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Interview with Andrew Shapiro – “The only way to impress other people is to impress yourself first.”

New York City’s Andrew Shapiro is a unique musical breed: classically trained with a knack for self-taught spontaneity. Large-scale publications, namely the New Yorker and ABC News, were quick to catch onto his artistic sensibilities. To date, the Brooklyn-based singer/composer has released six full-length albums and three EPs. As a pianist, his three-album solo tenure—2009’s Numbers, Colors and People, 2012’s Intimate Casual, and this year’s Piano 3—received production by Michael Riesman, known for his definitive work with the Philip Glass Ensemble.

Shapiro’s latest album, Pink Jean Mint Green, is a band outing featuring drummer Sterling Campbell and Kurama member Simon O’ Connor. I can safely say that after listening to the album, his abilities are presented on a whole other level. It is essentially a synthpop-infused culmination of his material, as well as an effort to recognize the extent of creativity through stylistic reinvention.

I caught up with Andrew to find out just how much his scope of creativity has expanded. In our interview, we discussed the influences and challenges that shaped the album, and how simple imagination can create colorful, diverse, and ultimately unified musical realms.

ME: As I understand, your musical experience was from a classically trained upbringing. Did your exposure to pop music come hand-in-hand?

Andrew: Yeah, [in the 80s] I was working hard at playing the clarinet. You know, learning classical stuff. But I was sort of a normal kid going out and listening to, at that time, 80s pop like Michael Jackson and Madonna. I’d spoken to people who didn’t listen to them but I did. And with 80s pop music, for a lot of people my age it’s always going to be important. There’s nostalgia for it, and I still listen to 80s pop all the time.

ME: If you can remember, what particular piece of music inspired you to pursue music professionally? What was it about the music that resonated with you most?

Andrew: When I was a junior in high school, the first time I heard Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”—that blew me away. It really didn’t dawn on me that such a piece of music was possible. It’s such a seminal piece of European modernism. I think that opened me up to a lot of contemporary music—or primitivism; romantic music like Brahms or classical music like Mozart. I’d also say Phillip Glass’s music from when I was in music school. “Einstein on the Beach” was a big one for me. That certainly brought electronics and more of a pop sensibility into [classical music].

ME: During the creative process of your music, particularly with your most recent album, were there any obstacles you had to overcome?

Andrew: Well because I was a clarinetist and saxophonist, I didn’t have much experience with synthesizers and computers as far as hooking them up. I wasn’t some someone who was doing that their whole life, so I think there was a bit of a learning curve…but I got over that pretty quick.

For the Pink Jean Mint Green project, the challenge was how to make the music sound like pop music, as opposed to this artsy synth music that I’d been doing for a long time. Sometimes there were songs, but I had to have crisp pop music that really ‘popped’.

I’m [also] not a drummer, and the producer I’d worked with said it actually helps, to do drum programming. That never occurred to me because it makes drums sound okay, but I had Sterling Campbell to work with me. He’s an awesome and very famous drummer. He knows how to make it sound like “OK, these drums know what they’re doing.” I think that’s some specialty in a way because a lot of people outsource their drum programming.

In general, it’s just the pop sound. I updated my rig to include all kinds of new stuff, and so the producer knew which sounds would be helpful. He had certain knowledge of pop music construction that I didn’t. I knew what sound I wanted, but I didn’t necessarily know how to make it.

ME: Let’s talk a bit about Pink Jean Mint Green. The name was based on a woman you saw on the subway, wearing pink pants, a jean jacket, and a mint green scarf. Even though she’s not the direct focus of the album, aren’t you surprised by how a simple image can spark that much inspiration?

Andrew: Yeah! I mean, I am, and at the same time, I’m not, you know? If I thought right now, “You’re going to see someone, and then 15 years from now, you’re going to write and album based on that—from the original idea to when it’s finally done and released,” I suppose that’s surprising.

Sometimes things hit people at a certain time when, if they were in a different frame of mind, it wouldn’t have that effect. But maybe when I saw that, I was in a particular place—just in my own thoughts feeling a certain way—and that enabled the image to have so much power.

ME: It just goes to show how inspiration takes on a life of its own. For example, say your album was still in the planning process without a name. I had asked you, “So Andrew, how did this album come about?” you’d say, “Four words: pink, jean, mint, green”, and there you have it—this is what it transformed into!

Andrew: Oh yeah, I know! It’s a bit abstract and pretty strange but I’ve been living with it for so long, so to me it’s normal, but you’re exactly right. I don’t know who this person is but I remember her clear as day. It was just something that was fascinating to me, so it was enough to carry me through to completion.

ME: In terms of the titular song, it’s exactly about that. It’s the immediate thrill we feel when seeing the person, despite not knowing them.

Andrew: Totally. It’s like saying “I don’t know anything about this person, but I feel like everything about them would just be wonderful. It’s a fantasy.

ME: Two other songs that also resonated with me, in particular, were “Lauren Hynde” and “Lauren(s)”. I feel the first one expresses newfound emptiness—“Why did you suddenly walk out of my life”—while “Lauren(s)” is an attempt to fill that void. That one’s saying “It may take one Lauren, or it may take several, to get me back to where I need to be”.

Andrew: Yeah. Wow, I’ve never thought of that—that’s interesting! Because in one he’s like “you’re gone,” and in the other, it’s like he’s bringing other people in… Originally “Lauren(s)” was supposed to be the last song, but then “Bash Street Worlds” ended up going after that. As far as it being the last track on the album, the ending was this uplifting pad. Maybe it’s optimistic, or maybe it’s sort of like “When you don’t like someone back, it sucks,” you know?

The first song, “Lauren Hynde,” that’s a character in a novel. And what’s so strange is the first line “1985, the year you may have died.” I don’t know if you’re familiar with Brad Easton Ellis novels, but in one book she was in, called The Rules of Attraction, she’s a main character. But then in the novel Glamorama, she’s a supporting character. The main character [Victor] just vanishes to Europe, and all these things happen where he goes into this weird fantasy split persona. So he thinks she’s gone, and [his friends] are like “No, she died in 1985 in college”. And then he’s like “What?” because he’d just seen her in New York earlier in the novel.

So it’s like, “What the hell? Is she dead, or is she not dead?” That’s why the lyric is like that. The Rules of Attraction takes place in 1985, and the other book in 1998. It’s very weird and kind of cool in a way.

ME: In figuring all this out, did you find synth pop to be the ideal backdrop for the stories you tell?

Andrew: Yeah! The synthetic and electronic world is a whole world of its own that I could make. It’s sort of like painting. Just one person with a canvas and you can do all the stuff yourself. I have years of experience playing with so-called ‘live’ instruments, and with a group of people. But once I got into synthesizers and computers, it just opened up a whole world for me that I never had before.

I think groups like Pet Shop Boys were definitely an influence for me. In 80s pop in general, a lot of it was adding synthesizers to the sound. Soon, it became more ambient—or fleshed out—and more electronic. It was more orchestrated but in a synth, theatrical way. I was definitely trying to be like “I’m gonna do a ‘neo-80s’ thing”. For me, that was more Pet Shop Boys than it was The Police, you know?

Guitar has never really been a driving force in my music. It’s always been more piano, keyboard, synthesizer…so that’s why it went that way. I guess I could have just been like “I need to put a group together and play these songs,” but it wasn’t necessarily about that. It was about getting the exact colors of the sound, and being so specific. Like when you’re painting, you have to find this perfect shade of blue. That’s what I was going for when making different sounds…there’s a million of them. It can only be achieved in a synthetic world that can be held in one’s hand in a computer.

ME: When you were creating these synth soundscapes, were some aspects spontaneous?

Andrew: I mean, I take a really long time to come up with sounds. Sometimes I have a few I’d rather replace, and sometimes there’s a few that I really like. I guess people have their own type of sounds they like to use over and over again because it makes them ‘them’, you know?

Back in the 80s, I read this interview with Genesis that said whatever sound they used at the time they were figuring out stuff — that was the sound. That’s what I like. Because otherwise, one could sit in the room and just spend years trying to find the best sound.

ME: I saw your City Winery performance of “Mint Green” which has a much different air to it, given the acoustic feel of the piano. Do you feel that the piano and the synthesizer share common ground, especially when creating these atmospheres?

Andrew: Yeah, definitely. I think that part of what makes “Mint Green” successful was the way I’m playing piano there. I’m a classically trained clarinetist; not pianist. So I never learned to play Beethoven sonatas. I love the fact that I’m not classically trained because I think I bring to it a pop, unlearned sensibility. It’s like inspired amateurism, versus pianistic technical brilliance. There is some kind of logic to it, but it is in control—put the pedal down, play the entire piece. But when the music gets cranking, a lot of things come out of the texture. There’re second, third and fourth voices that are in it, and maybe that’s like a synthesizer in a way. I think I’m approaching the piano like a synthesizer, where I’m going for a perfected pulse, and sort of performing electronica on the piano. Maybe that’s what people like about it.

ME: Yeah, I come from a self-taught background as well. I play guitar, and I notice when you have to find your way around your instrument—especially if you can’t play the conventional way—it forces a certain layer of originality.

Andrew: Absolutely. I read this interview with David Byrne once—and he’s awesome—he said: “I’m not good enough to [copy something straight out], so I’ve fallen short of my goal.” And that’s where my originality comes from.

ME: Lastly, Anything you’d like to say to your fans?

Andrew: You had asked me before what I’d found most challenging. For me, it’s like “How does it make sense to put your music out in the world?” I think I’m trying to keep calm, just put it out and see what happens. Let things bubble around as opposed to knocking on every single door, and just push, push, push.

I have a ton of faith that the work I do provides me with joy and gives me a real raizon d’etre. I hope when people hear it, they like it—that they’re able to find joy the same way I do with the music I listen to. I hope I can contribute and be part of that, where I’m putting out work that gives people something to be excited about.

I think the only way to impress other people is to impress yourself first. And I think I really did that with the Pink Jean Mint Green album. It took a long time to make, just because it wasn’t immediate. I just crawled along for a long time. I’m happy and impressed with how it came out, like “Wow, I did that?” I’m excited to put it out, and I hope that stuff will resonate with people and they’ll enjoy it.

Andrew Shapiro Socials:

Facebook|Official Website|Twitter|Spotify|SoundCloud

About Jake Kussmaul

I come from a family who is passionate about all things music. I learned to sing at an early age, and by 13, had my very own Fender Strat guitar. I tried my hardest at learning all that I could. Because I was born with cerebral palsy, I had to teach myself an adaptive playing style. I learned to write and record my own music, despite these difficulties. In college, I started making great use of my writing abilities by reviewing music, as well as copy editing. I guess it's best to stick with what you know, while welcoming a fair challenge at the same time.

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