Scott Oatley got his start in the Hollywood session scene back in 2008, when he sang on the soundtrack for High School Musical 3. Since then, he has gone on to perform with such film composers as Danny Elfman and Michael Giacchino, on such projects as La La Land, Mulan, and Sing. He is also well-known for his unique song mashups on Youtube, which he performed as part of his first duo, Lord & Lady. Now, he is gearing up to release his first solo debut under the name Van Scott, a full-length record titled Almost Gone, on Friday, July 23. Read on for our interview with Van Scott, where we explore his musical journey and songwriting process, in addition to breaking down the upcoming record.
What initially drew you to music and songwriting?
Van Scott: I think it might have been Disney movies, actually. I grew up watching them on VHS tapes when we still had those. My siblings and I each had our own that we would carry with us wherever we went, and so that’s how I think a lot of my relatives would agree I got into music. Especially The Lion King. For me, I really wanted to play Elton John’s version of stuff, and he’s been a big idol of mine, musical influence, growing up.
How have your projects on film and TV helped to shape you as a musician and performer?
Van Scott: I think, as a performer, I’ve really been challenged being surrounded by so many amazing singing professionals. It’s really inspired me to get better at my craft and to stay at a certain level because these are honestly the best in the world. I pinch myself that I get to work with some of these people. I think that kind of pushed me to make sure I got my talent to a certain level, but also learning from the best and getting in touch with a lot of music sensibilities. A lot of the sessions I’ve done have been film scoring sessions where you have these large choirs, and I’ve learned the subtlety of everyone going from an ‘ooh’ to opening up to an “ahh,” and just the emotional lift that it creates. It’s so subtle, but the little choices you can make; I just have picked everything I can up along the way, from the producers I’ve worked with, to the composers, songwriters. I try to be a sponge. I always want to learn, and so there’s always a lot more to learn from people that are the best of their craft in certain areas. It’s been awesome to be on that side of the industry and get to learn about music that way.
The first time you started to break out as more of a solo-styled performer was with the group Lord & Lady, which saw really interesting success on Youtube with these song medleys you would do—when you go to put together those medley arrangements, how do you find the right places and ways to transition into new songs? How do these arrangements come together?
Van Scott: I never really thought about that. It kind of comes from my church background. Churches, you’re usually singing the same songs every week and you try to keep it interesting. I got used to doing the chorus of this song and then running into the bridge of another song; I guess that’s where my “medley-ization,” if you will, came from. I remember our La La Land medley, which went viral on Youtube, I had just seen the movie, it was a special advance screening for the singers on it, and I remember going home and I had all the songs playing in my head. Soundtrack wasn’t even available on iTunes. Hopefully, when you’re doing a medley, the best would make some sort of lyrical sense. Sometimes, you have to tweak the key; I just kind of experiment sometimes. I did the Greatest Showman medley, where I did “Million Dreams” goes into “Never Enough,” and then it goes into “From Now On”—by the end of it, I don’t remember how, that wasn’t really my design. Sometimes you luck out and they just perfectly interweave. Everything was a counter-melody by the end. I attribute that to good songwriting by the original songwriting. I don’t know, I guess the short answer would be just experimenting and finding a good place to launch into something that feels like a smooth transition, and just keeping the interest, keeping the dynamics going.
What does your songwriting or creative process look like? How do you find an idea for a song and nurture that into a completed track?
Van Scott: Sometimes, it begins with just a song title. I think a lot of us, songwriters, artists, our best friends are our notes app and our voice memos. A lot of times, it’ll just be a song title or one lyric line that you toss into the notes app. When I am in that writing mode I do try to be consistent every day. I pull ideas from the notes app or I think the classic waking up in the middle of the night with a melody you gotta record it on your voice memos. Sometimes, when I just go jam on the piano, maybe I’m playing someone else’s song and then I start improving on something else and that’s inspiring. It’s kind of just tidbits. You can always save them for a day where it feels like that completely resonates and that idea wants to elaborate further. My song “Poster Boy” began with the title, but there was one day where I was like “I know how I want to write this song,” and I wrote it in an hour. Everything just came. As long as you can be consistent about it and keep the creative flow going, that always helps.
When you decided to start working on this album, did you just start writing a bunch of songs or did you set off with a framework in some way?
Van Scott: Well, to be honest, it was going to be an EP, which is the more typical side of things. Even up until March or April of 2020, it was going to be an EP. And then, things slowed down enough where I listened back to the songs I had written over the last year or two, and I was starting to string together that thematically, they all captured this time in my life where I was experiencing doubt in my faith and I was coming out of depression in a lot of ways. It was the realization that I had a lot of songs that felt like they belonged together. And then I was like “alright, maybe I can do an album.” Which definitely goes against the industry standard. The building blocks nowadays for aspiring artists are, single after single and eventually one takes off, or you do go for an EP, but you kind of hold out until you sign with a label. It was definitely a little bit of a middle finger to the system. I want to do an album. I’m a little older than some artists trying to get started. Who knows if any label is gonna be interested in a 30-something? I feel like nowadays they’re looking for the 16-year-old on Tik Tok who has a million followers. I was like “I want to do this,” so I did.
As far as bringing it together, I think it was all there. My song “Almost Gone,” encapsulates the album as a whole, thematically, which is why I took that title. I did leave my full-time job in 2018 and it’s been a little bit of “have I made the right decision?” And I kind of felt like I reached the end of myself at one point, and then it was the journey back. I’ve been calling it hopeful melancholy, in terms of the vibes from the album. A lot of my songs are melancholy, but there’s always an element of hope.
The album art for the record features you wearing an Elton John T-shirt—I know he is an influence for you, but was there a more specific purpose or thought behind you wearing an Elton John shirt on the cover of your record?
Van Scott: We were going for a different look that day. We were shooting five or six different looks. We actually almost went with a different photo, but the runner-up photo was a little too moody. I felt that the one we went with was a little more ambiguous. It ended up working out that I was wearing an Elton John T-shirt. I was like, “is that weird?” I think there is the fact that I referenced him in “Don’t Know The Words.” But there’s also the topic of sexuality that I don’t really reference in the songs themselves, but is something that I wrestled with. My best friend came out of the closet a couple of years ago, and that was kind of a dichotomy with the way I grew up thinking about homosexuality, growing up in church. It really threw me for a loop, but at the end of it, it was so great that I was able to rethink how I thought about that. It woke me up from my ignorance of people’s sexuality. That’s the journey that I went on through the album. It shook my faith up a little bit but I’ve come out stronger on the other end. It taught me how I can love people better. My best friend is still my best friend, which is great. My song “Starry Eyed” is about that story. Feeling the weight of “woah, I’m having to rethink my belief system.” There was one conversation I had with him at one point, where he was like “I guess this is where we go our separate ways.” And I was like “no. We’re not gonna do that.” That just plays into ignorance. I think, to me, having Elton John is a subtle way of acknowledging the way I’ve had to wrestle with and rethink sexuality as a whole, and I think Elton John represents that.
“Don’t Know The Words,” in addition to its Elton John reference, is a very full song, with big choruses and strings, piano, a guitar solo—how did this track come together and what does it mean to you?
Van Scott: That’s one that, thankfully, I had the chance to play live a few times. I think part of the way the song goes, it’s kind of like the lyrics and the chorus, I make it up as I go along. I think in some ways, conceptually, we approached it in a similar way. We just kept changing the feel. It’s a jam. The record has a lot of that fun, adventurous quality to it. Part of the way I wanted to approach the production was to keep people guessing. Not just for the sake of it, but I think the song lent itself to “I don’t really know what I’m doing.” Even some of the melodic background stuff, there’s arpeggiations that reference “Your Song”—I kind of re-harmonized that, made it work with my chords. I even slightly referenced the “Yesterday” melody from The Beatles. No one would notice, but they just kind of allude to these guys. I think the fullness, too, my co-producer brought into the mix. He knows how to bring a good energy to a production.
We talked earlier a bit about the story behind “Starry Eyed”—how did you express that conflict you were feeling in your head into the music and the song? Did you sit at the piano and just try to get it out?
Van Scott: I actually wrote the bed of the track, the instrumental, on probably my lowest night of this whole two years that this album encapsulates. I was really overwhelmed. I was like “where is God? What do I think about God anymore?” I felt like He abandoned me. I was in this really sad state. I didn’t know what else to do. Music was the only catharsis that could help me at that moment. I went up into my studio. I looped that opening guitar riff. I can’t remember if it’s the guitar or the whistle that came first, but the melody felt like a little something hopeful, even though I didn’t feel hopeful. That was where I took it. And then I added the synth layers. The song began as that instrumental that just helped me cope with the situation.
I eventually took it to Rodney Jerkins—I give his daughter guitar lessons—but he’s produced Sam Smith and Her and all these people. I played him a few demos one day and he was like “send me that “Starry Eyed” song.” And I did. He waited until I came back and we did a little bit of production on the chorus. All those are his drums that we put in on the chorus. He added the strings and a little reharm—he had this little Darkchild touch in there. When it came to it, he was like “nah, man, that’s your song.” He didn’t even want to take any credit for it. It’s kind of a little-known fact that he was involved with that song. It’s cool how it came together slowly. It began with that one night. The emotion is embedded in the track itself.
Was the journey behind “Die Young” a similar process? Cathartic in getting dark thoughts out of the back of your head and into some music?
Van Scott: I can’t tell you how many times I second-guessed myself—”is this wrong to put this out in the world?” I’ve had enough conversations where I know I’m not the only one who feels like this. I happened to write this song with my friend Gray; we wrote “Die Young,” “Tough Love,” and “Truce” together. She happened to feel the same way. It wasn’t quite like “Starry Eyed” where I had to deal with this emotion. But it was kind of like, “hey, this is an interesting idea that I don’t think anyone’s addressed before.” A lot of the reactions I’ve gotten have helped me to see that it goes beyond my thought. It’s meant a lot in different ways. It’s got a nostalgic feeling. I think if I can keep enough ambiguity to allow people to relate to it and still communicate my personal message, I think that’s a good formula for songs. But that song has surprised me. There’s definitely the people that don’t get it. But I think it definitely strikes a chord with people with have gone through something, or even contemplated the darkest thoughts. I think it at least helps them feel like they’re not alone. I think that’s a major success when you’re helping people feel seen.
Is there an element of hope or perseverance for you, entwined with that song?
Van Scott: I try and balance songs out. If it’s really low, I try to give a glimmer of hope. I don’t know that I did that with this song. I don;t know that it kept it honest if I tried to be like “but…” I think what balances it out are my other songs. I think the bridge, I guess—”never know, never know,” I think it’s a little bit of you never know what life’s going to hand to you. The song itself isn’t “I’m thinking about killing myself.” It’s just “hey, I’m 32. I thought I’d be married now, with kids.” I just played a couple memorials around for my church and I had a conversation with an elderly man who had lost his wife. They thought they were gonna live ‘til they were 98. They thought they had it good in their genes. Last year, she came out with cancer. He thought he had another 10 years with his wife and it didn’t happen. Yes, it’s a little dark thematically, but I think overarchingly, it’s about cherishing the moments that you have. I think it’s about really appreciating the moments that just fly by. I was thinking specifically of a time when I was visiting my brother and his family with my sister, and just a sweet time to be with my new niece, who was three or four at the time. Those are the moments—and Covid has reminded me of this—just to cherish, with family. That’s what you’re living for. It’s not getting on the radio, winning a Grammy, that you know, is a dream, but the things that we can just get caught up in this ever-moving train. I think it’s more about cherishing the moments.
“Lost In The City,” which is the last song on the record, sounds lyrically like the idea of being lost in a city is one to seek out, for you. What’s the inspiration for this song?
Van Scott: All this stuff is going to tie together, which makes sense. I wrote that song when I had just moved into Pasadena, which is still L.A. county, but it was the first time I was getting out of my hometown. I was excited to be in the city. When I left my church job, it was a very eye-opening experience. That song is embracing this newness. I knew that good growth was going to happen. That’s a big reason I left my job in the first place. “I don’t want to live in this bubble; there’s life that I’m missing.” It’s also a bit of an homage to L.A.—it’s fun to be lost in the city. L.A. kind of found me. It’s really my love letter to L.A.
This album marks your debut as a solo artist—do you have any goals of where you want to take your music?
Van Scott: Gosh, I feel like sync-placements help bring artists to a new level. It would be great if one of these songs could get placed somewhere. Mike Elizondo is a producer/mentor of mine—he produced everybody—and I’ve talked with him and he’s like “hey man, send me your best songs and we’ll see if we can get you a publishing deal or something.” That would be a goal of mine. On top of being an artist, if I can keep collaborating and making great music with people, that would be awesome. Hopefully, these songs on the album unlock some more opportunities for something like that.
You can listen to Van Scott’s music here.