Behind the Piano: Interview With Sleepy Songs

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Behind the piano: Anna Yarbrough

2019-05-16

Where are you from? And where do you live?
I’m originally from Belfast, Northern Ireland, but I now live in New York City.

How long have you been playing the piano, and do you play other instruments as well?
I’ve been playing piano for around 26 years. I also play violin and sing, and occasionally experiment on guitar (badly).

Tell us about how you started playing music. 
My father played piano a lot at home, and I grew up with books of Bach and Chopin lying around. I’d try to play them before I could even read notes. I took piano lessons early on, and was blessed with three incredible piano teachers in the time I was learning (Kathryn Bousfield, Michael Harrison, Michael McGuffin). 

How long have you been making piano music?
I’ve really only been writing seriously (for myself) for about a year and a half. I’ve played and studied all my life, but I was actually in the process of writing and recording songs when I stumbled into piano-composing. It’s something I never set out to do, but I absolutely love it. I’m still writing songs, but so glad I tripped into something I love just as much.

Tell us something about that moment you realized you could make songs yourself!
I’ve been creating and recording work for others for some time but never had any plans to become an ‘artist’ myself. Now that I have, I can’t imagine doing anything else. I love the process of mastery. The pursuit of perfection not just for the sake of it, but to touch on something sublime. It’s what drives me to write.

What are your favorite artists in this “piano genre”?
Too many to name! But Debussy is a hero of mine – he completely changed the way I heard music. Two current favorites are Johannes Motschmann – he wrote this beautiful piece called “Papillon”, and it’s perfect. I’ve been listening to it on repeat for some time. I’ve also been playing Susanne Geisler’s (aka Kaleidoscope of Colours) album “Music and Colours” a lot – again, really incredible work and her backstory as a synesthete is so interesting.

Is there one song which you play over and over again as soon as you sit down by a piano? Your own or someone else’s? 
Not really! I write every single day (for both myself and others) and I have to say that I rarely play the same thing over and over again. But I’m trying to get less “busy” and find time to simply play. 

How long is your shortest song? 
“Intro: Underwater” comes in at 01:38. I wrote it as a mood piece to open my debut album.

What rules (in making music) needs to be broken?
The notion that we need to do things a certain way. I think there are certain expectations – subconscious or otherwise – when it comes to composing in any genre. There are always going to be certain things that are in vogue for a season, but getting too stuck in writing for what’s expected really limits creativity and the possibility of something new.

How do you record your music? Yourself? In a big studio? etc.
I record both at home and in various studios around New York (or wherever else I happen to be traveling!). I’m looking forward to building out my own studio and performance space in the years to come – but I need a bit of patience on that one.

Whats your take on sampled instruments?
I’ll always be a purist in that I love the real thing – I love the experience, the tangible, the process. That being said, I think VIs can get a bad rap – they’re a handy tool when you need them, and they definitely open up some new possibilities. Best piece of advice I ever got was “use what’s in your hand”. If that’s a VI, use what you have. If that’s a broken down old acoustic, create a cool novelty project. I think we get bogged down on the “right” way to do things as artists – but just create. That’s the most important thing.

Anything else you want to share? 
I’ve got a fun project in the works for later this year – but you’ll have to check back with me on that one!

The last question is asked by my 5 year old son:
Where do all your songs come from? 
What a great question. Kids are the best. I hear my songs in my head before I write them. I’m not sure how normal that is, but every note leads into the next for me – once I play something, I hear the rest of it before it has been written. From that point it’s just a matter of grabbing it before it escapes.