Dustin Burnett went from playing in a rock band to sitting in a producer’s chair. In 2015, he took the jump again, accidentally creating his very own solo project under the moniker Zayde Wølf. From that moment, this solo project has erupted, spawning five full-length albums and an enormous following on Youtube.
His songs have been featured in everything from TV commercials to Youtube videos, specifically those of the popular channel, Dude Perfect.
Recently, he released his latest album, Neon Blood Type.
Read on for our interview with Zayde Wølf, where we take a deep dive into his songwriting process and latest record.
What initially drew you to music and songwriting?
Zayde Wølf: I grew up in a household where my parents were music lovers. We always had some amazing vinyl on, music on all the time. And I think I was always drawn to it. I would sing when I was very small, at least my mom used to tell me. My parents bought a piano and I immediately gravitated to that, even as a five-year-old kid, I was trying to write things and make things. As I grew with that, I think I’ve always been really drawn to a really well-written song. I love a great-crafted song. And then I also always loved themes for movies and soundtrack type stuff as well. I think just being drawn to music, it’s like how are you not? If you’re put in a place of great music around you, you’re gonna be drawn into it.
What are some of those specific albums or artists you used to listen to on vinyl, growing up?
Zayde Wølf: Well, I’m 43, so a lot of that is stuff that throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s that was really influential to me. As a kid, I think you don’t really notice it as much. I know my mom was a huge Tom Petty fan, and I probably know more of his songs on guitar than just about anything else. The craftiness of Tom Petty—he’s just an amazing writer. We listened to that a lot, you know The Cars, and Eagles and stuff like that, quite a bit. Some Michael Jackson, those types of things are what I grew up on and remember as a young kid. And then in high school, when hip hop started to make its way into the mainstream, with Dr. Dre and Snoop Dog, and at the same time the grunge scene exploded, those two worlds collided with the fact that I love these really well-crafted songs. I love all of this stuff. What an adventure music can be. It’s really special.
You went from being an artist, to a producer, and now are back as an artist—how did you take that first leap into the producer’s chair, and what does it feel to be back making music as an artist yourself now?
Zayde Wølf: I think, even when I was 16-17, 18 years old, and I was getting to go into a recording studio for the very first time, I was lucky enough to be around folks that allowed me to put my hands on stuff in the studio. I was trying to learn how to produce music super early. This was a time we didn’t have Pro Tools or Logic or anything; if you wanted to record, you had to go into a studio. I tried to hang out as much in there as I could—I was so interested in the recording process. I started to wrap my brains around how some of it worked, and friends would ask me to help them record something, and we would ask “hey, can we rent the studio for $100 for the evening,” and they would let us do that. I didn’t know the difference between being a producer and an artist for a really long time. I thought it was all the same, I enjoyed all parts of it. I felt like, even as an artist, that’s part of being a producer, and I think it still is today. That kind of went along, I was doing my own band stuff but I was also recording friends’ bands, and other artists would ask me to start to help them record and help them write their song. Along the way, I wasn’t digging the road life anymore. My band that I was in, we couldn’t find anymore rungs in the ladder—we kind of hit our own ceiling. I decided I did not want to be an actual artist anymore and just jumped full into trying to produce bands and artists at that point. And I stayed doing that for years and years, and Zayde Wølf happened accidentally.
An interesting hallmark of Zayde Wølf is that you’re not on a record label—with your longtime experience of being a record producer, do you produce your own music?
Zayde Wølf: Yeah, for the most part, I do 100 percent of everything. I write it all, play most of the instruments, I mix it, and a lot of the songs I even do the mastering and everything, all the way through. This last album Neon Blood Type, I did have another friend of mine do the mastering, I did hire in a few musicians to do some stuff with me. And on the last one, there’s little pieces of it. If I feel like I can’t fill a gap on my own, I’ll definitely bring somebody in to help.
I kind of just sit here in my space, which is a great space, and I just kind of work. I’ll work on the track for a little bit, I’ll work on the vocal for a little bit, I’ll try to write the lyric for a while, and I kind of work circular in that way. It’s kind of chaotic at times, and a little bit manic at times, I would imagine. Trying to be your own filter is hard. Yeah, I try to do most of it myself. Not being on a record label is great. And there’s also challenges of not being on a record label as well. I bet on myself for many years and kind of came out on top.
You’ve grown quite exponentially, gaining hundreds of thousands of subscribers on Youtube and millions of monthly listeners—how did that audience grow so quickly?
Zayde Wølf: I feel like it’s very organic in the way that it happened. At this point, across all platforms, I think it’s probably doing over two million streams a week, I would say. As an independent, basically owning that has been awesome. The way that it happened, it is sort of very organic. It’s two parts. I feel like my licensing company was able to really get the songs to a lot of people that loved it who are music supervisors and stuff. Right out of the gate, the songs were getting licensed for stuff. They started getting into really neat places that had a great sort of fandom around them. A new XBox video game, or getting things on the dude Perfect channel, they’re huge. Those things have their built in fan-base, and all of those things need music elements. And so, I was really fortunate enough that those brands really loved what I was doing, and sort of repetition of that, of being in there a lot, I think those things really juiced up people coming over and looking for the song, and going, “oh, actually I like 10 of these songs,” and then just hanging around.
That’s organically how it happened. It was slow and then we started to see that pickup. As momentum builds, it just keeps building. We’ve never had a huge spike in listeners and have it all drop out again. We see that a lot out there. We’ve never seen those peaks; it’s been awesome. Who knows what’ll happen next?
Can you get into what your songwriting or creative process looks like?
Zayde Wølf: I just let it come from anywhere. Sometimes, you’re doing something that doesn’t have anything to do with music—taking a shower, going for a walk, driving your car, and an idea just sort of comes. I record all my voice memos and maybe I have a couple versions of it and I just put it away, and I come back and listen through what ideas I had, and then see if any of those want to turn into more of a song. Sometimes, I’ll sit down at the piano, just like: “is anything happening today?” Most of the time, that doesn’t happen. I don’t do very well anymore just sitting down at the piano, like “I’m gonna write a song right now.” However, the song “Holy Water,” which people have really gravitated to, was written after I had finished the album, and I sat down at the piano and this song just came out. For that one, the reason it happened that way is because I was finished with the album. I didn’t have any parameters and I just sat down and I wrote a song. I had almost the whole song in about eight hours. A lot of times, it takes me weeks to get a song the way I want. Sometimes, it’s lightning in a bottle.
In putting together the album, was song placement/ordering a challenge because of the album length?
Zayde Wølf: Ordering was hard, on this one. Some of the songs we had already released as singles, and so we wanted to space out songs that people may have already heard before; I wanted to space out the emotional movement of what was happening, and then also thinking about those 13 songs going to be on a physical vinyl, as well. It was challenging. I picked “The Reason” as the opening song because I wanted it to start out with a statement that felt very overcoming, to kind of get the emotion going on the album. And then I wanted to go into a song we had already released, so we did “Let’s Go,” second. It changes from strong emotional things to that fun, rock/pop thing. It was a very fun venture to figure out the track placement on that.
A lot of this album is very anthemic in nature—when you’re writing these songs, do you have the concept that you are trying to write an anthem in your head, or does it come out naturally dramatic and intense?
Zayde Wølf: Earlier on, we talked about me being in a band and stuff. That was all in my twenties. I wrote songs that weren’t really exactly like this, but I always liked big songs. And then, I spent all this time producing and going through, learning from other artists and learning about recording craft. I think that’s just my journey. The songs I write now are just a mashup of the last twenty-something years wanting to happen in this song, or in these few songs and things like that. I don’t think I have a formula, but I do have go-to things that make me feel like the emotion, or the transition, or the way a chorus hits are important. Even If it’s a chorus that the song’s going along and the chorus kind of drops down, it’s like a drop chorus, there’s a reason for that. There’s an emotional purpose that it’s serving at that point. Sometimes I’ll try it two or three different ways and just figure out which one feels the best for me. I don’t know that I know and I don’t know that I get it all right, but I sure enjoy the challenge.
Is there a meaning behind or inspiration for the album title itself, Neon Blood Type?
Zayde Wølf: Yeah, I think there is a bit of a meaning for it. I want people to take what they want out of that title, but most of the songs have an uplifting journey to them. And I really believe that all people have amazing and great things inside of them, and I think that is what Neon Blood Type really stands for. It’s about that thing that’s special about you, and that living inside you. It’s glowing, it’s alien blood.
I wanted to bring up the track “We Could Burn It All Down“—could you break down that song, pull back the curtain on what went into creating that specific song?
Zayde Wølf: I had twelve songs and I thought the album was done. And that was not one of those songs. And neither was Holy Water. After we put the album together, the PR team and everyone was like, “hey, if we could have some bonus songs, we could release it as a deluxe version later on.” I was like “guys, I just spent two years trying to write this album, now you’re telling me we need more songs; I don’t want to write anymore songs.”
I had that idea, I think it was kinda just a piano and vocal thing—that’s probably why that one, sonically feels a little different. It has a more cinematic thing. Yeah, I think it definitely feels different, just because, probably the approach. It’s another one that I was able to think about outside the context of the album. It’s a different journey, for sure, on that song.
The track, “Still Fighting For It,” is very compelling in the story it’s telling, almost as a parallel to your own story and journey and where you ended up.
Zayde Wølf: I think that song is the one of the most auto-biography type songs that I have, because, yeah, you’re still fighting for what you’ve built, what you’ve made, what you’ve accomplished. You’re still fighting to try to get better at what you do or who you are, and that’s an ongoing journey, not only for myself, but for a lot of people. Reaching a higher goal. That song is straight from the core of me in just talking about my own journey; who I am as a person and how Zayde Wølf has done all these successful things. It’s cool. That one’s been around for a while. Took a long time to write that song. But I wanted to put it on the album because it’s real special to me.
The general theme of Zayde Wølf is uplifting, motivational music—is there a more specific inspiration for Neon Blood Type?
Zayde Wølf: As we talked about the title, a little bit, I just want people to do well. I think that if I was able to do what I did and be successful in this way, I just believe anyone can do it. I grew up in such a small town, we grew up with so little as a family. But we always had legitimate hopes and dreams and I don’t think we ever let that go away, and I still don’t today. I think that is a bg part of why the Zayde Wølf brand has those, and why I write those songs that are uplifting and encouraging. It’s just part of my story. It’s the part I feel like is deserving of sharing. There’s plenty of other songs about other stuff; this is something I’m good at and I like doing, so all those things kind of came together.
Do you have a favorite track off Neon Blood Type?
Zayde Wølf: We talked about “Still Fighting For it,” that’s a very special one. “The Reason” was very special for me. I think for everything that we saw happen last year during our period of Covid, not only about the virus but all the other political and social things, it felt like we were in a pressure cooker all year long for a hundred different reasons. I kept thinking all of this is just a reason for us to grow and be better and stronger about who we are. I think that song is important to me for that reason. And it’s called “The Reason.” Just looking at the last year as a reason for us to rise up and be stronger, better, care for people more. Yeah, that’s important for me.
With the album released, what’s on the horizon for Zayde Wølf?
Zayde Wølf: Honestly, I’ve been trying to take a little time off. Just relaxing time this summer with the family and friends. So that’s been great. I think for the musical side of things, there’s a couple things we have cooking. One of them is the vinyl pressing will be coming out soon. We are so ready to get our hands on that and to be able to mail those out to everybody who’s purchased them. And we’ve also recorded a couple of live versions of “Holy Water” that we have not released yet. Recorded some versions of it; it’s cool. One of them we did just on piano; it’s a very stripped down version of the song. And then we did another full-band kind of thing, and it’s a little more rock. That’s gonna be really fun when we release those.
I’m gonna be doing some more live-streaming stuff and some partnerships on some live-streaming stuff that might be pretty fun. I can’t disclose any of that stuff yet, but that’s gonna be fun as Summer and Fall comes along.
You can listen to Neon Blood Type here.