By Rebecca Panico | Published March 31, 2016
The Disney College Program is an opportunity to earn college credit while working at one of the happiest places on Earth.
But for Justin Fernandez, a 21-year-old business major at Kean, it turned out to be a not-so-magical experience.
“No one wants to be a garbage man,” said Fernandez, later adding with a chuckle, “I’d even loved to sell merchandise. At least I’m not touching dirty ass…poop.”
Fernandez wound up a custodian, assigned to shoveling trash and cleaning toilets in Orlando, Fla., the excesses of the smiling tourists surrounding him. Torn apart from his new-found girlfriend, family and friends, he slipped into depression, he said.
Writing under the pseudonym of Staten, he turned the experience into a full-length LP, “Saint,” which was released earlier this month.
More: Listen to “Saint” on Bandcamp
The themes on the album are probably ones that every 20-something-year-old can relate to: “Saint” paints a picture of a young adult who’s experiencing the growing pains of becoming a full-fledged adult, and with that comes feelings of not-being-good enough and alienation.
Acoustic arpeggios are a trademark of almost every track on “Saint,” and songs like “Madonna” showcase Fernandez’s self-revealing and raw lyrics. The honesty of the album’s lyrics — and the topics of depression and suicide — were a form of catharsis, he said.
“I don’t feel ashamed or shameful writing all of this stuff and putting it out there,” he said. “I know people want to talk about it, but they don’t. So someone has to.”
Fernandez started dealing with these feelings while at the Walt Disney Resort by abusing his prescribed Xanax, a medication used to treat anxiety and panic disorders.
“This was my first time living alone, this was my first time going on a plane. So my doctor was like, ‘Oh just take this Xanax, just to help you calm down,’” he said. “But I don’t know….Most nights I couldn’t sleep, or I’d go to work and be anxious. So it would just calm me. And then I just wanted to be calm all the time, so I would just take it more and more.”
However, Fernandez added, he wouldn’t take the medication while on the job since it involved heavy lifting. As a result, he’d sometimes suffer even worse panic attacks while at work, he said.
Fernandez used pills to escape from his experiences at the Walt Disney Resort, but escape is what he originally went looking for when he applied to the company’s program in March last year.
Eager to get out of New Jersey, he admitted to practically volunteering to be a custodian when applying, since he knew there wouldn’t be many takers for the position.
“I was so tired of Kean. I was having a bad relationship with my ex-girlfriend. I was on such a bad, depressive rut and I thought I needed a change.”
But as the date drew nearer for him to fly out to Florida in August, his life began to take a turn for the better, in part, because he met his new girlfriend, Patricia. (“Patricia” turns out to be the opening track of “Saint.”)
Fernandez would record “Saint” upon his return, and spent two months recording and mixing the entire album using Cakewalk Sonar on his computer and a compressor microphone. Tracks like “Dogwood,” which features a lamenting string section, showcase Fernandez’s dedication to making a well-mixed and polished LP.
“Saint” was recorded in his bedroom, much like the early tracks of one his musical influences, Elliott Smith, who gained notoriety for his music when it was used in the film “Good Will Hunting” with tracks like “Miss Misery.”
This is the second solo album that Fernandez has written, and it’s a departure from last year’s much louder “Sorry.” The business major-turned-musician taught himself how to play guitar with his brother at 9-years-old and played in various bands throughout high school before going solo. This album features guest vocals by Mary Demetillo and artwork by Emily Ashley.
In Disney, Fernandez started working on two songs while he worked eight to 13-hour shifts almost six days a week, he said. He didn’t register for any classes, but instead took a non-credit marketing seminar.
In October, he called it quits and moved back to New Jersey. He now resides in Piscataway with his girlfriend and is enrolled in classes at Kean, he said. But stopping through the Disney College Program midway wouldn’t come without feelings of failure.
“Nothing hurts more than feeling unaccomplished and unfulfilled,” he wrote when he first reached out to The Tower via email, referring to quitting the Disney program.
But Fernandez should feel accomplished about a few things: he shows a dedication to his craft that most musicians don’t have at his age. He paid over $60 to have his music on Spotify, and his album can be purchased on iTunes or directly on Bandcamp.
Currently clean and taking a step in a positive direction, all proceeds from “Saint” will go to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention/Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, Fernandez said.
“I don’t want money from music,” he said. “I always wanted to donate. I think it’s a good cause. I’ve always wanted to do something important, to advocate a cause.”
Fernandez played at the Meatlocker in Montclair on March 18 and he’ll be performing at Espresso Joe’s in Keyport on May 14.