In this episode of YR's Adult ISH podcast, hosts Dominique French and Nyge Turner dive into their feelings about following dreams and pursuing passions. They sit down with musician Bryan C. Simmons, who plays keys for Grammy Award-winning artist Fantastic Negrito, to talk about how he got into music and made his dreams a reality.
Adult ISH is produced by YR Media and brought to you by PRX’s Radiotopia. Be sure to follow all our socials @yrAdultISH!
Dom: Pure money. Pure money. Dollars and cents. Cool.
Nyge: Welcome to Adult ISH produced by YR Media and brought to you by Radiotopia from PRX. I'm Nyge Turner.
Dom: And I'm Dominique French. This week on Adult ISH, we're talking about following your dreams and the courage it takes to pursue your passions.
Nyge: Yeah, for me personally, growing up, I was never the type of person that just knew exactly what they wanted to do for the rest of their lives. Like, I had a lot of different things that I had my eyes on and that I could really see myself doing long term. But I couldn't just narrow one thing down. And that really scared me, especially because they were like, “Oh, when you go to college, it'll become more clear.” And then I went to college and it didn't become clear at all. Like, I just learned about new careers. And then I was like, “Oh, I could do that too. I could do that too.” So it kind of just became a touchy subject for me.
Dom: Honestly, did anything become clearer when one, like, went to college? I feel like that's when things finally became unclear because up until that point, I had always had an idea of what it is that I wanted to do. I mean, it changed all the time, like I wanted to be a vet or I wanted to be an anthropologist. At some point in time, I wanted to be a model. (laughs) That was short lived, but I had no idea how to make any of these things happen, because no one in my family had done anything like any of the things that I wanted to do. But yeah, college is where I feel like things started to really crumble and I had no idea what it was that I was going to do once I graduated. (Nyge: Right.) But I'm curious for you Nyge, when do you feel like you were like, “Aha! Like, podcasting is my, my dream,”?
Nyge: Uh … yesterday? (laughs) Nah, but probably when I became full time here. Like, it took a minute. Even when I was, like, even after I got this job, I still felt like, “Can I do this, like, long term?” And yeah, it kind of like, just started to feel that way. It was always a dream, like, since I was like 18. But people always said it wasn't like a real job in the first place.
Dom: I feel like a lot of different cultures and a lot of different age groups have a lot of opinions about what constitutes as a real job. (Nyge: Right) And it can feel very unfair as ,like, a modern day young person to have all that pressure put on you.
Nyge: Facts. And you also always hear about people who, you know, who made it through, who didn't listen to what people had to say and made their own way in life. But growing up, that always felt really few and far between. And like, you have to be like this one special diamond in the rough that made it out, you know? (Dom: Right) But when I got older, I saw that it's actually really common for people to find ways to turn their passions into careers.
Dom: Right. And we don't hear those stories as often because they're just not, they're not as flashy. (Nyge: Right) So for this episode, we wanted to talk to someone who has turned his passions into a career: Bryan C. Simmons. Bryan fell in love with music as a kid. And as an adult has ended up with gigs in TV, film, as well as multiple world tours with Grammy Award-winning band Fantastic Negrito.
Bryan: I am a music composer. Yeah, started off as a jazz pianist — or, actually, a classical pianist to a jazz pianist. I realized that jazz didn’t make a lot of money. In classical, also, you have to be like the best, like super badass to make money as a classical pianist. So, I went to jazz and started making okay money. Then I went to pop and I started making a decent amount of money. Then to hip hop and then to TV and film. And I'm like, “Okay, that's where it’s at.” So I consider myself … uh, I'm a composer and a film composer.
Nyge: When did you first start playing music?
Bryan: I … I was kind of a late bloomer, I would say. I started, like, really playing when I was about 15. But my mom is a gospel music recording artist, a singer, songwriter, the whole nine. So I grew up with her forcing me to sing. And I just absolutely hated it. And it was every Saturday morning. We were like around singing like quartet-style, like, just trying her songs out, before she goes and like teaches it to a choir. And my sisters and I, like, hated every moment of it. Me and my sister were like just dreading it. And, uh, it kind of made me like resent singing a little bit. Uh, then I got into — went to high school. My mom was learning the piano, she was down playing and she was like playing the song wrong. And I can hear it and I was like, “Yo, Mom, like, you're playing that wrong. Like, you keep missing this note.” And she was like, “Yo, how did you know that?” I was like, “I don't know. I just — I can just hear it, you know?” She's like, “Okay, whatever, whatever. Show me how to play it.”
Then I, like, watched her, and then I played it right. And she told my dad about it. From then, they put me into piano lessons and I just, kind of, I took off, you know? I was like 15. I think I was at, like, a right, the right age. I was, like, kind of rebellious in school. Like, I was kind of looking for a direction. My brain was like developing and, you know, just kind of needing something. And the piano came along and it was like, “Oh, cool, I get this, you know?” And I got a lot of confidence.
Probably about six weeks in, I was playing Beethoven and Bach and Mozart. (Dom: Dang!) And, like, less than two years in, I'm in a concert hall with the tuxedo and the long tail and a grand piano playing like a nine minute Mozart piece, you know? (laughs) So I kind of consider myself like a halfway halfway prodigy. Not a full prodigy, but, like, halfway, you know? (laughs)
Dom: Isn't it funny that no matter what your parents do, that's, like, the not cool thing?
Bryan: Yeah. Yeah.
Dom: Being involved in music, like, from an outside perspective, you're like, “Wow, that's pretty cool. That's pretty awesome that you'd have that growing up.” But when you're the kid in that household, you're like, “Nah, man. That's what my parents do.”
Bryan: N, seriously. Seriously, like, years later, looking back, it's like, “Oh wait, that was actually really cool.” Like, my parents had me around like Fred Hammond and like all these gospel stars and I was like — just wasn't ready for, for the music, you know? I was like, very, “Ah, whatever, you know, I'm doing my thing. I like football,” you know? So it's kind of interesting. Full circle. Yeah, yeah.
Dom: The rebellious football player!
Bryan: Yep. Yep.
Nyge: When did you start playing the piano, Dom?
Dom: I … So I would also consider myself a half prodigy. (laughs) I started late as well. I started when I was like 14, and I went to a performing arts magnet school for singing. (Bryan: Nice.) And like, they're like, “Everybody who sings needs to be able to play the piano for themselves as well — at the very least, to be able to learn a song.” And, one of the first pieces I played, you know, everyone starts out with like a simple, like Mozart thing he composed when he was like 4 or 5 years old. And the very next thing, I was like playing like Bach fugues and stuff like that. And it was like, ahh, I like the music so much more than I like performing the music. Hmm.
Bryan: Hmm. Yep, that's, that's kind of where I'm at. Yeah, I love listening to it. I have a deep appreciation for it. But, yeah, just for all those hours. I think, like, when I hit 40, I’ll like, jump fully back into classical and, like, perform like three movements or something, something crazy. When I have the time. Right now. I'm just like, I don't really have the time
Dom: When you first started out, you, you were like faced with a choice: you were given the opportunity to go overseas and play or to stay in school and continue on that path. Can you tell us a little bit about that decision?
Bryan: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, I was at Los Medanos at the time. Really cool JC (junior college). Coming out of high school, I heard about the JC and it was like amazing. Three … two of the professors had Grammys at the time and they were teaching at Stanford, you know. So I was there, like with the working professionals. And one of my friends was like, “Yo, like, yo, I'm in China, man, I'm playing music out here.” I was like, “What? Dude, how are you — ? You're from, you’re from Berkeley, man. Like, how are you doing this?” He’s like, “Yeah, I'm in a show band. Dude, like, they're looking for a keys player.” And, uh, he presented me with this opportunity. And I talked to my professors like, “Yo, what should I do?” Like I was talking to people like, “Should I take this money? You know, should I take this gig?” And they’re just like, “Yeah. I mean, how old are you? Ah man, school will always be here. Like, not everybody's getting asked to be flown around the world to play music. Like, do that! School will be here. See you later,” you know? So, so I did it. I did it. And it was it was like one of the best — probably the best decision I could have made at the time. I was 24. You know, I was supposed to go out there for a six month contract and I ended up being out there for two years. So I lived in Bahrain for six months, in Dubai for a year and a half.
Bryan: Yeah. (laughs)
Nyge: Well, I guess like the natural question that comes after that was like, was it scary making that choice?
Bryan: It was … uh, it was. I think the scary part about it was the professional, the professional part about it. Like, just the country itself, like the people are great, great food, great just — great music, great band. Yeah, the first six — no the first three months — I came out there and I was a jazz pianist. All I knew was jazz, all I knew was acoustic piano. And I got hired as a keyboardist. And I was like, “Wait, what’s a … Uh, okay, I got these sounds, like whatever,” you know? But they would like, stop rehearsals and be like, “Yo, you got to learn the sounds for the songs.” Like, “Okay, you learned the songs, but like you got to dial in.”
I'm like, “Okay.” Like I try to make it. And it just, like, kicked my butt, you know? And they, like, kind of threatened to fire me. They're like, “Yo, like, is this going to work out?” You know, I’m like “Nooo, I got to do this!” Like, I brought my keyboards to my room every night to learn. I was on YouTube, just, like, learning sounds like, “Okay, how do I do sound design? Okay, they got this song like, all right, how to replicate this?” And, and it was a great skill that I learned — that I use today. A lot of the records that I play on, they are one of one sounds. Like I make all my sounds and everything is like fresh one on one, alacarte, you know? Which is … is a really unique skill.
Dom: So speaking of, like, everything being fresh, everything being like a shade of yourself — In 2016, you made what I think is an extremely courageous choice, which is to stop doing covers and to only play original music.
Dom: What gave you that kind of, like, courage to do that?
Bryan: Man, I love you guys — that you did your research. That’s awesome. I love it.
Dom: Thank you, thank you!
Bryan: Love it, love it love it. I was going to these festivals. I was going to these events and I would see, like, none of these bands are playing covers. I was like, “Oh, it's original music. Oh, okay. Like, oh, that's, that's it,” you know? So I was like, I only play with artists who are making original music in music venues. If it's a coffee shop, restaurant, any, any way that somebody is going to tell me to be quiet, like I don't want to be there. So only venues, only original music. And from making that decision, it was probably about two years where I kind of fell flat on my face, had to get a job. I worked at UPS, you know. Coming back from the Middle East, it was, like depressing, you know? But my fiancé, she was my girlfriend at the time, but she supported me. She was like, “Yo, don't get a job. Just keep going in doing that. Just focus on that.” I got a call from Fantastic Negrito and that's how I landed that gig. So it was like, “Yes, it paid off,” you know?
Nyge: Can you tell us a little bit more about what you're doing with Fantastic Negrito right now?
Bryan: Beginning of 2018. I got a call from his guitarist like, “Hey, man, I heard about you. You know, you were in the Middle East, like you've been playing around. Like, you know, you only do this kind of music like, yo, do you want to come out for this audition?” And I was like, “Yeah, cool,” you know? They sent me three songs to learn, but they sent me 15 songs. And, you know, another training that I got in the Middle East is I had to learn five new songs every week for two years. So I came back.
Dom: That’s gnarly. (laughs)
Bryan: Gnarly. It was crazy. (laughs) But, you know, I had to do it. And we had like two rehearsals every week. Had to learn it, so I had to learn how to learn songs really fast. I can, like, almost listen to a song and have my Sibelius up, like sheet music, and I'm just like listening to it, charting it out, and it's like, “Oh yeah, okay. Cool let’s go on to this chord.” And then like one time through, I have like a chart, a rough chart, second time through, I have like the meat and potatoes. Third time, I'm like, having the melody, everything is like done. Less than five minutes. (Dom: Amazing!) You know, which is …. (Nyge: Yeah) Which is crazy. So learned all 15 songs in, like, the back catalog and went to the audition and yeah, they were like, “Okay, let's play the songs. Cool. Alright?” I was like, “Yeah, well I learned everything, you know?” And, uh, “Sure, play this song.” I played it, you know? “Alright, play this song.” I played it and, um, yeah, the rest is history. Been on, uh, three or four world tours with them. And I'm playing on the next record that's coming out.
Nyge: Yeah, that's, that's fire. Like, so now that you're on tour and making music with Grammy Award-winning artists and things like that, do you still feel like there are dreams that still feel out of reach?
Bryan: Uh, I would say mostly, mostly no. (Dom: Oh, yeah!) I would say, I would say no, honestly, because it's just the rooms that I've been in, the people that I've met. And, like, though I'm not there yet, the people that are around me are Grammy winning, Emmy winning — a lot of millionaires. So, I'm like, man, this is — the sky's the limit. Like, whatever. You know, I've already exceeded what I expected from just learning the piano. So, like, whatever, I'm just going to take it to the limit, you know?
Dom: It's amazing what can happen just when someone gets you in a room. Like how that can change your entire life.
Bryan: Entire life, yeah. Just a room or flying first class, you know. Or I flew first class for the first time. And I was like, you know, there's like a quote about Steve Harvey, like, “Yeah, just fly first class one time, and it'll change your life.” It's like, that's true.
Dom: It happened to me on accident. I just got bumped and I was like, “I'm a different bitch now!” (laughs)
Bryan: Yo!! (laughs) No, seriously.
Dom: But how do you think your success and being in these rooms has changed your mindset about what is and what isn't accomplishable?
Bryan: How has it changed my mindset? Honestly, just like work — work ethic is, it's kind of everything. It, it supersedes talent and all of that. It’s like, yeah, work ethic will get you anywhere.
Nyge: I think that's really interesting. It feels like you're kind of saying, and correct me if I'm wrong, you don't tell yourself, like, “I'm successful because I'm really good at music.” It's like, “I'm successful because of my mindset. So I can apply that to all these different avenues and I'll be successful like regardless.”
Bryan: Honestly. Yeah. I was a, like, pretty much a C, D like F student until I found music. Like I sucked at school, like … You know, teachers tried to put me on ADHD medicine. like the whole nine, like, had my parents freaked out until I learned music. And like, I … The main thing was like, I learned how to learn. I learned like — I learned myself and I was like, “Oh, wait, this is how I learn? Like, I'm, like, an obsessor. I'm a binger, you know?” Then I went to college and I almost got straight A's, you know, and I was like, “Told you guys! So, you know!”
Nyge: I really like that. I really like that. (Bryan: Yeah.) Um, so you're supposed to be dropping a new album this year. What has that meant to you really creating that and putting that together?
Bryan: Yeah, um, man, it's been really a dope process. It's kind of a, it's kind of like a beat tape, but kind of just like my first one that I need to get out. Got a lot of really cool, cool gigs and cool, like, people that I'm working with. Some celebrities that I like, I wish I can say on air. (Nyge: Yeah) Yeah, extremely excited. Have a lot of support, family support and yeah, I've always wanted to release music, but I knew that it was, uh, it was a right way to do it. And I just wanted my first release like to make, to make sense, you know? Like I could have done it years ago and I would have done it wrong. And it would have just kind of went out and it would have made money potentially, but I wouldn't have been able to recoup it. I wouldn't have like copywritten it right, you know? I wouldn't have been able to shop it right, pitch it to radios or anything. So I'm happy I waited and I'm like, I'm just I'm happy. It's actually my birthday on Friday and it's like kind of a birthday present for myself, so…
Dom: Well, happy birthday to you!
Bryan: Thank you. Thank you.
Nyge: You can follow Bryan at Bryan C. Simmons on all the socials. And make sure you keep an eye out for his upcoming album, “Nature's Harmony Vol. 1”
After working on this episode, my main takeaway from it is really that pursuing your passions is so much more common than you think. And you can make your dreams come true. Just don't hyperfocus on the norms. And what I mean by that is like, if you want to play basketball for a living and you don't make the NBA, there's so many people who play basketball for a living on YouTube or in so many other spaces. You can actually make your dream a reality. Just don't focus on, like, the norms or the boxes that they put people in when they are pursuing those dreams.
Dom: I think that's a really beautiful way to look at it, and I think it really speaks to, like, your character and your heart that you like, look at the essence of a dream and you want people to, like, never stop pursuing that essence.
For me, I have always felt like other people believed in me more than I believed in myself, which in a lot of ways is a privilege to, like, have that support. But it also gave me like mega-imposter syndrome. So for the last few years, I've been playing catch up to try to get to like other people's ideas of what I'm capable of. But when it really comes down to it, other people believing in you is amazing. Like other friends and like colleagues supporting you is wonderful.
But the thing that really matters is knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that you can do it, that you're the shit, and if you don't have that, the rest kind of falls to the wayside.
And this episode reminded me that there's not like a stage of self-confidence that you get to, that you're, like, no longer battling that kind of internal doubt. It's something that's like a constant give-and-take. But the more rooms you get into, the more you remind yourself that you're capable of your dreams, you're capable of what it is that you want to pursue. And the less you listen to your self-doubt and like the other people putting their doubts on you, the closer you can get to making your dreams a reality.
Nyge: Adult ISH is produced by YR Media, a national network of young journalists and artists creating content for this generation. Our show is produced by George Wright, Dominique French and me, your boy, Nyge Turner.
Dom: Our executive producer is Rebecca Martin.
Nyge: YR’s director of podcasting is Ray Archie.
Dom: Our engineer is James Riley. Original music for this episode created by these young musicians at YR: Christian Romo, Anders Knutstad, Noah Holt, Jacob Armenta, Chaz Whitley, Michael Diaz, Sean Luciano Galarza.
Music direction by Oliver “Kuya” Rodriguez and Maya Drexler.
Nyge: Art for this episode created by Ariam Michael. Art direction by Marjerrie Masicat. And creative direction by Pedro Vega, Jr.
Dom: Special thanks to Eli Arbreton
Nyge: We are also so proud to be members of Radiotopia by PRX, an independent listener-supported collective of some of the most amazing shows in all of podcasting. Find them at Radiotopia.fm and if you haven’t reviewed our show on Apple Podcasts yet, please be sure to do so. Five stars is much appreciated.
Dom: You can follow us on all the socials @YRAdultISH. And on that note, we'll see you on the flippity flop!