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How music changed this artist’s life and Boracay’s slow pace made him more creative

By Tanya Lara Published Jul 30, 2021 8:12 pm

In his hotel room just a few steps from Boracay’s White Beach, this composer, producer, music engineer, performing artist and poet—yes, he’s all that—writes and records songs, engineers music, and teaches remotely.

People have a romantic notion of what’s it like living and working on an island, forgetting sometimes the work part. You’re still putting in the hours every day but, yes, in a place a million times better than an office in the city.

Musician Alisdair Lee playing a MIDI controller that lets him record virtual instruments like drums or orchestral strings at his workstation in Boracay.  Photos courtesy of Alisdair Lee

Fil-Am artist Alisdair Lee, who goes by the stage name Joseph Jon Zen, works on his music every single day as if he was still in his recording studio back in Portland, where he was a music engineer. He starts his day early with an Illy cappuccino at a café in D’Mall, and then repairs back to his room where he’s got his own setup.

“People think you need a big studio but I find the DIY approach more exciting and interesting. I don’t think I can be stopped in terms of making music at this point. I’ll make it anywhere, anyhow,” he says.

One of his artists, Rae Gordon, a group from Portland that mixes downtown blues and uptown soul, won a best recording award for their album “Better Than I Was,” which Alisdair recorded, mixed and mastered.

“There were big-name engineers in that regional pool, one of them was a Grammy-winner from Nashville, but my DIY recording won.”

The slower pace of life here has given me a chance to go deeper into creativity and find my purpose in sharing my music. I guess if you go deep enough you find not just answers, but surprises.

He recorded the album in a 110-year-old wooden house on a busy roadside, mixed and mastered it in a tiny room with a workstation like what he’s set up in Boracay.

“After I recorded, mixed and mastered that album and it won an award, I knew that I could record, mix and master my own music at the same level.”

Surrounded by the things he loves: Alisdair may be the only guy who wears Dr. Martens boots on White Beach.

That’s what he’s been doing for the past year and a half on the island. Some days he doesn’t even see the beach because he’s on a roll writing or recording, some mornings he writes poetry in a café or rereads pages from Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.

Other nights he takes his guitar and amplifier to Aplaya bar on the beach and plays to bar habitués and wanderers with his friend, house and techno DJ Davide Franchi.

The power of music

Music, he says, saved him from depression as a teenager. Then he started writing songs and playing in bands in his 20s in New York City.

He had a measure of success with one—a hard rock band with a female lead singer. The College Music Journal, a music events/publishing company most famous for its annual festival, rated them the best independent band of New York.

With house and techno DJ Davide Franchi.
Playing at Aplaya, Station 2 on White Beach.

They were young, they were unsigned, and “it was kind of a crazy time.”

“I was originally the guitar player then I found a better guitar player than me, so I started playing bass, and I found a better bassist than me, so then I went to the keyboards. I played two keyboards, the secondary guitar and the tambourine. I thought it was really cool. But the reality of it was that I was my own roadie. I had two keyboards, a guitar, an amplifier and percussion instruments that I had to bring to every show,” he laughs.

“It was a mistake on my part but it was a lot of fun. We had a great time, we toured and had a little bit of success. Unfortunately, you know, the fast lifestyle… it’s kind of a rock-and-roll lifestyle and things fall apart.”

A change of scenery, pace

Boracay has been home to Alisdair since December 2019. While many of the island’s new “residents” were stranded when the pandemic broke and then chose to stay, his move here from Portland was planned.

“I’d been trying to figure out how I could open up more free time and engineer my own music and start working on my own releases,” he says.

Before Boracay, he was thinking of moving to LA as his Mad Shaman Studio was already doing so well in Portland. His clients were artists who would hire him to mix and master audio for distribution of their songs. He was also teaching singing and music production.

“People think you need a big studio but I find the DIY approach more exciting and interesting.”

“Basically as a freelancer, I kind of positioned myself as a one-stop shop. If you come into the studio, I’m going to help make your music even better. And I think I was able to do that because I really continue to study music and musical language. Even out of graduate school, I just never stopped studying.”

Alisdair took his post-grad in Composition and Lyric Writing in Musical Theater at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. He was accepted to the program on the strength of music he had already written and produced, not his undergrad degree, which was Comparative Literature.

“I wanted to move to LA originally, but then when I was like, man, if I move to LA, I’m going to be cracking from like 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., sitting at a recording desk nonstop. I’m made for more than engineering, I’m a really skilled songwriter. I’ve been offered the award for most promising young composer by ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), but I had just signed up with their competitor BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.) and had to decline it.”

“After I recorded, mixed and mastered that album and it won an award, I knew that I could record, mix and master my own music at the same level.”

So instead of LA, he came to Boracay, partly to be closer to his Filipino roots, and at the same time to take the next step to grow artistically.

When the pandemic happened, he almost went back to the States. “My mom said, ‘You need to get back here, they’re going to lock up the Philippines.’ I was a little freaked out, you know, because the Philippines is not my comfort zone. Plus, as an American, you’re like, ‘Oh, my God, if things go wrong, can they take care of me?’ You know, you have these preconceived ideas that things are better where you’re from.”

But Alisdair stayed put—in the beginning renting flats and hotels all over the island, and now in a hotel his brother owns.

“I think overall the slower pace of life here has given me a chance to go deeper into creativity and find my purpose in sharing my music, and teaching through the video medium. I never in my life imagined I’d be working on videos. I’m a musician. But I guess if you go deep enough you find not just answers, but surprises.”