Be patient & savor the adventure. Every aspect of this lifestyle takes more time than we would expect. Trying to force or rush success accomplishes nothing. When it’s time to thrive, those opportunities will come after the lessons learned can be applied in context to situations that inevitably must ebb and flow.
As a part of our series about pop culture’s rising stars, we had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Donny Walker.
Donny Walker is a co-owner of Chicago’s very own: Mind Exchange Music. He’s an international award-winning director (music videos & documentaries), composer, arranger, orchestrator, music producer, multi-instrumentalist, musician, and foley artist. He’s performed and produced over 42 records/soundtracks/EPKS, custom created a 600+ fully mixed and mastered song catalogue, scored and produced total soundtracks for 4 feature films, 30+ short films, 3 theatre shows, 1 museum exhibit called ‘Art is Instrumental’ with the DuPage Children’s Museum, and he and his team represented original music for the nation of America in iMapp 2019’s worldwide winners round with creative genius George Berlin. He has music on PBS, ABC, SyFy, Hulu, E!, Bravo & Telemundo. In 2020 he and his team at Mind Exchange Music’s original music, soundtracks, scores, music videos, documentaries & media performances won over 75 awards all over the world and were selected for another 90 film festivals outside. Notable projects include: Mind Exchange Music Presents, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Emil Bach House documentary, An Interesting Story About an Uninteresting Guy, I Dream of a Psychopomp and many others. He’s a past performer with Aretha Franklin, The Ojays & The Dells. Educational studies include: DePaul University, Columbia College Chicago, Northeastern Illinois University and he learned from members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, The Lyric Opera & Chicago Jazz Ensemble. He also enjoys doing production sound, boom op & foley work and is supremely passionate about learning how to produce music in literally every style under the sun.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit of the ‘backstory’ of how you grew up?
Thank you for having me! I’m Donny Walker, music geek extraordinaire and owner/composer for Mind Exchange Music LLC. I’ve always loved learning everything there is to know about music. I spent my senior year of high school at an arts boarding school, and this is where obsession overtook me. I was finally surrounded by people who loved the arts as much as I did. From there, I earned a scholarship to study with the Chicago Symphony & Lyric Opera.
I loved listening to movie soundtracks more than the classic symphonies, even back then, so I transferred to Columbia College where I studied Jazz with the Chicago Jazz Ensemble. While I was there, I began performing with artists like Aretha Franklin, The Ojays & The Dells, and I started taking music arranging classes. My teachers hurried to hire me to edit their sheet music, and within a year of learning that new trade I was editing sheet music for the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic Orchestra.
I acquired my composition chops by studying the composers who hired me to make sure their sheet music was edited correctly. After that, I got my masters degree in brass pedagogy, built my film scoring business, and my partner Kelly and I were going crazy with production projects (all of which were hugely stressful). Still, we flourished in that field and then started working on film projects. 5 years later, and now our music has been picked up by Universal Music Group and can be found on Netflix, Hulu, PBS, NBC, ABC, SyFy, Bravo, E! and many others. It’s been a remarkable journey and I couldn’t be happier to be here doing the work.
Photo of Composer Conducting Chamber Ensemble
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
This career path started when I was young. My parents thought I should sign up for band so I joined and learned the trombone. I did that until middle school when my parents agreed to invest in a better instrument for me. I realized the band room was a great place to practice when the weather was cold, but also, there were a ton of cute girls there too! I did the work, excelled at what I enjoyed, had a great relationship with my teacher, and then next thing I know I worked my way up to 1st chair. I remember back then not caring at all about the basic melodies, but I loved skipping all the easy stuff and playing all the melodies from the movies instead. I think that was where my passion for music in film began! High school was very similar, except in addition to playing the trombone, I picked up the tuba, electric bass, piano and joined the chorus as well. I worked my way up to 1st chair, won gold in all the competitions, and joined drum and bugle corps, where I learned to play the euphonium. We played shows and parades in different states every night, but I got tired of having my mouthpiece hit me in the face a zillion times a day so I auditioned for the youth orchestras on Bass Trombone. Killed it there and then did music summer camps. Killed it there and auditioned for an arts academy. The story progresses from there!
Spotify Playlist: Composer’s Favorite
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
Currently, in addition to scoring for music and video projects and running our business, I’m a music educator. I teach K-8 music and see around 600 students a week. My students adore me, and I push them because I believe in their future greatness. Anyway, I was doing some curriculum planning one day when I heard a tap on my classroom window. I looked over to see a hidden person holding up a hand written sign that read “U are a Assworm Prison.” I was flabbergasted! I thought it must have been one of the hormonal 8th graders who are always looking for a laugh. I went to the door, opened it up, looked down and saw one of my kindergarteners looking up at me saying, “music is my FAVORITE!” I was so relieved. Thank god it was only an impassioned child who loved my methods but just couldn’t spell correctly. After they left and I looked at the note, all I could do was acknowledge that, yeah… at times I guess I am an Ass Worm Prison. Ugh. My mom got a serious kick out of that one, I haven’t heard her laugh like that in years. Anyway, we can always do better, and no one teaches you quite like a kid does.
On a related note, my sound designer always mischievously hides fart noises wherever he can get away with it, and the directors don’t always find them. Always a good laugh to hear those moments. Also, sometimes I will record entire compositions for film scenes bare butt naked simply because I can. Then, after the directors approve the cues and we’re in the theater watching the film, I’ll lean in and share with them that this whole scene was performed in my birthday suit. Gotta squeeze those laughs in wherever you can get them!
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
I met Aretha Franklin while performing with her at The House of Blues in Chicago. I shook her hand, said “I’m a huge fan,” and went on my way. Respect!
I met Bruce Willis while taking a whiz at Interlochen Arts Academy. Childhood hero!
I accidentally bumped Tim Blake Nelson in the head with a boom pole on a film set, but he was wearing ‘eye mutilation’ makeup so I don’t think he ever saw who did it. His work is always entirely remarkable.
I met David Arquette on that same film set, and it was so much fun to talk with him! After a couple of beers with him at the pool, I found out he had recently purchased a media franchise that my ex-wife’s mom made the costumes for like 30 years ago.
Regarding famous performers, educators, and people in leadership positions, it’s always weird to admire someone and then have them emotionally abuse you in front of others. It’s especially weird to realize that another person who you might not admire as much but who has always been kind simply has better approaches. In the end, we take that energy and karma to the grave with us. We become the way we treat others. For the love of god, treat everyone with love.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Composer (Donny Walker) & Business Partner (Kelly Askam)
I’m wicked grateful to my best friend and business partner, Kelly Askam. Sweet Jesus, man! I could write you all the poems. How many times in my life, when everyone else bails on me or drops me like a sack of potatoes, have you shown up, said the right things, and helped me realize what humanity is? Without your equally met geekiness, we wouldn’t be where we are now with our company, Mind Exchange Music LLC.
I’m especially grateful right now to my dear friend & confidant, Rebecca Jane Justice, because she’s helped me realize who I actually want to be on the inside.
I’m grateful to every single client we have, like Margaret Byrne, Kathrin Mraz, and Sandy De Lisle, who have taken risks to work with my team. I could not be more pleased to make our collaboration worth every penny.
Dr. Jeff Kowalkowski, you are an inspiration to me.
Thomas Gunther, without you hiring me to edit your sheet music I would not be where I am now.
John Blane, without you showing me how to obsess and really helping me understand that “no one owes you anything, you gotta carve out your niche, and demand is the name of the game,” I wouldn’t have learned how to turn my Attention Deficit Disorder into a super power.
Ron Arden, all I can say is, you have been beyond crucial to my creative integrity. The stories are endless here.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson” quote? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“To achieve great things, 2 things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time.” — Leonard Bernstein.
I cannot tell you how many times my team and I have done our best work in almost impossible timelines. Time is our best ally and simultaneously our worst foe. You really come to understand what’s most crucial in those experiences.
I am very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?
Everyone has great stories. No culture’s stories are better than others. In order to truly realize our potential, we must absorb the full creative capacity of all people in order to recognize what the universe wants us to communicate, and thus, we must listen with our hearts, then our ears, then our eyes. We’re already seeing more fairness in grants, funding opportunities, and lead roles. People are starting to factor this into their production budgets, into the scriptwriting, and into their methods of hiring talent. What a blessing to find inspiration in all places!
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Currently, my associates Kelly Askam, Zachariah Jarrett, Kevin Vicks, Tim Resig and Ugur Darivaren are working on a hilarious adult baseball themed comedy called You’re Out! written and produced by Sandy De Lisle, and directed by Katharin Mraz. We’re doing all of the sound and music! That film is totally fun, crazy as they get, and packed with mountains of hilarious moments! What a gem of a project to work on. Other than that, I’ve been working on my publishing catalog with our new music rights administrator, Rae Robeson, and she’s got the work ethic, focus, thoroughness, and dedication of 6 people. She’s been helping me keep our company rolling and is a fantastic gift from the universe! Wrapping up that collection is huge because it’s the packaged final phase of our last decade’s creative work! I am also looking forward to future projects, whatever they may be. HIRE US!!!!
Mind Exchange Music Loving The Process
Which aspect of your work makes you most proud? Can you explain or give a story?
I think the part of my work that makes me the most proud is when I write and produce an entire soundtrack and am able to play and perform all the instruments I’ve learned over the last few decades. You should see my studio — my collection is huge and I have learned to play EVERYTHING cause my brain needs challenges. Sometimes in situations like these, I get to record 100–200 real instruments from my collection, plus incorporate and feature my friends into the soundtrack too. That’s such a blessing, and even better, I get to keep the rights, distribute the soundtrack, and license that music out to other people. How grateful could you get?
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Be patient & savor the adventure. Every aspect of this lifestyle takes more time than we would expect. Trying to force or rush success accomplishes nothing. When it’s time to thrive, those opportunities will come after the lessons learned can be applied in context to situations that inevitably must ebb and flow.
- Stay Humble. Vanity in the arts is like putting makeup on an open wound. Sure, maybe it’s more attractive, but underneath, there is something lurking. Humility is a living thing inside of us; it must be grown, practiced and kept up like a plant. If we strive to give from a place of humility, attention, concern, and love, it will thrive. Don’t let humility die by neglect.
- Learn fast, adapt always. Without self awareness, our own ego and self validation will destroy us. Our desires cannot ever triumph over the injuries of our psyche. The universe will communicate needed transformations to us, but we must listen and apply the suggestions with the least amount of resistance.
- We are better together. Our team is our family. We gotta be there for each other when things get tough. When we can individually support the strengthening of our respective abilities, our goals collectively bind together. Our team will carry us further than our own ambitions can alone. Dream, discuss, delegate, support, organize, follow through, fine tune, check in, test waters, and show off that collaboration.
- Trust the process. Pay attention to the hints provided by the universe. Stop pretending to know the unknown. Rather, take time to tune in, to make correlations, to connect the dots. The universe communicates our destiny, path, process, and purpose should we take time to listen. No hints? Learn peace inside of yourself first, and then listen and wait. Continue practicing, and the suggestions will be everywhere, all at once, all of the time.
When you work on a film or music project, which stakeholders have the greatest impact on the artistic and cinematic choices you make? Is it the viewers, the critics, the financiers, or your own personal artistic vision? Can you share a story with us or give an example about what you mean?
I believe they’re all relative. I know if the exec producers, directors, and financiers trust my intuition implicity, the viewers and critics will adore that component of it as well. My own personal vision, which would be amazing to be at the forefront, realistically gets moved to the back because the films I write music for are rarely my own. Thus, facilitating the vision and desires of those who made the story always come first. My personality will slip in, and of course once we have good communication and get to know each other, trust becomes our foundation. Kelly, my business partner, has been so patient with me in helping me grow the courage to accept rejection and learn to remove my ego from this process. Because I am there to accompany their story, it is not mine to control. My music must be what the people creating the project desire it to be. Then, once I understand that dynamic and begin applying my vision to their story, it must be as polished as a diamond in order to be received correctly. The risk in those circumstances is time and energy, but without the full confidence in my own creative output, my suggestions become secondary to their original ideas. It took me a dozen projects trying to wrestle with film creators, only to realize that if I desire that level of control, I should make my own movie. So I did. It’s called Mind Exchange Music Presents: The Showcase. This is where my scoring takes precedence, and the story takes place around my vision. It’s a documentary about our scoring process and why we do things in particular ways. Without that level of understanding, I’m generally just remaking something that someone already designed, which is okay too. There is much to be learned in that process as well.
Film Poster to Mind Exchange Music Presents: The Showcase
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
The movement would be to create content, film, media, music, and inspiration based around letting go of anger, working with forgiveness, and teaching others of its inherent value. We have to be honest about the anger hiding and lurking inside each of us, but it’s often planted so deep in our psyche, it’s almost impossible to recognize. Because it WANTS to stay hidden! But it is not a part of who we are supposed to become. Anger is a psychological parasite, it is the symptom of a psychological infection, it is the mind’s way of protecting the heart. Stop protecting it, and dig that anger out from the roots so you can heal. Stop justifying it. Stop taking it out on people you care about. Figure out where it comes from and why it’s there. Identify the cost of it, identify its toll on your life, realize that our loved ones don’t deserve its consequences, and neither do we. So we have to make changes inside of ourselves WITHOUT punishing the people we love, even if we have been hurt by those people. Harness that transformation into creative energy, use that change to your advantage, make music with it!
Composer Enjoys The Performance on Music Film Set
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
Film, media & entertainment investors, financiers, executive producers, directors — hit me up! I have ideas, polished pitches, precision in planning, and a scary amount of follow through. As a leader in my arena, I work with geniuses all the time. Let my dedication to the craft, mastery, and time getting to know the Chicago Arts Community’s strengths & talents, be validation for your investment. I have an international award winning team, and we promise only the tippy top best results. Additionally, our company wants to help feed the local homeless population using our creative strengths, putting purpose to our passion, and paying it forward. Help us support those in need by way of the most universal languages there are: music, sound, and food! CONTACT US BELOW!!!
How can our readers further follow you online?
Also, anywhere music is streamed, search for ‘Mind Exchange Music’
If you want the best sound and music possible for your film, media or creative pursuits, shoot me an email at: email@example.com
I’d love to help you accomplish those goals!
Photos by Katharin Mraz, Article Edited by Rebecca Jane Justice
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!
Rising Star Donny Walker On The Five Things You Need To Shine In The Entertainment Industry was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.