John Roff Woolley
I had the opportunity to chat with composer John Woolley, a junior in the College studying government and journalism, who just released his first album, Hiking on the Moon. You can listen to Hiking on the Moon on Spotify, Apple Music, Youtube and wherever else music can be streamed.
According to your Spotify bio, you started teaching yourself how to play piano in the fall of 2018—which is only two years ago. Now you have this work of art that you have released. What has that been like—going from teaching yourself piano to where you are now?
It feels like it’s been a long time, and at the same time it doesn’t. I’m definitely still learning how to play the instrument. There are still songs and parts of songs that I don’t know how to play yet since I am learning techniques. But at the same time, I think that one of the great things about learning the piano, or any instrument, is that it lets you experiment. I think that that experimentation lends itself really well to learning. The album exists because I am still learning and it was a tool for me to get better.
In your Facebook post about the album you shared that you went into the project with no expectations, as part of the experimentation that you just mentioned, but obviously now it has come to fruition. What do you think changed between when you sat down at your keyboard and started experimenting and now with this final product?
I think I became more confident in what I was doing. The first track of the album, “Ordinary World,” was the first track I started writing in May. I think what changed is that as I wrote music, as I experimented with different sounds, I became more comfortable with trying things that I had not fully grasped yet. That first track just has piano on it. As I progressed further into the summer and it started shaping up into something that I thought I could eventually release, I started pushing myself to use other instruments or instrumentation. I’m particularly fond of “Pale Snow” because I ended up using this Chinese instrument, the erhu, just because I found it on Garageband and I liked how it blended. Obviously, I’m not trained to actually play it—I used a synth on a keyboard. But perhaps because I didn’t have much experience with it, that drew me to it.
I was wondering about the other sounds in the album because it does start off with that entirely piano track and then I could hear things being added as the album progressed that certainly weren’t piano. Are there any other specific instruments or parts that you want to highlight?
The entire album was composed on Garageband with MIDI instruments. How I approached it was after “Ordinary World” every track I tried to do something different from the previous track. “Cold Beach” has a sort of ambient synth in the background that rises as the song continues. “Climbing Mountains” has this pseudo-string arrangement that kind of burrs along in the background. “Two Lights Dancing” used actual string samples which was fun; I hadn’t done that before. It’s really an amalgamation of different things but each one represents me pushing myself in a different direction.
When it comes to the composition of these pieces, do you have a process at all?
I was thinking about this myself, like how did I get here, what did I do? I don’t think I was particularly conscious about it at the time but looking back, each song is dependent upon a specific hook. Almost like a hook in a pop song, but more amorphous and instrumentally dependent. Each song starts with a hook idea. With “Ordinary World” for instance, it’s the piano sequence — that motif is the whole song. With “Climbing Mountains,” it’s the initial repeating base structure. The whole song is based on that and how that plays with the synth in the background.
So it’s this sort of thing that builds?
You start with a sketch, like 15-seconds, and you need to really like the sketch to continue with it. I had a couple of songs where I had a sketch idea and decided “this kind of sucks,” threw it away, and went to another one.
Has the pandemic in any way impacted or influenced your process of music-making?
The pandemic is probably the reason why the album exists, practically speaking. I always wanted to release my own music, but I don’t know if it would have happened this soon if not for the fact that we were all shipped home rather early in the semester and forced to be indoors for quite some time. Being indoors led me to sit at my keyboard for longer than I might’ve otherwise and that just led to the album. In terms of inspiration, the album is very nature-inspired. It’s all centered around natural scenes and imagery so maybe me being inside made me want to go back outside, I don’t know. You could read into that however you like.
The title of the album and one of the songs is “Hiking on the Moon” and all the titles are very poetic and beautiful. How do you come up with the title for an instrumental song?
The name of the song always came last. The song is written, then it gets a name. I think when I’m writing I always have a scene in my head about what mood or atmosphere or tone I’m trying to convey. And that atmosphere, if I were to describe it literally, is how I named the song. For “Cold Beach” for example, when I wrote it, the piano moved in and out, it gets quiet at some parts, and then at the end it rises up like a tide and gets kind of stormy. I called it “Cold Beach” because it felt like a stormy tide. With “Hiking on the Moon”, the synth that I found was very otherworldly yet it still felt grounded in some way. It was almost this dream-like tone I was going for. I liked the symbolism of the moon. I thought it was an interesting phrase to be hiking on the moon and thought it would be ear-catching in that way.
I wanted to ask about the album cover. Going off of the nature themes we were talking about, it appears that you are outside there in the photo. Where is it, and how did inspiration strike?
The photo is me in a local park here in Connecticut. One of my friends, Connor Gagne, is learning to be a professional photographer. He offered to help me with it. So we went out one day to a local park and we were by this kind of gross looking lake. We were looking along the edge of it looking for good shots and we found this cool looking tree with this nice arch to it. We were infatuated with the tree for quite a while and ultimately we decided to center it around that tree. Afterward, we went in and made it slightly more monochromatic and played with some graphic design. Put a little moon in the corner.
Is there anything you hope people feel or gain from after listening to your album?
I hope they enjoy it but besides that, I would say no. There isn’t anything in particular that I want people to gain from the album. However, I want people to gain something from the album and I think that whatever they do gain is not for me to decide. It’s more that the listeners experience it, and the meaning that they choose to draw from it is more meaningful if it comes from them. So I don’t want to put any pressure on one side of the scale or the other. I think it’s more valuable if people decide that for themselves.
What’s next for you? This obviously came about in a very serendipitous way, very unexpected. What can we expect to see from John Woolley now?
I’ll probably keep writing music, I imagine. I’m probably going to take a little bit of a break because school can be kind of overwhelming at times, especially in our current circumstances. I would like to keep writing music and based on the response it’s received so far, I feel more motivated to do so than probably ever before. I’m happy with how it has turned out so might as well. It probably won’t be a whole 'nother album next. I’ll probably release small quantities of music or experiment with doing that. But that said, maybe it’ll be another album, who knows. You really never know. I went into this thinking it was either going to be nothing or maybe two tracks — then we got seven. And so, we'll see what happens.
You can listen to Hiking on the Moon on Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, and wherever else music can be streamed.
Connect with John at:
Gene Kim is the Local Spotlight Editor and a sophomore in the College studying Theology.