listen magazine feature

writing at the piano

The piano as quintessential machine for songwriting

By Damian Fowler

A few years ago, Joseph Arthur acquired an old upright for his studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn. He bought the piano — a 1912 Steinway Vertegrand — sight unseen from an instrument shop on Smith Street. For the singer–songwriter, the dark wood piano with ivory keys brought with it an old-world charm and something else too: inspiration. 

The piano — for composers and songwriters from Franz Schubert to Regina Spektor, from Richard Rodgers to Randy Newman — has proved itself as the quintessential machine for songwriting. It holds within its sturdy frame the possibility of endless melodies as yet unwritten, and just as often can prove unyielding, even to those who have mastered the craft of songwriting. “A piano is where the material meets the spiritual world,” says Arthur.

When Arthur brought the antique Steinway into his studio space, the weight of its history made him curious. He learned that the piano had belonged to one family in Connecticut for many decades, a family heirloom. This fact sparked his imagination. The piano was from 1912; his grandmother was born in 1912. The concept for a new album about a family started to form. “Every morning I would go to the piano and start writing songs,” says Arthur. “Songs just started pouring out.” 

Although the forty-five-year-old recording artist had written many songs over the course of his twenty-year career, mostly he’d written them on the guitar. Suddenly the piano took Arthur in a new direction. “I started out playing music on the piano. It’s the instrument of my childhood. It represents this thunderous disciplinarian,” he says. “The guitar is my bro and the piano is like my grandfather.”

The resulting album, The Family, was released in summer 2016 and features the piano prominently on all songs. One critic called the album “loose, grand, and a little melancholy.” That description also seems to apply to the voice of the piano, which sounds resonant and tender and world weary. Arthur used the Steinway upright on a 2014 tribute album for Lou Reed as well. The piano’s voice is a perfect fit on this acoustic album where it shines on such classics as “Satellite of Love” and “Pale Blue Eyes.”

Singer–songwriter Nellie McKay admits that pianos do have different personalities. “Some pianos feel like rabble rousers; some seem like they’re very genteel and about to offer you a cucumber sandwich,” says McKay. The thirty-four-year-old musician affirms that the personalities of different pianos can have a direct influence on writing and performance. Depending on the piano, “I think you write a different way, you play a different way, probably sing a different way,” she says. “An out-of-tune piano can sound so great on the right song. It can be so much better than an immaculately produced and maintained machine. . . and yet, if you try to play Thelonious Monk on an out-of-tune piano, you are totally screwed.”

 

‘[Depending on the piano,] I think you write a different way, you play a different way, probably sing a different way.’

 

On stage, McKay’s favored instrument is the piano (she also plays the ukulele), but she has cleverly juxtaposed the high style of her musical vocabulary (and manner) with sharply satirical lyrics. Her 2004 debut album, the widely acclaimed Get Away from Me (Columbia), seemed to offer a tart riposte to the sincerity of Norah Jones’s smash hit piano-centric album, Come Away with Me. McKay’s droll style is in fine form on the song “Manhattan Avenue.” The lyric describes a mugging — “How wild it is/ What strange a vice/ That a mugger and a child should share the same paradise” — but is couched within the musical vocabulary of a swoon-worthy, old-school ballad. The piano is the stolid, sincere partner in this whole satirical endeavor.

But what about the act of writing a song on the piano? “The possibilities are endless, both paralyzing and incredibly inspiring at the same time,” says Misty Boyce, a singer–songwriter based in Los Angeles. Boyce grew up playing the piano, and eventually went to the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music where she earned her bachelor’s in jazz studies. Boyce, currently working on her latest solo album due out in 2017, has developed songwriting strategies that delimit these endless possibilities. The song “Dutch Girls,” featured on her self-titled debut 2007 record (on MRI), emerged through a writing game. Boyce had set herself the task to write a new song each day in a different key and time signature. “The key that day was A-flat minor and I started playing around and these very classical progressions came to me,” she recalls. “The song wrote itself very quickly.”

‘Songs just started pouring out.’ For Joseph Arthur, the piano brought proliferation.
Singer–songwriter–actress–comedian. Nellie McKay doin’ work.
Writing as game. Misty Boyce tried to write a song each day in a different key and time signature.

 

And yet, she says, her knowledge of jazz and her accomplished piano chops sometimes got in the way of writing the kind of songs she wanted. To counter this she started writing on the guitar, an instrument that she didn’t know nearly as well. “Going to an instrument where I knew only the basics opened up a whole new world. It freed me up to hear differently, melodically, structurally and rhythmically,” she says.

It may seem counterintuitive for an accomplished musician to turn to an unfamiliar instrument, but it has proved successful for some of the most celebrated songwriters. Radiohead’s lead singer Thom Yorke found unexpected inspiration in his new piano, even though he was a guitarist. The first song he wrote on piano was “Everything in Its Right Place,” which became the opening track on Kid A. In an interview with Rolling Stone in December 2000, York said: “I bought a piano for my house, a proper nice one — a baby grand. And this was the first thing I wrote on it. And I’m such a shit piano player. I remember this Tom Waits quote from years ago, that what keeps him going as a songwriter is his complete ignorance of the instruments he’s using. So everything’s a novelty.”

For Misty Boyce, turning to the guitar allowed her to return to the piano with a simpler approach to songwriting. The discipline she learned as a jazz musician remains, but the specific harmonic language of jazz has been reigned in. Boyce also deploys other techniques, in addition to switching to the guitar, which help break ingrained patterns. For example, she says she finds herself inexorably drawn to — and comforted by — the C Major to F Major-7 progression. “Lately I’ve started playing a game with myself. I’ll take a song that I’ve been listening to and learn it, and try to take the chord structure from it and rework it to see if I can make a new song out of it,” she says. According to Boyce, there might be a moment where she finds a new harmonic clue: “Oh, I never thought to go from that chord to that chord before. Now that’s a new shape and a new feeling.”

 

‘The possibilities are endless, both paralyzing and incredibly inspiring at the same time.’

 

For each songwriter, that relationship to the piano keyboard is different, unique, a mysterious journey into the unknown. “There’s something about writing on a piano that is more magnificent,” says Joseph Arthur. “Pianos are haunted things. And hopefully you get a benevolent one. My Steinway is possessed by a benevolent ghost.”

The same feeling is echoed by Boyce who, despite her musical accomplishments, still retains the wonder of songwriting. She mentions a quotation by the late Leonard Cohen: “Being a songwriter is like being a nun. You’re married to a mystery.” 

Recently she moved her old upright from her old place in Brooklyn to her home in Los Angeles. She had composed her first album on it before she relocated to the West Coast. “I went without it for about two years and I didn’t realize how much I’d missed it until it got here, and I was like, ‘Oh yeah! You. I know you!’” 

 

This article originally appeared in Listen: Life with Music & CultureSteinway & Sons’ award-winning magazine.

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