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Interview with Rachel LaFond, August 2017
Interview with Rachel LaFond, image 1
One of the joys of reviewing music is finding very promising new artists (or having them find me!) at the beginning of their careers. Rachel LaFond is one such artist. She recently released her first album, Wandering Soul, and I love it! So, it’s with pleasure (and a drumroll and fanfare) that I introduce you to Rachel LaFond.

KP: Hi Rachel! I really enjoyed reviewing your debut album, Wandering Soul, recently. Tell us a bit about the inspiration for the music and the title for the album.

RL: Hey Kathy, thank you for saying so! I certainly enjoyed you reviewing Wandering Soul. Did you know you wrote my very first review?

KP: No, I didn’t know that! How fun! Tell us about the album.

RL: Wandering Soul was inspired during a year traveling the world. In August of 2016, my husband, David, and I embraced a long-held dream. We quit our jobs in Seattle and sold everything we owned to travel. At the time, I had been a piano teacher for a good long time, and frankly I thought I would leave music when returning to work at the end of our travels.

About five months into traveling, we came to New Zealand after spending two months in the heat and intensity of Southeast Asia. We stayed in a beautiful cabin in the wilderness west of Auckland, and there was a much-loved antique piano in the middle of the great room. I hadn’t played for months, and it drew me like a magnet. I just….began composing. I wrote “Ember Warmth - Twin Peaks” in a few sessions over two days at that piano, inspired by our beautiful surroundings.

David and I travelled all around New Zealand for a while after that. Everywhere I went, I performed “Ember Warmth - Twin Peaks” and two other pieces I’d written before we left Seattle, “Loving In The Rain” and “Redemption.” The response from small, impromptu audiences around the country was effusive and encouraging. In the end, it was the lovely people I eventually wrote “Kingfisher” for who convinced me I had a call to share my music, and sent me to a particular recording studio in Auckland.

Recording those first three pieces somehow gave me a mental push and a new belief in myself and I wrote THREE MORE pieces within two weeks of making those recordings. We left Auckland and continued our travels, and I continued to play every piano I could get my hands on, feeling a reignited enthusiasm and passion for making music and performing at the piano.

“Nikko River” was written in the mountains of Japan. “Why We Wander” began on a visit home to Seattle and was finished in the breezy attic of a village house in South France. “Mystery Of The Moor” was written while staying in a village just on the edge of Dartmoor in the UK. “Kingfisher” and “Finding Home” were written upon our return to Auckland to settle.

So Wandering Soul was literally written wandering around our beautiful world, but it’s also symbolic. In a sense, I wandered away from the piano and the music that had defined most of my life, not intending to return. In doing so, I somehow wandered back to it in an unexpected new way. It’s an album about seeking and discovery, about recreating oneself and the potential for goodness that lies within all of us. There’s also a sense of acceptance and letting go of those things we cannot change.
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Click on album cover to go to Kathy's review.

KP: You have a musical travelog of your external and internal journeys! Has the flood of original music continued since you settled in New Zealand?

RL: I’m excited and happy to report that it has! I finally acquired a beautiful Yamaha grand piano a few weeks ago, and that’s been simply life-changing. Even with the challenges of immigrating to a new country, I’m halfway through writing my second album, and have a concept together for my third album. It’s looking like I’ll be releasing my second album mid-way through next year, with a few singles on the way to that. I want to take my time to do it as well as I can. Recording and releasing Wandering Soul has been a massive learning process, and I don’t want to rush on to a second album before taking the time to make sure I apply the lessons I’ve learned this first time around. I am also continuing to devote quite a lot of time and energy to promoting Wandering Soul. It turns out there’s a lot of work to being an indie musician that’s not actually making music!

KP: Yep - indie musicians have to learn to wear quite a variety of hats! You mentioned your creative process to me. How do you go about composing?

RL: It’s been a bit of a wild ride discovering this part of myself. Usually what happens is this: I’ll come to the realization that I have a tune running through my head over and over. Like an ear worm, only something I’ve never heard before. It’s the strangest thing, and the compulsion to get to a piano and figure out what the music is is quite intense. If there’s no piano around, I’ll hum it into my cell phone or iPad. I have so many little hummed tunes saved to various devices, just waiting to be played on the piano! If I can get right to the piano, often I’ll sit down and two minutes of new music will just happen. It’s such a wild thing, and it feels like it’s almost coming through me as opposed to from me. I definitely see why so many ancient cultures believed this kind of creativity was a kind of divine madness.

I’ve also found if I’m spending consistent daily time at the piano, I come up with more new creative ideas and make more progress on pieces that are partially done. Getting to the piano every day is the nuts-and-bolts, the foundation that makes sure I’m making consistent progress between the intense moments of inspiration.
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KP: After traveling the world for a year, what made you choose to call New Zealand home?

RL: Both David and I have done a fair amount of traveling, and I lived outside of the US in Vienna for a few stretches in my teenage years, so we were both excited about the idea of living somewhere outside of our frame of experience. In New Zealand, there’s an incredible amount of mind-boggling natural beauty in a very compact space, and life here is very good for people who love to get outside and have adventures - what’s more, it’s comparatively underpopulated.

Auckland is the biggest city in New Zealand, and with 1.4 million people, it’s quite small compared to other international cities. David and I love hiking, scuba diving, and outdoor adventuring in general. Within an hour’s drive of Auckland, you’ll find an uncountable number of gorgeous beaches (golden sand, white sand, black sand, rocky), wonderful spots for hiking and adventures, and it’s very easy to go somewhere incredibly gorgeous and find yourself nearly alone. What’s more, the government and political/cultural values are quite a bit more liberal than in the US, which is important to us.

Finally, we were pretty keen to escape the weather in the Seattle area. As you know, winters are just miserably long and dismal. It’s winter in Auckland right now, and honestly it feels a bit like late Spring/early Summer in Seattle, with more sun and the occasional colder day. All that said, while it was a great choice for us personally, New Zealand’s been a tricky place to live while launching an international music career. I must consider that I have to fly across the largest ocean in the world to attend any international events.

KP: Your mother, Sandra LaFond (Madame Zegzula), has been a prominent piano teacher in Washington State for many years. Is she still teaching?

RL: She’s just moved to Lynnwood to be closer to the Seattle area. She isn’t currently teaching, but it’s my understanding that she plans to take students this Fall.

KP: Was she your piano teacher as well?

RL: She was! My Mom was my piano teacher from toddler-hood until I was about 15, and continued to be a guide until I went to college. It was a blessing, having a young life filled-to-the-brim with piano and music-related activities.

KP: I know David Lanz used to do music retreats and workshops at your mother’s conservatory before he moved to Europe. Is that how you met David?

RL: Yes, my mother is a great fan of David’s. Mom loved teaching his music to her students and I think playing through his songbooks for hours and hours in my formative years is part of what made me a great sight-reader. He started doing workshops and recitals for us when I was a teenager, and it was inspiring to have him around so much. Later on, I was head chef for the first few retreats (cooking is another great love of mine), and I got to hang out with David a bit more. David is just overall a fantastic human being - I used to say just being in his space felt a bit like meditating, somehow a spiritual experience.
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KP: I’ve always enjoyed teaching David’s music, too, and he did a couple of workshops with my students when I was in California. We’ve been friends for a very long time. Did David coach you much over the years?

RL: Believe it or not, I only ever had one lesson with David, and I observed but never participated in his workshops. That one lesson was when I was in college, and honestly Kathy? I was hopeless. I couldn’t improvise to save my life, and there was much frustration and throwing-up-of-hands on my part. Of course, David was the saintly spirit of patience. I was crippled by my own terrible self-judgement, unable to see anything I created as worthy, criticizing the sounds I was making almost before I could make them. Let’s just say I’ve come a long way from that college girl with the heavy heart - I wouldn’t be able to create anything beautiful if my head was still in that space.

Interestingly, I recently learned that when David released his first album, Heartsounds, he was the same age as I when I released Wandering Soul. I can only hope there may be more similarities between our careers!

KP: I’m the same way about improvising and hate to perform because I’m so hard on myself, so I can relate! How old were you when you started playing the piano?

RL: My Mom used to hold me on her lap when I was a baby and teach me things here and there. It’s a bit hard to nail down, but formal lessons, recitals, and evaluations started when I was five.

KP: Were you primarily a classical pianist before you started writing your own music or did you study jazz and some of the other genres of music?

RL: I was indeed primarily a classical pianist before I started writing my own music. I think I was almost subconsciously giving myself a composition education by playing and playing and playing the music I enjoyed and in hindsight, a jazz piano class I took for a quarter in college was really helpful - everything I was doing there was in the new age style.

KP: Were you a music major in college?

RL: I was! As a teenager I was pretty driven about wanting to be a professional concert pianist. I lived and studied piano performance in Vienna for two stretches when I was a teenager before going to the University of Washington to study music.

KP: Do you play any other instruments?

RL: I’ve been singing for nearly as long as I’ve been playing piano! I’m planning my second album to be solo piano, but you can look forward to some more variation beyond that, and I’m sure there will be the odd YouTube video and Easter egg recording out there of me singing and playing. I also carried a ukulele all around the world with me as I traveled. I got pretty good with it, but as soon as I starting writing music at the piano, I didn’t touch the ukulele again. Perhaps it’ll make a future appearance!

KP: How long did you teach piano in the Pacific Northwest?

RL: I taught piano for twenty years - wild, huh? My Mom had a student teaching program and got me set up teaching when I was 11. I loved it and was super passionate about improving my skills and teaching as well as I could. Sometimes I really miss it, and certainly miss the wonderful teacher community in the Seattle area, but with the work involved in starting a recording career I just don’t have time in my week to see students.
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KP: Were you encouraged to compose and improvise by your teacher(s)?

RL: Believe it or not, there was hardly any composing or improvising in my piano education. I remember one lesson I had post-college, my teacher asked me to come up with an improvisation in sonata form on the spot. I remember being completely bowled-over by the request, but I gave it a shot. He listened politely and said after, “Well, I’m sure you can come up with something better at home.”

KP: Funny! When did you write your first song?

RL: So you’re probably coming to a fairly-accurate mental picture of a young pianist in her mid-20s who’s had a few minor run-ins with improvising and composing that didn’t go so well.  Around that time, one of my piano students introduced me to Ludovico Einaudi, so I played through his and David Lanz’s music all the time as a way to relax and enjoy playing the piano without pressure or expectations.

That was the extent of it, until I met my future husband, David. As anyone who’s fallen head-over-heels in love knows, the flood of emotion was disorienting and beautiful and crazy-making, and a few weeks into it I sat down at my piano and played nearly half of “Loving In The Rain.” For a woman who had never been able to improvise worth a darn, never composed a thing that wasn’t for a college theory class, to suddenly have this beautiful, compelling melody running through her head that *needed* to be played and needed to be set down as a composition was some kind of magic. I wrote my second song about a year later in a similar flood of emotion and self-reflection. That was it until we arrived in New Zealand another year after that.

KP: Who and what are some of your musical influences?

RL: I believe that because I am a singer I bring some of that singing aesthetic and passion, the sense of breath, into my piano playing. I find a lot of inspiration in natural beauty, and in travel. Also, my inner world really affects my composing. Often when I’m at my most reflective is when I’ll find the most compelling musical inspiration.

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

RL: I can easily say there hasn’t been any one thing! I’m quite excitable and enthusiastic by nature, so I think everything is exciting. My career as a recording artist is still very new, and it seems to me something new and exciting is happening nearly every day. So I’ll share the little things. I love hearing stories from my listeners of how my music makes them feel, what it does for them, stories about the goosebumps and the tears and the creative inspiration. Every time a new, beautiful review of Wandering Soul comes in, it feels so special and gives me a little boost. Pianist Joseph Akins is a friend (met at one of those early David Lanz retreats!) and has been a mentor to me - every phone conversation with him feels like a big, exciting musical moment. Also, when Pandora accepted Wandering Soul, that was a big moment - I had been told that was a bit of a “making it” moment for New Age Solo Piano artists.

KP: Is there a particular philosophy that you try to convey in your music?

RL: I want to spread light and happiness, help people look inside themselves and see their own beauty and perhaps in doing that, see the beauty of others. That right there is what finally convinced me to start recording my music - that the world would simply be a better place because of what I’d made and shared.

KP: Who are your favorite composers?

RL: We’ve already talked about David Lanz and Ludovico Einaudi - they are 100% my favorites. There are so many other wonderful contemporary composers I love - David Nevue, Michele McLaughlin, Philip Wesley, Joseph Akins, Joe Bongiorno, Brian Crain…the list goes on and on. I worry that by listing any names, I leave out other composers I love, but something tells me you weren’t looking for a thirty-name list! As far as classical music, I honestly love almost everything I study - it’s both the blessing and curse of being such an enthusiastic spirit. I especially love Rachmaninov, Chopin, Schumann, Grieg, Bach - again, I’m leaving out so many amazing composers! But these are my favorites.

KP: Who are some of your favorite performers?

RL: I’m going to depart from the piano-centric here and call out some of my favorite musical artists. I love Ingrid Michaelson, Lindsay Stirling, and Amanda Palmer absolutely rocks my world with her writing and her music and her wildness. I love the energy and passion The Piano Guys bring to their YouTube videos. I do listen to a lot of piano music, but I also love singer-songwriter music, quirky cabaret and rock, and have a special soft spot in my heart for ‘80s hard rock. I’ve also been recently listening to a lot of ambient music, as there’s a fair amount of crossover with new age solo piano, and I’m working with ambient artist Paul Landry on ambient arrangements of a few of the tracks from Wandering Soul.

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

RL: Oh gracious, what a great question!

I would wish for empathy to come more naturally to all of us in our most stressed moments. I think so many of our world’s problems would be solved if only humanity had a more natural inclination toward empathy. Really, when asked a question like this, I have to imagine some way to make this world of ours more gentle, more caring - there are so many out there whose suffering is preventable, it breaks my heart.

On a lighter note, I wish everyone who loves new age solo piano music would take ten minutes out of their day to hear some of my music. The trickiest part about “making it” in our information-dense world is just getting people to hear you - there’s so much music out there!

Third, the ability to teleport would be pretty much the coolest thing in the world - I wouldn’t have to worry about the big ole’ Pacific Ocean!

Many thanks to Rachel LaFond for taking the time to chat! For more info about Rachel and her music, be sure to visit her website and Artist Page here on MainlyPiano.com.
Kathy Parsons
August 2017