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Interview with John Otott

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Today we bring you an interview with John Otott, who recently released the album Colors. In the interview he talks about his music and life in general. Read on to learn more about this amazing artist! 

BT Fasmer: First please tell a bit about yourself, John.

John Otott: Well, musically speaking, it goes like this…

Like seemingly every other pianist/composer, I started playing piano at a very young age…insert age here…4, 5, 6 years old…doesn’t really matter… I laugh at this because I don’t think I’ve ever read a bio of a pianist/composer that didn’t state that they started playing piano at the age of 4, 5 or 6!

john-otott1I’m the youngest of 5 children and most of my siblings played piano so I grew up listening to them. Almost from the get-go, I would make up my own songs. I never had the patience to learn other music, although I had an easy time playing music by ear. My interest in piano came and went in various degrees through elementary school and high school, but I continued to improve my playing and compositional skills even though I was self-taught.

Flash forward to my senior year in high school…my sister gave me a bass guitar she wasn’t using. I almost immediately yanked out the frets to make it a fretless bass for that cool, smooth sound that a fretless bass makes. A friend of mine was a bass player and I paid him to give me some lessons. I think I paid him $2.50 per lesson. I formed a band with some friends and we cut our teeth playing horrible renditions of Led Zeppelin, Rush and Stray Cat’s songs. My circle of musician friends continuously evolved and the bands that I played in got progressively better and better over the years.

Eventually, I was playing in a progressive rock band that was quite good. My hair was long, we had a great following and we were playing regularly in Hollywood at the top venues on Sunset (Whiskey-a-Go Go, Roxy, Troubadour etc). Cool times and crazy memories. Of course, all we wanted was a record contract. We did have some major label interest with A&R guys coming to some of our shows…but there’s a huge step between interest and ink!

My progressive rock band morphed into a rock-influenced, jazz band. Strictly instrumental, no vocalist and heavy with saxophone. We wrote some pretty cool stuff that had a real progressive edge to it, no doubt from our progressive rock roots. We played with some heavy hitters from the jazz world and did some great shows. I was still solely a bass player at this point, but I was doing quite a bit of songwriting on piano as my true musical outlet. Then I got married…which changed the course of my musical direction – not to mention my life – in a wonderful way.

As a gift for my bride, I composed a piano quintet…which is a piano composition along with 2 violins, a viola and a cello… something I had never done before! And, I wanted to perform it live at my wedding ceremony as a surprise to my wife – and the entire congregation, for that matter.

Long story short, I had to find a string quartet that would not only play the obligatory songs for a wedding ceremony, but also learn and play my original composition along with me on piano. Hearing and composing the string parts came naturally to me, but putting the parts onto sheet music for professional musicians to play…that was difficult.

The string quartet I hired was led by Julie Metz who happened to be a violinist with the Pacific Symphony Orchestra when she wasn’t touring with Yanni. She really liked my song, entitled “One Life, One Love,” and was immensely helpful to me as I prepared the sheet music for the musicians. I actually pulled it off!

When I played it at my wedding ceremony, it was the first time I had heard the song with accompanying strings. The string players had to sight read it from my manuscript as they had never heard the song. No rehearsal. It was hard for me to maintain concentration on my piano playing because I was literally listening to my song – with strings – for the first time. That’s when I knew that this was the type of songwriting I wanted to aspire to!

Julie subsequently convinced me to add string orchestration to other songs I had written, record them in a studio, and put out a CD. That’s how EXIT REALITY came about. She played the violin and viola parts and Andrea Honea, also from the Pacific Symphony Orchestra, played Cello. Of course we recorded “One Life, One Love,” which is track #7 on EXIT REALITY.

I created an independent label to promote EXIT REALITY and I actually sold quite a few CD’s in the U.S. and was picked up by a label in Taiwan. That’s when I switched my focus from bass to piano, which is still my focus today. I still love playing my bass, though.

BT: In your music there are no lyrics, yet the music seems to be very visual. What inspires you when you compose music?

John: Life and the emotions that life brings about. Sounds banal, but that’s just it. Music and words are very similar…both, when used properly, are great channels for emotion. I use music.

BT: Tell us about Colors. Are there any stories behind the music that you would like to share?

John: There are 3 tracks in particular that are special to me and do, in fact, have a story behind them —

john-otott-colorso   The Wind Song – My 14 year old daughter (Isabella) plays many of the violin tracks on this song (she was 13 when I recorded her). This was the first time we have worked together on a song and I wrote some of the violin parts specifically for her to play. I’m very proud of her and she’s really excited to be on a CD and to have people hear her!

o   A Memory – My mother has Alzheimer’s. This piece was not written with any thought towards song form or function. It’s a direct conduit to the emotions I have felt during the last 6+ years as I’ve helplessly watched my mother deteriorate from the effects of this terrible disease. With this song, I attempt to convey the myriad of emotions I have experienced – sadness, incomprehension, hopefulness during brief periods when my mother seemed to “re-emerge,” anger and helplessness when she would then deteriorate to a new low. This piece is undoubtedly the purest metamorphosis of emotion into music that I’ve ever composed.

o   August and Life – I actually wrote this song 14 years ago in celebration of the birth of my daughter, Isabella (born 8/15/2000). I dug it out of my song archives and included it on this CD. It’s a very special song to me.

BT: You released the album Flying Machines in 2011, and now Colors. Your previous albums were Exit Reality (1994) and Road Trip (2005). How was it to record and release music again after such a long time?

John: Whether I commercially release a CD or not, music is a huge outlet for me. Even if there are many years between my releases, I’m still quite musically active. I mean, like with anything, my creativity ebbs and flows…which directly affects my songwriting. For me, life inspires music…and sometimes when life gets overbearing, over busy, or whatever you want to call it, I musically shut down briefly. Otherwise, I’m always tinkering with compositions. I actually have hundreds of what I call “sketches” recorded and waiting to be either expanded upon or moved to the trash folder. All that said, it feels great to actually release my music. Music is meant to be heard, right?  I don’t want my compositions to be like that proverbial tree in the forest that made a sound when it fell…or did it… if no-one was there to hear it?

BT: That’s right. Based on this, I guess it must be nice to see that you are getting many very positive reviews?

John: Absolutely. For my own music, there’s no harsher critic than myself…and this is usually an obstacle I have to overcome every time I compose, record and release my music. It’s great to receive positive feedback from fresh ears.

BT: The sound of the piano on your albums is really good. Tell us about the recording process.

John: I’ve heard that comment before from critics and fans alike…and I’m glad to hear it! I say this because I don’t record on an acoustic – let’s say real – piano, although I do have a baby grand piano in addition to my studio rig.

john-otott3Almost without exception, I compose my music on my baby grand before laying down tracks in my studio with my digital piano. As a pianist, I’m very sensitive to the nuances of tone and timbre which just can never be perfectly mimicked by a digital piano. I record using a very good Yamaha keyboard and I take careful measures to tweak the sound during the final mix down and the mastering process. I’m pretty happy with the sound overall, but there are certain tonal ranges with the digital piano that make me cringe a bit.

As for all the other instrumentation, the background pads and strings are keyboard based except for some of the violin parts that my daughter plays on The Wind Song. The percussion and drums are real instruments which I played and recorded. I used my son’s drum set, a shaker that looks like an avocado, a tambourine, a drum I purchased in the Dominican Republic, a triangle I smacked with a Philips screwdriver and a strange percussion instrument made of seed pods from a tree I can’t pronounce found in Africa…had to throw that in the mix!

BT: You are a multi-instrumentalist. Is piano your favorite instrument?

John: Oh yea…piano is such an incredible sounding board for the emotions that life elicits and solicits. To me, it’s the most dynamic of all instruments. It can laugh for me, cry for me, talk for me and carry me to anywhere I envision. How can you beat that?  But, man, I love playing drums. And what other instrument can give you such an aerobic workout? Give me an hour to drum to Collective Soul, Green Day or just about any hair-band and I leave my studio drenched, blistered and feeling fantastic.

BT: You have performed with quite a few famous musicians over the years. It must be inspiring to work with such talented people?

John: Yes, and I always keyed in on the respect they received from their audience. It was really magical to see how their music resonated with their fans. It’s the ultimate compliment for any musician.

BT: Are you working on any new project at the moment?

John: No, not right now. I’m busy with the post-release process in support of Colors. As an indie artist, it can be daunting. There are SO many avenues to promote your music and to get your music heard. The last 7-10 years have changed the entire scope of music promotion. It’s fascinating, actually, and a completely different world than when I released EXIT REALITY. These days, it’s not much more difficult to promote your music to a Sri Lankan audience than to a local audience! It’s pretty cool. I’ve got mini fan bases in some pretty far flung areas of the world. But as for a next release…I’ll probably shoot for early 2016.

BT: Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions, John! We wish you a wonderful Christmas, and best of luck with the recording of the new album!

Be sure to visit John Otott’s homepage for samples of his music.