Passion, discipline, energy, and focused talent are what you will encompass when you experience the music of MER. Chicago based singer/songwriter, MER, is a seasoned veteran of the music industry having toured the nation supporting acts such as Ziggy Marley, Rusted Root, Graham Colton, Pat Green, and more. A melodic, pop overtone streamlines MER’s original music ranging from the intimate, acoustic compositions to the powerful, rock tunes. MER’s recent collaboration with Chicago producer, Sean O’keefe [Fallout Boy, Plain White T’s] resulted in the single, “Bulletproof” set for release in February of 2013. MER continues to build his catalogue as he and O’keefe return to the studio to complete a four song EP scheduled for release in the fall of 2013.
“In a market place over saturated with corporate created talent, MER delivers a refreshing reminder that musicians with originality and heart still exist!” – CHICAGO TRIBUNE
“From the blueprint of singer/songwriter’s like James Taylor comes the artistry of MER. Armed with a Martin guitar and the wisdom of life’s tribulations his music is ready to be heard by all.” – ABC7 CHICAGO
“MER is the real deal, a true musician, excellent songwriter, amazing stage performer, and just an overall great person that you would want to hang out with!” – CBS CHICAGO
An Interview With MER
By: Dennis M. Kelly
DK: Good day MER, how’s life treating you lately?
MER: First of all, thank you so much for the interview! I sincerely appreciate the opportunity. 2013 is off to a great start! I am lucky to have so many prosperous endeavors during this first quarter.
DK: Yeah, this year is already hopping off to a great start here too, I’m glad to hear it is the same for you as well. So, you just completed one of your music showcases at Schubas through last month, how did that go for you, your special guests and the attendees?
MER: The showcase was an amazing experience! Hosting the event at Schubas was a perfect fit. I was humbled when Schubas agreed to let me host the event on a weekly basis. I had the privilege of working with sixteen different artists/bands within a four week span. The cross promotions between all of the acts was infectious. The community that supported the event was extremely attentive and appreciative of the showcase format. Every artist left the night knowing that they performed their original material for a music loving crowd! As writers/performers, that’s all we could ever ask for. Respectful ears are harder to find than you think.
DK: For those who aren’t aware, please give me more background on your showcases, what they entail, the history of the showcases and what people can come to look forward to with future showcases.
MER: The night kicks off with four total songwriters, myself included, performing solo/acoustic. We talk about our songs and perform our more intimate compositions in a round robin fashion. This presentation originated in Nashville and truly showcases the art of story telling and illustrates the raw essence of each song. Each night is closed out by a featured artist who performs with their full band. All of the headliners have done an excellent job of raising the energy and capping off the evening with a bang! Convincing talented artists in Chicago to perform at one of the nations most respected venues was pretty easy.
DK: I’m sure! Being so active in the Chicago music community, how would you rate Chicago as a music city and the artist’s who give it it’s (musical) soul?
MER: Chicago’s music scene is a unique entity. My opinion is extremely biased, so rating the city compared to others would not hold much weight. However, I am more than happy to brag about the strengths. Diversity is this city’s greatest asset. Chicago just so happens to be the nucleus for the best of the best in the midwest. You can find any style of music within this city and you can usually catch your preferred “flavor” almost any night of the week. Everything from open mic nights at neighborhood bars and cafes to national acts headlining the nations best venues; you’ll find it within a fifteen mile radius of downtown Chicago. The neighborhoods within this city are extremely eclectic and the art that breeds in each of these microcosms has a distinctive brand.
DK: What keeps you so personally driven to pull musicians together and perform in this showcase and what do you look for in perspective musicians to invite?
MER: To be genuinely supported within any scene, you must first show your sincere support for said scene. After a decade of pursuing a “music career”, I discovered that sharing my experiences and struggles with other artists created prosperous working relationships. Most artists are guarded, in every respect. I have found that helping other artists connect with talent buyers, media contacts, writers, producers, photographers, graphic designers, web developers, and what not quickly knocks down walls. Every artist wants to be heard. There are so many people within this city that have opened their doors to me. The trickle down effect is what allows me to continue pursuing my passion. People help me. I help other people. The chain keeps extending. I typically reach out to artists that I enjoy listening to. Pretty simple. I am a fan of music. That’s how it all started. There’s nothing better than watching someone pour it all out live. I seek out passionate artists of all genres who show a hunger for growth. Their passion makes me more passionate.
DK: What are some of the biggest challenges in putting the showcases together?
MER: There are two challenges:
1. Finding artists that are willing to perform for minimal to zero compensation. Most veterans don’t even ask for money. They get it. They understand the marketing value and the cross promotional benefits. Most importantly, they love the idea of playing songs live that they normally don’t get to play. Some artists complain and scoff at the idea of performing for free. I’ve had some insulting replies to my outreach efforts. To those people, I say “JOIN A COVER BAND”.
2. Filling the venue with bodies. The hardest thing of any live setting is draw. Convincing people to spend time and money at a live show is getting harder and harder.
DK: What are some of the potential (dream) goals that you’d like to see for the showcase?
MER: I hope to continue hosting these showcases at some of my other favorite venues in Chicago. There are so many influential venues/scenes that I would love to tap into. A long term possibility would be taking the showcase on the road and working with regional talent. I would love to take a group of musicians on the road for a few days working through IL, IA, WI, MI, IN, OH, and MN.
DK: Who are some artists that you’ve shared the stage with whom you are friends and have had great shows/sets with?
MER: There are numerous artists that I have collaborated with in the past decade. The showcases have allowed me to reconnect with so many of them. Mel Washington is an ex-guitarist who toured with my band for 3 years or so. He currently plays with Too White Crew, but drops in a handful of times on his off nights to play with me. I have been a big fan of Miles Nielsen ever since I saw his old band Harmony Riley at Otto’s Nightclub in Dekalb, IL. Our recent reconnection brought forth an acoustic collaboration at his studio in Rockford, IL. We were able to share that energy with a live audience at the Schubas showcase. Alex V and I met nine years ago when we were working the midwest college scene at the University of Iowa. He fronted his rock trio Blissfield for a good stretch and then took a hiatus. Alex recently moved back to Chicago and reached out to me expressing his urge to get plugged back into the Chicago music scene. The Schubas showcase was a great catalyst for our reunion. Chris Buehrle has been working the midwest scene for as long as I have. We recently brought our bands together at the Metro in September of 2012 and we have crossed paths numerous times within the solo/cover scene [to pay the bills]. Having a seasoned veteran perform at the showcase is always comforting. Please note that this is an extremely short list of old friends. New friends and collaborations birthed by the showcase include: Marty Casey [of the Lovehammers], Janelle Kroll, Peter Manhart [of Molehill], Michael “Magoo” McGohan [of Hello Dave], Scott Burdsall [of Murley Shertz], and more. Please don’t be offended if I left “YOU” out. I owe you a shot of Jameson next time I see you. Remind me.
DK: Now, I know the showcase does not take up all of your time, but how much time do you get to invest in your music career?
MER: Music is full time! I cannot quantify the “work week hours”. My brain is almost always on music or the business behind it. I know for sure that I have put in more than the 10,000 hours it takes to get noticed. The showcase is actually one of the biggest aggregators. The cross marketing has grown my Facebook “likes” and Twitter “followers” significantly.
DK: And you’re a parent too, so, it must make some of the scheduling of events a little trickier. How do you manage?
MER: I manage because I must. I love my six year old daughter, Meranda and my four year old son, Myles more than anything in this world. Cliché, I know. I am lucky to have a strong support system who believes in my work. I realize that my biggest role as a parent is to be a teacher/guide for my kids. Most parents tell their kids that they can be whatever they want when the grow up. I am in the minority of parents who can actually teach that lesson by example. I manage because I must. Grandparents are always a huge help too!
DK: That is cool! My wife and I have a seven year old boy and four year old daughter…. can someone say Rock-n-Roll day care? LOL! Let’s get to the heart of who you are; your music. Tell me about some of your songs, you have received quite a number of great compliments from CBS CHICAGO and ABC7 CHICAGO to name a few on your songwriting. What do you think it is about your songs that set them apart?
MER: “Home” is a song that has been around for a long long time. The original version has a jazzy guitar riff with a melodic vocal draped on top. The song is about leaning on your friends and family when hard times hit. I wrote the song in 2000 and recently revamped the music to give it more of a folk/ballad feel. “So Much More” is a Latin sounding tune with an aggressive musical foundation. I wrote a technical guitar part which highlights the song in a live setting. The lyrics are about a desperate, abandoned love. “Trap Doors” is a song that was written in a 6/8 time signature that bounces to a 4/4 signature, and then back to 6/8. This was written during a time when I listened to a lot of Sting and Peter Gabriel [kings of making odd time signatures feel good enough to dance to]. The lyrics questioned the social norm. I was right about to drop out of college [more on that later]. “Revealed” and “All I Want” share an upbeat pop feel. Girls tend to like them. That was the goal. Specific girls in fact, who ended up being the subjects of future songs. Newer songs like “Save Yourself”, “Heart Attack”, and “Bulletproof” all share the same uplifting, never give up vibe. All of these songs come from specific time periods in my life. At the heart of it all, they’re pop tunes with influences from other genres and bands that I was exposed to at the time. I try to make my songs catchy and I write the lyrics in a simple way that makes people of any demographic relate. I believe that this is what makes my music stand out.
DK: You mentioned your song, “Bulletproof” a moment ago, that is your new single that is coming out this month, right?
MER: Yes, thanks! So pumped to get this new track out there! This is the best my music has ever sounded on a recording. Fellow networking guru, Shawn Kellner connected me to Chicago producer, Sean O’keefe. O’keefe has worked with Fallout Boy, Plain White T’s, Company of Thieves, Rachael Yamagata, Less Than Jake, Spitalfield, and so many other midwest monsters! I am honored to work with such a talented producer. My four piece band tracked twelve songs at I.V. Lab Studios with Shane Hendrickson. We chose “Bulletproof” as the single and passed it along to O’keefe. The song has a solid, rock feel with positive lyrics that express my “never give up” mantra. We have been working the single within the licensing & publishing game. Hoping to land a placement through the help of Music Dealers and GoDiy Records. Official release for the single is 2/17/13 with a show at Lincoln Hall.
DK: That is great… it has got to be so fulfilling not only to see your goals coming together, but exceeding your expectations on top of that, right?
DK: When writing material, do you find you have to seclude yourself away to write or does the inspiration hit you and you get right down to writing then and there?
MER: I am one of those guys that writes best between the hours of midnight and 6am. I live in Bucktown, but the best place for me to write is in my parents basement in the west suburbs. Don’t ask. That’s just how it all comes out.
DK: No, not at all. That is (in fact) why I ask since inspiration sometimes comes at different times and in different ways for different people. It is great to see you found the best way to maximize your best efforts too! What does music (itself) mean to you personally?
MER: Music is the strongest voice within my life. Music is unbiased connection. Music is one of the oldest languages on this planet. You can feel the pain in a Ray Lamontagne song. You melt when you hear Allison Krause sing a ballad. You get pumped when Rage Against The Machine comes on. You want to dance when you hear the Gypsy Kings. You bust out a “neck groove” when you hear James Brown. It doesn’t matter what language you speak, music is the voice that connects all humans. I am a fan first. I am an artist second. Music teaches us how to relate and tells us that others have felt the same. There isn’t an emotion to be felt that I cannot connect to an artist or a song.
DK: When did you get started in music?
MER: I began playing the piano in grade school. I dropped out of Northern Illinois University in the year 2000 and began touring the country immediately.
DK: You were formally trained, right?
MER: I studied classical piano predominantly. I studied a little jazz guitar and even less vocal training. However, I’ve always been formally listening to all styles of music!
DK: How supportive was your family from the point when you asked for that first instrument to the decision of making music your career?
MER: My mother actually imposed the piano on my siblings and I. My parents immigrated to the United States from the Philippines in 1976. My mother always wanted to play the piano but never had the money. As soon as her and my father could afford one, we were on it! I dropped out of NIU after a couple years. I knew that music was always the goal, I just had no clue as to how to pursue it. Making the decision to “push all in” was extremely difficult. Again, my parents came to this country to start a family and to give their unborn children opportunities they never had. They were not initially supportive when their first born son dropped out to be a “rock star”. Understandable. Fast forward a decade later, my parents are my biggest fans. There’s no way I could continue to pursue music if it were not for their emotional and financial support. They came to this country to give me opportunities that I would never have in the Philippines. They succeeded. It just took a while to get there.
DK: Were there any difficulties in balancing music lessons and schoolwork?
MER: My parents did a great job of instilling a good work ethic at a young age. My grade school years were balanced. Junior high and high school, not so much.
DK: That is understandable, given how most kids are at that age. Were you a good student overall though?
MER: Musically, yes. I loved wrapping my brain around music. Finding new “tools” to use and then incorporating them in my writing could not happen quickly enough. I was obsessed.
DK: Do you think all musicians should have (some) level of formal training under their belt to better hone their craft?
MER: That’s tough. Some of the most prolific songwriters in history can’t read music. However, most of the musicians that back those icons do. It all just depends on what you want to get out of the music. One of my favorite musicians of all time, Victor Wooten [of Bela Fleck & The Flecktones] planted the “music is a language” idea in my head. He stated that learning music theory is like reading the dictionary. You can be more elaborate in expressing your ideas with a large vocabulary. There are a lot of ways to say that you are happy. There are equally many ways to write happy songs. The other side of the coin; Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson were straight shooters and laid it all out there plain and simple. Chick Corea is one of the most notable jazz pianists in the world. Public survey says Dylan and Nelson both had bigger careers than Corea. It just depends on what you want to get out of the music. Short answer: education always helps, but is not necessary.
DK: You are currently working with Tim Seisser, Frank Alongi, and Lloyd Snyder, had you always worked with them or have you worked in many bands over the years from day one?
MER: I have been fortunate to have worked with some of the best musicians in Chicago. Numerous musicians have dedicated time towards bringing my music to life. Frank Alongi was the first drummer I had ever played with back in 1998. The “joke” is that he has outlasted every girlfriend. Not really a joke. I was a songwriter prior to working with Alongi. I grew to become a musician after years of playing with such a talented drummer. Seisser [bass] and Snyder [guitar] joined the band a few years ago. The four piece is one of my favorite line ups. Working with such talented pros makes the recording process extremely comfortable. “Bulletproof” sounds as tight as it does thanks to Alongi, Seisser, and Snyder.
DK: You have also been touring the country for some time now. For those at this point of their career, how did you come to put your first tour together, how did it go, what did you learn and how did you improve from your first experiences?
MER: Timing was everything. I began playing the midwest college circuit in 1999. I was 21 years old and slowly fading away from my studies at Northern Illinois University. A majority of my friends from high school attended colleges in the midwest. My first band was comprised of students at University of Illinois, Augustana, and Illinois Weslyan. It was easy. I rounded up my band and we played fraternity & sorority parties, college homecomings, sporting events, philanthropic events, and opened up for regional/national acts through student unions and entertainment boards. I was the “friend who had a band that could rock your party”. The midwest college scene was integral in setting up my touring foundation. After my friends graduated, most moved to Chicago and got jobs. They immersed themselves in the city life. I continued to play the college scene and constantly grew the fan base. The new hustle was in Chicago. I could now play some of my favorite music venues and bring a hundred friends to come see me. Not only did they come to see me, they drank a lot! Opportunities in Chicago transpired into networking opportunities with regional and national bands. Put on a good live show and bring a lot of people who drink. I believe Dave Matthews and Phish were the trailblazers of this movement at that exact same time. The scene was all about the live show!
DK: You currently have management, right?
MER: No management. I have never been formally managed. I had a couple good hearted friends who made the mistake of taking on the responsibility of trying to “manage” me. We’re all friends now.
DK: Sorry the management didn’t work out, but sometimes it works out for the best, right? How difficult is it out there to find a manager anyway?
MER: It’s hard to find a manager. Especially in this day and age. Money in this industry is very hard to come by. Knowing that there is no money, it all comes down to trust. Managing art is a slippery slope. Rarely do the manager and artist see eye to eye. That’s just the nature of the relationship.
DK: How helpful was it for you to have your friends serving in that capacity for you?
MER: Every person that has taken on the manager role within my music has brought something helpful to the table. Intentions are always good and goals are always aligned when these relationships start. No matter what happens, you have to remember that everyone was gunning for success.
DK: Do you feel management is something all musicians should have or is it not something universally necessary?
MER: Some artists need direction. Some artists learn best by trial and error. I am the latter. Then again, I never had a real manager nor pursued one. I learned early that no one will work harder for you, than you! It’s hard to convince someone to work for free. You might as well do it yourself.
DK: What insights could you share for young musicians just starting out that might be beneficial for them in their career?
MER: Get out there and play as much as you can, wherever you can! Sales and marketing run this world. The best salesmen are the ones that make face time. The best marketing tactic is FLOOD THE MARKET. Market share is key! We’re all selling something. Any great salesmen understands that we are selling ourselves. It almost doesn’t matter what the product is. Geico commercials are a great illustration. I would also suggest that all musicians watch Shark Tank. Seriously.
DK: Coming up this month, on the same day as the release of your single, you’ve got a benefit for the People’s Music School (http://www.peoplesmusicschool.org) at Lincoln Hall (http://lincolnhallchicago.com/Shows/02-17-2013+Peoples+Music+School+Benefit). How did you learn of them and decide to hold a benefit on their behalf?
MER: I am the talent buyer for Rock Bottom downtown on Grand & State. The restaurant does a lot of great work with charities in Chicago. I happened to be the MC for a fundraising event one particular evening and the beneficiary was the People’s Music School. The non-profit organization raises money for tuition free music education and provides free instruments to over 500 children in Chicago. I immediately gravitated towards the directors and the staff. I asked to take a tour of their facilities. I sat in and observed 2nd graders up to 8th graders performing classical music in an orchestral setting. I wanted to be a part of it. I felt that my experience and story could inspire these children to set goals and pursue passion. If I could inspire drunk, college kids to sing along and wish they could play guitar, I was pretty confident that I could connect with the youth and inspire them to do the same.
DK: What about the People’s Music School do you like the most?
MER: Music education and children…that’s pretty much what my life is about! My mom couldn’t afford a piano. Once she could, my siblings and I began playing. I have supplemented my income as a private music instructor through the years. I love inspiring my kids and other kids to find a passion within music. This was everything I wanted to be a part of! The staff are extremely dedicated and the students have such a powerful energy. I have the honor of performing with the People’s Music School’s YOURS Project at the Lincoln Hall benefit concert. The fourteen piece string ensemble is comprised of 6-7th graders. They will be performing two classical pieces and then they will join my full band in performing my original “Hey Now” and a cover of OneRepublic’s “Secrets”. I am ridiculously excited for this collaboration!!!
DK: I bet and I hope that this will be the first of many of these kinds of collaborations. It is always great to see musicians hold benefit concerts for causes they believe in, but I really respect how you are working more hands-on with them on this, it is something far more special in my mind anyway to get more personally vested with them. Are there any other music schools in the area that you appreciate as well?
MER: Sadly, I don’t really know much about the music education programs in Chicago. I have heard from other musician/teaching friends that Mayor Rahm Emanuel has allocated money towards music programs within the Chicago Public School system which ties in co-ops with Columbia College and DePaul University. Refreshing! Other than that, Old Town School of Folk does a great job of cultivating and educating non-traditional methods of music education.
DK: What else do you have going on this month?
MER: I am making my way back into the studio to continue working on the music we tracked at I.V. Labs. I also have some new music to lay down and map out. Very excited to get more of my songs into the hands of producer, Sean O’keefe.
DK: What is lined up for the coming spring and summer?
MER: I am extending the MER’s Music Showcase to venues in the suburbs. I have a network in the west suburbs that I would like to tap into. The burbs are a different beast and I am excited to test my model. I will continue to write and record while taking a step back from the live performances in the spring. I plan on hitting the summer concert series hard as we prepare for the EP release in the fall.
DK: Keeping on the theme of questions here, what are your longer term goals you hope to accomplish by this year’s end?
MER: I have recently opened the door to licensing and publishing opportunities. This is a revenue stream that I have yet to explore. Just like anything, I have to dive in and get to work. “Bulletproof” is being solicited appropriately. A new outlet arose through Music Dealers when I was asked to work on a submission for Coca-Cola. Unfortunately, my track was not selected, but I was excited to work on the project. It’s fun writing music specifically for a product or a specific concept. I am eager to learn more about the licensing game.
DK: What are the best methods for people to reach out to you?
DK: Is there anything more you would like to share with our readers today?
MER: I love what I do and I love helping others do what they love to do too. Is that grammatically correct?
DK: As do we, yeah, sounds right to me, but try saying that 5 times fast… LOL! Well, I would very much like to thank you so much for your time today MER, and to also personally thank you for what you do for the community. It is great to know there are people like you bringing artists together in music and for great causes too! Thanks so much!
MER: I can’t thank you enough for allowing me to share my story and my experiences with you and your friends, followers and readers. I sincerely appreciate the opportunity! Thank you for supporting the local music scene!!!
DK: It is absolutely my pleasure and you can expect to see more local coverage coming to the Chicago Music Guide over the course of the next few months, so, it’s only going to get better, my friend!