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Interview with Doug Hammer, February 2017
Interview with Doug Hammer, image 1
Doug performing at Whisperings 1/17
Doug Hammer recently released another amazing album called Americana. One of my favorite pianist/composers, Doug never likes to do anything he has done before. This album is a combination of original and traditional music that reflects on what it means to be American. Ho-hum, another album with songs we’ve been hearing and singing since we were kids, right? Wrong! This album brought tears to my eyes many times and I called it a masterpiece in my review. In this interview, Doug and I discussed what went into this album plus a few other items, so take a few minutes and enjoy!

KP: Hey Doug! How are things in New England?

DH: Excellent! We just had our first big snowstorm and now it’s magical. Cold, but magical. I do love living here and the seasons. I could do without the cold though.
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Click on album covers to go to Kathy's reviews.

KP: Congratulations on your Christmas Album of the Year award at Whisperings (SoloPianoChristmas.com) a few weeks ago for Christmas Lights! It’s one of my all-time favorite Christmas albums and I was so happy to see you win!

DH: Thank you so much Kathy! That was quite a surprise! There were so many other Christmas songs I wanted to record after Noel. I do love them all and enjoyed the challenge of arranging them in new ways. Plus I wanted to give my Mom another Christmas album as she loves Noel. Christmas Lights is about my family and all the wonderful memories we’ve had and continue to make.
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KP: You have said that the sheet music for Christmas Lights is forthcoming. That  is very exciting! Do you plan to transcribe all of the songs on the album?

DH: Not all, but so far I have transcribed ten of them. I will leave out some of the more complex, jazzy pieces. Why? Because it would be extremely difficult for even me to read it! But most will be included.

KP: Your most recent album is the incredible Americana, one of my favorite albums of 2016. What inspired you to do the album?

DH: Many things: love of country, its people (all of them), its ideals, its inventiveness, the great big melting pot that it is, a chance for anyone to do something amazing. I also wanted to thank those in our Armed Forces (past and present) in musical form - I can so better communicate this way. So part is patriotic and part is tribute but mostly it is my love for my country. I believe in our ideals - I have seen them twice at the National Archives. We may interpret them differently but we have always and will continue to have friction as we’re different. We may be greatly divided (not the first time), but we’re all Americans and humans too! By the way, there is nothing political about my album. It has been interesting to say the least, releasing this album right now. My hope is these songs will help heal, uplift and unite. To touch people’s hearts. The Spirit of America is alive and well, and it is unbreakable.

KP: I don’t use the word “masterpiece” very often, but I did in my review of Americana and still mean it very sincerely. Many of the patriotic albums I have heard over the years have left me feeling very cold, but this one really moves me. I think part of it is that several of the most commonly-heard songs are stripped to just their melodies, played very simply on the piano. The beauty of those melodies and the meaning of the lyrics rushed over me several times and really choked me up. What inspired you to treat these gems so simply?
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DH: Thank you Kathy for that. I approached this album with military-like focus and precision. There were many versions and takes of each song. I was obsessed with it. I wanted each and every note to mean something. And I know when to back away and not over-edit or overthink things. I thought of all those who died for this country and who have sacrificed so much. I learned simple versions of many of these songs when I first started piano. I wanted to get to the heart of the melodies. We’ve heard them dressed up so much. There’s a place for that, but there’s something so beautiful that happens when you strip a song down to its essence. I explored that in Haiku. It felt appropriate for some songs on Americana - sincere, pure, gentle.

KP: One of the highlights of the album is your arrangement of “Yankee Doodle.” It starts out with drums and piano, sounding like a country fair or a barn dance, and then you take off like a rocket on the piano. How did you come with the arrangement?

DH: That was a fun one! It’s a silly song. The lyrics were written and sung by British soldiers during the Revolutionary War, basically dissing the American soldiers. So I wanted to jam out on this. I didn’t think too much about it. I actually finalized the piano part first and then brought Steve Chaggaris (drums) in to jam on top of it.

KP: You played “Yankee Doodle” after the Whisperings awards dinner and just about blew the roof off the hotel. It was a magnificent performance! Are you planning to transcribe “Yankee Doodle”? Not that anyone else could come close to playing it like you do. 

DH: I just may transcribe this one! That would be a fun challenge.

KP: Are you planning to do sheet music for Americana?

DH: Yes, though only selections. Some of the piano is just supportive in the background for the more orchestrated songs. So I’ll mainly stick with the solo pieces.
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KP: As you mentioned, there is quite a bit of orchestration on the album, some of which is digital and some of it is with live musicians. How did you decide which tracks to do digitally and which to do live?

DH: We’ve come a long way with virtual instruments (sounds in the computer). These “samples” are really world class musicians playing in world class spaces and they are truly emoting. The challenge is how to construct a playable instrument out of samples. I’ll spare you the technical, but suffice to say, they’ve done it. So I can be emotive and intuitive in my playing without getting all left-brained and technical. I’ve waited a long time for this and we have definitely arrived. That said, hiring an orchestra is expensive so these instruments are the next best thing. And in the end it doesn’t matter what’s “real” or not. It’s the intention behind it and how it finally sounds. I always prefer working with other musicians and had a great opportunity on Americana to add so much depth and emotion to many songs. It was nice to feature Ari and Mia (cello, fiddle, vocals) and also Brian Maes (vocals). I could not have done Americana on my own. It was definitely a group effort.
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KP: I love your quote in the liner notes that says “I wanted to capture the spirit of America, for it is alive and well. And it is unbreakable.” What inspired you to write those beautiful words?

DH: There are so many amazing WWII stories. What those soldiers did was unbelievably heroic and the best of humanity. Complete sacrifice. The utter will to create a better life here. So many of our “rights” are actually “privileges.” They’ve been fought for, over and over. Look at what was invented here. That was no accident. People from all over the planet have come here to create a better life for themselves and their families and to create something beautiful and unique and useful. So that spirit takes many forms: spirit of protest, spirit of inventiveness, spirit of fighting to defend our country. That “can do” and “make it happen” spirit! And no matter what challenges we face, even if it is each other, we can overcome with that spirit. The spirit of acceptance and tolerance and forgiveness.
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KP: How many states have you performed in?

DH: Oh boy, too many to mention! The East Coast, the Midwest, the West Coast, the South. I love the people and culture in Texas, Tennessee and Georgia (If you can’t tell, I do love my BBQ!). But I love the people and culture everywhere! I love the diversity of it all. What a beautiful country we live in! One of the main reasons why I tour is to meet up with people who like my music - that’s a great connection. But just driving around and taking in the sights and enjoying the food is a wonderful experience. All of those experiences have filtered into Americana.

KP: I have to mention the amazing graphics and artwork your wife, Emmanuelle Le Gal, has done on most, if not all, of your albums. Does she do other artwork as well?

DH: I am so lucky to have such a talented wife! She is a brilliant artist who works in mixed media and watercolors. She went to Massachusetts College of Art and Design. She has a site, EmmanuelleArts.com and an Etsy store. She’s been working on some commissioned paintings and I’m happy she still has time for me, for she makes me look good! I’m happy for all of her success and so proud of her!

KP: What’s your next project? Can you give us some hints?

DH: I don’t know myself at this point! I’ve been busy catching up with other things but will start on my next project soon. I have at least ten album ideas right now so it’s more dabbling in a few and seeing what sticks. Then I’ll focus in on that one. But every new album will be different from the last. I really don’t want to repeat myself.

KP: Are you planning to do much touring this year? I know a lot of people are hoping you’ll come back to the Pacific Northwest. 
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DH: I’d love to come back to the Pacific Northwest! I didn’t find Bigfoot the first time so I must continue my journey. I plan on less touring this year as I focus more on creating new music and catching up with my sheet music. Expect a full Solace Songbook and more sheets from Travels as well. And I thank you in advance for your amazing proofing to make my sheet music as clear as it can be!

KP: I can't wait to work on some more of your sheet music! Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?

DH: Music is many things. There are so many “uses” for it. In challenging times, we need music and art even more. Some create art out of protest or out of anger and frustration. Some create art to escape and we all need that and it’s a wonderful thing. Look at all the art from WWII. All those movie-musicals and upbeat music. Look at the music of South Africa, especially during Apartheid. That is the happiest music I have ever heard! That’s what I want to do - to continue to make music that uplifts, inspires, heals. I will never stop.

Many thanks to Doug Hammer for chatting with us! For more information about Doug and his music, be sure to visit his website and his Artist Page here on MainlyPiano.com.

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Doug and Louis Landon performing at Whisperings 1/22/17

Kathy Parsons
February 2017