Q&A with poetic alternative folk songwriter Cujo Moon

  Image credit: Rae Mercedes

Previously featured on Indie Music (read feature) with his latest video, musician Cujo Moon makes alternative folk music that comforts the soul. After several years as a band member (Dream the Electric Sleep, The Wild Jays, and duo Neon Rain) Trevor Willmott a.k.a. Cujo Moon decided to produce music of his own as a form of catharsis for his past traumas. The results are spellbinding and sure to touch many who have felt isolated or alone in their lives. The songwriter unveiled his latest single ‘Watch You Shine’ last week and we are obsessed.

We chatted with poetic songwriter Cujo Moon below.

Stream/Download ‘Watch You Shine’

What has been the most exciting part of launching your latest single as a solo act?

‘Watch You Shine’ was really important to me because of everything that happened around the time it was recorded. I wrote the song in October of 2018 and that December, a very talented and dear student of mine committed suicide at the age of 14. It was such a tragic event and sent a shockwave through the community. Speaking at the funeral had to be one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done in my life. Jaden took guitar lessons for many years and was always such a joy to teach. He played in many recitals and always blew everyone away with his skills (not to mention his martial arts prowess and intellectual aptitude!). And though the song was written before everything happened, it resonated with the events that unfolded. Because I produced it in the weeks that followed, it remains very close to my heart in this way. I’m dedicating the song to his loving family in memory of Jaden. I also hope that it serves as a beacon for raising mental health awareness and suicide awareness in general. 

 Your single ‘Watch You Shine’ is a mesmerizing listen. Does the single evoke the emotions you initially pictured for the single?

Well, thank you! I wrote the whole song in about 30 minutes or so just laying on my bed. I had been watching a TV show where a father was reunited with his son after years of drug abuse. It was a bittersweet reunion and the emotions were tense. It really resonated with me as I too have struggled with drug use and running from my own mental health problems. Thankfully I am at a much better place now but it took a long time. I guess I really feel for anyone dealing with addiction or a sense of disconnection from the world around them. Depression and anxiety ruled my life for many years so a lot of my music strikes a chord with these emotions in one way or another.

With ‘Watch You Shine’ the most exciting part for me was hearing the production take shape. When it comes to my solo singer-songwriter material, I’ve typically just let it remain as acoustic guitar and vocals. But in searching for a new direction, I wanted to try something different with this one. I ended up adding a bunch of string layers and obviously the big percussion drop at the end. The initial sketch for the production was done within a few sessions and I showed it to a few close friends and family. I already felt good about the track and after getting a solid response. I ended up producing more tracks with a similar palette. That being said, I am very grateful that this song happened because it led to me producing the rest of the Cujo Moon songs. In general, think it encapsulates what I wanted these first two EP’s to represent both emotionally and sonically. 

Looking back, what were some of your earliest entries into music appreciation? And music production?

Oh wow, this is a dense question! I have so many random memories regarding my fascination with music. A funny one that is coming to mind is when I saw an episode with The Beets from that old Nickelodeon show, Doug. I remember going to school the next day (probably around 3rd grade) and wanting to start a band with my friend, Alex. We drew random sketches of what the band would look like and who would play each instrument. I had just started taking guitar lessons so this had to be one of my earliest fantasies of being in a band. Funny enough, this materialized around 7th grade and we actually started a band! 

To continue this a little further, I think one of the big turning points for me was learning to record. My parents had this old Dell computer that we loaded a software program onto (Cakewalk I think?) so I could record myself. I literally went straight out of my electric guitar into a 1/4 inch to 1/8 inch adapter right into the sound card on the back of the computer. Talk about tone. Oooh, it was awful but I fell in love with the process. Sitting there for hours getting takes the way I wanted them…honestly, it might be what sparked my dormant OCD hahaha. But really, it was magical and I loved layering parts. I ended up pairing the almighty Microsoft Paint with this little DIY CD printer kit to make album artwork…Oh, the spray paint tool was my favorite. I can’t remember how many of those CD’s I made but I’m sure my mother still has them in some kind of safe. 😀

One other event that is coming to mind as a major turning point is when I did this assignment in 7th or 8th grade for my English class. My friend Tyler and I chose to write a song based on the book Flowers for Algernon. It was one of the first times I really tried singing and writing complete lyrics. When we finished the song, we had to share it with the class (which was extremely frightening). Thank god it was recorded and not a real performance. From what I remember it went over pretty well and I know I was proud of the song we had created. My passion for music really picked up momentum from there.

Take us through your songwriting process. Are there any particular steps you take when putting music together?

For the Cujo Moon material, I have mostly been keeping it a two-step process. First, I will write the song (lyrics, melody, chord progression) with an acoustic guitar and make sure it is feeling good in that realm. If the song is not flowing, then I usually scrap it, rewrite it, or move onto another one for a while. Once I have the song feeling natural in that stripped-down state, then I will start recording the scratch tracks in Logic. This then allows me to start playing with the production to get a sense of where it wants to go sonically. Every now and then I might change the structure if something feels off, but I typically try to make those decisions before moving into the DAW. 

I have also messed with other processes like starting with the production and writing lyrics from there. That’s actually how Mirror Image (off of the upcoming EP) came to be. That was a really fun track that never would have happened if I started with an acoustic guitar. And considering I don’t like repeating the same sound over and over I will certainly experiment with different approaches moving forward. But from the purest standpoint, if the song feels good on acoustic, it’s usually a good sign. It’s kind of a litmus test for how much potential a song has.

As a musician, it becomes apparent that there is a huge difference between the art and the business. Is there anything about the music scene that you would personally change?

Definitely! In Nashville specifically, we totally need a “Jaded Musician’s Anonymous.”  I’m partly joking but it’s truly a silent killer here. I was so excited moving to Music City back in 2008 right after high school and then slowly over the years I grew extremely jaded. I had no faith in the industry at a certain point and considered anyone who was making it some kind of sell-out. In reality, I was just subconsciously frustrated with my own habits. But, over time it became so much easier to blame all of my problems on the business rather than take responsibility. And when you get sucked into that negative energy, there are plenty of people who will resonate with you and feed it more…So it becomes a downward spiral real quick.

All in all, I think it’s totally fair to feel jaded. I still have my moments. But at the end of the day, swimming around in that headspace doesn’t help anyone wake up and make music. You really have to let go and just create. Diving into the process is the only remedy I have found. If I go too long without making something new, the old thought patterns creep in (read The War of Art or The Artist’s Way…great books on this topic). 

So, to answer the question, I think artists need more mental health support to do what they do best. The music industry is a place that can make you feel completely invisible, release after release. And if you focus your energy on that, you won’t have what it takes to keep creating. And being creative over and over is the very thing that will make you better, which is what will ultimately let you carve a niche out for yourself. I mean hey, I landed in a relationship with a mental health therapist. Such a blessing. Go figure! 😀

Studio work and music creation or performing and interacting with a live audience, which do you prefer?

This is a tricky one! I think overall, the moment of creating something new is a feeling I’ve never been able to top. So, my gut would go with the writing/production process. But, playing live with a band can feel a lot like that in certain moments where everything aligns. Some of the shows I played with The Wild Jays are up there with the memorable moments of my life. The energy of live music and a crowd all coming together is an incredible experience. But since the Cujo Moon material is more in the singer-songwriter realm, I don’t think a solo live performance could quite capture that same energy for me. However, I am hoping to pull a band together at some point to recreate the other layers in the production which would help give it that epic feel. I get pretty terrible nerves before shows, so the introverted nature of the studio really draws me in.

What is the most memorable response you have had to your music?

Honestly, what comes to mind is back in college when Vinay and I released our first album as Neon Rain. Someone we both knew emailed us after a month or so thanking us for the music. The album had helped them through a suicidal period when nothing else was working. I remember feeling like everything I had ever done with music was leading up to that one email. I’m speaking for Vinay here, but I know it meant the world to both of us. 

I personally was going through serious bouts of depression and daily anxiety at the time. It really made everything worth it to know that sharing my own pain through music had helped someone else feel better. To this day, I think my main goal in making music is to connect with people on the other side of the airwaves. Actually, someone recently reached out to me on Instagram expressing how much In a Sky of Blue was helping them with their anxiety. It always hits close to home when I hear these comments, which keeps me going creatively. So thank you for sharing!

What’s on your current playlist?

Oh, this is ever-changing but lately, I’ve been going back to The National record Trouble Will Find Me. The way he crafts the lyrics and then sings them so sullenly over this intimate yet atmospheric backdrop of production…It’s really a gem. That album is like their In Rainbows; where even people who aren’t fans of their other music are like “oh yea that’s a great record.” (just to be clear though I love every Radiohead album ever haha)

I also keep going back to Thom Yorke’s solo albums. I don’t have a favorite but I can’t seem to stop playing the track called Motherlode off of Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes. I freak out every time the bassline drops. It’s palpable.  So smooth!  

In the acoustic lane, I’ve been going back to Ray LaMontagne’s first record Trouble. It is beautiful from start to finish. I love how they kept the production minimal; it’s just enough to support the bones of the songs but not so much that everything gets lost. It has a timeless feel to it that I think is really hard to pull off. It’s also really hard to write songs that are that good. Someday. I’m working on it haha.

Breakdown the news for us: what can we expect from you in the near future?

A new EP at the end of March! And then more singles starting in May! 😀

Famous last words?

Yes! The debut album A New Child by Jackson Wooten…it’s unbelievable. Go Listen!

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