Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?
My dad is a piano teacher so music always filled the house and I loved it as a child and that has turned into a lifelong love! It wasn’t always just classical piano though, we had some ABBA records, Led Zepplin records, a bit of John Farnham and my favourite Disney Christmas record. I did want to give up music when I turned 15 but my parents bought me tickets to see Cats. The first few notes had me hooked. Watching the musical now, I can hear that it was the 80s synth sounds and electric guitars that I loved!
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
My dad, obviously, and my mum used to sing in the kitchen to dad playing whilst she made our dinner. My jazz teacher, Mark Ferguson, was a great influence on where I wanted to go and it turned out he played in the pit of the performance of Cats I saw! The head of my contemporary course at WAAPA, Paul Pooley, showed me how to use a synth properly. My director, Adrian Barnes, pushed me into doing my own shows! Many of my performer friends have been very influential but there are probably too many to name!
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
I have missed out on a lot of gigs because I am female. Many performers look want a “look” for their backing band or their cabaret stories need a male performer beside them. This has been hard and I have even offered to dress like a man! I understand the wanting to have a look but I do wish this wasn’t such a common thing. The other challenge is getting in my own way. The messages you tell yourself about how good you are/are not can be limiting and this is something I still have to manage every day.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
The debuts of my one-woman shows The Piano Men and The Piano Women. Both were quite out of my comfort zone as a classically trained pianist. The shows include a wide range of styles, personal stories and I was singing for the first time. I thought it would be the most nerve-wracking performances of my life. I was very nervous before beginning but as soon as I walked out for both I had a feeling of being in the right place and the right time for me to bring these shows to life.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
After my last performance at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, a reviewer said that hopefully I would come back to perform a show of just my originals. So, perhaps my original works. I love playing Winifred Atwell and Chopin. I am also regularly complimented on my accompaniments for music theatre performers. Personally, I think I play ballads the best. I am a bit indulgent with them and really playing through my emotions!
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
Most of my repertoire is based on the theatrical production I am working on or the cabaret show I am involved in. So, a lot of what I play is dictated to me. For my one-woman shows, I listened to a lot of works and selected music I liked. I do not tend to look at difficulty in a piece but more my enjoyment and what I think I can give to an audience through a piece.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
I love Ukaria Cultural Centre. It is in the stunning Adelaide Hills with a beautiful backdrop. The acoustics are spectacular and the Bosendorfer 214 Vienna Classic grand piano is the most beautiful instrument. I have never played a piano like it. I also love performing in a smaller venue called The Jade on an old, not quite in tune, upright piano. The venue has a lot of charm and really awesome staff.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
There are a few! Seeing Alicia Keys perform live was amazing. Ben Folds’ Paper plane tours was one of the most magical concert experiences when all the planes started flying through the audience. I also attended a concert of a male choir in Adelaide that was held in one of our many churches. Their sound just made me weep. I could keep going…there is something magical about a shared audience experience, even if it is with strangers. You cannot get that watching live streams.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Being able to make a living working within the industry in whatever form that takes. I think there is pressure to be “known” but there are so many musicians that are doing amazing things in the background that are just as successful. I also believe an attitude of always learning and moving your career where you want it to go are keys to success.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
To be true to the music you want to make and the work you want to do. There are always some jobs that you don’t want to do but you may need the money or it is expected, but make sure it feeds you as an artist still and leads you on the path you want to go on. It’s a fine line between saying yes to everything and getting the gigs you really want!
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
I would like to have my PhD in Music and to have published my research into the piano and its women. I would like to have a few albums of my original music and songs released (two albums are coming out in the next 18 months) and to be continuing to have an interesting and varied music career.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Being able to make a living doing what you love surrounded by people who understand and support you.
What is your most treasured possession?
I have a few. I am a person who is quite sentimental, and I love to keep prompts for my memories. One of my most treasured possessions is my letter from the Queen. I wrote it to invite her to my The Piano Men show in Edinburgh and received a response. There is a bigger story there if you want to hear it!
What is your present state of mind?
It is a bit of a rollercoaster at the moment. One minute it is feeling creative and has direction and then it is low and unsure of how to proceed. The COVID19 pandemic has taken a huge toll on live music. Performing live is not just what I do, it is who I am so I have been grieving not being able to do that in my usual capacity. I have had some small groups meet me in parks around Adelaide and we have been singing which always helps!
Emma Knights is a freelance musician, pianist, singer, producer, composer, creator and curator living in South Australia.