Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?
When I was very young (2 or 3 years old) I would visit my grandmother and watch her play piano. She was amazing – she could play by ear. The memory that is the clearest for me is listening to her play “Harlem Stride” piano – mostly songs by the great Jelly Roll Morton. She would have this incredible laugh. It was pure joy. I was captivated and I wanted that for myself. It‘s funny – at 3 years old I don’t think I knew what “that” was…
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
How much time do you have? (laughs) I think the single biggest influence on me has been film music. I have been listening to film music since seeing “Fantasia” (Disney 1940). I have always been amazed at how music and visual could work together. Even now, my recordings are so programmatic. I love creating “scenes” and characters in my songs. People ask if my songs are about me… or if I am the central person that the song is based on. The answer is a resounding “no”. Music is an opportunity for me to inhabit the lives and experiences of others – just like in the movies.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
My new recording “Cupid Blindfolded” has been one of the most satisfying of my life. I think it started with the writing. I was very, very focused and disciplined and I think all of the preparation made a huge difference. Many of my other piano recordings have been either completely improvised or partially improvised – “Cupid” stands out as a triumph of performance and composition for me. I also think “Cupid” is the best sounding piano recording I have ever made. Engineer Tom Eaton is a genius and he did an amazing job. You can watch a “mini-documentary” about the making of the recording here:
Watch the first video here:
The other album that I am very proud of is: “The Shadows of October.” It’s a collection of my ‘classical’ chamber works including my two string quartets. You can listen to my String Quartet No. 1 here:
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
It’s hard to say because I only perform live 5 or 6 times a year. Frankly, I hate playing my pieces exactly the way I recorded them. In concert, I use the melody as a “jumping off point” and I take the audience on an adventure musically. It’s been fun to take a very popular melody like “I Have Loved You for a Thousand Lifetimes” and watch it evolve over the last 15 years. In the case of that song, I do NOT mess with the melody. I think there would be a riot at the performance! (laughs)
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Last year, I did a concert for about 75 people – lovely space. No chairs. People laid on matts. Some did yoga (quietly). Some napped. Some held hands with their friends and partners and just “vibed” to the music. A woman even laid down UNDER my piano! It was wonderful. The audience loved it. I might do it again with all this new music I have created.
How would you describe your compositional style?
I think my language changes based on the type of music I am creating. I am something of a “chameleon” in this way. I might be creating a “rock” track for a jingle that has a very different musical language than a classical piece versus my solo piano music which is maybe the ONLY place in my musical life where I take shards of all the musics I create and press them into their own palette. On my new album, “Cupid Blindfolded”, you can hear my pop, jazz, soundtrack, classical and even my bent towards chromaticism – even avant-garde. I love the idea of self limiting systems in music. For example, a string quartet is the most rigorous kind of system where you have these four instruments and centuries of repertoire. Writing for solo piano is a similar challenge but you can surf more easily inside of “style” or “genre”. Recently, a reviewer on the radio said: “it’s ridiculous to call Michael Whalen’s music on ‘Cupid Blindfolded’ ’new age’”. (laughs) Honestly, I have to agree. I am pulling together 30 years of experience when I make my music. The only problem is that I trip over my limitations as a “pianist” while trying to execute the music I have created often!
Oh, this is TOP secret! (laughs) Honestly, it changes from project to project. However, for my recordings – – I do two things: first, I create the NAMES of the songs before writing a note of music. Secondly, I like to have some idea on the cover artwork as early in the process as possible. Having these elements helps me focus on the “story” and the “character” of each piece. I love writing programmatically. I guess it is from writing so much music to picture.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Freedom. Artistic, financial and creative freedom. Two out of three ain’t bad! (Laughs)
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Integrity. I think for musicians coming up to be true to who they are as artists versus trying to create “content” to be popular. I have friends my age who battle with this idea. They think to be relevant they have to be well liked. That is nonsense. To be relevant you need to be saying something that is connecting with people authentically. Fans can smell a fake a million miles away. You can’t fake soul, emotion or pathos.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Exactly where I am.
Michael Whalen’s new album Cupid Blindfolded, his first solo piano album in 20 years, is available now. Stream or buy “Cupid Blindfolded” here
Michael Whalen is a two-time Emmy® Award winning composer and music supervisor (with 8 nominations) who has worked in advertising, television, film and video games for over 30 years. Some of his best-known work: “Veronika Decides to Die” (2014), “What the Bleep Do You Know?”, “As The World Turns”, themes for HBO, CBS News, ABC News’ “Good Morning America”, “The Oprah Winfrey Show”, dozens of specials for PBS, National Geographic, Discovery, The BBC, NHK and the History Channel and television films for Lifetime and the Hallmark Channel. Michael is also an internationally known recording artist with 32 solo and soundtrack recordings to his credit. Well-known for his beautiful and thematic music, he performs when time allows. He has also produced and executive produced over 100 recordings for other artists. His work as a executive producer resulted in a Grammy Nomination in 2000.