"I’m actually based out of my home of Rochester, New York," Bruno Mars' keyboardist John Fossitt tells me after I managed to track him down on Twitter. "I lived in Los Angeles for six or seven years, but I moved back because we’re touring so much that there’s no reason for me to be out there right now. Rochester is definitely rich in music. People don’t really know until they go there and see how much the city really appreciates good musicianship and just good music, period."
Besides Mars, other artists that have appreciated Fossitt's brand of musicianship include Jason Derulo, Faith Evans and Jodeci. But it's with Bruno Mars and his band the Hooligans that Fossitt has risen to worldwide acclaim, injecting his funkified, soul-infused sensibility into every note he plays.
In between summer tour dates with Mars, Fossitt talked to Keyboard about the road that brought him to global musical success.
Did you grow up with music in your house?
Yeah. My mom used to sing opera so she always had me around listening to a lot of opera, classical music and things like that. I started by ear just picking it up. I really wasn’t that serious about music at first. It was kind of always around me so I kind of had no choice. Then I started taking it seriously. I started taking some lessons. I also started playing in church, which was a big influence on me.
How old were you when you started taking piano lessons?
Probably about eight. I started on drums when I was around three, and then I transitioned over to piano. Piano lessons carried-over probably until middle school. Then I was in music class - taking theory and things like that through high school.
What were the kind of things that you were listening to as you were coming up?
I started off with classical, so a lot of Chopin and things like that. I think the first thing I learned in its entirety was the Phantom of the Opera soundtrack. That was the kind of big groundbreaker for me like, "Oh, I actually really enjoy music and might want to pursue it." And then growing up in church, I also listened to a lot of gospel music, which kind of broadened me out to listening to jazz. I was also in the jazz band at school, and being around that got me into listening to people like Art Tatum and [Yellowjackets keyboardist] Russell Ferrante, who is a great influence of mine.
Were you putting bands together in high school?
Oh yeah, definitely. A few of my friends and I played together a lot in school. We even jammed one time in the cafeteria one time on a whim, so that was kind of cool. Then we also found ourselves playing together at church.
Do you remember the first keyboard you owned?
My keyboards were pretty basic back then. I had one of those Yamaha PSRs. I didn’t have the [Korg] Trinity or anything like that at that point. I was definitely just coming up and learning, but I just knew that I had an ear and a passion for it.
What happened after high school?
I went to school in Florida, a school called Bethune–Cookman University in Daytona Beach. I started studying music more and hanging around a lot of great musicians. From there, I started playing in plays and just learning from the music program there. And then I kind of just got to the point where I knew I wanted to do music full time.
People don’t generally think of Daytona Beach as the epicenter of musical opportunity!
No, definitely not. But I think what made it even better was the fact that you were in such a small area, so you had the opportunity to figure out your own sound. At the same time, there were other great musicians there. So there just happened to be this small knit community of musicians and we all just fed off of and learned from each other. I think that kind of helped in the process of me just cultivating my own sound without actually being in Atlanta or LA or New York.
Where did you go after Daytona?
I came back to Rochester for a couple years. I actually had thought about enrolling into Eastman [School of Music] around that time, since it’s a prestigious school and to just learn more about music. But a friend was doing his senior project at the LA Music Academy in Pasadena, CA. He called me out there to work on it. I was supposed to be out there for a week and literally within one week, I started getting thrown work from people who were already out there. And that week turned into nine months of just staying in LA and networking and playing. Things kind of branched off from there.
What kinds of gigs were you doing in Los Angeles?
A little bit of everything. I did a lot of studio sessions. I remember doing some Brazilian sessions and some live stuff. I ended up landing my first "industry" gig, which was Ameriie, and that was my first taste of playing behind an industry artist.
She was massive at that time.
Her song “One Thing" was popular. It had a go-go kind of feel to it and it kind of made the form of that new uptempo. You can hear how Beyonce and J. Lo kind of had that influence. So I think it definitely made a wave.
What was the next thing that happened after spending nine months in Los Angeles?
I came back to Rochester to kind of just get my bearings and then I decided to move out to LA. I took a couple months and then I moved back to LA and just started working. I did a tour with Jodeci and I did a couple shows with Faith Evans.
On these early gigs, what were you playing technology-wise?
I started off pretty Roland-based. I’m pretty sure there was a couple of Fantoms involved.
You weren't dragging a Rhodes around or any other vintage gear?
No, not at that point. It was a lot of Roland stuff. I don’t think I really broke out into other things until I started playing with Jason Derulo, and that was around 2009. That gig was kind of groundbreaking because of the connections that I ended up making through it.
At that time the MD was actually the music director for Bruno Mars. His name was Brian London. He was the MD for Bruno at that time, but he was also MD-ing Jason so he couldn’t do both. That’s how I ended up getting the Jason Derulo gig. Around that time I was playing a [Yamaha] Motif as my main board. I think the cool thing about that gig was that it was a three-piece band, so I had to play key bass, keyboards, and auxiliary keyboard colors. I was also playing the Korg R3 and the Korg Radius.
We ended up doing a show - I believe it was a "Jingle Ball" show. This was when Bruno first came out with “Just the Way You Are” and “Grenade” and things like that. His show was going on right before ours. He was on the side of the stage - just him and the bass player Jamareo, and they were watching our set. After our set, they kind of pulled me to the side and were just like, “Yo man, you sound amazing.” And I said, “Thanks man, I appreciate it." I sat back and I watched their show and I saw the opportunity of the show. It was fresh, it was young, and you saw the potential. So after the show I just started rapping with them and Bruno and I exchanged numbers and stayed in contact during that time. Little did I know I was going to end up joining the band a few years later. But that was the groundbreaking moment.
What year did you join the band?
I joined in September of 2012. I’ve actually done two album cycles. The first was the Unorthodox Jukebox cycle. I started around then. And then this cycle right here was started in 2016. So this September it will be two years of this tour, but six years continually so far.
Have you recorded with him as well, or do you just play on the live show?
I’ve done some writing and I played on a couple things. I played on the “Versace” radio-edit version. And there’s actually an edited version for the music video that I did also. So we do some things here and there, but it's mostly live stuff.
Let’s talk about what’s in your rig these days
Right now I’m playing a Yamaha Motif XF8, as well as an XF7, a Roland Jupiter-80 and the fun one is the Roland Juno-106. I get to play that on a lot of stuff so that’s super cool. The sound I’m using on there kind of just cuts through everything. You hear it on “Uptown Funk” and things like that. And then also a Korg Kronos, which I kind of want it to take the place of my XF because I love the way it feels. I have one at home.
You also play a Hammond B3 organ. How did you decide to drag a real organ out on the road with you?
It literally happened in a rehearsal. We were getting ready to start doing “When I Was Your Man.” It was a piano ballad song, but Bruno was like, “I want an organ on it.” This was before he even knew that I played organ. So I said, “I play Hammond, man." And he’s like, “Really? You play Hammond?” And I was like, “Yeah I’m serious!" So at the next rehearsal, I came in and there’s a Hammond in there. Bruno says, “Alright, you said you could play it. Let’s see it!” So then I started playing it and he was just like, “Oh, okay. Perfect.” The guitar player plays keys also so he actually played the piano part, and I was playing the organ part. From there, Bruno was like, "Alright, well we’re bringing a Hammond now everywhere.” So they ended up purchasing the B3. First they had it just sitting upright, but I guess the transportation made more sense if they chopped it up and put it in a road case.
It must be a nightmare for your keyboard tech!
Oh man. Listen, nine times out of 10 if I get a text message, it’s about the organ! They’re just like, “Yeah, the Leslie stopped spinning, so we’re going to have to check this out.” And the hardest part is really if you don’t know what to do and how to fix it, you’re just assed out at the end of the day. There’s just nothing you can do about it. It’s old technology.
Do you think reason why you’ve been able to navigate lots of different music is because you studied, listened to and played all kinds of music?
Yeah. Spot on. At the end of the day, you have to be versatile and know not only what you want to sound like, but what somebody else is going to need you to sound like. Especially with someone like Bruno also being a producer and his ear for the sound and the influence of what he’s going for, if someone can’t pull that out of you then you’re not going to be on a gig for very long. I think I’ve been fortunate enough to be eclectic in everything and be able to listen to the people before me have been great - that have been doing this way before we even have thought about doing it, and really learning how to mimic their sound. But you also have to have your own feel and your own approach to it.
What would you tell the next generation about how to succeed in an ever-changing music business?
Number one is always practice. You’re not going to have enough practice. Practicing is everything from scales and hand exercises, but also learning how to emulate different styles and at the same time, finding your own sound. I feel like once you get to the industry, if somebody comes onto a gig and they sound like Robert Glasper, at the end of the day, it’s like, "Ok, you sound like Robert Glasper, but if I want Robert Glasper, I can go get him!" So at that point, you’re kind of x-ing yourself out. It's all about studying but also about learning your own sound and learning about yourself and what makes you unique. And number two is networking. That's a big part of it. Some people have the gift but don’t have the business sense to go and learn from and talk to people and be out there going for it. I know a lot of friends from mine from Rochester who are great musicians, but they literally said out of their mouth, "I don’t know how you could just move to LA by yourself not knowing anybody." For me, it was a no-brainer. I had to go for it. It was like, "This is what I want to do and there’s no other way I’m going to do it if I don’t go get it."
Tell me five albums or artists from your past that were seismically influential for you.
Number one would have to be Phantom of the Opera because that was my first big album. There's something genius about [composer Andrew] Lloyd Webber. So that was number one for me. Also Gino Vannelli is just a genius. Something about his approach definitely changed my life. I would also say the Yellowjackets. You could pick any of their albums - they were definitely life-changing for me. Also, Art Tatum. I have small hands but for some reason, I have a very big sound. And I think it’s because I listened to Tatum and I thought, "Ok, I've got to figure out how I’m going to be able to do this being that I can’t reach tenths with my left hand." The way he gets his chordal structures out is ridiculous. And then Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life.
Is there any contemporary music by new artists that impresses you?
Thundercat is a great musician and definitely has a unique approach to things. And Terrace Martin and these guys on Kendrick Lamar's stuff - how they’re incorporating jazz into Hip hop, which is kind of a no-brainer because Hip hop had a lot of jazz influence to begin with. So seeing that come back is a great thing.
You headlined at the Rochester Jazz Festival with your own band. Is leading your own group something you'd like to do more of?
Definitely. I did it twice, actually. The first time I kind of just did it with a small band of local friends. But the year after was the most exciting because I did it with Bruno’s band the Hooligans. We did it by ourselves and we headlined it. So that was kind of like a groundbreaking thing for us and we’re definitely looking forward to doing more things like that.