With breathe, the pianist and composer delivers beautiful music for a crazy world
WORDS BY EMILY PITTMAN | PHOTOGRAPHY BY NEIL KRUG | NEW YORK | THE smART ENSEMBLE
Feb 28, 2023 | ISSUE 11
Chad Lawson By Neil Krug
“I wanted to create something where people could close their eyes and just exhale what they‘re carrying.” Chad Lawson
We’re all looking for ways to overcome our daily stressors. The idea of there being a free, universally accessible tool that can slow a racing heart, calm a frazzled mind, and help us reconnect with our inner world sounds too good to be true. But pianist, composer, and podcaster Chad Lawson’s latest album, breathe, is a reminder of the power of our breath as a level for calming our often nervous nervous systems. breathe, along with his live pre-show breathwork sessions, are both musical experiences and mindfulness toolkits, equipping audience members with techniques they can apply to their daily lives─not the least being the ability to listen deeply to music.
The piano is, for Lawson, an agent of connection. He views his instrument as a family member, capable of strengthening bonds and holding space for challenging emotions through shared reflections. This communal functionality of the piano seeps into the ethos of his performances, wherein Lawson actively invites his audiences to enter into a relationship with the music and, in turn, with each other.
For breathe however, Lawson moved beyond the solo piano to gather the full gale force of the entire Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) for a listening experience that transmits a collective mindfulness in every track. More than an album, it is a transformative experience of healing and empowerment, one that can be revisited whenever a relaxed state of mind is desired.
In addition to his work as a composer, Lawson’s top-ranking Calm it Down podcast is likewise on a mission to better the mental health of his listeners. With strangers sharing their struggles and vulnerabilities, the platform seems to meet a dire, ubiquitous need for support and connection. Ultimately, the thread that connects all of Lawson’s work is a humble desire for connection, to meet people where they are, especially when that place is dark and lonesome.
www.chadlawson.com | @chadlawson
breathe Cover Art
sM | You recorded the pieces on breathe both as solo works and with the RPO, how does the concept of breathing alone and breathing together inform your compositional process?
CL ── I‘ve always been a solo pianist as far as how I think about things, but I wanted there to be more colour in this release. What I wanted to do initially was to have the album be programmatic, so the very first song would‘ve been on solo piano, the second song would‘ve been a duet, then a trio, then quartet─and just grow from there. You‘re letting go of everything that you‘ve been carrying, and you‘re bringing people in to help you let go of that. It worked out to where we could create with this massive orchestra ... and I‘m not gonna turn down the idea of doing all these songs with the RPO. When we all came together, not to be cliché, it was the most magical experience I‘ve ever had. We had these two years of being completely alone, and now you‘re surrounded with the most beautiful sound in the world. You have everyone come back together again, and it is this huge exhale. That was the whole purpose of the album, breathe. I wanted to create something where people could close their eyes and just exhale what they‘re carrying. As you leave this door going back out into the world, what things are you gonna leave behind? What things are you not going to pick up on your way out? That‘s what this album is.
sM | What opportunity do you see in classical music as a solace for our uniquely modern anxieties? CL ── If you look at my stats as far as listenership, the numbers are highest from Sunday night through Thursday. But when it comes to Thursday night or Friday morning, it drops like a rock because nobody wants to listen to this on the weekend. But Sunday afternoon they‘re back up again. What does that tell you? You are creating something where they wanna listen to it while they‘re studying, reading, or some kind of activity that isn‘t distracting. They need something that is very calming, but also very nurturing─just not during the weekend. Years ago I did an album called Re:Piano and the whole idea was shaped when I was touring. I began seeing bands that didn‘t have pianos anymore, but they were using iPads. That‘s the generation, they‘re growing up with iPads. My idea was, what if I were to run an acoustic piano through the iPad and create something different? So you have the traditional, and you have the touchscreen. You get them interested and then, all of a sudden, maybe, they set up the piano without the iPad. My whole purpose and everything that I‘m trying to do, even with breathe, is that I‘m trying to get rid of the idea that this has to be something very specific, very formulaic. I just want people to be able to feel without judgement.
sM | How does running influence you as a composer?
CL ── As a runner, there are days where I will run two minutes, and then I have to stop and open up Evernote: “Ah, it‘s a great idea.” It really inspires many ideas, and not necessarily musically, but also business-wise. For me, running, yoga, breathwork, and stepping away from the piano─that‘s where I get my creative ideas. The whole purpose is that the listener resonates with what we’re doing, and a lot of times that means getting out of our own heads to make that happen.
sM | What‘s surprised you the most about this community you‘ve gathered with the Calm it Down podcast? CL ── I started the podcast at the onset of the pandemic. I was grounded and I couldn‘t tour, I still wanted to be in my listeners’ ears, but all of a sudden it had to be on a different platform. No longer on the stage. It was more or less behind a microphone. And I was like, “You know what? I‘m gonna dive in. I‘m gonna go after this. I‘m gonna create a podcast where the two main things are: I want it to be light, and I want it to be encouraging.” So now, two years later, it's got three million downloads. It‘s in the top 1% globally. It’s just taken a whole life of its own.
I hear everything from suicide to sexual abuse and everything in between. It‘s surprising how transparent complete strangers will be, and I think that‘s a sign people are two things: they‘re looking for help, and they don't know how to ask for it. One of the biggest things I hear is: “I don‘t know how to talk about what I‘m going through.” I‘m hopefully creating a space where we can talk about this around the virtual dinner table.
sM | The piano is a prominent component of this podcast experience. Why do you think this instrument lends itself so easily to calm, despite its percussive nature?
CL ── The piano is like a family member. It‘s something that we‘ve always grown up with. Back in the day, the piano was the epicentre of the house. It‘s what you gathered around when you sang holiday songs. It‘s what you heard when you went to bed─your mom or dad playing piano late at night. I don‘t necessarily think it‘s because it‘s a piano, or the sense of it being an instrument. I think it just has a comforting sense of familiarity, like a family member just holding your hand, just being like, “We‘re gonna get through this. It‘s gonna be okay.”
sM | A sizeable portion of the folks showing up to these concerts probably also listen to Calm it Down. What communal atmosphere are you looking to establish in these concerts that‘s different from the typical recital experience? CL ── I want the audience to be a part of the experience of listening. It‘s going back to the idea that it‘s not about Chad Lawson. It‘s about us trying to create something together where we‘re able to say, “I am going through something. How do I do this without being alone?” In a lot of cities, I‘ll do a breathwork session prior to the concert, an hour before the show. I like doing this because we don‘t know how to listen to music. We don‘t know how to be present with anything that we‘re doing right now. It‘s no shade. It‘s just kinda the circumstances of life that we‘re in. Then, what I like to do is walk the audience through a couple of breathing exercises to where then they can appreciate, whatever it may be. I think the pandemic has told us that there is a separate reality that we‘re all beginning to embrace, which is just being present. Those breathwork sessions are usually an hour long and we get deep. There are adults crying at these things, because we go through a lot.
ON THE ROAD
sM | How do you find your calm on the road?
CL ── Honestly, it’s yoga and sweets (Laughs). My wife is a professional baker, so generally what I do is I get to the hotel room, drop my bags, do about an hour of yoga, and then try to find the best pastry in every city that I‘m in. It‘s just having no agenda. I get to the hotel, do some stretches, and then I literally open up Google and try to find good donuts or something. Then I try to find something really healthy. You have to have a balance, right?