Doc Jazz is my guest today, who is not only an incredible songwriter, but is also a client who has hired me for several singing and graphic design projects. He is also a surgeon, which blows my mind that he’s able to do so many things and be so great at all of them. Our work has been featured in the news several times, which you can see here and here. His background is fascinating and I’m excited to introduce you to him!
I’ll put videos throughout so you can listen to his work while you read! His Spotify is also at the bottom of this interview if you’d like to give it a listen. If you’d like to give him a shoutout, please feel free to send him a tweet:Loved your interview, @docjazzmusic! Click To Tweet
I’m excited to begin, so let’s get started:
Tell us your background, where you’re from, etc.
I was born and raised in the Netherlands, but I am of Palestinian origin. I was raised with Arabic as my first language, and for the first 10 years of my life, most (but not all) music I listened to was the Arab classics. However, I did hear the hits of the 70’s while growing up, and later on the 80’s. These have had a great impact on my musical development. I found myself leaning mostly towards soul, disco/funk, and a little bit less towards rock, as I apparently have an innate preference for more syncopated rhythms.
What do you do as a “day job?”
I’m a surgeon, my specialty is abdominal and laparoscopic surgery (the latter is known to the public as ‘keyhole’ surgery). My artist handle is Doc Jazz, which I developed from the nickname my fellow medical students gave me: “Doctor Jazz”, as I was the one who would liven up our student parties with live singalongs on guitar and keyboard.
When I started publishing my music online in the late nineties, I figured it might sound kind of cool if I shortened the first part to “Doc”.
Being a surgeon, I’m sure you work incredibly long, stressful hours. How do you find time in a day/week to balance your work with your music?
Since this is my career, it has been happening throughout my life that there have been times when weeks or months go by without me – literally! – touching an instrument. Especially when it comes to songwriting, inspiration simply won’t come when I am overwhelmed with work. But what typically happens, is that when it gets less hectic after that, and I have a few days to myself, that’s when some great ideas may be coming!
When did you discover your passion and talent for music?
I was singing along with the Arab classics when I was a young child, and I was being told I sounded good. Also, I knew I had a sense of rhythm because I was drumming along with songs on any available surface, including complex rhythms.
When I was about 12 years old, a friend gave me a cassette tape of the Beatles, and I was blown away by it. There were about 30 songs on it and I just couldn’t stop listening to them. Soon, I literally knew not only every word, but every melodic line in each one of those songs. Then I told my dad I wanted a guitar, and he surprised me on my 13th birthday by buying me one. My mom wanted me to take lessons, but my dad said: let’s first see what he does with that thing.
I found a book in the library with guitar chords, and a few months later I had figured out all those Beatles songs, and was able to play them and sing along. So I never went for the lessons, I just kept exploring by myself, and I was loving every minute of it. Later on, we got a piano in our house, my sister was taking lessons on it, and I just went and applied what I knew from playing on the guitar, on the piano, and it worked! I later on added more and more instruments as time went by. Anything that can make a sound, arouses my curiosity.
Do you remember your first attempts at songwriting? Were they as cringey as most early songwriting attempts? Haha
Haha yes sure, I bet the first ones were kind of “cringey”, but they did have the right ‘pop song structure’, even the very first one I wrote, which was only a few months after I had started playing the guitar. I think that’s because I had listened so intensely to the Beatles.
The thing with my songwriting is: I don’t remember ever having taking a conscious decision to start writing songs. They just started happening as I was exploring the guitar and finding out what I could do with it. This then developed into being a real outlet for my emotions, thoughts and moods, and I guess it has always stayed like that.
I still never decide to write a song. I hear something in my mind, I start developing it, and then it just quickly grows into a song, with words and all.
What made you decide to start hiring outside help for your music?
In 2005, I met American musician Forrest Thomas, who was living in the Netherlands and had scored a huge world hit with a cover of the Hues Corporation’s song ‘Rock the Boat’. We became really close friends, and he said my songs were quite good, so one day we decided that he would produce my first real album, ‘Front Door Key’.
He brought in a bunch of incredible professional session musicians (mostly other Americans who were living in the Netherlands) and for me this was an eye-opener: so that’s how it’s done! Until then, as I had developed into a multi-instrumentalist (guitar, piano/keyboards, bass, drums and a few other instruments) I was used to doing all instruments by myself. That experience with Forrest showed me what happens when you get the input of session musicians, and it blew me away.
When, after that album, I went back to producing things on my own, I had learned so much, things went to an entirely different level. But I never forgot the added value of bringing in session musicians. Sadly, Forrest passed away unexpectedly in 2013, but he is always in my mind when I am producing, I owe him forever for the things I have learned from him.
Have you worked with other session singers besides me?
Yes, first of all, Michelle David on Front Door Key. An incredible American soul singer. The first time I hired an online session singer was Maxi, also American, for backing vocals on my song Rising Tide in 2014. She did a really great job and that helped me see how easy it actually was to get session musicians and singers involved through the internet.
I then started doing it more regularly, I hired Toy Matthews for backing vocals on my song ‘It Takes Love’, and Elan Noelle for my song ‘How Does it Feel’, both were truly magnificent. Working with each of them was excellent, smooth, no issues whatsoever, everything delivered in top quality wav files. I am still grateful to them, it may sound sentimental of me but when a musician is involved in a song of mine, I just feel an eternal gratitude, even if it is a paid job.
Okay, so, here’s where I’m trying not to brag or sound like I’m promoting myself, haha, but what made you decide to work with me? How did you know I was “the right choice?” (Or if you didn’t know right away, what made you sure later?)
When I first found you, I just went with my instinct, as I usually do, and it hasn’t often failed me. I guess I look at how a musician presents himself or herself. I try to find examples of their work, although I don’t exactly remember if I did that in your case. Something told me you would deliver a professional job, and you sure did! I am very selective, it has often happened that I have hired a session musician, paid them, and then eventually not used what they delivered. It’s a risk I am willing to take, when I am in that mood where I know what I want, and am following my hunches and instincts to get all those quality ingredients together and then ‘cook’ them into what I feel sounds as close as possible to what I hear in my mind.
We’ve worked together on a couple of projects now. How would you describe the process of working with me from your perspective?
It’s a true delight to work with you. First of all, your voice is incredibly versatile, has a truly gorgeous timbre and sound, and you have an amazing level of vocal control, which means that what you deliver will be very clear-cut and clean. So, the main reason is your amazing voice, let’s be clear about that. When you added your gorgeous vocals to ‘Closer To Me’, I knew you were a keeper. That’s why I came back for ‘Leaving it Up to Fate’.
Secondly, you are so creative. Nothing feels or sounds as if it’s just thrown out quickly. You really listen to the song, and add the harmonies and ad-libs in a truly creative way that enhances the song. This is the added value of getting a real pro like you. This goes for the other pros that I worked with as well. I’m totally not saying my music is all that great, but I definitely want the things that I receive from session musicians to be at pro level.
Thirdly, you’re really savvy when it comes to presentation. That impressed me a lot. Such business acumen! You send your client that ‘closing packet’, I just consider that to be a genius move. It tells your client that you are a very serious business partner. It’s so well done. It’s what made me go and check out your fantastic Youtube videos and find out more about you, it’s also how I found your lovely album Zebra Stone. When you know the session singer is so much more than just a great vocalist, and has an equally great personality, it leaves an indelible impression.
Thank you so much, I really appreciate hearing that! Is there anything you wish I did differently? (You can be honest here, I won’t edit it! Haha)
No, you are perfect, haha. I would love to continue working with you. It’s that reassurance that you want when you are in the role of producer: knowing what you will get from this session singer, and knowing that it’s going to be great.
What advice would you give to new songwriters thinking about hiring outside help?
First advice: hire Mella! Haha. Well, even though I am not kidding – they totally should – but in a more general sense, I would like to advise them to be picky. Since you don’t know exactly what you’re getting, and you will still need to pay the person for their work, you have to be prepared to sometimes spend money and then eventually not use what you ‘bought’. Don’t forget, your goal was to improve the song.
I know that some session musicians do guarantee 100% satisfaction, so you can ask for revisions and stuff, but what I mean is that sometimes, it just doesn’t click, even after the revisions. Do you want to be in the situation where you eventually don’t pay someone for their efforts? I think that’s pretty horrible, this situation has to be avoided. If your budget is really tight, try to be as selective as you can before hiring someone, by listening to their work. Focus on the ‘feel’ that they express in their work, and try to assess whether it will match your own. I guess you’re going to have to trust your instincts on that.
That’s great advice, I definitely think people should be pickier when working with people! Often people are so excited to hire someone and begin, they overlook important things.
But let’s get back to you: What is your favorite song you’ve ever written? What makes it special?
Like most artists, I am inclined to first say: I love all my songs, they’re like children you’ve given birth to. It’s super cliche, but it’s still true, haha. However, there are always favorites, I guess. In my case that’s more about how satisfied I am with the song from a production point of view. And when I look at it that way, my song ‘How Does it Feel’ may be one of my favorites. I used only real instruments, from the drums all the way down to real violins, and a real percussionist, all hired session musicians. My friend Hans Sligter, a guitarist and vocalist from the Netherlands, played a crucial role in that song, with his work on bass and guitar. That also makes it special.
It’s definitely no Top 40 stuff, but from a production point of view, I have a lot of love for that one. By the way, the same goes for ‘Closer To Me’, the one you were on, also all real instruments, but How Does it Feel was a bigger challenge to mix and produce. My song ‘Glass Ceiling’ has become extra special to me recently, as my dear friend the legendary Lebanese blues guitarist Walid Itayim, who contributed guitars to the song, sadly passed away suddenly in April.
Who are some of your favorite artists?
So many, across so many different genres. I already mentioned the Beatles, but then there is also Little Feat, Steely Dan, Michael McDonald. Quincy Jones is a genius! I love Supertramp as well. Stevie Wonder is like a Founding Father, he is just essential. Jamiroquai is fantastic, one of my all-time favorite bands, and so are the Brand New Heavies, and Incognito. Eric Benet is incredible, as a combination of vocalist, arranger, song-writer, his productions just sound SO good. The late Bill Withers, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye. Bruno Mars is incredibly talented, Pharrell Williams is an outright genius. Max Martin is the King of all pop music producers (which doesn’t mean I love all of his songs, but his genius is undeniable). My favorite current female vocalist is Ariana Grande. What an incredible voice!
And hey, my son must be mentioned here, his artist name is Feyesal. He is already bigger than his dad has ever been, with millions of streams on Spotify. Of course I’m very proud of that!
On the flip side, who are your LEAST favorite artists and why aren’t you a fan?
Oh that’s a tough question, because I just avoid listening to them and then I tend to forget them. I’m somewhat inclined to mention Justin Bieber here, but then again, I’m not sure if I’m being entirely fair. I mean, in that niche, he is doing a great job isn’t he? It’s just not my niche, it doesn’t hold my attention. Also, I really don’t like Schlager music, are you familiar with that genre? It just rubs me the wrong way. I also don’t like Death Metal. Any kind of music that expresses dark and sinister moods, or noisy music that involves screaming instead of singing. Other than that, my taste in music is incredibly wide, and I’m very open-minded to hearing new things.
What new projects do you have coming up?
Currently, none! I have only just released my new 12-song album “Love in the Time of Corona”, which also has “Leaving it Up to Fate” on it, the song you contributed to. It’s a very personal song, as it is about my mother’s Alzheimers’ disease. For now, it’s time for a bit of a rest, I guess. And as I mentioned earlier in the interview, I never actually decide to write a song. So it will just have to happen by itself, as it always has. I’m ready for new things, though. I’d love to collaborate with musicians. What I would also love to do, is an entirely acoustic album. I’ve been considering using my older songs to do that. But I don’t make any decisions. I don’t live off of it, so I have the luxury of only making music when I really want to.
Most importantly, where can my readers find you?
I guess my best link to share here would be Spotify! But I’m on Youtube as well, and Soundcloud, and iTunes, and Soundclick and many of the other platforms. People can find me there if they’re curious or interested: