Reality questioned: Mayday Radio at Merge tonight - INTERVIEW
blog by Ben Tsujimoto • December 04, 2012 @ 9:08am
Because he didn’t question reality, Jeff Ting’s life was laid out nicely in front of him. Studying electrical engineering at Cornell University, Ting had a stable—even lucrative—future ahead, and no reason to alter the prescribed path.
But he followed his calling as a musician, and he’s happier because of it.
Ting, the primary artist of Mayday Radio, stops in Buffalo for a free gig at 8 this evening inside Merge Restaurant, 439 Delaware Ave., Buffalo.
With a flattering review Nov. 24 in the Huffington Post, Ting’s musical prospects have never been higher.
“I was pretty excited about [the article]—it looked good and I got a lot of compliments,” Ting said in a phone interview. “It was the first piece of press I’ve ever really had—a lot of the blogs I’ve got reviewed in, I’ve never heard of before.”
Weeding through a saturated—yet bustling—indie scene in New York City, the gifted guitarist-vocalist embarked on a solo tour that’s taken him to small venues in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, New York, Washington and Chicago to perform his most recent album Don Quixote, released Nov. 13.
His two most popular themes—although his albums are by no means fully thematic—point toward frustration with the human condition and a growing strand of self-realization.
“Absolutely [my music] comes out of frustration with humanity,” Ting said, before acknowledging that he understands the alluring traits to a degree. “I’m greedy and I like money, and I like power, but I feel like the government should be there to do what the ‘perfect person’ would do rather than be ‘bought’ that way.” Hinting at the power of money in swaying both large corporations and government, Ting craves political purity—but in the meantime, he’s fighting his own battles.
Noting how Boston’s music scene was more developed outside the main metro area—Cambridge, he mentioned in particular—Ting relocated to New York City, a rather frightening leap of faith for a former electrical engineer-turned-musician.
“In New York it is hard to stand out—I don’t even know how many musicians are in New York, and there are constantly other musicians moving there,” Ting admitted, before discussing how hard he’s worked to separate himself. “I’ve been doing music over 10 years, and a lot of times I think about what’s popular and what’s cool and try to write that way, but on this last album, I just wanted to write, and if people didn’t like it, then so be it. At least I’d be happy and proud of it since I’ve been doing this for a while, and the business side starts to wear on you.”
A gifted songwriter, Ting has excelled at conveying his themes through lyrics, becoming a finalist in the Songdoor Songwriting Competition (2009) and earning honorable mention for the NY Songwriters Circle (2010). Songwriting is an area where he’s most meticulous, largely because it’s an area where he can set himself apart from the repetitive contemporary themes of love stories, clubbing and hard drugs.
Not surprising, then, is that his ideas spring from unorthodox places. A pseudo-noble Spaniard with supposedly “delusional” visions of chivalry? Inspiring.
“I was reading something—I can’t remember what—but they used the word quixotic, and I thought, ‘That’s kind of a cool word,’ and I remember reading Don Quixote as a kid, and I had to check Wikipedia to refresh my memory, and here’s this old, crazy guy who finds this suit of armor and he shatters something, and then he’s going to be a knight to try to revive chivalry,” Ting explains in regard to his album’s title.
“[Quixote] tries to go around getting into adventures and telling people he’s a knight, and everyone tells him that he’s insane, and he isn’t—fighting windmills and giants and stuff like that. What struck me about it was that he went out and did his own thing, and people told him he was crazy, stupid and a fool, but he kept going and he did what he wanted to do and believed in it. Ultimately, it’s kind of a sad story because he dies alone.”
In a way, Ting is Don Quixote, and the lyrics in the title track support this theory.
“I guess so,” Ting said when asked if he’s actually similar to Don Quixote in character. “The line is ‘call me irrational/right down to my core/I’m Don Quixote/ and this guitar is my sword.”
What kind of a message does Ting want to send with his music? Well, many of the lessons he’s learned along the rocky—if ascending—path.
“I’d say it’s not to take everything at face value,” Ting reflects, “to try to challenge stuff. In my own life, for so long, I just accepted what my parents said or what my teachers said, and I just took it all at face value—not that it was wrong, but now I’m starting to question things, and I’m wondering why it’s like that. Why is there so much advertising? What’s the motivation? Who wrote that article?”
Defying a life of comfort for a life of uncertainty, obscurity and frankly rather low odds of success, Ting carries with him inspiration—especially in the form of tattoos.
“One of the tattoos is the album cover and it’s on my bicep, not the colors, but the outline. On my left bicep, I have a bunch of Chinese characters—on my shoulder that says perseverance, I have a Chinese phoenix on the other shoulder, and the Chinese star for emotion on my wrist, a Greek word on my other wrist that means enthusiasm, and one more on my arm that’s a symbol for versatility.”
The trek is long and arduous for Ting, who spends seemingly days at a time on the road, alone, steering from one small gig to the next, looking for his next break. The Huffington Post article was a terrific start, perhaps a launching pad for greater things.
“I don’t have a manager. I’m just touring solo—I can’t afford to bring anybody—I wish I could, but the guys I perform with on the album are professional musicians. They do this for a living, and they need to make money,” Ting said, recognizing the reality. “It’s all right, it’s not ideal, but music loses a bit of its dynamic element without a bass and drums, but I figure I have two choices—I can play by myself or not play at all, and I don’t like the second choice.”
Witness Ting’s first choice tonight at Merge.