American pianist and composer Chad Lawson is in Canada for performances in Quebec City, and Toronto on March 11. His many popular releases for piano have combined elements of classical music as well as jazz, and science, among other things.
Classically trained from the age of five, he attended Berklee, where he switched to jazz performance. He also began working as a studio and touring musician, and while he continued his music studies in stints, including later on at the Manhattan School of Music, his professional life took precedence. He formed his own Chad Lawson Trio, then later toured with Julio Inglesias’ band before recording his first solo album in 2009.
With his background, he lists a wide range of influences, including classical masters. “Certainly Chopin and Bach. Those are the two. Chopin has the vulnerable melody, whereas Bach has the technical skill.” Chad mentions reading Chopin’s biography, and realizing that he’d only performed live on rare occasions. Still, Chopin wrote that he found playing music to be soothing. “I find that to be the case as well,” he says.
The farther Chad gets in his own musical explorations, the more it reminds him of the fundamentals. “We have this transition of genre, but it all goes back to the root, to Bach.”
His The Chopin Variations reinterpreted the works of the Polish master. “I did the album in 2014 called The Chopin Variations,” he says. “You have this large audience that I call the Spotify generation. Maybe they have a piano in the house, but they don’t know how to turn it on. If I brought Chopin to this audience, how would I do it?” he asked himself.
He plays solo on one side of the release, adding two other musicians for the other half. He chose his collaborators, Judy Kang on violin and cellist Rubin Kodheli, because they were musicians who had played with a wide variety of artists from hip hop stars to classical performers.
In creating his Variations, he started with the idea of making it easy for that Spotify generation to enjoy. “I Xeroxed the sheet music,” he recalls. Then, he studied the melodic patterns carefully. “Would Chopin’s music still sound beautiful if it was very scaled down?” He pared down the music to its basic elements.
While it was well received by listeners, he was surprised at the industry reaction. “I thought I’d get a lot of pushback,” he says. “But it was quite the opposite.”
As he’d imagined, the music was reaching people who’d never listened to Chopin before. “I try to bring in an audience that isn’t familiar,” he explains. From his fan feedback, and with his introduction, many went on to search out and sample Chopin’s original compositions.
Along classically-based material, including his Bach Interpreted: Piano Variations on Bach Chorales, he’s applied his reinterpretive style to a wide range of material. “It’s everything from Chopin to Billie Eilish,” he says.
The strategy seems to work to bring in audiences who’d never been to the traditional concert experience. “I’m a data nerd. I love stats,” he says. He reports that his biggest audience segment is the 18 to 34 demographic. He also noticed that his numbers would be high during the week, then plummet on Fridays, only to rise again by Saturday afternoons. He believes he’s figured out why. “It’s because they’re studying,” he says.
It’s true that recent stats, along with the popularity of classical music on TikTok, support the idea that students are tuning into classical music as just another in one of the many choices available, and that study time is a favourite for calming and soothing music choices. “We’re getting rid of this idea that you can’t listen to Adele and Chopin at the same time.”
In a generation who have grown up with iPads rather than pianos, he knew his approach to live performance would also have to diverge than the usual. “How do we marry the traditional with the touch screen?” he wondered. He could play a virtuosic passage of Rachmaninov, he points out, but it wouldn’t engage them. “I would impress everyone, but they’d never feel like they could do it themselves.”
Instead, he’d come on stage with an iPad, which instantly got their attention. “I was running the piano through the iPad,” he explains. He added melody, effects, looping. “What I was trying to do is create interest in the piano. I do recognize that I’m always trying to introduce things to new audiences.”
In 2020, Chad initiated the Calm It Down podcast, which has become hugely popular with its blend of soothing music and talk revolving around philosophy in simple life lessons.
“I’ve been doing transcendental meditation for quite some time,” he explains. “Just before pandemic, I’d been studying the marriage of music and mental health.” He read about the way listening to music, even for short periods, can produce feel good hormones. “Out of all the things that can elevate these hormones, music is the only passive one.”
With that knowledge, and the feedback from fans who told him his music had helped them through difficulties in their own lives, the podcast was launched. “It’s taken on a life of its own,” he says, noting its 3 million downloads.
The idea of using music for its therapeutic properties is one that has been gaining traction over the last couple of decades, with a growing body of research to back it up. “I think a lot of people are beginning to come to the point to recognize that,” he says.
“I joke that I chose the wrong career. I’m not a spotlight person. I hate the attention. But, I had a eureka moment,” he says. That moment came when a fan told him that she had been playing his music to her dying husband, and the tempo of his song matched her husband’s last breath. “I realized, it’s not about me.”
At that point, he realized that the interviews and taking up at least a little bit of the spotlight would be necessary to get what he wanted to do done. “I waited tables for 15 years, and I always say that it was the best training for music.” He recalls being attentive to the needs of his customers.
The release breathe came out of the pandemic. “It took a global pandemic to really force us to stop.” With so much emotion coming from the forced time out, he created music that was written to help with unloading all of that baggage. “As horrible as it was, I think in some retrospect, I hope people find the importance of self reflection.”
He album breathe was released on the Decca label in 2022. His latest EP, drift, takes five tracks from breathe and reworks them with a view to helping his listeners fall asleep. “I scaled it down,” he explains.
“That’s the biggest question I get — can you please show me how to fall asleep?”
The tracks begin at 80bpm and gradually slow down by 10bpm, ending up at 40bpm, or about the sleeping heart rate. It’s an approach he’s based on reading scientific research. “Because I’m a nerd,” he adds. “Progressively, as you listen to the album, you gradually slow down. I just want you to drift to sleep.”
Tickets to tomorrow’s show at the Jane Mallett Theatre are on sale here.
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