Best known as the multi-instrumentalist for the pop rock group Maroon 5, Jesse Carmichael surprised many when he took a two-year sabbatical from the wildly popular, multi-Grammy–winning group in 2012 to pursue studies of music and the healing arts. Carmichael spoke to Steinway & Sons about his passions and his instrument, a Steinway Model B “Classic Grand.”
Why were you drawn to music?
I don’t even have a memory of choosing to go into music. I just know that it’s been with me since I was a kid. Mozart and Bach were big influences when I was little, and that’s when I started playing piano. Then I switched to guitar all throughout high school, and then came back to the piano afterwards. Now I do both in my band, and I love both.
What drew you to piano?
When I was around six or seven years old, my dad got me a keyboard. I would sit and play on it and maybe do things like just play all the black keys and enjoy the sound of that particular F-sharp pentatonic world. I loved listening to music by Mozart and Bach. I remember the first prelude from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, that was one of the first things I ever learned how to play.
Is music still a part of how you relate to the world at large?
It’s such a deep part of how I experience the world. I think about the sounds I hear as I’m going throughout my day, and I almost always subconsciously organize them into sounds occurring in time. A car will pass by, and I’ll hear the pitch of it compared to the people talking next to me on the street and the sound of a phone ringing. I don’t have perfect pitch, but they all blend together in a nice way. I’m very sensitive to overlapping sounds. Luckily, I’ve been getting more into atonal music lately.
How does it feel to interact with the Steinway?
It’s like picking up a really well-made tennis racket — your game immediately improves. Playing a Steinway makes me feel like a better piano player. For some reason I can just respond to the action in a way that makes me not think about the technical side of things and just be able to lose myself in the sound.
When you’re able to let go of the technical side and lose yourself in the sound, what does that unleash?
The best feeling I can have as a musician is to catch, for just a split second, the realization that I haven’t been doing the music playing: It’s just been happening. I’ve been experiencing it, almost out of body. I know that there’s a part of my brain that is controlling my hands, but those moments where I feel completely just carried along by the music — those are the moments that I really live for.
Do you have any memories of the first time that you really disappeared into playing?
I remember always going into sort of, like, a meditative state when I would play piano. It’s always something that clears my mind and takes me away from thinking into just experiencing the sound of the instrument. As a kid, I would do that a lot, and still do, all the time! It’s such a nice feeling to be able to get out of my head, to stop the thoughts from happening and just enjoy the sound of an instrument that’s as amazing as the Steinway — and lose myself in the tones that come out of it. Sometimes it’s sort of like going into a trance when I sit down and play. It clears my mind, and I can focus on the sound coming out of the piano. The sound that comes out of the Steinway is truly inspiring.
What is the experience of being in that music state?
The feeling when music surrounds me and takes over and I have that kind of out-of-body experience, that’s very comfortable. There’s something about the physicality of the harmonies that come out of any instrument, the way that they can be felt all throughout your body. It’s just very soothing. It’s like an extension of this whole idea that everything has a vibration to it. Everything’s constantly moving in our whole world. For me, sound is an embodied form of that idea. You can experience it tangibly. In that sense it connects me to this deeper undercurrent of the whole universe, which sounds lofty and wild, but it’s true that the universe is vibrating. It’s nice to be able to really play around with those vibrations on an instrument like the Steinway.
“Those moments where I feel completely carried along by the music — those are the moments that I really live for.”
Why do you prefer to play on a Steinway?
I think that if there’s a problem with a tuning on an instrument or one of the keys sticks, it can be very distracting. To have all of those things taken care of by a quality-built instrument is really freeing. There’s a subtle difference between a specific type of touch or a specific type of articulation on any instrument, and that could be the difference between conveying the emotion you want to convey or missing the mark. I remember switching to a Steinway and how noticeable it was that the quality of this instrument was so impressive and so perfect. Playing an instrument that’s as well made as this Steinway makes it easier to tap into the little nuances that lead me down the path of becoming a better musician.
How did you decide that you were going to get a Steinway?
It started when I watched the documentary Note by Note, about the making of a Steinway piano. Then I decided to go take a tour of the factory in New York, and they were very nice. They took my mom, me, and a friend of mine out to look at every step of the piano-making process. I got to meet the people who did it. I got to help them bend one of the outside rims of the piano, turning some cranks on it. That was really cool.
I started to play pianos when I was out there at the factory, and I was just looking for a connection with a piano that would give me that intangible feeling of knowing this is the one that you want to have in your home. I played probably about twenty different pianos in New York and Los Angeles. Out in Pasadena I found one.
I had finally narrowed my choices down to a couple pianos out at the Pasadena showroom. I remember I was playing two of them, side by side, and they were off just by one serial from each other, so they were back to back in production. They were totally different. One was very bright, and one was very warm. I chose the warmer one because it just seemed like it would fit in my house and my personality.
Why does that fit your house and your personality?
I’m very sensitive, and so I don’t like harsh things or things that are even further along on the spectrum towards bright. They tend to make my nerves react in a way that the warm pianos don’t. The warm pianos are very soothing. I was looking for something intangible in the pianos I was trying out. I didn’t know exactly what it was going to be until I heard it. I found it with the piano I eventually ended up buying.
Tell me about the day you brought your Steinway home.
That was a great day. I took a bunch of photographs of the guys who were wheeling it in on the dollies and put it together in a little stop-motion movie. They brought it in, wrapped up in blankets like a beautiful Christmas present. We cleared a path from the front door into the living room and dining room areas. I went out with them, and we brought it off the truck and put it onto the dolly and wheeled it in. Then they unwrapped it and attached the legs and did their amazing process of flipping it upright onto its feet, and they brought in the piano bench. The first chord I played was just a C major triad chord right in the middle.
Going forward, was it a getting-to-know-you process with the instrument?
I’d already played it a lot at the Pasadena showroom. At that time, I remember, I was playing a couple pieces that I had written and the ending of Copland’s Appalachian Spring, the “moderato like a prayer” section. I loved the way the chords rang out on this piano.
How does the Steinway fit into your home?
I feel like it’s really integrated into my home. I’ve got electrical equipment that I play at the same time as I play the piano, sometimes looping sounds on a pedal. It fits into my dining room so that I have one half dedicated to food and the other half dedicated to music. It’s surrounded by works of art from friends of mine. I’ve got a cabinet behind me with incredible sheet music from the great masters. It’s just very inspiring to have this instrument in my home.
Talk to me about being on tour. How does it juxtapose with your time at home?
Juxtaposition is a good word, because my life at home is very oriented around the idea of a nurturing, grounded, stable, creative environment. Everything on the road is a lot more kinetic and spontaneous, and we’re in a different city every day. It’s very temporary. We bring our stuff into our hotel rooms and spend the night and pack it up in the morning and leave. We have these peak experiences every night with huge crowds of people, and then we’re gone from that city. I like to come home and decompress with that sort of very rooted vibe.
The Steinway is very heavy and is not practical to travel around with. So just by its very nature, the massing of it is very grounding, the color, tone. When I am home after all of that travel, and I sit down and I play, I feel the vibration coming from the piano through my body and into the house. It kind of physically connects me back to being home.
What do you try to do during your time between tours?
I think about each chunk of time in between tours as a mini-sabbatical from the professional world of playing music for fans. It’s the time for me to go deeper into music, and it’s such a lifelong pursuit. I just treat every month that we have off as a training session, basically, for me to play myself deeper into music. I study with different teachers, and I’m taking orchestration lessons and piano and guitar lessons and tabla lessons and voice lessons. I structure my day almost like I’m at a school, with specific times to work on different things, and then I have the free time to take what I’ve learned with those experiments and teachers and let it infuse its way into something that comes out of me naturally.
“The sound that comes out of the Steinway is truly inspiring.”
How do you go about studying?
I’m pretty methodical in terms of trying to break everything down to small modules. For the piano, I’ll work on specific types of technique. Touch and articulation. Then I’ll work on sight reading and notation. Then I’ll work on improvisation and songwriting and then work on repertoire with a new piece of sheet music. The same thing with guitar, and with the electronic recording world, and putting my studio together, and learning the technical side of engineering, microphones and outboard gear. There are a thousand different things that I’m pursuing right now. They’re all super fun, and I just feel so lucky to be able to spend my time learning about the things that I love.
Are you studying composers in an effort to look at music over time?
With my orchestration teacher we’ve been real systematic in terms of looking back through the thread of composers passing along their inspiration to other composers. We treat Bach as the foundation for modern music in our studies, and then moving forward through time to Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, and then Stravinsky. Before that, around Wagner time, we’ve got Debussy and Ravel. Just looking at all the threads, and who started to branch out — Wagner and Liszt — into the world of atonality. Then Schoenberg comes along, and Stravinsky and Schoenberg have their split into tonal and atonal. Stravinsky’s doing wild things with polyrhythm and polytonality. Gustav Mahler’s a big hero of mine, and I love Philip Glass and Steve Reich and the whole world of hypnotic, minimalist music. It’s very inspiring to me. Then the film composers came along, because that’s what I see as a modern-day extension of Mahler and Wagner. People like John Williams and Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer. These guys are my modern-day composer heroes.