Chad Lawson’s curriculum vitae is so impressive that it would be futile to convey all the ins and outs here. From film scoring, jazz performance and now neo-classical, he’s covered it all. He could be forgiven for reflecting about the diversity of his compositions with a sense of ambiguity, but it became clear over the course of the interview that Chad Lawson gives a great deal of thought to his music and the variety of sound worlds it encapsulates.
Within all that, ZoneOut’s Tom Ford also managed to chat about three-legged stools, warming to social media, and bridging the listening habits of generations.
Chad Lawson’s new album You Finally Knew is out now
Firstly, how are you coping in isolation during these difficult times – both physically and mentally?
Honestly, it’s just my every day. As musicians, we spend our entire lives locked away in a room with an instrument, so it’s really no different. My life is really like a three-legged stool: one leg of the stool is licensing, Spotify, Apple Music and such. Another leg of the stool is composing for film and television, and then the third leg is touring. Those three legs support my career, if you will.
So right now, I’m focusing on the first two. My dad taught me at an early age “You have to learn how to make money when you sleep”. That’s really what spawned my idea of focusing on music for film and TV and then allowing those funds to cushion any lack of touring. So, right now, I’m very grateful to say I haven’t been hit as hard as many other musicians that rely on touring.
Is working in isolation – forced isolation – conducive to creativity, does it hinder it, or do you think it has no effect at all?
I’m not a social media person. I’m on there but I’m not. I’m incredibly introverted and so for me to be really present on social media, it takes a lot of energy. But a couple of weeks ago I decided to post a video of me just playing a song, because it was when the virus was hitting, at least here in the United States. When that song went up on Instagram, there were so many people that private messaged me, saying “Thank you” and “I’m really stressed. I’m really just at a place where I needed something to calm me”.
So I’ve actually become more aware of being on social during this time, which is really hard for me, but the more I do it, the more response I get from people just saying, “Thank you”. I think when all is said and done, what this period has taught me is the importance of putting yourself out there and just connecting with people.
Speaking of connecting with people, let’s talk about your background in jazz, and in particular its collaborative and improvisational elements. You’ve now moved into a musical world where everything is written down and striven for perfection. Do you think there is room for improvisation in neo-classical music?
I do, to be honest, and I love the fact that you brought that up. Bach, Handel and those guys would do that, they would try to outplay each other which is tremendous, but then we started writing everything down. What I love about improvisation is that there is no eraser. You’re putting stuff down and you can’t go back and fix it. I love that because you’re exploring, you’re trying to find your colour.
I think what happens with classical music is that there is a concrete expectation of how it’s done. For some people, that’s their jam and I applaud that. I’m too sloppy of a classical player to be able to do that consistently. I want to hear colour and I want to hear and play something I’ve never played before. So that’s really where jazz came into it. You’re learning a conversation, musically speaking, and then you’re putting your own phrase into that.
With neo-classical there are elements where you’re able to do that, playing a chord pattern over and over again and then creating something on top. Improvisation teaches you to recognise moments in a show where you’re playing and you sense the room is right there with you, and it’s like “Let’s not end the song yet. Let’s see where this goes.”
And what about the collaborative nature of jazz performance. Is that something you’re keen to incorporate into the music you’re creating today?
A couple of years ago, I remember seeing a film of Ólafur Arnalds and Nils Frahm. They had no music planned, at least it seemed, and they just went out on stage and one of them started playing a vamp and the other started playing over it, and the audience was just spellbound. It’s like watching a painter paint on a blank canvas. You’re just like “How do you come up with this stuff?” I’m really hoping that we begin to see that more in neo-classical.
For the audience that’s 40 years and younger, their definition of classical music is Max Richter, Olafur and Nils. To them, that’s classical music because that’s what they’ve grown up with. So, let’s continue pushing that envelope a little bit more and say “Let’s bring some improvisation to this”.
You have just released your five-track EP, Stay, which is in honour of Mental Health Awareness Month, designed to aid listeners in taking time out from their busy lives. Does your music come from a particularly personal place? Have you yourself struggled with mental health?
I haven’t been asked that before. That’s a really great question. I personally have not struggled with it. I do have some people very dear to me that have. It’s one of those things where you just want to do everything you can to facilitate and to help take them out of that place, but you know you can’t because as soon as you do, they go back and it’s only going to be once they decide to do it themselves. So, I began to wonder what the scientific connection between music and mental health was.
There are numerous studies where they’re saying music listened to for just three to five minutes elevates levels of BDNF (Brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which is basically the ‘happy hormone’. It’s a hormone in our body that lifts the mood, and that can happen after listening to calm music for just three to five minutes. So, my mind was like “How is this possible? Why is this the case?” I’m digging further into it and trying to read as much as I can to see what effect music really has.
What’s fascinating right now – and I mean this with all due respect – is how living in lockdown will impact people around the world. You have people in Italy who can’t go out and be in nature. They can’t see a professional. What do these people have left? Studies I’ve been reading are suggesting pop music streams are beginning to decrease, whereas classical and jazz are increasing and I think that’s tremendous. I hope that introduction isn’t lost when all of this finally passes. I hope listeners think “Oh, you know what? That music really impacted me and I love it. I would now rather listen to Bill Evans than Drake”.
Chad, to my ears your music is very melodic, but “art” music of the late 20th and early 21st centuries can be very un-melodic. Have you consciously written music that is rich in melody?
That was really the focus of this album; I wanted melody to be the strongest thing, whereas my previous music has kind of the same vibe. You can put it on and just kind of zone out, you just kind of go blank. There’s merit to that style of music because we need that. We need to be able to put something on in the background and not be distracted by it. But with this album, I really wanted to say “I don’t want this to be just chords being played over and over again. I want to make melody as strong as I possibly can and let that be the foundation of the song”.
At the end of the day, the way I view melody is that it’s like the soundtrack to what we do every day. You remember the song that was on the radio when you had your first kiss. You remember a particular song from a monumental event. I’ve had people say to me, “Hey, we played your music while our baby was born.” That’s crazy, right?”
It’s super impressive and testament to your melodic drive. Was there anything else that motivated you in the creation of this album?
The premise of my upcoming album was melody, yes, but also trying to marry the under-40 listeners with the over-40s, which is not an easy task. Introducing the under-40s to a little bit more “traditional classical” and then bringing a bit more mood-based listening to the over-40s and to have them say, “Oh, I really like this”.
I’ve always tried to educate the younger audiences about classical music, and now I feel the role is a little bit reversed because that younger audience is so open-minded. Now I want to take the over-40s who, generally, know what they like and they don’t vary too far away from that. I want to address that audience and say “Here’s some stuff that’s very close to what you’d like”. That’s the goal. That’s the hope. I don’t know how it’s going to come out, but we’ll see.
Follow Chad Lawson at www.chadlawson.com
Chad Lawson’s new EP Stay is out now to stream