if what you’ve done is going to have an impact, even though you do it anyway because it’s what you truly believe in.
My forthcoming EP includes what I feel are the three best songs from the project, numbers 36, 42 and 52, plus a new one I wrote, recorded and produced at Roundhead Studios. I feel like the four songs we’ve chosen really communicate and paint a good picture of what the Sinai project was all about and it’s also a great starting point for what is to follow on from them. I want this to be the start of the story and for these songs to guide people in the direction I’m trying to go, so I really hope that listeners love these songs, because if I’m being honest, I think they’re very special.
As much as I am becoming aware of wanting to be my own artist with my own sound and being careful not to copy anyone, a lot of it is just emulating what I love, musically. The best way to describe my style would be, ‘Indie, folk-rock with a cinematic leaning.’ I fell in love with folk melodies and folk guitar chords early on with influences such as Bon Iver, Mumford & Sons and Chris Martin from Coldplay, but I also have a huge love for cinematic music and film scores. I write all of my songs with the subconscious intention of them being able to fit behind a movie or television show, because that’s a big dream of mine.
Disclaiming my answer in advance, because I’m no seasoned expert, and I’m not one of those people who go to a lot of shows or listen to a wide range of music, meaning I’m not well versed with what’s going on in the industry, but from what I have observed, for what it’s worth, I think there’s a lot of music that sounds the same at the moment. Which isn’t a negative, I’m just talking about the style of music that I love and create. It’s not new, there’s people making it all over the world, but there’s just not a lot of people in New Zealand making similar sounds, which is a positive for me. But I do think there are some really great, talented and hardworking people making some fantastic music in New Zealand at the moment. We’re also quite a hip country. Sometimes I walk around Auckland and observe the culture and personality of some kids and wonder how many other places in the world you could go and see this edgy, cool and niche kind of culture on the streets, it’s really quite fascinating.