A Piano-Heaven Interview With:

 

Chad Lawson

 

 

 

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A Jazz pianist on Piano-Heaven? Surely not! Well, when it comes to America's Chad Lawson, there clearly has to be an exception to every rule! Fulfilling a desire to do something completely different, Chad has created a stunning debut solo-piano album which will appeal to lovers of melodic, relaxing piano music. ĎSet on a Hillí has even been shortlisted for Whisperings: Solo Piano Radio's album of the year for 2009. Clearly a man of talent, with a fine sense of humour and incredibly hard-working, Chad has kindly taken time out of his hectic schedule to chat to Piano-Heaven.

 

Enjoy the interview...

 

 

S.C. Many congratulations, Chad, on your album Set on a Hill. Tell us what sort of response you have had to your album so far.

 

C.L. Thank you so much, I really appreciate that. Especially knowing all of the albums that you have listened to! Itís been such an overwhelming response. It truly has. With so many solo piano recordings- GREAT solo piano recordings already made, I honestly didnít know what to think when I released Set on a Hill.

 

I think the reason why Iíve been so fortunate with the response is because I didnít take the approach of ďOh Iím going to release a solo piano album that will try to fit everybodyís taste and everybody is going to like!Ē But more so of the ďthis is something my heart is telling me to doĒ mindset. Not caring if a single copy sold. It was something that Iíve always wanted to do, and I finally did it. Not to sound clichť but it really is from my heart. Aw, that just reeks of cheese doesnít it?! But itís so true! Music is such a language, and I just wanted to finally say what Iíve wanted to for a very long time.

 

Well, it might have been something of a gamble, but it's paid off handsomely! It is, I think it is fair to say, quite a departure from your jazz albums. How did the concept come about, and have you tried composing music from this genre before? You said that you felt you had a calling- what do you think induced this and why did you select this genre rather than jazz?

 

It is quite the departure isnít it? With the jazz trio albums, we had such a great time creating in that art form. And in some ways, the previous albums and Set on a Hill are rather similar. However, there are a few things I left in the past.

 

With the trio, connecting with the listener was always our focus, regardless if they knew anything about jazz or not. We decided early on to play what we thought was just really good music. Some artists get wrapped into who is better or can play faster or which group can out perform the other. We just didnít want any part of that. Itís no longer art or expression at that point, at least in my book. I understand it though, to a degree. Anyone with talent, be it music, art, finances, sports, culinary or what have you, has this yearning to learn more of their craft. Some people want to learn more just so they know more than the person sitting next to them, or some learn because it allows a certain development in what their hands & minds can create. But itís the fine line of learning more for the sake of the craft than for the sake of the ego.

 

With the trio, there was this underlining element of it being Ďentertainingí. I would ask myself, ďI wonder if people are enjoying this, is it entertaining enough?Ē But with Set on a Hill, I made myself step out of this defined box (creating an invisible box with hands) of what I thought people would want to hear and to simply play whatever my heart and spirit wanted to say. Itís ironic because in doing so, Iíve had the most overwhelming response from this album, than my previous albums. It honestly goes to show that being honest to yourself is best for both you and the listener.

 

Perhaps we give our very best when we're given the freedom to be ourselves, to show individuality. Let's talk about your producer. What it was like to work with Will Ackerman? How did the relationship come about?

 

I really didnít know what to expect in working with Will Ackerman. I mean, weíre talking about THE GUY! Ya know? I mean if thereís anyone that knows this music best, itís Will. Both he and his engineer, Corin Nelsen, are such beautiful people that you canít HELP but to create in that setting. One of the first things Will, my wife and I did upon arriving was to walk the property. Imaginary Road Studios is located in the mountains of Vermont that is breath-takingly beautiful. Itís like the world doesnít really exist beyond the forest and hills. Yet while the setting was extraordinary, it was getting to know Will and Corin as people that made the recording so intimate. It was almost like Will had some friends visiting and oh!Ö.well thereís a piano over there. How about we record some songs! It was so intimate and so Ďun-studioí like.

 

When I decided to record a solo piano album, I knew that Will would be the only person to work with. His hands have crafted so many wonderful albums that I kept the list of producers short. So short it was actually just his name. I had posted three demo songs online and sent him an email asking if he would be interested in producing the album. He listened to the songs, liked them, and wrote me back saying that he would love to. And that was really it! We had to reschedule the session here and there once or twice with both of our schedules being a little maxed, but it all came together perfectly.

 

During the session, Will really left me to my own voice. And that was the beauty of it. It wasnít like he was trying to create a Will Ackerman album with some guy named Chad Lawson playing the piano. He gave me room to explore and just be myself. And that only comes with him being so seasoned at what he does. He knows what to do, but more so what not to do. And then, when there were times he heard something different, it wasnít in a, ďyou should do it this wayĒ but more of an, ďIím hearing more of a mysterious quality to this pieceĒ and then do a take with that frame of mind. So, even when he gave input it was in such a manner of complete liberty. It was beautiful.

 

He certainly is one very talented man. For the many piano buffs out there, what sort of piano was used in your album?

 

Well, it was a difficult decision to be honest. Iím a Kawai Performing Artist and absolutely love their pianos. Not only because they make phenomenal instruments, but also of Kawaiís relational quality. They have always treated me as if I were a member of their family. In speaking with Kawai about the recording, they offered to send a piano and a tech. But I knew that there was a special kindred relationship between Will and his piano, a 1953 Steinway B. I was concerned had I brought in a different voice that it might have been like the third wheel on a blind date. You know, you walk up to her door and ring the door bell, flowers in hand and she opens the door all excited about meeting you and ÖĒum, whoís this?Ē as she looks over and sees that youíve brought your best friend along. So, I wanted both Will and Corin to be in his element as much as possible as well and felt we should use what he was familiar with. Had it been with a different producer or own my own, I would have used a Kawai without question.

 

The Steinway B is a really beautiful piano that had been completely restored with no detail overlooked. It is such the perfect size for solo piano because the bass isnít overpowering as with large pianos. Very balanced. It also had the Stanwood Action (an incredible technique by David Stanwood where the pianoís action is 100 percent uniform and can be adjusted to playerís liking). The Stanwood Action was like playing butter (thatís a good thing) and the resonance of the piano was so long you could take a nap on it (thatís a better thing). Not to mention the room was ideal. Oh, and did I happen to mention there were two Grammy Award Winners in the room? One for engineering and the other for producing. I mean, honestly? Could a pianist ask for anything else?

 

Three incredible talents in one room! Let's talk about your musical genes and history. Does music run in your family? How did you get started with the piano? Were you classically trained?

 

Oddly enough I didnít come from a musical family. Years ago, the band Sha-na-na had a TV show and as a kid I would watch it. I remember watching it as a family and whatever THAT guy was doing was what I wanted to be doing! It was hysterical. I knew nothing about music (of course I was only 5 years old at this point) and had no idea what a piano was. Sha-na-na came to town, my folks took me to the show and the next week they took a chance and bought a piano. Itís all history from there.

 

I studied classical piano all the way through high school. I believe that is why I feel so strongly about always having a strong melody. Anytime I want to write, I generally listen to a lot of classical music beforehand just to I can place my mind into a melodic frame. I love improvising and that is my heart. But if you donít have a melody attached, the listener no longer has something to go back to in the song. This is just my personal opinion. Others may feel different.

 

And although I was brought up classical, I started to play in the church growing up a lot which brought on the ďplaying by earĒ and having more liberties in music in general. If I were not sitting at the piano, then I was behind the Hammond C3 organ (which I eventually bought from the church later on). At that point, I started to become involved in other forms of music. Jazz, pop, blues. I had joined a blues band while in high school where we did everything from Steely Dan to Muddy Waters. I was by far the youngest guy in the group! But I was so interested in playing anything and everything because I wanted to know how to play in every style. I was so curious with everything musically back then (still am actually).

 

Back to the classical world Ė while in high school, I really wanted to attend the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, Maryland for college. My folks and I visited the school, talked to students and just did what any kid about to go into college would do. And then when it finally came time to audition Iíll never forget, a member of the piano department asked, ďSo, what do you see yourself doing with your career? Where do you see yourself in the future?Ē and my reply was as if I had practiced it everyday since I could tie my shoes ďI want to be a studio musician.Ē Deadpanned and without batting an eye she looked at me and said, ďYouíre in the wrong place.Ē Roar! I mean, now looking back on it I can laugh but at that point I was so devastated. But she was right. My interest in all types of music had become so diverse that had I stayed, I donít know what would have happened. I guess a monster classical pianist or something. And Iím so grateful she said that. I really am.

 

I then attended Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts on a scholarship where I was playing studio sessions all the time, to the detriment of my other classes though. But it was exactly what I wanted. I loved showing up to a session not knowing if it was going to be country or swing or any other style in the world. I still want to know more! I had a great experience at Berklee.

It must be an honour to work with a big name like Julio Iglesias. How on earth did that happen? Do you enjoy touring? Tell us about some of the highlights. I know you're happily married, but do you get some female attention from his many fans?! (sorry, but had to ask!)

Oh goodness youíre a funny gent! I was basically still a newlywed while on the gig so I didnít even bother with all of that! Not to mention, when it comes to really sought after gigs like that, the best advice I ever got was ďshow up, do your part and avoid the hypeĒ. And he was right. I did just that. Some of the other band members were also musicians for Shakira and Gloria Estefan, and others so you never know when your name is going to be brought up again. Stories travel as quickly as reputations do.

 

The first time I walked out on stage with Julio was great. It was in Santiago, Chile. A sold out crowd of around 12,000 people and youíre one of 7 people on stage. I just remember thinking, ďthis is what I have waited my entire life for.Ē And it was. I wish every musician could experience that moment because Iíve never had such a rush before in my life.

 

I got the call from my friend who is a great pianist named Christian Tamburr. He had been touring with Julio for about a year or so. Julioís musical director of thirty-five years wanted to take some time away and be with his family. So, Christian took the directorís seat and I came in to take Christianís seat. Completely one of those ďwho you knowĒ ordeals. The band was incredible and we had a great time. Itís hard to complain when youíre rehearsing in Marbella Spain for two weeks and then performing all over the world afterwards. It was surreal. Not to mention Iím such a foodie (food lover). I didnít care where we were, as long as I could hit some local hole in the wall eateries. If I didnít know what it was, Iíd order it. Never had it? Iíll take two!

 

The only downer of it was that I had only been married for about a year at that point. So, we were still newlyweds. And with the Julio gig, it meant being home anywhere from two to seven days a month at times. Sometime home for two days then back out. All together adding up to maybe a week total. But, my wife so understands the schedule in the world of music. Sheís amazing. I honestly donít know what I would do without her.

 

It was nice to come off the road from the Julio Iglesias gig and it was something Iíll never forget. But honestly, one night in Spain I just remember thinking to myself ďOk, itís my turn. I want to get back to the centre stage and release a solo piano album.Ē And that was it, really. I contacted Will shortly afterwards.

 

Your story reminds me very much of Stephan Moccio's who had an almost identical experience whilst touring. Now, I read that your compositions are mainly improvised. To what degree are they improvised? Are you a Ďsit down at the piano and play/record in one takeí man or do you work tirelessly on perfecting a piece that was originally improvised- or somewhere in between?

 

Perhaps if I explain the process it would help visualize. Reflections has the least amount of improvisation. It just came out that way when I wrote it. Yet songs like Will or Promise Made on Signal Mountain were 98% improvised. With those songs, along with the others, I would write the melody and chords as I wanted them. After the melody is played, the rest is completely improvised. Most of the songs would have two takes recorded just so we had something to pick from. If you read my blog here I wrote a detailed account of the two days it took to record the album.

 

Iím not a perfectionist when it comes to the songs. And by that I mean I will never play the same song twice. I just did a concert with pianist David Nevue (who is a fine pianist as well I may add). It was recorded and itís going to be amusing to listeners who own Set on a Hill because theyíre going to be ďNo, that song doesnít go that way!Ē and theyíre right. There are going to be differences in each performance. Not a GREAT amount as in ďwhat song is this?Ē but some days I may feel different. Life, itís never the same. At the end of the live recording of A Goldfish Named George, I completely changed the end because while playing, I was thinking about the prior weekend I had shared with my wife on our anniversary. And what you hear is something I felt while thinking about it. Music, as with life, is ever evolving.

 

Absolutely! I'm interested in your approach to writing film scores. What inspires you to create music for a particular film? I know the legendary Vangelis would wait for actual scenes from the film to be ready and would compose as he watched them. Or do you research a particular area and inspiration comes from this?

 

With the last two indie films and then a TV pilot, it was literally sitting there with the producers and engineers and playing live to video. Iíve heard horror stories from other composers about producers wanting ďthat noteĒ as they point to the keyboard even though itís COMPLETELY the wrong note. Or using a blank volume fader so the producer can adjust the volumes of certain instruments while scoring, even though itís a blank channel and doesnít really do anything unbeknownst to them. But Iíve been really fortunate!

 

As much as Iíd like to say I enjoy scoring as Iím watching, there is a huge disadvantage to that because you want to create a voice for each character. And perhaps that personality only comes through at the end. So, I generally try to sketch ideas when Iím watching for the first time, but when it comes to actually scoring itís usually after I see who the character is.

 

You seem to have quite a range of musical Ďjobsí (i.e. pianist for Julio, jazz-band, contemporary pianist...) Do you enjoy this variety of work, or is there one that you feel particularly at home with?

 

It honestly goes back to wanting to be able to do everything. Which is probably not the best way to go about it. Spreading oneís self too thin instead of focusing on one particular and working on that. But in keeping such a variety, they begin to interplay and you invite elements that normally wouldnít be there had I not experienced touring with Babik Reinhardt (Django Reinhardtís son) or playing on someoneís album where all youíre playing are two notes on the Hammond. All of that influences who you are and what you create. I canít imagine doing it any particularly way.

 

I will have to say however that I do feel so at home with the solo piano. Iíve wanted to do this for so long and this really is my heart and to sit down and play what my heart says is so rewarding. The fact that people enjoy this music is something I could only dream of. I am so very blessed.

 

You mention your British humour on your site. I'm interested in this; tell us more! Where were you born? Do you think the music on this album reflects your personality- a mixture of serious, contemplative pieces with more light-hearted compositions?

 

Iím just as dry as the come. I have a very dry sense of humor. And if certain people donít get it, thatís okay. Weíre all different. I would much rather watch any Mel Brooks film than the latest Hollywood feature out there. Iíll never forget watching the first season of the original The Office on BBC and just loving it. It was like ďfinally!Ē

 

I was born at an early age in a small town in North Carolina. And even though I wanted to get as far away as I possibly could after leaving high school, I am so grateful of being from there. Going to Boston for college and then living in New York City was amazing and those cities really are where my heart is. But being from a small town and knowing what things really matter in life are irreplaceable. Itís taught me where my values are.

 

ĎBorn at an early ageí indeed! :-) Now, I find your album cover intriguing. How did this come about? And I must ask you about THAT jacket that I have seen you in (department store)- tell us more!

 

Iím glad you asked, thank you. Many albums in this style, be it titled new age or instrumental or what have you, generally have a picture of a peaceful, calm setting. The mountains or the ocean, etc. Itís where people feel at rest or draw from that energy. And to me, New York is just that. I love New York so much. It has this energy about it that although can eat you alive, it can also nourish the artisan side as well. It has such a creative force behind it, yet at the same time Iíve always found it to be beautiful and almost comforting. I wanted to state that for this album, New York was my resting place, my home of peace. So many images of the city show the busy and hurried life. I wanted to reflect itís restoring and romantic qualities of it as well.

 

The jacket -oh, the jacket. http://www.facebook.com/chadlawsonpiano for those who wish to see. You know, I was just walking through a department store and saw it. No offense, but I would never part cash with it, I just simply wanted to walk around the store as if I had worn it the entire day. It was only after browsing for some time that I took it off at my wifeís request. She just rolls her eyes. He he he. I love her.

 

She sounds lovely! And tolerant too!! It's clear that you lead a very busy life, but what do you do to relax?

 

You know, I sent David Nevue an email stating just that. Itís funny. We perform this really relaxing music and people say they just feel so at peace with out music, yet we work insane hours to create it! Ha ha ha ha.

 

Iím actually in the middle of working with a musical thatís supposed to go to Broadway and itís literally been 15-17 hour days. I really cannot remember the last time I had a day off. Itís just been one thing after another right now. Even with our anniversary last weekend, it was out of town but work related. There will be a time, thatís what Iím hoping for. All of this will eventually lead to taking a break. My wife and I really enjoy Europe and want to return as soon as possible. So if anyone has a piano, Iíll take requests!

Let me know if you come to the UK! An yes, it does indeed seem ironic given the music you create. Finally, what next? Can we expect more music from this genre in the future?

 

Another solo piano album without question. Without question. I havenít begun to write for it yet, but I can tell Iím getting the itch. Iím starting to get melodies in my head and will go play them on the piano so I have a recording to go back to. Iíd like to work with Will and Corin again. It all depends on everyoneís schedule. I hope thatís the case. Weíll see. The next album will be different I can say for sure. I love Set on a Hill, but that album is itís on self. What I was going through, what led up to the day the recording light turned on. Iíve lived those days already, itís what Iím living now that will feed into the next album. I canít wait, I canít wait.

 

And neither can I! Thank you so much, Chad, for this interview. I wish you every success with this album, your touring duties and any upcoming music. Do take that day off though!

 

S.C.

 

 

 

 

Chad Lawson

Chad Lawson

 

 

 

Happy Jazz days with the ĎChad Lawson Trioí

 

 

 

Imaginary Road Studios

Imaginary Road Studios

 

 

 

Imaginary Road Studios
 
Imaginary Road Studios

 

 

 

The beautifully restored 1953 Steinway B

The 1953 Steinway B

 

 

 

Imaginary Road Studio Piano

A closer view of the 1953 Steinway B at Will Ackerman's Imaginary Road Studios

 

 

 

Read the Piano-Heaven review of Chad Lawson's

Set on a Hill

here

 

 

At rehearsals

Chad at rehearsals for tour with Julio Iglesias

 

 

 

Chilling out

Chad takes some time out at the cafe close to home

 

 

 

Listen to Chad's track,

Promise Made on Signal Mountain

Click the piano

 

 

 

 

 

Chad Lawson sporting that jacket!

Chad with that jacket!

 

 

 

 

 

More Information

Chad Lawson's Website