By Diane DiMemmo

May 20, 2020

Singer-songwriter-guitarist Justin Gee marches distinctly to the beat of his own cadence; a steady, deliberate march toward realizing the goal of a successful live music performer. You see, Justin has only been performing live for about a year and a half. Yet, in only his second week performing ... he won a music contest that put him in the spotlight and earned him accolades that are very much deserved.

Self-taught on the guitar and bass, Justin has been meticulously honing his vocals and branding a unique folk/indie/alternative sound. His smooth-as-glass vocals and warm guitar chords strike me as a combination of Dave Matthews and John Mayer; not bad company with whom to be associated! Yet, he also has the drive to experiment and diversify his sound knowing that fresh, new material appeals to a wide fanbase.

Justin recently spoke with me at length about his rock and roll idols, his desire to collaborate and work with a band, and the dedication and work ethic it takes to make a name for yourself in the industry today. Watch our interview (above) or read our conversation (below) to learn about and connect with this exceptional up-and-coming artist!

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D: Welcome to the Asbury Park Vibes “Artist Spotlight” series, with singer-songwriter-guitarist Justin Gee from Springfield, New Jersey.

J: Thank you, Diane. Good to be here. I’m excited.

D: As we’re all stuck at home right now in quarantine, are you hanging in there ok?

J: I am; it is lucky that I love music as much as I do because it’s kept me sane this entire time. I bought myself a new keyboard since my old one busted out on me and have surrounded myself – immersed myself - in music now more than ever. It can really make four hours just fly by.

D: For those who don’t know you well, can you tell us a little about yourself?

J: Absolutely. I play the guitar, a little bit of bass, the piano and I sing. Technically, I play the trumpet and that’s how I got into music. I’d say my style of music is of the singer-songwriter variety. It has folky vibes, alternative vibes, some indie vibes, but definitely stems a lot from classic rock music, which I'd say is my soul, my inspiration. When I started playing music, I was eight years old. The reason I picked trumpet is actually, I wanted to play the drums, but they only had a certain amount of spots for the percussion ensemble. I think they allowed six kids to play, which I think is kind of discouraging for an eight-year-old kid to say you can't do this. I never actually got into the drums which I kind of always wanted to. So, as I played trumpet, I started being fascinated by other instruments. I took piano lessons when I was very little and I hated it. I took guitar lessons when I was little, I hated it. So, I started teaching myself and I started to get a much firmer grasp on the whole thing. The singing kind of just came along the way.

D: You know, I find it so interesting. You're probably the fourth or fifth musician that has told me recently, that you learned on your own, as opposed to receiving  formal instruction. Why do you think musicians, such as yourself, learn better on your own? 

J: I think it's because everyone has their own process at the end of the day, and I feel like when you take lessons, you're sticking to a mold that the teacher has set out for you; but maybe you don't move at that pace. Or maybe you move at a more accelerated pace. Maybe you just take a little longer to grasp things. I think it's all about timing and what works for you. I mean, I don't have the best attention span now still. I think when I was a kid, I did not have the attention span to be taught how to do this, just because it wasn't my cadence. And I'm a firm believer that everybody can teach themselves how to play music. Everybody can learn another language. I think music is the same, a very similar concept.

D: Now, I've been listening to your new song “Right Kinda Wrong” on YouTube. It’s great!

J: Thank you. Yeah, I posted it for the NPR Tiny Desk Contest series that they do every year.

D: What is your creative process to come up with a song like that?

J: I was actually just talking to somebody the other day about this. I don't ever sit down to try and write a song, I feel like every time I do that, it's awful. Obviously, it's subjective and my opinion, but it always sounds bad, because to me, it's forced. So I feel the best times when I write a song is a random melody just kind of comes out, and I like the melody. So what I'll do is, I'll either grab my phone real quick if the momentum is sticking with me, and I will break out the voice memo or video app just so I can get some audio [recorded]. And, I'll keep riffing on that and just keep mumbling, honestly, until it kind of makes sense to me. If I like it, I’ll keep working through it for a couple of weeks. I mean, I've had songs that take me four years to write and "Right Kinda Wrong” took like 45 minutes. I think it’s a very fun song, and that doesn't always happen. I think it's awesome that the iron kind of struck hot and I just kept rolling with the momentum. But I'd say each song turns out to be a different duration of time.

D: And does the music typically come to you first or the lyrics?

J: I write down lyrics constantly. I said that to a co-worker not too long ago. I'm always writing down lyrics to a song that probably won't ever be written. You could look through my notes. There's just so many analogies that I've made in life. I'd say probably the music comes first and then maybe I try and piece some of those words/lyrics that I have in my back pocket into the song. But if the lyrics don’t fit with that initial theme, then they just kind of sit there and wait to be used later (hopefully). I had this one legal pad that I used to write on when I lived in my mother's basement, and this thing has been through hell and back and just all decrepit and ripped up. But I could tell you where every single song is, every single lyric. It makes no sense [if someone looked at it], but it makes sense to us. 

D: When you think about where you are in your music career right now, what would you say is one struggle that you've had, and also one real positive experience has gotten you to where you are right now?

J: So, I'd say the struggle is I'm not the best at promoting myself. I am, very much an old soul. If I could have a flip phone, I would. So, social media and me ... we're not friends. It doesn't make sense to me. The algorithms; they’re just out the window. I don't want to deal with any of that. So, the hardest part is promotion and  getting myself out there. I'm very confident in myself as a musician, as I feel all of us should be. It's just, I'm not the best at putting myself there.

But I'd say, the best experience I've had so far, probably about a year ago (I've only been doing this for about a year under the name Justin Gee) is I had participated in an open mic showcase at this little dive bar by me. And if you were the best performance of the night, you would be slotted for the showcase "X" weeks later. So, you would have 5-6 musicians, and then the winner would win a $100 gift card and a free gig at the bar. So, I went in. I won my week at the open mic, which was really awesome. It was only my second/third week playing live and I wound up winning that over musicians that I thought were far superior over me. And I think that was the starting point I needed, that little jolt, to think hey, maybe I am all right at this.

D: That's a great story ... to have that type of validation happen so quickly after you've started.

J: Yeah, I got the show out of it and the show turned out to be awesome. A  lot of people were there and it was really cool!

D: Since you've only been doing this for about a year or so, what prompted you to make that step into the music world?

J: Fun little story ... when I was 16 years old, there was a girl that I was really into. And I had written her a song, and had played the song for her at a talent showcase. There was no winner or loser. And this happened to fall on her birthday. I was like, wow, what a great movie ending. I'm going to sing a song, going to win her back. Turns out, I couldn't sing when I was 16 years old. I thought, well I built it out, and it's awful. I'm not just saying that because I'm being hard on myself. It was really, really bad. So that [experience] really scarred me. The feedback I got wasn't the best, and the girl rejected me. And I was like, alright, maybe this songwriting thing is not really for me at the end of the day. But, obviously, music is a passion of mine.So, it's something that I kept going through and kept playing. And as I got older I  got my confidence up again. Finally an ex-girlfriend actually convinced me to go to an open mic night. And I went and conquered my fear. There were five people there and you would think I was playing at Madison Square Garden; my heart was racing. But now, I play shows in front of few hundred people, so that's cool.

D: Do you have that performance anxiety each time or is it a one and done?

J: No. Right before I go into singing, I may have a little liquid courage or whatever, but that's not going to subside it. There's still those nerves. So I feel it every time I go play before the start of it. If it's a gig that has multiple sets in a row, I'll be fine by that point [later in the set], because I’ve already been playing for a while, and I'm already warmed up.

D: When you're up on stage, how much do you notice the audience? Do you feel like you're singing directly to them or do you tune more into your performance?

J: I feel like it's good to do it both ways. I feel like contact is such a huge thing, and it's something that I'm not the best with. I close my eyes. But not in a way of fear but because I am feeling what I'm doing, I'm really, really into it. When I open my eyes and see them looking back … THAT is that connection. But I definitely, interact with them to a certain extent, smile with a fan every once in a while. And with DIY [music], we're not big, famous rock stars; I feel like we do have to have that that connection with people.

D: When I previously asked you what you wanted to talk about during this interview, you mentioned the DIY music industry, So I'm very intrigued by that. What’s your slant?

J: I had purchased an audio interface about a year ago and I knew absolutely nothing about recording, audio engineering, none of that. So, I watched some YouTube videos and one Masterclass, and thought I was a genius, and I was NOT at all. Everyone kept saying, why don't you just go to a studio? Well, studios are a lot of money, like an egregious amount of money that I don't really feel comfortable paying for one song of mine. The way the industry has trended, especially in the quarantine world right now, is you have to put this content out yourself because you can't go to a studio with this whole big production team. But you still see all these artists pushing out content. It might not be fully mastered, but it’s something that keeps their fans engaged. The DIY game is a definitely a struggle for sure. A lot of these bigger artists have people do things for them. They have publicists to handle their social media, they have managers, they have talent agents. And we don't have that luxury. So, for a guy who works a 9 to 5 job, I have to use any resource I possibly can. And that is, ultimately, myself at the end of the day.

D: You're a true entrepreneur.

J: Yeah, kind of. There's a few other DIY artists I know who have filed for their own LLC because their music is their business. So, if somebody wants some production work, they get paid through the LLC. It's all do-it-yourself, hardcore, roll up the sleeves [work]. I don't mind that because I do have a tough work ethic. I've always been a big fan of rolling up my sleeves and getting dirty and doing it myself. And I'm learning a lot, especially in quarantine. I've gotten really good with engineering here.

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D: What other venues have you played so far?

J: I've played at Crossroads in Garwood, The Fox and the Falcon in South Orange, Pino’s (a really cool spot) in Highland Park. There have been more shows coming but they don’t fall in your lap. You have to go get them.

D: What song or artist has been the most influential in helping you to develop as an artist, or who has given you the most inspiration?

J: I'm going to give you two. My absolute favorite artist in the entire world is Tom Petty. I think he's an absolute living legend. To be able to rock out for four decades, and just keep putting out hit after hit. I think there's something beyond special about that. And just him as a person, the way he carried himself through the seventies and eighties. He never really had any big drug scandals, never really had any affairs. He just seemed to play his music, and that's truly, truly awesome to me, as well as the way he structured his music. And the other one (this is maybe a little more left field) is the band Dawes. It’s led by two brothers – Taylor and Griffin Goldsmith. Taylor is a master wordsmith. The lyrics that this guy comes up with are amazing, and the analogies that he's able to tie in. Listening to him talk and conduct himself in interviews, and where he draws inspiration from; it’s channeled a lot to me. A lot of people try and draw their musical experiences from their life. But you can only write an entire album about your life [once]. You gotta be able to keep going after that. You have to be able to sing about social issues [for example]. There’s so much other stuff to sing about. I feel like he defines that in such a such a great way and really kind of opens that door for me. It's truly, truly excellent. You know those shows that you go to and you just can't stop smiling? You're just totally connected the entire time? That’s me every time I go to a Dawes show. I never want to leave, because it's just that perfect.

D: What kinds of experiences inspire your writing?

J: A lot come from life experiences, or from friends’ life experiences and being able to put yourself in their shoes. One thing I love about writing, in general, is what they call the “object relative.” You could sing about "I” and “you” and make it sound as personal as it is, but it's not. You’re singing about something. So, you can think about heartbreak that never happened. Who's a song about? It's about nobody. This is a feeling that can happen to you or anybody, so it's just being able to relate to it. Peel back the skin of it and put yourself in somebody else's shoes and twist it. The newspaper, there's some great writers out there, magazines. Writers nowadays are, I think, under-appreciated because we live in a very audio-visual world (like with YouTube, which I live off of). The reading content unfortunately seems to fall by the wayside at the end of the day. But I mean, like, there's some beautiful wordsmiths out there that really can just tie a sentence together better than I could.

D: What projects do you have going on right now?

J: I have a few things going on right now. One of them is  a folk-rock song. It's called “Where I'm From.” I'm a very, very big fan of it. I hope to have it mastered by somebody to make it sound a little bit better than what it does right now. But I feel really comfortable with this product right now, so I'm getting ready to pump it out. I've also been sampling with a different sounds, combining a lo-fi electronic beat into my acoustic music. I've had some fun jam sessions, laid it out myself, so I kind of want to see where those go. It's totally not my style, my brand, but diversification is everything, especially in music. Because if you have that same sound over 5-6 records, people will tune out. But if your sound keeps changing. The Beatles sound kept changing, people kept listening and tuning in just because we [musicians] progress.

D: Yes, innovation, trying new things. It keeps it fresh. Otherwise the music gets stale.

J: 100%. There's a bunch of things that I want to start incorporating into my music, especially once we're allowed to jam and do normal people things. So, I would like to incorporate maybe some violins, some strings, some saxophones into my music. I have a lot of ideas to execute at this point.

D: You brought me right into my next question! Is collaboration something you hope to do in the future with other artists?

J: Definitely. In fact, I would love to have a band. I think the solo artist thing is totally fun, but with collaborations to be able to kick ideas off each other. It (the music and songwriting process] is then not just my opinion anymore. I may write a song that could be awesome, but I don't think so, and I've thrown it away. Somebody else could have stopped me from doing that; but because I sit here, alone writing music, my opinion is the only thing I've got. And I'm going to throw it out the window if I don't like it. Having that collaborative experience really ties it altogether. And I would probably be less hard on myself, at the end of the day.

D: With working alone, though, you don’t have any distractions and you probably get a lot done. I guess there are pluses and minuses to both.

J: 100%. When I lock in on something, when it’s on … I am locked in.

D: What do you do when you’re not making music?

J: I work in live event production so my company produces a lot of marathons, bike rides. We work for a lot of non-profits events. I get to build up a lot of really, really awesome events for a variety of clients for many beautiful causes. And it's exhilarating to me. The idea behind live event production is that anything can go wrong at any time. It's not a movie, it's not a TV show. I have one shot at all of this so I love that. Nobody in my field ever goes to school for event production. You kind of just fall into it. I've worked with history majors and math majors and people from all walks of life who are really good at this one really odd thing. And that's making events happen. It's a little difficult right now, obviously, with the scope of everything. So, our big shift has been to the virtual world. We’ve become wizards and experts in producing virtual events. In fact, this past Friday, we hosted a talent show fundraiser for our freelance staff, because for some of them, this is their job. You know, working freelance events and going from event to event is the way they live their life. And we can't have mass gatherings, so they don't really make a whole lot, and it’s unfortunate. So, we thought of this fundraiser where myself and a few others participated. We raised about $7000 for a pool of about 50 to 75 people. If they wanted it, they could have a cut of it. If they didn't, they could pass it on to people who did need it. So, it was a really fun way to tie in my love of music into a great cause for people who make my work-life easy.

D: It seems like you love both jobs [live event production and music] very much.

J: Very much so. This should have been my pinnacle of work right now. I should have just come off the craziest event of the year  this past weekend. It didn't happen, obviously, so it was really weird not being as busy as I should have been. I've had all these weekends where I would have been on site or in another state doing some event. I'm sure it's weird for everyone but my industry, specifically, because we're not used to having a [free] weekend.

D: When things do go back to normal (hopefully sooner rather than later), what are your goals for Justin Gee music. In what direction are you pointed?

J: I'm hoping to get better at the social media game and really make it a discipline. I'm happy we're having this interview because growing up around Freehold … Asbury Park is a hop, skip, and a jump away from me for many a year. So, a lot of those venues, I know like the back of my hand. To be able to play on stage, at any of them would be super awesome. The Stone Pony, The Saint, The Wonder Bar. I’m in. I’m down for all of it. And I feel like like the people in Asbury would kind of like the vibe I put out.

D: I know they'd love it. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you. I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me.

J: I really appreciate it. Thank you so much.

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Asbury Park Vibes

Asbury Park Vibes is a media publication dedicated to shining a light on the live music scene! We strive to provide show reviews and photographs that capture the true essence and fan experience of each concert.

Our coverage focuses keenly on the artists and venues in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York; however, you'll also catch us promoting musicians all across the U.S!!! There is nothing better than the ENERGY and VIBES you feel when you experience a live concert! We're sure we'll see you at a show somewhere very soon!

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