'I need to be as focused as I can be.'
"People tell me 'Don't stop,' and I just smile and nod because there's no way I'd ever stop," says Gabe Burdulis. He laughs, happy to find some humor during a serious talk about his future.
Burdulis' future has been a very popular topic since he passed on a chance to attend the Berklee College of Music this fall. Don't let the fact that he's 18 years old fool you. Burdulis has the intense focus of a much older musician. He wrote his first song at age 12. He has a wall of Madison Area Music Awards to his name, including the 2014 award for new artist of the year. And he just released his second album, The Little Things. Stopping couldn't be farther from his mind. He's got momentum.
That's one reason he decided against Berklee, one of the most prestigious music schools in the country. Technically he's deferred his admission, but he sounds pretty certain he's not going to go. This may seem counterintuitive, but he's got a plan.
"It's pretty expensive, and I'm not at the level where I'd like to go there right now," Burdulis says, mentioning that he needs to strengthen his music-theory knowledge. At the moment he's most comfortable singing with a guitar in hand. He's also proficient on drums, bass and trumpet. He performs rock, blues, folk and hip-hop. But he wants more.
Burdulis tends to describe himself as an entertainer, not just a musician, which helps explain his decision about college.
"I want a break from school to do what I want to do, which is performing," he says.
Even if he's not working toward a degree, Burdulis is a voracious learner. He often stops mid-sentence to identify the artist singing on the radio. The way he absorbs the popular music around him reminds me of Weezer's Rivers Cuomo.
His eyes light up when I make this comparison.
"He's, like, a genius," Burdulis says. "The very first song I performed in public was [Weezer's] 'Beverly Hills.'"
Unlike Weezer, Burdulis doesn't have a manager or an agent. It's been hard work organizing shows and tours while finishing school at Madison West.
"I was setting up a two-week Midwestern tour, and it took the life out of me," Burdulis says, recalling the many people he talked to while trying to determine how much the trip would cost and where he would sleep. He admits it would be nice to have a manager to deal with logistics, but he also sees how this busywork can benefit him.
"Getting out there and making those connections in person is part of this [career]," he says.
Being manager- and agent-free forces Burdulis to do a lot of face-to-face networking, and he's already built an impressive list of local connections. He's collaborated with award-winning artists like R&B singer Anthony Lamarr and violinist Ida Jo. He even produced his first album with Emmy winner Scott Lamps.
Seasoned musicians are also a source of advice.
"People tell me not to get an ego, and I like to think I'm pretty aware of how I am around people," Burdulis says. "I'm humbled by the people that support me."
Bad advice usually comes from "really drunk people" at his shows. But he can learn from them, too.
"A lot of people tell me to live it up while I'm at this age," Burdulis says.
He admits that he may be sleep-deprived, but it's not from partying.
"I like to have a clear mind. I need to be as focused as I can be," he says, like a conscientious student preparing for an exam.
Much of that focus has shifted to Nashville, where he plans to spend time after a series of local gigs this fall.
"A lot of people assume that Nashville is just the country scene, but it's really Music City," he says, noting that he's already met quite a few Nashville performers and asked them about their experiences with the music industry.
"It seems like people either get discouraged...or get surrounded by talent and build from [there]. That's what I want to do: become a better musician and open up a network in a different and bigger community."