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Interview with Joseph Akins, November 2017
Interview with Joseph Akins, image 1
Joseph Akins trying out the Kawai "Crystal Piano" at NAMM 1/17.
One of my favorite things about writing reviews and interviews is the friendships that have developed over the years, and one of my favorite people I’ve gotten to know is Joseph Akins. He was one of the first artists to do a house concert here in Florence, OR and he’s come back several times since then. What a treat!!! Also an occasional reviewer on MainlyPiano.com, Joseph recently released Into the Flow, which is quite possibly his best album yet. We talked about that and several other things in this interview. If you want to know more about Joseph’s background, but sure to check out the first interview we did in 2008. Enjoy!

KP: Joseph! Hey, can you believe it’s been nine years since our first interview? I don’t think we had even met yet and now we’re old buddies! You were actually one of the first artists to do a house concert here in Florence, OR and have played here quite a few times now. How are you?

JA: I am doing very well Kathy, and happy to be doing this interview. It’s hard to believe nine years has passed since the last one. So much has happened since then including multiple album releases and concerts.

KP: The first interview we did was in August 2008, not long after you released Masterpeace, your first album in the new age/contemporary piano genre. Five albums later (plus several compilations), you recently released Into the Flow, which I think could be your best album to date. What was your overall inspiration for the album?
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Click on album covers to go to Kathy's reviews.

JA: Thanks for the kind words about Into the Flow. After releasing my previous album Castle Moon in 2015, I took a short break from composing new music, but after four or five months, I began writing one new piano piece after another. This composing streak continued through early 2017, at which time I had written enough music to fill an album.

It’s hard to point out a single inspiration for the album, but it’s easy to say that each composition had its own inspiration, which is outlined in the liner notes. That said, my intent was to compose a variety of pieces that would flow together on the new album (which became Into the Flow!).

KP: Are any of the tracks on the album trending as favorites?

JA: Many folks have been reporting their favorites over the last two months. The two getting the most votes are “The Waterfall Waltz” and “Winter is Here”.

KP: I went totally nuts over “Ghost of Mill Wee Hollow”! What’s the story behind that one?

JA: This one is a favorite of mine too! Here is the story. On my album, A Southern Sun (2013), there is an easy country feeling piece called “Watertank Hill” (a hill that I lived on as a child). One day while composing for Into the Flow, I was inspired to write a similar piece, but in a minor key. Once finished, I decided to dedicate it to a small country road called Mill Wee Hollow (a road near Watertank Hill). But there is more. As a child, I was told stories about a ghost who lived on this road. The more I listened to the music, the more I could imagine this ghost. This was so entertaining to me that one day the title “Ghost of Mill Wee Hollow” popped into my head. It was a perfect fit!

KP: The cover for the album is a picture of you standing by a waterfall and one of the pieces is “The Waterfall Waltz.” Why a waterfall theme this time?

JA: I am a big fan of waterfalls. I could sit, stare and listen to them all day. So, I am often inspired by waterfalls while composing. For instance, I will sometimes write descending melodies that represent the falling of water. But it was the picture on the cover of this album that brought it all together. A few years ago, I was hiking with some of my students at Foster Falls, a beautiful waterfall about 50 miles from my home, and one of the students randomly took this amazing photo. At the time, there was no intention to use it for an album cover, but when it became time to choose a cover for Into the Flow, it was the perfect choice! I was “into the flow” while being mesmerized by the waterfall just like I was during the composing and recording of the music, and hopefully the listener will be too.

KP: It seems like “Game of Thrones” has crept into your last couple of albums. Why has that program had such a strong influence for you?

JA: I usually don’t get obsessed by television shows, but my wife and I are big fans of “Game of Thrones”. We’ve watched every show multiple times since the very first episode. I enjoy following all of the characters and stories, and listening to the music! So, it has been a natural influence on my creativity.
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KP: “Mystery Cafe” has an interesting story. What is this piece about?

JA: When I began writing this piece, I used a harmonic motion in my left hand that my jazz mentor, Jerry Coker, called C.E.S.H (Contrapuntal Elaboration of Static Harmony). Simply put, it’s the same harmonic motion used in the famous Theme from James Bond. As the piece developed, I added Latin rhythms, jazz harmonies and a simple melody based on a natural minor scale. Once finished, it sounded very much to me like the kind of music you would hear in a café, but not your typical café. This café is a place where mysterious people hang out, like magicians, fortune-tellers, clairvoyants, and others. I can see the image so clearly in my mind. Wish I could draw it but I’m not very good at drawing. Maybe someone will animate it for the music someday. That would be awesome!

KP: How did you come up with the title for “Cosmic Microwaves”? What is that piece about?

JA: One morning during our recording sessions for Into the Flow, I played a series of improvisations. The engineer, Bill Crabtree, was very excited by this creative process and asked if he could name all the improvisations. It was fun to hear all the creative names he came up with. “Cosmic Microwaves” is the title he gave this one and we decided together it was the best improvisation recorded that morning. So, it was put on the album as the final track. We had so much fun that morning that we have talked seriously about making a whole album like this!
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KP: Are you planning to do a sheet music book for Into the Flow?

JA: Yes! Definitely. Whatever it takes, it will be available soon.

KP: Do you have a target time for when that might be available?

JA: Early 2018

KP: Your previous album, Castle Moon (2015), won several awards. Tell us a bit about that.

JA: I am humbled and thankful for the recognition it received. It was nominated for Whisperings Album of the Year and Zone Music Reporter’s Best Piano Album (Solo), and it took home winner for the Enlightened Piano Radio Album of the Year. It’s exciting to look back at that time now.

KP: I think it was your A Southern Sun (2013) album where you said you were trying to establish a “southern” style of piano playing. I thought and still think that is such an interesting concept. Are you trying to find a common thread in the original music from the Southern US or are you just trying to let it evolve?

JA: I am just trying to let it evolve naturally. When I released A Southern Sun, I wanted to bring my southern roots more to the forefront than previous albums. I feel like I succeeded but didn’t continue with that focus for subsequent albums. That said, it’s still there and I continue to listen and learn from southern music.

KP: What do you see/hear as some of the characteristics of “southern piano”?

JA: The technique that I believe most people hear as southern is the slip-note technique. For years, I heard this referred to as the Floyd Cramer lick, but I recently discovered that he wasn’t actually the first one to use it. It was first used on a hit recording from 1960 called “Please Help Me, I’m Falling” by Hank Locklin. Later that year, Floyd Cramer incorporated it into his hit “Last Date”. There may be other characteristics but I think the secret is in the food. A few years on a southern diet will give any musician those characteristics in their playing. Haha!

KP: In our last interview, you were just getting started with performing your own music, performing with other Whisperings Artists, and doing house concerts. Since then, you’ve become one of the better-known and best-loved pianists in the so-called new age genre. Obviously, your music speaks to a lot of people. Have you had to do a lot of promotional work yourself to get your music out there?

JA: Thank you for the kind words again. Yes, I’ve spent many hours over the last ten years on promotion. I have spent just as much time on promotion as I have on writing, practicing and performing. Promotion is hard work at times, but I try to see it as something creative. In August of this year, I attended a CD Baby DIY Musician Conference in Nashville and was inspired by all the people and things you can do to promote your music today. I plan to attend this conference every year now!

KP: Over the course of the past several years, you have also become a full professor at Middle TN State University. Which courses do you teach?
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JA: I teach courses in the area of music production within the Department of Recording Industry. The courses I primarily teach are in a computer lab that has a keyboard at each computer loaded with music production software. I help students use the technology to create music. MIDI, synthesizers and digital audio are some of the technologies I teach. Over the last year, I have begun teaching a course on film scoring (using a computer). It has been very interesting and a lot of fun!

KP: How do you see the music industry in general evolving? 

JA: The internet has changed the music industry a lot. Lately, I’ve been comparing it to the wild west. It is a bit crazy and out of control, but I believe within time, it will become better. Streaming is the new thing but is only in its infancy. I hope that within time, it will mature and artists will be fairly compensated for their creative works.

KP: What do you see as the next “big thing” in music or in recording?

JA: I keep hearing about virtual reality. It’s hard for me to grasp, but it’s possible that as it matures, we may see music play a role in this technology. Some of my colleagues at the university are into it already.

KP: Do you feel that the value of music has been reduced by the easy availability of it online?
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JA: Absolutely. The value of recordings for sure. Many people feel it should be free now. That said, people sometimes tell me that they want to support me by purchasing my music. It feels good to hear this from people, considering the high costs of making it.

KP: Is there anything else you’d like to chat about?

JA: I’m looking forward to 2018. In June, I will be the featured artist on a week-long cruise hosted by Audiosyncrasy. I also have a new album in mind. It has been ten years since Masterpeace was released. What about a Best of Joseph Akins in 2018? I could take two or three songs from each album (minus the Christmas album) and re-record them. I think it would be fun to re-visit “old” pieces.

Finally, Thanks for giving me this opportunity to share my stories and be a part of mainlypiano.com. I have much admiration and appreciation for what you do!

KP: Thanks, Joseph!!!
For more information about Joseph Akins and his music, be sure to visit his website and his Artist Page here on MainlyPiano.com.
Kathy Parsons
November 2017