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Billy Childs: The Perfect Picture

Esther Berlanga-Ryan By

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AAJ: This is a very beautiful and deep record.

BC: Thank you. I make a distinction between active listening and passive listening, and my music is for people who engage in active listening. In other words, you listen, but you interact with the music. It is becoming like a thing of the past almost, a lost art, to be able to listen to music and have it bring images to your mind. A lot of times it seems to now be made to lure you into a stupor or to make you move your body or shake your booty. So what I try to do with music is like going to a movie: Images that stimulate you, that make you interact with it and become your reality. The liner notes were written to explain to people that this is the direction that I was hoping to take you in with this music. This is my version of it, because everybody's reality about everything is different.

What is a beautiful autumn scenario to you is going to be different than what is a beautiful autumn to me, because you have what's going on in your mind based on your own experiences. But that's what the music is for, to be able to connect your experiences with mine, and I think that is what music should do. So that is hopefully what I did with this album. And I always thought that. Hopefully when you listen to it, you find something new. Melody and rhythm speak to people. So I feel that you need to have a beautiful melody that invites people in, because I always like to make music that invites people in. I don't want it to alienate people, or to be so complex and inaccessible that they can't even relate. And I always feel that melody is a way, like a portal, to enter people's soul. But I feel that, once you write a solid melody that people can hear, then you can get as complex and as layered as you want underneath it, because people will trust you that it will be something they can relate to, and it makes logical sense to them because they can relate to the melody that you wrote. So that's kind of where I am coming from.

AAJ: What word would you choose to describe this whole project?

BC: Healing, because that's what I am trying to do. I think the world is really messed up; there are a lot of messed-up things. So the only thing I can do is to try to create things and bring things into the world that I see as beautiful, and hopefully that will have a healing effect on a lot of things.

AAJ: Is there a difference between you as a composer and you as a pianist?

BC: Yes. Although when I improvise, I try to be as structured and spiritual as possible and do things that make sense; and when I compose, I try to make things sound spontaneous, happening in the moment, that are not pre-planned. I think of myself as a composer-pianist rather than a pianist-composer. I have a degree in composition and I studied composition with some of the best teachers ever, and I took lessons of piano, but most of my training with the piano came from just gigs. So there is a different methodology of learning two different crafts.

AAJ: And then there is also the arranger.

BC: Yes. [Laughs.] I will do an arranging assignment if something is really interesting to me—like Dianne Reeves' The Calling (Blue Note, 2001). That is like my favorite arrangement assignment that I have ever done in my life. It was a treatment of songs that Sarah Vaughan did. Dianne and I are about the same age and come from the same school of thought, where music should have ambition and music should have a vision. In the '80s, music lost its ambition and became this minimalism, repetitive type of disco BS. Dianne and I came from the school of thought where the music should have ambition—it should try to change things and revolutionize things. That was kind of the position we took with the CD. The arrangements were more interactive, and they interacted with her vocals, and were not only made for her to sing over them. It was a really great experience.

She really exhibited a lot of trust in me, and I will never be able to repay her for that. It put me on the map for arrangement. Most of those jobs are about artists that want their vision with your skills. A lot of people are cool with that, but I am not, because I have my own vision too. Many people have very specific visions in their head about how the concept of an album should go, and that is fine. But I want to arrange for people whose vision is very similar to mine. And my vision had to do with how the music makes us grow as humans: how does it further create that critical thought, how can it move forward. And if I am working with an artist that has that kind of impact, then I am cool with working with him or her. But if it is an artist that just wants to sell records or: "I would like to be adventurous, but the fans may alienate me," then I am not interested in arranging for something like that.

AAJ: The so-called fans should be about the growth of the artists anyway.

BC: Yes, it should be, and that is how it used to be. Because just look at the music industry. Like, for instance, we can all agree that the record industry was greedy, charging people 20 dollars per CD, and they would get one song per CD that was any good. And it cost them like five dollars to make that CD. So people started getting tired of that. Then here came the downloads, and it changed the whole public perception of things in relationship to music. And now people, especially younger people, think that music is an entitlement and that it should be for free. They also have things like iTunes playlists that have 20,000 songs, with songs they don't even care about, so consequently this relationship between the fan and the artist is completely gone, because—and this is speaking about what you were talking about— now there is no relationship between artist and fan. When I was like 20 and somebody was coming out with a CD, it was like an event. You were waiting: "This person is going to come out with this CD, and I am going to go and buy the CD because I have been following their music." That is gone.

Now you have these computer programs, and now it's become, like, "I don't care who did it. I just want this song." It is moving towards independence, where artists will have to cultivate their own relationships. Artists will have to take an active attitude. Because as long as we remain human beings there's always going to be a need for a self-expression and relating to someone expressing themselves. As long as we are humans, we have to have creativity. It can't be stopped by computers; this is changing. The art has to be more intrepid and more vigilant.


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