We had the good fortune of connecting with Joe Cefalu and we’ve shared our conversation below.

Hi Joe, please tell us more about your work. We’d love to hear what sets you apart from others, what you are most proud of or excited about. How did you get to where you are today professionally. Was it easy? If not, how did you overcome the challenges? What are the lessons you’ve learned along the way. What do you want the world to know about you or your brand and story?
I’ve been “doing music” for as long as I can remember. Shortly after learning how to walk, I began a nightly routine where I’d set up pots and pans on the floor around me, ask my parents to turn on “Overture: On The Twentieth Century”, and try my best to conduct this orchestra of kitchenware along with the recording. This was one of numerous little rituals I developed growing up; others include playing air-guitar in front of the TV while The Who was on the screen, and listening to big band jazz recordings (shoutout Gordon Goodwin) over and over again until I could pick out the second tenor saxophone line.

Aside from these admittedly odd musical habits, I’ve been surrounded by music my whole life. I grew up in a musical household: my mother is a working pianist, arranger, and music director, and my father is a gifted multi-genre guitarist and educator. In school I had the opportunity to play piano in jazz ensembles, musicals, choir concerts, and percussion in both concert band and marching band. Music was my extracurricular outside of school, too: I’d play musicals at a local theatre, at California’s Great America (theme park), and a few local clubs.

After high school, I pursued my degree in Music (Commercial & Media Writing) at CSU Northridge . Aside from the wealth of knowledge this program had to offer, it was during these four years that I was able to fine tune my prior experience and education toward a more specific goal. I gained skills in composition, arranging, orchestration, music preparation, music direction, conducting, music business, and more. Also through CSUN, I got an internship with two great musicians and people, where I learned top-of-the-line practices in music production, direction, preparation, and business.

My final year at CSUN (2021-22) was a whir. Right when I was taking my most intense music courses, my music career began to pick up and I found myself spending more time working than previously imaginable. During these half-awake months I was graced with some really cool opportunities: Assistant Music Directing a For Your Consideration concert for NBC’s “This Is Us”, music directing an outdoor video performance for rapper KayCyy, and playing keyboard for recording artists Will Breman and Avamarie. Having somehow gotten through that school year without pulling a single all nighter, I can’t emphasize enough the value of foresight during that time. Breaking down projects by setting deadlines within deadlines, planning when I’d do everything down to a date/time to wash my car, clearing brain space with a planner and calendar; these were all practices I would not be here without.

I’m currently working as a keyboardist, composer, arranger, and music director in both LA and the Bay Area. On the horizon I have my solo recording debut: a contemporary jazz project that I hope to release next year. I’ve also been working on my music production and beatmaking skills with the plan of producing starting artists in the next few months. As far as the work I’m already doing, I can only look forward to expanding my business and continuing to do what I love.

What habits do you feel helped you succeed?
Perhaps the most important habit I’ve cultivated is to strive for my very best in everything. “Just do your best!” has become a sort of meaningless saying today, but it’s something I agree with and like to take far beyond my craft. When I wake up in the morning, I make my bed to the highest level of neatness I can. In conversation, I try to be 100% present and make whoever I’m talking to feel great. When it’s time to wash my car, I clean my 2014 Jetta as if I were bringing it to auction. From folding laundry to my own physical fitness, I try to apply the same effort and care to EVERYTHING in life, no matter how seemingly meaningless. Then when it’s time to get working on a music project, I’ve already set myself up to do a great job by creating a pattern of excellence. Practicing hard for every gig (no matter how small) as a keyboardist, or putting extreme care into rehearsing the band as a music director, becomes a no-brainer.

Another great habit that both pairs well and overlaps with the above: challenging oneself! Our minds tend to create narratives about what we can and can’t do. “I could never sit down and write a book”, “I’m not creative enough for the arts”, “this executive won’t be interested in what I have to say” … all these little agreements we make with ourselves and the world. Before I started getting work as a music director, I thought I was far too shy to run a fifty-person rehearsal, to coordinate with sound technicians onstage; it’s a job that requires serious people skills. But after deciding to arrange and conduct for CSUN’s Studio Ensemble (a fifty-plus piece ensemble) as a freshman in college, I realized I’d gained a lot of competence from watching conductors and music directors as an instrumentalist. Studio Ensemble was certainly challenging and I was nowhere near A-plus at the first rehearsal, but had I not challenged my perceived limits, I’d have never gotten the opportunity to be working my dream job today! This is just one pivotal example where I challenged myself; the same principle can be applied day-to-day. “Can I compose just four more measures of music before I break for dinner?”, “Can I handle a cold shower?”, “I’m going to try to jog an extra block today”. These are all examples I personally use almost daily to stay sharp.

Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
Being from the Bay Area I’m blown away by all the beaches around Los Angeles, but Malibu is by far my favorite one in the area. If I had a friend visiting, I’d take them there: first to the Sunday morning car meet at the Country Mart, then to one of Malibu’s beautiful beaches, and finally to Malibu Farm for a great and clean meal.

At nighttime, Breaking Sound events are a must-see. It’s a great opportunity to see a wide variety of music acts in one night, and the BS team always picks great artists and venue spaces. These shows are a staple of the live music scene in Los Angeles!

Another place I’d take my friend is Eataly, an open-air Italian market in Culver City. Aside from having independent sections for handmade pasta, cold cuts, fish, and fancy cheeses, this place has multiple full-service restaurants and its own coffee shop. I visit Eataly for dinner often, always making sure to pick up groceries to cook with later.

For a quicker meal, I would recommend Brick Burgers in Northridge. This roadside pop-up serves some of the best burgers in town. Definitely check online if they’re set up before visiting!

The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
I’m very lucky to have a LOT of great mentors, colleagues, friends, and family members, without whom I wouldn’t be where I am today. I’d like to shoutout my amazing musician-parents, Dolores Duran and Bill Cefalu; Craig McKenzie at San Jose State University; Mike Gomez, Anne-Marie Katemopoulos, and Amie Jan of Lincoln High School; Ricky Hall; Clayton Lawrence of Cedar Fair Entertainment; CSUN faculty Elizabeth Sellers, John Buonamassa, Benoit Grey, and Jason Stoll; former CSUN faculty Clinton Rusich and Gary Pratt; Simon Jay, Luke Shrestha, and Justin Tinucci of Chapters; Lucas Cantor; piano coach Donna Stoering; the amazing faculty at San Jose Jazz; Steve Glaze of Tone Freq Studios; Milissa Carey of San Francisco Conservatory of Music; and my bandmates in The (408) Collective. THANK YOU!

Website: joecefalumusic.com

Instagram: joecefalumusic

Other: Jammcard: Joe Cefalu

Image Credits
Yves Bright, Liselle Wilsnagh, Monika Ivonne, Ricardo Olivares, Daniel Neal

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