Derek Vanderhorst had it all -an accomplished career as a sound mixer working on award winning films- when he was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer that threatened to take his voice, hearing and ultimately his life. We sat down with him to talk about this journey and how he became a survivor, inspiration to others, and re-claimed his voice as an Americana artist. He will be releasing his first-ever solo album, Wildflower, next month!
What skills from your career in sound transfer over to your work as a musician?
Sound design and mixing for film is a lot like creating a song– and both are wonderful ways to create and tell a story that stands with or without a visual. We think about film sound in layers, from backgrounds (winds, trees, birds, voices, dogs, eerie tones, etc) to build a foundation for the dialogue, much like instruments (such as keyboards, banjos, guitars, etc.) set and build a foundation for the voice or melody. The transition from film back to music really makes me think about music in a different way, where every instrument and every note needs to have a reason and be part of the bigger storytelling process.
What projects are you working on next and why were they important to you?
At this point in my film career, I am very careful when it comes to accepting projects, and want to work on films that push my abilities or work with people I really enjoy.
I recently was supervising sound editor and re-recording mixer on The Eyes of Tammy Faye starring Jessica Chastain – (who received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress for this role). What I loved about this project was the ability to mix both traditional film elements and live recorded music for the singing numbers in the film.
Senior Year with Rebel Wilson is another project I just completed, which is one of the funniest films I’ve worked on in years! The crew from top to bottom was one of the most kind and talented group of people I’ve worked with in my career. When projects like these two call, it’s near impossible for me to turn them down.
Facing a Stage 4 cancer diagnosis and the knowledge you could lose your own voice and hearing- something that would stop most people in their tracks- how did that move you to take this chance on yourself? To step out of your comfort zone and pursue your passion?
Moving back to music from a career in film seemed like the only path my life could take after I was diagnosed with stage 4 head and neck cancer in 2017. I was told I might lose my hearing and my voice from the harsh treatments. Speaking with my oncologist, we opted for Chemo in a lower, but more frequent, dose to preserve my hearing. After finishing treatments and a few months of healing, I decided I was going to do everything I could to save my throat and voice. It was about a year before I was able to start vocal lessons, which acted as a type of physical therapy for my throat and vocal cords.
It took a LOT of practice and patience to regain my voice. Initially, I started writing and releasing songs that others sang; then, my voice coach Allen Rascoe, pushed me to try to sing my own songs. With a lot of convincing (and even more practice) here I am now using my own voice. It was then that I knew I needed to follow this passion and dream as it literally saved my life.
The choice to transition from film to songwriting was easy as it became clear that I wanted to make an impact in any small or large way for all my friends, and for everyone suffering from cancer. If I can inspire even one person then it was all worth it.
What words of advice do you have for anyone putting of their dream or who thinks it’s too late because of their age, time in life, day job etc.?
Every moment of life is precious, and we are only here for a minute. Pursue your dreams with abandon – the pursuit of your passion is your success. Find work that you love that will support your art and find balance in life and make time for what’s important. I’ve had a lot of friends follow along this crazy ride of mine and take greater chances themselves, so we all get to support and watch together realization of our dreams. Love, family, friends, art, music, these things are life.
What was it like performing recently at The Hotel Cafe, one of the best known small venues in Hollywood?
The last time I played at The Hotel Cafe was nearly 20 years ago and to return to this iconic venue for my first big show was so incredibly special to me. If you look at the great artists that pass through nearly every night you realize that The Hotel Cafe is as iconic as the Troubadour and The Whiskey were in the 60s through the 80’s. It really is a very special place to me.
Come see my record release on April 14 if you live in Southern California– and if you’re in Austin, I will be performing there in both March and in April.
My favorite part of playing live shows is meeting people in real life and hearing their stories.
Where can we catch you performing next?
On March 19, 2022, I played a show for ‘Jam In The Van’ in Austin during SXSW at Armadillo Den, which is a beautiful three acre property.
On April 11, 2022, I have a show in Austin at Antone’s, opening for the amazing Billy Bob Thornton, which I am super excited about. I truly feel like a kid again having these incredible experiences.
On April 14, 2022, as I mentioned, I will be having my record release party at The Hotel Cafe in Hollywood on the main stage, and it’s an all-star lineup. Kaveh Rastegar who is touring with Bruce Springsteen will be joining me on stage playing Bass, and Gabe Witcher fiddle player for the Punch Brothers, and one of the greatest fiddle players around will also be joining me. Seriously, I can’t think of anything cooler than to be playing with musicians like this. It’s really going to be a special night of folk music followed by Austin City Limits star Tameca Jones, and some amazing hip-hop from Blackillac who just came off tour with Gary Clark Jr.
What’s next for your music?
I’ve been writing a lot of new songs that I plan to record after my record release party, and you will be able to find them on all the major music platforms. I am also planning a trip to Europe and will be touring and playing anywhere they will have me. Most importantly, I will be doing fundraising and shows to bring awareness to head and neck cancer to support in any way I can all the lives that cancer has touched.
If you are in Los Angeles, catch Derek at his record release party on April 14th back at Hotel Cafe.