Interview: Colorado singer/songwriter Craig Donaldson

Colorado-based singer/songwriter Craig Donaldson has just released his new country album Say It Out Loud.

Q: What was your introduction to music? How old were you, and how did it affect you?

A: My older sister started giving me piano lessons when I was five-years-old. I quickly realized that I could play “by ear” as well as reading notes on a page. I’d hear songs on the radio, record player, or people singing Christmas carols, etc., and I could quickly figure out how to play them on the piano.  Once in a while, my mom would sing around the house or in the car, and I’d sing harmony.  The parts were just right there in my head.  I thought nothing of it, but those around me were impressed.  My mom encouraged me musically, signing me up for band in the fourth grade, and she got me my first instrument, a clarinet.  Like most 10-year-old boys, I wanted to play drums or trumpet.  All my music teachers recognized what I could do and also encouraged me which, coupled with talent, made it natural and easy to be involved in music throughout school.  In high school, I was selected to the all-state choir, and Colorado State University awarded me a Creative and Performing Arts scholarship.  I later graduated from the University of Colorado with a B.A. in music with honors, and all of these events made for a good launching pad to become a professional musician.

Q: Did you grow up in a musical environment?

A: Yes.  My mom played piano and could read music. My sister was a very talented, classically-trained pianist.  My brother and dad were music lovers and discerning listeners (and they bought lots of records). As I mentioned above, school was a good environment, too.

Q: What styles of music had the greatest impact on you creatively?

A: There are a few, but what has mostly influenced my writing and producing (where most of my creativity emerges) has been leading-edge country music, i.e., country that crosses over to pop and often sets trends for what’s to come in the genre. The Eagles and Glen Campbell are good examples of how that happens. More recent examples are Phil Vassar and Sara Evans. You can certainly find all of their influences in my writing and production.

Q: How did you learn how to sing and write tunes?

A: My singing ability has come naturally since my first memories.  I sang in the high school choir, madrigal singers and musicals, and later I was trained classically in college as part of my scholarship, taking voice lessons, singing in the concert choir and the men’s chorus, and performing in the annual spring opera.  I started singing professionally when I was about 22 and have had plenty of opportunities to grow and improve since then.

It’s difficult to pin down when or how I learned how to write music, but a few experiences come to mind:  the first time I ever tried to write a song was in college.  Some evenings, I would sit at the piano in the lounge of my dorm and tinker around with chord progressions and melody.  After working on that song for a while, I noticed that a handful of students would gather to listen.  Nevertheless, the attention was somewhat encouraging, so I kept trying to write songs.  There is one other experience in my life that clearly stands out as the most significant factor in advancing my writing:  when I was about 23, I got a job as a staff writer/producer at Great American Music Machine (GrAMM) - a national commercial production company that was headquartered in Denver.

Q: What was that experience like?

A: GrAMM was the first real studio I worked at, and after leaving there, I worked at dozens of studios and production houses, mostly as a first-call studio vocalist, in Denver, Nashville, and L.A.  I enjoyed that very much. Most of the work was at GrAMM.  At its peak, on average, our staff there was writing and producing one original and 75 syndicated pieces of music per week.  That’s too many to count over the many years I worked there.  (This doesn’t count the others that I created when working at other studios.)  Candidly, GrAMM was a bit of a factory, a very successful one, and while a staff job there sounds like a creatively stifling place to work, it exposed me to a wide array of players, singers, engineers, and producers that some never get to experience. I also learned how to engineer there, and it was a wonderful laboratory to fine-tune one’s musical skills (including singing, producing and playing) as well as learn how to meet commercial expectations. I haven’t written or produced a radio or TV commercial in years, but I do still occasionally get hired to sing them.

Q: What is the most personal track on the LP and why?

A: Wow, hard to say, but if I had to pick one, it would be "The Horse You Rode In On."  My wife is a horse owner/fanatic, and the song is a tribute to her, her lifestyle and her beloved animals.  The song is a boy-meets-girl story.  The “smoky buckskin mare” is my wife’s horse.  The girl is a barrel racer.  My wife isn’t a barrel racer, but creativity needs a place to go, right?

Q: How have you evolved creatively?

A: Recording and producing music is integral to my participation in music, and it’s an inextricable part of writing for me.  It might seem strange, but at least when creating the music, I can only envision it as a finished, recorded work. When first starting out, I wrote and sang what came into my heart - the essence of creativity, right?  Then as a staff writer/producer, your priority changes because your creativity is directed, at least in some respect, by the one paying you.  To some degree, I guess that’s also true when you’re trying to sell your “non-commercial” music.  What may not be apparent to you:  my music career was interrupted by a 30-year law career.  I’ve semi-retired from practicing law and have returned to music, and I have no expectations about pleasing anyone or selling anything.  I do this now because I’m back to just loving what I do and creating what comes into my heart.