Every now and then an artist comes along and changes up the music I listen to. Enter the talented Justin Hoyt, and I went from from enjoying and reviewing his music, to corresponding with him via email and swapping pandemic stories. Seven Layer Piano Cakes is Justin Hoyts project who I first heard his epic multi genre single ‘Patriarch'(read my review here) and I loved his vocals and music that is not the style that I usually prefer. Justin’s music has opened up a whole new style for me to enjoy, as his piano skills have certainly made piqued my interest. Justin is also an attorney and a professor and a family man.
Justin is a talented artist that was kind enough to share his latest single ‘Middlegame’ in its raw state and he took me through the process of preparing a single leading up to its release. I learnt a lot from this experience. I usually just hear the finished product and then review the song. Having Justin share his process helped me escape from the reality of extended lockdown.
Justin states that his latest track ‘Middlegame’ is ‘A subtly complex and heavily layered pop/rock banger‘
Justin and I caught up to chat prior to the release of ‘Middlegame’.
As I have got to know you a little better since I reviewed your previous singles, I am in awe of how you can have any time for your music. You are an attorney, a law professor as well as having a young family. You have told me previously how your love of music developed at a young age; can you tell me a little about your musical training in your youth? (any photos of this? Maybe a cute young Justin playing the piano?)
I started playing the piano at age 3. My parents forced me to do 10 years of classical training, which I hated at the time. I then switched to guitar and singing at 13, and was in some bands here and there throughout high school. I got back into the keys in college. I definitely did not like playing the piano as a child, but I am so glad my parents made me do it!
My parents made me learn but I did not have any talent in that area at all.
Even later when you were living in New York City you took studied at Juilliard at night, improving your musical skills and techniques as a musician. Show that you were really dedicated to your music.
My experience at Juilliard was amazing. I focused on ear training and vocal performance. I knew I had a decent ear going in, but I took it to the next level there. My classmates were amazing too. I learned so much about music theory over those years and felt better prepared by the end of my studies to dive back into making music seriously.
At USC you took your studies seriously enough that you have the honour of becoming a professor there recently. What do you share your wisdom with the younger generation?
It was a great honor to get a teaching position at the USC law school. I love teaching and find it to be exhilarating in a different way from regular law practice. I love helping people learn the law, but also like to encourage students to pursue their hobbies too. Work is important, but no one on their deathbed ever says “I wish I would have worked more.”
Recently you told me that you felt that you always had some songs in you, with some put on hold until you had time in your life to write them. Cue 2020 when we all suddenly lost of grip on any control in our lives and many of us found that we had time to do things that were ever present in the back of our minds. Mine was growing my own fruit and veg, yours was tapping into your musical talent again.
I never stopped singing and playing, but for a long time, I did not write much beyond skeletons of original songs. I was then more focused on honing my classical chops for a while, and it was a success. I was actually a better pianist during that time, but I was not really writing enough, probably based on some fear of failure. When the pandemic hit, I decided to stop worrying so much and see what I could make. I had waited long enough.
Can you tell us how 2020 changed your life?
I was lucky enough to keep my job, but I no longer had a commute. With that extra time, I decided to spend it writing songs with the idea that I would get back in the studio and release an EP. I also have a couple young kids, and even though I always held myself out as a musician, with no recent recorded material, I thought I was kidding myself and them. I wanted to prove to my kids that their dad was in fact still a musician. I hate using the word “former” to describe hobbies and such, so I decided to shift back to the present tense.
I have mentioned that you had not released music until 2020, was there another reason that you had not made your music a real focus in your life? Releasing music to the world to be judged is different from your work as an attorney I imagine.
In college, I made a decision to focus on my studies and then become a lawyer. It’s hard enough to be a good lawyer, and I did not want to direct too much of my time and energy away from what is a rewarding and stable career. I thought about what it means to go for it in music, and again, there was a fear of failure that was holding me back. I thought, even if this works out, it is still a really tough life. And in general, I tend to be really intense about what I get into, so I did not feel for many years that I could do music justice “on the side.” I think just getting older and having extra time made me more confident about what I could offer, and I just got tired of not going for it and then went for it.
Your musical alter ego is Seven Layer Piano Cakes, there must be a story about why you called it that.
I use a lot of seventh chords in my music, it’s often heavily layered, it’s mostly piano based, and I love baking cakes. I think of my songs as cakes in their construction too, so it kind of flowed pretty naturally.
Last year you released an EP called “The Patriarch’ which has three songs, that are really genre- bending. These interesting songs caught my attention even though their sound was nothing like I had heard before.
Thanks! I listen to so much different stuff, and always hated strict genre classifications. The Spotify era has really changed how music can get out there, for better or worse, but I don’t feel a need to write one kind of song. Why not make music that draws from many different great artists? Why make an EP or album where all the songs sound the same? I always thought the best musical artists could go all over the place on an album; to me, that was more impressive than making something that is more akin to a 40 minute song.
Each single is, to me, completing different from the others. There is defiantly a range of genres within the songs that create a really interesting sound.
There sure is. Each song is different, but the influences and styles include dream pop, indietronica, classic rock, alt rock, pop rock, pop, cloud hop, and of course, classical music. I always try and sneak in some classical elements in my songs, whether they are in the vocal melody or, more often, the instrumentals.
Do you mind taking us through a story of one of the songs, from writing the lyrics and music and the meaning. (if time permits, feel free to talk about two or all three)
On all of my songs, I always start on the piano. I start with the chord progression and the basic melody (usually in the right hand) and the lyrical theme and some basic lyrics. I try to come up with a song that can feel complete with just piano and vocals. Once I have that, I then explore additional sounds and arrangements and see where it can and should go. Each song has a different journey with the other sounds and the song dictates where things go, including lyrically.
To give an example of a lyrical theme and how it matches with the instrumentation, “Novel Opening” is a musically dissonant and harmonically complex song that is paired with cautiously optimistic lyrics about the pandemic. The music occasionally resolves to something approaching hope, but the overall feel of it and the lyrics are not too happy.
You shared with me early on in its development your new single ‘Middlegame” and it was interesting for me to hear it prior to be the final product, I learnt a lot from being involved. Thanks for the chance. When I first heard Middlegame, I was surprised how different it sounded from your ‘Patriarch’ EP. I must say pleasantly surprised as I feel it is more like the music that I listened to during my pop punk/metal core phase.
Thanks. I had a lot of fun making Middlegame. I definitely channelled some music of my younger years, but I also tried to incorporate some more modern feels to it. I won’t even try to hide it, I was listening to a lot of Kid Cudi during the writing process, and I tried to pay homage to his genius in the verses.
I remember thinking during my first listen how there was so much going on musically and vocally. I remember us discussing the genre of the song in its early stage and I was at a loss at coming up with the best mix of genres that Middlegame has. Please tell us about the meaning of Middlegame.
There is a lot going on musically in Middlegame. Lyrically, it’s about this weird period in life in your mid 30s where you’re not quite young anymore but not quite middle aged either. Where a lot of things you worried about or wanted to achieved in your 20s are no longer concerns, or you achieved them, but there is still this sense of unease or longing, like something is still missing. I was trying to find that life spark in the writing process.
How do you think a classically trained musician write such a melodic metalcore style of song? For me I was not expecting it after listening to your EP.
Oh, this is an easy one. I have always felt that metal and classical music have so much in common. The rhythms, the chord progressions, the scales and scale explorations. Obviously, people weren’t throwing death grunts out there to Mozart back in those days, but musically, the two styles are not as far off as one might think.
Interesting! Is it important to you to have your music classified correctly or is it more of a -this is my song, who cares what genre it is?
I could not care less about genre classification. I guess I should care more, for streaming purposes, but as long as I am happy with what I made, and some folks get something out of it, I don’t care how my music gets labelled.
‘Middlegame is due out April 23rd, can you please in under 10 words explain what fans can expect from its sound?
A subtly complex and heavily layered pop/rock banger
Good description! Now you have released four singles within a year what is next for you? Have you got plans to keep writing music? I hope so.
I have about 5 songs that are hours or days away from being studio ready. As the pandemic situation continues to improve, I am planning on performing live as much as possible.
Anything else in the pipeline?
I also have a new version of the “Patriarch” song coming out on April 23. It was remixed by The Animal Farm, a London record label. We added live drums, a new bass line, and changed the guitar tones quite a bit; it’s quite easy to listen to now.
Justin, thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts with us.
Thank you, Jen,! My pleasure.