Episode 66: Tyler Zahnke

Chris and Jill enjoy chatting with musician and Disability advocate Tyler Zahnke who has contributed to DisArt's programming in 2018 for the Process and Presence exhibition and in 2019 for Voices.

Black and white charcoal drawing of Tyler Zahnke

JILL: Welcome to the DisTopia podcast, where we look at disability from the inside out. [peaceful music fades in] My name is Jill Vyn, and I’m the cohost of this podcast with my friend and colleague, Chris Smit. 

What you are listening to now is the first of two interrelated components of our My Dearest Friends project, both of which have been generously underwritten by the Ford Foundation. The My Dearest Friends podcast, which is produced by DisTopia, is a series of recorded conversations with disabled people about their individual experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the personal, cultural, and political alterations it has triggered. These informal conversations give our guests the opportunity to share personal experiences of sheltering in place and to engage in conversations around deeper questions raised about the value of disabled people, the core values of the disability culture, as well as our hopes, fears, and strategies for living an authentic and pride-filled disabled life.

The second component of the My Dearest Friends project is created in partnership with disabled artist Oaklee Thiele, who is creating black and white illustrations that represent our collective response to our new and uncertain realities as a disabled community. Designed as an open invitation to the disabled community around the world, we invite all of you to participate. More information can be found on Instagram @MyDearestFriendsProject, Facebook, and on our website, DisArtNow.org.

As is true for many of you, our desire for this project is to share our experiences as a disabled community, to disrupt ableist beliefs, to celebrate a culture whose lived experience of disability necessitates flexibility and creativity, and to validate disabled voices and perspectives in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

[peaceful music slowly fades into mellow, sweet music break]

TYLER: My name is Tyler Zahnke. I am a musician, songwriter, composer, technology enthusiast, advocate for people with disabilities. And I’ve been into all these things for nearly 20 years.

CHRIS: And we met you, Tyler, well, we worked with you several times. But I was trying to remember. Is the first time for Process and Presence? Is that in 2018? Is that right?


CHRIS: OK. Do you wanna tell our listeners what we worked on together? ‘Cause I think it’s a really very nice way for them to understand your work and what you do.

TYLER: Yes. The project kind of involved the duo that I’m still a part of, Mini Nifty, a collaborator of mine, Lizzie, and I do all these songs and such together. And we reached out to DisArt. I think she did first. And we came up with the idea that people should do audio description for some of the images in the art gallery in 2018. We figured it would be even niftier if we combined that audio description with some background music for the images. And we composed the background music. Yeah, all the images were of art by artists with disabilities, and some of them even depicted the disabilities and such. And it was really cool.

JILL: What was your favorite part of that project, Tyler?

TYLER: Well, I liked composing the music, and I liked that one day when she and I got to come into Meijer Gardens and play music together. Those were my favorite things. We just played like background ambiance for people coming in to look at the artwork and such.

JILL: Yeah. And if I remember correctly, that was one of the first times you had played as a paid gig.

TYLER: Yes, it was! I think it was the first music paid gig that I did. I did writing stuff before here very rarely. But yeah.

JILL: It’s interesting to me, actually, that that was your first paid opportunity as an artist because of how skilled you are in your composition, in the skills of composing and in playing. Why do you think that was, it’s taken until 2018 for you to get that type of opportunity?

TYLER: I think nobody just noticed! That nobody noticed. And that’s all there is to it. I try not to think about it, ’cause then I start dwelling on nobody noticed me and stuff. But that’s the short answer.

CHRIS: Well, and I think that also is an answer that resonates with a lot of our interviewees and even ourselves. The idea of disabled people being a bit invisible has been a huge theme in our culture. And so—

TYLER: And I don’t even think it’s because of my disability. I just think my music isn’t well advertised. I don’t know a heap about marketing. And it doesn’t matter if I had a disability or not in that case.

JILL: Right. So, it sounds like you’re trying to change that by your newest recording?


[mellow, sweet music break]

JILL: Can you tell us about that and what you’ve been working on during the COVID pandemic?

TYLER: OK. So, there’s a music genre that I like, but I rarely listen to. And it’s a little thing called Country music. And well, in April, I sent some lyrics to a music outfit. Now, I know music outfits get stereotyped a lot. Most of them are like those song poems wanted ads, and usually they rip people off and such. But this was a more upscale one, and this more upscale one, they advertised in Country music magazines instead of cruddy tabloids. I noticed that they were not just looking at people’s lyrics, but actually reviewing them. And I sent in this set of lyrics called Keep On Truckin’. And I had kind of a Country sound in mind. This was around April 14th. I sent in these lyrics, and I titled it Keep On Truckin’.

Well, I got a good review back. I entered it in the contest. In early May, the contest was announced, but I didn’t win. However, just then, the COVID-19 relief package came in. So, we had quite a bit of money to work with, and I figured I might invest a few hundred. So, I hired the producer they got over there, and I sent them a rough demo of the melody and beat I had in mind and me singing the lyrics. And before you know it, by the end of May—actually, I had a few conversations with the producer in between—but by the end of May, I had this professionally produced Country song made with an anonymous demo singer and a band of seshies, and the song was completed.

[Country music with electric guitar, drums, and piano]

♪ When I was a boy, I would sit on Dad’s knee,
He’d say, “Hey sonny boy, won’t you listen to me?
You’re a really smart kid, and you’re gonna go far,
You might become a great doctor or a big movie star!”
So I took every class, and I read every book,
On how to write, how to dance, how to sing, how to cook.
I would learn all I could about music and art,
And then Daddy said, “Kid, that’s a really great start.”
Then he gave me some advice I will never forget.
He said, “If things don’t work out, please don’t get upset.”

Hold your head up high, keep your feet on the ground.
You can get back up if you get knocked down.
Just move on forward, and don’t ever stop,
You can keep climbing up till you reach the top.
Grab life by the reins when things get tough,
And your boat will stay afloat when the waters get rough.
If there’s a little rut that you keep getting stuck in,
Just take a big step and keep on truckin’. ♪

CHRIS: What was it like to hear it for the first time?

TYLER: Well, actually, I got to hear it in phases of production ’cause I got the most extensive package they had. [chuckles] Therefore, I got to talk to the producer, and then I got to hear a version of it with just the guitar and him singing. And then I got to hear a version that didn’t have the piano track. And then at the end, they slipped in the somewhat quiet piano track. And so, I heard it in like it may have been four or five different phases of production, but it was amazing.

JILL: And how much say did you have throughout that process to adjust or change as you heard those tracks?

TYLER: I had all the say I could. I could just text the guy.

CHRIS: That is really cool. That’s the kind of collaboration that most people dream of. And so, that’s really great. So, what’s your hope for the song? Is this a step towards something new for you or a lifetime goal? Or like what do you hope the song does? Yeah.

TYLER: OK. So, I noticed that some of the pop hit songs out there that were sung by people we all know, but they were written by people that you’ve probably only heard their names if you study songwriters. Like yeah, Believe was sung by Cher. But some Brian Higgins and Paul Barry wrote it, and you’ll only know who they are if you study songwriters. So, yeah. I kinda took the songwriter role on this song, got the demo made, and now the song is on its way to various A and Rs from record companies. And it’s gonna be in all five of the major songwriting contests. There’s the international songwriting competition. There’s one called the John Lennon Song Contest, which was actually started by Yoko Ono in the ’90s. There are several major songwriting competitions, and this song is gonna be in all of them, or I should say the big five and some of the little, like two or three of the little ones. And I’m really hoping that if it gets in the hand of a music publisher, that maybe one of the big Country stars will sign on to it and sing it.

JILL: Wouldn’t that be awesome?!

TYLER: Yeah. I wrote the song, but I predict that in a year or so, that some major artist will sign onto it. So, it’s hard to say. I’m glad that I’m able to do all this stuff. I’m quite proud of it. I was looking through a file of stuff that I had, and I, [chuckles] I found some stuff I did in like 2003. [chuckles] Not proud of it, by the way. I actually had to dig it up out of a case. [laughs] It was like a bunch of CDs and stuff.

CHRIS: [laughs]

JILL: That shows how far you’ve come!

TYLER: Yeah.

JILL: What did you say, 2003?

TYLER: Yeah.

CHRIS: Yeah. That’s a long time.

JILL: That’s a long time to perfect your craft.

CHRIS: Yeah. For sure.

TYLER: Pretty soon I’m gonna hook up my tape player and start going through the stuff that isn’t digital, the old tapes. And yeah, there’s even more 2003 stuff there. And I feel like from like 2003 to 2008, my stuff was all the same. However, my stuff from ’04 to ’08 was better than ’03. But the only reason it was better was because I sang to somebody’s backing track.

TYLER and CHRIS: [laugh]

TYLER: Well, actually, it wasn’t a backing track, or it was. But it was original songs, but the Yamaha keyboards and such, you can put a beat and then tell it what chords to play.

CHRIS: Mmhmm.

TYLER: So, I guess it’s a backing track, but I was able to manipulate the chords. Yeah.

CHRIS: Nice, nice.

JILL: So, what are you working on now?

TYLER: I’ve experimented with a few other songs and a few others lyrics, but most of all, I’ve been composing some instrumental jingle piece that I hope to send to a production company. Like, there are a lot of little jingle pieces. [chuckles] You’ll hear them as like a five-second scene transition in a sitcom or a radio drama or whatever, just 5, 10, sometimes 20-second long jingle stings. So far, I composed six of them, and I’m composing a lot more pretty soon.

[mellow, sweet music break]

JILL: Tyler, and then you were part of our Voices project where you had a chance, an opportunity to both be interviewed and to perform. What was that like? I mean, that was quite a different experience from the 2018 exhibition.

TYLER: Yes, that one was a lot more fun because I’m in the music and art duo Mini Nifty, and in 2018, it felt like Lizzie and I were taking turns composing music, rather than composing stuff together. Instead we were taking turns, which it was fun, but not the same. And then when we went to perform live, we had to both be at the same piano. While in 2019, we were actually billed as Mini Nifty on the program, Live at Tanglefoot, we were actually billed as our duo, Mini Nifty. And therefore I had equipment and she had equipment, and we actually played together. And for those who don’t know, as Mini Nifty, we make kind of a lot of like sound collage mixes, like audio collages. And therefore with Voices, it felt like a live sound collage because there we were playing electronic music, and then over the speakers, these interview clips were playing. So, it kind of sounded like a live sound collage. So, that, I feel like, was the true Mini Nifty live experience.

CHRIS: I think it was a very powerful performance. I think you performed a couple times that day. What I remember is the band sort of getting into a groove where watching you guys, it seems like you just gave yourself over to the music. What’s it like to play like that, for those of us who don’t? You know, what’s it like to play improvisationally and just sort, again, do sound montages and collages?

TYLER: Well, first of all, when we do collages, we edit them together. So, we rarely do them live. But, yeah, this time we got to put sounds together and such. Therefore sometimes I would stop playing and flip a switch, and [laughs] that would be fun. I guess the best way to explain it is my whole life is like a movie in some ways. And you know how in a movie, no matter what’s going on, at least in most scenes—there are exceptions, but in most scenes—no matter what’s going on in a movie, there’s background music. Well, I feel like deep within me, there’s always music. And therefore when I get to play something and I get to improvise, it flows very naturally, given that I’ve composed music in my dreams and that music just comes to me spontaneously going through my life. It just seems like the music kinda just snapped to me. Maybe that’s why, like in college, I have to play classical music and such, and I have to play it exactly how it is on the tape, maybe that’s why I have a slight difficulty doing that. Because music kind of shapes, like shapes together within me. And therefore, sometimes it’s hard to play music that’s already shaped. But I usually try it, and I usually succeed.

CHRIS: Those shapes that you talk about, it’s really a profound way to put it. Does the music that’s inside of you that gets out and we all get to enjoy it, does that music match up to emotion for you? In other words, if you’re having a sort of angry day, do you find yourself writing music or letting that anger come out in music, or is it different?

TYLER: Sometimes it is. I mean, I’m in another band, if you wanna call it that. It’s more like a self-fulfilled project. I’m not even going to say the name of it. But I’m in another project, but I only make a recording with that project name when I’m really tense. And I will just edit sounds together and spill. It’s like an experimental noise project or whatever you call it. So, sometimes I am like that. However, in the case of the Voices project, in that project, I was kind of in a medium-happy mood, which is what I usually am. I’m either medium happy or really happy when I play music. But with the Voices project, I was able to shape the spirit of the music based on what the voices were saying. So, I’m sure with audio collage, I shape things based on that. And in other examples, it usually flows out of me. And I know sometimes when I’m tense or upset, I won’t want to play music, and I’ll just want to go listen to it to calm down. But yeah, in some cases the emotion does affect my music or…. And sometimes it’s a three-pronged tool. It might be the weather. Like if it’s way too hot or way too cold, that will somehow affect my emotion for some odd reason. And then that will affect the music.

JILL: That just goes to how connected you are and how the music is part of you. How long has that been the case in your life, that the music has been so integral to who you are and how you spend your time and how you process things?

TYLER: I would say since the first day of my life. Whether someone was playing a video game, and it’s interesting ’cause when you can’t see a video game—and even some people who can, but especially when you can’t—you tend to pick up on the music and the sounds. And then of course, my mom wasn’t really up to playing the latest hits. I was born in the ’90s, so I would never really hear ’90s music. I was more likely to hear symphonies composed in the 1700s; a lot of classical action going on and once in a great while some rock and roll from the ’70s once in a while.

CHRIS: What were those bands that sorta, besides the classical, sorta spoke to you?

TYLER: OK, the classical songs, the children’s songs, Christmas songs. And I don’t know. I think once in a while I’d hear the Beatles on the radio. Oh, I just remembered. We had an album of the Eagles that I loved. Neil Young! We had an album of Neil Young, actually two: After The Gold Rush by Neil Young and The Harvest. Classic albums. [sings] Old man, look at my life. Classic material there.

CHRIS: Oh, he’s an amazing songwriter. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

TYLER: I haven’t listened to Neil Young much lately. Like maybe in the past year I heard a brief clip of Neil Young. I’ve really been slacking on that. But I love it. I can’t wait to reach for that CD again if I can find it.

CHRIS: Yeah, Harvest is amazing. Yeah.

TYLER: After the Gold Rush was pretty close.

CHRIS: Oh yeah.

TYLER: Wait. Maybe it was, actually it was better. Yeah.

CHRIS: Yeah.

[bright, percussive music break]

CHRIS: Let’s transition a bit and talk about how other parts of your life have been in the last couple of months. You know, a lot of us are dealing with this pandemic in different ways. And how’s it been for you, Tyler? How’s that transition been going?

TYLER: Well, very weird. ‘Cause I remember in February, now, [chuckles] now there’s another story with February. I mean, there was one thing that happened in February that worried me to the point that I wondered if I had the disease. I don’t know. I just wasn’t feeling that well in February. But at that time, it was like you couldn’t miss too many days of going to Grand Rapids Community College. But yeah, even when I wasn’t feeling well, I had to choose wisely what days I skipped. But yeah, I remember in March. And it happened so fast. I don’t remember if it was March 9th or I’ll have to check the calendar, see what days of the week those days were. But I remember like I was at GRCC, and then all of a sudden, people were talking about another college closing because someone was diagnosed with the COVID-19. And then a few hours later, it was like another college closed. And then I feel like within days was when everything closed down. It’s like it happened so quickly.

And I’m one of those people who gets a lot of, like quite emotional, and sometimes I feel kinda lonely. Well, once we had to shut ourselves in, I feel like, I felt like, I didn’t know, I didn’t know I would ever feel that feeling so extremely again. But because of all this, I felt it again, and I just felt kind of disconnected. But it was usually when there was a lot of other tension in my life, it really came out. But I would say 95% of the time, I was really happy, believe it or not. But every so often I would just feel isolated and disconnected. And that’s probably when I really started reflecting on high school and middle school. And you know, middle school, that’s when the kids would walk up to me and say, “Keep on truckin’.” So, that’s probably what happened was in April that came into my head, and [chuckles] I wrote that song in like a day.

JILL: Can you talk about some of the lyrics or even however you wanna go with that, just to tell us more about the song and how it was connected.

TYLER: OK! [laughs] OK, OK. The lyrics were a little exaggerated. I wanted to make a fun story that was more fun than my actual life, but it was inspired by a lot of common situations. It was like there’s a line in the song that’s like, “When I was a boy, I would sit on Dad’s knee. He’d say, ‘Hey, sonny boy, come listen to me. You’re a really smart kid, and you’re gonna go far. You might become a great doctor or a big movie star’.” And then the lyrics go on about this kid taking every class and reading every book, learning all he could. And as he learned, people would keep telling him, “Hold your head up high, keep your feet on the ground, and keep on truckin’.” And then there’s another verse where the narrator, it’s like the day he turned 20, he just wrote a new song. So, he’s heading down to Nashville, but the producers don’t like it. But then he turns on the radio when he comes home, and the talk show host tells him, “Look on the bright side. Keep on truckin’.” So, it’s basically, remember the old adage whenever things aren’t going your way or whenever you’re feeling low. I wanted to make an entertaining story. I’ve never been to Nashville, even though that’s in the song. [chuckles] I was just writing a story and making a song.

JILL: You live your life that way, right? I mean, you’re always looking at the positive, it seems like, when we’re talking with you.

TYLER: I would say I try to whenever possible, but I’m going to say again, when that lockdown started, I was out of my zone. I had a hard time seeing positive things.

JILL: And then what changed, or are you still in that zone?

TYLER: I’m in that zone at least a few times a month, and I always have been. I guess I really react. I know a lot of people say that ’cause I’m blind, that my senses are heightened or whatever. But maybe I react to every little change in the weather and change in the way other people are— Like when I hear my family talking or whatever and they don’t seem happy, that sometimes trickles down to me. And so, I feel like I can be heavily sensitive at times.

JILL: Well, it sounds like, based on just the talking about Mini Nifty and the different things that you’ve done, is that connection is really important, and the relationships you have with people are really important. So, maybe you’re just really in tune with people around you.

TYLER: Maybe I am, [chuckles] even though I’m kind of the most solo artist you’ll ever see. Like when you see me typing up pieces of music or poems or lyrics and then writing software, a bunch of stuff that I do by myself, writing short books. Like, you know that there’s a lot of stuff I do by myself. Maybe you’re right, though. I’m just letting you know that I am one of those people who has a lot of solo projects. And that’s just how I am. In some ways, I know said this is a lot. It’s funny. I’m obsessed with doing a lotta solo stuff, yet at the same time, I hope for another Mini Nifty project quite often. So, maybe I’m just…maybe I’m just versatile, and I see things from several angles. 

JILL: That’s a really great way to look at it, to think about seeing life and experiences from different angles.

[bright, percussive music break]

Jill: I’m curious. You identified yourself in your introduction as a disability advocate. How does that play a role? Or when did you take on that title as a disability advocate, and how did you know that that’s what you wanna be and do?

TYLER: Well, it’s hard to say because I’ve known about the National Federation of the Blind, huge organization in these great United States, I’ve known about them since I was like one year old. I have known about them, but it’s hard to say. For quite a few years—like, [chuckles] it’s a funny, I know this is a funny way to say it—for many years, I knew that I was blind, but it wasn’t really something I talked about. Yeah, I had been to the Braille Challenge in California. I had qualified for that three different times in my life:2005, 2007, and 2009. But, [chuckles] but as far as saying I’m blind and I’m proud, that didn’t start until 2008. I feel like I was just on a long car ride or something, and then I was thinking about blind singers and Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Kevin Reeves, thinking about guys like that. And then and then all of a sudden, the word “blind” got into my head, and I thought of the old cliche is like “blind spot” and “a blind eye” and “blind man’s bluff.” And all of a sudden— [chuckles] And in case any of the listeners are wondering, no, I’m not offended by any of those cliches like some people might think. [chuckles] But, yeah. They just got in my head, and I thought about the word “blind” for a really good long time. And then I realized that maybe my disability is something I can be proud of.

And then a few years later, I just thought I was Googling blind musician stuff, and I joined the music mailing list affiliated with the National Federation of the Blind. And then a few years later, that was when Lizzie started telling me about the conventions, the state conventions in Michigan, and I think she had gone to two of them. And then in 2015, she and I talked about it together, and we decided to actually start going to them together. And it kind of fully shaped, like I think before that, like a year before that, I started joining the student division NFB conference calls with her. And then I went to the Grand Rapids chapter meetings. She didn’t go to those, but I did. And those were cool. And I started going to the state conventions. And I just thought it was something to be proud of. And I knew there were a lot of accessibility issues out there, especially with technology. I may have mentioned I’m a technology enthusiast. And I quickly realized that there was a lot to advocate for, especially when it comes to Internet and software. Those are my favorite places to advocate, but I also know that there are other places to advocate, like in transportation and all that. And I’m also open to that kind of advocacy. But I feel like technology is where I can be really helpful ’cause I’ve tried to look at that in and out, inside and out.

JILL: When you say technology, in what ways do you advocate?

TYLER: OK. So, I download some app onto my laptop that runs Windows, and I run my screen reader on there. And I run the app to see how well it works with the screen reader. And then I give feedback. I know I might sound like a radical, but there were times when I downloaded apps that didn’t work at all with screen readers at all, and I felt like the developer needed to know, of the app, needed to know about this.

JILL: Yeah. Tyler, what else do you think we should talk about? What else is on your mind as you were thinking about that you wanna make sure that we talk about?

TYLER: I just know that the pandemic has caused quite a bit of confusion for us. And like I said, there were sometimes even feelings of isolation and all that. But I try to tell people to look on the bright side, but sometimes I have a hard time doing that myself. You know, when I first heard about the pandemic, I, [chuckles] within the seconds, I was not myself. I just couldn’t believe it. It’s hard to explain. But I’ll try to look on the bright side, and that’s always my advice.

CHRIS: What I love about your work is that even though you do have these moments where things don’t make sense or you don’t feel like yourself or you’re feeling isolated, you know, that music has become a real lifeline for you. But then it’s also something that the rest of us can also learn from and enjoy. So, I really appreciate that part of your work. It’s really, really impactful.

TYLER: Yeah. I’m just, that’s the kinda life I live. I’m a writer, an amateur programmer, a musician. I’m all of that, and yeah, most of what I do seems to go unnoticed. But I’m hoping to try and advocate more often, and I really hope to inspire more people with my writings and my music.

[bright, percussive music plays through the next few lines]

CHRIS: Awesome. Well, thank you so much, man. Thank you for hanging out with us and talking with us about your life and your music and keep on truckin’, I guess! I love it! Say hi to Lizzie when you talk to her next. And thanks so much.

JILL: Yeah, thanks, Tyler.

Thanks for listening. Be well, keep your distance, send us your comments, questions, and your submissions for Oaklee Thiele to hello@DisArtNow.org. Please make sure to follow the My Dearest Friends project on Instagram, Facebook, and DisArtNow.org. And thanks again to the Ford Foundation for their support of this work and to cat enthusiast Cheryl Green for the transcription of this podcast episode.

[mellow Country music plays]

♪ I met her on a warm Friday night,
I thought she was a magnificent sight.
Her hair was blonde, her eyes were blue,
Her nails would sparkle like morning dew.
She could do any dance you could name,
Circus tricks were her claim to fame.
There’s one thing about her that I know well.
Her voice would put me under a spell.

Oh, she sings like the wind.
Yeah, she sings like the wind.
She dances like the ocean and she runs like a horse,
She moves like water on a steady course,
But good heavens, she sings like the wind. ♪

Music: “Petra Kuppers” and “Lisa Bufano,” created for Process and Presence and written by Tyler Zahnke. Used with permission of the composer.

“Keep On’ Truckin’” and “She Sings Like The Wind,” written by Tyler Zahnke, performed by Nashville’s finest seshies. Used with permission of the composer.