|Brian Kinler at Kulak's Woodshed|
At your recent show at Kulak’s Woodshed, you mentioned wanting to be a drummer when you were a child, and how a broken snare contributed to your becoming a pianist. How did you end up learning piano? And how did that learning process not include reading sheet music?
There was music constantly in my house growing up. My Dad always had his records playing and my Mom taught beginner piano to the neighborhood kids. She could teach very basic lessons to five-year-olds, but she basically plays by ear. I never wanted to learn piano, but my Mom would teach me snippets here and there about chords and logical chord progressions. I absolutely believe she passed on her musical gene to me because picking out songs came very natural to me. So I started getting serious about it around 7th or 8th grade. And let’s face it - if you grow up in New Orleans and don’t know how to play an instrument, you are shipped to Mississippi.
Were there any specific players you emulated when you started?
My Dad always had his Motown records going, so Stevie Wonder was just the King to me. Super funky with absolutely impossible chords, which made it so great. A huge moment for me was when I was a freshman at LSU. I saw Tori Amos at a tiny club in the French Quarter. It was Sept 11, 1992 (I still have the ticket). It was just her and a piano in front of two hundred people. I had never seen someone up alone on a stage with a grand piano telling stories and ripping your heart out. And I remember crying the whole time thinking this is what I need to do.
When composing a new song, do you have something specific in mind that you want to write about or capture? Or does a phrase or piano lick come first, and then you let that see what it evokes for you?
Both. Usually the best songs come when I’m down. Depression is a great catalyst for me. I love to travel too, so there’s quite a few songs inspired by the places I’ve been. And one entire CD of mine is inspired by New Orleans. But I truly have no idea how a song is written. One could take five minutes, another has taken me a few months. A test I always use is this: when I come up with a short melody (usually the chorus), I’ll play it over and over again the first day. If I can remember it the next day, I know there’s something there my brain obviously doesn’t want to let go of.
You’ve had a few different drummers play with the band over the years, and at your most recent show introduced a new drummer, Pete Merriweather. There is a great energy and definite joy in his playing. How did he come to join the band?
He’s played with Francesca many times and we needed a drummer for that date. He is loads of fun to play with. And he plays loud and rowdy, which are requirements!
Several excellent singers have accompanied the band over the years. For the last few years, it’s been almost exclusively Francesca Capasso. And now you’ve even collaborated with her on some songwriting. What is it about her style and voice that makes her such a great fit, and makes you want to keep working with her?
I am honestly the world’s worst singer, so I am always shocked by the enormous power of her voice. Every time we play, it shocks me. Her voice is like a giant hand that takes you by the neck, rattles you around, throws you to the ground, then softly caresses your cheek, then picks you right back up again. If I could pick any voice to have, that’s the one I’d want.
The new CD, The Race Against Time, has quite a different feel from your earlier releases. A lot of the music you listen to is more in the pop and dance realm, so I was curious what took you so long to release a CD that is more along those lines. And what led you to decide to include vocals on the new album?
I’ve just always been good at writing melodic instrumentals, so the jazz genre just fit right. But yes, I definitely listen to way more pop/rock than anything else. So last year, I wrote this one song on my piano (like always), then put a dance track just for the hell of it. I really liked it and knew Francesca could sound great on it. I sent the instrumental over to her and she said, “I will kill you if you don’t let me sing on this!” And I believed her. She came up with a counter-melody in the chorus and then we wrote lyrics to "Bombshell." She recorded all the vocals in two hours. My producer, the great Andre Mayeux, looked at me and said, “We need more songs like that!” So nine more tracks later, it was done.
Could you talk a bit about the jazz influences vs. the pop influences on your style?
The dance music I love is from the early 90s, very piano-driven with big vocals. That’s what we wanted to create with The Race Against Time. If you listen to the piano on that, there’s a ton of jazz licks. I would say there’s more piano here than on some of the other releases. I have always mixed the two genres. This time though every track has a dance beat to it.
This CD was done in large part in your home studio on keyboard. How did that change your approach to the material, and to recording it?
Well, the best part about that is working in the middle of the night whenever you want to. When we recorded Stories From The Quarter, I was constantly stressed about time and money. We had eleven musicians on that album, and it turned out great. But I was a nervous wreck the whole time.
What has been the response to the new CD? Did longtime fans of your jazz releases get on board? And has it attracted a different audience?
I love all kinds of music, and I know most people do too. When the melody is good, and the piano is funky, and Francesca is belting it out, people like the song, period. We can easily add an upright bass and a swing section and turn it into a Bourbon Street party, but ultimately it’s the performance and the melody. I think people are attracted to it because it is essentially a “live” album. The vocals are real and the piano playing is real. We haven’t heard a whole lot of that in the EDM genre, so that was really important to us. And yes, we are getting great response from a much-younger crowd.
You and Francesca performed the dance single “Bombshell” at Rage recently. Are there plans to perform this again there or at other dance clubs, or to perform full shows at similar clubs? What are you planning for the next release?
The bottom line is we love to play, so if we’re at a place where there’s only room for a keyboard and a singer, we’ll do it. Obviously I would love to have a Yamaha baby grand with me at all times. And yep, I’m constantly writing, but I do need a breather before we do it all over again. And yes, we will do it all over again.
If you could have any living musician sit in with you for a set, who would it be?
I would die a happy man if I played at the Hollywood Bowl. On stage there would be five pianos. Stevie Wonder, Bob James, Elton John, Tori Amos, and myself. Utterly ridiculous, but would that be amazing!
The Race Against Time is available now through CD Baby and Amazon.