Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
Oh, I love great questions right at the top. I began my pianistic journey strictly Classical. So, once I had the foundation I dove into Bach, Beethoven, etc. I really, really loved the structure of Bach and the genius of his writing. I still practice his 4-part Chorales as they’re a tremendous education in harmony.
But then once Chopin came along, that was it for me. I have to be honest, I kind of stopped there. I really never moved passed the Romantic period. I would play a Debussy piece here/there but I was like “nah, I’m good. I found what I was looking for.” lol. So I never ventured into Rachmaninoff or Bartok, etc. While I obviously listen to them and other composers after the Romantic, Chopin just captured my heart strings.
I am all about melody. Melody is everything to me. So when I found the poet of the piano I wanted to study every microbe of his pieces I could (hence my releasing The Chopin Variations in 2014).
The other big influence was later on with Keith Jarrett. I found my way into jazz and Keith, having that Classical background, really spoke to me as a pianist. He has the most unbelievable amount of patience in his playing. He will wait until the most precise moment to bring a new colour into the mix and when it lands it’s just stunning. I’ve learned so much by listening to Keith. So, I think in short, playing Chopin and listening to Keith. I’ve actually never put that together before until now. Thank you!
What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?
I l-o-v-e your questions! For me, time. 100%. I’ll never forget Billy Joel’s music director, David Rosenthal, giving a masterclass when I was at Berklee. “Practice now. Practice. Practice. Practice.” Because once you get out of here and in the world, you’ll be fighting for every moment to sit at the piano. And he was absolutely right!
I spend roughly 80-85% of my time away from the piano and I’m a professional pianist! You have the obvious things such as general life such as family, kids, activities, etc but then as a professional there are countless things that go into being a professional musician, all of which are completely necessary! Be it interviews or creating tutorials or writing pieces for film/ television, or my podcast Calm it Down, social media, more social media, more social media, lol. Everything is full circle and you need all of these things. But finding time to sit at the piano is ironically my biggest challenge.
That being said I’m excited as I’ve pretty much cleared my entire calendar from now until September as I’m writing the next album. So, the podcast is on a summer break and I’ve pretty much set my phone to Do Not Disturb mode as I find my happy place on the bench in front of my 88s.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
Seriously, why don’t people ask the great questions like this!? Custom scoring can be really rewarding as a lot of times it’s not what I would typically release as Chad Lawson. For instance I do a lot of commercial writing, mostly for licensing, but a good bit of custom scoring though not as much after joining Universal (again, just time).
BUT, all to say. I had gotten to a point where I was selective what custom pieces I accepted and it always came down to the director. The challenge (which I actually like) is many times they’re not musically inclined. They’re film makers, not musicians. So instead of the conversation being ‘musically technical’ it’s more about the emotive being a scene or commercial. I love this because that line of thinking comes to mind when I start writing my own music. “If I were ‘this director’ and writing the score, would would he/she say?”.
And the other thing about commissioned pieces is they push you out of your comfort zone. There’s one film maker (I won’t mention his name) who constantly, constantly is coming back and every time he calls I’m like “it’s him again! I’ve given all I can give emotionally!”, but he manages to wedge in the “what if we….”, and the piece is now greater than it was the last time we spoke. He just pushes and pushes but not for the sake of pushing but because he’s like “I really feel like something deeper is there.” And when he feels it’s where it’s meant to be he’ll say “man, you should be proud of this” And I am. Sometimes I hate him for it but I am! lol.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles or orchestras?
I take everything as a chance to learn something. Everything. I always, always, always want to be the weakest link. Always. I’ve just always been that way. Forever ago I took a lesson with Fred Hersch and as I walked into his studio I said “I wanna feel about an inch tall when I leave here.”, and he did a great job at that! Lololol. But that’s the only way to learn!
So with other musicians/performers the key take-aways for me are (1) am I listening and (2) am I contributing. Because you have to have both. Whether as a piano and cello duo or in a 26 piece orchestra it’s no longer about ‘you’. It’s about the ensemble. If I’m driving down the highway and my front left tire decides he wants to turn left when the other is turning right, it’s a disaster. No difference with performing. Am I listening? Am I contributing?
Of which works are you most proud?
Oouufff. This is a tough one mostly because I’m not really a ‘look at me’ kind of personality. So it’s difficult to say “listen to my song.”. That being said, the pieces I get the most feedback and sheet music purchased would be many pieces from my latest release, You Finally Knew, and then 2 of my previous pieces Nocturne in A Minor and Ballade in C Minor. I will say I’m incredibly happy with how those two pieces landed but it wasn’t until You Finally Knew that I wanted to play my pieces live much. I enjoy playing live but I’ve never felt a majority of my pieces sit well live (I haven’t put my finger on that yet but that’s just me). But, with You Finally Knew, I love, love, love these pieces. I just do. They’re fun to play. I love the structure as some are a little challenging and the others are just ‘fun to play’ so there’s that nice balance. But I honestly can’t wait to be on stage playing these pieces again. I’ve had so many people write about the song “Stay” and “Prelude in D Major” that I can’t wait to let this ring throughout the concert halls.
How would you characterise your compositional language?
Melody. Melody. 100%. You have to have a songbird. Think of your favourite song and just hum the chords without thinking about the melody. It’s almost impossible. Melody is everything. “I’ve Got Rhythm” to “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. Melody is what makes a song a memory.
How do you work?
Well, in terms of writing I work pretty backwards. I wait until I have the melodies circling in my head until I can no longer take it and then write them down. So, I’m not really one that sits for a specific time each day and “writes”. I have to wait for my mind to say “I have a song. Here, put it on paper.”, and then I pull out the blank sheet and write it out. Again, that’s just me though.
My days are relatively typical. I love, love getting up early in the morning and going straight to the studio but that’s not really a great ‘start the day with the family’ process. So, generally mornings are a bit slow. I like having breakfast with my wife and 2 kids. Then, I’ll prioritize some self-care such as a long run or some yoga. Something to recentre my mind. I love running because that’s where all of my ideas come from. Getting outside and away from the workspace is the most creative element I can recommend for anyone.
After that, I’m in the studio. I do my transcendental meditation and then I have a daily timesheet of what needs to be done. So, 30 minutes on XYZ, an hour on this, etc. I’ve learned that chipping away at numerous things helps me get further ahead rather than just hitting one item and then looking at the overwhelming list of what didn’t get done. So, little by little. Plus it helps keep things fresh rather than burning out.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
I think for everyone there’s no ‘right’ answer. For some it’s being centre-stage under the spotlight. For some it’s playing their local coffeeshop showcase.
I actually looked up the definition of success just now and it says “the accomplishment of an aim or purpose.”, which I thought was a great perspective (thank you, dictionary). For me, my aim or purpose is to write my own music. Fortunately that’s something I’m able to do for a living which is something I take not for granted in the least. I mean, when I look at it (in almost a humorous way) I play piano for a living. That’s just insane!
But it came slowly, step at a time while occasionally pausing on the hike and looking back. It hasn’t been overnight but it has been worth the uphill climb along the way.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Well, I’m going to be honest. My response may ruffle some feathers and raise some eyebrows but you asked. It’s actually something I talk about when speaking at conferences. “What would you impart to artist and aspiring musicians today?”, they ask. “Go after the money.”, I said it. “Go. After. The. Money.” And it wasn’t until roughly 10 years ago that I learned this.
Somewhere along the line someone said (and I’m paraphrasing here) “art is art and injecting the idea of money into art diminishes the authenticity of the art.”
To which I say “bunk”. Absolute bunk. If you want to make music (or art of any degree) get this out of your head.
My dad told me at a young age “you have to learn how to make money while you sleep.”. He went on to say how there were only so many hours in a day, so many lessons you could teach or gigs to play. As a furniture designer, his income was solely percentage of sales from the product sold. What really hit home was this could be perpetuity (meaning if a produce continues to sell for 10-15 years, you’re still making a percentage of that product).
So, it wasn’t until I started thinking outside of the box and began focusing on licensing music and film/tv pieces. I’ll spare you the boring bits but long/short once my music began to be licensed in various avenues, the monies from those licenses began to out perform that of teaching and even performing. Rather than taking a 4 hour gig (which meant 6-7 hours by the time travel and setup was involved) for $125, I began staying home and writing music for licensing during those 6 hours with the idea that it was going to return far greater than the $125 over an extended
The other fascinating thing that occurred is with these funds from licensing, I no longer had to be concerned if a new release sold well or not. Thus allowing me to take bigger risks on releases and record what I was passionate about. The result? The albums began to out perform previous albums as I could explore new ideas and avenues I may have been nervous to do in previous releases.
There is a tremendous book called Make Art Make Money: Lessons from Jim Henson on Fueling Your Creative Career by Elizabeth Hyde Stevens. I cannot recommend this book enough. In short, making a piece of art that benefits monetarily will then fund the next art which then produces a greater monetary value, which then is put into another piece of art and the cycle continues. I am a firm believer in this practice and I sincerely wish it was taught more in the arts circle.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?
Imagine walking to your closet as you’re about to meet with some friends for dinner. It’s a beautiful evening, you couldn’t be more excited to see everyone. Because of traffic being the worst, you’re the last to arrive at the restaurant and as you enter everyone stops and just stares. “Um, why are you wearing clothes from 200 years ago?”, they ask.
Everything has a state of progression as each generation comes along and explores new sounds, styles and their own unique way of doing things. Some things are staples. Pants [trousers] for instance. Just because pants are more than 200 years old doesn’t mean we’ve stopped wearing them. But how we wear them and the style of pants are obviously different. So, some things are built from the foundation and then brought into a newer ‘light’ if you will.
Music is no different. Nor should Classical music be any different. Allowing for each generation to learn the fundamentals and then explore what ‘they’ are hearing is the only way Classical music is going to stay relevant. I personally have found when releasing The Chopin Variations how introducing a new sound intrigued the listener to then seek the original version of Chopin’s pieces.
In my opinion, allowing freedom, open-mindedness and curiosity of anything creative will be the bases of its longevity.
Chad Lawson’s new album You Finally Knew is available now
As a Steinway artist with multiple #1 releases, Chad Lawson has a different approach to classical music; don’t make it classical. His #1 iTunes release re:piano (2018) pushed the envelope of what the piano sounds like, with an album composed of loops, effects and layers of textured landscapes; all from a piano. Lawson was invited to share his approach to re:piano on NPR’s Weekend Edition with Scott Simon. He has also been featured on CBS Sunday Morning and NPR’s All Things Considered. His solo work has a relaxed, meditative feel that draws on both the sonorities of classical music and the freeform nature of jazz improv.