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Interview with Joe Bongiorno, March 2021
Interview with Joe Bongiorno, image 1
One of the joys of doing what I do is getting to know some of my favorite artists and often becoming very good friends with them. This has been especially true of hosting house concerts, as artists often spend a night or two, allowing time to get better acquainted. Joe Bongiorno is one such friend. I started reviewing his music back in 2000, did an interview with him in 2007, and then we met in 2009 when he did his first concert here with Rebecca Oswald. Joe was still living in Washington state, and became a regular concert artist here, appearing with other artists including Michele McLaughlin, Philip Wesley, Chad Lawson and Joe's future wife, Amy Janelle. When Joe and Amy moved to Sedona, AZ, the concert appearances here came to an end, but we still saw each other at some of the Whisperings events that I went to from 2015-2018. Joe recently released a new solo piano album and songbook called When All Is Quiet, which I love. It was definitely time to do an updated interview, so enjoy!

KP: Joe! I can't believe it's been so long between interviews! You used to come here to play a couple of times a year, and those concerts were SO much fun! When we did our first interview in 2007, we hadn't met yet. In 2011, I did an interview with you and David Nevue about the first Whisperings Solo Piano Radio compilation album, and that was it. We have some catching up to do! How are ya?

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Joe, Kathy and Rebecca Oswald 2009
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Amy Janelle, Joe and Michele McLaughlin 2010
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Joe and Chad Lawson 2011

JB: Time sure flies, that seems like yesterday! I am well, balancing my home life and music life as best I can.

KP: A couple of the things that have happened since 2011 is that you moved from Seattle, WA to Sedona, AZ, you and Amy got married, and you have three beautiful little kids - all huge lifestyle changes! Tell us about them.

JB: I have dreamed of living in Sedona since I first visited for a day when I was 10 years old. My Grandmother had a hard time pulling me off the red rocks and I told her that day that I was going to move to Sedona some day. 33 years later I arrived. Amy Janelle (my wife and solo piano artist), Joseph Akins and I did a little concert tour through AZ in spring of 2012. We played in Sedona one night, stayed a few extra days and she fell in love with it, much to my delight. We moved here a few months later and we got married the following year. We bought land, custom built a house and recording studio on the outstretches of Sedona and settled in. Giuseppe is now 5, Marco just turned 3, and baby MiaBella was born Jan 7th. Three Capricorn kids, not that I'm sure entirely what that means but I hear I'm "in for it." They are wonderful, unique individuals who teach us daily, or perhaps hourly. While they can be consuming, I can't imagine life without them. They are full of love, excitement and energy and bring adventure to every day. They can make me feel young one moment, and every bit of my 51 years the next. I also have an adult daughter, Taylor, living in Tacoma who will always be "my angel."

KP: You recently released your eleventh album, When All Is Quiet, which is one of your best, if not THE best of your albums. What was the inspiration for the music?

JB: I worked on this album over a span of 3+ years. 5 of the 10 pieces were written in 2020. Mostly inspired by the quiet times after the boys went to bed, the quiet times of the pandemic, and the loss of my Father in April '20 to Covid-19. With so much going on in life, I used these struggles to inspire music. Every song I have ever written has a direct life inspiration. That's the only way I can create. I can't just sit down and write a song "for the heck of it." It has to have emotional backing and substance. 

KP: That's a big part of why I love your music! I was really glad to see that you have a sheet music book for the album, too, so other pianists can experience first-hand the emotional expression of your music. Is the songbook available only from your website?

JB: Yes, I exclusively sell songbooks and CDs at my site these days. I removed everything from Amazon a few years ago because they treat their vendors very poorly, in my experience. I like keeping my site as my central commerce point. I also sell PDF sheet music downloads for all 114 of my songs there. My "top 20" song sheets are also available at sheetmusicplus.com. They have a fair set-up there for artists. 

KP: Your Piano Haven recording studio has really become the go-to place to record solo piano music. I guess things must have been pretty quiet there this past year with COVID and travel restrictions. Are you doing any recordings right now?

JB: I am just back to work and have a very busy year coming up. 2020 was my slowest year since my first year, 2007, for obvious reasons. I think I only recorded 7 albums. I typically do 25-30. It was this relief that got me back to my own music, something that I seem to forget about when I am working on other artists' music. I am planning to cut my workload in 2021 & 2022 to allow for the time needed to work on my own music. I have lots planned! I have a full studio slate this spring working with the likes of Eric Carlson, Rada Neal, Suzanne Herman, Adam Andrews, Ryan Marvel, Chad Hewitt, Pam Asberry, Brad Jacobsen, Lisa Swerdlow & more. 

KP: Lots of great music on the horizon! Tell us about your piano. It has such a wonderfully expressive sound!

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JB: The Shigeru Kawai SK7L is exquisite. Back in 2012, Kawai invited me to a Shigeru showcase in Seattle. After the event, I got to play one and fell in love. At that time I already owned my dream piano, the Kawai RX7. A year later I upgraded to the Shigeru Kawai SK7L. It's a handmade artisan piano designed to compete with the top tier pianos such as Bosendorfer, Fazioli etc.... It's remarkable, the layers of sound, the intimacy, the power, the clarity, the control... I could go on & on! I am proud to be a Shigeru Kawai Artist, and my friends at Kawai have been wonderful to me. I believe I am playing the finest piano in the world and the perfect piano for me, my music, and my studio clients. I spend a great deal of time and money keeping it top condition, 12-15 tunings/year and extensive voicing and regulating at least twice annually. I admit, I am spoiled!

KP: Everyone who plays it seems to really love that piano! I guess you've had to curtail your in-home concerts, too, as I have. I really miss them and the camaraderie with the artists who come and play! I miss the live music, too!

JB: I sure do miss the studio concerts, although I have been doing concerts with some of my friends/ clients streamed live to Facebook with no or little in-house audience. These have been quite successful, often getting 500+ unique viewers. The recorded video then immediately posts to Facebook afterwards and some have many thousands of views. I plan to continue streaming live even after the pandemic curtails and we can bring audiences back, perhaps as early as late summer '21. The online exposure just can't be beat and it generates revenue via tips. My studio holds 35 comfortably with great acoustics and concert lighting. I have been hosting house concerts dating back to 2007 in my Seattle days. They will always be my favorite way to perform.

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Click on album covers to go to
Kathy's reviews.

KP: It's such an intimate experience for the artists as well as the audience. A win-win! 

About how many albums have you recorded at Piano Haven?

JB: Last count was over 300 albums!

KP: Impressive! Are most of them Whisperings artists?

JB: I would say about two thirds are. I have some singer/songwriters that record with me, some jazz and classical artists as well as a number of new/novice artists. I love working with artists from their very beginning. Helping them develop and grow as well as getting them kickstarted on the business end. Often their early stuff doesn't get much notice as the genre is quite difficult to get discovered in these days. It takes a few albums and a real "defining of your sound" before things start to tick. Patience and fortitude are keys here. 

KP: I really enjoy helping new artists get their music heard, too!

It was sad to not have the annual Whisperings "hang" and Awards Concert this year. The Whisperings group feels like such a family of artists as well as friends. Are there tentative plans to do a show next year? 

JB: Whisperings chose not to do a concert/artist event in 2020 and 2021 and I really don't know if anything is being planned. With the help of pianists Joe Yamada & Michael Martinez, the three of us pulled off a weekend of concerts and "hanging" in LA, January 2020 featuring 10 different artists. It was a different type of format and was part of my Piano Haven Concert Series. It was very successful and we broadcasted live to Facebook and had a huge audience. When it becomes safe to do more events I will be planning more Piano Haven Concerts in cities besides my home in Sedona, AZ. I am really looking forward to getting back out there and traveling/performing with my piano family. It feels like it has been forever.

KP: I completely forgot that the concert last year in Southern CA was a Piano Haven Concert rather than Whisperings. Sorry about that! I tuned in and thoroughly enjoyed it! 

With a little more free time, are you planning to release another album of your own music this year? Actually, with a new baby in the house, you probably DON'T have more free time! What was I thinking? I'll rephrase the question: Do you plan to do another album anytime soon? 

JB: I have learned a very important lesson this last year, and it's that I must make my music my priority over my Piano Haven Studio Recording Studio work. I simply have to be a bit more selective on the projects I take on in the studio and spread them out so I can have chunks of time where I can focus exclusively on my music, and clear my head of other people's music. It was very fulfilling to get When All Is Quiet released last November. I have 3 albums planned for the next 12 months! First, I am working with orchestrator extraordinaire Doug Hammer on a follow-up album to my 2013 album Synfonia. I just love adding symphonic sounds to my music and Doug is a dream to work with. I swear he is able to get inside my head and tap into how I hear these tracks playing out. I expect this album to release in late spring / early summer 2021. Then I plan to release a second solo piano Christmas album in the Fall, a follow-up to my 2010 album A Candlelight Christmas. Then in early spring of 2022, I plan to release another original solo piano album. I have already written 5 songs for this album, so the creative juices are flowing strong.

KP: Excellent! Lots of new music to look forward to. I've talked to several people who have worked with Doug and they are all blown away with how good and how perceptive he is. He also has an incredible sense of humor! Great guy!

MiaBella is too young, but have Giuseppe or Marco shown an interest in music? With you and Amy both being musicians, I would think there could be a real draw there - and possibly a lot of talent. 

JB: Both boys have shown interest in the piano. We have two digitals in the house that they can "bang on" using headphones. As soon as they seem interested enough in lessons we will happily provide them.

KP: Who and what have been some of the biggest influences on your music?

JB: in the mid-late 90's, my late twenties, I became very drawn to solo piano music. One Christmas I was gifted a Narada 20 year solo piano CD set. When I heard Wayne Gratz's track "Dark Eyes" on that album, I was mesmerized. I rented an upright and figured the song out note for note by ear. I love all his music and he has become a great friend of mine. We have performed together numerous times. 

Another influence is Kevin Kern whose music I became familiar with around that same time. His simple melodies are so catchy to me. I got to meet him in 2013 when I invited him to play a couple concerts with me here in Sedona. He and his wife, Pam, are a blast to hang with. I got a free "master class" with Kevin one afternoon before a concert where he listened to my playing and gave me invaluable pointers regarding touch, technique and song structure. 

Michael Gettel was a huge inspiration to me as well, I have yet to meet him but hope to someday. 
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Marco, Giuseppe, and MiaBella.
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Joe performing at Whisperings 2016.
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Joe performing at Whisperings 2018.

Yanni and his album In My Time, same time period, mid 90's. I was walking though a mall and heard this piano music coming from a CD store. I walked in and the display showed this album playing. I bought it without hesitation and it remains one of my very favorite albums. A couple years later, I was walking across a grocery store parking lot in Yelm, WA where my mother lives. I spotted a short fellow wearing all white with black flowing hair and it was Yanni! He was dating TV/movie star Linda Evans at the time who lived in the area. I walked up to him and told him how much I loved his piano album. He gave me a big hug and we chatted for a while. What a moment that was! 

Finally, but not least, was Jim Brickman. I was in a department store in Seattle and heard lovely piano music coming from a far corner. I followed my ear into the kid's clothing section and there in a small clearing amongst clothing racks was a fellow playing a grand piano with a dozen or so people circled around him. He was handing out his first album, By Heart, that he had just released and was giving concert tickets away for that night. I had to work and couldn't go to the concert but I still have that signed CD and it's a true fav of mine. I have been blessed to have these amazing inspiring artists come into my life and knew so clearly back then what I was meant to do. A lot of hard work and passion has gone into my music and I am blessed to live the amazing life I do now.

KP: The scenery and climates of Seattle and Sedona are so different from each other. How has that affected your music?
JB: Sedona was a welcome change in weather after 25 years living in WA. It took a while to "wring myself out"! When I got here in late 2012, I was so inspired and wrote almost all the tracks to my album Flight of a Dream in the first few months. To date, I would have to say that's my favorite of all my albums. It has been my dream since I visited Sedona as a child to live here and I just love it here - very peaceful, beautiful and sunny. It's just awesome to live in your very favorite place in the world.

KP: I agree! I love it here in Florence, too! 

Is your wife, Amy Janelle, still composing? She is probably more than fully occupied with three small kids!

JB: She certainly is! Since the break after her second album she has released 5 singles in the last couple years and has more ready to release. She does wish for more time at the piano but she loves her role as a mother and wife. I think her new music is especially amazing. She has such a unique sound and great technique. She crafts amazing songs. I was so proud when she was nominated for Whisperings Album of the Year for her A New Direction album. I work closely with her on her music and we have a blast bouncing ideas back and forth. Not sure if you know our story, Kathy, but I'll share with you how we met... Amy was taking David Lanz's college course in 2009 up in Bellingham WA. I lived in Kenmore, a north Seattle suburb. Amy asked David Lanz to refer her to a local recording studio with a nice piano. He sent her to me! After her first session with me, we sat and talked for hours about anything and everything. The next day I called her and asked her to go hiking with me at Snoqualmnie pass. She accepted and the rest was history!

KP: Love it! I remember your saying back in 2007 when you were here for a concert that you really missed being in love. I was so happy when you found Amy and everything clicked!

What has been your most exciting musical moment or experience so far?

JB: Wow, that's a tough one... probably the 2008 concert I played with David Lanz and David Nevue in downtown Chicago at Ganz Hall. I used to have terrible performance anxiety. David Nevue jokingly and privately referred to me as "the mouse," as sometimes when performing I was so tight I could hardly talk and my voice would squeak. That particular concert was my homecoming since I was born and raised in Chicago. It was the first time my father had seen me perform and he was an exceptional classical pianist. He was in the front row along with other family and many friends. I was really rattled backstage, never been more nervous. We had a packed concert hall and I felt so strongly that I didn't belong there. Lanz noticed I was struggling. He came to me in the moments before we started and sat me down. He pulled up a chair and sat right in front of me. In his signature soft voice he asked me what I was afraid of. I told him "making mistakes and embarrassing myself." He smiled and said "I hear ya," while mixing me a vitamin B stress pack in water and telling me to down it. I did.... He told me that I very clearly belonged there and that everyone in the audience would be in awe of my music. He also pointed out that it's my music and I can play any notes I want to and to own them all, while handing me a peeled banana... I downed it. He told me not to stop or hesitate if I "clam," to play right through it without expression or remorse. He told me that he makes his fair share of "clams" and it simply doesn't matter. This is not a classical competition. The next moment I was tapped on the shoulder and was told, "you're up Joe!" I went out there I killed my set, I felt like a million bucks and have never had stage fright since. I do feel the adrenaline kick in when I perform but it's excitement, not fear-based. That night was a defining moment for me.
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Amy Janelle 2016
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KP: What a great story! I remember interviewing David Lanz early on and him telling me that Victor Borge started doing comedy in his concerts to combat stage fright, so that's why David started doing it, too. I was blown away because I had seen David in concert several times and he seemed so loose and relaxed. He said "I get there!" Blew me away!

Do you have a favorite of your many pieces?

JB: probably "Awaking Moment" from Flight of a Dream. I was on vacation in Sedona in 2007 just after releasing my album Somewhere Within. I had a dream one of the nights there that was very vivid and real, and three fold. I dreamed I was living in Sedona, making music full time and retired from the restaurant biz which I was in then, and had an amazing woman in my life. Flash forward to 2013, I was at my brand new Shigeru SK7L just after Amy I had moved there and I remembered that dream and realized in that moment that it had all come true. I proceeded to write "Awaking Moment" which to date is the song I enjoy playing the most. Here is a link to the video.

KP: Who is your favorite performer?

JB: Easy answer.... Mike Strickland. He is the full package and the real deal. His playing is spectacular and fluent, his audience engagement is heart warming, and his repertoire so diverse. He can take you from boogie-woogie to dreamland in a simple moment. His southern hospitality shines and he has a heart of gold. Mike has performed numerous times with me and was also very helpful and supportive of me back in the days when I struggled with performance anxiety.

KP: Mike has played here several times, too. I love watching him perform! 

If you could have one wish, what would it be?

JB: I wish for this world, especially our country, to become a better place for my children. Reference my song "A Better Place" on When All Is Quiet, which is like a musical prayer for them. I get very frustrated with the politics and division of our current times. I wish for our government and society to unite as one team and serve all equally. I know that's broad and dreamy but that would be so beautiful. Hopefully in my kids' lifetime, but I'm not quite so optimistic for mine. 

KP: I couldn't agree more! 

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

JB: Just a heartfelt thanks to you for your years of effort helping to promote all of our piano music. You are a treasure and I miss you, hope to be by for a visit soon and share a bottle of red!  Joe

KP: I miss you, too, Joe! I'll look forward to sharing that bottle of wine! Thanks for taking the time to do a great interview!

For more information about Joe Bongiorno and his music, be sure to visit his website and his Artist Page here on MainlyPiano.com. 
Kathy Parsons
March 2021