Josh Panda: Rock Star

by Ayla Yersel

Offstage, Burlington-based musician Joshua Panda is pretty soft-spoken. But onstage, he has an electric presence, performing with an almost contagious energy.

“I don’t want to talk, I just want to sit. It’s almost like at a horse race, with a horse in a stall. Like, someone hits the bell, I’m going to go.”

During his career, the North Carolina native has made four albums, toured Europe, and helped set the record for largest cowbell ensemble in the Guinness Book of World Records. He has written country, rock, house, and electronic songs, among others, and even been part of a rap group. He said he is influenced by various things at different times, but at the core, it’s “always the same”.

“I think my music’s always evolving, always changing,” he said. “Whatever happens to inspire me at the moment. I got into Paul McCartney and Wings for a couple of months... and the next thing I know I was writing songs on piano. It’s always me, just one hundred percent putting myself out there... So I think whether I’m singing a country song or a rock and roll song or whatever it is, it’s still me.”

Panda first came to Vermont around Christmas of 2007, when he got a residency at Nectar’s in Burlington on Saturday nights. But when the residency ended, he found himself reluctant to leave. 

“[It] felt like home here already,” he said. “Being here for a couple of months, it felt... like so much of a community. And everyone was so honest, which is what I wanted.”

“Being a musician, I get to travel all over the place. I get to see other places and I want to come home to a place that feels like home-- that I know the guy working at the coffee shop; and I know where my bread comes from, I know the farm where my meat comes from. And the people that live there care about where they live. That’s why I like it here.”

He said he would “encourage people to either stay in or move to Vermont, because I think it is a really wonderful place to live and work. It’s very supportive of new business, so if you have an idea, this is a great place to take your idea.”

Panda, whose career has taken him around the world, will soon be releasing his fourth album, a self-produced work that has been two years in the making. His wide range of musical styles is reflected in these albums, each of which he says “speaks to a time period” in his life and career. 

But his upcoming album, as of now untitled, is his favorite. 

“I am so excited about this album,” he said. “I think it shows a level of growth and maturity in my writing. I think the songs all stand up individually, but they also work really well together.”

While his Vermont fan base will recognize some of the songs on this new album, “there could be a couple surprises on there,” he said, adding that the new album is the “most rock and roll” based album he has ever recorded.

“My last studio album was a bit more country Americano record, and I think this one is closer to my wheelhouse, you know, that sort of gospel soul rock blues thing, and it’s got a lot of that on it.”

Through all of this, Panda said his biggest musical influence is Ruth Hill, his business partner, for her honest feedback about his songwriting.

“I have written so many different types of electronic songs, house music. I’ve written country songs. I was in a rap group for a little while. I can do all kinds of stuff, but Ruth has been so great at helping me narrow that and say, “Okay, this is what you’re really good at. This is what people want to come see. Channel it there.” 

“Unlike being a doctor, or so many other fields, there is no handbook,” Panda said. “You just make it up as you go along. There’s no one to say, “Well, you do this, this, and this; then this will happen. And so then you do this, this, and this, and this will happen. And so then you’re playing stadiums.” 

His advice to young musicians: be open to the criticism of others.

“Be confident in what you do, but always be open to criticism,” he said. “Unless you’re playing music purely for art’s sake and don’t want to make money for it, you’re playing for other people. So you kind of need the feedback of other people. It’s a business.”


Other Questions:

1. One fun fact about you that few people would know:

I love graphic design, so I do a lot of freelance graphic design work. I also love video editing. I produced the Stick a Fork in It music video we’re doing. These days, it’s so accessible-- you can do so much on your own... I could stay on Adobe programs all day.

2. Favorite place in Vermont: My house. 

3. Favorite moment onstage: When I was playing with John Fishman, and he had put this band together. We were going to break the Guinness World Book of Records for biggest cowbell ensemble. I was singing “Don’t Fear the Reaper” and look over at John Fishman, and he’s got his belly out, and he’s got his cowbell, and he’s doing his Christopher Walken impersonation, and there’s just this sea of people on Church Street. There were thousands of people there. There’s him doing this ridiculous thing, and me, singing in this great band and all these people... It was a great moment.”