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Draper Journal

From Utah to the World: David Tolk’s music touches countless hearts, surpasses 500 million streams

Sep 07, 2023 02:57PM ● By Julie Slama

Local musician David Tolk relishes his time in nature, one of his common three themes in his music. (Photo courtesy of Emilie Woodhead)

On Sept. 8, during the Sandy Amphitheater concert featuring folk artist Peter Breinholt, pianist David Tolk will perform a song from one of his 13 albums, marking the celebration of surpassing 500 million streams of his music.

While Tolk hasn’t announced if it may be “Home” or “Echoes” from his most recent, unnamed album or an all-time favorite, “In Reverence,” it will be a historic commemoration of his 28 years composing and recording music.

“I released the album, ‘Heaven’s Light,’ in March and in a few days that reached No. 1 on the best-selling New Age chart for Amazon; then I reached 500 million streams, which are playing on all streaming platforms, and that still boggles my mind as an independent musician without a record label,” he said. “It’s been thrilling and surreal.”

While the number is astonishing to Tolk, that’s not what matters to him.

“Streaming is the greatest thing that’s ever happened for my career because it made it so I can share my music with everybody, literally the entire world,” he said. “The reason I compose my instrumental music is to help people feel tranquility and healing and perspective in this noisy world. That number really represents there are tens of millions of people who have been able to hear my music and find peace through the blessing of streaming.”

While many call his music New Age, Tolk doesn’t.

“That’s a genre that has kind of been created in the music industry. I don’t know what to call my music. It can create an experience that’s unique to every listener. I compose music as if I’m creating a soundtrack for myself, like I’m scoring my life. I’m creating a soundtrack for experiences that I’m having with my family, or with being out in the nature or a testament of faith, and that becomes the soundtrack for my listeners,” said the 53 year old who admittedly cries when he hears a great soundtrack in a movie and would like to someday write a movie score. “I’ve had a lot of independent, small filmmakers ask about using my music. A local filmmaker made a movie and used eight of my songs. It was a surreal experience for me to sit in this big movie theater, watching this movie, and hear my music. It would be an amazing experience to hear my music in a Steven Spielberg or some big movie.”

Tolk’s journey with music began when he was 4, learning piano from his mother, a graduate of The Juilliard School. In his small New Jersey town, he’d play the classics while “Mom was in the kitchen, making dinner. But as I got older, I realized I could play music by ear and would play what I heard on the radio—Boston, Rush, Journey so when I’m supposed to be practicing classics, I shifted over to ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ by Journey or ‘Come Sail Away’ by Styx and then, I’d get in trouble. My piano lessons were strict. It was, ‘this is what you need to learn, and this is what you need to study to become excellent.’ At that point, playing piano wasn’t fun, even though I love classical music. I wanted to do my own thing.”

After the family’s move to the Nashville area, his parents let him experiment with his own musical style.

“I started playing those groups’ music and making it my own with different arrangements before composing my own music. My parents hired a teacher to help me develop playing by ear more and she give me a completely different skill set than what my mom taught me. My parents were supportive even though they might have preferred that I continue to progress toward being a classical concert pianist,” Tolk said.

That included when he played in rock bands.

“I wanted to be a rock star like those in Journey, Rush or Van Halen. My parents went to concerts to hear me playing other types of music that probably wasn’t quite up their alley,” Tolk said.

It was during his mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when his sister gave him a cassette of pianist George Winston.

“I remember thinking ‘this is incredible.’ I saw what he can do, he made an entire career out of playing piano,” Tolk said, adding that it was then his music became to resemble more of what it is today. “My mom provided me with the foundation that I needed to be able to do all my composition, arranging and scoring. I wouldn’t be able to do any of my songs without the theory and the structure that my mom provided for me.”

In fact, on his album in March, Tolk wrote and dedicated a song to his mother and played it for her shortly before she died.

“She was just the most Christian, wonderful, giving, loving person in the world,” he said. “She taught me not only how to love music, she taught me the best purpose of music, which is to help people to connect with each other.”

On that album, “Heaven’s Light,” Tolk also brings in experiences with his daughter, Julia, sitting together on the front porch, watching storms roll in. 

“One of our favorite things is when a ray of light comes through the clouds. To me, that always looked like heaven’s light. So ‘Heaven’s Light’ typifies my thoughts on music, the ability to connect with people, with nature and with heaven or the universe. Much of my music is about my family which is so important to me; and about this beautiful world in nature; and about my faith,” he said.

Tolk and his wife, Lisa, studied English literature years ago at Brigham Young University and went to visit Walden Pond after reading Henry David Thoreau.

“I composed a song a couple years ago about Walden Pond and I love it. It’s one of my favorite songs that I’ve ever composed. It’s about this beautiful place that we read about, and I was able to visit with Lisa, who is an inspiration for much of my music. The song is about miracles and being grateful,” he said. “There’s something a little bit extra special for me in my compositions when it’s inspired by faith. I was raised a member of the LDS church and that is an important part of the way that I see the world and it’s a big part of my composition process. It inspires me, it moves me, I become lost in it. When I’m releasing a song, I pray this music can bring some measure of peace and hope and joy to people that listen because I am blessed that music does that for me.”

There was a short time when Tolk thought he’d put his music aside.

“I was in law school up at the University of Utah and decided, ‘I’m going to be a grown-up and focus on this as my career,’” he said. 

Through his wife, Tolk met Breinholt.

“He came over to our little apartment in 1994 and played me his first album. I loved it and I remember thinking, ‘OK, I’m not going to be a grown-up. I’m getting back into music’ and I’ve been performing with him ever since,” he said about playing on each other’s albums as well as in concerts they’ve performed across the country. “Back in those early days, we had concerts with 4,000 or 5,000 people. My kids were so young, so I hoped at some point, they’d be able to see these concerts. We’re still performing, and playing with some other incredibly talented musicians, and my kids are totally excited. My son Brendan sends out text reminders with a countdown to the concert. We introduced music to our kids and created an environment for our children to fall in love with music. My daughter Mackenzie shares her musical talents singing and acting. She has this angelic voice; it is a big part of what makes my music special. Sometimes people don’t even realize her voice is in it. It may just sound like an instrument, some atmospheric texture that we put in there, but it’s Mackenzie’s voice and it adds something extra beautiful and special.”

She has performed in numerous concerts with her father, but now, one of Tolk’s favorite concert venues is his Draper home, where he may, during a normal day, take a deposition one minute and turn to compose or record a song the next. He recently held a house concert and welcomed people from Alaska to Florida into the home he shares with his wife and youngest son, Jeff.

“It was a special occasion because I was able to have a lot of one-on-one conversations with people who told stories how my music impacted their lives, especially during COVID, how listening to my music brings them peace and healing and a source of hope and joy,” Tolk said. “I don’t understand how it works, but music is so powerful, and it can communicate thoughts and emotions that I can’t any other way through the written or spoken language.”

That’s why streaming music, especially the past five years when it’s “taken off,” has been important to him.

“When I started 28 years ago, there’s no way I could have imagined where this would go. I used to go to Barnes and Noble with a little stack of CDs, set up a keyboard and hope that somebody in the store would hear me and come buy a CD. That was the way I spread the word back then,” Tolk said, saying while he’s not autographing as many CDs these days, he’s able to correspond about his music with people worldwide, thanks to technology and Google Translate. 

“I switched to streaming my third album, ‘Holiday,’ in 2000, instead of just releasing a CD. It was at the time that Apple started with iTunes. That was revolutionary and changed everything. Now, I have apps on my phone that tell me the No. 1 city in the world and the No. 1 country in the world that’s listening to my music and the streams for the week. When I reached one-half of one billion streams, I realized how great of an outreach my music has had and the profound impact it has on my life. It helps me feel at peace and connected with things that are greater than that I am.” λ