Pianist/composer Gary Girouard and I did our first interview almost two years ago. For more information about his background and early life, be sure to see that interview
as well. This one is an update where we talk about Gary’s incredible new album, The Naked Piano: Transitions
and his two-year (or more like 30-year!) journey to get the music composed and the album recorded. Even though it’s very early in the year, I predict that Transitions
will be my choice for 2016 Album of the Year - it’s that good. The music and the story behind it are both intensely personal expressions and Gary went through a very intense period of personal and artistic growth to get the project completed. This is an unusually candid interview that will give you an amazing insight into Gary’s creative process.
Click the album cover to read Kathy’s review.
KP: Hey Gary! It was so much fun to get together again at the Whisperings Awards Concert and dinner last month! It’s amazing how much those events feel like family reunions! So many great people and so much talent all in one place! The closing finale you did with Louis Landon, Doug Hammer, Mike Strickland and several others was worth the trip south all by itself! Musical magic!
GG: Hi Kathy! It was wonderful to spend some quality time together at the Whisperings Awards Concert and dinner. We gather around this black-and-white-keyed instrument, and with our varying backgrounds, styles, personalities - we’re able to connect in such a deep and intimate way. It’s easy to see why it feels like “family.” That finale was a great example - Louis, Doug, Mike, Joseph Akins, Joe Yamada - each of them a very special friend of mine - each extremely talented with their own distinct ‘voice’ and style - yet, we were able to spontaneously create a piece of music together. Truly amazing the power of piano.
KP: You are so right about that! Especially with so many artists involved in the spontaneous creation of a piece of music - and all under the pressure of having so many peers witnessing the event! It was truly a joy to be there!
Your new album, The Naked Piano: Transitions, was one of the first albums I reviewed this year, and unless something else comes in that just blows me away, it’s likely to be named Album of the Year on MainlyPiano.com. This was quite a complex project that you spent two years on, so I’d like to chat about some of the many facets that make this such an amazing album. What was your original concept or inspiration for the album?
GG: Thank you so much Kathy - I’m honored you’re enjoying the album! You nailed it... Yes, it’s been a complex and fascinating process right from the beginning. Transitions began as a personal quest - I really wanted to elevate my art, my music, my technical ability - and more importantly MYSELF - to another level. I realized early on how much work and dedication it would take - I was literally embarking on a journey to become a new person.
KP: That’s a pretty amazing undertaking! What made you want to make such a huge impact on your life? I’ve known your music for quite a few years and met you last year and was very impressed. I’ve never thought of you as anything but a really great guy and a devoted family man. Why were you going for such a huge change in yourself?
A primary theme of the album is “we're never the same person"- we’re constantly in transition
. So this journey to become a new person was viewing and directing this process deliberately
KP: I just visited your site and read your blog about your own life transition from 30 years ago. What a horrible experience, and yet it brought about some major positive changes in your life. Do you want to talk about that a bit and how that experience relates to the album?
GG: As I mention in the Transitions liner notes, it’s during the periods of greatest difficulty when we learn the most about ourselves. When I was 18 years old I contracted bacterial meningitis. I was literally on my deathbed in a comatose state. Our priest even gave me the last rites - that’s how dire the situation was. Amputation of my fingers and limbs was a distinct possibility (can you imagine?). When I finally got out of the hospital, something inside had shifted. It would take me a few years to fully digest this episode, but I had earned a new perspective. This period became the impetus for my lifelong pursuit of musical development and expression.
KP: Eighteen is so young to go through something like that. What was it that you felt shifted inside of you?
GG: I think it was my perspective that shifted. 18 is a very influential age. I was just coming out of childhood and entering adulthood. Many people at this age feel they’re “invincible.” They can eat, drink, do whatever and not notice the affects on their bodies or health. Of course, this is an illusion as it will eventually catch up with you. My meningitis health episode helped me realize at a young age how fragile life can be - and maybe take time to enjoy and appreciate how blessed and fortunate I truly am.
KP: Did the backstory come before or after the music or did you develop both simultaneously?
GG: The backstory was always in my mind. It’s related to the “Hero’s Journey” (as identified by Joseph Campbell). This is a story structure where the main character goes through a series of challenges and in the process is transformed. It’s the basic premise behind such timeless stories as “Star Wars,” “Harry Potter,” “Lord of the Rings,” and Greek Mythology. It explains the entire album from start to finish.
KP: That’s really interesting! How do people who buy the CD or download the music get a copy of the story? I still couldn’t find it on your site.
GG: You have to dig a little! It’s hidden in a link on the Physical CD page on my website. I send a printed storybook for anyone who orders the PHYSICAL CD from me personally. They will not receive the storybook if they order from anywhere else - nor will they receive it with digital copies. My sincere hope is the backstory adds a deeper perspective to the album as a whole. I like to think of it as the “libretto” for the album :)
KP: It very definitely is a libretto! AND it’s well worth buying the CD from you to get that story. It adds even more meaning to the music. Have you written other short stories?
Yes, but these take the form of my blog posts (on my website) which I often incorporate into my monthly newsletters. I enjoy relating other people’s writings (I love to read), philosophy, art and things I’m currently experiencing. I’ve been doing these stories and newsletters for about 5 years now, although I’ve written in a personal journal for a lot longer. If your readers are interested, they can find the newsletter sign-up link on my website, NakedPiano.com
KP: It’s very interesting that the short descriptions of the stories behind the music in the CD liner notes are quite different from the backstory even though they are similar in spirit. Were you working with two sets of ideas or did one set come later?
GG: Very good question. I had the back-story concept (Hero’s Journey) already formed from the beginning. During my personal journey working on Transitions, I had composed 26 pieces of music - too much for one album. I wanted to keep the narrative of the “Hero’s Journey,” so the pieces I selected fit tightly into both my personal transition and the backstory. So, to answer your question: it started with the back-story concept, while each piece was motivated by my personal experience - eventually these two became one and the same. I didn’t have enough space in the liner notes to provide the full story - so I opted to go with my personal notes in the liner notes and keep the backstory as a separate entity.
KP: That makes sense! This is the first of your albums that has included any orchestrated versions of your music. Doug Hammer worked his genius and did a magnificent job on the piece “Invictus,” which also includes your piano part. Do you see yourself doing any albums that are completely orchestrated?
GG: Doug Hammer is brilliant! I call him my ‘simpatico’ brother! Really, we have so much in common and are able to communicate and relate on a very deep level. I’m thankful to call him a friend and to have worked with him on this track. This piece is so powerful and personal, and Doug somehow captured and enhanced the emotion with his wonderful orchestration/arrangement. We’ve already discussed the possibility of doing a complete ‘orchestrated’ album in the future.
KP: You’d have to change the title to “The Fully-Clothed Piano” or something, though!
GG: (laughing) Ha!!! Yes, indeed!!!
KP: You and Doug toured together a couple of years ago, and I’ve always wished I could have seen that. You’re both such incredible musicians, but also so quick-witted and funny. Maybe someday if you ever tour together again. Any plans to do that?
GG: Aw, thanks Kathy! I’ve done a number of tours with Doug - and we have a BLAST. As I mentioned, we’re able to communicate on a special level. Our music styles also compliment each other. There are no definite tour plans at the moment, but I’m sure you could motivate us to come visit you in the future :)
KP: Tell me how I can motivate you both and I’m on it! That would be SO much fun! I think Doug and I spent most of the time he was here last year laughing! But then conversations got really serious, too. It was a great time!
Back to the album. When you were composing, did you compose to a certain part of the story or did the music come first. What was your process?
The process actually began with lots of practice. Scales. Arpeggios. Hanon. Schmitt.The only way I could achieve transformation was by developing new skills. I practiced every day (1-2 hours minimum on my technical exercises alone). I would finish with a meditation on a concept and improvisation around that concept. I would record my ideas using the voice recorder on my iPhone. As my playing improved, certain musical ideas began taking shape. I started doing things I had never tried before. Bringing out and carrying a melody in the left hand. Using inner voices to create rhythm, movement and harmony while simultaneously carrying a melody above and through the inner voices. Exploring new harmonic progressions. All these things were happening organically as I worked harder and harder on my playing. It was still “Gary Girouard” music, but it was taking on deeper and more mature characteristics.
Gary performing at the Whisperings All-Star Concert in Costa Mesa, CA 2015
KP: I hope your dedication to technique and improving skills that were already impressive is inspiring to students!
You mentioned that because the music was and is so personal that the project was at times physically and emotionally exhausting. How do you get past those periods of feeling drained and tired?
GG: This process was definitely exhausting. There were days I just didn’t have the energy. Those were the days when I had to focus on the end-goal - and that’s what ultimately helped. From my point of view, I was creating something never before attempted. Something I wanted to share with you and anyone else willing to take the time to listen. I believed I was creating an enduring piece of art and inspiration for others. In my feverish little brain, I was changing the world…That motivated me to keep at it day after day.
KP: Does it ever feel like it isn’t worth investing so much of your soul into your music?
GG: Never. I’m giving everything with no regrets.
KP: It’s a wonderful thing you do, and projects like this really define what art is. Thank you for being willing to share so much of yourself! I hope people will listen to it with their hearts as well as their ears, as there is so much in the music that can’t be grasped with a cursory listen.
GG: Thank you so much Kathy, that is beautifully stated. The piano is a magical and timeless instrument and I agree and hope people will listen and enjoy - both the story and the music. I truly hope it provides comfort, inspiration and peace.
KP: With all of the music I review, it takes a lot to stop me in my tracks, and Transitions does just that. It’s a huge achievement! I hope a lot of people can hear that!
You just recently started an exciting new career (in addition to composing and performing). Do you want to tell us about it?
GG: Sure! Funny thing, I had originally planned the release of Transitions to coincide with a major “announcement” on New Year’s Day (how appropriate). I’ve always worked 100% in music - with a balance between music business, composition and performance - but I was planning the album release to be the beginning of 100% dedication to composition and performance. Surprisingly, just before Christmas I received a call from Steinway & Sons with an exciting opportunity in music education. It seemed to be fate. So, in addition to composing, I’ll be working with K-12 schools, colleges and universities to keep music (and piano) a vital part of a well-rounded education. People who know me realize this is a great fit - piano and personal development are two of my strongest passions!
KP: This sounds like such an amazing opportunity for you. I hope it’s everything you are hoping for - AND I hope it brings you to Oregon!
Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?
GG: I would encourage anyone reading this interview to support their local music program. Join the band parents or band boosters programs. Make sure your legislators and politicians hear your voice to keep arts in our schools. If you’ve ever wanted to play piano, start. Today. You don’t need to play Carnegie Hall. There is something incredibly rewarding and timeless about this instrument. And PLEASE be sure to say “Thank you” to Kathy (or give her a big hug) - it’s truly amazing what she does for pianists and piano music - thank YOU Kathy!
Thank YOU, Gary! You’re a true artist, and I’m so happy to call you a friend!
The now-infamous Neil Patton photo-bombing at the 2016 Whisperings Concert and Awards Show in Costa Mesa, CA. Jeff Bjorck is to the left of Gary, and Neil (0f course) is behind Gary. The hand belongs to Jeff! 1/24/16
Many thanks to Gary Girouard for such a candid interview! For more information about Gary and his music, be sure to visit his website
and his Artist Page
here on MainlyPiano.com. Also, check out the previous interview