Laura Sullivan and I first met in 2005 when Whisperings had two concerts at my home in CA one weekend. Laura lives south of San Francisco and recently released her beautiful fifth CD, “Close To Home.” Laura and her husband, Eric, became parents in early 2007, welcoming little Shaela into the world. As you can imagine, having a daughter has changed Laura’s routine rather dramatically, but it sounds like it is all in a very good way. We chatted about her new album, her life, and her music recently, and I think you’ll enjoy getting to know this very talented composer/pianist.
KP: Hi Laura! Have you been getting any of the rain I’ve been trying to send to you in the Bay Area?
Laura: We did. It’s cleared up a bit the past couple of days which has been nice because Shaela gets restless in the afternoon when we don’t make it outside to play.
KP: You recently released “Close to Home,” your fifth album. All of your recordings have been quite different from each other. I have been reading my reviews of the previous releases, and felt that each new one was your best. What made you decide to release a CD of folk and traditional songs this time?
Laura: My husband, Eric, and I took a trip to Ireland in 2006 and as we drove across the country, we passed the time singing our hearts out. Some of the songs we were hearing in the pubs were songs I heard when I was child. I fell in love with some of these songs again, and something about the Irish countryside and having fun with that music really got under my skin. I decided to explore it more when we got home. That’s how the album began.
KP: “Close To Home” has more vocals than your previous recordings. Your voice is beautiful whether you are using it as an instrument or actually singing lyrics. Is this a direction you find yourself gravitating toward more and more?
Laura: Thank you. I was longing to vocalize these particular songs on “Close To Home,” but lately I’ve been writing more piano and instrumental compositions, so I may be gravitating in that direction for one of the next projects. One of my teachers told me to sing through the piano and I like to think of it in that way.
I find playing solo piano every bit as satisfying as singing, and on some days even more so. Other days, like when we were on a narrow, winding road in Ireland with the rain beating on the windshield, there is nothing better than belting out a song at the top of my lungs.
KP: I would imagine that being a mommy to a toddler must eat into your composing and performing time! How are you managing to balance everything?
Laura: Time management has become more difficult now that I’m a mom! I do most of my composing while Shaela is sleeping, so her naptime is golden. Not only because I find my rested child much more delightful, but because that is the time I can really focus. I also set aside time to play music when she goes down for the night.
KP: I know it’s kind of soon to tell, but are you seeing any musical inclinations in Shaela yet?
Laura: She absolutely loves music. We took her to see the Bare Naked Ladies when they performed at our local library! I couldn’t believe we got to see them at that venue! Now one of her favorite albums is “Snacktime” by the same group. One of their songs has a section that goes “jump, jump” (which she pronounces “bump, bump”) and she wants that played over and over again while she “bumps” around our kitchen floor.
The music I play is much too slow for her tastes (unless she is going to sleep). She prefers her music high energy, like The William Tell Overture finale, another one of her favorites.
KP: How old were you when you became interested in music?
Laura: I’ve been interested in music for as long as I can remember. My parents love music. Both of them played the guitar and my mother played piano. I remember sitting by my mother while she played Beatles music and she taught me to play “Hey Jude” when I was about 5 years old. I think I learned that song before I learned any classical music.
KP: You are a relatively rare CA native (me, too, but I defected!). Let’s talk a bit about your early life in Northern CA.
Laura: I grew up on a farm near Los Molinos and the Dye Creek Preserve. We had animals, a walnut orchard, and big vegetable gardens. We spent lots of time outdoors in the summer and my parents didn’t allow us to watch much TV, so we got creative with how we entertained ourselves. My brother and I had two tree houses and a creek ran through our property that we would raft down. My mother made most of our food from scratch including grinding her own wheat to make bread, churning her own butter and curing cheese.
KP: How did that influence your music?
I’m not sure, except it was a pretty simple and quiet life without too many distractions so maybe that gave me more space to focus on music. We also played music together as a family. My brother was on the drums, and my mom, dad or sister played guitar while I played piano. It was fun. I enjoyed using our piano as a toy.
KP: Your mother is children’s book author, Carol Purdy. Are you also a storyteller?
Laura: Not nearly as good of one as she was. I have written some musicals for children that I produced some years ago. I hope to get those published and available sometime.
KP: How long did you take piano lessons and study music?
Laura: My mother was my first teacher, and that made a difference throughout my childhood. She supported me in little ways like listening to me play while she was cooking dinner and calling out little encouragements now and then. I guess I enjoyed knowing that she was an audience that cared. She didn’t mind too much if I played classical pieces in alternative styles, either. For example, I enjoyed playing “Moonlight Sonata” at tempo Vivace (very fast and lively). I thought it was fun having the liberty to play things my own way, and her acceptance of my wishes to play things the “wrong” way gave me freedom to experiment.
I had several other teachers in addition to my mom off and on as I grew up. Then in college, I learned a lot from a wonderful pianist, Dr. Robert Bowman. He was my mentor as I went on to get my degree in music from California State University, Chico, and he is still a close friend.
KP: Do you play other musical instruments?
Laura: I play the flute and the guitar a little.
KP: Were you active in musical activities as a child?
Laura: Yes, I was in a vocal jazz group outside of school called “Night Wind.” We sang in local shows and did the national anthem for a Giants game at Candlestick Park once, which was quite a thrill! I was always in band and played piano for school musicals in high school.
KP: Is your musical training mostly classical?
Laura: Yes. I always improvised, but didn’t know that’s what it was called until I was older. I think it would have helped me to study jazz styles as well when I was first learning, as those don’t flow as quickly to me and sometimes I want to incorporate more of those elements into my playing.
KP: On your website, you mention being passionate about studying Non-Violent Communication as a spiritual path. Let’s talk about that.
Laura: I first learned about Non-Violent Communication when I heard a program about it on KPFA, our local Bay Area public radio station. I was really drawn to it and it resonated for me. I explored it more and began to learn real skills to heal relationships in my life. I also found an inner peace based on self-empathy to be grounding.
I’ve come to believe that the only way our world can change is through education, through learning how to have compassion for one another and to realize that we all have the same needs. That is basically what NVC is about. For me it’s a spiritual path because it’s a practice of being conscious to keeping my heart open and seeing beauty in everyone. I’m not saying I do that all the time -it’s just where I want to be and try to be.
KP: On your site, you mentioned that you are working on an album of music for children based on these principles. Will that be your next release?
Laura: I am working on two albums simultaneously. The other one is a collection of original piano and instrumental compositions. That one is in its early stages, and I’m excited about both of these projects.
KP: Your CD covers are always exceptional. Does the same artist do all of them?
Thank you. Two of my favorites, “Mystical America” and “Feast of Joy and Love” were commissioned by Johanna Pieterman. I absolutely love her work and am of course delighted she had time to create the covers with the music from those albums in mind. She has also done several album covers for Ritchie Blackmore and Candice Night of Blackmore’s Night. Johanna’s artwork has such a mystical quality to it that I love and when I first saw her artwork I thought she was a kindred spirit. She lives in the Orkney Islands in Scotland, which sounds like an absolutely fascinating place. I think she finds inspiration from her surroundings.
My latest CD, “Close to Home,” features the artwork of Lee Jacobson, of whom I’m a big fan. And, lucky me, she just happens to be my mother-in-law! She showed me this painting when I was in the beginning stages of “Close to Home.” She was just sharing some of her artwork with me - we weren’t looking for an album cover. As I was working on the album and imagining from time to time what artwork might fit the music, this painting kept coming into my mind as an image of what the music means to me - a peaceful place to come home to. It also reminds me a little of my childhood. We talked about it and she was able to put the finishing touches on the painting while listening to the music. I’m so pleased with how it turned out and feel really honored to have it as part of the album.
KP: Who are your favorite composers?
Laura: There are so many that it’s hard to nail down my favorites. Debussy, Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Bach… I also admire modern composers like Phillip Glass and film composers like Michael Nyman as well as New Age greats like Michael Hedges, George Winston, Liz Story and Will Ackerman. I’m also a fan of many of the Whisperings artists including David Lanz, Michael Dulin, David Nevue, Robin Spielberg, Suzanne Ciani and Steven Cravis, to name just a few. There is a diverse group of many others. I love the music of Lisa Gerrard and Dead Can Dance. At home we listen to a lot of traditional Celtic music which I find so wonderful. We met a great banjo player in Ireland named Desi Kelleher and we have been listening often to his CD. Shaela also loves dancing to that. I also really like the band Lunasa… the list could go on and on.
KP: What has been your most exciting musical moment to date?
Laura: I’ve had many, but they probably don’t seem that exciting to anyone else. My favorite musical moments come when I’m in the quiet of my home wearing my pajamas with a hot cup of tea next to me. I then have the freedom to play the piano and just sink into the experience until I feel a deep connection with the music that’s very moving and satisfying. It’s blissful.
KP: What inspires you to compose music?
Laura: Almost everything. I have many ideas that I want to create. I can’t imagine living long enough to do them all! I try to prioritize the ones that are most alive for me in the moment and concentrate on those.
KP: What are some of your hobbies?
Laura: I enjoy cooking, although I haven’t made much time for it since becoming a mom. Now it’s mostly what I can quickly whip together using items stowed away from our beloved Trader Joe’s freezer section! Someday I hope that I can take some cooking classes because thus far, I’ve mostly been winging it using my husband as a guinea pig.
Other than that, I appreciate being outdoors and in nature. I also like movies and reading books (although I rarely make time for that either anymore).
KP: What other kinds of things do you enjoy doing?
Laura: Spending time with friends and family, traveling, wine tasting, and playing in the dirt with Shaela as we examine piles of acorns and wood-chips.
Many thanks to Laura for taking the time to tell us about her life. Be sure to check out her music at her website
or her Artist Page
on MainlyPiano.com. She also has a recently-released sheet music book!