Australian pianist/composer Fiona Joy Hawkins recently released her third recording, “Ice: Piano Slightly Chilled,” an album that quickly became one of my favorite CDs of 2007. Her first two albums were much more classical in nature, and her second release, “Angel Above My Piano,” earned the New Age Reporter “Lifestyle” award for “Best Piano Album of the Year” for 2006. After being teased by her teenage sons for being a “classical music nerd,” Fiona set out to prove that she could write music that they could relate to. “Ice” was the result and is receiving major acclaim as well as a much broader audience for Fiona’s music. She is currently working on her fourth album, “Blue Dream,” with Grammy-winning producer Will Ackerman (founder of Windham Hill Records), which is scheduled for release early this fall. Fiona lives in the Blue Mountains about two hours west of Sydney, in an area called Little Hartley with her husband and two sons. She was very candid about her life for this interview, and I think you’ll enjoy getting to know her.
KP: Where did you grow up?
Fiona: I was born in Cessnock, New South Wales. I think of my childhood as mostly being in Newcastle and Tamworth, but we moved every couple of years and my parents sent me to boarding school in Sydney for the last two years. Dad always says, “Never grow up or you will grow old,” so I’m still wondering what I will do when I grow up!
KP: Is anyone else in your family musical?
Fiona: Our whole family is creative. Dad is a fantastic singer, songwriter, and performer. He was a professional soccer player and also dabbled with music. Mum played the piano, but mostly just for fun. I have two younger sisters. One is a graphic artist and the other writes poetry. Dad and I have co-written some songs, Felicity does my lyrics, and Alicia does my artwork. It’s a family effort, but I was the only one crazy enough to choose the music industry for a career.
KP: What are your parents’ occupations?
Fiona: My dad started out in a band; then he became a professional gambler, a professional soccer player, and then a businessman. My Mum is also a very good businessperson and spent a lot of years in the fashion industry. For the last several years, she has been working closely with Ronald McDonald House, a charity that provides accommodations and support for families with sick children requiring long-term treatment. Mum won an Australian of the Year Award for her services to the community – something I’m very proud of. I always think of my parents as hard-working, talented, inspirational people who gave me great work ethics and a determination to do well at whatever I choose to do. They taught me to believe in myself and to know that I can achieve my dreams. I am very grateful for that lesson.
KP: How old were you when you started playing the piano?
Fiona: My mother was only seventeen when she had me, so both of my parents worked long, hard hours and I was pretty much by myself all the time. My sister came along when I was seven, so my grandmother moved into our house to take care of us, and brought an eighty-year-old piano with her. I promptly fell in love with it, begged for lessons, and within a short period of time was playing “Fur Elise.” I was a chronic daydreamer, so I wasn’t great at school, but I soon discovered that I could make people pay attention when I played the piano. A short time later, I discovered that writing music was my true passion and that I could convey my inner feelings in that way – both on the piano and during a performance to an audience.
KP: Were you encouraged to improvise or compose by your piano teachers?
Fiona: I had three wonderful piano teachers, all of whom encouraged me to write music and play my own compositions. Every time I entered a competition with my original music I ended up winning something – it was the only thing I was really good at and I loved it.
KP: Do you play other instruments?
Fiona: I tried to learn the violin. I had a year of lessons, but I almost drove the family cat crazy and everyone was threatening to move out if I continued with my daily 7 AM violin practice sessions! I play basic guitar and love singing, but I can’t say I’m fantastic at either. Composing has always been my strength.
KP: How old were you when you started improvising?
Fiona: I didn’t really started improvising in the true sense until several years ago. Because I am classically-trained, my composing has been quite structured. I only recently became comfortable enough to jam or improvise onstage and really “let go.” That would be my biggest complaint about learning classical music – to improvise well, you have to let go of the rules, stop being rigid, and allow your ear to come to the fore.
KP: How old were you when you wrote your first song?
I was eight years old. I still have the manuscript – it even had words. It was called “Feelings” – so cute!
KP: When did you start playing professionally?
Fiona: I went into the recording studio for the first time five years ago (2003), and it was only then that I started chasing a career as a composer and pianist. I trained for it and wished for it like crazy my whole life , but I just never had the opportunity before that time.
KP: Were you a music major in college?
Fiona: I left after high school, and even failed music as a high school subject. I was never interested in what year Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart died. I wasn’t academic in any way and had the misguided idea that because I had a photographic memory, I could just use that when I needed to get through exams. Of course, that meant that information went in one ear and out the other. I guess the education system never really interested me – probably because I was dyslexic. Even though I outgrew it, I never really caught up or learned the value of study. I spent my school years daydreaming – mostly about being a musician!
KP: Was all of your musical training in classical music?
Fiona: Yes, I went through to eighth grade and was always an “A” student at the piano. It was the one area in life where I excelled. I was very hard on myself and had really high expectations, yet I always knew that I only had to advance far enough to be able to play the music I wrote. I was a perfectionist on the piano - oddly different from the way I treated anything else in my life. Everything is a big joke except music and that’s SERIOUS!
KP: Your first two albums were very peaceful and subtitled “music to dream to.” “Ice” is quite different. Where did the inspiration for it come from?
Fiona: I loved writing the first two albums, but with teenage sons, I was getting a lot of teasing about being a “classical music nerd.” To be honest, it really annoyed me, because I knew I could turn to most styles of writing if I wanted to. I originally set out to prove a point to my kids – and when their friends started listening to my music, they stopped giving me such a hard time! Mission accomplished.
KP: I love “Ice” and listed it as one of my favorite CDs of 2007. How is it being received by other reviewers and fans?
Fiona: I was really worried that I would alienate my classical audience, but I am really surprised that it hasn’t done that at all. It has attracted a much wider audience and is gaining a lot more interest.
KP: Do you have a background in rock music?
Fiona: I have no background whatsoever in anything other than classical piano, but I am a really creative person and my ability to write music extends beyond what I thought I could ever do. Every step of the way, things have fallen into place and I have felt comfortable with the process - almost as if I have done it before. When I was thirteen, I wrote for a full orchestra with no training at all – I just knew how to do it. WEIRD!
KP: What’s coming next?
Fiona: Next is “Blue Dream,” which is due out in September. Then I need to get back into my art studio and paint – for my sanity! I would also like to perform and tour more. I will try to not produce another album for a few years so I can do those things. The problem is that I am a prolific writer, and before I know it, I have enough songs for another album. The whole cycle starts again and I never seem to get a break. I have recorded four albums in four years.
KP: How did you hook up with Will Ackerman?
Fiona: I emailed him several times about three years ago and got no reply. I read somewhere that Will said there are three million George Winston wannabes in the world and that every one of them emails him! After I won the New Age Reporter Lifestyle Music Award for Best Piano Album in 2006 with “Angel Above my Piano,” a musician-friend introduced me (by email) to Will and I got the invitation to “come on over and talk.” It’s strange how things work!
KP: Is your next album solo piano again, or will you use some of Ackerman’s back-up musicians?
Fiona: So far, I have recorded the piano part, and I’m currently working with Will to decide which instruments will go on the album. We are talking about using a lot of different instruments – everything from strings to horns, to harp – plus vocals (yep I get to sing too!). After we work out the instrumentation, we’ll choose which players to hire. Imaginary Road Studios are in Vermont, and some of the best instrumental artists in the world live in that area, so finding them should be easy.
KP: Are you recording at Imaginary Roads itself?
Yes, in three separate sessions. I recorded the piano bed in December and was totally freaked out by the snow – we don’t see anything like that in Australia! Such fun! I’ll go back in March and again in June for a month each time.
KP: Do you have regular playing gigs?
Fiona: I don’t perform on a regular basis. I do concerts when someone else organises them! When I can turn up and just play because everything else has been organised, I’m a very happy person. I love performing. Thankfully, I do about eight solo concerts a year and four or five smaller gigs. In 2009, I plan to concentrate more on performance and touring.
KP: Who or what are your biggest musical influences?
Fiona: I was definitely not a normal child. I discovered listening to the stereo at seven years of age and spent hours and hours with my ears glued to the speakers listening to things like “Bolero,” Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” Andrew Lloyd Webber (my Dad was Jesus in “Superstar”), and I knew every word to “Evita.” I filled up on that stuff and held it close to me for many years.
KP: What inspired you to start composing your own music?
Fiona: I can’t say there was any inspiration from anywhere – I just started doing it, like an obsessive compulsive disorder ! It was just something I had to do, something that came naturally – a bit like breathing.
KP: Have you done any composing for films and TV?
Fiona: Not yet, but I have my fingers crossed. I am a conceptual writer and I put images and emotions into music, so I would like to think that I would be suited to scoring film and TV. I have been talking to people, but sometimes these projects take years to eventuate. I’ll just have to wait and see.
KP: What has been your most exciting musical moment or experience so far?
Fiona: Recording “Blue Dream” at Imaginary Road Studios with Will Ackerman – on a Steinway!!
KP: Are there any specific pieces that you feel say the most about who you are as a person?
Fiona: “Blue Dream” is really personal. The other albums have a lot of pieces written about subjects that are less introspective and more general, but “Blue Dream” is more about my life. Some of it will never have liner notes – it’s too private.
KP: Is there a particular philosophy that you try to convey in your music?
Fiona: I just do what I do. The music comes first and everything else comes second. If someone were to suggest I do something because it’s more commercial, I would totally ignore it. The music comes from my heart, and it’s just luck if it’s music that people want to listen to.
KP: Who are your favorite composers?
Fiona: I love Andrew Lloyd Webber. Prokofiev. I love George Winston. I also like the Baroque period and feel I understand the composers from that era. You will think I’m crazy, but I am in awe of Eminem! I don’t like everything he does, but some of it is amazing. He really is a modern-day poet and there is a song he does with Elton John (and Dido) that I can’t stop listening to.
KP: Who are your favorite performers?
Fiona: I don’t get to watch many performers, but I love shows – ballets, rock operas, and the odd band. I think Freddie Mercury is the all-time best performer.
KP: What do you like to do in your free time, or do you have any?
Fiona: In my spare time, I’m a bit of a folkie – I listen to Janis Ian, Dido, Luka Bloom – and I also love to listen to Dance/Electronica and dance around the house. I have always loved dancing, although I’m not too great at it. I just enjoy the freedom. If I have any spare time, I would always choose to go clothes and shoe shopping. I LOVE fashion.
KP: Do you have any hobbies?
Fiona: I consider my animals my hobby. I have three cats and three dogs. I used to ride horses, but out of a respect for my wrists, I decided it wasn’t such a good idea (in case I fell off). I also love trampolining and can still do some fancy tricks!
KP: What are your favorite colors?
Fiona: My favourite colour is purple. After that, it’s yellow. I choose to live with those colours. My favourite colours to wear are black, black, black and red.
KP: How old are your teenagers?
Fiona: My eldest boy is nearly eighteen and the youngest will be sixteen this year. They are both much taller than their mother – and I’m tall!
KP: How do they like “Ice”?
Fiona: Finally they like something I have done (they DON’T like classical). Ben likes jazz and Nick likes anything that you can bang your head to!
KP: If you could have any three wishes, what would they be?
Fiona: Happiness and love as part of everyone’s life – the world would be a better place. Maybe music can help with that goal. When I sign my albums I write “Love, Peace and Music.” Music is important; it has a place.
KP: Do you have any words of advice for young people who are studying music now?
Do it because you love it. And if you really love it, you NEED to practice! Nothing happens overnight. There are years of hard work that go into anything substantial in life, any achievement you make. Kids today expect things to just fall into place. Life doesn’t work like that - you need a good work ethic and you need to believe in yourself. There will ALWAYS be people who try to pull you down, and you absolutely must learn to rise above them. Allowing negative people to slow you down is the biggest pitfall.
KP: Do you also do a lot of painting? Have you had many shows?
Fiona: I painted full time for ten years before I stepped into the music studio for the first time. I had a lot of shows in major venues and was starting to make a name as a painter. Then, one night I literally had an epiphany and woke (always at 3 AM) to the decision that I could combine my music and art careers by having an exhibition of paintings using original manuscripts of my music on the canvas. If I then recorded the music, the audience could hear and see the music at the same time. One thing led to another, and here I am doing music full time with hardly a spare five minutes to paint!
KP: What is your artwork like?
Fiona: I think there is a certain synchronicity where you can see something one way and translate it in another. Music and art go together, and even though I paint bright mixed media abstracts on canvas and write emotive classical piano, there is still, somehow a connection between them. I guess there are two totally different sides to my art and I love to explore and express both.