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Interview with Michael Whalen, July 2023
Interview with Michael Whalen, image 1
This is my second interview with Michael Whalen (the first was July 2019), an artist I first became familiar with when he released a variety of albums on the Narada record label in the early-mid 1990s. Many of those albums were piano or piano-related, but Michael has proven himself to be a musical jack-of-all-trades. In addition to his own recordings, Michael has been producing music for films, television and advertising for more than 30 years and has won two Emmy Awards (among others!). He also teaches and is an expert in copyright law and the music business. And he has an agency for coaching other artists in how to guide their own careers to greater success. Michael has already released three albums in 2023, Exaltation, Our April Tigers and Walk In Beauty, Like the Night (due out July 21, 2023), so this seemed like a great time to catch up with him. Enjoy this very candid interview with an artist who proves that nice guys DON'T necessarily finish last!

KP: Michael! How are things on the East Coast?

MW: It’s summertime! It’s hot, humid and busy! I am really loving living by the water now (Jamaica Bay). We moved in December and it is our first Summer by the water.

KP: As I write this, you are getting ready to release your third album for 2023, Walk In Beauty, Like the Night, something of a sequel to your enormously popular 2005 release, My Secret Heart. Tell us about the new album.

MW: I wasn’t planning on doing this album at all. I got a Casio Privia PX-S7000 digital piano and I was just playing around. I have received messages from fans about doing “another” version of my album My Secret Heart. The melody for “We Are All Made of Stars” fell out of my hands and within 10 days the album was done - mixed. I remember sending the finished tracks to Tom Eaton to be mastered and he said: “Where did this come from?” I said: “I dunno, the music just appeared.”

Interview with Michael Whalen, image 5
Click on album cover to go to
Kathy's review.
Interview with Michael Whalen, image 12
Click on album cover to go to
Michael Debbage's review.
Interview with Michael Whalen, image 11
So, yes, the album is the spiritual “sequel” to My Secret Heart. But I hope all of my experiences as a recording artist since 2005 (when My Secret Heart came out) are also present in this music. I think I have made major strides as an electronic musician and sound designer. Some of these experiences are part of this music as well as my own romantic cinematic leanings. Ultimately, I am very proud of this album and my own surprise at its existence does not lessen my pride. I think it means that the music came from a very pure place.

KP: It's a gorgeous album, and I thoroughly enjoyed reviewing it. Where does the title come from?

MW: The title is excerpted from a poem by Byron. The entire stanza is:

'She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.'

I love poetry - - but I am not really a fan of Byron. However, the idea that beauty can live out of the night in the darkness has always captured my attention. My wife Ruthie is the least self-involved person I have ever known but she is filled with beauty inside and out. The album became an ode to my best friend and wife.

KP: What a wonderful tribute!

Do you have any guest artists on this album, or do you play all of the instruments yourself?

MW: No, no guest artists on this one. After doing several collaboration projects (including Our April Tigers earlier this year), there was no time or space to get other people involved with this one. The music and concept happened so fast that including anyone else on this project seemed disingenuous at worst and possibly detrimental trying to shoehorn another musician. I know some people stack their releases with others in hopes of getting Grammy nominations and other awards. I only care that the music is done with integrity and heart.

KP: Nice! I think that really comes across in your music.

I understand that you have all of the track titles and the album artwork done before you start composing the music for an album. Is that to have a basic outline of the musical ideas you want to cover within the theme of the title? I'm sure all albums are different, but is that how you approached this album?

MW: Yes, every one of my solo albums (except Our April Tigers which was composed collaboratively) start with the titles and the artwork. Having these in my hand BEFORE the music is written is incredibly helpful for focus and to tell the programmatic story behind each song. I have scored music for film, TV and advertising for more than 30 years. Therefore, I like my solo music to create characters, places and times that I get to journey to in the music and I bring the listener along for the ride.
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Michael in his home studio.
KP: Interesting! Let's talk about some of the tracks on Walk In Beauty, Like the Night. One of my favorites is "Eternity Floats In Your Eyes." Like so much beautiful music, this one really pulls at the heartstrings and is very visual. What was your intention with this piece?

MW: My wife Ruthie has the most beautiful eyes of anyone I have ever known. Seriously. Her eyes go from being intense blue to grey depending on her, the time of day and other factors. She and I have started to talk about what happens AFTER you die. Where will we be? Can we be together? I think every human who has ever reached middle age has had these conversations. What seems to help me the most is simply looking into her eyes. I can feel my heart rate slow and that in her eyes is the answer to the questions that really have no answer at all. Talking about this now makes me laugh because we are discussing the indescribable part of living. Thank goodness we have music to help us say the impossible!

KP: Absolutely! Where did the title for "The Most Humid Sexy Summer" come from and what was the idea behind it?

MW: I grew-up in Washington, DC. The summer there is so humid. However, until I went to Louisiana and Texas in July as an adult - - I had no idea what I was talking about! [Laughs] So, this song is about keeping things sexy in the heat, humidity and environment of “the South”. I came up with the title before the music was written and I wasn’t sure the song was going to make it on the project until I heard it finished. The funny thing is that there is just as much guitar and sitar (samples) on the track as there is piano sounds. I was saying earlier that I like my music to be the underscore to the ideas of the songs I create. This song is a sexy “mini movie”. I like this song a lot.
Interview with Michael Whalen, image 9
Interview with Michael Whalen, image 10
Interview with Michael Whalen, image 8
Click on album covers
to go to Kathy's reviews.

KP: Me, too! In my review of the album, I said: "The title for 'Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me' seems just a little demanding and playful, but the piece itself is sooooooo smooth and romantic - another favorite!" How did you approach this one?

MW: Maybe I am old-fashioned but I think kisses are great. When you are up close kissing someone - you share their air. What is more intimate than that? I really wanted the feeling of intimacy to come through in this song. I am so glad you said: “smooth”. That was something I was really going for. A friend said that this song could have been on my 2022 album Imaginary Trains. I agree. The textures and the layers are similar but the piano melody is on top of everything. I have always been “addicted” to melody. This song ultimately is a piano song despite all the other sounds.

KP: "We Are Made of Stars" is one of the more ambient, ethereal tracks. Where did that title come from and what is this piece "about"?

MW: The title came out of that conversation with Ruthie about the “after life”. I said that I could bear eternity in oblivion if she was with me. We are all just made of stars and we could be a double binary in some quiet corner of space. It’s a very romantic notion. I love the track. I actually think that the song is the MOST like the songs from My Secret Heart musically.

KP: I know you and your wife, Ruthie, recently moved to a new home near the water, and "Our Home By the Sea" is obviously about that. Tell us about it.

MW: Owning a home together has been a discussion we have had since our first date - - literally. So, finding a house on the water inside the 5 boroughs of NYC and buying it is a dream come true. When we have gone on vacation, we kept renting houses on the water so I knew that being near the water was important to us. The song is a loving celebration to the dream we had that came to fruition. I am so lucky that I am married to a person who shares the same dreams I have.

KP: I don't think that happens very often, and it's really wonderful that you can share those dreams - and make at least some of them come true!

Some of the photos you've posted on Facebook of the view from your home are stunning. Is photography another of your passions?

MW: Not really. I take all those pictures with my phone! [Laughs] I am more of an art director in that I know what I want to see. The cover to Walk in Beauty, Like the Night was taken by me on my phone at sunrise near my home. When the natural surroundings are so beautiful, it's really hard to take a “bad” photo.

KP: I agree, but you still have to have an eye for composition. A lot of people take snapshots no matter what they are photographing, and others can take a more mundane setting or subject and make a strong visual statement with it.

As one of the prominent pianists in contemporary music, I find it really hard to believe that you don't own a piano! You must have some really amazing keyboards! Do you do all of your recording in your home studio?

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MW: [Laughs] I think you and I have discussed this - I really do not consider myself a pianist. I am a composer who plays. For me, the difference is about 10,000 hours of practicing to play music written by other people. I have such respect for great pianists and great players. But yes, I have a lot of gear and I like to record at home but not always. In 2019, I recorded in Vermont at Will Ackerman’s studio (Imaginary Road) and created the solo piano album Cupid Blindfolded. I think any “solo piano” album should be recorded on a REAL piano engineered by someone who knows what they are doing. This new album was done on the Casio Privia PX-S7000 digital piano. It’s a great instrument with a great sound. But because it is digital it gave me the opportunity to record at home. Recording in studios is exciting and can be fun. However, it can be emotionally wrenching. So, being able to pace myself at home for this already very emotional project was perfect.

KP: Given all the “piano music” you have composed and released, I think it is amazing that you don’t consider yourself a pianist. Yes, we have discussed this, but you will forgive me for saying that this is ridiculous.

MW: [Laughs] I understand!!! There are millions of people walking around who ONLY think of me as a pianist and have never heard my soundtrack music, jazz music, electronic music or rock music. That’s OK. The piano is a wonderful instrument and I have been very happy that my melodies have found a happy home on the piano. I am very lucky.
Interview with Michael Whalen, image 6
Interview with Michael Whalen, image 7
Click on album covers
to go to Kathy's reviews.

KP: So are your listeners (including me!)! Let’s shift gears: a fairly recent development in your amazing career is your artist development company: Artist Expansion. Tell us a bit about that.

MW: I have been working with recording artists, composers and performers for years in getting their branding, image, narrative, social media and even their recordings together. I have run a record label, taught at 4 universities, managed several artists and produced dozens. So, I have a very deep skill set to be a real change agent for artists who are ready to be successful. I have been very honored that so many of our friends have come to me and I have been able to make a real difference for them.

KP: I thought it was really interesting that in the course of reviewing a couple of artists who have been recording for many years but on labels (rather than as indie artists), they asked for some help with promotion. I mentioned you and your services and it seems that it has worked out very well. Have you had many artists in that situation come to you, or do you work mostly with artists getting started? Or is it pretty even?

MW: The truth is that whether or not you are signed to a “label” you are still very much expected to get the word out about you and your music. It has been interesting to me that I have had a pretty even split between established artists and new artists. I have even worked with several artists who haven’t released music for decades and they needed help getting up to speed with the “new” recording business in 2023.

KP: The whole music industry has changed so enormously over the past 40 years that it must be really bewildering to try to maintain the creativity as well as staying on top of the business end of things. How have you managed to juggle all of that and still have the time and energy to help other artists navigate their own careers?

MW: I think the music industry now is an exciting place that empowers artists to take control of their careers. Trying to figure out how to get traction with streaming platforms can be frustrating but it is possible. Creating GOOD music helps! And yes, there is a lot to do, but making the direct connection between music creators and their fans is awesome.

In the 1980s and 90s - the industry had walls and barriers between artists and their fans. Labels wanted control of the narrative and they took HUGE percentages of an artist’s royalties to do so. Now, there is transparency. Some artists resent the idea that they must be in communication with their people. They still believe that the music should “speak” for them. If you look back at successful music artists from the 1960s to now, the common thread is that those artists ALWAYS took control of their own narratives. With Artist Expansion, I am teaching, coaching and consulting new and established artists to do so.

KP: Are you allowed to disclose some of the artists you have worked with?

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Michael's "before and after' photo.
MW: Sure… here’s a very short list of some of the artists I have been lucky enough to work with: Ryan Judd, Tom Eaton, Charu Suri, Spencer Brewer, Michael Gettel, Kurt Reiman, Masako, Michelle Qureshi and many others… I am so grateful to have earned the trust of these great artists and that I get to call them my friends. I have been so proud of the work these artists did when we worked together and where they have gone afterwards. Wonderful. That’s my real goal - to give them the knowledge and experience to successfully promote themselves so they do not feel the need to hire me again. Maybe that’s a bad business model! [Laughs] But empowering artists is my commitment. It always has been.

KP: You're obviously very good at it!

Are you still teaching, too?

MW: [Laughs] No, not right now. I am going back to college in the Fall, however! [More laughing] I am finally finishing my undergraduate degree from The Berklee College of Music. I am excited. I am talking to Berklee about going on the faculty again in 2024. I love teaching.

KP: [laughing] Like you don't already have enough to do! You have also become something of a fitness enthusiast. Looking back at the photos from the interview we did in 2019, I can really see how much weight you've lost. Congratulations on that accomplishment! Are you doing mostly weight lifting or are you into a lot of other fitness workouts as well?

MW: As of today, I have lost 146 pounds. It has been quite a journey and I have had a lot of support from my wife, my family and my medical team at NYU/Langone hospital here in New York City. Losing weight is 80% what you eat and 20% exercise. I was exercising even when I was very heavy but my diet was way out of control. When I got my eating and meal planning organized - I started seeing results. As for exercise, most of what I do now is cardio. I love indoor rowing - - I have rowed more than 3,000,000 meters in the last year. I have a Rogue Echo bike (which is very, very hard) and I jump rope at least twice a week. Sit-ups and squats are also a big part of my workouts. However, as a 57 year old man, the MOST important thing is stretching and trying to stay as flexible as I can. As you age, your flexibility disappears and you must be vigilant to keep your flexibility. I stretch for at least 20 minutes everyday. I hang from our chin-up bar. It’s the single best thing I do for my body - especially my spine and lower extremities. I am so grateful for your kind words about my health journey. It has been tough but I am grateful for the results.

KP: We want to keep you around as long as possible!

Outside of all of your music projects, what other kinds of things do you enjoy doing?

MW: Spending time with my wife, my dog and spending time on the water. It is so beautiful.

KP: If you could have any three wishes, what would they be?

MW: 1. Make my children’s dreams come true.

2. Make my clients' dreams come true.

3. To write the music for a film directed by Christopher Nolan.

Many thanks to Michael Whalen for taking the time to do this interview! For more information about Michael and his music, be sure to visit his website and his Artist Page here on MainlyPiano.com!
Kathy Parsons
July 2023