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SIS Featured Songwriter: Tobias the Owl

27 Apr Posted by in Featured Artists | Comments
SIS Featured Songwriter: Tobias the Owl
 

The owl, in ancient traditions, is symbolic of wisdom…a guide to see beyond the obscuring veil of deception and illusion. The spirit of the owl is associated with an ability to see beyond what is hidden to most. And thus, it comes as no surprise that the journey of Seattle songwriter Tobias the Owl is one filled with deep revelation and insight, both personally and musically.

“I often wonder what makes music such an inherent part of the human experience,” he mused. “Songs become the soundtracks of our hearts and minds, and our brains feel sort of ‘hard-wired’ to resonate with music. Alongside the earliest cave paintings of humanity, there are patterns of attrition and attenuation on stalagmites, suggesting that tens of thousands of years ago, early humans may have been rhythmically beating on these structures in patterns creating early expressions of music.”

Tobias the Owl’s own expressions of music began in early childhood. “I’ve always had melodies and songs in my head as long as I can remember. I remember being a toddler, watching other children play, and writing melodies in my head. Music has always felt like it’s in my nature, as a listener and as a musician,” he noted.

That early love of music did not correlate with an early start as a performing musician however. “As a teenager,” he stated, “I was always working. I never had the time or resources to focus on making music. I paid my own way through school without taking any loans. As a student, I grew to love physics and the sciences. There really was never time to pursue music in any serious way. I was also very transient in my youth, and I never kept a musical instrument. It wasn’t until my twenties that I really had my own guitar.”

A health crisis a few years later became a catalyst to bring that guitar to the forefront of his life. “I was diagnosed with cancer. I wanted to play some of my songs before I underwent chemotherapy. The show that I played was with Jonah Tolchin, who started covering one of my songs. After I convalesced, Jonah had become very successful, and my song was on his album. I’ve always felt tremendous gratitude to Jonah and other folks who have spread my music,” he reflected. “It was really because of Jonah’s success with my song that I had the motivation and momentum to pursue music in a more serious way.”

That pursuit led to a writing process that is liquid. “Sometimes a melody is really compelling. Sometimes a phrase is really resonant. So my writing process is a little different for each song. Some of my songs are built around a lyrical idea or theme. Other songs are built around a skeleton of a melody. Some songs are finished within minutes. Others take months to evolve.”

“The only consistent aspect of my writing process,” he commented, “is that I record songs as soon as the inspiration hits me. I write down any lyrical notes right away. I try to at least make some recording of each musical idea immediately as well. I think capturing inspiration in some recorded way as soon as it hits is immensely valuable.”

Since his first shared show, Tobias the Owl has experienced the blessings of working in community. “Music is a very communal form of artistic expression,” he said. “My songs may start in my head, but each of us has a musical journey that I think is meant to be shared with others. I was also very motivated by hip hop artists. There’s a really strong sense of collaboration in the hip hop community on regional and national levels. I’ve felt like inviting others to participate in my musical expression has been a huge part of the process of finding a home for my music.”

Though he is well accepted and appreciated by his fellow songwriters across many genres, Tobias the Owl shares the challenges many creatives face. He reflected, “I’m sure every artist has paroxysms of intense self-doubt. For me, those moments of insecurity and doubt have been really acute and very frequent. I think that I would have pursued music more seriously and sooner, if I weren’t so frequently petrified by such intense self-doubt.”

Outside of the writing process, performing his music also comes at a steep cost. “As a performer, some of my insecurities manifest as really intense anxiety whenever I perform. In fact, I used to throw up before almost every performance. I would often avoid any meals on the day of a show so that I didn’t vomit. I now take beta blockers in order to dull the anxiety that I feel before performing,” he elaborated.

With such a high personal price to pay for persevering as a singer-songwriter, Tobias the Owl identified the factors that keep him moving forward in his creative endeavors. “Although I’ve found that the pursuit of music is really rewarding, it’s also been really arduous. People have often asked me what my goals are in pursuing music, and for a long time, I didn’t really have an adequate answer. The answer finally came to me in an email that I received from a fan in Germany—someone that I’ve never met,” Tobias explained. “He told me that he was going through a difficult time and that my music really helped him in facing his challenges. Because there have been times that I’ve heard a song that seems to ‘fit’ in my mind like a key in a keyhole, knowing there is someone in the world who will have that feeling with my songs keeps me motivated when the journey gets difficult.” He further elaborated, “I’ve come to realize that there are a lot of measures of success that are really elusive, but I’ve found my purpose in knowing that my music fits in the soundtrack of someone’s life somewhere. For me, having a sense of purpose has sustained me through some of the moments of self-doubt that I’ve had.”

In his own life, Tobias the Owl has a “soundtrack in my mind is a really dynamic landscape,” and “maybe the song ‘Murmurs’ is particularly poignant to the themes that I try to focus on. I write a lot of songs about what it means to be human in a universe that seems to overwhelmingly dwarf the scope of our existence, and ‘Murmurs’ is a nice encapsulation of that sentiment. It’s a song about feeling overwhelmed by the vastness of the universe, and feeling anchored by human connection.”

Tobias the Owl is reluctant to offer any advice to other writers because of the uniqueness of each writer’s journey. But he did offer that, “One important thing is to capture every moment of inspiration. Find some way, as portably and as easily as possible, to record every idea that you have.” Additionally, he stated, “I think it’s really important to figure out what you want to express with your musical voice. What is the unique lesson that you want to teach the world? What is the unique aspect of your experience that you want to communicate? I think, for each of us, honing our unique perspective on our place in the world is an important part of developing our voice.”

Using his own background as an example, Tobias stated, “I try to write a lot of songs that are born out of my passion for the sciences. We’re lucky to be living in a period of prolific discovery. We’re uncovering so many more dimensions and parameters of the universe that previous generations of humanity never could have imagined. I feel like my voice as a musician is in delving into the spiritual and philosophical ramifications of our expanding view of the universe.”

Building on his own rich experience with collaboration, Tobias the Owl reiterated its importance. “I would encourage young artists to build relationships with other musicians and friends. Don’t let your bedroom or recording studio become a dungeon of solitary confinement. Figure out ways you can evolve and grow in a community, and figure out what you can do to help your community evolve into a fertile soil for other artists.”

His advice is rooted again in his experience. “There are a ton of people that have connected to my music and have helped with the journey,” he said. “My co-artists, colleagues, listeners, and friends have been the most helpful, most rewarding part of my life as a musician. I often try to reflect on the fact that every note is a wave, and a wave has to be fixed at two points or nodes in order to oscillate. Music has to flow from a creator to a listener, and no song is finished until it’s been shared with someone else.”

Tobias the Owl’s latest release, “Every Eye is a Universe” has now become part of that wave of creativity flowing to the listener. He considers this album, “the best composition that I’ve produced.” But the universe continues to flow, and so does his creativity. “I’m writing new songs, and we’d like to make one more album. But at the moment, I still feel like our new album is very fresh. We did an initial tour in support of the album, but since its release, we’ve made a lot of new fans around the world. In the coming months, I’m hoping to do some further touring to some of the communities that have really embraced our new album.”

Steeped in his early love of the sciences and ever searching for wisdom and insight, Tobias the Owl finds himself musing on a quote from Georg Cantor: “The least particle ought to be considered as a world full of infinity of different creatures.” And now that ‘least particle’ is being examined with the eye, the mind, and the spirit of the one creature whose wisdom has been noted from ancient times to the present: Tobias the Owl.

About the Author
Char Seawell

Char Seawell is a singer-songwriter, novelist, and essayist from Bothell, WA.

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