Pianist, Keyboardist, Musical Director, Producer and Songwriter are to name but a few of the skills Miles Robertson possesses. Most famed for his time as the Musical Director and keyboardist for Adele throughout the sensational record breaking albums, ’19’ and ‘21’, Miles has played TV and concerts that most aspiring and professional musicians dream of. To name a few...The Late Show with Jay Leno, Saturday Night Live, Jimmy Kimmel Live, Late Night with David Letterman, The Grammy Awards, The Royal Albert Hall and The Brit Awards. His other accomplishments led him to work with artists such as Sean Kingston, One Republic, Najee, Fabulous, Take 6 and many more. In this incredibly humbling and inspiring interview we discuss his life, career and background. And then lead on to his life growing up, the balances that need to be sought to lead successful career in music, a healthy life, and the music business.
You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that your mother taught you Piano and Violin at the age of four and your father was a jazz pianist, how important a role would you say they played in your development and drive to become an artist?
‘Well actually that was in my Bio. It’s interesting you should say that because my father recently passed away and my mother passed some years ago, so I’m kind of redefining my inspiration with regards to those feelings. I had very early exposure to music, which definitely put me on that path I think. My mother went to The Royal Academy (of Music) in London to study piano and violin there and then moved back to Barbados and become a music teacher at a secondary school there. She was very big on education and was an ethnomusicologist, so from her I got my formal training - I’m formal classically trained as a pianist and violin only for a couple of years because I didn’t really take to that. So it’s interesting when I look at it from that perspective. I get from her the technical side of things; from my father it’s kind of visceral, spiritual side of the influence of music. So it’s an interesting balance.'
So you were classically trained in piano, when did you decide you wanted to go down the pop and jazz route?
‘Yeah...I started out playing by ear and obviously having a piano in the house, being around music, my father performing and my mother would be practicing around the house - so we kind of grew up around that and then we just started banging on the piano and started exploring. I was very curious. Then maybe around eight or nine - because my mother also had a private studio as she was head of the music department secondary school in Barbados and then she also had a private practice at the house, and she would teach on afternoons and on weekend and all these kids would come. And there was this one guy that was into Jazz and he was into Rap, and he was a little older than me and he would be playing like Take Five and stuff and I was so amazed by that, I think that was the first time I was like “Wow I really want to learn how to do that”…so yeah around like eight or nine.’
When was the realization that you wanted to become a professional musician?
‘...I was around music all the time, so I never really knew if I made that decision in my head or if I kind of was always like “this is the only thing that I know how to do”. There was a point there when I was like 14 or 15 and my mother would ask me “is this what you would like to do? Are you sure? Is there anything else?” I had kind of flirted with Physiotherapy for like a summer, but other than that it was nothing else for me, it was second nature, I’m not sure if I made a decision. When I think now, I don’t think it was a particular moment where I sat down and said; “This is what I want”…It was very natural.’
You said your mother spent up to 6 months preparing for a gig when talking about her determination to play and discipline to practice, what is your prep for when your going on tour or any other gigs that come your way?
‘It depends on the artist. But generally…in preparing for touring specifically, you would start with promo. So you do a promo tour and the artist might have a single out and maybe one or two other singles in the pipeline or potential songs that they have released as singles. So you may start there as far as preparing. Usually, I would get the music, and just play it over and over again, just listen to it, I won’t even try to learn it or transcribe it or anything, I just put it on. If it's an artist I have not worked with in the past, I just do research on them - I just go online and find out as much as I can about who they are and try to get an understanding of where they’re coming from as best I can. So for me, prep doesn’t even start with actual music. And sometimes maybe I’ll even do all of that whilst playing the music, or while listening to the music.
‘Then from there, then I’ll just make my notes. Maybe I’ll get the form of the song and jot the lyrics. I’ve done the latter as I got more mature. Because, sometimes, musicians have a tendency to not really think about lyrics as much and mostly focus on the music. But I see the connectivity with the lyric and the music, melody, the harmony etc. So I tend to transcribe lyrics as well, to get a sense of what they’re saying, how they connect the melody and how it connects with the harmonic pallets and instrumentation and all these different things. And then from there, then I’ll probably get on the keyboard or piano and just start to play around with it. And then from there - with rehearsals, you go in with drums, bass, guitar and then we kind of rehearse from there. But I have my own; I guess unique way of preparing music. For me, it's to get it embedded in my core and not to think about it at all, you just want it to kind of come through you - it's your interpretation of it, what the music lends to. It’s interesting to find out about, and understand the artist, and where they’re coming from and what they’re trying to purvey.’
…And for the physical preparation of the tour?
‘Physically…well that’s evolved over the years. It’s just about building up stamina. It’s about a good diet and exercise. I don’t do a lot of weight training at all, I do push ups, planks, I do a lot of stretching - of late I’ve been doing a lot of bike riding - just stuff to build a strong core. And to be honest when I’m not touring I’m performing in this other venue in New York, so I’m performing in the city, and the gigs that I do are usually like three sets - maybe an hour fifteen/hour-and-a-half apiece and that builds my mental and physical stamina, as far as playing. Because usually when you tour and you’re playing the same set every night you may do an hour and fifteen/hour-and-a-half maybe pushing it. But usually, the gigs that I do and tours that I do - they aren’t as physically demanding.
'Where you have to kind of build your strong core is for all the travelling and just the long hours and the just mental energy to come up to that level every night and execute. Meditation as well - because when you think, the pressure to execute - a lot of people think it looks easy to kind of go up on a stage and just perform, but when you know every night that you’re expected to execute at a very high level, and you still factor in that you’re still a human being and that you can get nervous and anxious - just finding ways to build that inner strength, that inner confidence. So meditation and stuff of that nature as well.’
You’ve played gigs with some of the biggest names in pop, most notably with the incredible pop star sensation, Adele. What were some of the major steps to lead you to that moment?
‘…I mean if I look back at it now, you could say that this happened and then this happened - but in general it was a lot of luck. I can’t tell you there was a blueprint, per say. Well, I moved to New York in 2006 with the view to pursue music at a very high level and work with the biggest artists, biggest names and the best musicians. I started out in a small club in a village, and I used to play there four or five nights a week with different types of bands - Funk bands, R&B bands, Pop bands. So I built my chops, I learned how to play in a live setting and to perform, in those clubs. Then, I met my manager later on in time when I moved here and he’s also from Barbados, so we had that commonality, and he’d lived here for many years so he had vast understandings of the music business. But also, for someone coming from a foreign country into a metropolis and a very intimidating city like New York - he was really able to help me, guide me and mentor me - so I didn’t really have to make the mistakes that maybe other people that didn’t have guidance would. I think that helped me a lot.
‘So I did that for a year, just playing in the clubs and things like that. Then I got an opportunity, because I had been visible and networking, I started to get calls outside and I started doing spots and started working with different artists outside of that. Then I happened to be in Detroit and I was working with an artist called Najee, and at that concert, a guy by the name of Valdez Brantley, who at the time was music director for Usher - he’s from Detroit so he came and stayed after the show and was just complimenting me on my playing and how good the show was, and then he told me “I’m about to hold some auditions in New York in a couple of weeks for a new artist called Sean Kingston” and Sean Kingston had a song called “Beautiful Girls”, right. So I ended up doing those auditions and ended up ultimately getting that gig. I had set certain goals when I came here. I wanted to play on David Letterman, The Late Show with Jay Leno, Saturday Night Live, Grammys things like that as I saw them growing up. So, when I got that gig, it was the first time I was able to play on TV; I did The Today Show and stuff like that, and that kind of got me in the game, in a way - working with Valdez and a bunch of other young musicians.
‘So from that, and working with Sean for that very short promo stint, Valdez and his brother would call me for other stuff, and then they called me for Fabulous. And then from there, just knowing people in the game. So I was just doing other things like networking and things, and that’s when I got the Adele call. And I got the Adele call to do promo here in the US - and I think that was set up because her keyboardist could not do it for some reason, so they just decided just to see if they could should hire someone state side for the promo run - and that how I got involved. They obviously took a liking to me and I kind of stuck with them, and then all that other stuff was just luck. It was luck that, the Saturday Night Live show we did just happened to have Sarah Palin as the guest, and there happened to be huge viewership. That kind of snowballed everything. I would never tell anyone that there was a blueprint or there were steps that I methodically took to working with artists or making it. It doesn’t work that way.
‘The music industry is a very volatile industry, and a very chaotic industry and it's kind of like you're never really in it, per say. Fine you can do a tour, do spot dates, but there is nothing concrete about it, you know. You can be here today, gone tomorrow. It’s just one of those things where you have to carry a certain psychology and not look at it as…”this step leads to this step, leads to this step” [Laughs] you know? It doesn’t really work that way. And it’s ever evolving. How the industry is now in 2016 isn’t how it was in 2014 or 2013 or. You just have to keep evolving, and keep evolving.’
How do you manage with the psychological aspect of the ever evolving and non-concrete music industry?
‘By not pigeonholing myself, and not just focusing on what it is that I do - for instance, I could say that I’m a keyboardist, I’m a musical director, I’m a producer, I’m a songwriter so I could fool myself and only focus on those things. By that I mean; any prep or research or practicing is done with a view just for that. And from being around my manager I think I’ve started to take a more holistic view and approach of the music industry, and to life. So I think that, to bring balance, I’ve had to open up and not just look at myself as a musician or think like a musician. So I’m reading far and wide, I’m watching stuff that you would think might be outside of my realm, to give me some type of balance. Being a musician and feeling like the creativity only comes from music could be a pitfall. So I’m looking outside of music for inspiration and creativity. That way I don’t get as frustrated because I know that, you can pigeonhole yourself by just thinking because I’m a musician music is the only thing that’s going to inspire me - that music is the only thing that’s going to help me grow musically. Because, I could read books about psychology, I could read books about spirituality, I could read books about religion, I could read books about science, about technology. There might be something in there - even though I might not be consciously looking for it - that’s going to give me a spark that can bring something back to what my core is, my core is always music so I’m not going to move away from that. But I think that to bring some type of balance you have to kind of step away and not just think in a musical vein.’
That’s a great standpoint to have on the matter…
‘Yeah, because you could get frustrated. Because, at some point you're going to hit a wall. If you’re a player, a musician, an instrumentalist, you’re a performer, you’re a producer - whatever facet of music you’re involved in, there’s going to be some point where you're going to get frustrated, right? Some people have a school of thought where they’re like “I have to practice, practice, practice and practice”, and I agree, I’ve done a lot of practice over the years, but my practices have only been physically on my instrument - and I think a lot of people make that mistake. When I’ve done live gigs as well, that’s practice; learning how to perform live. There are people who practice a bunch of times but they never go out and perform, so they never build those chops. It’s all about balance and I think it’s about compartmentalising in a way…and saying, “okay, music is my core, but because it’s my core I can’t allow it to define me and me shut myself off from all the other influences that can present themselves” - and I think a lot of musicians suffer from that, because they are looking for everything to come through the musical conduit. So yeah, it’s about finding balance.
‘There’s been times where I haven’t touched the piano…but I’m learning. So you can look at it like “man this is neglect” and yeah you could say that but I think once you’ve done a certain amount of practice, you could take a week off or two weeks off, and it's not going to hurt you because you develop another angle, another facet, you know.’
The topic of pigeonholing is such an interesting one, and what you’re saying definitely rings true - about not allowing yourself to be pigeonholed by yourself really…
‘Right. I mean, when you think about the arts, and creativity…how do you pigeonhole creativity when being artistic? So it’s that conundrum in a way where; we live in an age where people talk about creativity and talk about innovation - we talk about the arts; the importance of arts but if you’re pigeonholing yourself, your outlet is just very monolithic, if you will. Where’s the give and take, where’s the balance? So I think that’s very, very, very important. And I also feel like, as musicians - I don’t want to say our job, I don’t think that’s fair, but I feel like the duty of being a musician is being able to look at everything, create a perspective and question and challenge it. It doesn’t have to be verbal - I’m just saying for yourself, and that’s one of those things that I do. And I don’t do it with the view that it will come through the music, but I feel like if I’m being honest - that it’s going to come through in some way. Because, if I’m being honest and I’m imbibing all of these different things and I’m questioning them internally, or however I feel like I’m questioning or challenging these things, they are going to come through.’
So you were the Musical Director for Adele’s band also, did part of your job in being the MD mean that you picked the musicians for the band?
‘For that band no, but that can be.’
Have you previously chosen musicians in your role as a Musical Director before?
‘I have, yeah.’
So what kind of qualities in the musicians were you looking for when selecting the musicians for those bands?
‘Well…it depends. Usually I’m hired by management or by the artist, and that means they might have a vision already in their head for what they want. So we usually have a conversation - we have a meet and they’ll discuss with me what they’re looking for. We’re in the day and age now where it’s - or maybe looks, appearance and image have always been a thing, but a lot of people now kind of have to have this look, or this look and less about, can they really play? But I still come from the school of, “yeah can they play” but chemistry. But it’s usually a balance - sometimes - because I’m hired; the management and the artist will trust my opinion so I can bring in musicians. Or maybe they’re looking for young, fresh, new faces so we’ll do auditions, and then through the audition process, we’ll delineate and see who we like, so it’s kind of a collective decision, but they’ll follow my lead - but it really depends on the artist. A newer artist might not have the same chops as a more established artist to say, “okay this is the type of band I want, these are the musicians I want” Newer artist might ask me “Can you help, what do you think?” or it could be an established artist who’s looking for fresh new energy, new blood. It really just depends, from situation to situation - it’s very different.
‘That’s the thing with the music industry; there’s nothing set in stone, so never go into any situation with any precepts or notions of “this is how it works”- you have to be super flexible and super malleable. Things change at the drop of the hat. But most of the time I’m hired, I’m hired because of my previous work or a recommendation, so there’s a level of trust there and understanding already that “we hired you because we believe you are the person to curate the music, the band etc etc”. But what I look for with musicians - obviously it depends on the gig, but attitude first. Attitude, approach and then I look at chemistry.
‘There are a lot of great musicians, but chemistry is one of those intangible things that can make and break a band, a group, an artist, so I’m big on chemistry as well. A lot of times chemistry is something that you have to build, but you have to be able to have the eyes to see “okay this will work and this will work”. It’s a puzzle. And a lot of the time you don’t have the luxury of time to figure things out. Then you have to factor in maybe pressure from the label down to management down to the artist, there’s chaos and there’s like “we’re going to roll out now” and “there’s this video coming out now” or “we’re releasing a new single” then there’s this TV show, we need this done, we need that done. So it’s about being able to execute under very high pressure, high pressure circumstances and get the best out of the musicians and the artists and give the artist that comfort ability. I would say my main role as an MD is to make sure the artist feels comfortable.’
And then you choose musicians based on whether you think that they will make the artist comfortable as well?
‘Well…not directly, but yeah it’s all under that umbrella. When choosing musicians, I really look at attitude and approach. That could be approach or attitude to the music, what sensibilities or sensitivities you have, your musicality and just your general domineer to be honest - because if you think, when you go on tour you’re spending time with these people and you don’t want an asshole. There are a lot of intangibles involved, it’s hard to say that I have a set of things that I look for. I don’t lock myself off like that. I kind of live in the moment and I go off my instincts as well with people, just as in life. It’s just that it can be high stress and chaotic sometimes, and it’s just about managing that. Because when you think, you’re working with artists and they’re about to release music, they could be anxious, they don’t know how it’s going to be received, maybe if it’s a sophomore album they’re worrying about “Is it going to do as well as my first album” and with all those pressures already, that the artist has, and then you're not factoring the artist's personal life, and then maybe the distraction of celebrity and tabloids - I don’t get involved in that but I am aware of those things.
‘So when this artist comes to rehearsal or when this artist is on stage I want to make sure that he or she is comfortable, so they don’t have to worry about music, they don’t have to worry about the band - and that can take a long time as well. But then again you don’t have that much time - it's just one of those things. Every artist is different and every artist’s personality is different. Some artists are more hands on than other artists. But as far as musicians, I don’t have a checklist, it’s just a vibe thing.’
You were with Adele from the first album, a relatively early stage before she had truly broken the American market. Did you ever expect it all to blow up as big as it did?
‘No. Because, before I started working with her and they had reached out, we were supposed to do some promo in the US, and they ended up cancelling it. At this point I had been used to that so…when you’re in this business for a certain amount of time, you get that there is nothing set in stone and that it could change and it could be cancelled. You learn how not to get disappointed, and even if you do get disappointed, you learn how to bounce back quickly and understand that, “you know what, that’s how it goes”. Then they happened to reach back out to me and I guess they decided to do maybe two or three of the dates and one of them was Webster Hall here in New York, and The View - and we ended up doing them. Then they called me back to do Saturday Night Live (SNL). So its pretty much after SNL where her popularity started to grow and chasing pavements, the single at that time was doing really well, and then we did the Grammy’s the following year, and then after that we went on tour. So none of that was expected, it was kind of out of the blue, in a way.
‘And then “21”, when we did the promo cycle for that I remember I went over to London and we did a rehearsal and she played me some of the music, and I thought it was incredible. But when we did The Brit Awards it pretty much changed the direction of the album. It kind of snowballed after that and everyone took an interest and it just went from there. So yeah, I didn’t think [Laughs] - because she did really well on her first album, so, you just go into these things and try to do the best you can, for what you can control. But no I never thought it would snowball in that way, and be as successful as it was.’
So what were your thoughts during in that time?
‘I didn’t have time to think…a lot of stuff is in hindsight now. Plus I’m not really drawn to that side of things as far as - not necessarily success, but as far as with the media and keeping up with stuff like that; I kind of just focus and go in and do my job, and try to do my job to the best of my ability and like I said, to make the artist feel as comfortable as possible. And then with Adele at the time, she was one of these artists with all the trappings of success and celebrity and she was just a normal person - at least that’s how I perceived it. She didn’t create that energy around the camp. I mean fine, you’re getting ready for the show, and there’s fans outside, and there’s all of that. But it just felt pretty normal, it just felt like “This is what we do”. But that’s just me. I’m very anti-spotlight [Laughs]. I just love music and I love being able to perform and create and it just so happens there’s visibility there so, there’s nothing you can do about that, but yeah I was never drawn to that.
‘And like I said, it was in the moment - so yeah, you hear the numbers and you hear the album is doing this and we’re travelling all over and we’re performing here and there, and you get the feedback but nah I never thought about it like that. It’s probably only many years after when I was able to process it and say “okay”, it just feels normal to me. I never look back and be like “wow”. You’re thankful - I don’t mean I’m ungrateful at all, it’s just when you’re in it, it's different. I can't seem to get my head to make it a big deal.[Laughs]
‘Plus, you have to think; all the artists that I have worked with - their success isn’t my success. I just happen to share in it and be a part of it. I think a lot of musicians and people around can get so caught up. You get so caught up, and you’re in the moment and the energy is around the artist and you get some residual to kind of believe your own hype. But early on I thought, “this success is not mine” I just happen to be in proximity to it, which is awesome and not everyone gets to see things from this side. I know this world has a preoccupation with celebrity, but yeah, I’ve always tried to keep a balanced mind and equilibrium - because you don’t want to go too up or down, because there are times where that’s not going to be the case, because it doesn’t last. And when it doesn’t last, what do you do? How do you define yourself and what to do? So as for me I try to - I try to be humble - but for me I’ve just created a personal philosophy about how I carry myself and how I live my life, and music is a part of my live, so that’s then that’s affected by that.
‘That’s why I would say - I started out by playing in clubs here in New York, and that was my first break, if you will. And I still play in clubs in New York, so that’s kept me humble - and I approach and prepare for those gigs the same way as I would for The Royal Albert Hall, because it’s music… like, I always say “what’s the difference between playing in front of 50,000 people and playing in front of 5,000 people?” you're still playing music - the environment changes but you’re still playing music. So that’s allowed me to keep a very balanced outlook. But it could be easy for me to say that because I’ve done both, and I know most musicians would want to play music at the highest level and on the biggest of platforms - but because I’ve done both, it’s given me balance. So I would tell anyone who is aspiring, to aspire to any and everything that you would want to do, but just know to keep a balance - and I don’t put one above the other, one is better than the other.’
So obviously you’ve played The Royal Albert Hall with Adele and a number of monumental gigs all around the world with various artists. What was the key to remaining the Musical Director and Pianist for those years do you think?
‘…I don’t know. With artists and working in this business - one, you can’t take anything personally, right? I don’t know if I ever thought about it from that perspective. Yes it’s about execution, but I never thought about it like “if I don’t do that then they are going to fire me or get somebody else”, because artists can be very material in certain ways. They might wake up one day and feel a particular way. So as a musician and MD and producer you can’t really hang your hat on how an artist is feeling on a particular day. An artist can do an album like John Mayer and you look at John Mayer and you look at the albums that he’s done. He’s shifted his focus and he’s not using the same musicians, does that mean previous musicians weren’t any good any more? Or they didn’t do their job...I don’t think so. It’s just that you shift and you go in a different direction and you want to try different things. So because I know that’s how artists are - yes there are people who have messed up and got fired, or are incompetent, yes that’s a given, but generally I just do my job. And I can tell you, my job is to come in there - if I’m an MD, obviously that job is a little more magnified - but do my job the best of my ability, be as truthful and as honest as I can to the music and to make the artist feel as comfortable as possible - anything else, I can’t control. Obviously you want to have a great attitude, that’s important - but I’ve never seen it from that perspective of losing or being kept. You can’t worry about that.
‘There are so many different factors and politics that can go into the hiring and firing of people within a setting - you can’t worry about that. You just have to let your work speak for yourself. It’s a competitive business, so there’s always someone who’s vying for your spot but that’s never really bothered me, because I’m always being honest and true and putting in the work, so that’s all I can ask of myself. Some people are motivated by other things; whether it be money or, whether it be opportunity and think, “okay this is a stepping stone to something else”. Music has been and still is my main motivation. I haven’t wavered from that. So when I’m called for gigs - if it’s a tour or whether it’s a local gig, or whatever - it’s about learning the music and interpreting the music, and executing the music the best that I can. I feel like the music is the be all and end all. I think it’s about the music and it’s about connectivity; everything else will fall into place, but I think other than that there’s nothing. That’s what I focus on, because that’s what I can control.’
You said earlier on, you set goals when leaving Barbados for New York and some of those were playing on TV and working with some of the world’s biggest artists, has the journey so far been different than you what expected?
’Very different…very, very different. Because, when you’re young and you're naive and your perspective is from that of the media - it’s an outsider’s perspective. I’ve been fortunate that - how things worked out, I was able to accomplish a lot of goals that I set. In accomplishing those goals, the funny thing was, the actual accomplishment was like “okay cool, you did that” but it was when I looked back at the journey to those accomplishments that I’m like “wow, look at all the stuff that you were able to learn”. So that’s what I more revel in; the journey, and my understanding of - I would never say I understand how the music industry works because it’s ever changing. Anyone that tells you they understand the music industry is lying. None of us have it figured out, and that’s whether you’re in it or you’re outside of it. I guess that when you’re inside of it, you might be privy to certain things and you’ve seen certain things, but none of us have it figured out. But yeah, if I look back - and I’ve been doing that recently, like I said my dad passed and so, I look back and I’m amazed. The accomplishments yes, but more so the journey, and while coming from where you came from, coming from a small island, and being able to work with some of the best in the world. Yeah you go through your ups and your downs but that’s life. But to still be here and still in your right mind, you’re still hungry and you’re still curious. I always feel like, if you don’t have curiosity, then you don’t have anything, because you’re not curious; you don’t want to know more, improve, then what are you doing? you know.
‘I’ve seen people get jaded, because it’s easy to get jaded by the business. As I was saying to you earlier, it’s finding a balance and looking outside of the music for inspiration to bring back to the music; to bring something back, to live a little. It’s been very difficult though. It’s been hard to reconcile the accomplishments with where I had come from. So in a way - not ignored it, but it’s just been one of those things where I’ve been like “okay cool, I did those things…what’s next?” So I never stopped to revel in it and it was never really a big deal, because when I looked back and realized, it was more so the journey and all the things it took to get there that made me who I am now. Because its easy to get stuck and think “I did this already…” but I don’t think like that, because that’s a recipe for disaster - because you don’t want to stay in the same space, and that’s the beauty of life. Your perspectives change, you change, you grow, you’re not holding on to what you did in the past, you’re thankful and you’re happy, but you’re not holding on to it - you want to leave some room in your mental and your spiritual for something new.’
Moving forward, what has the future got in store for you?
‘That’s interesting…I do not know. I’m just living. What’s happened now, because my dad’s just passed, and my dad was a musician as well, and going down to Trinidad for his funeral, I connected again with that part of my DNA and my lineage - like I said my Mom was big Barbadian and my Dad was Trinidadian, and I haven’t been in Trinidad in 14/15 years. So within the few days that I was there, I was able to reconnect, and it made me think when I came back home to New York, about what I want to do next. So I’m still figuring that out. The goal has always been though, that; I love performing, I love the MD’ing, but also I always wanted to get into production and songwriting and in the studio. So that’s been an uphill battle. One of the things that people think is because you get success in one arena that it’s transferrable, and it’s not. So I had to work my way up in terms of live performance, touring, music directing; same way I have to do it in production and songwriting and studio work. So I’ve been actively doing that. I’ve been doing it whilst I was doing the other things as far as touring and stuff, but I’ve been actively doing that in the last 3 or 4 years. So when I went down, it made me really have to ask myself “What do you really want to do next?”
Is there a certain artist you would like to work with?
‘…Not particularly, no. I’m influenced by a lot of the - I don’t want to say older, but the established artists, artists that aren’t here anymore, from Nat King Cole to Miles Davis to Marvin Gaye to Donny Hathaway - people like that - Bob Marley, Hendrix - people who I feel have made musical statements that live on, that are influencing people who weren’t even born when they were alive - that fascinates me. So I’m more inspired by that, those eras of the musicians and their contribution to the universe. And figuring out how, with the world is right now, how we can begin to take or borrow from those artists and begin to create music like that again. So that’s where I’m at today.’
You’ve also mentioned earlier on that, in order to survive as a musician and excel it’s about balance and attitude. Have you got any other tips for artists or aspiring persons for doing what you’re doing?
‘Yeah. Not everyone is going to do this to a professional level, so the meaning of music for me is that; everyone can be involved in music, music is a beautiful thing - whether you’re a listener or you’re a practitioner, it doesn’t matter, everyone can be involved with music. But my thing is, to the people out there who are serious about music and pursuing music as a profession, is, really ask yourself the question “Why am I doing this? What do I want out of this? What is my motivation for doing this?” and the reason I say to ask yourself those questions, is because - if your motivation is to get money out of this, I mean as far as for me to say, you can’t, but I just know from my experience that if you’re getting into music for money, you’re getting into the wrong business. That’s not to say you cannot make money and you can’t earn a living, but I’m saying if money is your main reason for getting into music, you may want to look at reevaluating that decision.
‘When you think about people who get into this for celebrity and fame and you look at - if you’re watching an Amy Winehouse documentary, you see the demons of the actual celebrity part and what it can be, of the music industry, you may want to reevaluate again. So for whatever reasons the motivation, I’m saying, just ask yourself that question. Ask yourself that question - “Why am I doing this? What is my motivation for doing this? What do I want out of this?” The other thing is - yes focus on being the best you can be, putting in those practice hours - whether that be doing your scales or your sight reading, your theory, your ear training - if you’re in to Jazz; your transcriptions and all those things - put in those hours. There’s no getting around that. To be the best musician you can be, you want to put inasmuch hours as you can as far as getting the fundamentals together.
‘But also, beyond that, do a lot of listening - not with a view to improving, but just do a lot of listening. Listen to music, listen to lectures, listen to whatever, just do a lot of listening. Do a lot of reading, do a lot of watching and do a lot of observing. And you’re not doing that with a view to it benefiting you as a musician, you’re doing that because, by Osmosis, it’s going to - at least I believe, by Osmosis - it’s going to pour through, it’s going to come through. It might not come through in a way that you expect - but you want to have a character, you’re building character. If you don’t have a pallet to draw from, when you go on that stage, or you go in that studio, what are you going to have to offer? So, those things are important.
‘Another important thing is to learn in business. Now, as an outsider, you’re not going to learn - I mean yeah okay I could have read a magazine, “oh okay somebody signed this contract for how many millions” but that’s not knowing the business. You’re not going to really know the business - like I was telling you - no one really knows the music business, but, you can have experience, like hands on experience in knowing how the business works - and that can be - as far as like, just doing a little gig at a pub, and the promoter paying you $2. It’s just that understanding, so it’s beginning to learn in business. Now, you could read Donald Passman’s “All You Need to Know About the Music Business” - that’s a good theoretical text, so that’s important, but I think also watching videos, you’ve got YouTube, listening to artists; reading about artists biographies, maybe if you could get around a musician that’s’ a little more established; just hearing stories. So, just finding ways to hear about people who are practitioners in the business and their experiences.
‘The more you understand about the business that you’re in, the better the musician you can be as well. Some people feel like, “oh because I’m a musician I only have to know music”, I disagree with that. I think that you can have a healthy balance, and I think one informs the other. So knowing about copyright laws, intellectual property is not a bad thing. Knowing about song royalties and recording rights - those are things that are important as well. So like I said - asking yourself those question about why you’re motivated to and what’s motivating you to do this. Listening, learning, watching, observing - learning the business, all aspects from magazines to books, biographies, theoretical texts - reaching out to people in the business, you know. Organically. Those are the main things, you know. And in that first question, as far as asking yourself “Why are your motivated to do this?” and having a really strong sense of self and belief in self, or if you don’t have that, figuring out how to develop that - because as much as I love music, and music has brought so many beautiful things to my life, I’m still a person away from the music and apart from the music - and if I didn’t develop me, apart, from the music, I wouldn’t still be here, because if I don’t tour, or I don’t work with a big artist all the time, then who am I? So I think for a lot of people, they look for validation externally, and I’m saying, “Validate yourself first, and focus on that, and building a strong sense of self” and then you’re thankful if the opportunities present themselves - you’re thankful for them, but they don’t validate you.
‘And that’s no disrespect to anyone by saying, “validate yourself”. A lot of people like to say, “oh you worked with this person” and that’s fine and that’s good on paper, but you are an individual, and you got to develop you - especially when being in the arts and creativity, and being a musician - I think it’s important to develop that individuality and understanding. So I can have individuality but I know where to place it. So if I work with an artist, and I can tell you my job is to make sure that artist is comfortable - I can do that but still be an individual and not impede or overshadow or have an ego about that - and my individuality can shine through. I’m saying that for you, it’s not as methodical as that [Laughs] none of this stuff that I’m telling you is like I’ve thought about it in the way I’m telling you and then I just went after it - it just comes from years of development and growth. And to be honest, sometimes we have a tendency that we do something and we want to see the result right away, and for me, a lot of times, when I did stuff and I did not look for the result - it came in such an interesting way to me that it surprised me, because I was like “Oh wow, you did grow and you didn’t even realize because look how this presented itself and how you dealt with it, or how you were able to handle this” and it was because, like I told you, I had been looking outside of my core, and observing and watching and listening and learning and, it just presented itself or came out in a different way. I think it’s important.’
I’d like to thank you for a very inspirational and humble interview. I’m extremely grateful for you taking the time to talk with me…
‘I appreciate it. It’s good because, when I was now starting out and aspiring, I always wanted to know how those people that were already established or working within the music industry like, “Wow, how did you do that? How did you get there? What was it like? How does this work, how does that work…” and you didn’t really have that kind of hands on ability to speak directly to these people. So I always think like that - as far as, when I was - not that I’m old, but when I was younger I wanted to know, so, I try to do the same. Anyone that’s interested in knowing my experiences are or were, I definitely want to share because you never know. You never know who is watching and who’s listening and what it might do for them. That’s all it is. We’re no different, you know?
‘Like I said, all that stuff I’m telling you is cool, obviously your experience is going to be your experience, and as far as the business of music and as far as operating within the music industry, it’s one of those things where, I don’t know if somebody can tell you really how.’
Because everyone has his or her own path, right? There's no direct path for everyone.
‘Yeah. All you can do is share your experiences and hope somebody can get something from it. It’s just one of those things. Like I said, for me, it was a lot of luck involved too, because as far as Adele, and her success, and the way certain things happened, we’re not in control of that, per say. So yeah, It’s just one of those weird things where you’re just thankful things work out a particular way, and you made the most of it, but yeah I don’t know if anyone can tell you, “Yeah I set out to do this and it happened this way, and a whole list”. And that’s why I say “Ask yourself that question” because it’s - especially now - there’s a lot less opportunities for musicians, so really ask yourself “Are you able to stay the course?” because it’s a lot of ups and downs and there can be a lot of disappointments and frustrations. So finding out a kind of psychological mental balance - that you can still keep your sanity and still remain focused, motivated and passionate about the music - because a lot of stuff doesn’t have anything to do with the music, or your ability - a lot of times that doesn’t have anything to do with it. You could be the best drummer and it still doesn’t have anything to do with the actual business and manoeuvring and sustaining, and that’s the thing at school; they don’t teach you how to sustain and manoeuvre - those things aren’t really taught, and I don’t know if they can be taught. So that’s why it’s such a difficult journey, but one that can be very beautiful. So as I said, those who are really up for it.’
Thank you once again to Miles for your cooperation and insightful thoughts throughout this interview. And also to Peter for helping set up the whole thing.
You can find Miles' Page Here
Thank you for reading!
© Dan Lewis 2016