With an oeuvre that includes both reinterpretations of centuries-old compositions and original works, pianist and composer Chad Lawson bridges the divide between younger populations and classical music by reinventing the piano for what he coins "the Spotify generation." After performing with jazz guitarist Babik Reinhardt, making music with his own jazz group Chad Lawson Trio, and playing the keyboard for Julio Iglesias's tour band, the Steinway artist released his debut solo album Set on a Hill in 2009. In 2014, he debuted the Classical Billboard chart-topper The Chopin Variations, which reworked traditional compositions into streamable hits through offering a modern take on 10 Chopin pieces, and 2016's Bach Interpreted showed Lawson continuing to adapt classical pieces for today's audiences. He further modernized piano music on his #1 iTunes collection Re:Piano (2018) by incorporating touchscreen technology, using the digital tools on an iPad to embed effects, filters, and loops into his music.
Notching 500 million streams worldwide and multiple Classical Billboard Top 10 releases, Lawson continues to integrate piano music into today's streaming landscape with his newest EP irreplaceable, a meditative four-track solo piano set that offers solace and encourages self-reflection. Sitting down with AllMusic, Lawson discussed the journey behind the EP, explaining his melody-centric composition process and how the meaning of irreplaceable fell into place, before describing the role of the piano in the age of streaming services and the relationship between music and mental health.
AllMusic: To start off, could you briefly describe your writing and composition process for your new EP irreplaceable? How did everything come together?
Chad Lawson: Yeah, I mean, I feel bad when people ask what inspires me as far as musically speaking, because it kind of bursts the bubble a little bit for people. I'm actually quite opposite in how I write music. I'm not one of those people that gets inspired by an event or a moment or a sunset or something like that.
The way I write music is a little different. And so what happens is, I start getting melodies in my head. And I have to wait until all of those melodies are in my head, and they begin to drive me crazy. And then that's when I sit down at the piano, and I write out the melodies. And then I start building the chords and the songs around the melodies. And so unfortunately, I'm one of those people that have to wait until my body, my mind, is basically saying, screaming at me, "Hey, it's time to write an album." I know some people, they write forty-five minutes a day as a practice, or some people that have this routine in how they write. And I found for me personally, that until I have that melody just pounding in my head, it's going to fall flat if I try to do it any other way. Which goes to the main point of how I do music, which is melody. Everything is melody for me. The biggest factor in writing music is, what is the songbird? What is the melody of everything? To be honest, I feel like in this circle, we've kind of been void of melody for the last number of years…And I guess that's just what people need right now. It's one of those things where I think for me personally, though, my biggest thing that I want to focus on is just melody.
The very first [song] that came with this EP was "irreplaceable," as far as the melody is concerned. And so what's fascinating for me personally is, I never know what the songs are about until after the song has already been recorded. So I don't name the songs, I don't have an idea of what the stories are…I write the song, I record it, and then I take about a month away from it. I don't want to go back and listen to it. After that break, then I sit down. I love to read. And so I just read poetry while I'm listening to these recorded pieces. And slowly the pieces will begin to tell me what the story is. So for instance, "fields of forever," I had no idea what that song was about. I just had this melody. I listened to a lot of Henry Mancini within the past year, year and a half. And because he is so melodic, like who doesn't know "Moon River?" And so I really just devoured everything Henry Mancini was because of his melodic structure. And so even with this song, "fields of forever," I had a great melody, I just really didn't know what the story was about or what the song was about. And it wasn't until I started recording that, like actually [the] end [of] the recording session, that I just started getting these images of what the song really was about.
So two years ago, I guess, coming up about a year and a half ago, my dad passed away. During this recording of this song, "fields of forever," I just started getting these images—they were just flooding me—of my parents and their happiest moments. And I don't mean grandiose moments like weddings or stuff like that. I mean just simple every day, be at the park or having a picnic or just watching TV together. I was just flooded during the recording, like actually with the red light on and playing everything. I'm about to just burst into tears because that song really began showing me what it was about. And so for me personally, how a song comes about is kind of on its own, and I'm just kind of the facilitator of it. It's really really rare for me to be inspired by a moment or an event—it has happened—but for the most part, it just starts with a melody, and then I just release that melody and it tells me what it's about analytically.
AllMusic: And going off of that, I know that in a press release, you revealed that the EP revolves around "that person you could never live without" or "that favorite memory that always brings a smile." And I know you said very rarely are you inspired by an event. So how did the journey end up leading you to this meaning?
Lawson: Now, that's great, I super appreciate that. So after that song was recorded, "irreplaceable," there was a moment where someone was in a recording studio. And they walked in while we were recording it. And they were just like, oh my gosh, this just feels so much about a dear friend that they were talking about. They had just had this conversation, and it really struck with me. The last two years have definitely been a moment of self-reflection, hopefully not only just for me but for everyone, to where we've taken this time away from what we generally have immediately in front of us at all times. The last few years, we haven't had that any more, be it remote school, be it people that you haven't been around, be it things that weren't as accessible as they used to be.
And so for me personally, there's been a giant season of self-reflection and just looking back and just appreciating those moments of what I did have. And not in a really sad way. Like "irreplaceable," in a roundabout way, it can kind of come off as, "Oh, I'm really sad because this person is no longer in my life." My dad, for instance, being no longer around. And I didn't want to look at it that way. I wanted to look at it like, you know what, there was a beautiful season that I have when my dad was here. And now I want to take that season, what I learned from being with my dad and bring that to other people, that emotional embrace. I look at my wife, and I'm just so grateful for what I have in her. Taking those things that we just kind of, up until the last two years, we've kind of taken for granted in a roundabout way, and just realizing the significance and actually what they do bring to us.
That really was the impetus behind irreplaceable, just taking that moment and just being like, "Hey you know what? This is actually really beautiful." Even me personally, I'm probably the only person that's grateful for the season of COVID because it kept me home. I couldn't tour. And rather than be really distraught over it, I'm just embracing the fact that I was able to be home for two years, I was able to be around my dad when he was going through all that. I've been able to be around my kids for the last two years and wake up in my own bed for the last two years. Those are the things where I'm really hoping that we all have that moment of self-reflection and just appreciating what is irreplaceable, what does make us smile. What makes us kind of warm all over when we think about it.
AllMusic: Yeah, definitely. And moving away from the EP and more to your music as a whole, one of my favorite things about your work is how it reinvents piano music for today's streaming scene. Because I feel like the piano is often regarded as a classical instrument in a way. So given that, what would you say is its role in the digital streaming age of today?
Lawson: I love this. Thank you so much. Yeah, it's interesting. So in 2014, I did this thing called The Chopin Variations, and I recorded that album because I wanted to introduce classical music to the Spotify generation, this young audience that had never heard classical music before. And it's no fault of their own. Maybe they grew up with a piano in the house, but it's covered with photos of old standing mirrors and it's dusty and they don't even know how to turn it on. I wanted to take Chopin and bring Chopin to this young audience. And so I said, "You know what? If Chopin was going to release an album today, what would it sound like in 2022?" So I reached out to two friends of mine—one of them is the violinist for Lady Gaga [Judy Kang], and the other is a cellist [Rubin Kodheli] that's played with everyone from Snoop Dogg to Philip Glass.
And I said, "This is my idea: Let's bring this music to them instead of waiting for these people to find it." For me personally, I think the interesting thing about that is, we took something that was traditionally classical, and we turn it on its head, and we said, "You know what, let's put this into this landscape." And the interesting thing is, I thought I would get massive pushback from people saying, "You can't do this. Chopin, this is sacred." And people wrote in to say, "Hey you know what? I've actually never listened to Chopin before, but now I'm really curious. I want to go back and I want to hear the original." So all of a sudden you've got this young generation that's now curious about, following that rabbit hole of "Well, where did this really stem from?" And I think that's what's so interesting, that I love so much about this younger audience that's coming up—or when I say "younger" I mean 30 and under. It's not classical to them. It's not.
The interesting thing about streaming services, like Spotify and Pandora, is I equate it to a record store. Back in the old days, you'd walk into a record store, and you'd go directly to your genre of preference. So let's say you go in and you go directly to the Gospel section. And so you go in, you grab what you want out of that section, you pay for it, and you leave, but you never looked over to see what was new in world or pop or country or western. You just kind of stayed in your lane. And I think the interesting thing about this younger generation is that they want that crossover, they want to be able to look over and say, "Hey you know what, this is something I'm not really familiar with. I'm really curious, I want to check it out." I think that's what's happening with classical music. It's like, now you've got this, quote unquote, neoclassical to where if you were to look and say, "Hey, you realize you're listening to classical music, right?", their response is generally, "Yeah, so? What's the big deal?" And then it's not really a name or a genre, it's more like this emotive feeling of, I liked this just as much as I like Adele or Wet Leg or Arcade Fire. It doesn't have to be separate anymore.
And the interesting thing is, I'm a huge data person. I love the analytics of music. And so during the week, my listening numbers are sky high. They were really up there. But come Thursday night, Friday particularly, they drop like a rock, because mostly nobody wants to listen to it on the weekend. That's not what this music is for. It's meant to be chill and to be calm. And so on Sunday night, my numbers all of a sudden, they just soar again, they just go back up. This really illustrates to me that my audience, if I look at the demo of it, it's heavy heavy heavy 18 to 34. That's tremendous! That age group is listening to this. And it shows to me that it's usually when they're studying, they're reading, that they want something on in the background without it being distracting but also kind of just nice to have listening to. And so I think what we've done is, we've transitioned with the piano and with this style of music, we've taken this instrument to a point where it was like, yeah, it doesn't have to be just traditional Beethoven anymore. This can actually be something that we can put on in the background without feeling like it's esoteric or feeling we can't connect with it. And I love that. I think it's amazing that this younger audience has embraced it this way.
AllMusic: Yeah, I love how it is so applicable to today's world. And in a similar vein, today, mental health is part of the conversation more than ever, especially also now with it being Mental Health Awareness Month. How does your music fit into or further that conversation on prioritizing our mental health?
Lawson: I'm glad you asked, this is my favorite topic. Prior to the pandemic, I get emails all the time from people saying, "Hey, I'm going through a difficult season in my life right now." People would write me and say, "I just lost a loved one to cancer" or "I'm going through a divorce." And so what I found is that people, they would say, "I go home and lay on the floor. And even if it's just forty-five minutes, your music just kind of stops the world for a little bit." And we shall never forget this, I will never ever ever forget this, this lady wrote me an email, I guess it was about a year ago. It's a Saturday morning at seven o'clock. And she said, "I'm listening to one of your songs." And she mentioned the name. And she said, "The pacing, the tempo of the song matches the pacing of my husband's breathing as I watched him take his last one." And there is such a heaviness to that. This is why I do what I do. And when I received those emails, especially a couple of years ago, that's when for me, I knew it wasn't about Chad Lawson. It's not what I'm trying to do as a quote unquote artist. It's not about furthering my name or my brand. It's about facilitating and holding the hands of what people are going through.
And that's incredibly powerful and emotional. Because a lot of times when we write a song, and we record it, and when it leaves that studio, it leaves that door, we never know where it lands. As a composer, you never have an idea until people reach out and they share those stories with you. And the interesting thing is during the pandemic, I was getting them more and more and more and more to where it really just had an impact. And I had been studying the marriage of music and mental health for a good bit just before the pandemic hit. Because I was really curious. I was like, yes, music makes us feel good. Why? What about it actually, like scientifically and logically, what happens when we listen to music? And so I really try to dive into that.
And then once the pandemic hit, and I couldn't tour, and these emails are coming in, really incredibly so, that's when I decided to create the podcast Calm it Down, which is centered around emotional and mental health, because I wanted to further the conversation of what music is doing for people. And since I couldn't tour, I also wanted to be able to continue to connect with my listening audience. And that's really how the weekly podcasts, Calm it Down, began in September of 2020. And it's taken on a complete, different life of its own that I never anticipated, getting fifty to sixty thousand listeners each week now, just for the podcast alone. And you see where music has that calming effect. There's studies from the Oxford Press and from Harvard that say listening to calming music even for three minutes, it just raises this hormone in our body that activates us going calm.
There's so much science behind the conversation of mental health, but what makes me the happiest is that we're actually talking about it more and more and more. It's sad in one degree that it's taken us this long to have this conversation and it's also sad that it's now so prevalent, that it's definitely at the forefront. But I'm ecstatic that more and more people are feeling more comfortable about it. And so if there is any way that my music can aid and heal someone or hold their hands or help them, that's why I sit at the piano. It's not about what Chad Lawson is trying to do as an artist. It's just about what I'm trying to offer to people going through what they're going through.
…And that's really what I was hoping this EP would be, to where people can just close their eyes and just listen to a melody, and just attach themselves to that. Even just for a season, even just for a few moments…It took a pandemic for all of us to actually stop and say, "Woah, what am I feeling right now? How am I?" How often did we ever ask that to ourselves? So if I can create something that kind of opens that conversation, then bring it on. I'm all for it.
Listen to the four-track EP here.