…The second such movement may sound a little crazy, but I’ve also long been interested in sparking a “Music Heals the World” campaign, meant in both the literal and figurative sense — this has been a longtime, real-world aspiration. I got the idea originally upon learning of music therapy during my medical training, in which music is used, in daily clinical practice, to tangibly boost health and well-being in both inpatient and outpatient settings. My primary aim with the campaign is to bring together musicians with health professionals and on-the-ground activists in regions stricken by war and infrastructure collapse, such as Syria and the Congo, but also parts of the US ground down by poverty or the opioid epidemic. The teams would support open-air concerts to help boost the mood, health, and optimism of people in the stricken regions, not only involving established American recording artists but also emphasizing indigenous musicians, and getting their work to a broader audience. Native American rhythms, for instance, are remarkably soothing for patients dealing with acute health issues, and the Music Heals the World campaign would therefore be an ideal vehicle to bring these often underappreciated musical forms and traditions to bear for the greater good.
As part of my series featuring the rising stars in the music industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing J. Wesley “Wes” Ulm. Wes Ulm is a trailblazing and award-winning musician, filmmaker, actor, TV quiz show champion, published novelist, physician, medical researcher, philosopher, and accomplished polymath. He is the founder, songwriter, and lead singer of the musical outfit J. Wes Ulm and Kant’s Konundrum and originator of the Hypno-Intox sound — a fusion of alternative, experimental and art rock, classical, and often nu-metal and blues elements with narrative-rich melodies and lyrics. The new style is marked by an energetic sonic tapestry that’s at once rhythmic, exciting, and fun, yet also thought-provoking, evocative, at times even mystical. He released a breakout 4-song EP, Tales of a Wandering Soul, in 2018, and his band’s first music video, for the track “A Hustler’s Tale,” set a record for a debut release with 10 prizes on the festival circuit. Two music videos have since followed, one completed and the other in post-production, for his riveting, Lovecraftian-themed flagship song ”Lorelei Part 1.” Wes is multilingual and is currently also creating tracks partially or wholly in Spanish, French, Chinese, German, and other languages, with a Cajun-themed romance tale — “Angel of the Bayou” — set to appear on his second EP. He grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, winning a National Merit Scholarship and graduating valedictorian of his class at T. C. Williams High School before earning a B.S. degree, summa cum laude, in chemistry and biochemistry at Duke University. At 22, on the cusp of starting medical school, he achieved five consecutive nights on the Jeopardy! TV quiz program and made the show’s Tournament of Champions. He went on to earn a dual MD/PhD degree from Harvard Medical School and MIT, supported by an NIH Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) fellowship, publishing diversely in gene therapy and pharmacology. In the process, Wes was awarded research prizes and international speaking engagements for work in developing new therapies for neurofibromatosis and cancer; he has since pursued both research and medical fellowships specializing in clinical and investigational genetics. He published a popular novel, Echoes of the Mystic Chords, in the Visionary and Metaphysical Fiction genre in 2016, which served as a springboard and source of themes for his then-fledgling music career. He continues to pursue his medical and musical aspirations side-by-side, with a full second EP since recorded and a third already in advanced development.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My path to a musical career was paved by a series of (mostly) happy accidents. I’m a medical doctor and researcher by profession, but I was musically inclined from early childhood. I picked up my first guitar and began strumming away in middle school, mostly folk songs by the likes of Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. I got an early taste of national celebrity as a Jeopardy! champion just before starting med school (and apparently still hold a couple TV records from that run). That experience in turn brought me into contact with a variety of extraordinary and inspiring people, across the media and entertainment world, who encouraged me to pursue a music career in earnest. But my medical duties were all-consuming, and it wasn’t feasible to follow through in practice. Things took an unexpected turn, however, when I contracted a deadly lung condition while on hospital duty — certainly not the happiest of accidents. The recovery was arduous and often agonizing (literally), so to keep my mind focused and productive, I reconnected with my more “right brain-oriented” creative self. This, thankfully, is where the more happy accidents began to line up.
I completed a novel in 2014 (published two years later), at the same time picking up my guitar again and dipping my toe into the songwriting waters. Initially I was inclined to just write music to accompany video trailers for the book, but then that same year, while fine-tuning one of my early compositions at Cal State Northridge (a.k.a. CSUN, where I’d been teaching a pre-med class), I found my first audience among CSUN students, and they loved the song-in-progress. Their unabashed support and comments were pivotal in persuading me to take the leap into professional songwriting, recording, and performance. System of a Down, one of my own favorite bands, got its start at CSUN when Serj Tankian was a student there, so I got a kick out of the fact that my own music career officially began at the same place.
The next happy accident followed at UCLA, where I’d been working as a medical research fellow and first met Ryan Chen, who became our lead guitarist, strumming away on the quad. Ryan’s fingerstyle guitar approach was an ideal fit for the minor added chords and harmonics that filled my compositions, and I only encountered him because of the timing of my lunch break that day at UCLA. I met much of my inner circle through such seemingly random bits of extended networking and strokes of luck, the people I’ll be staying close with wherever my musical journey takes me. In fact I’d say these fortuitous connections paved the way for most of the fruitful team-ups on my personal shout-out list: illustrator Will Chen, the main creative force behind our album art; my longtime producing and marketing collaborators Lennon Leppert and Anna Goncalves; rhythm guitarist Gratz Arias; rising star actresses like Veronica Narang, Emily Soria, and Kate Adkins; master cinematographers Nick Saldivar, Nathan Schuckman, and Evan Stulc; insightful podcasters like Geoff Antonio and Jimmy Lee; and film editor T’nia Harris, truly an undiscovered jewel and genius of her craft, whom I met thanks to a chance conversation with Veronica while filming our second official music video.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your music career?
It’s an interesting though harrowing story, in a “baptism by fire” sense. I’d been visiting my girlfriend Gloria up in Milpitas, near San Jose in northern California, when my asthma and reactive airway disease (complications from the deadly respiratory illness noted above) flared up horribly on the heels of an acute pneumonia. The trip back to Los Angeles was nightmarish, to the point that I was struggling to breathe and had to pull over at a rest stop; I’d begun fading into unconsciousness and was in real danger of dying on the road. There was a weird, misty drizzle in the air that day too, blanketing an otherwise sun-baked rest stop that looked vaguely like a Martian landscape. It all contributed to a strange out-of-body experience alongside chilling hallucinations I began having about the surroundings outside closing in on me, spinning around. (Such visual hallucinations can be a manifestation of a devastating lung condition called ARDS, which is often lethal and which I feared I was slipping into.) I was in a state of genuine terror as I battled to breathe, but when I finally began to stabilize on my lung meds — not daring to drive away from the rest stop — I found comfort strumming away some unusual chords on the guitar I’d brought along.
Eventually, I began arpeggiating an A minor added ninth chord, and found a core melody — at once haunting, Lovecraftian-themed, and eerily beautiful — that evolved into our flagship two-part song “Lorelei.” It’s an engrossing sonic experience, and every time I play it, it entrances the audience, including fellow professional musicians and producers at music expos who’ve reacted with awe and rapt fascination. I wound up entering a sort of fugue state at that rest stop in central California, spending the night writing the track before finally passing out in my car, and the song had effectively channeled both the horror I’d experienced from that near-death ordeal simultaneously with the bits of hope and optimism I clung onto for dear life. That composition also launched what’s become Kant’s Konundrum’s defining creative style which we’ve dubbed “Hypno-Intox”: a rousing, atmospheric, score-like quality, fusing 90s revival alternative rock with prog rock, art rock, and occasional blues and nu metal, with a profound emphasis on ambitious melodic and lyrical storytelling. Mind-boggling to realize that even the most terrifying experiences can paradoxically be a source of creative inspiration!
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Our debut music video, for the bluesy, Quentin Tarantino-inspired Bonnie and Clyde-themed song “A Hustler’s Tale” (the first on our EP Tales of a Wandering Soul), set a record with 10 festival prizes, and in part thanks to that breakout success, we’re getting support for a major studio-level feature production for our third music video. It’s for the song “Lorelei: Part 1” which, as indicated above, is the premiere of a two-part flagship track for our first and second EPs. The raw footage has already been filmed on a high-resolution Red Camera, and we’re lining up sponsors and supporters to bring the haunting, dreamlike visual effects to the level of a full-fledged Hollywood production.
“Lorelei” holds a special place in our musical canon, and we want the video to reflect the otherworldly, imaginative spirit of the original track and its creation: unsettling, Lovecraftian, filled with both lush beauty and cosmic horror, yet resonating with a message of hope and infinite human potential, and staying forever with listeners. “Lorelei” is our most ambitious project, the springboard for what we are aiming to nurture into a narrative franchise. However, we’re also creating other rousing stories on the songs for our second and third EP. Some examples: an emotionally gripping antiwar ballad with working title “Cannon Fodder Confessions,” focusing on the lives of and pressures facing the grunts in the trenches; a sci-fi themed love story called “Ballad at the Event Horizon”; and a Cajun French-themed, country-infused romantic track entitled “Angel of the Bayou.”
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
I’ve had the privilege to meet and work with a number of genuine legends in the music industry, who’ve mentored me and helped me to evolve my professional songwriting, singing, and instrumentation craft. One of the most formative for my musical development has been Dave Isaac, the legendary engineer and producer who worked closely with Stevie Wonder, among others in the American musical pantheon. I first met him at a music convention and followed up in the ensuing months and years, and he was detailed and specific in his suggestions. He provided crucial feedback when I was crafting some of my earliest songs, and much of my compositional style since then has been molded by his guidance. My verse arrangements and rhymes, the vocal dynamics and phrasing, the bridges and instrumentals that add flair and verve to the first fledgling versions of my tracks — all were thoroughly shaped by such impromptu apprenticeships. I owe a lot of my development in those arenas to Dave and other teachers I’ve met at music and songwriting conventions, like songwriter J Kash and producer Luke Smith.
On the filmmaking side, I got valuable advice from record label founders like Jennifer Horton and music video producers like Djay Brawner, who helped to guide my critical early planning for my own efforts. I never even considered at the outset that the short film behind the “Hustler’s Tale” music video (presented in the guise of a silent film to extend the opportunities for story exposition) would become award-winning, and I owe a lot of that to such timely mentorship from the get-go. Above all, though, I’ve met and closely worked with an incredible number of outstanding, talented, and highly skilled people in both the music production and filmmaking sides, including the inner circle I mentioned above. Without my musical career, I never would have crossed paths with such creative and stimulating people in so many fascinating fields outside my medical training and practice.
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
I’m most inspired by historical figures who exude defiance, who refuse to “know their place” or succumb to the constraints of the boxes in which their societies sought to confine them. They embody, in the most concrete sense, the ethos of the trailblazers who reshape the world and make it better even when conventional wisdom declares it all impossible. Joan of Arc is high in my personal pantheon for this reason — a peasant girl who roused the hearts of her people, at a time when few outside the aristocracy had historical agency. (She’s the subject of a song-in-progress for an upcoming EP.) I’m similarly inspired by an 18th-century Basque Spanish admiral, named Blas de Lezo, for more personal reasons: He suffered grievous injuries as a young man, losing an eye, arm, and leg, yet he pressed ahead unswervingly, never succumbing to despair. His stoical defiance was a source of comfort during my own prolonged convalescence from my respiratory illness.
One more historical inspiration I should mention is the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz who, among other things, beautifully described the essence of what we’d call a universal language (the characteristica universalis). Leibniz’s initial focus was more technical, aiming to optimize formal logic — the basis of what we know today as calculus, and computer languages and software. But he eventually took the idea in a more creative direction, wondering what mode of expression could elegantly encompass both the world outside and our inner world of love, emotion, thought, and imagination. What else, but music, could even approximate the heart and soul of what Leibniz had in mind?
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’ve certainly strived to do so! My twin careers, in medicine and music, are passions as well as occupations, and that’s in large part because of the tangible positive difference I can make for the world through both. It may sound like a stock answer at times, but we dream about having this impact as kids when we set out on our career paths, and it’s a source of genuine satisfaction to witness the fruits of my labors in such a concrete way. I’ve seen it from my efforts in medicine and medical research, saving lives through my exertions in gene therapy, bioinformatics, and my clinical work itself. However, the positive impact from my musical efforts, while perhaps more subtle at first glance, is also significant and equally a source of satisfaction.
Humans are unique in the animal kingdom in the significance that novelty, innovation, and storytelling have for us. Firing the imagination is essential for our very beings, and we crave this just as we do more easily identifiable needs like food, intimacy, and sleep. That’s what I strive to do with my music, and it’s not at all presumptuous for us as musicians and creative artists in general to take pride in that. Tapping into the infinite wellspring of human imagination and stirring our aspirations may seem to have less palpable effects than meeting more obvious needs, yet those effects are real, and they’re no less important. It’s intriguing to ask why music, as a mode of creative expression, has such potency in this. My own take on it is that music, as suggested above, is the closest the world has to a universal language. Somehow, our consciousness — both individual and collective — is put together in such a way that the melodies, harmonies, and lyrics of songs and stories set to music resonate at the frequency of our souls.
If you’ll forgive me for waxing a little metaphysical on this, I like to think of a kind of cosmic narrative somehow being wrapped up in the folds of the human brain, one that’s evolved over billions of years. Music, in turn, for reasons that researchers are still endeavoring to understand, somehow taps deeply into that narrative. Because of this deep-seated connection to our innermost emotions and aspirations, music has a way of touching and uniting people across otherwise insurmountable barriers, in a way virtually nothing else can. As a result, I use my own creative compositions to touch on universal themes and mysteries from a fresh perspective — topics like the tangible power of memory, the nature of our inscrutable thoughts and emotions, the elemental essence of love and intimacy, the riddles of ancient messages buried within our collective consciousness. When I see people from countless nations, backgrounds, and inclinations all absorbing the intrigue at the heart of my music, I know I’ve done my job!
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’ve actually nurtured two longtime, real-world aspirations in this regard, one of them music-related. The first is a movement called the “EMPOWER Initiative,” an acronym for “Education and Microcredit for Poor Women in Endemic Regions.” It’s an effort I first conceived of in medical school, to apply cutting-edge tools of data-mining and crowdsourcing to provide improved delivery of educational opportunities and business microcredit to women and girls in developing countries hard-hit by endemic diseases like malaria and AIDS. The struggle of women and girls in these regions to access such basic resources is behind many of the world’s broader woes, and so I’m enthusiastic to rally support and sponsors, and help launch a more concerted initiative to provide these core needs.
The second such movement may sound a little crazy, but I’ve also long been interested in sparking a “Music Heals the World” campaign, meant in both the literal and figurative sense — this has been a longtime, real-world aspiration. I got the idea originally upon learning of music therapy during my medical training, in which music is used, in daily clinical practice, to tangibly boost health and well-being in both inpatient and outpatient settings. My primary aim with the campaign is to bring together musicians with health professionals and on-the-ground activists in regions stricken by war and infrastructure collapse, such as Syria and the Congo, but also parts of the US ground down by poverty or the opioid epidemic. The teams would support open-air concerts to help boost the mood, health, and optimism of people in the stricken regions, not only involving established American recording artists but also emphasizing indigenous musicians, and getting their work to a broader audience. Native American rhythms, for instance, are remarkably soothing for patients dealing with acute health issues, and the Music Heals the World campaign would therefore be an ideal vehicle to bring these often underappreciated musical forms and traditions to bear for the greater good.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
First, remember to pace yourself, and focus on the day-to-day journey of making and disseminating your music. Although it is critical to have a long-term plan mapped out, burnout can happen if you brood over the totality of your goals too much. Like many other creative and entrepreneurial endeavors, a music career is wildly nonlinear and unpredictable in the path to a big break. To paraphrase the observations of many a successful creative artist, you’ll knock on doors and hear a hundred “no’s” before one opens with a “yes,” and so it’s essential to maintain a bit of detachment, to ward off discouragement and stay persistent with your efforts and contacts. In the meantime, focus on building up your body of work day by day, engaging with both your core fans and new listeners, and the simple joy of making and sharing music.
I’d likewise recommend compartmentalizing your tasks, and assembling a team that you respect and trust. A major source of burnout, in medicine and music alike, is feeling isolated and overwhelmed, with a constant sense of falling behind. I guarantee you we all get that sinking feeling at times! The best remedy is to take everything step-by-step, and keep things real with your close friends, family, and team. Finally, always remember that your body is a temple that should be well cared for. A music career is both a sprint and marathon at various times, and neglecting your health is a fast-track ticket on the burnout train. As I’ve told many of my own musical protégés, “Great sounds come from a sound mind and body,” even more so when (like yours truly) you have to work your singing and performances around a medical condition like asthma or reactive airway disease. So as clichéd as this advice may often seem, be sure to plan out a solid diet, exercise, and sleep regimen — even if you stray from it at times — as well as finding ways to meditate and de-stress, and overall listening to cues from your body.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
I’ll split these up into #1 through 5 and give my brief personal story and pro tips for each one.
1. Don’t be afraid to network and seek out help anywhere you can find it, and never fear asking what you may think is a stupid question. To paraphrase one of my musical mentors on the topic, you’re supposed to feel like an idiot or laggard when you set out to create new music — it’s the best motivation to go outside your comfort zones and master your craft! For some of my early song forays, I preferred the timbre of less common instruments (harp, bells, harmonica, marimba, even a theremin) to the more standard guitar-keyboard pairings. But I didn’t know how to do even simple arrangements, and felt too dumb for weeks to even ask the question for fear of revealing my ignorance. That is, until I attended a meeting of musical minds (the annual ASCAP Music Expo in this case) and found even experienced musicians puzzling over many of the same “elementary” matters! Music-making is incredibly complex and multifaceted nowadays, so don’t balk at asking a so-called stupid question; believe me, no matter much we hide the fact, we all have them!
2. Plan ahead, and seize any and every little window of opportunity you can wring out of your schedule to write your songs, practice your instruments, and engage with your fans. Building a music career is an extended hustle from your first tentative compositions to the breakout tracks that gain mainstream attention, and working around your day job and family obligations is a constant challenge. Find ways to use downtimes productively, and take advantage of holidays or travel. I’ve scribbled key lyrics for some of my band’s songs waiting in line at the DMV, crafted hooks and guitar riffs while sitting otherwise helplessly in LA’s traffic, written entire melodies on long bus rides, even harmonized tracks while stuck writing computer programs. Holidays and three-day weekends have been precious openings to block out studio time with my producer and session musicians.
3. Along similar lines, take a recording device with you, everywhere you go; you’ll be surprised at the places and times where you feel that tiny spark of inspiration that grows into a new song! I got a specialized voice recorder app on my mobile devices, and it’s been a pivotal investment. I’ve used it in any spare moment I could carve out to craft new songs, from the first experimental melodies to complex, polished outros and bridges. A good chunk of our first two EP’s was first composed using this piecemeal strategy to build new songs from scratch, over days and weeks, with the voice recorder always by my side. For the same reason, pay close attention to those moments when you’re able to compose new music most productively. It’s fascinating how our own epiphanies and creative wellsprings can be so mysterious even to us, yet a bit of introspection about the where, when, and how of your musical inspirations can yield valuable insights about the external cues than can prompt your best songwriting. In my case, I found that road trips were especially productive in getting my creative juices flowing, and that’s helped me to take advantage of such outings to write the core of nearly a dozen new songs in the works.
4. Checklists are your friend, particularly when it comes to events like concerts, open-mics, festivals, and above all (and most crucially) music videos, nowadays probably your most important avenue to reach a global audience off the bat. (Adele, Lana del Rey, Justin Bieber, Shawn Mendes, and countless other big-name current artists used well-crafted videos to get their music out there to the world, well before they were doing major concerts.) You’ll generally have your filming permits for only a day or two, and your cast and crew likely won’t be able to assemble outside that narrow window of opportunity. Our first three music videos all ran into unexpected hurdles, as these things almost always do, that very nearly derailed them (including the main actor suffering a car accident en route to the first one). My team was narrowly able to improvise to overcome those initial difficulties, but that was possible only because I’d been almost compulsive about checklist-making beforehand; without that preparation, we would have lacked crucial props and equipment that were indispensable for filming! Remember, the hardest part of a music career, as with a small business, is the hustling right at the outset before you have the luxury of a staff or event planners to coordinate everything. It may seem excessive, but trust me on this, thorough checklists are a lifesaver during this pivotal early phase!
5. Finally, in contrast to the usual entrepreneurial mantra of “location, location, location,” the bedrock of building your music career is “relationships, relationships, relationships.” There’s a learning curve for music production as with any other skilled pursuit. Networking and constant tinkering are indispensable, but so is building (and placing your trust in) a tight-knit relationship of friends, colleagues, and major fans who share your passion, and with whom you can establish a kind of symbiosis going forward. Keep networking, and each time you encounter someone who can teach you, or wants to listen or hear more of your music, keep in contact with them, even if it’s just an email or IM once every couple months.
For me, my team has been essential in maintaining forward momentum, providing encouragement, and guiding the release and announcement of new music while I’m simultaneously pursuing my medical career. They’ve been wonderful in providing feedback and encouragement to keep writing songs and doing events. I can’t describe how valuable this has been, not only in the logistical management of my new music and videos, but also in keeping the fire in the belly going strong even as I’m working an often grueling schedule as a physician.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she just might see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
Dave Stewart, of the Eurythmics and (lately) TV’s Songland! I was an 80s kid and grew up to the sounds of Dave and Annie Lennox doing their sonic trailblazing with the Eurythmics, so I was totally stoked to hear that he was the driving force behind Songland. It’s not only a personal aspiration to appear on the show; more fundamentally, I simply admire what Dave and the other producers and staff have done with it, since there’s so little else like it on TV or other broadcast media. Songland provides that rare window for the general public into what we do as songwriters, not only the fun and inspiring parts, but also the grunt work and incessant fine-tuning that goes into molding a nascent tune into a finished work.
Along the same lines, I’ve gotta mention Kevan Kenney in this regard. There’s a bit of a “meta” aspect to this choice since I read one of Kevan’s articles to prep for this interview, but that’s the very reason it’d be such a blast to chat with him at length — he’s one of the best teachers out there helping recording artists to navigate the choppy waters of a budding music career. I first saw Kevan in action while watching TRL: Top 10. I have mad respect for him and his co-hosts, Sway Calloway and Jamila Mustafa, for providing such a valuable public outlet to gain broad insight into the work of musicians during that embryonic and defining “hustle phase” of their careers, just as Dave Stewart has done for songwriters on Songland. And Kevan especially has become a kind of shadow mentor to quite a few of us in his capacity with Billboard, putting out a number of indispensable pieces for up-and-coming musicians on how best to prepare for important public events and outreach. He’s therefore already been a teacher and guide for me at a distance; it would be awesome to meet and talk with him in person!
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Subscribe to the “J. Wes Ulm and Kant’s Konundrum” Spotify and YouTube channels! We’re constantly putting out new music, art, and little Easter Eggs for fans, full of fun and imaginative riffs as well as behind-the-scenes snippets of our music and film productions. We have a brand-new official logo designed by Rodrigo de Carvalho, a magnificent artist from Brazil, with our official tagline: “Come join the Hypno-Intox Musical Revolution!” I’m @jwesulm on all social media (Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, Tumblr, VK, and other apps). For any inquiries, feel free to contact my team by email at jwesulmteam (at) gmail.com , or my academic email wes_ulm (at) post.harvard.edu .
Thank you for these great insights. This was very inspiring!