Songwriter, producer and Johns Hopkins professor Thomas Dolby talks his new memoir, "The Speed of Sound: Breaking the Barriers Between Music and Technology," his love for Baltimore and more.
With a book deal in place, Thomas Dolby went digging through his personal archives of diaries, PalmPilots and yellow notepads. The exercise was enlightening, and even a bit frustrating for the now 57-year-old Johns Hopkins University professor.
"What was kind of charming about reading this stuff that was written by my younger self was, you're going, 'No! Don't do it! Don't trust him. Why didn't you see that?'" said Dolby, seated in his favorite Fells Point coffee shop last week.
The vividly detailed anecdotes helped form "The Speed of Sound: Breaking the Barriers Between Music and Technology," his autobiography released Tuesday. Published by Flatiron Books, the book follows the seemingly unending twists and turns of Dolby's unique careers in pop music and technology — two fields where he found much success and learned invaluable lessons in the process.
Reading about Dolby's rise in the era of MTV (thanks to his '80s synthesizer-pop hits like "She Blinded Me With Science" and "Hyperactive!") to the highs and lows he later faced founding a startup company, Beatnik, that innovated the internet's use of sound, it's clear Dolby has a wealth of stories worth telling.
If there's a through line to the book, it is Dolby's constant, if winding, pursuit of artistic fulfillment — even when it requires pivoting from one cutthroat industry to the next. His parents, Cambridge University professors, wanted him to follow in their academic footsteps, but he pursued music. When he left the music business in the early '90s, he moved to California, where he founded Beatnik, which brought polyphonic ringtones to cellphones, among other innovations.
To the surprise of many — or maybe no one, after reading the book — he resigned from his own company because he hated what he considered the corrupt business culture of Silicon Valley.
"I have a fatal attraction to risky endeavors," Dolby writes in "Speed." In between sips of a cappuccino last week, he admitted that the unknown has always excited him most.
"Most of the things that I did, I sort of waded into without any real right to be there, at a stage when there was no user manual to look up," he said. "There was no one there to mentor me, and I just did it by trial and error. I find that very exciting."
Beyond history, "Speed" is filled with entertaining stories featuring cameos from some of the biggest names in music history, like David Bowie and Jerry Garcia.
One of the most fascinating sections is when Dolby details his trip to Michael Jackson's "imposing mansion" as "Thriller" dominated the charts. It offers a short but intimate portrayal of Jackson, along with surreal details like the pop megastar mounting a "gigantic, jewel-encrusted medieval throne" while his guest sat on a leather ottoman.
When Jackson tells Dolby to "never let go of your dream," especially after criticism from the press, it moves him to tears. Decades later, Dolby still cherishes the exchange.
"I was touched because he was my age, he had been doing it longer and he could empathize with my position enough to give me a sort of brotherly word of advice," he said. "It was unexpected."
When it comes to what he's proudest of in his life, Dolby finds separating the good from the bad foolish, because it all colors the experience.
"I had a lot of life-changing experiences that I'll take to my grave with me. … When I completed the book and I looked at the whole thing, I'm proud of all of it, really — apart from the bits I'm not proud of," Dolby said with a laugh.
At an age when many are eyeing retirement, the England native remains busy teaching classes on film scores as Johns Hopkins' first Homewood Professor of the Arts. He and his wife — actress Kathleen Beller — love living in Baltimore and "would very much like to stay." (They spend two-thirds of their year here.)
There's plenty reasons why, from his enjoyment of teaching to the accessible lifestyle (he gets around by bicycle and boat, and doesn't own a car). But he sounds most enthused by the hip-hop workshop class he's developed for students at Margaret Brent Elementary/Middle School with local songwriter/producer Loren Hill. The workshop is free, and kids are chosen based on their performance in school. They hope to soon develop the workshop enough to take it to other areas of the city in need of more arts education.
"We show them techniques for building their own beats and adding vocals. We have to talk a little bit about songwriting. They absolutely love it, and they've got nothing like that in school," Dolby said. "Some of the kids are super-talented, and never would have gotten this opportunity otherwise."
History has shown Dolby's life and career could easily take a few different paths, but he's clearly taken to the city. Writing "Speed" here reminded him that no matter what happens — he stays forever, or leaves tomorrow — he's content with all of the decisions he's made.
"Would I swap places with somebody who did a single thing, got really lucky financially, sold an internet company, went and bought a sports team and is now advising Hillary Clinton?" Dolby said. "No, I would not switch places with that person. So I'm good."