Who are you and what do you do?
I’m S. Joel Norman and I write, perform, and record music. My preferred instrument currently is the piano and my preferred style is a mix between New Orleans Jazz and Chicago Gospel.
Where are you from?
I was born in Harvey, raised in The Region, and I now live in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago.
How did you get started?
Tough question to answer. I started taking piano lessons when I was four. Music has always been something that I breathed, and was always a big part of my family life growing up, but I never thought I could make a living at it. After studying music in college, I got a real job but continued to play gigs in the evenings. Then one day, under mysterious circumstances, I left my job and decided to just play music.
Do you have a side hustle or hobbies?
Yes. I love to make silly videos, cook, and podcast. I also love tossing frisbee and the NES version of Tetris.
What was one of your biggest mistakes and what did you learn from it?
One big mistake that comes to mind is how discouraged I let myself get when people I trusted would bail on me. Once I was headlining at the Double Door (RIP) and my band just didn’t show up. I was crushed. It was the last straw in a series of let-downs, and instead of pushing forward I more or less sulked for a while, feeling deflated.
What I learned is that people, even people who are very close to you, are sometimes going to let you down. And that no one is going to give you what you think you deserve, you have to weather the storm and earn it for yourself.
What are the top tools you need to do your job?
Obviously, it never hurts to have high quality sound and gear, but the most important tool is an open ear. It helps me to hear what other craftspeople are doing with music; how they play and sing, the choices they make when recording, what they do in a live setting, and how it makes me and an audience feel. It’s also equally as important to tune into my audiences’ reactions to me, and how they respond emotionally. Every crowd is different. If I’m sensitive to their energy, I can tell if what I’m doing is evoking the types of feelings I mean to evoke, and it can guide me in crafting a song, set, or entire show.
Who or what inspires you and why?
My wife is a huge inspiration. She works so hard and daily strives for excellence in the face of sometimes crippling adversity. Seeing her hustle makes me want to hustle.
I’m also inspired by deeply rooted music. I get so excited about it I barely know what to say. I’ve heard it in the New Orleans groove in a small packed club after Jazz Fest. I heard it in Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day. I’ve heard it here in Chicago at Rosa’s. When that purity of spirit in the music comes over you, you can feel where it came from. You can hear how the water tastes, maybe, or how the clouds move, you can hear the pain and pride of a place, time, or person. It’s music that doesn’t care if it’s liked. It is intrinsically authentic.
What do you love about Northwest Indiana?
It’s wacky. It’s a wacky little place that nobody but Region Rats understand. It’s such a beautiful and dirty corner of the world with all sorts of people doing every job — factories to farming. There is also some fantastic music. And the taxes are dece.
What resources are you finding to educate yourself?
I listen to Spotify often. The playlists they generate for me help expand my ear. I also am a sucker for YouTube tutorials. If you have the patience and the grit, you can learn almost anything on there. I started taking the occasional voice lesson this year — I developed some bad vocal habits singing in rowdy bars for years — and wanted to sound more like myself.
What advice would you give to someone starting out in your industry?
Don’t do it. Don’t be a musician. It’s dead-end job with bad hours, (usually) low pay, working with shady people in seedy places. Your holidays and weekends are always shot, the initial investment is extremely high, you don’t get to see your friends who have normal lives, you’re constantly dealing with aggressive drunks, apathetic partiers, greedy talent buyers, and numbers-focused management. You will be ignored, abused, unappreciated, and disrespected.
However — I heard a sword maker once say about his job, “It’s not because I can’t do anything else, it’s because I can’t do anything else.” That’s how I feel about music. If you feel the same way, then do it. Be a musician. And you must work your butt off.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a new project currently that will be a bit of a departure from anything I’ve done to this point. I’ve got some new people I’m writing and working with and I’m very excited to see what it becomes.
Where can we find you?