An Exclusive Interview with Andrew Shapiro

Back in June, Brooklyn-based piano composer Andrew Shapiro released his third piano album, appropriately entitled Piano 3. (Perhaps you are one of the six million people who streamed his song “Mint Green” – from his 2008 debut, Numbers, Colors and People – on Pandora?) That he was releasing another piano album was hardly a surprise to anyone, but he also released a pop album that same month. Entitled Pink Jean Mint Green, it consists of eight synthy treats with bouncy beats (and an outro) that almost sound like the Pet Shop Boys “It’s A Sin” meets Depeche Mode’s “People Are People.” They don’t sound entirely ’80’s though, as they have something of a ’90’s electro-pop vibe about them as well. Yet they also sound modern and refreshing. Suffice to say it’s a très cool record that has the potential to please just about anyone who’s ever been a fan of pop music, just as his piano work is sure to please most fans of classical music. It’s very accessible and you can, in fact, access it via Spotify below so simply must do so. After all, you’ve read this far, so you might as well check out his songs. Would be silly to turn back at this point. So, crank up the music and let the beats move you while the synth mellows your soul. Meanwhile, get to know him in the following interview, which focuses on Pink Jean Mint Green, though we discuss several other things as well.

MM: First of all, I was wondering, how old were you when you started playing piano?

AS: Well, I was very little. Maybe like 5.

MM: Did you take lessons?

AS: Yeah, I did. And I went away from playing the piano to focus on my clarinet stuff, but then when I got into music school, and started writing my music in earnest, that’s when I really came back to the piano full-force.

MM: I understand you graduated from Oberlin with a degree in music composition. Was that a specific type of composition, like classical?

AS: Yeah, no, it was much more like classical and I guess post-classical stuff, but different styles. But very much more like a kind of continuation of the European tradition. Now that I think back, songwriting wouldn’t have been a bad idea. The songwriting work we did was sort of like looking at Mozart and Schubert and their songs. It wasn’t writing my own song songs like I did on this album.

MM: Is Pink Jean Mint Green your first pop album?

AS: Yeah.

MM: What made you decide that you wanted to make a pop album after being so successful with classical?

AS: Well, I mean, I had done my piano stuff and then I had done more like ambient synth, artsy stuff. But I never did the drums. I think I just sort of always wanted to do that, just to prove to myself that I could do it. And approaching it from my background. I mean, I just sort of thought it would be a way to speak to more people and I wanted to have a stronger sort of attitude, too, with the drum machine and talking about girls and stuff like that as opposed to synthy art stuff. Like ambient Brian Eno stuff. It could be more like pop. It was a challenge for me. It’s hard. At school they make it sound easy but it’s not easy.

MM: Was writing the pop album more difficult than the classical stuff?

AS: For me, it was. I mean, just because I had never really done it before. So, I had the songs written, but then it was more like the production of it was a lot harder for me. Like a lot harder for me. Because I didn’t really know – I sort of knew how to do it but for it to really come off well one really has to know kind of what they’re doing so it sounds right.

MM: Were Piano 3 and Pink Jean written at the same time?

AS: Pink Jean Mint Green, there’s this weird line between producing and composing because they sort of overlap, but I would say that the Piano 3 stuff came after. And I didn’t intend it but it just sort of happened that they came out at the same time because they were both ready at the same time.

MM: Your piano albums have all been produced by Philip Glass producer Michael Riesman. What is working with him like? What does he bring to the table that other producers might not?

AS: I think it’s just like this is when I finished music school and I was an intern there and this was the first serious group of professional music people I was around. So, I think it goes back to that sort of formative stage. And so I saw him as a master at what he’s doing, and he is a master at what he does, so I think it’s just like that was my first thing, so that was in a way my musical home. And it took a while for me to just get my head in a place where instead of being an intern or a guy who just hangs out to actually be someone collaborating with Michael. [It] was an achievement for me to sort of go to that next level. So, now it’s just like it’s cool because we worked together and I mean there are all different ways of producing and stuff but a lot of the time it’s just him listening and recording sessions and knowing what’s a good take and what’s not a good take. And then also feel like he knows how to get the kind of music to just sound really great. And I have a lot of trust that he knows how to do it. And he knows my music like since I finished school. I mean, that’s 15 years or more than 15 years. I just feel really comfortable with him. I would work with someone else, but as long as he’s around I would want to work with him.

MM: Did he have any involvement with Pink Jean or did you produce Pink Jean entirely yourself?

AS: I did work with a different producer. His name’s Mario McNulty. But at the end of the last song “Bash Street Worlds,” there’s this sort of short clarinet coda at the end of it and Michael helped do that. He mixed that and helped me with that part. And, going back, there’s this song called “The Late Great Johnny Ace” by Paul Simon and it’s on the Hearts and Bones album from like 1983 and it’s really cool because it’s sort of like a straight ahead kind of more pop song Paul Simon and then at the end there’s this Philip Glass coda and I was sort of going to try to emulate that. It’s this reflective classical thing after a pop song. Like a glass pyramid in the middle of the courtyard at The Louvre or something like that. Just this different thing. Reflective. And so it’s more classical and that’s called “Outro” on the album – it’s the last track – but that’s really attached to the song that precedes it. It’s really like one long song.

MM: A lot of classical musicians these days seem focused on – I don’t know if I’d say covering, but performing the classics. Why do you think there isn’t more original classical music these days?

AS: I think there is if one really looks for it. But I think maybe part of it is just the marketing. Like maybe in Boston, for instance, people have a subscription to the symphony, and so that’s the marketing, so people see Beethoven or Brahm. And I find this actually because Boston – I would love to get to Boston to play a piano concert and the thing is if I go and say I’m playing Beethoven people would know I’m playing Beethoven tonight and they’d go for that. But when they are not as familiar – it’s classical music but it’s not – it’s sort of like it’s not as much as a built in, automatic, I know what this is, this is that, so people can go to just do that. So, I think it’s there. I just think that one has to look a little deeper for it. I don’t even know where in Boston this would happen because I can’t play a 2000 seat place. Like a 200 person small recital hall or something like that. I guess I would do that. I’m doing that in Toronto in October and it’s a 175 seat place and I’m gonna try to get people out, but it’s also a different audience. When you talk about people who like contemporary art [they] are more inclined to do a photography museum as opposed to just like Greek antiquities and impressionism. It’s classical but that’s such a relative term these days. It’s a good question, actually. I guess it’s how much one wants to go out and see what’s new.

MM: It almost seems like if you want to hear original classical music these days you have to listen to film scores because that seems to be where most of it is.

AS: That’s a really good point. For example, for the score for There Will Be Blood, that’s an awesome movie and an awesome film score. Johnny Greenwood wrote that. He’s the guitarist from Radiohead. It’s this beautiful score. It’s like string orchestra and it has some really cool stuff in it which is classical in a way and it also borrows some stuff from the so-called Polish school of the ’60’s and ’70’s and uses some eerie effects and things like that, so that fits the film. So, I guess in a way the classical stuff is often in films. But that’s also where the budgets are for orchestras.

MM: I know you’ve done some scoring. What are some of the things you’ve scored?

AS: Well, the last thing that I wrote – I wrote music for a film, which I can send you, it’s a short film but a Chinese American filmmaker and photographer and it’s called Timing and it’s this sort of split screen, art film thing and I wrote a wall to wall piano score for it. And then I actually took that score that I wrote and I adjusted it a little bit and I put that on the Piano 3 album, actually. That’s the last track on the Piano 3 album. It’s called “Timing.” So, that’s basically the score. But there are certain parts that I pulled out a little bit because maybe with the film it works better but as a piano piece I thought certain parts needed to be shortened a little bit. I made some adjustments because I thought that would be better for pure listening, as opposed to watching with the film. And there’s a filmmaker Jessica Duclos – I wrote music for a film of hers. It’s still in post production. It’s called This Isn’t Valparaiso. But sometimes you do it and it takes another year by the time the person gets it all together. Gets the color corrected and gets everything [done]. What I think is the film project that went the furthest was this film called Watchers of the Sky and that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2014. So, that was really cool, to be associated with that. That got international distribution. I mean, I wrote some music that’s in it and then there were some other [artists], Nels Cline from Wilco and Sean Lennon and some other guys. So, that, I mean, I’m trying to shark my way up into filmmaking like everybody else. I’m just going out trying to make my own sound and then hopefully people are gonna be like, I like that song, I want to put that in this film. I really had this one awesome thing where this filmmaker in Hawaii heard my stuff on Spotify and he loved it and wanted to use piano music in his films, and wanted me to score this other film, and I was so excited and then the guy turned out being a shyster. His check bounced and then he lost his funding. The guy was sort of sketchy, but it was going to be a 15 million dollar film and it’s so exciting. But someone said to me, well, in Hollywood, certain people, they kill you with hope. So, that’s coming close. If this guy wasn’t a shyster and was more of an honest person then I would be doing it, writing a full string orchestra piece and putting it in a film. So, I’m close. Getting close.

MM: Regarding Pink Jean, is “Lauren Hynde” about a real girl you knew?

AS: Oh, that’s a character in a novel. In two novels, actually, both by the author Bret Easton Ellis.

MM: He’s one of my favorites. I just didn’t remember the name.

AS: Awesome. I love him. Totally, he’s one of my favorites also. She’s one of the girls in Rules of Attraction and then she’s also one of the girls in Glamorama.

MM: OK. I’m not very good at remembering names. That’s cool.

AS: She’s one of the main people in Rules of Attraction and she’s more of a supporting kind of character in Glamorama. I love Bret Easton Ellis, man. He’s a favorite.


MM: You collaborated with author Neil Gaiman on the track “Bash Street Worlds.” How did that collaboration come about?

AS: I met him. Actually, we were talking about Michael before. I mean, I was in England for a while in 2011. Actually, that’s really when I started writing the songs for Pink Jean Mint Green. But like Philip Glass was performing in Edinburgh at International Festival and Michael said why don’t you come up. So, I was his guest and I flew up there from London to Edinburgh, Scotland and then went to the first night it was the movie Koyaanisqatsi with a live performance soundtrack. And then there was a mutual friend singer, who was performing with Philip Glass at that concert. And I went out to join Michael after and she was there and her friends Neil and Amanda. It was Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer. And so we met at this dinner and we just got to talking. Nice guy. We traded E-mails and I wrote him and sent him some music and he liked it and then at that point it was all over E-mail – we spoke once – and I told him my idea for the song I was working on. I said, oh, this could be good, maybe he’d be able to do this. It would be cool because he’s British and it’s about a British comic strip. And so it worked out and made sense because he obviously does stuff with not necessarily comics but graphic novels and stuff. So, he was just the perfect person to write about this sort of fantasy world. It was serendipity. I just met him at this dinner. I’m someone that tries to meet the people and befriend people and work with people and that’s how that happened. It took a while to get the lyrics from him. We had spoken and he’s a busy guy, and then I finally got them, and I’m really happy with how that turned out.


MM: What are three of your favorite books?

AS: Three of my favorite books? I guess, well, Tender is the Night, I think that book just blew my mind. I like Glamorama by Bret Easton Ellis.

MM: I liked that one more than American Psycho.

AS: I did, too. I think Glamorama is a more full thing. I read the The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. If you haven’t read that, I strongly recommend that. It’s a big, thick [book] but, man, I’m telling you, I could not put that book down. I think Tender is the Night maybe – that just blew my mind. Tender is the Night is probably the most devastating. Fitzgerald at his prime.

MM: What was the first album you ever bought with your own money?

AS: That’s a great question. I think it was Madonna, Like A Virgin, but it may have been Michael Jackson, Thriller. I was in Elementary school and my brother – we had the babysitter and we went to the record store. Or maybe it was Cyndi Lauper, She’s So Unusual. I think maybe Madonna, Like A Virgin – that was, what, ’83? Maybe it was Thriller. It could’ve been Thriller in 1982.

MM: What was the last song you listened to? Or, what song is stuck in your head right now?

AS: I was in CVS the other day and the song “Ordinary World” by Duran Duran came on, and I never really paid that song that much attention, but when it comes on it’s like, oh, yeah, I like this song. So, I was like, I’m gonna go listen to that. So, I listened to it like 15 times because I sort of just need to listen to something a lot to like fully ingest it. There’s just something about that song that’s just really catchy. And it just puts me in a good spot. A lot of people will say what are you listening to? I just really listen to stuff people send, oh, you should check this out. But I like listening to ’80’s stuff. I like ’80’s music.

MM: What are your favorite ’80’s movies?

AS: Wall Street. Wall Street’s gotta be up there. St. Elmo’s Fire, I guess.

MM: That’s a classic.

AS: Yeah. I don’t know. Wall Street is one of my favorite movies. Goodfellas was like 1990, so I don’t think that counts as ’80’s, really. Yeah, I’d say Oliver Stone’s Wall Street and St. Elmo’s Fire.

Special thanks to Andrew for taking the time to speak with us and to Nick Mallchok for setting it up!

Buy Pink Jean Mint Green on Amazon.

Buy Piano 3 on Amazon.

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2 responses to “An Exclusive Interview with Andrew Shapiro”

  1. Jay Landry Avatar
    Jay Landry

    I love his piano work. This pop album is sounding pretty good, too.

  2. Earl*70 Avatar

    Gotta love anyone who loves Bret Easton Ellis.

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