By: Matthew Mayer, SoloPiano.com
Ask any musician, “What is one of the things you would like to achieve in your music career?” Chances are, one response would be, “Be recognized with a Grammy® Award.”
In the music world, the Grammy® is considered the Mt. Everest of musical achievement. Relatively speaking, few reach this summit. Like Mt. Everest, the pursuit of any dream’s summit, whether the creative field, business or life in general, is met with challenges – at times, extreme challenges.
This year, Laura Sullivan reached the summit, and won the Grammy® for Best New Age album.
Between going through her 1000-plus videos of submissions Laura receives on her latest project and bouncing around to radio and various media interviews, she took the time to chat with me in the middle of a busy week. Though we chatted near the end of the day, Laura’s calm and inquisitive nature was captivating, and she spoke with pureness of musical heart.
Here’s our interview:
MATTHEW: It is an absolute pleasure to have an opportunity to speak with you, Laura! Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule and chatting with us at SoloPiano.com. Can you give us a little background on yourself and how you started out in music and playing the piano?
LAURA: Thank you Matthew, it’s a pleasure to speak with you. My mother was a pianist and she was my first teacher. She used to love to play the music of the Beatles and these were some of the first songs I learned to play on the piano. Later I studied with Dr. Robert Bowman and earned a Bachelor’s degree in music.
Dr. Robert Bowman is now a retired Professor and continues to offer private lessons. He also performs concerts and offers lectures on a variety of subjects.
MATTHEW: Did you always know that music was something you were going to pursue and do the rest of your life? If so, when in your life did you realize this?
LAURA: It was always something that I knew I enjoyed, but I didn’t really fully commit to it until after I met my husband. He encouraged me to go for it and that gave me more confidence. Now I realize that it is my life’s purpose and that I’ll never do anything else.
I spoke with Laura more about the importance of relationships. She went on to say how relationships – and networking “are our greatest assets and resources.” She also talked about the part faith has in relationships saying, “Even when I don’t know what a certain relationship will bring….usually what that relationship cultivates is….a gift.”
MATTHEW: Who were your music influences growing up?
LAURA: Naturally the Beatles, as described previously. Other than that, classical composers were quite influential as I grew up playing a lot of Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Debussy, Chopin, Schuman and others.
MATTHEW: How would you describe the music you compose?
LAURA: The music I’ve composed for my album releases is categorized in our industry as “New Age.” I would say it is melodic, relaxing and emotional. I have also composed a great deal of music for TV underscore, film and commercials in a variety of styles, mainly ambient or orchestral.
MATTHEW: Of all of the songs you have composed, which one is your favorite?
LAURA: I guess my favorite is usually the one I’m currently working on. If I had to choose, it would probably be “Wishing on a Dandelion” because that is dedicated to my daughter, Shaela, who of course is absolutely precious to me.
Wishing on a Dandelion is our featured video on SoloPiano.com. Be sure to check it out on our Featured Spot at www.solopiano.com!
MATTHEW: Your Piano music is on regular rotation on our Radio Station - The Stream at SoloPiano.com. Your album Mystical America is one represented on this rotation (Pictography Cave is a personal favorite:). This album seems to give a powerful tribute to the beauty of nature and certain locations. Tell us a little bit about this album and how it came about?
LAURA: Thank you so much for the airplay on your wonderful station. Mystical America was inspired by unusual and fascinating places in America such as Sedona, Mt. Shasta and Pictograph Cave. The album was produced by a wonderful artist and friend, Chris Camozzi, who was Michael Bolton’s band director for many years.
MATTHEW: Your music collection is not only impressive, but your collaboration resume is quite extensive as well. The people you have worked with include world renowned authors, producers, engineers, musicians and so on. Can you tell us about some of the collaborations that have stood out to you, and share your experiences working with some of these folks?
LAURA: One of my favorite collaborators is my husband, Eric Sullivan. He is now a Grammy® winning composer as of our win in January 2014 for “Love’s River.” Eric and I have developed a wonderful working relationship built on trust and experience with a flow to our process, after years of practice in this way together.
Will Ackerman, platinum recording artist and founder of Windham Hill Records, also produced a portion of “Love’s River.” Working with him at his beautiful studio in Vermont was a dream come true. I’ve long admired Will and it was quite an honor to have that experience.
MATTHEW: You have achieved a lot in your musical career to date, including this year, your release of ‘Love's River’ won a GRAMMY® for BEST NEW AGE ALBUM in the 56th GRAMMY® awards which aired on CBS on January 26, 2014. What did this award mean to you, and tell us what it was like when your name was announced?
LAURA: It’s truly an honor and I’m very grateful. When my name was announced I was extremely excited and then quickly became a bit embarrassed as I tried to walk up the very steep and tall stairs that led to the podium. My mermaid style dress was so tight from the waist to my knees that I could barely make it. If I’m ever lucky enough to be nominated again, I will wear a very loose skirt!
MATTHEW: Ha! Many musicians have the “dream” of winning a GRAMMY® someday. How does a musician go about pursuing this dream? What steps does a musician need to take for consideration?
LAURA: It’s pretty easy to submit music for a Grammy® award. One has to be a member of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences to submit music for inclusion on the ballot, and there are other rules for music qualification in each of the categories. People who are interested should check out the Grammy® website for all the current details.
MATTHEW: You are also currently working on a video in which you are having people from around the world collaborate with you. Can you tell us more about this project, and its ultimate goal?
LAURA: Yes, my latest project is my composition titled “We Are Love.” I’m reaching out to collaborate with our global community to create the final song and video through inclusion of their voices and video clips of their images. So far, more than 1000 videos have been submitted for the project including involvement from more than 650 people. Fifty percent of any proceeds from this project will benefit “Little Kids Rock,” an organization providing music lessons and instruments free of charge to underserved children.
MATTHEW: Your biography mentions you have also written some books. Tell us a little about them.
LAURA: I have a piano teaching course titled “Born Virtuosos: The Innovative Piano Learning Course.” This is the method I developed through my years of teaching that is loosely based on concepts of the Suzuki method, combined with traditional classical teaching. I found it works well for teaching very young children, as early as 4-5 years old, by training them by rote and at the same time teaching them to read music by introducing notes one at a time and very gradually building upon their note reading over time.
MATTHEW: In your composing or writing career, have you ever experienced a “writer’s block”? If so, what were some of the things you did to work through it? Is there any advice you would give other composers that have gone through this period of “creative drought?”
LAURA: I think it’s normal to go through periods that feel frustrating in terms of creative flow. The solution I’ve developed for this that works for me is to be persistent and have faith that the creativity and result will come with time. I just keep working at it, visualizing the outcome I want, and knowing that I will get their eventually. Persistence, perseverance and patience work for me in these circumstances.
MATTHEW: Tell us a little bit about your “creative process.” In other words, do you have an idea of an “album” and work towards it song by song? Or do you just let your creativity “flow” and take you where it leads?
LAURA: Usually I let my creativity flow, when it comes to producing an album, at least at the beginning. Once things start to take a certain shape, then I want to look at the overall picture to see if the songs are cohesive and fit together as part of an album. If they do not, I may reserve some of them for a later time, rather than including them in a set where they do not all fit together well as an album. Many artists are moving away from creating albums, and in some ways I think this is a good idea, but I still very much enjoy the process of creating a group of musical pieces that fit together nicely.
MATTHEW: I have asked this of others in the creative field. Many artists/ musicians think “success” means that you have to reach a certain status or achieve a certain “recognizability” with a mass audience. What does success mean to you - for your music - and do you feel like you have achieved what you set out to do?
LAURA: I feel that success means providing music that people enjoy, and so to some degree it does mean being known by an audience. Music is meant to be shared, and created as a service to others. The more people that enjoy it, the greater the success, in my opinion.
MATTHEW: When you think of a Grammy® Award winner, you typically think of the artist as untouchable or not easily accessible. And yet, this year, after you win this prestigious award, you follow it up with “inviting” others to take part in a project with you. Not something you typically see in this industry. Why “We are Love” and why now?
LAURA: One of the inspirations of that came from the understanding that people want to be involved. They want to be part of the music. People will sometimes ask me, ‘Can I put lyrics to your music.’ Inspired by that thought, I wanted people to be part of the creation – and on a spiritual level. We are what we think about, so asking people to think about love and creating … and as a spiritual metaphor, with art that we are creating together.
MATTHEW: Looking at your music career, if you could go back and do it all over again, would there be anything you’d do differently? If so, what would it be and why?
LAURA: It’s hard to say because looking back all the things I have done provided a certain level of learning that I needed to grow and move on to the next step. I guess if there is anything it would be that I wish I had worked harder and been more committed to being a recording artist while still in college and right after, rather than waiting to get down to it. But, I didn’t realize that was an option back then.
MATTHEW: What is your biggest piece of advice for the aspiring musician or piano player in this time of the music industry? What would you recommend they do, or first steps to take, to start out in this business?
LAURA: Learn to record your own music and stay independent. There is huge opportunity to record music at a very high quality, inexpensively and in large quantity if one puts in the time to learn how to use a DAW. The most basic recording equipment is not that expensive, and can produce a beautiful sound.
There is also huge opportunity for music exposure and distribution, like never before. No longer does an artist need to seek a “record deal” and I don’t recommend that anyone do that. Learn the music business and go to as many industry events and networking events as possible. People are our greatest resource and from them we get all our opportunities, and at the same time there is so much that an individual artist can do these days.
In addition to learning to be independent as a recording artist in terms of owning your own label, it is also good to experience working with a producer. It’s hard to be objective about our own music, and getting experienced ears on a project can be a great benefit.
It’s an exciting time to be an artist if one is self-motivated, eager to learn, and work very, very hard.
MATT: You really champion being an independent musician, when so many people want to get “signed”…..why that and why today?
LAURA: The second CD I released I got a record deal. I did well on sales, as I could tell, but didn’t get paid. I learned how to be an independent artist. So much has changed. People will write me sometimes asking, do you know any labels or contacts?... I encourage people to learn the business. If I can do it, just about anybody can.
Of course, always time for a couple speed round questions.
MATTHEW: Favorite place in the world?
MATTHEW: Do you play other instruments?
LAURA: flute and guitar
MATTHEW: Do you have any phobias?
LAURA: That all the chocolate in the world may disappear.
MATTHEW: If you could have dinner with anyone in the world (dead or alive), who would it be and why?
LAURA: My mom. Because I miss her.
MATTHEW: Favorite movie or book?
LAURA: “The Book” by Alan Watts
MATT: The three words that best describe you.
LAURA: Faithful, brave, positive.
Before we end the interview, I ask her one more question:
MATTHEW: If you have a message for others as your music continues to spread around the world, what is that message? What do you want people to know or take away from your music?
LAURA: That’s a good question. It comes to our own path and purpose, I see myself as “I am a creator of music.” I think of myself as a musician … if I can bring a spiritual message to that –that would be an honor.
And with that, our interview comes to an end.
In speaking with Laura, I could sense the three words that best describe her (faithful, brave and positive), and a calm strength that underlies her actions of service to others. Her career to this point not only demonstrates her continuous walk in faith when not always seeing the next step, but also what hard work (really, really, hard work) coupled with fostered relationships can bring – a synergy that leads to accomplishments one cannot achieve on their own. Along with that, an empowerment and challenge to all and everyone to get out there, and learn your craft, your art, your business, whatever your purpose and path is calling you to do. It is an exciting time, indeed!
So back to Mt Everest.
Maybe you have yet to reach base camp on your quest to conquer your musical peak, or maybe you have already made it to the beginning of the Hillary Step on your last stretch to the summit, perhaps your oxygen is running low, you are tired, or you feel the weathering of conditions is just too much for you to take another step. No matter what the conditions, chances are you won’t make it to the top without the help of key relationships. Those Sherpas (those producers, those support systems) who know the terrain of the industry and sacrifice much for themselves to help you along the way.
But even more important than reaching your musical or personal summit, is what you do afterwards, in descent from the peak you’ve reached.
Laura didn’t just reach the peak, but when she came back down, she invited others to share in her service to others….giving back.
After speaking with Laura, it occurred to me that she never once credited her own music for the success she has most recently achieved, never pointed to her own composition or how great it was. Instead she called out the people in her life that helped her: her mother, her husband, her producers, her support … those that have encouraged her and gave her the push to get to the next level.
Listen to Laura’s music, whether piano or a composition of varied instruments, and you can hear the strong patience of an artist who never gives up on her pursuits. In the meantime we can all take Laura’s example by placing one foot in front of the other – with a blind confidence – and faith.
So, eat some chocolate, commit to what your passion is, and work hard. Work really, really hard. And when it’s your turn to take the walk on the red carpet, wear the loose dress or the loose pair of pants. You’ll thank yourself on the steep steps of the summit!
Thank you for your service, Laura!
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