I have spotted a couple of Williams piano tunes before; the touching story behind the song I will return being my favorite.
Now its time to get to know William a bit better!
Where are you from? And where do you live?
I’m from rural New Hampshire, and still live there, in a little town called New London. We’re part of New England (yes, everything is “New”) in the NorthEast corner of the U.S., north of New York City and south of Quebec, Canada. Everything here is quite old, by American standards-many houses date back to colonial times and every village has a center with a town hall, a library and a white congregational church. There are lots of lakes and trees and is rather cold most of the year.
How long have you been playing the piano, and do you play other instruments as well?
I’ve been playing the piano since I was three and started lessons at age five. I play other instruments badly. I got a guitar for $35 at a flea market recently and I’m determined to learn to play it properly. I played a shruti box (a middle eastern drone) when I was recording my latest album “La Vie en Couleurs”, and I’ve also played hammond organ, marimba, orchestra bells and the wine glasses for other recordings.
Tell us about how you started playing music.
I started picking out Icelandic (my dad’s family is from there) folk songs on the piano when I was maybe three. “A Sprengisandi” I think was the first song I learned by ear-it’s about herding sheep and watching out for elves. I guess everyone starts somewhere, right? Not a bad song actually.
How long have you been making piano music?
Hmmm…well, I recorded my first album in 2006, but I didn’t take it seriously until about a year and a half ago, after I went to a Piano Whisperings event in Seattle and got inspired. I was still a full time musician before that, but mostly focused on other things. I wrote quite a bit of musical theater, taught some lessons, music directed at a church and performed locally.
Something clicked though when I went to the Whisperings event. Maybe it was looking around and realizing how happy and fulfilled all the people there were, and thinking, “Wow! I think this is what I’m meant to be doing.” So I kicked it into high gear-I recorded three full-length albums and four singles in a year’s time and here I am now.
Tell us something about that moment you realized you could make songs yourself!
I used to play in pit bands and would entertain the other musicians by messing with the music, especially if I didn’t particularly like it. I think I played the whole score of Annie as a cha cha cha once-it was a big improvement! And you can ruin any song by making it a stripper number, with big octaves in the base and heavy triplets. Hahahaha At some point though someone suggested to me that maybe instead of making a mockery of other people’s music, my time might be better spent creating my own.
I wrote a lot of bad music-a whole show in fact before I wrote what I consider to be my first good song, “Dance of the Fairies”. It was written to be sung during the Shakespeare play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. I still remember the ecstatic feeling I got hearing it performed on stage and thinking, “Hey, this is really good! I could get used to this.”.
What are your favorite artists in this “piano genre”?
So many….Greg Maroney stands out. Rachel Lafond is quite good, I don’t know-there are so many good ones-it gets daunting when one thinks about it too much.
Is there one song which you play over and over again as soon as you sit down by a piano?
A few. “Someone Else’s Story” from Chess is one. “Hold On” by Sarah McGlaughlin. Someone about the chord patterns and melody of those two just gets me every time.
What rules (in making music) needs to be broken?
Parallel fifths and octaves for sure! Are there any other rules? I never took composition so I was spared having to learn a long list of “thou shalt nots” for a budding composer.
How do you record your music? Yourself? In a big studio? etc.
I use a studio. For my last two albums I’ve gone down to Pennsylvania to record with my friend Greg Maroney. I love going to the studio-it’s like being a little kid in a candy store. I almost always discover some instrument that I decide, spur of the moment, just has to go on my recording.
Whats your take on sampled instruments?
A qualified “like”. I was hired to write songs and background music for a half hour TV show a couple years ago, and for the most part they liked what I did. They sent back one of the background pieces I had written though, and asked if I could write something that sounded as if it had been put together on garage band. So I basically sewed together what I considered a horrible Frankenstein of a song (I actually called it the Frankensong) using sampled sounds and beats on garage band, and of course the TV people loved it!
To this day I’m not sure what to make of it, honestly. Sampling brings the ability to compose to the masses I suppose, or at least gives them that illusion, but there will always be a place for real sounds created by real people.
Anything else you want to share?
We’re all on a musical odyssey. I just want to keep traveling and creating as long as I can. I’m so very fortunate that I get to do something I love all day, every day.
And the last question from my five year old son:
Where do all your songs come from?
Everything I do, every conversation, every book or movie that I absorb, everything gets taken in and influences the next composition somehow. I like to give myself parameters when writing. Stephen Sondheim said it very well, and I paraphrase. “If someone asks me to write a song about a guy that’s sad, I freeze up. But if someone says to write a song about a white poodle wearing a pink hat, that’s easy.” We’re all intimidated by a blank canvas. I drew notes out of a hat to form the melody of “Pharaoh’s Horses”. Sometimes I read poetry and recite it to get a rhythm, and then the melody springs out of that. Or it could be a horn honking, or a dog barking, or the way a dragonfly’s wings sparkle in the sun. Inspiration is everywhere you look.
Thank you for this talk William!