Emiko: From Classical Piano to Keyboard Rock

A natural performer and classically trained pianist since early childhood, New York-based Emiko is someone we expect to hear a lot more from in the coming months. She jokingly recalls her original “elevator pitch” as “Billy Joel and Alanis Morissette have a Japanese baby,” but is just as quick to point out that she’s a keyboard player first and any other musical archetype second.
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A natural performer and classically trained pianist since early childhood, New York-based Emiko is someone we expect to hear a lot more from in the coming months. She jokingly recalls her original “elevator pitch” as “Billy Joel and Alanis Morissette have a Japanese baby,” but is just as quick to point out that she’s a keyboard player first and any other musical archetype second.

“Sure, I sing and write songs, but I play organ, Wurly, Clav, and synth, I like to play aggressively, and I like it funky. So when people come to a gig expecting to see a ‘singer-songwriter,’ they’re in for a surprise.” After checking out her latest studio album, Moving the Universe Part I, we can see what she means. Find more surprises at emikomusic.com.

Does your early classical training inform what you do now? 

I had two really extraordinary teachers—Lois Narvey and Jeffrey Chappell—who taught me everything about piano technique, practicing, and how to look at music holistically. Lois was my first teacher, and heavily influenced my need for perfection. At the time, I found the education quite tedious, but without her, the way I practice music now would not be held to as high a standard. Jeffrey was my teacher once I realized that classical wasn’t going to be my life path. He nurtured me as a songwriter and arranger. I didn’t believe this as a kid, but it’s because of my classical training that I write, arrange, and perform the way I do now. It’s why I’m able to listen for everything between the notes as well as the notes themselves. Also, producers I’ve worked with have told me that I’m a human click track. So I guess all those years of Hanon and Czerny with the metronome really paid off!

What motivated your transition from classical to rock? 

I remember the very moment it happened. I was sitting in the back of my dad’s car with my friend on our way to school. Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” came on the radio. There was something about that track that really did it for me. Now I understand why my piano teacher at the time refused to teach it to me. But there was a balance between the simplicity of the music and the cleverness of the lyrics, which referenced nearly every world affair from the 1950s on. I knew that instant that I was headed into pop after a whole childhood of serious classical music. I’ve heard Billy Joel say in various interviews that once he saw the Beatles on TV, he knew he wanted to “do that.” So as the Beatles were to Billy, Billy was to me.

You mention being a keyboard player more than a songwriter. What was the first time you were inspired by an “other-than-piano” keyboardist?

When I saw Bette Sussman. My dad once took me to this “women of popular music” concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. At the time I had no idea who she was—I kept referring to the concert program—but she was an absolute beast on the Hammond organ. She was totally in charge and so cool! She had absolute command of the room as well as the instrument, and I couldn’t take my eyes off her. I remember thinking, “Okay, I could totally do this.”

That leads me to ask, what was one of your own early gigs that affirmed you made the right choice?

I once played at this bizarre bookstore/nightclub/coffeehouse in Rockville, Maryland and packed the place. I was in my early teens and technically not supposed to be in the venue, as it was 21 and over. I remember being onstage and seeing my classmates trying to get in. Those that didn’t stood outside with their faces pressed against the glass. What was a really interesting was that I’d always been bullied at school, but the very kids that came out to see me play were those who had been the bullies. I felt really powerful—well, as powerful as a teenager could feel in the suburbs of DC—and I realized for the first time in my life that I might possess anything like a cool factor. I never wrote music to be accepted, but performing that night made me realize that I was doing something special that not everyone gets to do.

Would you say you have any signature chordal or melodic approach to accompanying yourself?

Hah! My drummer and musical director Vito Pandolfo would tell you that I have a formula. I think I get into ruts sometimes where I gravitate toward specific chordal structures and arrangements. I don’t think I have a “signature” approach, although I do love me some high-end organ screams! If anything, I’d say it’s something we call “the neck test.” If it doesn’t make your neck groove from side to side, you won’t hear it in the show. In terms of accompaniment, I take great care in my arrangements, so each song is different. I like to do a lot with single lines and seventh chords with extensions such as sharp ninths. I like punctuated bass lines in my left hand. I’m a very percussive player.

I hear many cool synth textures on your latest album. Could you describe the production behind a song or two?

The producer, Howie Beno, is an amazing programmer and keyboard player himself, and we had a real meeting of the minds. One track I’ll pick is “Excuse Me for Breathing” because it’s so difficult to reproduce live. In the studio, it was just turning into this concrete wall of sonic opposition and difficulty. At the time, we’d kept the production to the usual suspects: guitars, bass, drums, piano, and vocal. We wracked our brains for a good week before it finally hit us that perhaps “organic” was not the way to go and that this song needed to be much more electronic. Howie is into completely different kinds of music—underground stuff, EDM, German dark classical, you name it. We ended up making a sound stew of our respective influences and created custom sounds for the track. We went in and recorded a bunch of MIDI tracks and used them to drive and audition different synths. We were determined to create sounds that were new and unique, yet sounded like you’d hear them every day—things you don’t so much hear as feel—and the only way you’d know they were there is if you heard them removed. We have a number of great synths going on in this track including a harpsichord, Rhodes, lead synths run through effects, and all sorts of pads that we ran through pedals and plug-ins. This track was cooking by taste, not by recipe.

I also had a lot of fun with “Just a Man.” I play piano, Clav, Wurly, and three different organs on it, all from my Kurzweils. The organ arrangements on this track were particularly fun because Howie and I sat for a few days prior, programming custom organ patches for it. We ended up with a hyped-up C-3, a sort of Farfisa on crack, and this blues organ that sounds like a Leslie is being slowly crushed through a garlic press. That’s probably one of my favorite songs to play live because it’s incredibly difficult to do unless I have a second keyboard player or a two-tiered rig—but I manage.

Emiko’s first Kurzweil

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“My manager when I was in my teens recommended that I get a pro keyboard,” Emiko explains about the purchase that would eventually lead to her endorsement of Kurzweil instruments. “After a lot of research, my father and I found the one we wanted—which wasn’t a Kurzweil. We went to Chuck Levin’s Washington Music Center to get it, and I saw this Billy Joel poster on the wall. He was in a slick black suit, leaning against a Kurzweil PC88MX. I think they could smell the sale, and a salesperson, David Bach (a wonderful keyboard player with many great albums) gave us a demo, and the rest is history. Up until then I was a classically trained pianist with no knowledge of electronic keyboards whatsoever. That PC88MX is still with me and in perfect condition. Presently, I’m using a PC3 and PC3K8 with the Kore64 sound expansion. I said once in a video for Kurzweil that ‘the sound gave me the song,’ and that’s true. Sometimes when I have writer’s block, I turn on my keyboard and pick sounds at random, or I start layering and programming. The sounds I come up with inspire me to write. It’s great that my relationship with my instrument is reciprocal in that way.”