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"Keep Going When Things Get Rough"-A Conversation with Gregory Ackerman

Updated: Jun 27, 2023

Coming off the heels of his recent EP release Mhm Okay, folk singer/songwriter Gregory Ackerman has wowed listeners for years with his melancholy, slow, and personal songs. Ackerman is an LA native, aking songs in his bedroom garage most of his life. In 2018, he teamed up with Pierre de Reeder, bassist for Rilo Kiley, to record And Friends, his first studio album, which has been streamed tens of thousands of times. Mhm Okay is an extension of his newest record Still Waiting Still, which came out in 2021, adding more layers to his already intense discography.

I recently hosted an interview with Ackerman to discuss his songwriting, and what makes him unique, mostly though, exploring the theme of growing as an artist and human through the nine years he has been officially producing music. As the interview progressed, it was clear to me that he has an artistic way of thinking about his words, almost like he is writing a song in front of me, very clear about who he is and what he wants to continue doing.

Gregory Ackerman

Your music contains a lot of indie and folk influences, including slower songs and raspier vocals. Do you have any specific words to describe your sound to someone who hasn’t listened before?

I constantly find myself describing my sound in terms of what already exists out there, and I think that’s common for most musicians. We live in a world of comparisons, of oppositions, of similarities. People love to compare artists to other artists, so it always helps to have a few names up your sleeve in response to the question, “What’s your music like?” I have a few big names that I always like to talk about: Nick Drake, Stephen Stills, Jorma Kaukonen, and Jack Johnson. I feel like I always need to include those names in order to properly set my musical foundation. But lately, I find myself describing my sound as Wilco-like in the country-esque rock n roll aspects of it, yet M. Ward-like in the lower, raspier vocal delivery, and I’ve always cherished Neil Young’s albums Harvest and Harvest Moon, with their making-it-sound-easy folk rock that sounds like it was recorded in a barn with top-tier musicians.

I guess Neil Young’s music is something I will always strive towards, but instead of his high-flying vocal range, I like to keep it low and raspy like M. Ward. I like to experiment with different vocal styles, but that’s what’s been feeling the most true to my soul/self lately. I’ve also been listening to an outrageous amount of old country lately - Hank Williams has been my “top artist” on Spotify for three years now, and that’s maybe where the country sound begins to slide into my own music. I go back and forth between describing my sound as indie folk and “freak folk." I used to play in a psychedelic rock band and at one point exclusively listened to Pink Floyd, so I like to think there

You have been officially releasing music since around 2014, how have you grown as an artist since then, and what are some lessons you’ve learned along the way?

It’s hard to say how I’ve grown as a musician because sometimes I feel I make a lot of progress, and sometimes I feel I am just regressing. I think the thing that’s grown the most over these nine years is my mental attitude. I didn’t really understand music at all - the “industry”, that is - and honestly I think that it’s constantly changing so rapidly that it is still hard to grasp, but I just don’t care as much about understanding it. I used to get extremely anxious about releasing music and trying to become successful. It was nearly life or death for me. And I was constantly getting sick or depressed when I wasn’t getting the results I wanted to get. I used to put so much weight on my own shoulders, and it led me to become too rigid and constricted in my writing process. I just put too much pressure on myself. I can still do that sometimes, but I am much more aware of it and try to combat that unnecessary pressure whenever I can.

I most importantly always try to remember why I started playing guitar in the first place. I thought playing guitar was the coolest thing a person could possibly do in this life. I looked at people like Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Pete Townshend, and thought they were gods among men. But then I began to play with my friends, and the connection that can be established between two musicians just simply jamming with each other was captivating. I realized that that was all that these larger-than-life musicians were doing. There was (and still is) absolutely nothing like the feeling you get when jamming with some friends. That’s really what music is all about, and I try to keep that in mind every time I’m recording or preparing for a show with a band. I just try to take the pressure off myself and remember that we’re all just jamming with each other at the end of the day. But, sometimes that can be hard to remember, and that’s why it’s a constant process. It’s like mental health - you’re not just going to be “cured” from anxiety one day - you have to work at it every day, and some days are easier than others, but you’re always working at it, and as long as you’re always working on it, it will get better.

You recently released your EP Mhm Okay. What was the process for that like, and what are some of your favorites off of the EP?

The process for Mhm Okay began with me booking some recording time with my pal Dillon Casey, who co-runs a studio called Verdugo Sound in Los Angeles. We had met through playing in Jack Symes’ band together, and Jack also came into the studio with us. The first thing we did was write “See You Better." I had been messing around with the acoustic guitar riff but didn’t have much direction for the song. Once we were all in the studio together, Jack helped me form the lyrics and arrangement, and the song was quickly born in one day through a collaborative process. Jack played drums, Dillon produced and played bass, and I sang and played guitar. We tracked it live together, recording a few takes in a row and picking the best of them. The next day, I had my friends Jacob Peter and Kosta Galanapolous come in as bass and drums, and I taught them three other songs I had been messing around with. Once I taught them the songs, we recorded take after take until we got them right. It only took us one day of recording to nail them down. The songs were “Mhm Okay," “OK to LA," and “Loving Hours." This was all done in February of 2021.

Much later, in the Summer of 2023, I had a brand new song that I called “Don’t Know Why I Love," that I really felt I just needed to record as soon as possible. Fortunately for me, my buddy Ryan Pollie had asked me if I wanted to record with him, and I went to his home studio and we recorded “Don’t Know Why I Love” in a single day, which then was thrown on the EP with the rest of the songs. “Don’t Know Why I Love” might be my favorite because it was such a quick turnaround. I wrote the song, and then a week later recorded it, and then a week later it was mixed and mastered (by Pierre de Reeder, and Connor Gilmore at Gold Sounds Mastering) and added to the EP. The recording, releasing, and marketing process for albums can take a long time, and sometimes I feel it can cause songs to lose their meanings by the time they’re actually released. So, in that regard, I just love how quickly that one came about, and how great it sounded on top of that. But, the title track “Mhm Okay," was probably my favorite song to record. It felt silly and like anything was possible. We used a lot of synthesizers and Dillon found samples of Captain Falcon from the Super Smash Brothers video game to add in there, and we added Jack on the vibraphone. That one feels to me like it crosses genres. I can’t really call it “folk," but it has a folky guitar part in there. That one was the most unconventional and, I guess, “risk-taking," of the songs, and I’m really glad with how it turned out. We had a lot of fun making that one.

A majority of the EP contains songs under a minute and a half, was this an artistic decision, or is this how it just ended up playing out?

A little bit of both. I feel like I have just been naturally writing these really short songs lately. They’re just kind of passing thoughts, or even journal entries. But I never feel as though the songs are too short. They seemed to say exactly what I wanted for just as long as I needed to say it. I’m not really telling full stories, I’m just giving you my brief thoughts about moments in life. To me, that seems to encapsulate modern thinking more trying to write out some kind of logical or chronological story that makes sense in a song. Nothing makes sense anymore, so why do songs need to make sense? Songs are fleeting, just like our existence. I had been listening to a lot of the Beatles catalog, and I just really liked the idea of writing short songs, and I still do. “Here, There, Everywhere” is 2:24. “I Will” is 1:45. And one of my favorite songs of all time, “Cripple Creek Ferry” by Neil Young, is 1:33. I have a new EP that I’m getting ready to release, and all those songs are around 2 or 2 ½ minutes. Maybe it's a response to everyone having shorter attention spans these days, or maybe I just have a shorter attention span, who knows? But I figure I might as well record all the musical thoughts I have, even if they are short. They’re still songs. There are no rules in music. Write a 30 seconds song if you want, who cares?

What is the overall theme of the EP? You’ve spoken about the opener “Loving Hours” saying it was a “reminder to keep going when the going gets rough,” does this mantra spill over into the other songs?

I think, in a way, all of my songs are a reminder to “keep going when the going gets rough." I think all of the songs have a bit of cynicism in them, a bit of wit, a bit of apathy, and a bit of hope. Some have more cynicism than others - like “OK to LA”’s line of “boy where you going?/ you’re going nowhere” repeating twice as if it’s my own doubtful thoughts intruding in my brain. Sometimes I like to think of my songs as conversations I’m having with myself when I’m thinking through a problem. As I said earlier with the shorter songs, sometimes my songs are just short diary entries to myself of what I’m thinking at the time - both the good and bad thoughts, and how they interact with each other. “Loving Hours” specifically is one of the hopeful songs - “Don’t give in, you’re closer now”... but as to what I’m “closer to," I don’t yet know. I just have to keep on pushing forward and finding hope in my own music.

The title track “Mhm Okay” is a witty, apathetic take on a romantic situation not working out - “I want to be understood, it’s not like I just can’t be good. I want you but I have to stay away, I need to though it could go down in flames… oh well!” I couldn’t really think badly or positively about the situation when I was writing the song, so I just wrote it in a matter-of-fact way that I found

humor which helped me find humor and a sense of lightness in the situation in general. So, I guess the theme running through the EP is grappling with my own thoughts and feelings about different situations in life, and turning them into something witty or apathetic in order to reframe a negative situation into something more digestible for myself and for the listener.

What was the most challenging song to write, if any, and what do you hope people take from the EP?

All of the songs came together rather quickly, so I don’t know if any were more challenging to write than others. I think it’s important to mention that “See You Better” was a brand new writing process for me, so in a sense, that one may have been the most difficult. I normally write my songs alone, and that’s why they are full of such personal anecdotes. But for “See You Better," I allowed myself to work with Jack Symes in the writing process and was open and willing to have another person involved in a process that is usually extremely personal for me. It was a risk for me to allow myself to be that vulnerable in front of another person during the process. I normally like to be alone when I write. But, I think it really worked out for the best and it opened me up to the idea of writing alongside others. I think that song turned out really great, and it just wouldn’t have been the same if I had not allowed another person, Jack, in on the process. I am grateful I did so because it was a very rewarding experience to be a part of.

Each song has a different sort of vibe to it, slow and sweet with “Loving Hours” to more country-esque with “OK to LA.” Do you like experimenting within the realms of indie and folk and beyond, and what is your favorite genre to write in?

I love to experiment with other genres, but the music I write normally comes out folky. I guess that comes from my writing process which is just me sitting down with my acoustic guitar. The acoustic normally lends itself to folk writing, and that’s what I’ve been feeling comfortable with lately. Sometimes I’ll write on my electric guitar though, and those songs are edgier, more rock-tinged, but I haven’t released most of those songs. Those mostly just exist as demos on my computer. One day I might release them. I mentioned earlier that I used to be in a psychedelic rock band, and I’ve been craving playing some rock n’ roll lately, so who knows, maybe my next record will have some more rock elements to it. I’ve really been enjoying writing country tunes lately. Short, sweet, simple songs that have a universal quality or subject to them. I love country songs about love and heartache, so I’ve written a few country love songs lately, and that’s been really enjoyable at the moment.

Do you plan on releasing a full record as an extension of the EP, or do you plan to keep these songs separate?

I have another EP nearly finished, which I will release separately from Mhm Okay. Right now, it’s tentatively titled Brand New Life. Like Mhm Okay, it will be a 5 song EP. Maybe I’ll combine them all together into one album and release it on vinyl one day. I love the thought of having my music on vinyl, I just haven’t been able to afford it yet, but that’s the goal. I’ve been working with the record label Polymoon Music, a new Dutch label founded by Christiaan Nijburg, and we’ve taken a new strategy of releasing singles and EPs as an effective way to constantly be releasing as much music as possible. Therefore, we’re releasing two separate EPs of five songs rather than a full-length 10-song album.

Finally, what is some advice you could give to smaller musicians like yourself?

I don’t really like to give advice when it comes to music. There’s really just no right or wrong answer to how to approach a music career. Everyone is on their own path, and everyone does things differently to arrive at their own destination. Don’t take advice from someone unless they’re in the exact position you want to be in. Otherwise, you’re just listening to someone talk about how they became successful. But if I had to give some advice, I would say to never give up on any ideas. Write every song until it is finished. If it’s a bad song, that’s okay, at least you followed through with your idea. It’s alright to write some bad songs here and there, just keep writing, and just keep releasing. When there’s a will, there’s a way. The music industry can be so up and down, especially as a smaller artist, and it can be easy to feel like what you’re doing isn’t making a difference or isn’t making an impact. But it is.

Everything we do has an effect. Every single act of creation is an act of pure humanity, and the thing we need most in this disconnected world is more humanity. You’re going to go through some rough patches where you question if you should still pursue music. That is okay. We all struggle sometimes, and it’s just part of the process. Just keep going. It will fuel you in the long run. It will make you a more versatile and more determined musician. And try to remember why you started playing music in the first place. It was to have fun, wasn’t it? It can be difficult, but always, always, try to remember to have fun.


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