#neverstop: an interview with CAMI Music pianist and composer Joel Pierson of The Queen's Cartoonists
How do composers and musicians build careers for themselves and find audiences in 2020? This interview with pianist and composer Joel Pierson is the first of a series which will feature composers and performers who are creating new ways to share music with listeners. Joel has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The Chicago Tribune, Mashable, and McSweeney's and I'm honored that he took time out of an enormously busy schedule to give this candid interview.
How would you describe your compositional style?
First I studied classical piano, then I got a record deal as a songwriter, then I studied jazz, and then I studied composition, so I’d say that I try to blend those things. I never really fit in any of those worlds too well, but then I had a realization: maybe I’m more of an “outsider” artist. I tend to like people that don’t fit categorization too well. In fact, my favorite category is “no category”.
You’ve created a multifaceted career for yourself as an art music composer, band leader and pianist for the CAMI Music-represented group, The Queen’s Cartoonists, jazz musician, writer, composer, and publisher of music method books, and piano instructor. How did you put all of this together, and how do you have time to do all of it?
Did you ever hear that quote from Larry Bird where he says that every minute you aren’t practicing, someone else is, and when they meet you on the court, they’ll be better than you? I’m paraphrasing there, but it’s something like that. Well, I don’t think of a career in music as competition, but I have a similar philosophy to Larry: Never Stop. Just don’t ever stop working on your craft, and then you can at least say that you are doing your best. To answer your last question - I don’t really have the time, but I have decent time-management skills, I think.
How does the reality of your compositional life differ from what you perceived yourself doing when you decided to study composition?
I went to get a doctoral degree because I thought I wasn’t ever going to be a good enough performer or composer to only perform and compose, and therefore I should probably be prepared to teach. But all my interviews for academic positions were on the spectrum of ho-um to disaster, and at the same time I started getting more and more work as a performer and composer. And now I’m barely teaching at all, and will stop teaching all together later in 2020. The whole thing is beyond me.
Tell me about The Queen’s Cartoonists. Where did you get the idea for this group and how has it evolved to its current status as a CAMI Music represented touring group?
The Queen’s Cartoonists (my jazz band that plays music from cartoons while synchronized to the original films) came from a single idea: how, in the 21st century, can jazz and classical musicians get people to listen to them? There are jazz and classical musicians that play for people already “in the know”, but how do we reach people who don’t normally go to concerts, etc? Well… through cartoons, obviously. I can get non-art music listeners to check out jazz and even some 20th century and contemporary classical music, as long as there are cartoons on screen and I’m cracking jokes in-between the films.
You and I met while we were both working on a cruise ship. How long were you a ship band pianist and how did your time at sea influence your current career?
Ah, yes, the ship. I was lucky to have that gig for about 3 years, and I took it to help pay off student loans. Ships have a pretty terrible reputation among musicians (and with good reason; one of my friends got a gig on a ship and had to perform on fake instruments made out of food by the pool once a week… like, he literally played a “saxophone” made out of bread and fruit!), but the ship I was on was, overall, a pretty nice place to hang out. It helped that I have a not-so-secret love of terrible entertainment. I don’t mean unprofessional… I mean, like, people that truly think they are doing good work, and even have resumes to back it up, but are, in reality, completely mental. So hopefully I’ve learned to not take things to seriously or people might think of me that way too. The cartoon band has a healthy circus element to it - this definitely comes from the ship, where entertainers would do really strange, bizarre things on stage, without a hint of irony. Man, I loved that crap.
One of my favorite projects of yours is your music publication company, Sadsap Music. Your You Suck at Piano series—hilarious and pedagogically sound method books for adults—is particularly unique. How did you conceive this and what has the response been since you launched the books?
You Suck at Piano was a project that literally no one thought was a good idea before I started working on it. People looked at me like I was nuts. But I thought it would so funny to have an adult piano method book that really captured what it was like to try and learn a musical instrument - method books are either way to positive (“you can do this!”, “Isn’t music fun?”), or they read like scientific manuals. Just because adults are literate, doesn’t mean each page should should be packed with information, right? So with YSAP I tried to limit the music to famous pieces that the student might recognize, the information to as little as possible per page, and to pepper the text with insults, comic strips, and cocktail recipes so that you can drown all of your piano-related frustrations. People seem to like it. It’s odd, that’s for sure. I’m also a fan of the follow up book, 20 Piano Pieces for People with Emotional Problems. The name says it all.
You’ve mastered the art of using Kickstarter to fund many of your projects. How did you do this and what advice would you give to other musicians who are seeking funding for their own projects?
Everyone and their mother tries to raise money for their albums on kickstarter. You go to Kickstarter music and it’s all albums. Boring! Find a new way to market yourself. You want your project to already look bad ass when you ask for money, so that it comes off more like, “hey, you - yeah, maybe I’m talking to you - I’m doing something amazing and you can get on the awesome train, or not. Whatever”. Also - don’t take yourself to seriously. No one wants a lecture before being asked for money. lol.
What upcoming projects are you most excited about?
I’m so excited that The Queen’s Cartoonists got signed to CAMI Music - it puts us on a roster with Chick Corea, Lang Lang, James Galway, Howard Shore, etc - amazing! And our first big CAMI tour doesn’t start until October 2020, since these venues book 12-18 months in advance. So it’s been a year-long build up. I’m excited about finally hitting the road with CAMI. I have some super wacky book ideas, too, but I don’t think I’ll get much writing done this year. And of course I have a whole list of hair-brained ideas I’m cultivating.
What advice do you have for young composers who are seeking to launch their own careers?
Joel Pierson is a pianist and composer living in New York City.
Joel has collaborated with artists such as the Kronos Quartet and The New York Philharmonic. He is the Artistic Director for The Queen's Cartoonists, and the author of numerous humorous music education books, including You Suck at Piano and 20 Piano Pieces for People with Emotional Problems. Joel has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, Mashable, and in McSweeney's. He maintains an active performing schedule and can be reached at: email@example.com