Interview: Rachel Flowers

Hearing is believing with this rising young talent
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If you’re like most of us, you were first exposed to the talented Rachel Flowers when someone you know and respect sent a video link along with a note saying “Watch this right now!!” While getting a message like that is all too common these days, what was waiting in those videos was anything but common.

Blind since early childhood, Rachel Flowers has developed tremendous musical skills—not only on keyboards, but also on flute, guitar, bass, ukulele, and vocals. In addition to her formidable technique, Rachel possesses an uncanny knack for channeling the styles of the musicians whose performances she flawlessly executes; yet she still manages to infuse her work with just the right touch of her own voice, all the while exuding the obvious delight she takes in what she’s doing. Despite her busy schedule with numerous projects in the works, including scoring the documentary about herself called Hearing Is Believing, Flowers was kind enough to take time out and give us a tour of her unique work space.

Designed by her studio guru, Brian Hutchison, the setup allows her to play, compose, and record all her instruments by herself. She spoke with us shortly after her show-stopping performance at the memorial concert for Keith Emerson, her greatest keyboard influence.

Let’s talk about the performance of “Endless Enigma” that you did at the Official Keith Emerson Tribute Concert in Los Angeles. Whose idea was it for you to do this live with a band?

I think it was [musical director] Mark Bonilla. He had heard me play “Endless Enigma” on YouTube. We did a couple rehearsals, and it went really well.

I’m not even sure Keith ever tried to play that live!

I don’t think so.

What were you were feeling while you were performing that?

I love to get into the emotion of the music; not just the notes, but the expression as well. When I would listen to the original recording I would catch a lot of the different harmonies and the melody. I’m really into the melody a lot of the time. I like to think of a lyrical way of playing and it was pretty cool to be able to do that for the audience. They were cheering for me during the Fugue section. I wasn’t expecting it.

Let’s hear about some of your influences.

My favorite is Joe Jackson. He combines a whole bunch of styles. Like, on his album Night and Day he combines Cuban Latin music along with pop songwriting at the same time and some jazz. It’s pretty cool. Piano solos and the bright piano—very percussive, octaves—a lot of octaves. That album, Night and Day—it’s like a band; and the live stuff he does too, how he would take the same song and he would rearrange it from the band that he was in from a certain era and he’d change it up [for] this era. Or sometimes it will be just a vocal version or acoustic version or piano and vocal, so it’s pretty neat.

Who are your prog influences besides Emerson?

Rick Wakeman, like in [the Yes album] Close to the Edge with the Mellotron and the Hammond organ and the pipe organ together. I love a lot of the Hammond organ stuff.

Did you get into any of the Wakeman solo stuff?

The Six Wives of Henry VIII.

What about some jazz players?

Herbie Hancock really influenced me. There’s the Maiden Voyage album with the acoustic piano and then the electric stuff that he did with Head Hunters and just the lyrical playing in his improvisations on either acoustic or Rhodes piano, and a very lyrical and expressive feel when he solos. I met him a few times. I played “Dolphin Dance” for him. There’s this one chord that a lot of people don’t quite get accurately from the sheet music, but I learned it off the original Maiden Voyage album. He heard me play it. Later on I remember he said, “You’re the first person to ever get that one chord right.”

I also like listening to the Keith Jarrett, The Köln Concert. Wonderful recordings. It’s like different instruments altogether on the piano; like the lead instrument, the rhythm, the percussion; like the different notes being the different instruments all on the piano. Also Taylor Eigsti. He’s a contemporary jazz pianist and songwriter.

What about classical music?

I love Rachmaninoff on piano, Concertos 2 and 3. That’s my favorite. I love listening to Debussy pieces, like one I did on SoundCloud. Sometimes I used to imagine orchestrating some of those piano pieces.

How often, when you play a piece, do you play it precisely the same way, as opposed to just letting it go where it goes?

It sort of depends what I feel like and the instrumentation. A lot of times I like to look up not only the studio version, but I’ll listen to the live versions because that’s how I come up with the interpretations later on.

When you sit down to play for fun, do you more often than not choose a specific piece of music to go through, or do you just jam?

It depends on what type of an instrument it is. If I’m playing on my Nord keyboard I already know how I’m going to play a song. If I’m sitting at a really nice piano, I get into interpretation a lot more.

What are your favorite hardware instruments currently?

For organ, the Nord Electro 4D. A lot of the acoustic or electric pianos are the Nord Piano 2 HA88. For other electric pianos, it would be the Korg SV-1: I picked that one for the electric pianos with the phasers for the effects. It’s also very accessible.

What was the first synthesizer you touched?

I remember playing my mom’s D-50 and DX7.

What was your impression?

Usually I would listen to my mom sometimes on her cassette tape. She had cassette tapes and one song had this sound from the D-50 that I really liked. Whenever I would sit down at that keyboard and I would be playing that instrument pretty close with those sounds, I would find a patch that would sound very similar to something I heard somewhere else or something else, and it reminded me of that. I like going through each program and hearing what they sound like.

What DAW do you use for recording?

Sonar Producer. I use my instruments but also orchestral libraries. Those are not easily accessible for me, so usually Brian [Hutchison] would come down, and he would help me get these orchestral sounds. He would make templates so all his sounds were right there, already. That way, when I open up a project, my favorite sounds are there already.

Which libraries do you use?

EastWest libraries, Vienna Symphonic Library, Garritan sometimes—I like to use their percussion from the jazz and big band library.

What sort of material are you doing?

I do a lot of writing and a lot of composing, a little this and a little that. I get in the mood to compose something with a set of sounds that inspire me sometimes, or cover a song or arrange other things like my mom’s songs.

Do you find that something usually starts in your head or is it that you’re playing with an instrument and you find a sound and it takes you in a direction?

Usually a lot of my music would start in a dream. I’d be going to sleep and in this dream state I’d be hearing this quiet music, a few bars of something. Then I would get my machine, the Victor Reader Stream, which is a talking book player/note machine. I would put albums on there and listen to that. But I used that to record myself playing those dream excerpts and then later on I would complete the rest of it. Sometimes I would be making up something on the spot using those sounds, those orchestral sounds, like the French horns or the violin sections. Sometimes I already know what it’s going to be.

What are you doing with your compositions?

I’m starting working on my first album. I recorded all the parts, all the instruments. I do a lot of my mixing in Sonar with the Jaws screen reader, which is scripts [with audio prompts —Ed.] navigated using a QWERTY keyboard—no mouse—written and designed so that people without vision could do a lot of this stuff. There still are some inaccessible things like the orchestral sounds, so there’s still a little bit of difficulty in that. But if it’s audio recording, it will tell me things like what bar I’m in.

So these scripts are already set up, or are there existing templates you can customize?


Tell us a little bit about the film being done about you!

It’s called Hearing Is Believing. It’s pretty cool. It’s got my mom and dad on there and some of my friends there. It just shows how I sort of got started and what I’m doing and playing with Dweezil Zappa onstage and the people that influenced me—lots of different things.

You did the music for it, yes?

Yes. It’s not one of these “narration over the top” documentaries. Basically, he [filmmaker Lorenzo DeStefano] followed us around for two years—sometimes with just one camera, sometimes a whole crew—and just captured the things that happened. Some things were a little bit orchestrated, but it’s the kind of things that would have happened anyway eventually.