Written by E.J. Jones
Photographed by Park Tae-sang
Andrew Vlasblom is a name that’s been popping up a lot recently: in the past month, he’s been interviewed by the Gwangju Blog, the GFN radio station, and now, Gwangju News. If you didn’t see or hear his name in one of these interviews, then you might have seen it on promotional posters floating about for his most recent musical project, The Ballad of Coward Jack. You may be wondering, “What is up with this guy, who is Coward Jack, and why is everybody so interested?”
Anyone who has lived in our city for a reasonable length of time can confirm that Gwangju is packed full of artistic talent. We have amazing painters, dancers, writers, choreographers, photographers, actors, and, well, the list goes on. But, how many people do you know personally – from anywhere – who put out an average of one original musical composition per month and one full album per year? Personally, I can count them on one finger.
Vlasblom, a native of Canada, has been around Gwangju for longer than most expats I’ve encountered. He came here in 2009 with EPIK and remains with the program to date – that’s a long time teaching English. Like most of us, however, Vlasblom has passions outside of teaching, and for him, one of the biggest ones is musical composition.
Vlasblom began playing the piano at age six (on a toy piano that remains a relic in his family’s possession), but he says he didn’t “really” start playing until he was 12. Initially, he took lessons, but due to his refusal to follow the sheet music assigned to him, he was unable to continue studying with his frustrated teacher. Eventually, Vlasblom’s music teacher told his mother that young Vlasblom was “unteachable.” Vlasblom recounts an early recital in which he performed “Jingle Bells” and added improvised verses. He admits, “I kind of wanted to show off in front of my Grade 1 peers.” This instance was the breaking point for Vlasblom’s teacher, but the absence of an instructor didn’t halt Vlasblom’s musical endeavors.
After being cut from lessons, Vlasblom happily continued “tinkering away” at the piano on his own, he says, preferring playing by ear to reading music. Vlasblom would simply listen to songs he wanted to play and then figure out the notes on the piano by matching the familiar melodies living in his head – tunes such as “Indiana Jones” and “Beethoven’s Fifth.” Vlasblom was soon amazing family and friends with his ability to play without having to read the music and eventually began composing his own original pieces.
Vlasblom traces his first completed original composition back to his university years when he was in his first band, Radio Blanket, for which he composed the song, “God Machine.” The song was named after a bit that used to air on The Daily Show. As he was explaining all this, Vlasblom, with a chuckle, went on to recite the short lyrics to the song from memory:
The God Machine
There’s nothing quite so keen
You press that button
And out comes somethin’ ya never
The rest of the song following this lyrical stanza is purely instrumental. Unfortunately, this earliest work by Vlasblom can’t be found online (trust me, I looked). However, if you stalk the artist on Facebook, you can find a link to his SoundCloud profile where you can listen to most of his works from the past two years, an exercise that will showcase the progression Vlasblom has made over time as a composer.
After his initial arrival in Gwangju, Vlasblom quickly stepped onto the city’s musical scene. Those who know Andrew would recognize him best with a keyboard at his fingertips, but actually, one of the first things he did upon arrival was purchase an accordion – an instrument that had long intrigued him. However, Vlasblom found that the loud, amateur sounds emitting from the instrument were not so pleasing to his fellow apartment tenants, and so, he took to practicing in the park, later also acquiring a keyboard with volume control.
With his newly purchased instruments, Vlasblom soon formed a weekly “classic rock night” at the local German Bar. From these rock nights came the formation of Andrew’s next band, Deserts. The group included himself on the keyboard, a bassist, two guitarists, a drummer, and a lead vocalist. During the lifespan of this ensemble, Vlasblom wrote two more original compositions; one of which, “Heart of Coal,” showcases both the artist’s piano and vocal skills, and (unlike earlier compositions) can be sampled on his SoundCloud. Deserts enjoyed some success, Vlasblom says, and even toured some cities outside of Gwangju such as Daegu, Busan, and Seoul. After about a year, the group disbanded, however, when the lead singer left Korea to return to his home country. Allegedly, the drummer had proposed that his band members follow him and they tour the U.S., but the idea was turned down. Could they have made it big? Guess we’ll never know.
Following the death of his band, Deserts, Vlasblom took a two-year hiatus in which he “didn’t really do much” musically. Happily, at the end of this period, Vlasblom began writing music again, producing his first complete, original album, On and On, which is entirely instrumental. Since the completion of On and On, Vlasblom has gone on to produce one full, original album each sequential year. His second instrumental album, Far to Go, is, according to him, “by far [his] most boring work to date” (but you can listen to it on his SoundCloud and judge for yourself). In Vlasblom’s opinion, his first “good album” was the following work he composed, entitled Last Horizon, a space-themed album that was released last year with debut live performances at the German Bar and the Dreamer’s space at Daein Night Market.
Vlasblom says his performance at Daein Market is what kick-started his becoming extremely active on the musical scene in Gwangju, thanks to having a new, regular performance outlet and networking with fellow local musicians, some of which he recruited for his most recent album, The Ballad of Coward Jack.
The Ballad of Coward Jack (or TBOCJ, as I’ve come to refer to it) is a western-themed album that tells the story of Coward Jack, who gets into trouble with the law, as well as with his old gang leader who goes by the name of Ole John Red. When a fight ends badly, Coward Jack goes on the run, being pursued for “18 years” by the revengeful Ole John Red. I won’t give too much away here, but I’ll just say, I’m very impressed with what Vlasblom has created, both musically and lyrically. The album tracks are characterized by three beautiful female voices and a simple, but fitting, instrumental accompaniment of violin and piano. TBOCJ enjoyed a packed audience at its debut performance at Daein Night Market on May 27 of this year. For those who missed it, additional live performances are scheduled, the next taking place at Speakeasy on Friday, July 7, where Vlasblom hopes to have professionally produced CD recordings available for purchase.
One thing I wondered about, being a musician and writer myself, is how Vlasblom finds the time and inspiration to produce the amount of music that he puts out. Vlasblom says he receives inspiration through different mediums, such as paintings, photographs, or other music. In February, for example, the artist successfully wrote twenty original musical compositions based on artwork submitted to him by friends – all in just 28 days. Once Vlasblom becomes inspired, the composition usually comes both quickly and naturally. To put it in perspective, Vlasblom completed the first draft of TBOCJ in just two weeks, including lyrics and musical scores. He was first inspired to write the album while daydreaming at a café. At other times, he’ll be “diddling around” on the piano and the melodies just come to him. “Some things work, and some things don’t,” he says. The artist notes that a key element to his ability to complete projects is setting deadlines for himself.
In the closing of the interview, I asked Vlasblom what we could expect to come from him next, to which he replied that he hopes to collaborate more heavily with others, sharing the work of writing lyrics and music rather than simply creating the parts and asking others to perform with him. He is also interested in exploring musical genres different from what he has produced in the past. I asked Vlasblom about any future plans for his musical career after leaving Korea. He confirmed that one day, ideally, he would be interested in returning to Canada and working predominantly as a musical composer – and at the rate he’s going, there’s no doubt of his success in that endeavor.