Jacob Kulick on his new single ‘Just Be Friends’, writing vulnerable songs, and growing through the hard times

Originally from West Penn, PA, Jacob Kulick started making music at 12, turning his tiny closet into his private studio and using music as a respite from bullying, anxiety, and loneliness.

Going solely by his surname, he’s been making his own path by creating relatable tunes in a way that feels true to him. After co-founding a high school band, Story of Another, Kulick went on to study audio engineering at the Art Institute of Philadelphia. The single ‘Ghost’, off of his 2018 debut EP Hydroplane, amassed 3 million worldwide streams, and he went on tour with Sleeping With Sirens and Rocket Summer that same year. In 2019, he toured with Andy Black (of Black Veil Brides) and The Faim and released the single ‘Scatterbrain’ that revolves around the struggle to stay true to yourself in a busy world.

Kulick’s new nine-track album Yelling In A Quiet Neighborhood, released on October 16th, features a deeply personal collection of songs. Tracks such as ‘Talking To The Ceiling’ and ‘Just Be Friends’ capture strong emotions through their melodies and showcase Kulick’s ability to turn everyday pain into life-affirming art. Between telling a story of loss and gain through this full-length album, working on new music, and being in the fast-paced NYC music industry, Kulick has much life experience to draw from.

We sat down with the alternative rock/pop artist over Zoom and discussed his new single ‘Just Be Friends’, his musical influences, how songwriting can change over time, and more.

I’m loving your new single ‘Just Be Friends’ off your new album, Yelling In A Quiet Neighborhood. What inspired you to write the song?

It’s a break-up song. There was a point in a relationship where I was basically like, “okay, this isn’t going to work out anymore.” There was no way to continue a friendship afterward, either. Before, I was figuring out whether we’d be able to do that or not, but we had that conversation, and it wasn’t going to work. I’ve never been in that situation before. I’ve dated this one person my entire life, and basically, I am emotionally 13 years old. (laughs) I wanted to write the song for anyone who’s going through this, whatever age they are or wherever they are in their life, and be able to process it.

You’ve used music as a respite from bullying, anxiety, and feeling like an outcast in society. How do you turn your pain into essential, healing music? 

I think it’s going to be different now because life just drastically changed over this year. From the time I started until last year, it was always that I normally write when I’m feeling down and have to process those emotions. Now, I’m trying to write more introspective and not necessarily down music. I do more situational writing. For me, it’s more autobiographical and whatever happens in my life. It just so happened that I had a lot of anxiety. I still go through that, but feeling more fulfilled and doing more of what I want to do gives me less anxiety. The songs I’m currently writing for a future record have been more about storytelling and less longing.

You’ve been on tour with Andy Black. How did you guys get together? 

Our first tour together was with Sleeping With Sirens, and then coming off of that tour, we needed to do another one. Our booking agent, Ryan, of UTA, had the tour with Andy Black lined up for us. We were so fortunate to have a really good booking agent. For anybody trying to make this a career, I would absolutely recommend trying to get a booking agent and have somebody who works with other artists you want to tour with.

In addition to being a singer/songwriter, you’re also an audio mixing and mastering engineer. How does that figure into your musicianship? 

I would say that I’m an audio engineer. Mastering is a little bit different and is more of the final process, which I can do, but there are other people who are better at that. I would say I’m a mixing engineer, mixing all the stuff and producing. So, it’s just I’m able to do certain things that other artists might do in a recording studio; that’s basically it. I went to college, and I originally wanted to be a history teacher. I decided, “fuck that.” Can you imagine me teaching kids history? Anyway, so I went to be an audio engineer, and I got my degree in that. And that’s what made me learn all the tools and how to use all the plug-ins. I could probably release a record without anyone else touching it, but since I have connections to make the record even better than I can, I still do that. It just gives me more freedom to mess around with the laptop and make it more of what I want it to be before going to the studio. It saves time and money. It’s a more introspective process than welcoming in a bunch of other people. I still welcome some people in, but it’s not a ton. It’s only whoever needs to be there.

Just for my own edificationI’ve always been curious about thishow do you decide who to bring into the recording process and how does mastering work? What’s the process behind that? 

So, it depends on if it’s worth bringing the person in and if the person gets along with me and I get along with them. Like with this new record, I pretty much had the record finished to my standards, and then my managers were like, “Hey, do you wanna fly to LA? We can record the drums over in Capitol Studios, and we’ll have this guy named Chris who mixes a lot of stuff.” I was like, “I’d love to meet Chris, who does all this amazing stuff. He can probably mix better than I can. So, let’s try that. And there’s going to be real drums.” So, I decided to allow a new drummer to record, and I decided to allow in a guy who’s going to help me produce and mix it. I basically brought over my hard drive, and we recorded on top of that. So, you pick and choose who’ll be worth it and who won’t be worth it. Will it add to the project, or is this just someone trying to put their hand in the pot?

As for mastering, once you finish recording the project, you have it mixed, and it’s a quiet, uncompressed, and unprocessed version of the song. The mastering process is that you take that track and give it to a mastering engineer, and they will equalize it. So if they see the snare needs to pop a little more, they’ll cue up that bit. If you want it to have more bass, like with this new record, I asked them to make the master a little more bass-y. They will do that, compress it, and they’ll make it loud. Essentially, mastering makes the song loud, and it makes it tighter; better. One other way I’ll explain it is in photography. You have compression in photography. You can have the raw photo, or you can have the finished version where it’s edited, photoshopped, and then compressed. It’s way tighter. So, that’s essentially what you do, only with music. I love these questions because that’s something I always wanted to teach people how to do. I always felt like what I’m doing is so doable. If you can meet the right people to teach you, the information is out there, and it’s not impossible. You just really believe in yourself and want to do it; you can.

I know that you started writing music as a respite from bullying. Does that theme still stand in your music? What makes you want to write about such vulnerable topics? (Subjects such as loss, shame, remorse, acceptance, and closure are discussed throughout the new album.)

I think the general feeling of being an outcast stays in my music, which is what I was being bullied for. So, in a way, yes. I mean, at this point, I don’t give a shit about what people think (laughs), but I cared too much when I was younger. Now it’s like, “I make this for me,” and if you relate to it, then that’s amazing, but if you don’t relate to it, I understand that too. Many of my fans that I meet go through bullying, and they relate to my songs even now. I think there’s an element of that still in there. I wouldn’t necessarily say I still write about it, but it still has that longing. I always used to think that certain artists sold out, and I used to hate that. But I don’t think that’s true. I find that an artist that’s active for three or four years can grow out of certain things, and there’s nothing wrong with that. You should be able to. You should be allowed to. I think the artist should be able to write about different things if they’re going through different things in their life. To me, that means that the music is still personal. If someone sounds the same for ten years, that means that it’s not as emotional or personal as it should be. One thing that still sticks with me is self-identification issues, so the anxiety thing is lessened a little bit, but not identifying with who I see in the mirror and what I see in photos and other things, the whole searching for yourself thing is still in the music, for sure. And I think it will be until I navigate that.

What artists solidified your love of music, and what artists are huge influences for you now?

I had a lot of different influences. This is the most common question, and I always try to come up with something better or more correct, but honestly, it’s all over the place. I love Tom Petty. He was one of the first artists I was listening to. I recorded him on a little cassette player from his greatest hits record. But I had other influences. My dad was listening to the Eagles and the Steve Miller Band. My mom listened to Billy Joel, so it was all over the place. Honestly, when I started writing music, I was listening to screamo bands. So, bands like A Day To Remember and that genre. I think that’s why I sound like a mix of A Day To Remember, emo, and Matchbox Twenty, with harmonies like the Eagles. I love so many different styles of music. I try to keep it that every song sounds like a Kulick song, but I want it to be a musical adventure. I don’t want it to be so predictable.

In a recent interview, you said that this record is the most “Kulick” record you’ve put out. Is that due to having more creative control over your material, or is it something else? 

The way I’ll explain it is that I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on it, and I didn’t understand what it would be like to be signed to a major label. You tell them what you want to sound like, and then they put you with producers who make that kind of music. So that’s what I did with RCA, where I didn’t really record any of the instruments, and I co-wrote the songs with three or four writers. That producer made the song. Then, three weeks later, I got an email saying, “here’s what the song sounds like. Do you like it? Yes or no? What would you change?” Whereas, when I first started writing music, I was in my home studio in my closet, and I would just record it all, and I was in charge of the whole thing. So, when I signed with Pat’s label, I could do that again, and I forgot how much I loved to do that. So, that’s what I meant by it being the most Kulick record, because it has my hands all over it, and I play all the instruments except for a few, like the drum tracks. For the most part, I produced it, and I was able to control the length of the songs, what I wanted to put where, how many vocals, etc. Most of it was recorded on my laptop. It just felt like the reason I started playing music and the way that I started doing it. It came full circle again. I was proud of being able to do that.

How would you describe your music to a new listener? 

To a new listener, I would say it’s very loud and emotional pop-rock. That’s the elevator pitch. It’s just loud, in your face, and emotional. I hope that more emotionally driven songs get put into the spotlight, though. Especially with the kind of year that we’ve had, you need songs that people will actually feel and use as a therapeutic process, not as an escape. I find that a lot of music in the spotlight are songs used for escape, and I’m not into that. I’m much more into music for therapeutic reasons and getting a little bit out of it. You can process with other people too. It doesn’t have to be music that’s only for introverts, but it should mean a little bit more. So, I hope that becomes more mainstream.

How has the pandemic affected your making of this record, if at all?

The pandemic didn’t affect this record at all. I finished the record in December, and then I flew to LA at the end of December to finish it. So, I finished it before the pandemic happened. It did affect everything else with releasing a record, so no touring (obviously)—I’m not going to complain about it; it is what it is—making content, music videos, and all of that stuff that was affected. So, what we ended up doing was a lot of self-made content, which I actually enjoyed doing. Like, the ‘Rope’ lyric video that we made was on an iPhone in the middle of a field. We just stopped on the side of a highway and filmed it. And a lot of lyric videos that we did, I filmed stuff on an iPhone or camera and sent it to people who made the lyric videos for us. So, it was like, “here, film this stuff, and we’ll make something and send it back to you and tell us if you like it.” It definitely affected that, but honestly, it hasn’t affected it for this record. But. I’ve been able to have enough time to write, and just in general; I’m an introvert. I love being at home. (laughs) I wake up and do my routine and work on music every single day.

You said that you’re currently working on new music for a new record. Can you tell me anything about that? 

I don’t know about promotion or touring, but I know that art always needs to be created, especially in abnormal times. So, I’m just writing and whatever comes out comes out, and I hope to have another record out by next year. I have enough songs to do it, so I’m just continuing to write, and I’m doing some live versions of this record, so people can at least have a live experience. Like, everything’s live, it’s just that you can’t be there with us. That’s only temporary. I’m creating all the time.

There’s nothing that Kulick can’t accomplish in the fast-paced music business with his catchy, emotive tunes, audio engineering abilities, and unstoppable pen. Amassing a growing and passionate fan base by writing from life experience and touching on universal themes, Kulick has managed to comfort fans by massaging their fears about life and loss by saying that he’s been there too and it’ll be okay. With new music on the horizon, this is only the beginning for Kulick. Armed with the lessons he’s learned from this year and more, he will continue to help us all—old and new fans alike—through life’s trials and tribulations.

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