Worship on 88 keys
Chad Lawson praises the Lord with classical and jazz piano tunes
Chad Lawson’s album The Chopin Variations reached No. 1 on the Billboard, iTunes, and Amazon Classical charts in 2015. His jazz recordings have developed a passionate and growing following. And his music has appeared in such television shows as The Walking Dead, Dawson’s Creek, and Vampire Diaries, as well as many television commercials and some movies. Lawson is a committed Christian who until recently played piano at a large church in Charlotte, N.C. I had this conversation with him at a coffee shop in the college town of Davidson, N.C.
You started playing piano at a very young age. I was 5. I did not come from a musical family at all so we used to sit around watching Sha Na Na on television. … I had no idea what they were doing. I had no idea what the pianist was doing. I didn’t even know it was a piano, but whatever he was doing, he was having the time of his life. And I wanted to do that. So my folks they rented a piano because they’re not going to take the word of a 5-year-old. I started taking lessons and I’ve never stopped taking lessons. I still study to this day with someone. … I always will, as long as my fingers can move and I can remember things. I always want to be challenged. I always want to be the weakest person in the room as far as wanting to learn.
You had a classical music upbringing. When did you shift to jazz? That was when I was in high school. I had a phone call from a corporate wedding band in the town that I was living in and they said, “Hey we need a keyboard player. Do you want to come and make some money?” I was a high school kid. Of course I wanted to. They’re like okay you need to go and learn these songs and it was like Stevie Wonder … and the Police and Credence. It was a whole other world that I had never experienced before and that really opened up my eyes. At the time I wanted to be a classical concert pianist. Once this opened up, my decision changed and I wanted to be a studio musician.
You ended up at the University of California-Berkeley and then got your first big break. I got a call to do a tour with a guy named Babik Reinhardt who is Django Reinhardt’s son, the legendary jazz guitarist. … They brought Babik over from France. He didn’t speak a lick of English, and it was quite the learning experience, not so much on the stage but off the stage and how to work with other people.
What did you learn? How everyone is different, but we’re all the same. We got thrown out of a Cracker Barrel, you know because of this guy. Personality-wise, he was very different. But when we were on stage, even though we couldn’t speak the language to each other, the music was there, you know? That really taught me one of those things where this isn’t really someone that I would hang out with probably day-to-day in life, but he had something really unique and something I needed to learn from and pay attention to.
Around that time or right after that, you formed the Chad Lawson Trio. This is ’97. I went into the studio two weeks before Christmas. The album was just going to be a gift to my mom for Christmas, and no one else was going to hear the album. I went in, recorded, and we did everything that day. Everything was pretty much first-take and then I gave it to her as a gift. Then, in Raleigh, there was a jazz station. Long story short, a DJ got a hold of the CD, and he took it from there. He just sent it off to industry folks and it just, by the grace of God, it took off, by the kindness of this guy.
At some point you put the Chad Lawson Trio on hiatus because you got a gig with Julio Iglesias. A buddy of mine was on the gig, and he gave me a call. He was moving over to the music director spot so there was a keyboard spot open and said, “Hey, do you want to come out? Come and do this?” Timing is everything. That was one of my dream gigs, to get a national artist or an international artist and be able to back them up and play for them. It never happened, and I’m living in New York, getting married. We’re living this happy life and all of a sudden I get the call. Those things happen when you least expect them.
Julio Iglesias is not necessarily known as a paragon of Christian virtue. Did you view it as a ministry opportunity? The way that my wife and I view music, as far as my performing live, is it’s worship for people that may never hear worship. That was the approach. Even with Julio and the other members in that ensemble, which there were only six or seven of us, how do we make this a ministry? How do we make this where someone looks at our life and says, there’s something just a little odd … and I’m really curious about it. That was the approach that I’ve always tried to live, be it with Julio or right now, today, at a coffee shop.
You often say that when you sit down at the piano, that is a time of worship and meditation. There are times when I will read the Word and try to pray and sometimes, nothing just happens. So I’ll go over and sit at the piano and just let that be a prayer. There’s an album called Song of Prayer. The studio that I was doing it in, there was a beautiful brother in the area, a wonderful prayer intercessor. He just came over, anointed my hands with oil, and he just walked around the room and said let’s just pray. That’s how that album came to be.
So 32 minutes later, the prayer ended. That was a first take. We weren’t trying to make this big album or anything out of it. We just wanted to pray. I just wanted it to be an avenue for people to be able to worship with. That’s why I made it as cheap as I could on iTunes and Amazon. It’s free on my website. … I wanted it to be as accessible as possible for anyone, just to be able to have that opportunity to just sit and pray.
Now you live in Charlotte, N.C., where you were a church musician for five years before you started selling licensing and writing for movies. How does that work? My biggest sources of income are actually streaming services. Spotify and Pandora, which I’m a huge fan of, and then film and television. There’s a group called Music Bed that’s out of Texas. They handle all of my licensing. Those three together are pretty much the largest chunks of our income. It enables me to stay at home with our two young children and my wife to stay at home, as well. …
We every Sunday night, we sit down as a family, she and I do, and say, “Okay what do we have this week and next month and this year?” … It is a family-run business. It enables us to focus on the boys but also on the music, as well. Certain things will come up and it’s like, you know what? Let’s not do that. I think that’s just a distraction. Let’s just stay the course of what we need to do. That’s something I wish I could tell more musicians. I get asked so many times, what do I need to be doing?
And what is your answer? The one thing I want to tell people is just stay the course. I wanted to give up so many times. There were times when we found out we were going to have a second child, I almost went into panic mode. I need to go and get a full time job now, because, you know, second kid, insurance and expenses. I came from a very strong wine background. As a musician you wait tables your entire lives, and so there was a place here looking for a wine director, and my wife said no, absolutely not. You are not going to go back into that business. The Lord has given us music, and we’re going to focus on that, and we’ll eat ramen noodles if we have to.
As soon as she finished that sentence, everything just changed. Everything with a mindset of … let’s receive this. Let’s put a lot of work into it. You can receive a blessing but you also have to do due diligence with what you’ve been given. You can’t just receive a blessing and just sit and wait for it to happen. It was the marriage of those two things that really catapulted my career. … Stay the course is what I like to tell as many people as I can. That’s where we are now.
What role does your faith play in that? I think we as artists, we as musicians, we as believers in Christ, no matter what you do—if you’re an accountant or if you’re a painter or what have you—you have this opportunity to be this little bit of light whether you realize it or not. That’s kind of the role that we have taken. I’ve had people say, “Why are you working with that person? That’s not really the Christian thing to do.” I don’t want to say I take issue with that. I appreciate the feedback, but our mindset is we are placed into people’s lives for a reason and that is why we are here. …
When I say that I sit at the piano and worship, I sit at the piano and I just watch my hands because I don’t own it. It’s not me. It’s not Chad playing. I don’t look at it that way. I want nothing to do with it. I just want to be the vessel behind it. I think that’s where you begin to see people’s lives being touched.
Listen to Warren Smith’s complete conversation with Chad Lawson on the Jan. 20, 2017, edition of Listening In.
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