The plot twist…that moment in a story when an event or experience dramatically shifts the future direction of the storyline and all the characters involved. I’ve always found these moments fascinating in real life, and so I started this new, recurring series—called “The Twist”—where I talk to entrepreneurs and explore the plot twist that led them to start their businesses.
Aaron J. Robinson is a singer-songwriter from Indianapolis, currently working on the release of his sophomore album, “Love Struggle.” The road to entrepreneurship includes the lifting, the leaping, and the landing. Aaron’s in that heavy-lifting phase now—working two full-time jobs as both a musician and a developer for a software company.
We recently met to talk about his lifelong connection to music, his songwriting process, the production of his upcoming album, and his current Kickstarter campaign to back it all.
Joe: To start, could you give readers a sense of who you are. Where do you hail from? Do you come from a musical family?
Aaron: Let’s see. I was born in Flint, Michigan. Everybody in my family is musical. I have four siblings—three sisters and one brother—and I’m the youngest. Mom and dad were both musical. They had us playing music from an early age. We played violins and cellos and violas. Sang together.
Joe: The whole family did?
Aaron: Yeah, we would go around to churches. People would jokingly call us “The Family von Trapp.” One summer, my sisters, brother and I did a little tour, playing music throughout the midwest. It was fun!
Eventually, we moved to Indiana, so I would consider myself a Hoosier, because I’ve lived here since I was 10.
Joe: Music’s stuck with you, it seems, since you were a kid. When did it start to become something you wanted to pursue?
Aaron: I always had this weird thing in my head—because we played music for so many people from the time I was basically born—that I was going to be a rock star when I grew up. I was always pretty good at music and felt really good about it being in my future.
By the time high school came around, I was in every possible musical group that you could be in and every theater production. I liked being on stage, even though I’m an introvert—believe it or not.
There was one moment when I was a senior. It was on a church youth group trip. We did this conference in Washington, DC. They just had a bunch of speakers, and then randomly Amy Grant showed up. She wasn’t on the schedule, but everyone was really excited. I think she played a couple songs. I don’t even remember what she did. All I remember is what she said at the end: “God gave you a dream to follow, so do that.” That was when I decided, yeah, I’m going to go to school for music.
I always thought I would do something with music because I was always playing in church, but I didn’t really think that I would go to school, study it, and try to be a professional musician until that moment.
I ended up going to Butler University. I did terribly. I was a horrible, horrible college student. I was a really good high school student—got straight A’s, second in my class. But college was a lot more difficult.
Joe: What degree were you going after?
Aaron: I don’t even remember what I started out in, but I ended up doing music theory/composition. I went to school for a long time and didn’t finish. Then I got married, and my wife encouraged me to finish my degree because I was really close.
Yeah, a lot of people go to school for 11 years. No. I took a two or three year break, and then went back again, took one or two classes a semester for three more years, and that was all I needed to finish. I finally got my music theory degree.
Joe: Are there certain artists or even creators in general who’ve inspired you over the years?
Aaron: I think the primary one would be Andrew Peterson.
Joe: How so?
Aaron: Just the way he writes. He’s just a brilliant wordsmith. When I’ve listened to his music, I’ve felt the most loved by God, and that’s something that I’ve struggled to believe. For a long time, I’ve struggled to believe that God really loves me, because I’ve always been a perfectionist. I’ve always wanted to be really good at everything I do. When I know that I’m not perfect, I get really frustrated with myself. I used to always feel like I’m not good enough. And I thought that God must think that way about me because it’s true. I feel that way so it must be true, so God must see that and agree.
There have been so many times when I’m feeling particularly down and I’ve listened to Andrew Peterson’s music—he writes a lot about God’s love and grace—and just start crying. Every time. It doesn’t matter what mood I’m in. He’s been a huge influence. The thing is, I don’t even feel like I write like him at all. I wish I could and I wish I did sometimes.
Joe: Maybe that’s what makes him so inspiring is that it’s something you aspire to?
Aaron: Exactly. He’s a huge influence musically. Over the years, I was big into Jars of Clay. They were the reason I started learning to play guitar. Who else? The Brilliance is really, really good. They do more liturgical-type stuff, but it’s classical style mixed with acoustic rock. It’s pretty cool. I’ve been listening to Wild Belle, which is totally outside of my genre, but really awesome.
Joe: Diving into the songwriting process, I’m sure it varies each time, but are there some consistencies in how you write?
Aaron: What happens a lot of times is there will be a tune that pops into my head. Or, I’ll be messing around with my guitar and I’ll play something that sounds cool, so I start to explore that. Then later on, I’ll add lyrics, which is kind of hard to do because it’s hard to fit a lyric idea into something that is already musically mature.
Joe: So when you hear a sound bite you like, you develop that to near completion before you write the words?
Aaron: Maybe not completion, but it may be like a chorus idea. And then once I do get lyrics, I might tweak it a little bit so that the words fit better. That is how I tend to write. Although recently, stuff has been coming to my head at the same time—a melody and a lyric—which is amazing.
Joe: Do you relate that to anything?
Aaron: I think it’s just the pressure of getting ready to go into the studio and record. I need to finish this stuff. There’s something about having a deadline that gets me going.
Joe: Pressure is a good creative inspiration. The lyrics—do you tend to start from scratch, or are you collecting stuff all the time?
Aaron: Lyrics for me usually come out of scripture memory. Back in college, a Bible study leader taught us how to memorize by reciting a verse once a day for 7 weeks, once a week for 7 months, and then once a month for 7 years. And I’ve actually been doing that since 1998. Adding a verse, a couple verses every week for that many years. Most of my songs come from that.
Joe: Wow. Interesting.
Aaron: Kind of nerdy.
Joe: No. I would say it’s working on your craft. But also nerdy.
Aaron: Yeah, pretty much.
Joe: By the way you answered that, it sounds like there’s a certain direction you’re always headed with your music. Meaning, you’re not trying to cover general themes. It’s always pointed toward religious themes, if you will. Is that a fair assessment?
Aaron: Yeah. Because I grew up singing and playing music in the church, that’s just always been my leaning in my own music. It helps that, back when I was in college, I started leading worship on a pretty regular basis. And as soon as I was out of college, I joined the music ministry at my church.
Joe: With that said, what’s the purpose of your music?
Aaron: Because I’m a worship leader, I want to write worship music. My goal with my music is to have something for the church. Not all my songs end up being really great worship songs, some of them are just songs. But overall, I think I just want to encourage people, especially people who struggle to believe that God loves them.
What I’ve missed, and I’m sure this is more because of my own personality, I’ve missed that whole thing that God just loves you, and he loves you where you are right now. Yes, you have messed up, and I felt that a lot in college because I really messed up in college. But he just loves me. I haven’t had that in my life enough, so I want to make that part of my music. I want to make that part of the message that I share with people.
Joe: Switching gears to your forthcoming album, where are you at in the process of creating it?
Aaron: We’re almost done with pre-production, where we—and by we I mean producers and me—come together and work out the basic skeleton of the songs. Some of that can be obviously done beforehand, where I’ve already written the verse, chorus, bridge, and put them in a certain order, and I’ve written chord charts so that instrumentalists can follow along. We record that. It’s called scratch tracks, where I record the guitar and the vocal together. I’m just singing it and playing it. This is not going to be the final recording that anybody hears. It’s just something to get down.
Joe: These could be the basement tapes, though, later in life.
Aaron: They could be! We get that stuff recorded and if the producers hear anything that they think would go well with that, they’ll add something that’ll make it sound more like the direction that we’re going with style and groove or whatever. That is pre-production.
The next step is to go to Nashville, Tennessee where we’ve hired some studio musicians to play with us. They’ll listen to those scratch tracks and then record on top of them. They’ll add their own tracks. And it’s amazing because they do it sometimes in one take. They’re just ridiculously good.
Joe: So I’m curious about how the idea of this album came to be. Did you come up with the idea to create an album and start creating songs to fill it? Or had you been creating for awhile and built up a big enough collection that it warranted a new album? Sort of a chicken-or-the-egg kind of question.
Aaron: Basically, the idea to do a second album came about three years ago. I had started to write 2-3 songs, and by 2014 I knew I needed to make an album. I had 3-4 that I felt pretty good about.
Joe: Why did you feel like you needed to make an album?
Aaron: That’s a good question. I really loved making the first album, and I knew that I wanted to keep doing that. I was moving in a direction that I felt like I had some songs I could work with and a theme that’s developing. (The first album was just a bunch of songs that I had written over my entire life, basically. There wasn’t really a strong theme.)
But life just happened and things kept getting delayed. It just took forever to get something moving. But some of the stuff that caused the delay really fed into the songs.
Joe: How do you pare down all the songs you create? What makes it a worthy song for the album in your mind?
Aaron: One of the things we did differently with this album was have people over to our house. We shared some of the songs with them and asked them to sing with us. That really helped us see how people responded and what would do well in a live setting. We even ended up cutting one song because of that whole process.
Joe: Last question on this. I know you just launched a Kickstarter campaign this morning. What are you asking people to give toward? Where is that money going to go?
Aaron: Good question. It costs a lot of money to produce a CD, especially when you go to Nashville and hire musicians.
Ideally, we would raise $20,000 just to cover our costs. Fifteen thousand goes just to production, which is the producers, the musicians, and the studio time. Then we’re going to need at least $3-4k just to cover Kickstarter and credit card fees that go along with that whole process. And then at least a couple thousand, if not more, to actually print CDs and do any other kind of marketing.
Basically, as much as we can possibly get, it’s just going to…
Joe: …cover your costs?
Aaron: Yeah, we set the Kickstarter goal at $7500, because if you don’t hit the goal, you don’t get anything.
Joe: Oh, I didn’t know that. Is there a time frame?
Aaron: Yes. You can set it for however long you want to.
Joe: If you don’t reach it by then, then it shuts down.
Aaron: Right. Our deadline date is October 27, 2016 at 11:59 pm. It will be over after that.
Joe: So people don’t give unless you reach your goal.
Aaron: Yes, it’s just a pledge. You only get charged once the project is over and we’ve hit the goal. And once we hit that goal, we’re going to encourage people to keep giving. If we only get $7500, we can really only do a five-song EP. If we get $15k, we can do the 10 song album. But $20k will cover what we really want to do with this project.
Joe: Wow, that’s a tough process to just cover your costs. The music business ain’t for the faint of heart. Do you aspire for it to be your full-time gig at some point? Is that a dream of yours, or is that too tough of a reality to even consider?
Aaron: I would actually say it already is full-time – it’s a side hustle to my software job, which is a challenge, but I’ve found ways to make it work. I feel like putting all your eggs in one basket isn’t a great idea, so I’ve got both of these to pay the bills and to share my gifts with the world. Which one does which, you’ll never know! No, they both do both.
Joe: Last question…what are some of your goals artistically?
Aaron: In general, I want to encourage people who are struggling and going through rough stuff—whatever that may be. People who are sick. People who have sick family members. People who, just like me, struggle to believe that God loves them.
Musically, I want to maybe establish my sound more. I kind of did with the first album, but I also felt like those songs were all over the place style-wise. I’d like to try to find more of a groove there and establish that.
And personally, I’ve been adjusting my own mindset about why I do music. Most of my life it has been about wanting to be a rock star and wanting people to look at me. But more lately, one of my goals has been to really think of it as a service to people—how I’m providing something that people need—and really hone in on that. Just embrace it, so that I’m no longer ashamed to say, “hey everybody, I make music.”
I’m not selling myself. I’m offering people something good. I’m offering something helpful to them.