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Conversations with Jamie: Artist-To-Artist Series
Hailing from Toronto, Canada, guitarist/composer Jamie Bonk has graciously agreed to become a contributing editor to Jamie will be conducting a series of interviews entitled Conversations with Jamie: Artist-To-Artist Series. We look forward to his contributions for they are both insightful and offer a unique artist-to-artist perspective over the typical interview. We hope you enjoy them.
Other Conversations with Jamie: Artist-To-Artist Series:
A Conversation with Verdun, Oct. 2004
A Conversation With Calvin L Coolidge II, Oct. 2004
A Conversation With Craig Urquhart, Sep. 2004
<<-later interviews | earlier interviews->>   <<- all interviews ->>
Jamie Bonk
A Conversation with Lisa Hilton
November 2005
Pianist/composer Lisa Hilton sure has done a lot in the nine years since her return to music. As we discuss in our conversation, Lisa is a lifelong musician (starting piano lessons at the age of eight), but became disenchanted during her university years and took a break from playing. Since being bitten by the music bug once again, Lisa has released seven albums, with My Favorite Things being her most recent release. While the focus in My Favorite Things is on some the most popular songs and jazz classics of all time, Lisa adds eight of her own compositions to the mix to help create an album that flows beautifully from beginning to end.

Besides Lisa's expressive, melodic piano playing, My Favorite Things features a first-rate group of players including: saxophonist Eric Marienthal (Chick Corea, Rippingtons, Barbra Streisand, Billy Joel, Elton John); bassist Reggie McBride (Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, Al Jarreau, Rod Stewart, Keb Mo); and drummer Tal Bergman (Billy Idol, Chris Botti, Joe Zawinul, Rod Stewart, Loreena McKennitt). The stellar engineering of seventeen-time Grammy winner, Al Schmitt (Diana Krall, Chris Botti, Frank Sinatra, Jane Monheit, Anita Baker) captures every nuance of the band's playing - truly great sound quality!

To learn more about Lisa and her music, please visit

Lisa Hilton
"Now after 7 CD's of my own music and a whole library of original compositions, I understand that this is what I should have been doing all along." - Lisa Hilton
Jamie: You credit David Foster for inspiring your return to the piano after hearing him play at his Malibu home eight or nine years ago. What initially caused you to stop playing, and what specifically was it about David's playing that inspired you to return to music and the piano?
Lisa: As a child I was passionate about the piano, begging my Mom to buy a piano, and begging for lessons, writing simple songs, playing for the chorus at school - I loved it all. When I started lessons at eight it was classical, but by high school I began to lose my way musically. I couldn't find songs that I really wanted to play, even though I still loved the piano. I would mentally "correct" a composer, thinking that I would have done this part differently, or question something like an ending or a key change, (even with Chopin!). I didn't realize it then, but, I was thinking about what the composer's goals were, and I couldn't find music I liked because I needed to compose - my "voice" was emerging. In college in San Francisco the emphasis became how the long dead, male composer would have played the piece, not my interpretation of the sonata, so I walked away. It was like losing the love of my life, to leave the piano. But I enjoyed art too, and ended up with a degree in that.

Why does a pivotal moment happen? The first time I heard George Winston I think I trembled listening to his piano. Years later hearing David Foster speak of how he wrote a song, and accompanying them on the piano sent shivers up my spine! This was it! Now I knew I was meant to play POP music! I went out and bought an armload of pop music books and eagerly ripped through them. Of course that wasn't it after all. Still, I loved being at the piano again, so out of desperation I thought, "I'll just write my own songs if I can't find anything I want to play!" Now after 7 CD's of my own music and a whole library of original compositions, I understand that this is what I should have been doing all along.

No one ever spoke to me of composing when I was young though, so I try and bring it up when I am performing for students so they can see that it is a valid direction musically. The twist now, is that once again I am playing classical piano, this time learning from those long dead greats. I like creating music that fits our life today, yet is also informed by music of the past.
"It was like losing the love of my life, to leave the piano."

- Lisa Hilton
Jamie: Your comment about the focus of universities being on "long dead, male composer(s)" was my experience too. But to this day, male composers, dead or otherwise, continue to dominate composition. There are, fortunately, some standout exceptions, but there are not nearly enough women composers (or producers for that matter). What do you think can be done to encourage more girls and young women to pursue composition and production?
Lisa: I think women have been pursuing music seriously for maybe a half a century, which really is a long time. I always want to encourage anyone who needs to be a musician or composer, to be one, regardless of the gender of course, and I think schools do that too. But it remains a mystery to me, the lack of women that are on the various charts, which means receiving significant airplay. There are plenty of women in pop, and they are easily accepted as vocalists, (I am constantly referred to as a vocalist, even though I don't sing!), but as musicians, composers, band leaders - somehow only 10-20% of the various charts are comprised of women.

Last year, in conjunction with the Grammy's, NARAS put on a forum that showed a lot of 1st's for women getting Grammy's. There still are plenty to go! It seems like the playing field should be a bit more level by now - it seems old-fashioned even to need to discuss it, but it is very real. That said, there are challenges for anyone in any field, as well as benefits, so I don't focus on the gender issue other than acknowledging it. Someday women will be more equally represented in areas other than as vocalists. I understand whatever success I have, helps those coming up behind me, and I'm happy to help anyone along.

The first CD I produced myself I was sooo nervous, but I love producing now, and I think it comes naturally for me as I think it would for many women. Sometimes I do marvel when I am in the studio surrounded by the best musicians and engineers in Los Angeles, that they are all men listening to my direction and musical goals, working together to create "magic". But the studio is completely "color blind" - it doesn't matter your race, gender, size, who you're related to, or your looks. It's all about your vision and what you can create together, and I love that. Now I enjoy all the rhythm in creating the music: composing, playing, album concepts, producing and promotion. It seems like a natural and complete cycle.
"Someday women will be more equally represented in areas other than as vocalists."

- Lisa Hilton
Jamie: You're right, it does seem natural and complete, but it's also very demanding. The challenge for artists handling all of the roles you've described is to keep the focus on music and not on business. This is something many artists don't find easy to do (including myself) - there always seems to be some promotional/business "issue" demanding attention. You're an independent artist and label owner and you've recorded seven albums to-date, with My Favorite Things being your most recent release. Can you offer any advice for independent artists/label owners on how to keep a balance between art and business?
Lisa: It's easy; I just wave my magic wand! Seriously, as you know, it is constantly a challenge. I think each artist must come up with a balance program that works for them, and for each artist it's different. Some use the "wife" approach - a significant other handles a lot of the business. I know one musician whose goal is to play every day, then work around that. For me I have "work" days, and "piano" days - I hate leaving the piano to go make phone calls or send e-mails, so I set aside separate days for them. It's easier for me to just decide at the beginning of the week what days I'll be playing the piano. I LOVE those days! I don't look at e-mail, or answer phones until I'm done. A day at the piano, a walk with the dog, and a glass of wine - ahh the good life!

It is a very difficult challenge though. As an independent artist, you have greater chances of success now than ever before, (two of my songs made the nominations ballot for the Grammy's last week - actual nominations are announced in December), so there is the urge to do MORE, because there is so much now that works for an indie artist. Yet it's all about the music, so you have to feed that first. I do have a note that I leave out sometimes for myself that reads: "JUST PLAY THE PIANO!" It's where my focus needs to be, but sometimes I need to remember that! I also spend a lot of time thinking about the music, what I want to express, the role of music, where I think it's going - stuff like that is what a composer, an artist, needs to do before creating something. I'm also a big journal writer.

I had a radio music director recently tell me he wasn't going to play a song of mine, because he didn't feel there was enough of ME in it - that it featured the musicians I play with more. I thought that was so funny, because I write the music, develop the arrangement of it, come up with the CD concept, hire everyone, budget it all, play the piano on it, produce the album, make every track and editing decision. I'm there at every editing, mixing and mastering session, and I make every promotional and advertising decision, AND my picture is plastered all over the package. I would think that's PLENTY of me!
"As an independent artist, you have greater chances of success now than ever before..."

- Lisa Hilton
Jamie: I'd say so too! And when you have a band as first rate as the one you have on My Favorite Things it would be crazy not to feature them in some way. You have on your website, partial bios for the musicians you work with - an absolutely incredible group of players! Are there any particular qualities/skills that you look for in a sideman/woman?
Lisa: What qualities do I look for in band members? I have been very lucky, (and spoiled), to work with the best musicians and engineers, and they have always come from referrals. In fact, one year I was asked by a music director at a radio station what I wanted for Christmas. I mentioned I desired a great sax player, and within a week, I had one of the most highly respected players in the US! (I always think of him as my Holiday Gift!) My prayers have always been to work with the "best" people at what they do - who are also nice, and that is exactly what I have gotten. (Well, there was one exception!) I am amazed at the incredible musicianship that my band: Eric Marienthal on sax and flute, Reggie McBride on bass, and Tal Bergman on drums, has. Their collective experience is so much broader than mine, so it is easy to get intimidated, but they are completely in support with what I am doing, and I allow them room in the music for their "voices." I asked Reggie the other day how many Grammy's he had, and he really couldn't even say- too many to keep track of! The list of people that they've worked with is tremendous too.

Then there's my engineer for My Favorite Things - the legendary seventeen time Grammy winner, Al Schmitt, who has recorded everyone from Frank Sinatra to Chris Botti, to Rossa Passos, and all of Diana Krall's CD's. I was intimidated by him, but he quickly put me completely at ease - I think he's the nicest person I've ever met. I just hope my luck continues for years to come.
Jamie: You make such an interesting point about working with people who are talented and nice. Time and time again, I'm finding top level players are some of the nicest, easiest going people out there. I'm glad you brought up working with Al Schmitt because to my ears My Favorite Things sounds amazing! What did you learn from working with Al? Any tips or tricks you could pass along?
Lisa: I watched Al Schmitt very closely, knowing that it might be a chance in a lifetime to work with him, (the first recording he did as a teenager was for Duke Ellington!). He had taken time out of his very busy schedule to record My Favorite Things, Diana Krall's Christmas CD, Anita Baker, Chris Botti, and ME all in the same week! So I paid close attention, asked questions of the second engineer, and also sat through all of the mixing and mastering.

What I learned is that he is an artist with sound. It's his talent, and like any other musician, artist or chef even, it really isn't transferable by watching or even listening, (sorry - no tricks to pass on!). He uses his own equipment for recording, which is top notch of course, and knows which mic to use for each situation from his extensive experience. But his special skill is in mixing I think - he knows how to create the right balance for each instrument, so that you hear them all beautifully.

He is such a warm, nice person that he makes you want to be nicer just by being around him, and that really helps to set you at ease in the studio. He speaks with admiration about the many talented musicians he's worked with. Stories about Karen Carpenter's voice, a wild night in Brazil with composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, Sinatra's style, and trumpeter of the moment, Chris Botti's playing. I think that it is inspiring to work with such talented people, and a BIG gift as well.
Jamie: Hearing all of those stories first hand must have been amazing!

In these conversations, I try to ask each artist their perspective on the changes in the music industry. And we've certainly seen more than a few -- the Internet, MP3's, satellite radio, etc. Putting on your label owner hat for a moment, what is the most positive aspect of these changes for you? And on the flipside, what is the greatest hurdle?
Lisa: Well Jamie, I think artists like you and I have been able to create success that wasn't possible in the past, and might not be in the future. There has been a window of increased opportunities that was opened that independent artists have been able to grab and run with. Whether it has been alt-rock bands finding mainstream success through, pianists running their own radio stations with an international reach, picking up Grammy nominations, or hitting the top of the charts, indie artists are flexing their muscles at the top. It's been an exciting time for us, and each month seems to bring new horizons, and opportunities that we can respond to as easily as a major label. It feels like the great Wild West at times, and there's also a bit of us against them incentive too that adds spice.

The downside, as you've touched on, is that if we're always working on all this "easy" indie marketing, we don't have time to be artists! And it seems like the new directions and information on new markets and technology won't stop. As a pianist I think at times that I know WAY more tech info than I should! The speed that the business is working at is merciless too; you've got to be so "in the know", that it helps to be hooked up with some sort of indie community so that you can share guidance with each other.

And just as swiftly as a successful new avenue opens, some black-market or competitive source gets in there with you so that with every step forward, with every "win", you attract more aggressive competition marketing against you. Someone mentioned to me that it's like constantly swimming up-stream. It's true, but all I can answer to that is that at least I'm swimming, and not just sitting on the side of the bank. I think in the next few years we'll see what happens in the music industry - it's been in turmoil for a while. But I have faith, as most of us indie artists MUST have, that there will be room for us to succeed. :)
"As a pianist I think at times that I know WAY more tech info than I should!"

- Lisa Hilton
Jamie: I think you're completely right. As a good friend of mine says, "If you're an indie artist you have to zig when the majors zag"!

Thanks so much for taking the time to do this artist-to-artist conversation. Best of luck in the future and please stay in touch!
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