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Interview with Brad Jacobsen, October 2023
Interview with Brad Jacobsen, image 1
As I write this, Brad Jacobsen is getting ready to release his eleventh album, Celtic Piano. In this interview, we talked about that album, Brad's long history as a storyteller, and many other things. Enjoy getting to know more about Brad and his music!

KP: Hey Brad! How are things in Washington State today?

BJ: Hi Kathy!  Things here are good!  Pretty much how a lot of people imagine Western Washington in the fall - cool and gray, with a light drizzle falling outside.
KP: Yup. Sounds like the Oregon Coast, too!

You are releasing your solo piano album called Celtic Piano this week (release date is 10/20/23). What was the inspiration for the album?

BJ: I've always loved the melodies found in traditional Celtic music.  A few years back, I also found out that I have a fair amount of Irish DNA in me.  I guess there were some folks on my Mom's side of the family that insisted their ancestors were from England, but a DNA test proved it was actually Ireland.  At least it finally provided an answer to the bright red hair I had as a child!  When I was a kid and people would ask me, "Where did you get that red hair?" I would respond with the only person I knew that had red hair - "The dentist."  Obviously my mom didn't love that answer!

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Click on covers to go
to Kathy's reviews.

KP: Lol! My brother also had very red hair as a kid and endured a lot of the same questions.

How did you choose which pieces to arrange for the album?

BJ:  Great question! I have a big book of Celtic music (The Celtic Music Fakebook).  As I'm sure you know, fakebooks are great for getting inspiration!  Because they just print the melody along with chord symbols, they can pack hundreds of songs into one fakebook, and it really just gives you a jumping off point for arranging and composing.  So anyway, first I chose the melodies I was familiar with and loved.  Songs like, "Star of County Down" and "Be Thou My Vision."  Then I went through the table of contents and looked at which titles jumped out at me.  Something like, "Song of the Woods" obviously grabbed my interest.  I didn't really pay attention to lyrics, some of which surprised me later on!  "The Lambs on the Green Hills" for example, has nothing to do with cute animals grazing on a rolling green hill.  Although that's what I imagined when I arranged the song for the album, the lyrics actually tell the story of a man who is basically stalking a married woman and begging her to leave her husband for him.  When the woman's husband finally threatens to run this guy through with his sword, the man relents... and then wishes for death as the only possible relief.  Yikes!  I'm still really happy with how my version of the song turned out, but it is solely based on the title, and how the melody felt to me.

KP: I like your version of the story a lot better, and your arrangement is really charming! Do you have any favorite tracks? 

BJ:  That's a tough one.  Often by the time I'm finished recording an album, I'm ready to move on.  It's kind of like eating the same food for weeks on end.  I spend so much time arranging, composing, recording and listening back to the same tracks, that by the time the album's done, I'm more than ready for a change!  That being said, "Pulse of my Heart" is probably a favorite.  Musically, I put a lot of my own material into the song, and the message of the music is one of hope and optimism.  I also like the simple, haunting melody of "The Foggy Dew."
KP: I really like those, too! How did you choose which pieces to release as singles?

BJ:  Whenever an album is finished being mastered, I share it with my little "listening team" - which consists of my wife, kids, my mom, and my sister.  I give them time to listen, and then ask them for their favorites.  I don't really trust myself to choose, because as I mentioned before, I'm a little burnt out on the music and I feel like I've lost all objectivity.  It's actually really hard for me to listen to my own music as a casual listener would.  So their feedback gives me direction for the singles.
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Recording at Piano Haven - Sedona, Arizona. 2019
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Little Brad!

KP: We need to mention the sheet music book for the album, too! I really loved proofing the songs and thoroughly enjoy playing them now that they're done. I know the songbook is available from your website. Can people buy it or individual pieces from other sites, too?

BJ: Thank you so much!  You do such an amazing job with the proofing process!  The songbook is available in spiral-bound format as well as a downloadable PDF songbook on my website.  All the individual pieces are also available as PDF downloads on my website or at sheetmusicplus.com

KP: I have been reviewing your albums since your 2011 debut album, Road Home. Celtic Piano is your eleventh album, plus some singles. The common thread with all of them is the element of storytelling. Let's talk about that. 

BJ: Well, as my family will all tell you, I've always loved telling stories... still do!  Kind of funny actually, not too long ago we found an old audio cassette tape from about 1982.  That's all that was written on the tape - "1982."  My wife and I put it in the tape player, and there was 3-year old me, in my scariest whisper-voice -- "Once there was a skeleton. And he went in my room. And he said, 'I will scare you! I will scare you!'"  Except I actually sounded like, "Once there was a skarton. And he wen in my woom.  And he sid, 'I will scay you! I will scay you!'"  That was the extent of the story, but obviously I was pretty proud of it and thought it deserved being recorded!  When I was about 8-9 years old, I used to go to the public library and check out cassette tapes of live professional storytelling "concerts."  I'd listen until those stories became a part of me, and then I'd share them with family and friends at sleepovers.  I never "grew out of it" either.  This past summer at a family reunion, my adult nieces and nephews were reminding me of Halloween 2004.  It was just 3 weeks before my first son was born, and we had Halloween with a bunch of my nieces and nephews at my parents' house.  My mom wanted to do a Halloween treasure hunt in the backyard, so I wrote and recited a story to go along with it.  I told the kids I was reading an old letter I found, written by the pirate, Peg-Leg Pete.  In the letter, Peg-Leg Pete told how he was shipwrecked in the area and had to bury his treasure not far from where we were sitting at that very moment.  I read the letter by candlelight, in my best pirate voice, and then we went in the backyard to search for the cursed treasure chest.  I guess the story was effective, because my nieces and nephews said it's still one of their strongest childhood memories.  So that's the power of storytelling!  I love written stories as well, but a story told aloud, either through words or music, has such a great ability to influence our emotions and spark our creativity. 
KP: Absolutely! Which came first, telling stories with music or telling stories with words?

BJ:  Great question!  For some reason it wasn't until I was a teenager that I understood music as being a way to tell stories.  So telling stories with words definitely came first!

KP: Have you found that the subjects and stories that hold children's attention have changed over the years? 

BJ:  Hmm, my initial reaction is to say "yes," but I don't know if that's necessarily true.  The media we see geared toward children seems to be so different from 30-40 years ago.  But many of the currently popular children's books and series are based on classic stories that have stood the test of time.  I know of multiple series of children's books that revolve around the main characters actually going into the land of the Brothers Grimm or other fairy tales.  How many classic stories are being remade into movies over and over again?  I think what's changed is the way we package them, but the underlying subjects and themes are still there.  Kids want a hero or heroine that they can see themselves in, someone who is up against a real or metaphorical villain or problem... sometimes a really scary one... and then they develop their strengths or smarts to overcome it.  That's what we all want to do, right?
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Click on covers to
go to Kathy's reviews.
I also think a lot of adults, including myself, underestimate children's ability to listen and be drawn into stories.  If adults take the path of least resistance, we may think that all kids want to do is watch YouTube or play video games.  But that's because those things are everywhere and so accessible.  But if we are fully present with a child and share a story with them, there's nothing that can beat that experience.  See, you get me fired up with questions like these and I can go on and on!

KP: That's a good thing - and very thought-provoking!

Your 2015 album, Midnight Clear was awarded the Whisperings Solo Piano Radio Christmas Album of the Year. The holiday season is coming up fast, so tell us a bit about that album.

BJ: I recorded my first Christmas album, Deck the Halls in 2011, literally just a few months after recording Road Home.  I was so grateful with how well Deck the Halls was received that I felt encouraged to release more Christmas music.  Generally I don't listen to my own music, but I can actually enjoy listening to this album because the end result truly conveys my feelings.  Sometimes I feel like the emotional integrity or sincerity of my music gets lost a bit, maybe in the nerves of being in the studio.  But with this album I don't feel like that happened.  Listening to Midnight Clear is basically what you'd experience sitting in my living room when I'm at the piano on a quiet December night.

KP: You also released Winter (2017) and had tracks on both of the Whisperings Christmas albums. You must love Christmas music! 
BJ:  Haha, you don't even know!  My wife calls me Mr. Christmas!  I was fortunate to have a wonderful childhood, and so I have nothing but warm, nostalgic feelings when it comes to Christmas.  Especially the music!  I'm an absolute sucker for nostalgia and reminiscing, and I can't think of anything that captures the sights, sounds, smells and feelings of Christmas more than the music.  I know people get overwhelmed by the commerciality of the season, but those quiet moments at night, sitting by the tree, with nothing but soft music playing in the background? I can't think of anything better!  But please, people, don't limit yourself to the radio at Christmastime!  They just play the same 20 songs over and over, and then you're bombarded by commercials.  There are hundreds, thousands of wonderful instrumental Christmas albums at your fingertips that will set a festive but also peaceful mood in your home! Anyone who comes to my house has to know that for the Jacobsen family, we start the Christmas music season as soon as November rolls around.  Way too much great music to confine to just a few weeks of the year.  But the really vocal, commercial stuff has to wait until closer to December.  That stuff can burn me out!

KP: Defnitely! Okay, let's get to know more about you! Where were you born and where did you grow up?

BJ: I was born in Tacoma, Washington and grew up in the small, rural town of Edgewood.  Well, it was rural back in 1979 at least.  Western Washington has pretty much always been my home, and I still live about 30 minutes from where I grew up.

KP: Do you have brothers and/or sisters? Are any of them musicians?

BJ:  I have an older brother and two older sisters.  My older brother also plays the piano.  My oldest sister plays the flute, piano, and possibly another instrument or two.  My older sister doesn't play any instruments, but she definitely possesses the gift of music appreciation and has always been one of my biggest supporters.  She's even hosted a couple of house concerts with me and a couple other solo piano artists.

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Brad performing at Whisperings. 2018
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Brad reading to kindergarteners.
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Brad and Stacey

KP: When did you start playing the piano?

BJ:  I started taking piano lessons when I was 8.  I didn't love it at the time, but my mom always said, "You'll thank me one day."  Boy, was she right!  Thanks, Mom!

KP: How long did you take lessons?

BJ:  I think I was around 15-16 when I stopped taking lessons.  I was starting to develop my own interest and style in music, and my parents and teacher agreed that I was at a good point to stop.

KP: When did you write your first piece of music?

BJ:  It was around the same time that I quit.  It wasn't a great song, but I've actually modified and incorporated parts of it into some of my later songs.

KP: Did you learn to play other instruments, too?

BJ: I did a year of band and played the baritone (brass) when I was in 6th grade.  Didn't really love it, and I don't think my parents did either!

KP: Yeah, the baritone isn't known for being too melodic! I played string bass from grades 4-9, but it was too big to take home, so I didn't get to torture the family with it!

Did you play in any rock bands?

BJ: Nope.  I don't think they would have wanted me!

KP: When did you start playing professionally?

BJ: Beginning in my early twenties, I was paid to play at a few weddings, but I count my first studio album in 2011 as the beginning of my "professional" career.

KP: Who or what are your biggest musical influences?

BJ: Around the time I quit piano lessons, my parents took me to a Yanni concert in Seattle.  Seeing how much fun he and the other musicians were having inspired me.  While he's not necessarily a huge stylistic influence for me, his enthusiasm for musical storytelling really captured my attention.  But I'd have to say my biggest musical influence throughout my teens and young adult years was Kurt Bestor.  For one, he has some absolutely incredible Christmas albums.  Still favorites of mine.  He's also so creative in his approach to writing and arranging.  His melodies and chords are really colorful and unpredictable.  He calls them "surprise chords" and they add such an emotional depth to his music.  There are others as well of course, but too many to mention without leaving some out!

KP: I have to agree with you about Yanni's concerts being so much fun as well as inspiring! He toured with some phenomenal musicians and was so good about letting them shine. I saw him live quite a few times and those are still some of my favorite concerts. Kurt Bestor is great, too!

Have you done any composing for films and TV?

BJ: One of my most popular Christmas arrangements, "The Wassail Song," was featured in a short film a few years ago.  I would love to do more, but haven't really researched or pursued that path.  Someday!
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Click on covers to
go to Kathy's reviews.

KP: Tell us a bit about your kids. Are any of them musically-inclined?

BJ: I have three boys.  The youngest is 13, the middle is 16, and the oldest is about to turn 19.  My oldest is incredibly musically inclined!  He played the trombone beginning in 6th grade and stuck with it all through middle school and high school.  He played in the marching band, jazz band, concert band, and any other band that asked him to join!  He also taught himself to play the French horn, trumpet, and basically every other brass instrument.  Then just before graduation, he bought a saxophone from a friend.  A few weeks later he was playing that saxophone like he had been taking lessons for years.  He also does arranging and composing on his computer using Musescore.  He loves it!

KP: That sounds really promising! What has been your most exciting musical moment or experience so far?

BJ: As simple as it may seem, it was the day I received notification that my first album had been accepted by Pandora.  The process has changed a great deal since 2011, but back then you had to wait weeks, and not all music was accepted.  I will always remember how it felt to get that email!

KP: Is there a particular philosophy that you try to convey in your music?

BJ:  I don't know about a philosophy per se, but I know what I strive for - simplicity and sincerity.  I guess my philosophy would be to appreciate the simple things.

KP: That makes a lot of sense! Who are your favorite composers and/or performers?

BJ: Again, too many to mention.  And in so many genres!  One of my favorite performers is jazz trumpeter Chris Botti.  Talk about sincerity in music!  The way he plays the trumpet almost feels like you're having an intimate conversation with him.  And if you attend or watch his concerts, he interacts and connects with the audience in such a caring and genuine way.  If I tried to make a list of other pianists it would go on too long, and I'd feel bad leaving some people out!

KP: I know what you mean! Do you teach piano as well as work at the school?

BJ: No, I don't.  I've thought about it a lot, but with three kids of my own, I kind of reserve my afternoons and evenings for just my family.

KP: How long have you been a school and/or children's librarian?

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Brad with his Whisperings Christmas Album of the Year award. 2016
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Brad's house concert at Kathy's. 2015
BJ:  Let's see.  Well, like we talked about, my love for storytelling started as soon as I could talk!  But back in the summer of 2004, my dad passed away somewhat unexpectedly, just a few months before my oldest son was born, and I was feeling a bit lost.  I had just turned 25, and I really wasn't sure what I wanted to do with my life.  Not so great when your family is about to grow, right?  Anyway, one afternoon I was having a pretty hard time and so I went for a drive to clear my head.  I found myself driving somewhat mindlessly, my thoughts on my dad, and suddenly I found myself turning into the parking lot of the library I used to visit as a kid.  I'd worked in several bookstores in the past, so I walked in and asked, "Are you guys hiring?"  They referred me to their website, and there, in what seemed like flashing neon letters, was a posting for... a STORYTELLER!  The pay wasn't amazing, but it was better than I expected, it had good benefits, and it was for a STORYTELLER for crying out loud!  That was a pivotal moment for me.  A few years later, I earned my Masters degree in Library and Information Science and was hired as the youth services librarian for one of the largest branches in our area.  Music still called to me though, so in early 2011, with my wonderful wife's incredible support, I left the library to focus on building my music career.  Everyone thought I was crazy, but I'm so grateful my wife believed in me!!  Side note - today's actually our 20th anniversary! 

KP: Congratulations!

BJ: Thanks! Anyway, as soon as my youngest was in school all day, I really started to miss working with children.  So I earned my Washington State Teaching Certificate and taught 3rd grade in our local school district until a Librarian position opened up.  Now I supervise the libraries for four schools in our district.  I absolutely love making connections with kids every day, and can't imagine not doing this.

KP: What a great story! What do you like to do in your free time, or do you have any?

BJ: Fortunately I do!  One of the many joys of my job is the schedule!  I follow the same schedule as my school-age kids, and my middle son and I even "carpool" to and from school every day.  That's about 45 minutes a day of one-on-one conversation.  How cool is that?  We all enjoy the same days off and the same vacations over the holidays and in the summer.  For me personally, I feel like I've finally struck the perfect balance I need in my life between my family, my music career, and a "bonus" career that gives me the opportunity to make personal and positive connections with kids every day.  Health benefits and retirement aren't bad either!  But anyway, I'm very much a homebody, so I tend to spend all my free time with my family doing whatever they love doing - football, movies, games, all that good stuff.  And of course I love reading!

KP: That really sounds ideal! What's up next for you?

BJ: I'm so glad you asked!  Other than the new album that's just coming out, I've also been working with Doug Hammer on some new versions of my most popular Christmas music.  I picked my three most popular Christmas arrangements, re-recorded them with Joe Bongiorno at Piano Haven, and over the past couple months Doug has been adding beautiful orchestration.  You know Doug, he's an incredibly gifted composer, and he is very intuitive and sensitive in his approach, so he knew exactly where I wanted to go with these songs.  So starting in November I'll be releasing a new track every week for three weeks.  We'll see how those are received by listeners, but I hope that by next Christmas I might have a full album of orchestrated Christmas music!

KP: Doug is absolutely amazing, so I'm sure those singles will be great! Can't wait to hear them!

If you could have any three wishes, what would they be?

BJ: Well, I know it's cliché, but how could I not wish for world peace right now?  Maybe instead I'd wish for "world compassion" or "world empathy."  That has to happen first, right?  Okay... so... maybe I would wish that everyone in the world would 1) feel that they mattered, and 2) feel that they're loved, and 3) want the same for everyone else around them.  Gosh, that all sounds kind of cheesy, but seriously, how amazing would that be?

KP: It doesn't sound cheesy at all! That's the direction the world needs to go and it would make all the difference!

Is there anything else you'd like to talk about?

BJ: I think I've already talked your ear off!  Thank you so much for your thought-provoking questions! 

KP: It's been a real pleasure, Brad!
Many thanks to Brad Jacobsen for taking the time to chat! For more information about Brad and his music, be sure to visit his website and his Artist Page here on MainlyPiano.com.

Kathy Parsons
October 2023