Photo by Michael Crook
We’ve all seen movies. If you’ve got talent, all you need is one big break to snag a record deal, and then you have a choice to make: stay true to your art and languish in obscurity, or sell out for guaranteed stardom.
This side of the silver screen, things are rarely so cut and dry. Honest artists often spend years in industry limbo after the contract is signed, struggling along with well-meaning executives to get their records into the marketplace. But as digital platforms become more accessible, they give lots of once-stymied artists the means to share their work and bypass the old order.
Take singer/songwriter Aaron David Gleason. His 2017 album Wry Observer was his first self-release, but it was only the tip of an iceberg. In 17 years of recording music, he’d grown from debaucherous glam rocker to soulful solo artist, but years spent auditioning and re-auditioning kept every stage of that transformation underwater.
Gleason’s latest project–a massive, four-album career retrospective released on his own Brashtooth Records label–aims to fix that. With his early work finally out, Gleason gave The All Scene Eye the oral history of his albums and his journey to artistic maturity in the world of pop producers and publishing deals.
How did the idea for this collection take shape?
Last year, I released an album called Wry Observer. We talked about it. That’s sort of me getting back into music in a really earnest push, and also in this new paradigm of the artist being able to take more control through self-releasing because of digital platforms. It was really great, we got some radio play, and then I thought, “ok, I’ve had all these songs and they’re just not out there.” I mean, I’ve been doing this for 17 years, and when people say, “can I hear your music?” there’s only one album available, and I thought, “that’s not right.” I wanted to do myself the service of putting stuff together. Then I thought, “well, I don’t want to do it just because I can do it. I want to do it well.” So I got it all remastered by a guy named Dan Millice, who’s in New York City.
When I got that back, it was a bittersweet sensation, because it sounded better than ever, and I thought, “oh, this is how it was always supposed to sound.” So I thought, “you know what? I’ve got to do this right.” I got artwork done and I resequenced everything. Some of this music had trickled out. Some of it was under record labels at various times, but those labels are now defunct, so what am I doing with it on my hard drive? It’s worthy of the world. I don’t know if it’s worthy of anything but at least being out there, so that’s what I did.
Where did all of this music come from?
I was in a band called The Midnight Radio in the early 2000s in L.A., and we were together five years. We were successful on the local circuit and we worked our asses off. We practiced four times a week. We played in L.A.’s coolest clubs, [laughs] in my estimation. Canter’s Kibitz Room, The Viper Room, Silver Lake Lounge, Spaceland–it was wonderful, and an exciting, heady time. Then we got signed, and I feel like all the recordings we made to get signed, we sort of put to the side and said, “well, now we have to make quote-unquote serious work.” The album that eventually came out is good, but I feel like it had too many contemplative songs and not as much of the crowd-pleasing songs that actually got us attention in the first place. That, plus we never had a manager, plus a million other tales from the record industry, and the band–you know, didn’t get any traction. We eventually [laughs] got tired and wanted to move on. These guys had also been following me for five years as the primary songwriter, and they were like, “you know what? we need to do our own thing.” And I don’t blame them, in retrospect, because we had a really good run.
What you have now is 20 songs, 10 on one album, 10 on another, of this band, The Midnight Radio, which did change its name to All Hours when we got signed, because of whatever they were concerned with. “Oh, there’s an album named that, there’s going to be confusion.” I’m releasing them as our original name to sort of reclaim our soul and spirit. It’s nothing against the record label. They tried, back in the day. Certainly, we had made our own errors. But this is The Midnight Radio. This is what we really were. There’s an album called The Midnight Radio: Other Hours, which is the early stuff, and then there’s The Midnight Radio: All Hours–wink, wink–and that’s basically the album that did come out, which was called In Flagrante Delicto. You can find All Hours’ In Flagrante Delicto out there, but this is resequenced, it’s remastered, and to me, it’s really different that way. Certainly, there will be no confusion in the marketplace, because maybe about 200 people ever, on a national level, got that record.
What about the third album? Tell me about that phase of things.
After The Midnight Radio fell apart–you know, we had been in the label system and we were a traditional kind of band, and I was like, “ok, want to do something different? I want to do something different too.” So I hooked up in a major way with this producer, a musician named Kennedy, and his approach to recording was anarchic compared to what I had done in the past. No, it’s not, “we’re going to sit down and do drums first, and then bass”–no, no, no. It’s like, “I’ve got this sample, I’ve got this weird computer, let’s put these two things together. We’re going to do it in a lockout, not in a recording studio between silences where other people aren’t playing around us. Oh, there’s a bird chirping over there? Yeah, we’re going to put that on.”
It was seriously geared towards pop. Like, “don’t bore us, get us to the chorus”-style stuff. That’s his approach, and I love it. My approach is super serious artist guy–just kidding, but not really–so when you get us together, I think that push-pull really makes something explosive. We’re both tough customers, we work hard, we’re opinionated, but we managed to cohabitate for six songs together, and that’s saying something.
The rest of the songs on that album are just bits and pieces from the same era. When I was in The Midnight Radio, I went under the nom de plume Gilly Leads. It really helped to have a mask as a young artist, to be able to do whatever you wanted to do. So I was still Gilly Leads, and Gilly Leads was my alter ego, who is different than me. It’s a little more debaucherous, a little more free-spirited–not grounded, shall we say. So that album, the stuff with Kennedy, I’ve titled Gilly Leads Vol. 1. And that’s really this clash of pop and radio singles, but not from a pop artist. I think, all modesty aside for one minute, it’s kind of dynamic that way.
On The Midnight Radio records, there’s definitely the exaggerated alter-ego personality, but on Gilly Leads Vol. 1, it feels like you play up the humor of it.
Oh, sure, there’s definitely some of that. But also, I have to tell you, I always find a great sincerity in artists that put forward some comedy. I’m not comparing myself whatsoever, but I will say I’ve always been excited by Little Richard or David Bowie. Yes, there’s humor. I remember my Dutch uncle mentor, this director named Paul Chart, was like, “what is it about Bowie?” Like, leveling with me. [laughs] And he wanted to tell me. He was setting me up. He was like, “it’s the humor.” Why is Diamond Dogs so cool? Why is Ziggy so cool? There’s a huge amount of humor, and that never left me. In a way, it’s like you throw that out to break the ice, and then you can get the sincerity in there without feeling like you’re too self-important.
In particular, on one track, there’s a moment of silence, and then a little chirp in the background.
Oh my god, I can’t believe you heard that. You’re the second person to say that to me this week. That’s on “Over The Edge.”
I’m a fan of using sound that way to take you out of the song for a moment and make you pay attention in a way you didn’t before.
I think it was cheeky–it’s us winking to you. On that song, “Over the Edge,” I remember so clearly Kennedy being like, “I need to meet you and talk to you.” And I was like, “oh, something’s wrong.” He jumps in my car, and he’s like, “they’re going to play this song at weddings.” My initial thought was, “what are you talking about?” But, you know, I underestimate people. Sometimes they just need to feel good and have a good time, and you don’t need to be so heavy-handed. And maybe he’s right; maybe somebody will play this at their wedding.
I’m looking at that album right now. I did “Only Son” with Kennedy, which I’m really happy about. It has one of the nastiest guitar sounds I really feel you’ll ever come across. The song “Test” is just so weird, and I would never in a million years think you could make a chorus that way, with this weird half-step I do in there, and I’m just so glad Kennedy was like, “no, no, no, do it! Why do you think you can’t do it? Whose rules are you fuckin’ playing by?”
What’s kind of funny, “This Is My Lover” is the only time I’ve ever auditioned a song. I wrote that song for the fuckin’ Backstreet Boys. [laughs] It didn’t make it, but I think it’s hilarious that me and Kennedy tried to get a song to them.
Hold on, I need to zero in on that more. You actually wrote that song with the intention of sending it to the Backstreet Boys?
Yeah, who were coming to the end of their run in like, 2006. I was trying to [laugh] from my addled point of view–”no, this is a song about a relationship. Probably a relationship that might be worried about what the outside world thinks, for whatever reason. However you want to read into that.” Which I’ve always been touching on in my music, because even though I’m a straight white guy, I’ve grown up, thankfully, in a community of not-straight-white guys. The influence on me as an artist and the influence on me as a human has been huge.
I have a little trepidation using the word “ally.” I don’t even know if it’s terribly respectful, but I’d like to think of myself as an ally, and I’d like to think I put that forward as an artist as well. That’s what that song was. Not to be too heavy, but I was trying to go that direction with the lyric. Whether somebody can relate to that in terms of their sexual orientation is one thing, but you can certainly relate to that just as a human thinking about the outside world. All of that aside, yes, we tried to get it to The Backstreet Boys. Didn’t quite work out, but I think it deserves to see the light of day.
How did it come about that that was an idea that you had, and what was the channel that you tried to reach them through?
I had a publishing deal at the time with Zomba. They were good to me, but they didn’t sign on for me. They signed on for The Midnight Radio, and that had not worked out, so I was re-auditioning for them. Some of these songs were part of that audition, and they said, “yeah, no, what do you got for other artists?” And I said, “oh, ok, I can try that.” I tried that, and they were like, “nope!” [laughs] “See you never.” And that’s fine, you know, that’s a big publishing house, and we were at a nadir at that time. I don’t know what would happen if I linked up with a publisher right now, but as it is, I’m the record label and publisher and owner of all my material, so that feels pretty good. Down the road, if somebody wants to come on, I have a much better understanding of who I am as an artist, which I think makes me a lot easier to work with, if I can be so bold.
On that note, tell me about the–aptly titled, given where we are in the progression–This Is Aaron David Gleason.
When you’re done with something, I don’t know what your experience is, but don’t you want to try something in a little bit of a different direction just to stay fresh? For me, if I get worn out doing a music project, I’d like to act in something, or, call me crazy, do some nine-to-five job, focus on my home life, and just rebuild before I jump back in. After the Kennedy stuff, I was like, “you know what? I want to just do something that’s Aaron, not Gilly Leads. I don’t have one more word to say as Gilly for a while.”
So what’s Aaron like? Aaron’s way more introverted. Aaron is not blustery and braggadocious and filled with angst. I’m fairly crazy, but I’m a fairly normal person also. And Gilly isn’t a person at all.
Listening to those first three records, it’s hard to imagine the character of Gilly Leads off-stage, and what he does in his day to day life.
I’ll tell you, it was a mixed bag. I’m from a family of some people that are kind of well known, like my grandfather, Monty Hall, and my mom, Joanna Gleason. I love and respect them, but as a 21-year-old, I really wanted to be outside of that and outside the expectation of that. Also, I was raised as a nice, law-abiding kid, and Gilly Leads gave me license to be whatever–a wild person. That’s what I wanted to do at 21, and who doesn’t? But then I was ready to be Aaron Gleason. That guy is a much more of a nerdy musician. I wanted to make stuff that was more crafted in a certain style. I mean, the Gilly stuff is crafted; I’m not taking anything away from that. It’s just a different genre. The Aaron Gleason stuff wouldn’t be so glam.
There’s more of a soul influence. There’s even some funk when you get to a track like “PRISONERS,” when you’ve got that sort of groove.
I think a huge turning point–not that you would ever hear The Staple Singers in anything I do, but Uncloudy Day came into my life at a really low point. The band had fallen apart, Gilly Leads didn’t take off, and I was really depressed. A lot of things had happened in my life. A lot of loss. I got that album, Uncloudy Day, and I got this album called Sweet and Sour Tears by Ray Charles, and it was all I was listening to. It was getting me through the day. And then I got into The Band in a major way, especially Richard Manuel. I wasn’t listening to Roxy Music, T-Rex, and Bowie. It was a big change. I wanted to grow and show people I could do that, you know?
I got with this producer named Robert Davis, who’s a very well-regarded guy, and we made our own recording studio on the cheap in my apartment. We just started piecing things together, “tasty morsel after tasty morsel” was the approach. We got this drummer, David Piribauer, and he plays on most of those songs–Laura Conway is on the first and last tracks. And yeah, we thought funk, soul, mixed with whatever I’m doing. We weren’t ever going to try to emulate that straight up, but we were going to put those elements under my songwriting, and that felt like a very “Aaron” thing, if you don’t mind me saying it that way. I connected to that. Like, as a real person, I connected to that.
Any time you are, as you say, a straight, white man moving into those kinds of spaces, it can be precarious in terms of your respectful relationship to it.
I think about that all the time. You have to be very conscious if you’re adding genres that are not in your lane–to use the parlance of our time–that you don’t take a cheap option, which is to mimic something. I’ve always been very aware of that in the vocal phrasing, in the timbre of my voice, but also in the lyrical choice.
I’ve seen an artist like Amy Winehouse be accused of cultural appropriation, and I don’t know what to think of it. I think that she really felt things in her heart. I think she digested her influences. Does she put on some affect? Yeah. Do most singers in some way or another? Yeah! I don’t think I’m somebody whose opinion counts in this discussion, but what I can do is observe some of the criticism that she’s gotten and say, “ok, how can I approach this if I want to use some of those ingredients and be very, very respectful?” So I didn’t change my voice. I don’t change my affect. I sing from the deepest part of my heart, and I use some of those ingredients, but I’m also careful not to use them too much, and not to lean on them or claim them.
Why did you decide to release all four of these albums at once?
I’ll tell you, a lot of people said, “why don’t you space this out?” But as much as I believe in every single one of these four albums, I don’t want to tease it out and have that hamstring me from doing new work. I want to put them out and do the right thing, and then I want to move forward, because they’re already in the past. I do not want to be living in the past for the next two years as simply a business decision. I’m probably not an amazing business person, but I’m trying to be a good artist, [laughs] you know? I want to get back to being an artist as soon as possible because a lot of this didn’t come out because of business for a long time.
Doing the radio thing, I’m a little concerned. I don’t know what they’re going to make of it when a DJ picks it up and hears something from The Midnight Radio and then something from Aaron Gleason, but people have assured me that they’re not going to care, which is kind of a good reminder to not go down the wormhole with your own mishigas. You can put “Make Up,” which is a glammy song from The Midnight Radio, next to “Be Your Fool,” which is a fun, larkish soul song from Aaron Gleason, and people will be like, “yeah, that seems right.” And I’ll be like, “really?” and they’re like, “yeah.” So, okay, fine by me.
You’ve finished this massive retrospective of your musical past. Where does that leave you as you look forward to the next thing?
To be totally honest with you–and it’s not a sexy answer, but I enjoy the candor here between us. The 10 best out of these 40 songs are going to radio, and the people that I work with are awesome. They did Wry Observer last year, and we got played on 52 radio stations, and that was incredible. That really helped get me out in the world for the first time. So if “You Belong in the Movies” gets some fire under it and is moving along, then I might say, “hey Kennedy, let’s do this, man! It’s been a long road, and look, it’s finally happening. Let’s get in the studio and do our wacky shit together that we do so well.” Or one of the other songs might steer me in a direction.
At the same time, I’m writing things outside of that always. I have my own trajectory. I would love to write a musical for the first time; I would love to write all sorts of different songs. I’m always putting together fragments, and they’re always on the back burner. I always have to have five songs that I’m marinating. I can turn up the heat and get those ready to serve sooner than later if I have to. If somebody comes and says, “you need to make an album now,” well, at least I have a start. I can take those things and see where they fit.
You have a patchwork of places you could go.
I have ideas, and then you can always put them through different machines. Different genres, like, “oh, this does fit with a beat, or maybe we should go crazy, and it’s just a piano in a church, and that’s what we’re doing.” It’s fun being an artist, being able to think that way. I’m very grateful to people that made me believe that was a sustainable way of thought. I’m not sure if it is, but I’m really grateful anyway.
Grateful at least to be acting as if it is?
Totally. Don’t burst my bubble, man.
Of course not. If your bubble bursts, then mine–
You’re going down with me. We’re together on this.
It’s mutually assured bursting, is what it is.
Oh, that might be the title of my next record, actually. I like that.
You recently became a dad, and all kinds of other things have changed in your life. What place does writing music occupy now in your day-to-day lifestyle?
I gotta tell you, I know this sounds a little like a prefabricated answer, but it’s not. Having a new muse–I mean, my wife is still my muse, but playing a song and looking in my son’s eyes as I’m writing something, new things are coming forward. I’m not going to assume anybody else, but for me, having a child enhances the world, like, a thousandfold. Joy, but also fear, and excitement, but also paranoia. Those things are putting flavors and colors into my songs that I haven’t had before.
I’ve always feared making a leap, like most people do. I feared leaving the city for the suburbs was going to dull me, but actually, it gave me more mental bandwidth to be a writer. I feared becoming a parent, the artist would go to the side. No! I know it’s cliche, but it makes you have to focus when you sit down to be an artist because you have limited time to do that. “Ok, he’s napping now. Let’s sit down.”
Constraints can end up being really healthy for you as an artist.
They’ve always been for me. As much as I fight them sometimes–maybe that’s a natural thing, but listen. Let’s be honest. I’ve always needed a really strong producer to be able to spar with me. It’s not like I’m an asshole at all, but I want somebody that can push back, you know? It’s important also to put those things in your life. I wouldn’t say they’re constraints, but they’re a different path, and you want to stay on the path, or else you’re falling off the side of the road, so–yeah, I chose this road, and like, “oh my god, there are a lot of curves and it’s on the side of a mountain.” That’s pretty fucking scary; it’s not the Autobahn. Gilly Leads was the Autobahn, and that’s fine, that’s fun, but this is way different. So yeah, that’s going to influence the writing a lot.
Now that you’ve made this move away from the label system, taking control of your own path, would you advise other artists do the same?
It depends on where you’re at. Listen, in this day and age, boy, can you do a lot on your own. I also started my own record label for all of this, called Brashtooth Records. It’s getting some attention, and I feel like it did really well last year, having all my songs at radio also come up on Soundscan and Spinitron as Brashtooth. Now I’m adding four albums to Brashtooth, so yeah, it’s only one artist, but now I can go to other people if I really love them and say, “hey, would you like to do this with me?” I’m not in for killing them with 50% of everything, because it’s a new paradigm. There are no physical copies for the most part anymore. Things are really different.
But if you’re Aerosmith, you might not want to self-release. It might not matter to you, and you might not have the in-house energy to do all of the shitwork, pardon the phrase. But uploading ISRC codes to five or six different platforms takes forever, and you cannot make one error. And boy, did I drag my damn feet to start doing that. I’ve known about being able to do it for a long time, but I only did it last year. After being like, “I don’t want to do it! Just sign me. I want to be a big baby.” Finally, they were like, “no, we don’t want to sign you, baby,” and I was like, “alright, I’ll do it, asshole.”
Other Hours, All Hours, Gilly Leads Vol. 1, and This is Aaron David Gleason are now available to stream and download on all platforms.