Folk-rock singer-songwriter Wayne Merdinger recently released his album, Hidden Gems, made up of six previously unreleased tracks, produced by Danny Saxon and Mark Jaimes, six previously released singles, produced by Mark DeCozio, and a particularly special song, “Abbey Road,” remastered from the 2017 Behold the Invisible Man album (produced by Scott Leader).
After writing songs for more than 25 years, it was Wayne’s children that urged him to start recording professionally. His first album, The Music Lives On, released in 2016, included songs that were written in the 1990s. His next album, Behold the Invisible Man, featured all new material written in 2017. His 2018 album, aptly titled, Messages, featured 14 brand new, original tunes depicting an evolved maturity in songwriting, orchestration, and vocal performance.
His 2022 EP, Troubadour, featured six brand new, original compositions, continuing with a classic rock vibe. Hidden Gems, his 2023 album release, and first collaboration with renowned British producers, Danny Saxon and Mark Jaimes, have taken his musical journey to a new level.
Tattoo.com spoke with Wayne Merdinger to discover the inspiration for Hidden Gems, how he got started in music, and how his music has evolved.
What inspired your latest album, ‘Hidden Gems?’
In 1999, I had the pleasure of meeting Danny Saxon, a British songwriter and producer, who shared with me some of the material he had either written or co-written. I was enamored at the time and thought he had truly written some hit songs. Those songs stayed with me ever since and, following the nostalgic ride of my ‘Troubadour’ EP, I decided to reach out to Danny to see if any of his songs had ever been recorded. In fact, Danny, now an established producer in his own right, hardly remembered the songs and confirmed that nothing ever became of them. I arranged to meet him in London where I showcased some demos I had recorded of his compositions. He absolutely loved them and jumped at the opportunity of producing my next album. That is how ‘Hidden Gems’ was born, and that is also what inspired the title track of the album.
Walk us through your mindset as you entered the studio to record the album.
‘Hidden Gems’ was recorded in multiple studios, beginning in my home studio (scratch vocals, acoustic guitars, keyboards, (some of which survived onto the final mixes), moving to Brick Road Studio in Scottsdale, AZ (drums and some vocals), additional production and overdubbing at MaD Studios in Leigh-On-Sea, UK, and culminating with the final sessions in Studio 2 at Abbey Road Studios in London (vocals, guitars, pianos, percussion). For me, the opportunity and experience of recording at Abbey Road was indeed one of the highlights of my life. Walking into that iconic space where so much musical history emanated was overwhelming. Standing on that hallowed ground and using some of the very same microphones and pianos that the Beatles themselves used brought indescribable emotions. As I set out to record my first lead vocal in Studio 2, I was so overcome by my surroundings that I found myself forgetting the lyrics and having to sing with my eyes shut tight just to avoid the distractions created by the aura of the room.
How did you get started in music?
Like so many, my musical journey began on February 9, 1964, when I was seven years old. That’s the day the Beatles made their first appearance on the ‘Ed Sullivan Show’ and that’s the day my life was forever changed. I was so captivated by their sound and presence that the remainder of my childhood would revolve around music. From that point on, I went to bed every night with my radio tuned to W-A-Beatle-C in New York and, as the songs resonated throughout my sleep stages, they made an indelible mark that would inspire me to make my own music years later. The British Invasion, Motown, the amazing products of Laurel Canyon, and the rest of the legendary artists of the time formed the soundtrack of my life and set me on a course that, decades later, would yield my own interpretations of this classic period of songwriting and musical production.
Though I played drums in my elementary school band, took some basic guitar lessons as a teenager, and sang in the school chorus, it was not until I was around 20 years old that I started to teach myself to play the guitar, merely so I had something to sing to. Then, a few years later, I got a hand-me-down piano and proceeded to learn every Elton John and Billy Joel song I could teach myself. In around 1988, I began crafting songs of my own. In 2016, my children urged me to record some of my original material and so began my evolution into the world of professional songwriting and recording.
Did your sound evolve naturally, or did you deliberately push it in a certain direction?
At the outset, as a novice recording artist, I relied exclusively on my producers for arranging, direction, style, and mixing. As I gained more confidence, I started to have my own opinions about how I should sound and, as most artists likely do, I began to take more control over many aspects of the process. Still, I am always open to input from my producers, based on their experience and objectivity. The tug-of-war has always been their drive to modernize my sound as I strive to reinvent the nostalgic atmosphere of the era and the legends that inspired me. In that respect, I think you can say it was a natural progression that was always a part of me.
Are there any special recording techniques you use in the studio?
My process has changed as I’ve become a more confident songwriter and musician. At the beginning, I would simply play (on guitar or piano) a live version of an original tune for my producer, and he would then perfect the arrangement and create a pre-production track on which to build. Today, I do almost all my own arranging and produce my own demos in my home studio. The demos then become the initial pre-production tracks for which we overdub with studio musicians, retakes of my own guitar and/or keyboards, and fresh vocals. The actual recording techniques are still left to my producers, but I am very much involved in the entire process, up to and including final mixing.
What is your definition of tone? And has your tone changed over time?
The overall sound, warmth, strength, and attitude of the mix comprise the tone of a song. From a vocal perspective, my tone has evolved dramatically since I began seriously recording in 2016. At the beginning, I was such a novice and so happy to just be living this dream, that I was more focused on the process than the result. I think if you compare the sound of each of my albums chronologically, there is a very distinctive upward trajectory in tone, performance, songwriting, and production, with ‘Hidden Gems’ clearly rising above the rest.
How do you keep your sound consistent on stage?
I run a multinational company and, as such, have not had much time for touring. I’ve done a few small, neighborhood gigs but hope to branch out and reach more of a live audience later, perhaps in my retirement years. I do love performing and so, whenever I get the opportunity, I am always eager to do so. As a solo performer of both covers and original material, consistency is not always my priority. Sometimes I use backing tracks which always ensure a constant deliverable but more and more, I am just singing along to my own solo piano or guitar which makes for a more raw and more impassioned sound, while allowing me to change things up to make it more interesting, at least for me. My one remaining ‘bucket list’ item is to play my own material with a live band. There is nothing quite like seeing an original composition come to life in the studio with professional musicians and expert production, mixing, and mastering, but I can’t imagine the thrill of playing that same material to a live audience, with a full contingent of talented musicians backing me up.
What inspires your writing? Do you draw inspiration from poems, music, or other media?
For me, the hardest part of songwriting is devising the subject matter. As a storyteller, I am always looking for an underlying message or theme on which to build my composition. Once I have an idea for what I want to write about, the words usually flow quite easily, though my editing process always continues right up until I record the lead vocal. Sometimes, a news story or significant emotional event inspires me to write but, just as often, the mood of a musical riff I’ve stumbled upon helps determine the mood and direction of the lyrics. There are also occasions when I come across a particular saying or group of words and say to myself, ‘hey, that might make a good song.’ On the ‘Hidden Gems’ album, there are many different sources of inspiration. For instance, ‘One Day at a Time’ was obviously written about the COVID pandemic. ‘Stranger’ is about a dream I had where John Lennon came to visit me, ‘It’s Raining Somewhere’ is a song about compartmentalizing when faced with a health crisis (which was an actual circumstance that inspired the song), ‘Abbey Road’ brings to life a unique experience I had in 2014 of taking a private tour of the studio, and ‘Time of Our Lives’ is a great example of first composing a musical theme that then dictated the subject matter.
What can you share about your writing process?
I have no single process for writing a song. Often, I write the music and lyrics together but there are occasions where either the music or the lyrics might come first. In virtually all instances, the final lyrics seldom resemble the initial iterations. Sometimes I change the words to make the song ‘sing better,’ or to express my thoughts more clearly or concisely, but I’ve also been known to completely revamp the storyline once the music comes together. At the beginning, I wrote all my songs on the piano but, as I became more determined as an acoustic guitarist, I have been writing more and more on guitar.
Which artists in your opinion are killing it right now?
Reading reviews on my own releases confirms what we all know about different perspectives of art. That is, there are many different perspectives on art. It’s always interesting to receive diametrically opposing interpretations and assessments of the same song. Everybody’s taste differs and what appeals to one may be quite unappealing to another. I’ve learned not to judge the judges, but I’ve also learned not to judge others’ artistic style or material. As somebody who grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, I am always drawn to those artists that share that same inspiration. Of course, who isn’t inspired by the Beatles in some fashion? Charting artists like Ed Sheeran, The Weeknd, Shakira, and Taylor Swift, just to name a few, are certainly ‘killing it’ as you say but, in today’s streaming environment, where there are literally tens of thousands of songs being uploaded to mainstream platforms daily, can we really say that the biggest stars are the ones producing the best music? I think not. The challenge, of course, is for the more obscure artists, with quality sound and strong messaging, to be able to break through all the noise and find the notoriety that their efforts may deserve.
What can your fans look forward to over the next six months? Music videos? Live gigs?
My Abbey Road experience began as a fantasy, evolved into a dream, and ended up a reality. Fortunately, I opted to have a professional videographer on hand during the ‘Hidden Gems’ sessions, and there are already seven official music videos and one highlight film, all captured in Studio 2. For anybody that shares my passion for the musical history of that sacred room, these videos will provoke deep emotions and give the audience a peek into what it was like for a devoted Beatles enthusiast to live his dream and write his own history at Abbey Road Studios. Live gigs? We shall see…