Gabe Burdulis has just returned from Summerfest where he made two appearances. This brings his total number of Summerfest appearances to nine. He is also promoting the release of his third recording, Youth City, and has appeared on a growing number of albums by other local artists. He’ll be performing at the Madison Area Music Association Awards on July 12th with the Keon Andre Band and that will mark his third appearance at that stellar event. He’s also won ten MAMA Awards (including the 2014 New Artist of the Year award). The shocking thing about all this is that Gabe Burdulis is just nineteen years old.
Burdulis had some major influences that came from his family. First there was his dad who took him to festivals and shows as a kid. Burdulis was also influenced by his grandmother who taught him to walk in to a room and intend to be noticed and then to get along with everyone. Then there was his uncle, Mark Burdulis, who played bass in Madison’s Cattleprod who were produced by future Garbage alum and co-owner of Smart Studios Steve Marker. His other uncle was a Buddhist monk and Burdulis learned important teachings in mindfulness from him. All valuable lessons that will undoubtedly help Burdulis to navigate the murky waters of the music business.
Burdulis tinkered on the guitar and alternated his grade school years between music and soccer. He took a few guitar and vocal lessons but it didn’t click with him. He also played trumpet in school. A life-changing experience was his performance in an 8th grade talent show that pointed him toward music. He discovered his love of musical collaboration and also took up bass and drums.
Burdulis is primarily self-taught but cites recent music theory instruction from Madison musician/producer Scott Lamps as his “music school.” And speaking of music school, Burdulis has been accepted to the prestigious Berkeley School of Music, an offer he’s deferred on twice in order to educate himself in the real world of music experiences. Another meaningful mentor is Shawn Tallard (who records as Sun Voyage), another Madison musician/producer who has figured prominently in Burdilis’s early recordings. If you were to ask Burdulis what he wants to do with all of his accomplishments and experiences he will tell you, “I just want to play.”
One of Burdulis’s best educational experiences was his involvement with Launchpad. A program of the Wisconsin School Music Association, Launchpad gives high school garage bands an opportunity to compete in a statewide competition that culminates in the Les Paul Award, recording time and Summerfest appearances for the winner. Burdulis won the competition twice, once with his first band, the Daze and the second time with his own Gabe Burdulis Band. His music by that time was already becoming exquisitely arranged, complete with a horn section. All these parts are conceived in Burdulis’s head as he is able to hear orchestrated parts and convey them to his band members by singing them. The performance was nicely choreographed as well as you can see in this video of his winning Launchpad 2014 appearance at Union South’s Sett auditorium:
Vocalist Sidney Prall features prominently in the Launchpad performance, a collaboration they would carry forward in multiple ways, resulting in Trap Saturn, an electro-pop group that Burdulis was briefly involved with. Burdulis says he “knows just enough on guitar to appear dangerous” but check the last of the three songs in the video, “Breakdown,” and his scorching guitar solo which brings Prince to mind but also Jimmy Page (the song briefly and cleverly quotes Zeppelin’s “Communication Breakdown”).
Our first of two meetings for this piece took place late in the fall of 2014. Despite all the honors, recognition, opportunity and support he’s received in Madison, Burdulis felt he needed to stretch his wings. At one point he was approached by a Minneapolis music rep who was convinced he could send him to Los Angeles and work him into the big time. Something about all that didn’t quite sit with Burdulis whose lessons in mindfulness may have already been paying off. He didn’t feel ready for that big a step. Instead, he opted to relocate to Nashville, with uncertain long-term plans. He has never had a job other than gigging and has never been out on his own, as is the case with most people in the last year of their teens. He made the bold move last November. “I felt I was starting to oversaturate Madison and I really wanted to just get down there and experience it, make some new friends, I really want to push myself and get some different collaborations going,” Burdulis said then. “I also am interested in establishing a Nashville-Madison connection and to bring back what I learn and help Madison to further thrive.”
Burdulis returned to Madison in May to play Wurst Times Festival and Bratfest. He then went on to work a music camp in Ohio before again returning to Wisconsin to play his Summerfest gigs and participate in the MAMA Awards ceremony where he is a favorite to pick up more hardware. Our second conversation took place in May, just after he arrived. A beaming Burdulis met me at the Central Library to recount his experiences from the last six months. Let’s just say, this extraordinary young man has not been sitting on his hands.
“I’ve learned an awful lot about what I don’t want to be and a lot of things I aspire to work toward,” Burdulis says of his Nashville experiences thus far. “I’ve had a lot of opportunities and met a lot of people through writer’s workshops. It’s led to studio work and a position in a working band as a bassist. I don’t want to get caught up in the bar scene, it’s just not my kind of thing.” This type of foresight is exactly what typifies Burdulis’s wiser-than-his-years approach to defining himself and cultivating meaningful relationships that he can build on. “Everybody there is doing something. It’s oversaturated with musicians trying to make it or make money off it. There is another side to it where people aren’t necessarily star struck or searching for fame but how they can make money off of writing a song, for example, so I’m learning about that, too. Madison is like a family but Nashville has levels. It’s not necessarily cutthroat, everyone is trying to lift each other up, but at some point it does feel like you sort of pass and you enter into this hierarchy of Nashville.”
One of his new songs is about just that. “Starting Over” is, fittingly, the first song he wrote in Nashville. “That song is about when I got there and, thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, this is intense!” So it’s about being true to yourself, being who you are and keeping your head down. I’m a firm believer in following your dreams so it’s about that.”
One of the relationships that has already paid big dividends is his association with Chris Cameron and Britt Edwards at their Center Street Studios where the new Youth City CD was tracked. “PJ Anderson, a Christian musician currently located in Nashville, really pushed for me to get down there,” Burdulis says. He hooked me up with the studio and those guys and it was affordable. They have a cause, they help people out. Britt and Chris do everything and they produce. Britt helped direct because I second-guess a lot. I have a lot of ideas that are stupid and I need someone to tell me they’re stupid or to ask me a question about arrangements. Britt plays a lot of instruments so we were able to fill in a lot. My friend Johnny Reese played drums and Melodie Morris played cello. I was considering drumming myself but there are so many players in Nashville that are better than me.”
Nashville has a contingent of Madison-based musicians in its midst ranging from transplants to visitors to those building a second base. Daniel and the Lion and Briana Hardyman are a couple of them. Another is Erik Kjelland of the Mascot Theory whose last recording was done in Nashville (read a review here). Kjelland was another peer who urged Burdulis to get down there and check it out. The two met up in Nashville and wrote a couple of songs together. One of those, “Cold Sweet Tea” is a real standout on the new album (read the review here). It’s interesting to hear Burdulis’s interpretation, embellishing from where Kjelland would have probably taken the same song. “He has a great simplicity and he’s powerful,” Burdulis says of Kjelland. “His lyrics are stunning and he came in with that hook and I thought ‘This is going to end up on album.’ Sorry, Erik!” It is really cool to see these two rising Madison artists write together in the context of Nashville. “We never really connected before that and he’s such a cool dude. We’re looking forward to performing together at Wurst Times Fest and also at Summerfest.”
Things got on a roll and ten songs were recorded in five days, the entire album being cranked it out in a week. Youth City is the first full-length under Burdulis’s own name and he says of the album, “Just an amazing experience being truly out on my own and trying to figure everything out. Producing it but also handling everything from the financial part to the instrumentation and arrangements. The cool thing about the new album is it’s everything that’s happened to me since coming to Nashville, from the first song I wrote right when I got there to the last one right before recording. I featured all the people that I’ve met and working with the people in Center Street Studios was awesome. That’s one of things I love is being able to use those relationships and friendships and one of the things that is so cool about music is being able to collaborate.” Much of the new album is collaboratively written with a couple of songs being a little more country-flavored. One can certainly hear the Nashville influence. “I’m definitely not going country but I just suck up my surroundings,” Burdulis explains.
One of the collaborations was with Mark Elliot. “Brianna Hardyman hooked him up with me. We got together and wrote ‘Lay it Down.’ Everybody says it’s a much more mature sound for me. We finished it the night before we went in the studio to record. He was working for a publishing house and had worked for SONY so it was cool to work with someone like that. Nothing was ever as intimidating or awkward as I feared. Co-writing was something I deliberately wanted to explore to let go of my own inhibitions and I am always eager to learn.”
Another harder hitting track was written with Cameron Boyton. “Cameron was a Belmont student,” he says. “We met at a writer’s workshop. I wanted to do something more upbeat – like Mowgli. Adam Bruno (another co-writer) and I met at a writer’s night and we hooked up to write a song. He wanted to do something different so we got together and wrote “This is War.”
Burdulis is playing with a band in Nashville called New City Savages which also had Madison singer/songwriter Tyler Preston in it. “It’s been a lot of commitment and they want to book every weekend so it’s pretty disruptive,” he says. “I may need to cut out of it and work on my own promotion. I don’t want my scene to be playing a lot of late-night bars and crashing in weird places and moving around a lot. It would be different if it was on a higher level. I’m not crazy about the drinking scene and I’m still not legal in a lot of these places. I play bass in the band and I don’t want to be known as a bass player either. I’m not being pushed hard enough so I am looking at doing some different projects but it’s cool to have the opportunity. The band has four songwriters and I sing lead a little bit but I have to make sure I have enough space to work on my own thing.”
Though he’s decided to stay in Nashville for the foreseeable future, there is little doubt that Madison will always figure prominently in Burdulis’s music career. “I’m learning from everything and being intimidated by a lot but not letting it get me down, or at least not looking like it,” he says. “Growing up in Madison was a blessing. I learned a lot of social skills and met so many music people. Coming back makes me appreciate Madison so much more every time. Nashville is awesome but there is something very special about Madison. As far as I know I am sticking it out for a bit longer and see what happens. Whether I end up in Nashville, Madison, East Coast, Los Angeles, London, it really doesn’t matter, I’m open to it all. I’m sticking with music so, wherever that leads me. I can’t complain about a lot, I feel lucky. It’s easy to get down or intimidated or just miss home but I get the feeling that I’ll really appreciate this in a couple of years.”
Cattleprod video shot in James Madison Park in the early Nineties:
MAMA performance: The Daze opening the show in honor of the MAMA 10th Anniversary:
MAMA performance 2014 – with Annabel Lee