Zayde Wolf

by Corey O'Flanagan

"We were able to use music licensing as our new radio."



Imagine writing a song, sending it off under a pseudonym, and having it picked up immediately with a nice paycheck sprinkled on top. This is the story of how Zayde Wolf began.

Dustin Burnett has been writing and producing since he got his first drum machine, which he taught himself to use by re-creating "Closer" by Nine Inch Nails. Since then he has made adrenaline-fueled music that has been featured on many TV shows (Love Island, Shameless), video games (Steep, Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Breakpoint) and in sporting arenas (Los Angeles Kings hockey).

In this episode of the Songfacts Podcast, we catch up with Dustin in his home studio to find out how after taking a crack at traditional pop music, he broke out through music licensing, and how it relates to social media and streaming. We also talk about his album Neon Blood Type, out on May 7, 2021.


Transforming Into Zayde Wolf

At a young age I wanted to be a songwriter and was able to work with different producers and learn how to produce and record music. I was in a couple of bands in my 20s where I was co-producing those albums, and then in 2008 I made the move to Nashville1 where I decided I didn't want to perform anymore. I was kind of over it and decided to help other people produce instead. I did that for a few years until I accidentally started Zayde Wolf.

That was an interesting situation because I had a few bands that I was producing who were starting to get a couple of songs licensed on TV and on ads. I felt like I could write more songs with purpose for this project and I wanted to start a new project with somebody. I had a couple of ideas for singers for this project that ultimately was Zayde Wolf.

I was writing the songs and recording them looking for vocalists, and I couldn't ever really lock that down. My wife encouraged me to finish out the songs, so I did that. I then sent them to my now good friend Jessica Cole Murphy [at the music licensing and publishing company Lyric House]. I didn't want her to know it was me because I had already sent her songs from bands that I had produced and had always gotten good feedback. I wanted some blind feedback, so I put the name "Zayde Wolf"2 on it and sent it over. Although Jess always gives me solid feedback, I just wanted a blind test to know if it was good or not.

She was like, "This is really great. We have something that just came over, I would love to send this along to the network." So a couple of days go by and she said, "Hey, they loved this song, they're going to use it. It's a multiple-week campaign and it's this many thousands of dollars."

She asked me to tell her more about this Zayde Wolf and when we were getting back in the studio. I told my wife that I got the spot and she told me to get back into the studio to make more songs. Then I came clean to Jess and she said, "Get back in the studio and make more of those songs."

That was the catapult. It just caught fire pretty much instantaneously in the world of pitching music for video games, television and sports spots. The supervisors at Jess' place really liked it and I was able to build out the vision of the brand more along the way with visuals and music videos and with Spotify and all of that. It all comes down to getting those cool spots with the fandom behind them. Maybe it's an Xbox spot and there's a huge fanbase behind Xbox. They hear the song and are like, "What is this?" Then they listen to it and they become fans.

We were able to use music licensing as our new radio. That really paved the way for the brand.

I rarely think about failure. I've definitely failed a lot, especially in the beginning to get things rolling, but I never think about failure as the period at the end of a sentence. It's like, now you can try again.


"Madness"

I was a huge fan of Nine Inch Nails growing up, especially "Closer." I used to listen to music on the radio - we didn't have the discovery tools that we have today 20-something years ago. I remember the first time I ever got a drum machine, back in '96-'97, I was a teenager and the first thing I programmed was the "Closer" beat. I remember that to this day.

"Madness" is darker off the top. I wanted something that felt like that sound. I wasn't necessarily thinking industrial, but I can hear an industrial feeling in some parts of the sound and vibe. In the opening sequence, I wanted something that felt like it continued to build. I wanted to take modern hip-hop sounds with these wavy guitar and keyboard sounds and mix it with a Hans Zimmer soundtrack.

An interesting thing that I did in the production of that song, there's the sequence of four chords and then four chords again with the last chord being different both of those times. There's an interwoven note that just keeps growing throughout the whole thing. The chord is getting more complex as it goes along because I'm adding to the top and bottom because I want that one first note to continue to grow until the highest note. So it carries across the entire vocal if I solo out all the other string instruments and things in there.

I wanted to do something like that, which you see a lot in Hans Zimmer tracks, where he takes some atonal tone and he runs it over and across where it feels like it never really lets you down. I wanted to feel like we kept going, kept going, kept going, until that first "madness" break where the drums crack and it gets chaotic.

It was fun. It took some experimenting with that one. I spent a lot of time on this album. The other ones came really fast, but in this one during the production, I was realizing that the genre I'm in right now has made a lot more of that. There are more bands, artists and producers that are in this wave now, compared to five or six years ago when I started. I'm always trying to surf the next wave out, so I was really trying to challenge myself on this album to make it even more unique, especially for the fans who have listened to my music for so long. It's part me and part them.

It's the third full-length album. We have had a couple of EPs and singles, but I think I've stacked up in the neighborhood of 70-80 recordings that have come out of the last five or six years.


Writing Style

The first few songs were written out of a fury of instinct. A couple I wrote and recorded in a 24-hour period where I've gotten in the studio at 9 a.m. and worked until 2 or 3 a.m. I just kept being inspired and just kept plowing through on instinct and vibe. Now I'm looking at this album from those first couple of songs and think about how painstakingly I looked at some of the details.

One of these days I want to do a couple of YouTube videos to show people some of the things that never made it into some of the songs. I want to talk about that process, about the layers of sounds and things. A number of times I'll work on a bunch of ideas and try stuff, then I'll just delete it and try again.

Sometimes you go through a song and realize there's just too much there, and you have to go back through and figure out how to make the verses less than the chorus. That's important because that's how you get the impact. It's like watching a movie and it gets really quiet before a jump scene. The contrast is important. I try to make those kinds of jump scenes in the songs so you get that delivery or power.


"Top Of The World"

This is a song that I distinctly remember a few things about the process. I realized as I was writing the first batch of songs I wanted them to have swagger, but to be upbeat as well. I wanted to do something that felt up and really fun. At the time, I was thinking about my life and what I want to do, then also thinking about what are the moments right now that I need to not look over. It's always a balance of what are the super-special things right now that you're already on top of the world with, but then what are the things you want to achieve and what are some of your dreams, and to keep visualizing those.

It's kind of a party song too. The advice I give in that song is not necessarily the life I live, it's more lessons back to myself on how you need to see the world and what to do with that.


Gaming

All of the lines are pretty blurry for me. At first I would spend more focus on what exactly it was for. That was the learning and teaching stage to myself. Now I try to make things that I really like.

I really love gaming, movies and movie soundtracks, and just the visual arts in general. There's just such a natural tie-in to that. Then somewhere along the way, it became really apparent to me that I needed to be writing more stuff like this instead of trying to write for the next pop radio song. In my 20s and 30s I spent a lot of time trying to write hits for the radio and I never really got any traction. I realized I love making this kind of music, so I decided to just focus on that for a while.


The Process

An acquaintance of mine does score music for video games, and I would love to do that. I would love to be able to score a TV show or a movie to what I hear and see. For a lot of my stuff at this point, music supervisors will hear it before it is released. My licensing team will send that out to them and keep them up to date with that stuff.

I've had interesting moments where my music has had reach. The guy who puts the music in for the Los Angeles Kings hockey team heard my song on Spotify and wanted that to be played in the stadium. A year before the pandemic I went to China to perform for this video game tournament for a game called Honor Of Kings. Those folks heard the song somewhere and asked us to come over to play. It can be anything from someone who is a fan of a project to someone who controls music on multiple television shows on a major network, or someone who is in charge of music on Xbox or something like that.


Ways To Make Money In Music


There are so many different avenues for music, especially if you're using social media smartly. There's everything from song licensing to getting onto great playlists on Spotify and Apple Music. Then of course when touring comes back there's performance-oriented things that people can make money on. There's social media, sample packs of what you do. A friend of mine is a topliner vocalist performer, and she makes sample packs and tutorials. There's all kinds of cool stuff that you can do - you're not just limited to the classic avenues as a musician.


Your Inspiration

I'm pressing vinyl on this new album and this is the first time that not only I could do that, but that I could sell a couple hundred vinyls. I talked about it with my team and we decided to get them pressed and to just go for it.

I grew up listening to my folks' albums on a turntable. They would spin Led Zeppelin, Tom Petty, The Cars, that kind of thing. In order to press vinyl, they're going to send a test press over, so I bought a nice turntable. I got a couple of albums, then a couple more, then in the past week I've ordered 10 more. It's an eclectic collection. I have some new albums like Harry Styles' new stuff, which is perfect in my opinion. Then there's some Lana Del Rey, then we go all the way back to Led Zeppelin and through to the '80s to Bruce Springsteen and that kind of stuff. Even some Michael Jackson, Queen. I love a huge variety of stuff, it all depends on my mood. If I'm going to be sitting by the swimming pool, it's almost always going to be a yacht rock playlist. If I'm driving, it's either rock or EDM.

I'm a little too young to appreciate yacht rock. It was dad music of the late '70s early '80s. This easy listening rock music, when I was a kid I thought it was the stupidest music in my life. The cool thing is my appreciation for it now. You can put that on and you don't have to worry about anything that's coming. It's funny how broad that is and how much enjoyment people are getting from yacht rock lately.


Neon Blood Type

I'm most proud of finishing the album to be honest. It was dragging on and trying to figure out what songs to put on it and what songs did not need to be on there was an accomplishment. I finally did it and said the album was done, and then my PR team asked me to write two more songs so they could do an exclusive album for Apple. The pressure was super high at first because I thought I had to write more songs, then I thought, OK, maybe they're right, think less about it and whip up a couple of songs. One of those songs was "Holy Water." The guts of it came together and it was written and recorded in eight hours. It's weird. It's not a motivational-type song, it's a little more grungy and sexy, which is a thing that I hadn't done on the album. I think that's why it came out: because I let all the parameters go away.

That song I think is really special. It's going to be released shortly before the album comes out. It's weird how stuff happens when you stop thinking about it so hard and if you give yourself creative space. I don't do that enough. I just need to unplug for a couple days and don't look at anything musical, and then see what happens.

My team and I really feel like that is one of the best songs on the album. It hits in a different way than some of the other songs, but it was written with such an honesty and purity that came out during that time, which I think really means something. It means something different from the other songs.

April 21, 2021

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Check out Zayde Wolf zaydewolf.com

Footnotes:

  • 1] Like Superman, Dustin is from Metropolis. It's a small town in Illinois. (back)
  • 2] Zayde Wolf - first name "Zayde," middle name "Wolf" - was going to be the name of Dustin's third child if it was a boy. It was a girl, so Dustin used the name as his pseudonym. (back)

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