Joe Meland lives his life through music

Joe Meland performs with his band, Feral States, one of the outlets for his creative music composing. Meland also puts out solo work and is a senior music composition major at the University.

By Sarah Foster

Joe Meland lives his life in song. 

He hears it during bike rides across campus or in his shower after a long day. They keep him up when he’s trying to sleep. They distract him when he’s awake.

He carries these melodies everywhere he goes — they are transcribed in his personal journal or are consuming his phone’s memory in voice recordings.

He is constantly being reminded of his biggest passion. 

“If I wasn’t in music, I don’t know what I would be doing,” said Meland, senior in FAA. “There’s nothing I love more.”

Get The Daily Illini in your inbox!

  • Catch the latest on University of Illinois news, sports, and more. Delivered every weekday.
  • Stay up to date on all things Illini sports. Delivered every Monday.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
Thank you for subscribing!

Meland has never been in the absence of these melodies. They were with him when he first started playing the piano at 4 years old and when he created his first composition at the age of 6. They inspired him to join bands, learn how to play instruments like the accordion or the guitar, and attend the University to major in composition. 

Though his repertoire consists of numerous works for everything from rock and metal bands to orchestras and chamber music groups, what starts as a simple tune in his head requires a complex process to create a polished final product. 

“I hear a little snippet of something that gets caught in my head, and then I write that down and expand upon it,” Meland said. “Then I’ll go back again and make a lot of revision until I have something that constantly flows.”

He writes main lines and accompaniment melodies for all types of instruments, which he explains takes careful consideration. 

“I think about how I could use the instruments around it to create interesting colors, and then I add new sections and write new lines. Maybe I’ll add or subtract a couple bars here or there, change the instrumentation of something, and if I’m really inspired by the end of a week or day, I’ll have something that’s close to completion,” he said. 

Just as an author may struggle to find the words to write, Meland goes through his own version of writer’s block. He said it’s frustrating to go through times of inspiration and then a lack of creative output. But Meland has developed his own process for overcoming these instances and ways to let the melodies still win.

“I force myself to write even what I think is crap because even if what I initially put on the page is awful, I can go back and revise and turn it into something I like,” Meland said. “It never gets easier looking at a blank page and knowing where to start.”

But what helps the most is focusing on the final product, whether it’s for class or published on Soundcloud or Bandcamp.

“(What’s so rewarding is) the act of having done it, hearing something that you put so much time and effort, and then all of a sudden it’s there, it’s something that exists outside of you, and you can show somebody else,” Meland said.

To Zack Browning, associate professor emeritus of music composition theory, one of the biggest challenges of composing a piece is the creativity behind it; however, he believes that is what makes composition all the more important.

“Unfortunately, a lot has gotten away from the creative side of things: thinking things through, making decisions in a creative way,” Browning said. “Composition is important because it gives (composers) a chance to think creatively.”

This is the very essence of Meland’s passion and why he loves to compose even though it’s challenging.

“The first couple years here, I was forcing myself to write in a style that would be accepted, but then I realized that I was the only person putting those restrictions on me,” Meland said. “So now, I just write whatever I want to write. It all comes from the same place.”

The opportunity for creativity has brought Meland to a new era in his music composition phase — composing for his main project, Feral States. Through his experimental orchestra band, he incorporates contemporary classical approach with a heavy-rock sound, he said. 

Meland said he is the main creative force behind the band; however, every one of the six other band members, all classical and jazz musicians, brings his own element to the table.  

“I’ll score out the entire song, but once I take it into rehearsal, they’ll go, ‘Well, what if I did it this way?” and I’ll think, ‘Heck yeah, you guys know your instruments way better than I do,’” Meland said.

Meland said he feels this has given him a skill that he can take back to his orchestral compositions. 

“Writing different parts for each instrument is a very hard thing to do and one of the things you study in composition,” he said. “It’s very important to learn about each instrument, its strengths, weaknesses and how you can utilize both to create a specific sound.”

Along the way, the melodies Meland hears turned a colleague and bandmate in Feral States into a close friend. 

Justin Peters, senior in FAA, said he sees Meland’s passion for composition and music everyday. 

“He’s one of the most driven people that I know, especially at this age,” Peters said. “He is super gifted, and he knows how to think about things. He is always having some kind of idea, and whether it’s things he’s come up with or changing or producing, he always has some kind of idea that he is working on.”

As graduation rapidly approaches for the two bandmates, they’ll be embarking on a new journey for both of their music careers.

“After this year, we’ll be graduating, and a couple of us are planning on moving up to Chicago and getting a place together and starting to focus more on the band and make more of it. We’ll be writing, recording and touring a lot more,” Peters said.

Although Meland said he knows this will be challenging, it’s something he’s prepared to face. The melodies make it worth it.

“I’ve been in school my entire life, and it’s really exciting to be able to focus on music,” he said. “The feeling I get when I’m listening to music I love, hearing my compositions performed or performing others’ work — that’s it. Some may say composition isn’t a useful degree. Even though it’s a riskier profession to go into, and I won’t be experiencing comfort and security any time soon, this is the time to be young and stupid, (to) beat myself up and do what I love.”

Sarah can be reached at [email protected].