Joseph Akins is a relatively new name on the contemporary piano scene – or is he? A full professor at Middle Tennessee State University, Akins has been playing professionally since he was twelve years old. His most recent release, “Masterpeace,” has been generating a lot of praise and attention, and with good reason – it’s a great album! We chatted about his life and music recently, and I’m sure you’ll find this interview very interesting!
KP: Have you always lived in Tennessee?
Akins: I was raised in a small town in Georgia called Chickamauga, which is close to the Tennessee border at Chattanooga. When I began college, I moved to Tennessee for a few years, living in Chattanooga and Knoxville. I attended graduate school in Radford, Virginia and lived for a short time in Brooklyn, NY. For the past eight years, I have lived near Nashville, which has been my favorite location. There are lots of musicians and music industry activity here.
KP: I understand you started out as a musician playing in your father’s band. Let’s talk about that.
Akins: I was raised in a musical family. My father worked part-time as a performing guitarist and bandleader for local nightclubs. He mostly played country music, but would play anything that was danceable. When I was 12, I had been taking piano and alto saxophone lessons for about two years, so my father started teaching me songs played by his band. These were mostly classic country songs like “Tennessee Waltz” and “Country Roads.” My father didn’t read music, so he taught me these songs by playing one phase at a time while I echoed him. When I joined his band, I was primarily playing saxophone since he already had a pianist. The pianist had a honky-tonk Southern style that was similar to Floyd Cramer’s. I learned a lot from him, all by ear. In retrospect, the pianist probably shouldn’t have taught me so much, because, after a couple of years, my father put me in his place! So I became the saxophonist and pianist/keyboardist for my father’s band until I was 17, at which time I went on the road with a Top 40 band. That was perfect because I wanted to be a rock star, but after two years, I decided to hang up the road life and enroll in college to become a better musician. I loved it and attended full-time for eight years! During that time, I made the transition from rock star wannabe to budding jazz pianist and composer. I practiced at least four hours a day and began to play jazz gigs.
KP: Which instruments do you play besides the piano and sax?
Akins: I played sax in marching and concert bands for eight years. In addition to the piano, I eventually began playing other keyboard instruments such as the electric organ and synthesizer. The combination of sax, piano and keyboards worked great for me, but when I began getting really serious about jazz at about age 22, I decided to just concentrate on the piano. However, I continued to play electronic keyboards and still do. I am a fan of Moog and Yamaha synthesizers. In fact, I have one of the original keytars - A Moog Liberation - and play it in my electronic music trio!
KP: When did you start playing the piano?
Akins: I recall teaching myself simple melodies and triads as a very young child. I started formal lessons and reading music at age 10 with a really cool teacher for the first two or three years. I would play the music as written and then play another version with my own embellishments. This came naturally from being raised in a musical family where everyone played by ear. As a teenager, I took classical piano lessons on and off, but didn’t really fall in love with playing classical music. I enjoyed learning technique and reading, but what I really loved was improvising. When it came time for college, I found the best jazz teachers in the state and studied with them for several years - until about age 28. These teachers included Jerry Coker, the founder of jazz education, and Donald Brown, a pianist for Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.
KP: Did you always know you were going to be a musician?
Akins: From ages 7 to 12, I wanted to be a baseball star, but when my father put me in his professional band, I decided music would be my life’s work. I remember deciding that while onstage. That was probably a good decision since I have never been very good at sports!
KP: When did you release your first album?
Actually, I made my first album on vinyl record when I was about 20! It was all pop music. I was the singer, pianist, keyboardist, saxophonist, flutist, and drum machine programmer. I also wrote the songs. However, I decided not to continue with pop music and soon fell in love with jazz. My next solo album was several years later and was VERY different! It was titled “Keys to the Heart,” and was primarily new age with a couple of smooth jazz tracks. On this album, I only played piano and a few keyboard parts as well as a short soprano sax part on one track. I also composed all of the music. This album was released shortly after I went though a change from being a budding jazz musician to a new age composer and performer. I was about age 30 and had many life challenges that inspired the change, including the death of my father to Alzheimer’s disease and a physical problem that was threatening to my musical career. Distressed by not knowing if I was going to be able to continue with music, I started learning about holistic/spiritual healing, yoga, and meditation. This is when I was first exposed to “new age” music. I began playing in a New Thought church, improvising during guided meditations and performing original compositions during services. People told me they loved it! My compositions were not in any particular style, but a culmination of all the styles I had been playing for years. Most importantly, it was music I enjoyed playing (from the heart) and for people that were listening from a higher consciousness. I was learning to deeply express my emotions through my playing. It was heaven then, and still is!
KP: “Masterpeace,” your most recent release, came out last fall. How is it doing?
Akins: Really great! This CD has opened many doors for me. I spend a little time each day marketing it. In fact, I’m about to enter it for the Grammy Awards. Almost daily, I get a message with kind words from someone who has been listening to the CD.
KP: Why did you call it “Masterpeace”?
Akins: It is a play on words. I think of a masterpiece as a great work of art and that is what I wanted this CD to be. It was also my intention for the music to have a peaceful response from the listener. Hence, master “peace.”
KP: I have read that most of the music for the album came all at once after a long period of writer’s block. How did that happen?
Akins: During the 90’s, I composed a lot of music, including the music for “Keys to the Heart,” but in the year 2000, I was offered a full-time teaching position at Middle TN State University. I was very happy to have this new job, but it required a lot of time, especially since the university wanted me to complete a doctorate (which I finished in 2006). Therefore, I didn’t really do much composing for a couple of years (although I was playing and performing). Eventually, I was feeling more settled and began to compose again. The first piece was the title track to this CD. After that, they just kept coming! One after the other, I was composing solo piano tracks that I felt were my best work yet. Most of these pieces are on “Masterpeace.”
KP: Has the music continued to flow? Are you working on your next release? Any idea of when it will be ready?
Akins: Yes! As soon as I finished the recording session for “Masterpeace,” I composed the first track for the next release. Since then, I have composed five more piano pieces and plan to write about three or four more this year. My plans are to record my next CD early 2009 and release it next spring.
KP: That’s something to look forward to! How long have you been a teacher?
Akins: I taught my first piano lesson when I was about 20. I wasn’t sure if I could do it, but I gave it a try and it went fine. A couple of years later, I was asked to teach for a children’s summer camp. I realized during this camp that I loved teaching and knew it would be a big part of my life. However, I was mostly interested in teaching for higher education, and therefore earned a Master’s degree in Music. For the next several years, I taught private lessons and courses as an adjunct instructor until becoming a full-time professor at Middle TN State University in year 2000.
KP: Where and what do you teach?
Akins: The Department of Recording Industry at Middle Tennessee State University is awesome! It is the largest music industry program with about 1500 students from all over the world. It is a distinct program because it is not in a music school. However, I teach commercial music (music theory and class piano) and electronic music (MIDI). The students in our program are prepped for industry jobs such as audio engineering, songwriting, music publishing, etc. It is very different from the music schools where I earned my degrees! It has been very challenging and I have learned a lot about recording and the music business since being here.
KP: What and who do you consider to be your biggest musical influences?
When I was learning so much about jazz, my favorites were Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. Over the past decade, I have been influenced more and more by new age pianists with David Lanz being my favorite. I own many of his CDs and often look to his music for ideas. I actually had the opportunity last November to hang with David for a few days in Centralia, Washington at the Lafond Conservatory of Music. I was on a high the whole time as I watched over his shoulder during his performances. He is an incredibly gifted musician, and a really nice guy too! His music has a spiritual, peaceful and joyful quality, but it also possesses a strong melody and traditional song form. I embrace a similar approach with my composing. In addition to David, I have found many other pianists over the last year that I listen to for inspiration. These include Greg Maroney, Michael Dulin, Lesley Spencer, David Nevue, Joe Bongiorno, Stanton Lanier and more. I also enjoy listening to and composing chill-out music, like the group Enigma.
KP: How long have you been a Whisperings Artist? Have you performed at many of the Whisperings Concerts?
Akins: I have been a Whisperings Artist for almost a year. This happened after I handed David Nevue my newly-released “Mastepeace” during a Whisperings concert in Atlanta in the fall of 2007. He was performing with David Lanz and many other great players. It was an awesome experience! I immediately became interested in Whisperings and wanted to be a part of it. Last June, I played and hosted my first Whisperings concert in Denver, Colorado with Lisa Downing and Rick Seaton. In September, I’ll be performing for one in Nashville, with Catherine Marie Charlton, Greg Maroney and another Nashville-based Whisperings artist, Philip Wesley. In November, I’ll be performing for a Whisperings concert in Murfreesboro with David Nevue and Philip Wesley.
KP: Several people have told me that there is a real resistance to the term “new age music,” particularly in the South. Have you found that to be true?
Akins: Yes! I find myself seeking alternative names for this music. I believe there are a couple of reasons for the resistance. First, the term new age is so diverse and general, I feel like I need to be more specific - contemporary solo piano or something like that. Also, I think I fear that some people might not take me as a serious musician if I say new age – maybe I need to get over that. Others might be afraid of the term because they are afraid of the New Age philosophy and lifestyle. The latter is probably truer for the South, although I have never had anyone say anything to make me believe that.
KP: The term “new age music” has been a huge stumbling block for a lot of years. I find that I avoid using it, too, for the same reasons you mentioned. What is your dream piano?
Akins: I drool over Yamaha pianos. I rented a 9-foot CSIII for the recording session of “Masterpeace.” I looooved the action and the sound of that piano! It was so rich and thick. I especially loved the deepness in the low notes. I have also loved some Bosendorfer and Steinway concert grands. I recently found out that a nearby college has a Bosendorfer in a chapel. I am seriously thinking about taking a portable recording rig there to see how it records. It is difficult for me to find the right piano for recording solo piano. It has to have the right action, great sound quality, be free of unwanted noises, and be in a great acoustical environment.
KP: Are you performing much in concert?
Akins: I’ve made a recent change in the type of venues I play. Through the 80’s and 90’s, I mostly played in nightclubs, restaurants, weddings, etc. I was able to sneak in an original piece now and then, but I mostly played cover songs and served more of a background role, often with a band. Recently, I’ve focused on performing at venues where I can play mostly original piano solos and have a captive audience. This includes concert/recital halls at art centers and piano stores, bookstores, churches, etc. This is why Whispering concerts are so wonderful: you see pianists playing music they have composed. I’m also hoping and trying to get into house concerts in the near future.
KP: What’s up next for you?
Akins: Over the next several months, I plan to finish sheet music for “Masterpeace” and release the new album that I am currently composing music for. This music is a little livelier than the music from “Masterpeace.” I want it to capture what I sound like during a live performance. There is no title yet, but I am fishing for one. Also, I plan to present, promote and perform at concerts across the United States, especially with other great pianists. Right now, I am setting up Whisperings concerts for December 2008 in Arizona with Lisa Downing and Windam Hill artist, Liz Story. In 2009, I hope to do concerts with folks like David Lanz and other great Whisperings artists. I love it!
Many thanks to Joseph Akins for taking the time to chat with us! Be sure to check out his website
and his Artist Page
here on MainlyPiano.com.