Singer, songwriter and pianist Peter Cincotti has been making musical waves since his teens. He's topped the Billboard jazz charts, worked with legendary producers like David Foster and Phil Ramone, and won acclaim across music, film, television and theater. We caught up with him in New York City to see what this multi-dimensional artist is up to of late.
You came on the scene as a sort of "old school" crooner/piano player, and then you made a left turn into more singer/songwriter territory. Now it seems like you’re straddling both worlds.
Right. It’s a constant living, breathing thing. Even before I came on any scene and I touched the piano at the age of three, it has changed. Every few years, I’ve just been drawn to finding new ways to use the piano. Then I got signed, and suddenly you’re in a public space, just continuing the same sort of journey. But yeah, every record’s kind of been placed in a different category. Audiences have changed and have combined. It’s interesting to see how that’s developing through the years.
You have a pretty formidable career in Europe?
Yeah, it’s funny. I started, like you said, kind of heavily in the jazz space. And then on my third record I started writing a lot. It was the first record where I wrote a lot of my own songs, and that record yielded a pop hit on the radio, but really only overseas. I thought it was the most "Americana" song I ever wrote, but ironically, it was known way better in other parts of the world.
Which song was that?
It was called “Goodbye Philadelphia.” That was kind of a shift when I went from jazz to pop. David Foster was the first guy to believe in me as a songwriter, and he produced that record. So having him behind me helped me establish myself more as a writer. I've spent a lot of time in Europe really since then. So now on this latest record, I’m trying to combine both of my audiences, and I'm trying to use the piano in a way that kind of glues all these different genres together.
Are you writing a new record now?
I just finished my album Long Way From Home, which is my first independent record. I built my own studio, and it was my first time, after 10 years of being signed to different major labels that I was free. So it was really a different process this time around. Musically too, it was just cool to write and play and record at three in the morning, because I grew up in New York City with complaining neighbors. So when I built my studio, it really changed the recording process for me.
These days, we have access to all kinds of music at the touch of a smartphone. What are some of the things that are inspiring you of late?
For example, on this latest record, one of the things I wanted to reach for was creating a song that lyrically tells a story, like the great ‘70s writers from Paul Simon to Billy Joel, with sections of solos that you really don’t hear in those kinds of "songwriter" songs. Like Oscar Peterson or Erroll Garner elements placed on top of, let’s say, a One Republic production. I get a lot of satisfaction from listening to modern production, but usually where I’m satisfied with loving the sound of a record, I’m kind of not getting what I want from the musicality of it. And when there’s a lot of musicality, the lyrics are sometimes lackluster. So I go to different people for different things. On this record and where I’m at now in general, I’m trying to fill in the holes of the things that I would want to hear. There’s a song on my record called “Roman Skies,” which may be a good example of what I'm talking about. It sounds kind of like it lives in 2018, but there’s a big break in there that to me, I attribute to transcribing solos of people like Red Garland or Oscar Peterson.. And lyrically it’s a story of two people meeting and having an affair, so that aspect I attribute to more 'storyteller' influences. So there’s a lot of musical 'disconnects' to combine, and that’s what’s inspiring me currently.
When you’re touring, are you augmenting your acoustic piano with other sounds?
I’m playing acoustic piano and I’m augmenting it with my bass player who plays live electric bass and synth bass, and who also triggers some of the production elements. We also have a live drummer. So it’s very much a hybrid. To me it’s exciting because it’s changing, and I don’t really know what to call it!
You’re not playing any keyboards along with the piano?
Not really. It’s funny, a couple records ago I had a keyboard that was kind of a big part of the live show. But at the moment, I’m enjoying playing the grand piano and having that be the constant acoustic thing in our setup. I like the idea that it’s clean and streamlined, and I’ve got enough to worry about on the grand piano!
A few years ago, I heard that you were working on a number of musical theater projects. What can you tell us about that?
That's still a very big part of my days. We have two shows in development at the moment. My sister is a playwright and for years she had been trying to get me to write a musical, but I was always either on the road or making another record. And then somewhere in between my third and fourth record was kind of when the music industry started shifting. It was around 2009, and all the people at Warner Brothers, which was my label at the time, were either getting fired or moved to a different department. I was caught in that whole thing. I couldn’t tour and I couldn’t stay home and they wouldn’t let me off the label, but they wouldn’t promote me if I was on the label. So it was a time when I was like, “Alright, what was that play you were writing?”So I started writing this musical with my sister. And 21 songs later, we had the show up at the New York Musical Theater Festival. That’s what began this kind of theater track for me that is really something I’m focusing on now and I want to do more of as well as a writer.
I have a friend who used to say "You’re waiting for the suits to save you," meaning, the industry isn't going to save your career. You have to do it.
Totally. That’s why it's important that you get into this for the right reasons. You have to play music because you need to play music, because all that stuff is going to come and go. And the more you focus on what it is that makes you happy, the more everyone else starts looking in on you. But if you’re chasing everyone else, you’ll be in a never-ending circle. You have to just chase the music, what inspires you, and keep your head in that space. Nowadays it’s hard. You look on your phone and there’s tons of compare and despair going on just by the nature of social media. But I came up in the way you understand. I was playing live gigs. I didn’t care about anything else.
The degree of social distraction we have to contend with now is crazy. I think that’s the nice thing about playing piano live and touring. For a brief moment, you can kind of de-technologize yourself.
That’s a great point. There are so few opportunities to be able to do that. One of the things I used to cherish the most was being on a plane and not being accessible. Literally just sitting on a plane. But now, even that is gone with WiFi. But you’re right, I never thought about that, being onstage. We had a show the other night in Williamsport, PA and it was a great crowd. I remember that whole day I was distracted during the day. But then when I was onstage it was like, boom—it all went away. Every other door closed and we were just playing music. Nowadays, that’s even more of a gift than ever before.
My father used to tell me that in the 1970s, he would go to lunch and he wouldn’t tell his secretary where he was because he didn’t want to be disturbed. Now, everyone seems to relish being disturbed constantly!
And they expect that you’ll answer them. There’s a lot of that going on. On the other hand, it’s that same beast that kind of allowed me to make this new record because of technology. So it’s like a double-edged sword. Because that same technology gave me access to things I would have never have had access to. Before, I’d have to be like, “Can we do guitars in three weeks? What’s your schedule like?” All that coordination was skipped by having my own studio. And tracks and ideas came together in a really thrilling way.
What kinds of gear are you using these days in your studio?
I try and keep it pretty simple. I have a Peluso vocal mic that I really like that’s modeled after the Telefunken ELA M 251 that I recorded one of my records on that was great. I have that mic, an RME interface, and I use Apple Logic Pro because for me, it's easier to create ideas on. And I have an old Ensoniq KS-32 keyboard that my father got me when I was like 11 years-old. I made most of the record on that keyboard triggering sounds that I like, mainly for sentimental reasons. I like different sounds depending on the song. I use Alicia's Keys a lot. I used it with different kinds of patches on it to make it sound a little brighter for my taste.
So you did your whole record without an acoustic piano?
Most of it. There are a few ballads there that there was no way I could do correctly without one, so I’d go into the studio. If I thought that the song needed a real piano, we went to Avatar [Studios] for that and live tracked drums and horn parts. So I’d say 80 percent of the record was done in my studio, and another 20 percent was outsourced.
Are you working on another album project?
Right now, I have a bunch of singles lined-up and a couple of new projects in the works. In fact, some really cool collaborations that I would never have been a part of without social media. So stay-tuned!
For more information, visit www.petercincotti.com