Jay Vidyarthi’s faith in the power of music as a communication tool extends beyond its ability to resonate with others. He sees music as having the ability to teach us about ourselves.
When I first met Jay as naïve freshman-year roommates in college, I had no idea our occasional dorm-room jam sessions were just the beginning of his sonic exploration. Jay taught himself guitar. He went on to start Montréal band Subject-Object. And he worked on one of the coolest master’s degree projects I’ve ever seen. His invention, the Sonic Cradle is a sensory deprivation chamber that teaches meditation by linking sound to breath, allowing participants to create lush soundscapes simply by mindfully connecting with their breathing.
These days Jay continues to work on mindfulness and meditation, developing the Muse headband, and is getting ready to record music for a solo project that you can read more about below. I caught up with him recently to chat about his greatest influences and the importance of authenticity in music.
First off, what inspired you to first begin playing music, and what was your educational journey like?
I was late. When I was around 20, a buddy left his guitar at my place for a while, and I used to crank up the distortion, just loving that dirty sound. So I started to teach myself songs. Relatively quickly, I got bored of learning covers and started making up my own little riffs and progressions and recording and layering them with friends.
I was a terrible singer but I had fun pretending. It never got boring, so I played all day. I was always hungry for people to jam with and never interested in learning any theory. Good friends and I eventually started a band. We learned a lot by experimenting together. We were hungry, we played tons of shows, and tried to do everything ourselves. It was an incredible trial by fire learning experience for music, and life.
I even used to send recordings to people pretending it was a made-up band so they’d skip the politeness and give me honest criticism.
Tell us about some of the best musical moments in your life.
First, there was a big show we were planning and that night there was this huge snowstorm and deep freeze. Anxieties were running high, but then slowly but surely the place got packed and we played a super high-energy set to one of the largest crowds I’ve ever played for. Emotional night, unforgettable.
Also, every time Subject-Object played the song “Galaxy” live. It would explode, and I’d always throw my voice out, but it was worth it.
Things are different as a solo musician now. You can’t rely on the party or hide behind the noise. You’re naked and exposed. But at the same time, you have a much more direct canvas to connect with people. Last night was probably my best solo performance so far — if this keeps up, “last night” is going to be a pretty common response to the “best musical moment” question. That’s a good thing.
What upcoming projects can we expect in the future?
I’m going to keep exploring this solo thing for a while, and probably record a lot of demos and post them online. Once I feel really comfortable on stage, and fully craft the songs I’m working on, I’m hoping to book a really serious studio session, call in some guest musicians, and put together a short album which captures what I am really trying to get across in my music.
Who are your biggest musical crushes?
Oh man, Jack White gets first mention on this. When I heard “White Blood Cells”, wow. It was the combination of that deep distorted guitar, the complete and total simplicity, the focus on songwriting, and the bluesy roots, I was just captured.
Howlin Wolf is perfect. He was what he was. Got up there, said what he meant, and left. Never said too much. Jim Morrison too, for much the same reason. His flair for lyrical poetry pregnant with meaning is a huge inspiration to me.
When I found out that the hip-hop steps I really liked were sampling a lot of early jazz, funk and disco, that really kickstarted my exploration of other genres of music.
I also absolutely love Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest too. Mainstream hip-hop captured me as a kid. I loved the rhythms and funky beats. When I found out that the hip-hop steps I really liked were sampling a lot of early jazz, funk and disco, that really kickstarted my exploration of other genres of music. But the timbre of jazz instrumentals mixed into repetitive vamps with Q-Tip’s unique voice and playful flow gets me moving every time.
I saw this guy ReignWolf at a festival last year and he just blew my mind on stage. I am still waiting for the dude to put out an album, but I have a feeling it’s gonna be good. Check him out.
Do you have to work to find inspiration? Does inspiration find you?
Oh yeah, I have to work to find inspiration. Quite literally. When I quit school to play music and live on the cheap, all the free time kinda sapped my inspiration. We did great arrangements and performances, but I wasn’t writing a lot of important music anymore.
I gotta stay engaged in the world. I gotta go out there, work a job, see how things are done, get stressed, get busy, witness conflict, follow politics, walk the streets. I can’t write in a vacuum — I can’t just lock myself away and produce things. My songs are stories and ideas I’m trying to communicate based on being out in the world and witnessing.
My songs are stories and ideas I’m trying to communicate based on being out in the world and witnessing.
That being said, the moment where inspiration comes, it does feel a little like it’s finding me. But after writing for so long, no matter how much it might feel like lightning striking, I know a lot of it has to do with the context of the worlds I choose to place myself in and the level of engagement I have with the people around me.
What advice would you give others trying to explore and discover their own unique sound as a musician?
Be yourself. Search within and find out where your performance is coming from. Are you trying to be a success? Are you buying into some false narrative about being “discovered”? Are you putting on a show because you’re scared of being ignored? Are you trying to have some mystique or give off the impression that you’re a refined “artist”? Are you trying to come across like you don’t give a shit because that’s punk? Find out why you’re doing it.
I have found that the most satisfying performances in the long run or the ones where someone truthfully and meaningfully looks you in the eye and tells you that something you played meant something to them. Sure the dancing crowd and the blog articles feel nice, but what you’ll remember are the people you connected with. Fans, bandmates, new friends, old friends, family, whatever. Play for them. They want to hear YOU, and they can see right through your “act”.
Also, don’t overestimate the importance of technical ability, and don’t underestimate the importance of tone, mixing, and sound quality.
Who is on your desert island playlist?
Ah man. That is so hard. Well, assuming the desert island case, that means it’s artists I can listen to for a long period of time, right? With that in mind…
The White Stripes
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
A Tribe Called Quest