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Meet BJ Wilbanks

Today we’d like to introduce you to BJ Wilbanks.

BJ, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
Started playing guitar around age 10-11. My Pawpaw, (mother father/grandpa), showed me how to play a few guitar licks and eventually graduated into rifts. He also showed me how to play my first song which was a gospel song called “Victory in Jesus.” I wasn’t really trying to learn for a reason other than, I loved being with my Pawpaw and always wanted to do what he enjoyed, i.e., play pool, build stuff, etc. The thing he loved most, from what I could tell, was playing music; I’ve never seen him grin larger than when he was slapping keys on the piano and singing. Actually, one of the tunes he’d often begin with as a warm-up was the one that caught/hooked me in the soul. He used to play “Tell Me What I Say” by Ray Charles just to get the juices flowing. I mean, he also loved that tune, who doesn’t? Well, I’d never heard anything like that before, especially not upfront and live. I remember feeling like, “Wow. That’s what I wanna do.” I think that’s when I decided to or figure out that I was to be a musician/artist whether I was aware of it or not. Because after that, I tried to learn and teach myself every song that I loved or wanted to know. I never have any formal training or lessons, so I relied solely on my ear and just kinda moved my fingers on the fretboard until the right sound came out. I found much later that, I play the guitar rather oddly and often had my fingers in the “wrong” order for chord structures.

I eventually began to use a bit of the “suggested” or “taught” way to play the guitar, but couldn’t shake the style I had developed from my naivety/ignorance of “proper guitar playing technique.” At first, I was upset to find, that the way I played was wrong and it made me feel inferior as a player. I realized until much later that this fault was actually also a strength due to how different/original the sound was that I was making. I got an odd way of doing chords, but also I pick strange and do a lot of rhythmic hammer-ons and pull-offs from what many seasoned guitar players have told me. I remember one of the first times I actually felt good about myself as a guitar player; we were recording a song somewhere in Nashville. This was the first time I’d ever really done this. I had this song where I was doing my thing you know, and it was really hard for me to do the guitar part in time with a click. The engineer suggested we do it to a click track so it would be easier if we wanted to over-dub anything later. Well, hell, I just couldn’t. So, the engineer, (also an accomplished professional guitar player) attempted to learn it from me and do the guitar himself. I was fully on board with this idea and said something like, “Shit, I don’t care, let’s do it. Whatever gets us to the end result and makes the song better.”

It didn’t hurt my ego in the least, because I didn’t really have one as a guitar player anyway, quite the opposite actually. Well, to my surprise, he was having one hell of a time trying to learn it and an even harder time trying to record/play it. I found out it wasn’t because of the song BPM or click really, it was simply because of the way I play the guitar and that the song naturally sped up and slowed down. After he wrestled with it for a good hour, he said, “Damn son, you play the guitar stranger than I’ve ever seen.” I felt bad and said, “I’m sorry man, I’m really not that good of a guitar player. I feel bad taking up so much of your time.” He said, “Hell no man! Don’t be sorry and don’t feel bad. You got an original style of playing and it sounds great, like no other thing I’ve heard. Shit man, I can’t even play it! Now get your ass in there and let’s record this shit live, with the band, and without a fucking click.” Little did I know, but this moment was a significant one in my life where I would finally start to embrace my flaws/strengths and began to work harder at honing my craft, musicianship, and artistic ability. At the time, I already loved song-writing and considered myself to be pretty damn good at it. This confidence was also something I’d stumble upon and would be the true beginning of music becoming the biggest part of my life.

After I got good enough to play chords fluidly and could actually carry a tune, I put the guitar down and forgot about it. I only did it as a hobby or as “something to learn” to begin with I guess. Around age 13-14, my mom got me an electric guitar for my birthday and even it sat in the corner and rarely got any use from me. Looking back, I reckon there just wasn’t a reason for me to need it or do it. Also, I think when you’re that young there’s a lot of other shit going on that seems to be more important or get’s in the way rather. At that time, I was in school, playing football (and a bunch of other sports), my mom and dad got divorced, I was starting to get into having girlfriends, etc. Plus, I never even gave it one thought that I was actually good at the guitar or singing at all. So, it never occurred to me to pursue it. Also, my parents never encouraged or pushed me to do it. No offense or hit to them on this, it just wasn’t something they didn’t do. As I said, my Pawpaw was my first musical influence. I did it to bond with him and because he loved it. He actually had a band with his three sons back in the day and almost won some big-time band competition that gets you sent up to New York for whatever show was famous at the time. They played juke-joints, music halls, and bars in Opelika/Phenix City, AL, and Columbus, GA. It’s a pretty cool story. I always liked it and wished I had that kind of bond with my parents/family. Anyway, getting off topic….

I’d always kept a guitar around, (mainly an acoustic), and would play/learn stuff for fun you know. I didn’t write my first song until I was about 18 years old. It came out of shear heartbreak, as most songs/poetry do. I remember a quote I heard from Willie Nelson soon after I wrote it; He said, “I felt like I always wrote my best at my worst.” I ain’t saying my first song we necessarily good, I just liked that idea he portrayed because it is somewhat true of music/art. Really though, anything you FEEL truly & deeply enough is what makes music/art really good or exceptional. Something from the soul is always more powerful to me. Ok, back to the story….

My girlfriend at the time was also my high school sweetheart. We’d been dating since I was a sophomore (10th grade) so we had been together for three years, (on and off in b/w there a few times). It was the year I was set to go to college. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get into UGA or GT because they already had too many white males and it didn’t matter how good of a GPA or SAT score you had; If you weren’t a female, a different race, or in a frat, you weren’t getting in. Yet, I had the HOPE scholarship, so I was definitely gonna go somewhere in state. Me and my buddies decided we’d all apply for Georgia Southern and we got accepted with no trouble at all. I didn’t really think about it at the time, but this would move me 5 hours away from my girlfriend. We already were growing apart and it was very clear we had different life goals/plans. She’d of married me and had kids as soon as we fell in love if she had it her way. I’m not discounting her dreams or saying they were any better than mine. Heck, this is actually something I could have considered if I’d have stayed in that town any longer. Plus, that’s what society tells us to do right? Anyway, long-story short, we tried to make the long distance relationship work and it just never does. Regardless of the falling out, I truly loved this woman. From the bottom of my heart. I still do. It hurt the hell out of me to have to end it. This is where the first song came from.

We finally met for the last time one day. We met sorta half-way between Calhoun and Statesboro which was somewhere in Macon. I decided I’d play her this song because it really did encompass how much I loved her. Plus, it wasn’t mine I felt, it was hers. She deserved to have it and it was her love that created it. I had this idea of us meeting and it being a beautiful end to our relationship. I even planned to meet her at a riverside in Macon and sing the song to her there, (corny I know). I was just trying to be as sweet as I could to a person I loved dearly and really didn’t want to let go, but we’d out-grown one another. We ended up meeting as I planned, but it wasn’t beautiful like I’d pictured in my mind. It was hot, we got bit up by bugs, and both of us damn near fell in the river due to the bank being exceptionally mushy at that particular season. That shit is funny to me now but was extremely devastating to me at the moment. She never showed a sign of care to those details. She was truly sad and really still in love with me. Anyway, we got it done and she’s doing fine now; married, with kids, and the whole nine yards.

I remember this being such a significant moment in my life not because it was the first song I ever wrote, but because it made me feel better. It actually made me physically, emotionally, and mentally FEEL better. It was an astounding realization/discovery. I’d never experienced this kind of therapy before. Hell, the only main reason I liked playing football was because I got to hit people and didn’t get in trouble. If I didn’t have that sport then, I’d probably have been in jail or something. This was HUGE for me. I’d been feeling sooooooo bad and hurt by this relationship/love ending. I’d lay in bed and just be broken for weeks. The song I wrote was a reflection of this the love and sadness I felt and actually translated the idea/feeling of it being necessary that this end and that it was going to happen. Fuck me that was something I have never done or experienced. So the reason for the long explanation is to answer your original question, “How did I get started?” Honestly, it was from this. After writing that song, I remember all the terrible feelings being gone or ok rather. I still had them, but they were on the paper and in a song so I could “let them go” rather in a manner of speaking. I had translated/transmitted the feeling inside of me and released the pain I couldn’t get past. This blew my mind, melted my heart, and ripped my soul wide open. From then on if I ever had trouble or felt bad, I simply played the guitar and tried to write/sing the feeling.

Still, though, this wasn’t for anyone but me. I NEVER played my music for anyone up to this point in my life; besides that one time by the river to my high school sweetheart. And man, that took everything I had to sing that to her. Not only because I was musically shy and scared to play in front of people, but mainly because it was song from my soul/heart AND I was heartbroken AND breaking her heart as well. FUCK. That shit hurt. Anyway, there was still no thought or vision of becoming a musician or playing for anyone at all. I still had no plan or dream to do music or take it seriously as a career/life goal. It took a few years later for me to even begin to fathom this idea. And It took me the loooongest damn time to being writing songs that weren’t sad-bastard tunes. It was hard for me to write from another feeling or perspective because that’s where my art had originated; out of sadness and heartbreak.

I finally had a friend of mine tell me how good my songs were. He forced me to play them and really gave me my first dose of confidence or purpose to give this music to the world. Unbeknown to me, he was sad as hell on one particular evening that he asked me to play one of my latest songs I had written. I played it and he cried. I felt bad and asked what was wrong, he said, “Please play it again.” I said, “No man, I’m not doing that, what’s wrong?” After a few more words, I reluctantly agreed to play it again and I guess it helped him to feel better. I didn’t think this was to be another moment of clarity for me, but it was. I made someone feel better with my music. Not just someone, a friend of mine who I’d never seen cry before or have any real loving emotion for that matter. He’s not a bad dude and has a very beautiful heart. Though, at the time, was just of those friends who mainly did for himself and was a fun guy to hang around. We all grow and get better hopefully though. And he is definitely a much more wonderful human the days and more in touch with his soul. I just remember thinking, “Wow. If I can make THIS person feel something and help them, then there are probably a lot of other folks who could use this music too.” Shit. That was heavy for me to realize/understand. It then, or soon after that, became apparent to me that it was possible or my responsibility rather, to give this gift that at first had only helped/been for me, to others.

Soon after this, I started a band with the aforementioned friend of mine. It went pretty well for a while but ended up fizzling out rather quickly. I think less than a year. So, not knowing what to do at this point, I just kept writing, singing, and playing, but only for myself and for the love of song-writing. I still didn’t really think I was good enough to be a “real” musician/singer. I had confidence in my songwriting now, but that wasn’t gonna get me out to play my shit to anyone anytime soon. Especially not a solo act. I had had a band to hide behind before, now what was I gonna do? So, I just stopped playing out live and retreated back to my room/couch and continued music as a self-serving therapy. Eventually, I got the notion to try a few open mics. I can’t remember what exactly influenced or spawned this decision, but I don’t think it was anything monumental. I remember just thinking one day, “Why the fuck am I so scared to play in front of people? Why am I being such a bitch?” So with that, I guess I forced myself to go out and do this to overcome the fear. Not to help anyone or show off, simply just to stop being scared of playing in front of people. That is something I always done for whatever reason. I have always tried to go and do/try things that I am scared of. And almost always, or more than not, it turns out to be great for me or betters my life/confidence in some way. Like I someone I forget once said, “It doesn’t matter how you get there, just so long as you do, and you’ll never get there if you don’t try.” I might have chopped, pieced, and gangsta-paraphrased a few quotes together to get to that shit, yet I feel wrong saying that that quote is of my own creation. Like all good music/art everything is borrowed.

So, here I am, not really pursuing a musical life or taking myself seriously as an artist. Yet I am going out and playing 1-3 songs every so often at whatever place will allow me to get in front of a microphone and emit sounds out loud to unsuspecting crowds/people. I wasn’t expecting praise or anything really other than trying to overcome a fear as I mentioned before. Out of this, came a number of people telling me that I should do this music thing and really consider recording my songs. I couldn’t believe it. Me? Are you fucking serious? So this happened a few more time until a good friend/acquaintance of mine said, “Look BJ, I’m serious. You have to do your music, get it out there. It’s too good and too beautiful to keep to yourself.” And then this friend gave me $500 to use towards recording. No matter how many times I refused, they wouldn’t let me not take the dough. So, technically this is where I guess I got started doing music. Dragged along the way and somewhat finally forced to become serious about my art and the music I create. I’m so glad that happened. I’m so glad I finally got to what I am truly meant to do and love so much that it’s not a selfish endeavor. No true soul music can ever a selfish endeavor I feel. No one owns it or can ever own it really. It is no ones’ and everyone’s’ at the same time.

Has it been a smooth road?
It’s been ok, aside from a lot of learning speed bumps here and there. It’s been pretty smooth for me overall. The only hard part is keeping a full-time job throughout all of this. Oh and completely funding my album/band and all project by myself. That’s really tough at times. Music is beginning to finally pay me, but my goal, of course, was not to make oodles of money in music. Yet now I am striving to make it lucrative so I can continue to ONLY do music as my full-time gig. Sincerely Music IS my main job/career. I’ve begun to change the way I speak about it. When people ask me, “What do you do for a living?” I say I am a musician, oh and I have a part-time 40 hr a week job on the side. It’s just in the transition phase right now. I’ve taken more effort in the past two years in my music to create a means of living and it is working really well. I’d say I’ll be able to quit my job very soon in the next 4-6 months.

I’d say that this is the main struggle for most artists/musicians. Not having money or the ability to support yourself doing art or “art-focused” career is the major hindrance to anyone going the route for it to become an actual “career” or “living.” It’s all about the climb.

We’d love to hear more about your work.
Well, I think my versatility is really what sets me apart. First off, I do every style of music. Not as a challenge, I just do what I dig and I tend to dig a lot I guess. Plus, I always say, “The song is the boss.” I do what the music tells me to and if it tells me give me a Cuban rhythm with a funk guitar sound and 3 part harmony, hell, that’s what you do. I do this not only in my own music but even in other songs I create that I don’t sing or play on. I’m a musical omnivore by birth and am so fortunate to have had an upbringing where I got many doses of different digs.

This ability (to adapt or mesh in style) and my songwriting is what I’m mainly known for. I can write a damn good song with a hook that’ll never let you go. Once I realized this, I was like wow! I don’t just have to sing this or play this myself, I could simply produce it with a different band or whatever I feel the song is asking me to do. So right now I’m working on a song with a female artist as the lead singer. It’s kinda like a throwback Chaka Khan/Rufus thing with like an Alabama Shakes feel to it. Really cool. Oh, and I’m working with the super talented rapper on making a hip-hop love song. I wrote this hook and beat pattern that totally morphed into a rap song. It so much fun to take yourself out of the equation and work with other more talented people to create a sound. I’m floored.

Because it comes naturally and I enjoy doing it so much, I decided to really make this a key focal point of my business. So I have many more artist I plan to work with and can’t wait to see what projects will come out this year. This ability to be chameleon-like in music is also a great trait for licensing. This is actually what I stumbled into (much later than I would’ve liked too) and found that the industry is in need of. It gives you more area to cover in the film, TV, and commercial industry for song placement. So far we have made many great connections because of this overseas, across the industry, and even more into the music world as a result. So these two aspects of my music ability are really what sets me apart I feel. It’s crazy but I had SOOOOOO many people tell me, “BJ, you gotta pick a style and stick with it.” I was like, “Huh?!? I can’t do that. I can’t help but create what I create and this is it.” It is what it is and I’m glad I let it continue to be that. I never try to paddle upstream in the steam of consciousness. Hell, but sometimes that can get some pretty cool results maybe.

What I’m really saying is originality and individuality is what people want. Music, (and Film/TV for that matter too), is overloaded with clones, market-driven products, and a bunch of shit everybody has already done before. In this industry segment, you’ve heard the phrase, “Give the people what the want” as means of getting their attention to “buy’ your product. THIS is the way you make money they’ll tell you. I think not. While that phrase is true to a degree, the bigger truth is that people do not always know what they want. And more so than not, what they REALLY want is “something they’ve never seen/heard that they can also relate to.” So as artists, we must find a connection through ourselves to the rest of the world. Art is to be appreciated and shared. If we do not appreciate the individuality and love within our selves, how can others see or relate to that in our work? Individuality is key.

Is our city a good place to do what you do?
Wow. That is one of THE best & simple questions I have ever been asked about my music. I had no idea this interview was business-art driven. Thank you so much for making me consider this and pontificate on its pros/cons. This has actually been a discussion in our house for the last two years. Location is something I’ve been itching to change for a while. Decatur, GA is where I currently live. So, as a regular business, I do feel this is a good town for growth. But location has long not been an issue, or wall so-to-speak, in the art/music industry. Musicians, artists, actors, etc. get their biggest breaks from a simple email, connection to other artists, or as a result of one of their creations more so. The real hindrance or obstacle to success is getting it out there as far and wide as you can. You have to put the money behind international marketing. I’m sure you’ve seen bands, movies, or TV that didn’t do well in say the UK, but then it’s a hit in Japan or South Africa. It’s very vital to be worldly and really get your art/creation seen by as much of Earth as you can. You never know who is going to appreciate or feel a connection with your work.

What I mean is most everything can be done by way of phone or computer these days (especially in my industry). Then if need be, we can travel to where we need to meet or play. I feel that my current location isn’t good for my business because it is so stressful. A city this large does have benefits, but it does not feed my soul. It’s the latter actually. Constant noise, air, electromagnetic pollution really do wear on us. I have to go camping or hiking at least once a month to reset (feel better that is). I feel to make my business better, which is creating art, I need my life to be less hectic and more soul-filling. This is when/where I make the best music I feel. I’ve been working on an escape plan that should be going into effect before the end of this year. Wish me luck. Until then, I’ll keep hacking it out in this city. A little backstory though… I’m from a very small town and always had a garden. I’ve not had a garden in who the fuck knows how many years. That’s not my main beef, just a small assertion that alludes to the much larger problem; I have no time. To an almost damning extent, we are products of our environments whether we want to be or not. I don’t want to rush or hastily make my product/art.

The route to this better, small-town living is gonna be as a result of and paved by the work I’m doing now. I think we are very close. The path has been cleared, foundation has been laid, now I’m just waiting for it to dry. My dream hometown would be located somewhere in North Carolina near the mountains. My plan is to migrate there slowly over the next few years, but I’d definitely be willing to drastically re-locate if the opportunity presents itself.

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Image Credit:
Evan Leavitt, Mike Sears

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