In addition to the experiences and tidbits of advice I offer as a self-published author, I wanted to include the insights and perspectives of a variety of creative people I have met along the way. Today, I am interviewing Chris Dundon, an English teacher, songwriter, and singer.
I first met Chris after moving into the same apartment house here in Vietnam. Since then, we have become good friends. Many nights, you can find us working together on the rooftop. While Chris creates new songs for children, I create new stories for my readers. On occasion, he will help me edit and I will pitch song ideas. More often than not, we both benefit.
Without further ado, let’s get right into the interview.
Chris, thank you for joining me today. Based on what I know about your work, I believe my readers will be interested in hearing what you have to say. To start things off, why don’t you tell them a little bit about yourself?
I came to Vietnam in 2008 after university. Before that, I lived in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota. At the time, I was at a bit of a crossroads in life. I had a job that I didn’t enjoy very much; it didn’t align with my dreams and goals. A good friend from one of my literature classes was living here in Vietnam teaching English. Offering his spare room which overlooked the sea, he invited me to join him. With the support of my family, I made the move to Vietnam. I had always wanted to travel and it seemed the perfect opportunity. Once I got here, I never looked back.
Already having your CELTA certification to teach English abroad, I know you taught Vietnamese children for some time before accepting a management position with one of the largest English language centers in Vietnam, a full-time job you still hold today. Now, you are working on an educational music album for children. What brought about the transition from classroom to the studio?
That’s a good question and it is tied to the reason I came to Vietnam. I have always been interested in music. I got my first guitar when I was ten or eleven. At twelve, I started my first band. That same year, I became one of the youngest radio hosts in the history of California. I’ve been around music, studios, and microphones since I was a kid.
I come from a musical family. As a Catholic family, we sang a lot of church hymns. We had a grand piano in our home, so we were never far from music. My brother was in the high school Madrigals which, if you’ve never heard of them, are a choir that dresses up in period costumes for performances.
Music has always been around me. In high school, I decided to make a transition to rapping. I was hanging out with breakdancers and rappers who encouraged me to give it a go. I had some really good experiences with that which lasted through university and beyond. As a local musician, I was writing my own songs and performing two or three times a month at dive bars. It was enjoyable, but it wasn’t going where I wanted it to go. In part, that led to my decision to come to Vietnam to teach English, but it was tough to put music on the back burner.
Teaching has always been something I have been interested in doing. I did well in school and felt inspired by my teachers, so I thought it would be a good fit for me. As it turned out, it was a good fit. I really enjoy teaching and inspiring other teachers, but I was never able to forget about the music.
A few years ago, I reconnected with a good friend of mine in the states. Gifted when it comes to music theory and playing the guitar, he is a phenomenal musician. In talking about our careers, the idea came up to combine the two by creating educational songs for children. It’s kind of taking off from there.
As a teacher of the English language and a manager of those who teach it, you have done more than your share of editing. What are some of the most common mistakes you encounter and what suggestions would you offer aspiring authors?
The economy of words! As native English speakers, we tend to use more words than are necessary to convey our thoughts. I see this even in email messages. When we use many words where a few would suffice, we can lose our readers in the details. When I am writing, I try to think if there is a better, more simple way of conveying my message. I think that’s a good approach for any writer.
In my experience, many authors have a tendency to be verbose. A select few, like Tolstoy, can pull that off and create something amazing as a result. Most of us aren’t that fortunate. Less is most often more. Finding a more direct way to say what you want to say is usually more effective.
Back to music. I have heard several of your songs. They are all catchy and contemporary, but they also always include educational value with relatable topics or important concepts for children. What inspires your creativity in writing the lyrics?
During university, I was a literature major and had the opportunity to take some creative writing classes. One of my professors was a real inspiration to me. Throughout the course, he had us record our observations from daily life that seemed out of the ordinary. What we wrote about didn’t necessarily have to be special, but we had to identify something special about it.
One day, I saw something truly ridiculous, so I wrote about it for the class. I noticed a man practicing his unicycle on one rail of the train tracks. That was my observation for the day. My professor wasn’t impressed. First off, he didn’t believe me. Secondly, he was looking for observations that would be relatable to the readers.
Herein lies the freedom of writing children’s songs: kids love the fanciful and imaginative. A man riding a unicycle down the train tracks is a fun image for kids. It is a lot of fun to write songs for children.
Currently, I am working on a song called Digging a Big Deep Hole. While my son was playing in the park, I noticed the kids gather at one spot. I was concerned that someone might be hurt or that they were up to no good, so I investigated. Turns out, they had gathered around a boy who was digging a hole in the dirt. I asked my son why the boy was digging. My son answered, “why not?” It is refreshing that in these times, a child can find pleasure in something as simple as digging a hole for no reason. I wanted to express that freedom of joy in a song.
Well, I think what you are doing is great. I can’t wait to play the album for my daughter.
Another topic I wanted to speak with you about today is collaboration. Your personal scenario is fascinating and relevant in our current times. Half a world apart, you and your friend are making great music together. Tell us about how the collaborative effort works for you and the benefits you receive from having a partner in this venture.
I think that there is a brand of creativity that is solitary, but I also believe there are others who prefer collaborative efforts to express their creativity. For me, creativity has also been about working together with other people. I get a real kick out of working with someone else. Sometimes we are really in sync; other times, they can be brutally honest. The back and forth of feedback is very telling and normally leads to a better outcome.
For collaboration to work though, you have to have mutual respect and be open to shared ideas. Creativity is inherently collaborative for me. People have their own unique experiences. When you bring those together, magic can happen. The way I see it, why wouldn’t you want fresh perspectives.
In a way, I guess most writers are already doing a bit of collaboration with their editors, agents, and promoters. In my case, the collaboration is a little more involved. My mate back in the states writes and plays the music and I give him feedback and suggestions on it, which he is great at taking on board; I write and sing the lyrics and likewise benefit from my partner’s feedback on that. It’s a combination that works well for us.
The two of you are definitely doing something right. On any given day, you can catch me singing one of your songs to my daughter.
I would like to switch over to the subject of how you find the time to write songs while you’re holding down a full-time position as a manager for a learning center. Many of the aspiring authors out there are trying to balance their creativity in writing with the demands of daily life and a day job. What is your method and what advice would you offer?
While I dislike the term “multi-tasking” and generally think a singular focus on a creative project is ideal, when you’re working full-time at another job, have a family to take care of, and so many other obligations, sometimes you have to try to kill a few birds with one stone. For me, I do a lot of my lyric writing in my head while I’m exercising – walking or on a cardio machine at the gym. That kind of exercise doesn’t take much mental focus for me so I can reflect and think about songs.
Another thing I’ve been doing is getting my son involved in the music – he recently performed a key part of the vocals on our song called “Tide Pools”. He loves to get involved and in this way, Daddy can scratch his musical itch and get some quality time in with the kiddo at the same time. I am also lucky to have some supportive friends whose opinions I value about my creative endeavors, like you David! So often when I am unwinding with a few drinks with friends, I’m also engaging in some reflective chat about my musical projects with them, and taking on their ideas.
In closing, I would like to thank you again for taking time out of your hectic schedule to share your thoughts and experiences. Is there anything else that you would like to share with my readers? I’m sure many of them have children and would love to know where and when they can get a copy of your upcoming album.
We’ve got a lot of work to do yet, and are about halfway done with what could be a pretty cool first album. It could be a free download album, or we might keep creating songs and try a YouTube channel. My partner and I are having a lot of fun with it, and for now, that’s the most important thing. I think it’s important for creatives to find some joy in their projects or some pride, and it doesn’t have to be tied up in the response of your audience. If you enjoy what you are doing, it’s time very well spent, regardless of whether or not it becomes a bestseller.
Once we’re ready to share things with the world, I’ll be sure to let you know where your readers can find our music. Our writing partnership is called Neon Skullz and we’re considering creating a fictional universe for our songs and the characters that appear in them, called Frog Goggle Gulch. I hope we can welcome you to the Gulch soon!
As I mentioned at the start, I will be posting more interviews with creative professionals (authors, illustrators, musicians, etc.) as time allows. If you enjoy the content, subscribe with your email address below to receive post alerts and the monthly newsletter.