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Interview with Chad Traxler
Born into a religion that suppressed musical diversity, “Trax” first fell in love with songwriting as a teenager, after (secretly) scraping together enough money to buy a guitar from a pawn shop. The genres of his songs are as diverse as his influences: layered harmonies reflect his Gospel pedigree, Latin rhythms reflect years of living abroad, and folk overtones are inspired by his Midwestern roots.
A season of heartbreak (literally and metaphorically) led Trax to devote himself to music full-time. And music continues to be his salvation from depression and addiction.
Trax's songs have been called "bittersweet" by many. His driving rhythms are reminiscent of Johnny Cash, a distant relative. His one-man-band shows, with his Headrush Loopstation as the centerpiece, reflect his reclusive personality, as does his love of solo expeditions in the wilderness of Colorado, where he now calls home.
What got you into music, and if you had not gotten into music what would you be doing today?
That’s a funny story. When I walked into my dorm room as a freshman at Purdue University, I saw that my new roommate had two, identical acoustic guitars. I asked him why, and he replied that he had stolen them from his high school orchestra. He then gave me one and taught me a few chords. A few other guys on our floor were into music, and we started a band. Everybody wanted to play guitar, and nobody wanted to sing. I was probably the least-talented guitar player; so, by default, I became the lead singer.
We probably weren’t very good, but man, did we have fun. We would play for hours on end. My parents were both very good musicians, but extremely religious; so, I was never allowed to listen to rock and roll growing up. Consequently, as a freshman in college studying engineering, I was getting a lesson in rock history, as well as learning how to play guitar and sing lead vocals. It was like a whole new world. I’m kind of glad it worked out that way because I think it made me appreciate the music more due to the fact that I was experiencing it for the first time – kinda like sex for the first time.
If I weren’t playing music, who knows what I’d be doing. I get bored pretty easily; so, I’ve journeyed through several careers. I have been a mechanical engineer, a WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) analyst, a flight instructor, and a charter pilot. I even ran an orphanage in Haiti for a stint. My last job before music was teaching data analysis at the equivalent of the FBI academy in the United Arab Emirates (i.e. Dubai.)
Living in Dubai was an interesting but dark time. It is glamorous on the outside but has a seedy underbelly. They don’t really believe in due-process or individual liberties over there, like we do here in the USA. Also, many people from poor countries go there seeking opportunity but end up getting exploited, which is one reason I am passionate about supporting causes that fight human trafficking. Maybe I can atone for some bad karma from learning music on a stolen guitar and working for an evil empire.
What do you like to do when you are not playing music and how does that influence your creativity?
I’ve always been an adrenaline junky, probably because it’s my primary coping mechanism for a lifelong struggle with depression. I’ve lived in Colorado most of my life; so, I’m an avid skier, snowboarder, and mountain biker. My favorite sport right now is whitewater surfing. I’m not going to explain what that is, because, while I love your readers, I don’t want them coming to Colorado and crowding out waves! I do hear that there is some fantastic surfing in California, though!
I believe adrenaline sports boost my serotonin levels enough to kick my brain into a very creative mode. I think people who also struggle with depression can relate to some of my more melancholic lyrics. If I didn’t struggle with depression, then I probably couldn’t make that connection with those people.
However, if I stay in a constant state of depression, it is almost impossible to be creative. So, I will go surfing or skiing and then sit in nature and write lyrics. I composed my favorite song, “Whiskey Sour,” while skiing my favorite run at Monarch, CO. I had written the melody six months prior but could never find the lyrics to do it justice. Then, while skiing, the ancient poetry of Solomon - “There is a time for everything…” - came to my mind and fit the rhythm of the melody perfectly.
How long has music been your career?
I kind of fell backwards into a career in music in March 2020, during the world’s reaction to ‘Rona. I suppose a lot of other new artists emerged during the same timeframe.
COVID hit while I was still contracting in Dubai. I peaced out – just before my hotel became the first ever to be quarantined – and flew back to the USA.
I had been dating a musician in Dubai that year. She cheated on me on New Year’s Eve, 2020, I later learned. What a great start to a magnificent year in history!
So, I ended up back in the USA in March 2020 with no contract, a broken heart, and a ton of time (in isolation) on my hands. It turned out to be the perfect storm to begin a career as a songwriter.
Where are you based out of and how did that influence your music?
Like I said earlier, I have lived in Colorado most of my life. I currently live in Colorado Springs. It is a little-known fact that there is a rapidly growing music scene here, with so many good musicians. I am guessing this is due to the huge population boom in Colorado the last few years. Many new music venues have popped up as well.
I think the quality of music in Colorado Springs has encouraged me to improve my live show, given the stout competition for gigs. I started by banging out songs on an acoustic guitar, like many singer-songwriters have for decades. But that doesn’t really cut it anymore if you want to stay ahead of the curve. So, I’ve really worked on percussion and lead guitar playing, and, in turn, incorporated those elements into my show using a Headrush Loopstation, which has enabled me to deliver more of a full-band sound.
The arrangements of my songs are fairly complex. They aren’t really the same four chords repeated throughout. And I include a lot of instrumental sections and harmonies on my albums. So, playing my songs solo is challenging. I almost gave up the idea and hired a full band until I started watching Ed Sheeran’s live shows. The songs on his albums are heavily-produced pop songs, but using his custom-made “Chewie” loopstation, he is able to pull off an incredible solo performance with just an acoustic guitar.
I’ve worked really hard on my live show. And I think that it is going to be the thing that propels my music in popularity. I know that social media, online streaming, playlisting, branding, etc. are the name-of-the-game in music these days. But I still believe that putting on a great live show and growing my audience organically will give me more longevity in this business.
Tell me about the best and worst shows you have played.
Oh wow. Now we are getting real! I hope you don’t follow with a question about best and worst sexual performances. I think both questions might share the same level of vulnerability!
When I started my career, I read somewhere to experiment a lot during live shows while you are still an unknown musician because the consequences for backfires are less grave. So, I have. And, man, have there been some backfires.
I think the most comical backfire was pretty recent, when I attempted to play every single song in my 50-song setlist to a latin beat (i.e. Bachata, Salsa, Mambo, or Reggatone.) So imagine Sweet Home Alabama to a Salsa beat. If Ronnie Van Zant were still alive, he would definitely find me and kick my ass.
I mentioned before that I am an adrenaline junky. I think that sometimes I try stupid shit during my live shows – like playing Skynyrd to a Salsa beat – because the challenge is a bit of a rush.
My best shows are all about connecting to the audience. I think most artists would agree that audience connection is what we are striving for. Some nights it comes easy. Some nights you really have to work for it because the audience isn’t really in the moment.
And therefore, it’s my job to bring them into the moment. For example, if they aren’t digging original tunes, I might throw in a popular cover tune that has the same feel as one of my originals. I see them grooving to the cover and then go right into an original, and now they are with me.
Tell me about your favorite venue to play at, and do you have any places you want to play that you have not already?
THE venue to strive for in Colorado is definitely Red Rocks in Denver. So many iconic shows have taken place there. It’s my dream to perform there some day.
In the interim, I would love to play at Stargazers in Colorado Springs. I saw Elephant Rival, one of my favorite bands, at Stargazers. At the time, I wasn’t doing music full time and would never have imagined having the chance to perform at Stargazers. I think it is within reach now.
My favorite venue to play so far has been Red Leg Brewery in Colorado Springs. It’s one of the newest and largest outdoor music venues in Colorado Springs. The mountain backdrop is amazing, the beer is delicious, and the crowd is fun and supportive.
There are also several music festivals in Colorado that I would love to play: The Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Rocky Grass Folk Fest in Lyons, NewWestFest in Fort Collins, and Meadowgrass in Colorado Springs, to name a few.
If you could play any show with any lineup, who would be on the ticket?
I would love to be part of a folk-pop lineup, including the Head and the Heart, Elephant Revival, Darlingside, Mumford and Sons, and Dave Matthews.
What is some advice that you would give to someone who is just getting into music?
Play the music that inspires you. I’ve spent too much time trying to figure out what inspires other people; so, I’ve kind of jumped from genre to genre. But I believe that if you play the music you really love, then your audience will find you.
If you could go back in time and give yourself advice, what would it be?
I don’t really have any regrets. I’ve always gone for it in life. Someone asked me the other day what is on my “Bucket List.” I truly don’t have one. I have done everything I’ve wanted to do.
I guess that, of all the careers I’ve tried, I was saving the best for last – i.e. music. I’m really thankful that I am in a situation where I get to do this for a living.
Of your songs which one means the most to you and why?
The song “Whiskey Sour” kind of encapsulates a very painful period in my life. And it also enabled me to work through and release that pain. I mean, it’s a breakup song. Plain and simple. But I also drew on some ancient poetry that I think gives the song deeper meaning as well. I hope it resonates with others who need to release their pain.
Which songs are your favorite to play and which get requested the most?
I actually wrote a new song called “Light Me Up” that I am really excited about. I haven’t recorded it yet, but I hope to soon. If I’m nervous or just go blank on stage, that’s the song I fall back on. In fact, I don’t really write it down on my setlist anywhere. I just keep it on deck to play when needed.
And the audience always reacts well to “Light Me Up.” I see feet tapping, heads bobbing, and by the end of the song, folks are singing along. That’s cool.
But the most requested song is definitely “Whiskey Sour.” Even audience members who have never heard the song before are grooving to it by the end.
Oh ya … there is a song called “Sleepin’ Alone” that is from new EP. During my last two shows, someone in the audience has heard it for the first time ever and then requested that I played it again. One person gave me a $200 tip for playing it twice in a row. Maybe that’s a good sign?
What is the creative process for you, and what inspires you to write your music?
The process is different every time. Sometimes it’s very intentional: I sit down to write a song and push through until I’ve got a working demo. In that case, I usually go somewhere inspiring – usually in the High Country.
However, other times, melodies just come to me randomly. I’ve had dreams, for example, where I’m at a concert listening to a band play a song that I really like. But when I wake up, I realize that neither the band nor the song exists! That’s why I keep my phone right next to my pillow with the voice memo app already pulled up. If I don’t sing the melody into my phone right away, it’s lost by morning.
For this new EP, I took a trip to a little surf village in Ecuador. I booked the studio one week after I was scheduled to fly back from Ecuador – in an attempt to keep me accountable. It turned out to be the perfect place to write music.
Ironically, a lot of the other surfers were incredible musicians from all over: Argentina, Germany, South America etc. We had some rad, “Apres Surf” jam sessions on the beach while the sun was setting. It was here that I wrote the song “Puesta del Sol,” which is Spanish for “sunset.”
What kinds of messages do you like to get across in your music?
I was watching an old video of Johnny Cash at a recording session. His producer asked him what he wanted to do, because the song they were recording was only two minutes long. Cash replied by saying, “You gotta just let a song be what it is.”
I like that. I feel like when I try to get a certain message across, it just doesn’t work for me. I usually start with a melody or a phrase, and then I let the song take me where it wants to go.
Do you ever have disagreements when collaborating and how do you get past them?
Well, the last artist I collaborated with turned into a romantic thing. That was a mistake. We, unfortunately, didn’t get past our “disagreement,” and instead parted ways. Lesson learned, I guess.
But making music with someone is actually one of the most intimate things you can do, in my opinion. You are sharing a really vulnerable space. I’m not the first musician to hook up with a collaborator, and I’m guessing I won’t be the last.
What are your plans for the future, and do you have anything that you want to spotlight that is coming up?
In the immediate future, I am focused on the release of my new EP, starting with the single “Morena Girl.” That song is a true story about a musician I encountered in Dubai. I wrote the song for her while living there, but she had no idea I recorded it in the studio. Her reaction should be … interesting.
I am really looking forward to my tour to promote the EP. We are still working on exact dates, but stay tuned…