Playing Arlington Arts Centre on Thursday 11th February, Will Lawton is a pianist and songwriter of outstanding quality. We chat to him about family legacy, bizarre instruments and his one man quest for the perfect sound.
1) I’ll admit, I had to google “hang” when you first mentioned it as one of your key instruments. It’s a rare concept, a “rare” instrument. [The hang was produced by a company in Switzerland who were only producing around 80 a year, you had to write directly to them to explain why you wanted to buy one. They are no longer in production] What drew you to it, and how would you describe the sound?
The look of the instrument first drew me to it. I saw one hanging on a friend’s wall in his house. I didn’t get the chance to play it but was so intrigued that I ordered one before playing it. I knew it was both melodic and percussive and played by fingers and hands so my piano skills would hopefully be transferable. It had a very mystical feel about it.
The sound is vaguely similar to that of a Caribbean Steelpan perhaps mixed with an Indian Tabla. I play the central bass note in a sort of African Djembe style. It is a very unique sound. The tuning is roughly in Dm but not in perfect pitch and there are a couple of notes in it that you wouldn’t usually associate with a Dm scale.
2) In a beautifully written recent blog post, you credit your Grandmother, Mary Louise, with the beginning of the musical legacy in your family. What effect did she have personally on your musical journey, and how do you think she felt about your work?
The most significant thing she (and her husband) did was to buy a new, upright piano in the 1950s and then encourage my father to learn how to play the piano. She used to get him to play the new songs from America, published in ‘The News Of The World’ on a Sunday so that family and friends could sing along to them. As a result, my father learnt how to play the piano using his ears and by chords rather than from scored music. This talent was passed to me during my early years.
My grandmother used to sing a lot to the classic, wonderful tunes from the wartime era. They are very simple songs, with simple messages and lovely chord progressions – something I try to bring into my own compositions with varying degrees of success.
She was always very supportive of my music work. She didn’t question it, just accepted that that is what I did – like she did with my father too. She understood the power and importance of music.
A “no frills” tribute Will recorded for his Grandmother when she passed away recently.
3) What would you say have been the highlights of your career so far?
I love playing real pianos. So performing on a real grand piano in a venue with good acoustics is my perfect gig. I opened the show for my friends ‘Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin’ a couple of months ago at The Chapel Arts Centre in Bath playing a beautiful grand piano. That was a real treat and it was an honour to open their first gig touring a new album – they are two musicians that I really admire.
My recording highlight must be recording an album in Peter Gabriel’s ‘Real World Studio’ in Box, Wiltshire. My band, ‘The Home Fires’ secured funding for the album through an online crowd funding campaign which in itself was a huge achievement. The reward of then spending a week at Real World was pretty special. We recorded an album that I am very proud of and I felt very privileged to be given the opportunity to record in such a magical environment with such a professional sound engineer as Patrick Phillips.
4) You bring your own upright piano to gigs – what do you feel this adds to the performance?
Ha!! I DID bring my own upright piano to gigs for a number of years. Unfortunately I recently cracked the sound board on the back of my upright gigging piano. I think I dragged it through one too many fields and up one too many sets of steps. Pianos are not really designed to be treated as roughly as I treated that poor thing so alas I now tour with an electric stage piano when the venue does not have the real instrument in-house.
When you sit at a real piano, you are totally engulfed by the sound. The piano vibrates as the hammers hit the strings and it makes the wooden casing sing. This is a lovely space to be. When I sing, my voice locks into these vibrations and I give a more natural and enhanced performance. When I play an electric piano, the monitor mix is often several meters from me and is often quite trebly which feels less natural to play and sing along with. However, I just have to accept that many venues do not have real pianos these days and if I only play real pianos then I limit my opportunities of performing live.
5) Is there anyone you’d really love to collaborate with?
I have been blessed to play with some amazing musicians, almost all have been pretty unknown and undiscovered as there are many seriously talented musicians around that don’t really venture in the limelight. I have always enjoyed collaborating with Bethany Porter (Cello) and would like to work again with Phillip Henry (Slide Guitar).
In terms of someone new, and well known, I would love to work with someone who can add beats, drum and bass to my music – such as LTJ Bukem or Nitin Sawhney. This is a direction that I am yet to properly experiment with taking my music in.
You can book tickets to see Will Lawton on Thurs 11th February, 8pm by clicking here. Or you can call the box office on 01635 244 246 between 10am-4.30pm Monday-Friday.