As I was enjoying my daily dose of coffee at my local Starbucks in Solana Beach about five years ago, a new barista and I started chatting about the music business. As fellow guitarists, we had mutual ground for conversation. He mentioned that he was writing songs and setting his sights on a career in music as a singer-songwriter, excited that he was preparing to record an EP of his original material. Sure enough, a few weeks later, he handed me a copy. I was pleasantly surprised by the finished product of catchy pop guitar hooks supported by a keen sense of tune arrangements and introspective lyrics. I wished him luck, gave him my obligatory words of wisdom, and kept an eye on his progress via social media.
Flash forward to the present and Tyson Motsenbocker, a few years removed from serving lattes, has just completed a successful tour with Jon Foreman of Switchfoot fame. As often in the music business and in life, networking through mutual friends paid off as Motsenbocker’s name was submitted for consideration to join Foreman’s “Wonderlands” tour through the Southwest. After a three hour pow wow with Foreman’s booking agent in Nashville, the gig was on.
Since Switchfoot has often been labeled a Christian Rock band, Motsenbocker shed some light on this particular tour with Foreman headlining, sharing his observations on the subject. “All of my music comes from a faith perspective, being my own, but the problem with faith as a musical genre is that it becomes a culture and a sound, which in my opinion has become a bad sound and a weird culture,” he stated emphatically. “Faith is a foundation to my life, but it isn’t the house that I live in. When people write about the foundation of the house and not the house itself I think it makes for a limited voice and a limited art. Evangelical Christianity as an economy, as a storefront, and a demographic targeting mechanism, however, is something I am statically disinterested in.”
“The tour, top to bottom, was an unbelievably fun and a positive experience,” Motsenbocker stated. “There I was in a van, along for the ride with Jon and his crew.” Quite a dream come true for the Washington State native, who moved to Southern California six years ago. “One of the shows we did was at this massive camp in the middle of nowhere in New Mexico,” Motsenbocker recalls. “The room we were playing looked like one of those dwarf caves from the Lord of the Rings movie. During my set I remember looking down and seeing the first three rows of people standing at the end of the stage being lit by the overhead lights. Something about the intimacy of that first three rows, hanging on the words, and then the seemingly infinite space behind it and all the echoing off the top rafters, it seemed timeless and so human to me, being face to face and also lost in the dark.”
After his set was done, he had the pleasure of taking in Foreman’s show, consisting of Foreman front and center on guitar and voice, accompanied by cellist Keith Tutt and percussionist Aaron Redfield. “During Jon’s set I walked all the way to the back of the room and took it all in from the audience’s perspective,” Motsenbocker recalls vividly. “I could see it all from there, those first few rows amid all the darkness. It was a special moment for me, an embodiment of comfort in a big, spinning world.”
After the excitement of the Wonderlands tour’s finish on the first of October, Motsenbocker hit the road again in mid-October, along with Canadian singer-songwriter Mike Edel. Their tour is taking them through the Southwest, up the California coast, and ending in the great Northwest as he continues to follow his lifelong passion as a full time performing musical artist, always keeping in my mind his father’s metaphor for success. “My dad was a trapeze artist in the circus before I was born. I remember once he explained the process of jumping from one fly bar to the other. He said when you let go of the bar on one side, the bar on the other side is still swinging away from you. It isn’t until you’ve completely committed to the jump that the bar reverses course and is in a position to be caught, emphasizing that the first time anybody tries the flying trapeze, it is almost impossible to let go of the bar, because the other bar is perpetually so far away.”
That poignant analogy stayed in Motsenbocker’s memory bank shortly after he retired his green Starbucks apron and began his musical sojourn. “When I quit Starbucks, I think I had three months of work booked. I did the numbers, and the money would more or less cover the expenses I had but that was it,” he recalls. “After three months I was without any income, when at that moment I thought about my dad’s trapeze analogy. Hence, I spent every waking minute making calls for any kind of freelance work.”
As with many musicians who begin to eye a career as a musical performer, the realization sets in that much of your time is spent on the business end. “I did everything,” he remembers, “playing gigs at churches, fundraisers, four-hour background acoustic picking in wine bars, anything I could as the goal was only to make a living playing music.
“Once I did that for a while,” he continued, “I realized that you need to be more specific and have a plan focused on touring, which means promoting yourself and selling records and tickets.” As with most performers, the trials and tribulations of road tours can be a roller coaster of emotions, from elated joy to downright despair. “It’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever done, both frustrating and rewarding.” Motsenbocker lamented, “but that’s where my heart is. For me, it’s the only way to live.”
Like so many in the touring world, he has suffered the common landmines along the way. “The first booking agent I ever had was an absolute mess,” he recalls. “He booked one leg of a tour for me from Coeur D’Alene, Idaho to Phoenix, Arizona, taking a flat fee agent’s cut. After arriving in Phoenix for sound check, I was informed that the venue had closed, no heads up, nothing… at another one of his shows that he booked, we got paid in sandwiches, granted, they were amazing sandwiches.”
Tour mangers are certainly a breed of their own, often your only safety net and particularly precarious when you are hundreds of miles from your home base. It’s a thankless job, but somebody’s got to do it. “A bad tour manager, “ Motsenbocker exclaims, “is like a giant hernia on the tour, although with a good one you hardly realize that they are there. Jon Foreman’s tour manager is one of my favorite people. He’s an absolute character, an ace at his job. He made every night go perfectly with each successive day a smooth ride and fun experience.”
Motsenbocker has two EPs out, one that is still selling and another retired. However, his much anticipated full-length disc, Letters to Lost Loves, is due out in mid-February, 2016, on Tooth and Nail Records, a record company that has historically been a Christian label, an advantage as a good portion of his fans are faith based. Friend and video producer Cole Slinker helped him create a video for one of the songs appearing on the CD, “Evangeline,” which is currently up and running on YouTube.
As with any successful singer-songwriter, lyrics are the penultimate ingredient, the strongest emotional conduit from the artist to the consumer. Motsenbocker’s writing process begins with the music first. “I write down syllables usually,” he states, “then I try and work it out like a format with the music. Lyrics are really important to me.” He writes almost exclusively originals, albeit working in a few covers here and there for his shows, while relying on the art of storytelling as a sure-fire bonding mechanism with his audience.
As for the future he has his feet on the ground with realistic goals ahead, spearheaded with determination. “I’d love to make better and better records, do some more solid support dates, and eventually sell tickets to my own shows, starting on the West Coast and then moving East.” Like any aspiring artist that is honest with himself, he’s aware of what he needs do to improve his craft. “I’d like to be able to work on my vocal range a bit in these next few months,” he stated. “We’re all a work in progress as artists.”
In the meantime, Motsenbocker draws inspiration from the many singer-songwriters out there that are honing their craft as well. “I’ve been listening to the new David Ramierez record a lot, Fables… I think it’s brilliant. I have a friend from Nashville named Matt Wright whose writing I think is unreal and so inspiring. My friends in the biz – Foreman, Mike Edel and Ethan Hulse – drive me to be better.”
Motsenbocker always knows that home sweet home in Solana Beach is that comforting safe haven for love and support when he’s not on a road tour. “I have an amazing family of close friends in North County; they constitute much of my personal life.” He can safely assume that as he progresses in his status as a full-time performer, he’ll never have to say these words again: “Welcome to Starbucks, what can I get for you?”