Hiromi – The BIRN Interview

Pianist Hiromi Uehara is a wonder. There are times when it is hard to believe that one person could make the sounds that she makes on the piano at one time, and without having more than 2 hands. When you watch her play the piano you think that you can see what she is thinking in that moment, and imagine that you can also feel what she is feeling. If you allow it to, the experience can definitely take you out of whatever space you are in.

I had the chance to talk with Hiromi via Skype about Spectrum, her new album, which was released on October 4 on Telarc records.

Track Listing:

1. Kaleidoscope
2. Whiteout
3. Yellow Wurlitzer Blues
4. Spectrum
5. Blackbird
6. Mr. C.C.
7. Once In A Blue Moon
8. Rhapsody In Various Shades Of Blue – Medley
9. Sepia Effect

BIRN: Why did you name the album “Spectrum”?

Hiromi: The theme of this album, the concept of this album I decided to be color. I wanted to write about different colors and there are some songs under the color of blue, white, yellow, black and white, sepia, so I collected a number of songs which I wrote under the concept of color.

BIRN: Why did you pick Blackbird as a song to include on your new album and why does that song have special meaning for you?

Hiromi: The first time I heard that song I think I was in high school. It’s such a beautiful song and somehow it touched a deep part of my soul. I’ve been playing this song over and over since then and I never really played it at a show or any public occasions but I’ve always been playing the song. It is one of my favorite songs to play. I was always looking for the right time to record and you know this time the theme of the album was colors and it matches the concept and I decided to record it.

BIRN: I need to ask you about 1 more song on the album, Yellow Wurlitzer Blues because the information in the press release was so interesting. Can you talk about that song and how it came to be?

Hiromi: Yes (laughs.) Some people thought that I am playing a Wurlitzer on this song but actually I am playing a piano. The reason that I wrote this song is that there is one bar that I go to for a hang and I think most musicians want to play when they are hanging. I mean, after you have a couple drinks in you, you want to play your instrument. Unfortunately I don’t play guitar or trumpet so I can’t carry around my instrument. There is one bar that I often go to and I was talking to the owner of the bar, “You know I really want to play, you know, when I’m hanging, but there is no instrument here so I can’t play.” The next time I visited the place, he had bought me a yellow Wurlitzer. “Now you can play at any time.” Now whenever I go there with friends we started to do some sessions. My friends are not necessarily all musicians, they are businesspeople, actors, you know, many different occupations, but I encourage then to sing the blues. Just sing what happened today. How was your day? Just sing along, sing over my chord changes. And they try and it worked! It started to be a lot of fun and we always do that, so that’s why I wanted to dedicate a song to this yellow Wurlitzer.

BIRN: I know the goal of this album is to take a picture of your life and your playing for the last ten years. In 2009 your album Place To Be was a sort of a composite or picture of you as a pianist and as a composer in your 20s and this is the sort of the same thing for your 30s, which is an amazing idea. So my questions is, now that it has been a decade since Place To Be, do you feel very different as an artist, as a composer, pianist or is it more like, you know 10 years is really not that long?

Hiromi: Well, actually, I don’t feel it was that long but as a pianist, I think I feel closer to the piano than I did 10 years ago, put it that way. The more I play, the more time I spend with the instrument, the closer it gets. That’s how I feel. I understand the instrument better. I can get the response I want from the instrument better, so I feel like I am communicating much better than 10 years ago. That’s how I feel. I think I am a little better as a pianist than 10 years ago (laughs.)

BIRN: As a composer, how are you different?

Hiromi: Composing for me is like keeping a journal. I’m trying to write almost every day and some days I can write more than other days. But even one little motif, or just four bars, eight bars, I just try to write what happens, how I felt on that day. Instead of a diary I have this music diary. The more you experience in life, the more things you can write about. I lived 10 years more. I have experienced more things, so as a composer I have a little more to say as well.

BIRN: This is a solo record for you. Tell me what is the best thing about making a solo record and touring solo and what are the harder things about doing that compared to working with other musicians.

Hiromi: It’s a completely different setting, you know, playing with a trio or a duo. When you have somebody to play with on stage it’s like trying to score a goal with passing, like soccer. Being alone on stage is like boxing or judo (laughs). I’m always fighting against yesterday’s myself. I try to play something I haven’t played before and I’m always trying to find new landscapes. In that way I’m making the example of boxing and soccer because we are fighting against ourselves. Having no one to share a thought or be inspired by on stage, like being really alone sometimes is challenging because if you are stuck, you are stuck. You can’t ask anybody. There is nobody to help you. On the other hand you can really be in your own zone because there is nobody to interfere with. When you are there, I feel like, I feel so free. It’s such a beautiful feeling just being on stage, just myself. When you play with other musicians you can’t really hear the overtones of the piano because it’s covered up. You can hear every single detail of the piano (when playing solo) and as a piano fan, I am a piano lover, it is just so enjoyable to hear all these details of the piano and I just enjoy it so much.

BIRN: Is there a difference between your relationship with the audience when you’re playing with a band versus when you’re playing solo?

Hiromi: Well, actually not really. When I play with my band then I would communicate with the band as well as the audience but when I’m playing solo it’s either myself or the audience so it’s not that different, actually. I always try to just enjoy the whole atmosphere. Playing a concert I always feel like I’m the captain of the ship and there are people who just happen to be in the ship who are the audience and I’m the captain to be responsible for the new adventure. When I have a band then I have the crew, right? (Laughs) But when I’m alone and I’m the only captain and the only crew to carry the ship.

BIRN: You seem to share your emotions openly and I think that is one of the many things that people love about watching you is that you’re so expressive, you’re so giving of your emotions whether it’s exuberance or sadness. How does it feel for you when you’re done with a show? Are you completely drained?

Hiromi: (Laughs) Yes, completely drained. You know It’s hard to fall asleep after a show even though I’m so tired because I give everything I have in the show. I always try to think that this is my first show and the last show because the same audience never happens. The same group of people will never be on the ship again, so it’s always new. I always try to make a once a lifetime adventure for me as well as the audience. So when I finish the show, I’m super exhausted. It’s such an interesting feeling that I’m tired but at the same time I’m energized because I love performing. I get so much from the audience as well as I give so much, and it’s like mucho communication. Even though the show is finished I feel like a mini Hiromi is running around in my brain and I’m like, trying to calm down, trying to calm down. It takes a couple of hours to feel, OK, now I can go to sleep.

BIRN: You said during the press tour of your last solo record that you had to be the entire orchestra by yourself in that recording. Has that vision of a solo piano record changed in 10 years?

Hiromi: No, it’s still the same. You know, it’s always my goal and my challenge. Piano is like a complete instrument to me. It’s like the full orchestra itself. It’s the full big band itself and that’s why I wanted to record Rhapsody In Blue this time. When I first heard it I think I was in elementary school, probably like 11 or 12. I was fascinated by all of the orchestra instruments. I found the condensed score for the solo piano version and started to play Rhapsody In Blue solo. I realized, wow, piano can be clarinet, piano can be trumpet. Piano can be bass. Piano can make a groove. Piano can be anything. That’s why I always thought that if I ever have the opportunity to record Rhapsody In Blue, the first time has to be solo, not with an orchestra, just to prove that piano is an orchestra itself. That’s how I felt when I first heard that song.

BIRN: From reading the press release, your version, Rhapsody In Various Shades of Blue, there are some influences that one might not think would fit together. Can you talk about that?

Hiromi: Yes. So, I’ve been playing this song for about 30 years (laughs). I started to just play around with it. I started to insert some other favorite songs of mine within the song. This time the concept of the album is color and Rhapsody In Blue is under the theme of blue, so I decided to gather my favorite songs with blue in the name. One of the songs that I inserted is John Coltrain’s Blue Train and the other is song is Behind Blue Eyes by The Who. It’s like in and out and it comes and goes. In a way it’s probably surprising when you first hear it and it’s like “is this The Who?” Yes, it is surprising but it’s really naturally done. You don’t feel sudden change or anything. It naturally comes and naturally goes. I thought that it’s really interesting that composers see different kinds of blue. I thought that if I insert “blue” songs that I can make the gradation of color. That’s why I decided to put these two songs in. The song is actually 22 minutes and 25 seconds. It’s not actually radio friendly.

BIRN: It is on our station.

Before you came to Berklee in 1999, you did some jingle writing for some companies in Japan, is that correct?

Hiromi: Yes!

BIRN: Was there anything about that experience that you still carry with you or was it like, “I don’t want to do this”?

Hiromi: Oh no! Actually, I got the gig because I was doing some live shows and the boss of the company happened to be in the audience and he said “I think you want to write for visuals.” I always saw visuals when I wrote songs. Sometimes something really clear and sometimes a little more blurred but I always saw certain kinds of landscapes. He encouraged me to do some jingle writing because it’s like writing for short film. 15 second, 30 second film. That’s how I felt. What I remember most was writing for this Nissan car commercial starring Mr. Bean. That was fun. How he moves, his facial expression. You write along with his expression. I really enjoyed it and I still want to write for visuals and hopefully longer scoring. Yea, I enjoy it.

BIRN: Are there a couple of things that you learned at Berklee that you can say are the most important things you learned while you were at school?

Hiromi: The first and most shocking thing that I learned in school is probably that there are countless musicians in this world. Learning the fact of the number of musicians in this world. I had never been to music school. I had some musician friends but not like everyone around me were musicians. I moved to Boston. I’m sitting in the lobby in the 150 building and everyone around me of course are musicians. I think it was like first or second day I realized, wow, all of these people are musicians and all aiming for the same dream. And once I stepped out of the building, I’m walking down the street and I realize there is New England Conservatory, Boston Conservatory. The whole street is packed with musicians. There are only musicians on that street. Wow, if there are that many musicians in the world, what do I really have to say? Why do I really want to connect to the audience? Do I really have something special to say among these people? That had a really big impact on the very first weeks entering Berklee. Than meeting all of these musicians from around the world and playing music with (them). That was another amazing treasure that I had. How they feel rhythm is very different (depending on) where they come from. Everybody has a different way of feeling the groove and feeling the pulse and I thought it was very interesting to learn all of these differences in cultures. In class I was studying composition and arranging, you know studying about all of the instruments that I don’t play. That was really helpful. Even writing for solo piano it is very helpful to understand all of these other instruments. I do write for orchestra. I do write for big band. It was always my dream to write for large ensembles so to make that happen studying that in school was very helpful.

Thank you, Hiromi!

Hiromi is currently touring in support of her new release, Spectrum.

Click here for upcoming live dates.