WITH CHAD LAWSON
During this interview, I change seat, place myself in front of another artist and ask him the questions I wish people asked me. Today, I speak to American composer Chad Lawson; through discussions around his latest release, Stay, the pianist delivers one of the most enlightening interview.
Chad, tell us a little bit about yourself. What do you consider as the highlights of your career so far?
Oh goodness, where do I begin! I was born at a young age… Okay, I’ll try to summarize without exhausting you or your readers. I started the piano at the age of 5 after seeing a musical group on television. I was not raised in a musical environment so when I saw this guy playing something on stage in front of an audience and smiling ear to ear, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. So, my parents enrolled me in piano lessons. That was forty years ago and I’m still taking lessons (and plan to until my fingers no longer move). I was trained classically and had aspirations to Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, Maryland. However, that all changed around the age of fifteen-sixteeen when I found rock and roll music. Seriously. A local wedding/party band hired me as their keyboardist and said “Learn these songs by next week, we’ll see you then.” It was music I had never listened to before like Stevie Wonder, The Rolling Stones, The Police, all of these other artists I had never heard before and I was absolutely captivated! I couldn’t get enough and wanted to learn everything I heard from pop, rock to country, jazz and everything in between. It was then I had learned there was a career for such interest; a studio musician. I wanted to learn how to play anything and everything really well. So, I began to study as if I were in an academic environment; learning as much as I could from Chuck Leavell (The Rolling Stones/The Allman Brothers). Then asked, “Well, who did Chuck learn everything from?” which then led me on various ventures (Billy Preston and Paul Hornsby being two that come to mind). Then I became enamored with everything Preston did. So, where did he get his influence from? So on, so forth. It was an amazing discovery as I tried to play exactly what these guys were doing before I was even born in some cases. It was (and continues to be) an amazing education.
All to say, I left the conservatory approach and eventually landed at Berklee College of Music on a scholarship. It was the perfect playland I had been looking for as I practically lived in their studios playing sessions for various engineer majors. However my grades reflected my doing so. I was more interested in being in the studios than being in Harmony 4. After two years at Berklee, I started getting calls from studios outside of the school and decided “What am I doing spending all of this money to be here?” So, after two years I bailed and continued learning everything within my own interests. The first thing that opened was a tour with Django Reinhardt’s son, Babik Reinhardt. A brilliantly talented guitarist, the tour was my first real experience traveling and performing legit venues/halls and even doing a set with Vassar Clements which was such an education. Fast forward a number of years where I find myself in NYC. After releasing a number of successful jazz releases (Chad Lawson Trio, Dear Dorothy; The Oz Sessions, Unforeseen) I decided to pursue my independent studies with various pianist in NYC primarily Hal Galper and Garry Dial. During this time I was doing various sessions and was eventually offered a brief tour with Julio Iglesias in 2007. Honestly that was an absolute highlight. I’ll never forget the first time the lights went out, roughly 30,000 people screaming to a roar and you’re 1 of 7 people walking on stage. I literally had to tell myself “Stop smiling! Stop smiling! You have to act like you’ve been doing this your whole life!” But I will say as I was walking up the stairs to the stage I said to myself “I wish every musician could experience this at least once.” It was such an absolutely unbelievable experience. After countless hours at the piano, isolated in a practice room for so many years I felt like “Okay, maybe it actually paid off after all!” During one of those shows I had an overwhelming sensation of “If Julio can do this I can do this.” Perhaps not to such a grandiose degree but I kept feeling it was time to return to my own projects but this time as a solo pianist. I was going through a musical transition where I wanted
to scale back musically. Where as jazz (as much as I love it) is so much about ability and almost a cerebral experience, I wanted this to be more of an emotional, heart-string experience. Minimalist, simplicity. And after a few weeks I finally started to write those pieces.
My first solo piano album, Set on a Hill, was produced by Will Ackerman (founder of Wyndam Hill and producer of so many other artists particularly George Winston). From there, each release would grow into the next, building a larger following and finding my own identity as a pianist. It wasn’t until 2013 with my release The Space Between that I began finding my voice. That album was the catalyst in my becoming a minimalist pianist. Space is my favorite note. It’s where the magic happens. It’s where the listener has the time to ingest everything they’ve been hearing. So with this album and ever since then, the focal point has always been about ‘space’. How simple can I make it? Can I do more with even less. In 2014 the ‘breakthrough’ I suppose came with The Chopin Variations. The album was designed to introduce Chopin to the ‘Spotify’ generation. The generation that perhaps have never even heard of Chopin. No fault of their own, they’ve just never been exposed to him. So, I rang two friends, violinist Judy Kang (Lady Gaga, Ryuichi Sakamoto) and cellist Rubin Kodheli (Philip Glass, Snoop Dog, Kanye West) and we said “If Chopin were to make an album today, what would it sound like?” So, I took his sheet music, photocopied everything and started analyzing each measure as if it were a jazz chart. F minor here, B-Flat minor here, etc. Then, I began to experiment by removing certain notes in each melody. “How much can I remove with it being able to stand on its on?” It was fascinating. Long story short, the album hit #1 iTunes Classical (twice) as well as #1 Billboard and #1 Amazon. Eventually the television program CBS Sunday Morning caught wind and did a wonderful feature which was truly tremendous. I could not have asked for a greater opportunity in presenting my music literally to millions of viewers.
Now, what about Stay? Tell us about your latest project.
Stay is my first solo piano release with a major label (Decca Records US / Universal Music Group). With the soundtracks for a podcast titled Unobscured, I really wanted to partner with a label that would ‘throw the ball farther than I could.’ in releasing them. So, it was only natural for them to say “What else are you working on?” and from there the idea of a solo piano release was the first thing that came to mind. Since this was my first release with a major, I wanted to step out of my comfort zone. Up until this point I had recorded almost everything in my own personal studio. So, I wanted to challenge myself step out of the familiar. When the discussion of where to record arose, my only response was “I don’t care where we record it as long as it’s at Abbey Road” and that’s how we landed at Abbey Road. They needed the album with a tight turnaround and the only two days that had were
over Thanksgiving Holiday. I said “Let’s do it”. Recording at Abbey Road was one of those surreal “I can’t believe this” but also a “Why not?” experiences. Obviously it’s legendary for the reasons to be but on the other hand my mindset was “If we’re gonna do this thing right, let’s make a legit go of it.” So, I picked out the Steinway piano the day before (one of the lovely perks being a Steinway Artist) and we got to work as if it were any other session. The end result is always the song and how it impacts the heart of the listener. The listener could care less if it was recorded in a train station water closet, what matters is does the song speak to people; and that was the most important element.
With Stay, I had one simple agenda; melody. I feel like we’ve lost the idea of what a melody is over the past five-seven years. There’s been a wonderful season of felt piano (myself including) and to be honest I feel like the past few years we’ve mainly heard a litany of ‘soundtracks’. So, with Stay, I wanted to rid myself of any gimmicks of felt or gadgetry and expose the heart of the song; melody. Whereas most albums I’ll write down some chords then place a melody over the chords, Stay was different. With only a blank sheet of manuscript paper, I wrote out the melodies and then placed the chords afterward. If I couldn’t sing the melody away from the piano, it didn’t make the cut. Pure and simple. I am so absolutely happy with this release in every regard. I really feel like I presented something incredibly authentic and pure in the most simplest of form.
You have been very prolific over the last few years — with almost an album released each year. How do your projects relate to each other; are they all independent or is there some sort of connection, a common thread between them?
Well, as an indie artist I was simply staying in front of the audience as much as I could. It was (still is) important to release music on a consistent cycle simply to stay relevant. Some albums/EPs are related such as The Broad Sun and The Waning Moon. I have some follow-up EPs that tie into those two releases that I hope I get to release at some point. Also the Lore Variations and Unobscured releases. Those are obviously related due to the nature of the content but I love, love writing for both of them; particularly Unobscured because it’s small chamber and allows me to experiment with various textures and techniques I generally can’t with solo piano. I probably won’t be doing another ‘classical interpretation’ for a while after doing Chopin and Bach. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to fall into the category of just recreating someone else’s works. Once that label is attached I believe it to be a very difficult box to climb out of.
I think Stay will have a follow up that will be similar. I’m writing more and more pieces that lean toward a classical approach and hope to develop that more so rather than it being mostly what one would consider ‘mood music’.
You have played a lot around musical variations, from The Chopin Variations to Bach Interpreted and The Lore Variations. What is it that attracts you about this form?
Really glad you asked this. With the Chopin & Bach, the approach was incredibly simple; introduce them to the Spotify generation. But, what I love about a variation is ‘How many angles can you look at something?” Again, coming from a jazz background, I rarely ever play the same thing twice. It’s mostly because (i) I become rather bored with repetition and (ii) music is like a conversation. If you and I were to share a coffee on a Friday and then again on a Saturday and I repeated word for word what I stated on Friday, you would say “Why are you telling me this? You said all of this yesterday.” Music is the same (for me at least). It has to be present, in the moment. Each day affects us differently and if music stems completely from an emotion, how could we ever think it will always be the same response. So, a variation is a loose interpretation of the original idea.
How do you define creative success? What about artistic success?
Such a difficult question! I’m not waiting tables anymore after fifteen years. For that I appreciate. Though I will say some of my biggest assets as an artist came from waiting tables all
of those years. How to connect with people, how to listen to people, how to anticipate and be aware of peoples needs. All of these have been the biggest assets in my career as it taught me to listen to the heart of others. And even though I no longer wear the apron and open a Bordeaux with ease (well, unless I’m at home) those sentiments are always with me whether I’m at the piano or signing autographs. Music, for me, always reduces down to one simple purpose, the heart of the listener.
Success is going to be different for every artist. I say all the time “I’ve chosen the wrong career” as I honestly hate the spotlight. I would much rather be at home in my comfy studio releasing music and never stepping on a plane. But, that’s not the role I’ve been giving. I’ve been given the place to hold other’s hands during difficult times, the calm in the midst of chaos, the “It’s going to be okay”. Someone writing me saying they’ve been run over by a car as a cyclist and in the hospital for eight months and my music is the only thing that lets them sleep at night is far greater than if I’m sitting in the aisle or window (true story). That’s success to me. What are you doing for others, people you’ll never meet in your lifetime. How are you aiding them through the loss of a loved one or emotional suffering.
Truth told, I’ve been incredibly successful with my film/TV career which allows me to not be so concerned what I release as an artist. My song being licensed for Microsoft or an airline company allows me to sit at the piano and write for the cancer patient in mind that I’ll never meet but has less anxiety when listening to one of my pieces. That is success, and there will never be a dollar amount that will ever surpass such a moment.
Which artists do you find the most interesting and influence you the most at the moment?
Oh, goodness. Not what you would expect. I come from a jazz background where I’ve spent years transcribing Hampton Hawes, Oscar Peterson, Sonny Clark etc. The whole intent was to mimic exactly what they were doing. So, I purposefully do not listen to similar artist of my circle; Richter, Arnalds, Frahm etc. For two reasons predominately: (i) The last thing I want to hear is anyone saying “Oh you’re just trying to sound like Richter or Arnalds” and (ii) they have their own sound, I need to stay true to mine. If I’m being influenced by another artist, I’ve lost the voice of my own.
Most of my influences are either jazz related (Keith Jarrett being a major influence) or completely other extreme such as Trent Reznor, Björk or someone like Lorde. I remember listening to her while on a run and thinking “That kick rhythm is so great, what if I had a cello part doing that?” So, listening to artists that are pushing the envelope in different areas is where you’ll usually find me.
So, after Stay, what’s next?
I have to be honest, I like where I’m sitting at the moment. Stay is like a really great pair of shoes that just feel really nice right now, especially for a long distance run. So, I’m in no hurry to swap them out just for the sake of changing things up. I’m going to stick with melody for a while and see what comes next. I have a few scores coming up as well but I feel like I’m starting at the beginning again one note at a time with just the piano. Sometimes saying less really is more.
Thanks very much Chad. Last one for the road — one book, one album, one film — tell us about your latest cultural pearls?
I love this question. So good. One book: As a voracious reader, this has been my top book for a number of years now, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I’m a historical fiction junkie to begin with but my goodness this book. One album: Keith Jarrett - Arbour Zena. You’ll understand once you hear. One film: Amelie - What can I say? I’m a sucker for a great story, it’s French and the soundtrack is top-shelf. I think I saw this at least five times in the theater. Seriously.
Bouncing on Chad’s words; one of the best piece of advice ever: purposely not listening to artists that are similar to you in order to develop your own voice and keep creating differently. Read my review of Stay.