At the end of May, I was travelling from Boston to Buffalo. My flight was delayed four hours. If you’ve been to Boston airport, you’ll agree it’s not the most exciting place to pass an evening. Hungry, I went in search of food and was drawn in to Potbelly by the sound of live guitar. Don’t ask me what I ate, but I spent a good few hours there, captivated by a welcome set of music by a musician called Mike Stefaniak. I was forever grateful for the distraction and he reminded me how much I love live music, something I used to indulge in all the time but haven’t in a while.
So I dropped a Little Observationist card into Mike’s guitar case (along with $5 for a CD!) and invited him to answer my nosy questions about his music. He happily obliged, so below, meet Boston-based musician Mike Stefaniak!
Video: “Say Something” by A Great Big World: Hannah Elizabeth Cover (ft. Mike Stefaniak and Brandon Klein)
LO: Tell us a bit about yourself.
MS: My name is Mike Stefaniak. I’m originally from the Metro-Detroit area, a suburban child from the city of Novi, MI, where I graduated High School. I currently reside in the great city of Boston, MA and moved here to study at the prestigious Berklee College of Music. I work as a self-employed musician; this summer will be my seventh year of doing so. I am contracted by a restaurant chain called Potbelly’s and play all over the city of Boston as well as the whole state of Michigan when I travel back and forth for gigs.
My favourite hobby/interest aside from music is ice hockey. I started playing when I was around 7-years-old. Center forward or either wing is my favorite position and I have been known for skating rather fast with excellent agility skills. Being a smaller individual, I was immediately forced to dodge checks to avoid being roughed up.
Another favorite hobby/interest of mine is cooking. In high school, I worked for a local family business called “Picasso Café” and this is where I began to enjoy the art of cooking. The business served high-end sandwiches, soups and salads. Before working at the establishment I was quite the picky eater and would only eat basic, boring recipes. Thank god I changed that and now enjoy all foods. I was asked by someone once, “if you could only eat only one food the rest of your life would that be?” I answered with a delicious sandwich since there are so many things you can do with a sandwich and have you can have everything you would ever want in a sandwich – meats, vegetables, spreads, bread, etc…
LO: How and when did you become interested in pursuing music as a career? Who has been your most important influence or mentor along the way?
MS: I’ve been involved with music ever since I can remember. Being that I grew up in a family filled with musicians, I would definitely say they were my biggest influence. My mother a singer and father a drummer as well as grandparents running their own band and music lesson businesses, I was naturally a part of it. At six-years-old, I began on the drums and spent four years as a percussionist in concert band. Piano I started at 10-years-old along with guitar and voice both at 13. I have been known to be a one-man band, as it stands out during my performances when I use my loop pedal.
Video: “I and Love and You” by Avett Brothers (Mike Stefaniak cover)
LO: What’s the first song you learned?
MS: Hmmm… On the drums it was probably “The Wipe Out”, I recall jamming with my family at a young age and rocking to the song. On the piano, my most memorable song is “Rhapsody in Blue” by George Gershwin, starting with that catchy jazzy melody. For guitar and voice, I was always a Green Day fan and the ever so popular song “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” was my first song. Green Day’s greatest hits was my one of my first albums I bought for myself.
LO: Tell us about a song that has the most meaning for you and why.
MS: Out of many song choices and being quite honest, “The Scientist” by Coldplay holds a lot of meaning for me personally. For approximately five years, I dated my best friend from high school, which unfortunately ended in a broken-engagement. She and I were big Coldplay fans and whenever I perform or hear the song it always reminds me of her. I always think to myself, “Nobody said it was easy… oh it’s such a shame for us to part…”
Video: “I Will Wait” by Mike Stefaniak (Boston Rollerblading Session)
LO: Talk about putting a twist on cover songs and how you decide which songs to cover versus writing your own music. Which do you prefer and why? What are some of the challenges of each?
MS: Most of the time when I cover a song, I usually look for ones that stick out to me listening wise or, in other words, I usually perform the songs I would listen to regardless of me having to perform them. Being a 90s kid, as an example, I perform a great deal of music from the 90s (Oasis, Third Eye Blind, Dave Matthews Band, etc…) Especially when adding a “twist” on certain songs, I use a lot of the elements and timbres from their kind of music. Good ole acoustic alternative rock music if you ask me.
A challenge for covering music, at least for most musicians I’m sure, is being able to cover something that you absolutely dislike or would never listen to in million years. Usually one gets over this problem when compensation is a part of the equation though. Haha.
I prefer to write my own music and love everything about the process. There is something so magical about being creative, regardless of the process of doing so. Whether you’re a painter, musician, cook, etc…when you comes up with that original thought or idea in your head, it is truly amazing.
A challenge for sure in writing your own music is performing, at least for me personally. Since I usually write all the instruments, I have a hard time performing them in front of an audience. Of course, I can always hire other musicians to perform with me, but it’s easier said than done.
LO: Do you ever play with other musicians? Who is one person you’d love to collaborate with in the future?
MS: Absolutely! I perform with fellow musicians all the time. This was my favorite part of my time spent at Berklee. We worked on many projects together as well as many performances. Though I am usually a one man band, I love hearing the sounds that come only from a group of people who are each only focusing on that one instrument.
Video: “Let Her Go” by Passenger (Mike Stefaniak Cover)
LO: How do you think about music differently when playing as a hobby versus working toward turning it into a career?
MS: An excellent question and the big reason why I am continue to perform regardless of how successful I am… I simply don’t know how I would ever stop performing and composing music. I can’t think of a better way for me to contribute to this world we live in. When I think of ‘work’ or a ‘career’ the one saying that always comes up is “do what you love”, and of course I agree with this statement. Instead, I think of it as, if you could provide some kind of service to this world and the people around would, regardless of how successful, what exactly is that service? What does that truly mean to you? For me, it’s music, and being a musician is not an easy career. I have made many sacrifices in order to continue and will have many more to come.
LO: Where can we catch you for some live music this summer?
MS: I am currently going back and forth between Boston and my home state Michigan with mostly private events: grad parties, corporate events, etc.. However, I perform at local establishments a great deal. Potbelly’s is a great place to find me performing. I post all of my performances on my website which would be the best place to find out where I’m going to be.
Video: “I Need You” by Mike Stefaniak
LO: Share you top three favourite Boston recommendations and what you love about them
MS: If I could pick three places in Boston, the first would definitely be the Boston Common. I usually take a stroll through the beautiful park after my afternoon performances at Potbelly Downtown, before I head over to the next gig or school. The park is filled with so much life, historic monuments, busking musicians and every now and then a theatrical show during the summer.
Aside from the park, I really enjoy spending my time at Berklee. Berklee has amazing facilities for any kind of circumstance whether it’s hitting the studio or needing to practice in either a practice room or ensemble room. I really enjoy working on projects and collaborations with everyone there.
And lastly, my roommates and I, since we live in the Allston neighborhood, really like going to “The Avenue Bar” and enjoy their delicious burger special while having a cold brew. This is also mostly because we are broke college grads. Haha.
LO: Little Observationist is all about appreciating life’s little luxuries. Share three of the little things that you’ve enjoyed recently.
MS: Being a traveling musician, I fortunately am able to encounter little luxuries all the time. Just recently, similar to the Boston common, I enjoyed taking a walk through the Big Rapids river walk. The river walk is located right next to the Muskegon River in Big Rapids, MI, and is filled with beautiful scenery, ideal for runners and cyclists. I graduated college from Ferris State University in this town in Michigan and have many fond memories of the river walk.
Another little luxury of mine that I’ve really begun to value over the years is creating relationships with the people everywhere I go and perform, being treated like a family member every time I return. Since it’s summertime, a lot of my weekends consist of graduation parties, weddings and what not… Just recently, I was welcomed back to perform for a second occasion with the same family and felt so appreciative.
Lastly, I recently went to “Boston Calling”, an event in downtown Boston consisting of many musical performances, my favorite being Jack Black’s band “Tenacious D”. They played all my favorite tunes, but also included a lot of improvisation, the funniest being a song they performed making fun of different song genres like jazz and metal.
Visit Mike’s website for more.