Kristen Lawrence is a very interesting Linescratchers interviewee. Not only is she an accomplished organist and composer, her spooky, complex yet accessible music is centered around Halloween. With October fast approaching, Kristen’s interview kicks off the music of the season perfectly. The air seems crisper after reading it. She splits her time between Salt Lake City and Southern California, and lists what is, for this interviewer, a wonderfully diverse web of influences. Kristen talks about growing up in a musical family, her ideas about the pathos of music itself, the Halloween season, and Danny Elfman. For a sampling of her music, check out www.kristenlawrence.com and look up “Ghost of John,” a swirling musical journey fit for headphones or a reverberating cathedral.
To find Kristen Lawrence on iTunes, click here.
First of all, is your family musical?
A: Sometimes, when we’re feeling silly, we’ll improvise our own little Family Musical. Oh, you mean in ability and training …
Well, everyone plays at least a little. My two sisters are very good with song-and-dance. One majored in graphic design, the other in communications – both very creative. My brother became rather good with his piano and organ lessons in high school, but hasn’t pursued it formally. He does have raw talent, though, for he picks up things fast when he wants to, but his focus is in GIS – the guy is a geography genius.
My dad is very good. I used to ask him to play Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C-sharp Minor” for me over and over when I was a kid. I promised I’d learn it so he wouldn’t have to sit down and play it for me so often. Nowadays, he tries to keep his musical talents on low profile, but he often gets asked to play the organ for stake priesthood meetings. He, however, is a pollster and his talents for survey research, instead, are serving good purpose. Readers of Linescratchers might be interested to know that he has authored a book – How Americans View Mormonism: Seven Steps To Improve Our Image. He conducted a nationwide poll this past spring and the findings are quite interesting. It will be available this November 2008 at HowAmericansViewMormonism.com
My mom has her Masters in Speech Pathology. She helped me get rid of a little lisp when I was young. Singing with a lisp wouldn’t have been good, no sir (although maybe marketable in a quirky way?). She’s the sweetheart who drove us to our lessons. Now that I’m a busy adult, it’s hard to fathom how much time she gave me. I remember her sitting in the cathedral, reading a book every week while I took my organ lessons. She has helped us all fly.
You began studying music at an early age. Tell us about that. Was it your idea or your parents’ idea?
A: It was our family tradition to start each kid on piano around age 7 or 8. So I started piano at 7 and then organ lessons at age 12, which had a surprisingly casual beginning. I remember my mom coming into my room and asking if I wanted to start organ lessons and I said, “Ummm … ok!”
What made you want to study music in college?
A: There was not another subject that I would have wanted to sacrifice my sanity to through the rigors of college. And it was only a Bachelors degree! Nonetheless, I handed in my sanity, for which I received a Bachelors of Music in Organ Performance and Pedagogy.
You play for weddings and funerals. Does it pay the bills, or is it more for your own enjoyment?
A: Non-Mormon weddings and funerals pay the bills. Ha ha. Mormons always expect fellow Mormons to do things for free. Oh, but really, I am happy to do the freebie LDS weddings and funerals – it’s my way of serving.
Any gig helps with the bills. My steady gig, though, is teaching private piano and organ lessons. I first had a studio of students in Orange County when I lived at my parents’ home. When I moved to Salt Lake, I commuted back home every week to teach (which was fun – I like the energy at airports, everyone with a story, everyone with a destination). I eventually found so many students in Salt Lake that I was spread so thinly between both places and had to release my OC students. I love hearing from past students and I feel very lucky with the students I have now.
What bands or musicians have inspired you to play? What are you listening to now as you’re answering these questions?
A: So many! It’s such a great thing when someone’s music really hits a deep-rooted stream of electricity in you. It’s like this one night I had fondue in college (not having had fondue since I was a kid, so I’d pretty much forgotten the taste). It was at a dinner party with about ten friends. When the fondue was ready and I dipped in and brought the melty, cheesy, savory mess to my mouth, it truly felt like time slowed down and everything around me went out of focus. I closed my eyes and leaned back into my chair, ignoring conversation completely. I couldn’t believe the wonder in my mouth. Pungent bliss. It’s basically the same thing when I hear “my type” of music.
The first cassette tape I ever bought was Oingo Boingo’s “Dead Man’s Party.” I was 10 years old, at the music store with my sister (“The Wherehouse” – remember those?), and she said, “Buy this one. It’s cool.” All the wonderful, quirky melodies and motifs of this band of Danny Elfman’s have influenced and delighted me since this young age. I used to play tennis against the side of the house while listening to them. I especially remember doing this on fall evenings – one in particular with the harvest moon shining low in the sky. Oingo Boingo really is an autumn/Halloween band. Their song “Just Another Day” always makes me think of fall time, and it’s still one of my favorites.
J.S. Bach and his glorious organ works also inspired me to play. During my organ lessons every week in a cathedral and practicing on my own, his music gave me little sips and big bites of hope and fulfillment. The sounds of the organ were like a life pathway for me.
Ralph Vaughan Williams (a.k.a. “my dead boyfriend”) wrote some of the most sublime music I’ve ever heard. It’s like floating across moors and meadows. My favorites of his are “Five Variants on Dives and Lazarus,” “Variations on a Theme by Thomas Tallis,” “Oboe Concerto,” and “The Lark Ascending.”
Sometimes when I’m driving and listening to the classical station and hear something where I think, “Ooooooh. What’s this? I like.” – it almost always turns out to be some piece by either Ravel or Dvorak, which makes me feel either mermaidy or spicy, respectively.
Loreena McKennitt and Tori Amos are magical influences on me. Loreena – like earthy cinnamon and the cobalt/sea-green shades of the sky just after sunset and rich, pomegranatey blood pulses and stars hanging in different dimensions. Tori – like saucers of cream placed on balconies and rain and library books and feeling great in your jeans.
The Scandinavian countries, being part of my blood, also have that “fondue-esque” poignancy in me. Two Scandinavian bands are among my top favorites – Hedningarna and Nightwish. Hedningarna makes me want to dance like a wild pagan around a bonfire, pounding the ground. Nightwish makes me feel like I’m flying a dragon into battle.
What am I listening to now? I’m actually all comfy on my couch – have been watching 20/20 and now I’m watching, “Joe Versus the Volcano.” (Hedningarna helped me get out of a “brain cloud” once.)
Tell us about your decision to write Halloween music. Seems like a unique niche. Why not love songs like everyone else?
A: Cue Queensryche: “I don’t belieeeeeve iiiiiiiin love …” No, no, no – just kidding. I do, indeed, believe in love, but most love songs have always seemed so trite to me (not all, but most). There are too many “one-size-fits-all” love songs out there. I’m instead keen on writing about things that make people interesting and, hence, amorously interesting.
I must say, though, that I have written a ghost love song, which I will release in either Volume Two or Three of my Halloween Carols. (I explain the Halloween Carols below.)
Writing music about Halloween developed quite naturally – I love the whole Halloween season and I’m an organist. Ba boom. Ta da. Halloween and the organ are blood-relatives. I feel lucky that it was a connection just waiting for me.
I find that Halloween is the perfect outlet for whatever style I wish to write in. I can write something rock-ish, or something classical-ish, or jazz-ish, or Elfman-ish, or whatever corner of quirk my brain happens to be in at the moment. It all comfortably falls under the Halloween umbrella. This season truly sets me free artistically, as well as emotionally, intellectually, and kitty-catally.
I started studying Halloween history on my own during my college years, and decided to make a lifetime project out of it. I love fall time and can’t get enough of fiery leaves, crisp air, the lower angle of the sun all day, and early, cozy evenings. A quick anecdote: at BYU, I’d wake up early to practice before my classes began. One autumn morning I was about to walk into the HFAC, but I stopped right outside the door by a tree. This tree was wet with rain so its brilliant yellow leaves shimmered and its trunk was darker than usual. The contrast was so striking and mesmerizing, like a meal for my eyes. I had a hard time pulling myself away to start practicing. These intense, autumnal feelings are the energy behind what I write. It’s like those cartoons where a guy shovels coal into the train, and the fire roars all cartoony-like and the train speeds faster and faster down the tracks. Autumn is my coal.
In working on and feeling out my burgeoning Halloween project, I wrote various songs about cats, trick-or-treating, jack o’ lanterns, old Halloween superstitions from the British Isles, and so forth. My goal was and is to write sophisticated music about Halloween and to share its history and past traditions. I find that most Halloween music falls into two extreme genres: horror or kiddie. And most of it is cheap and tacky. Danny Elfman gave us some great stuff with “Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Corpse Bride,” but Halloween still needs more.
The beginnings of my specific “Halloween Carols” project happened one afternoon after playing for a funeral. It was a week before the autumn equinox a few years back. Maybe it was because the deceased was the center of attention and fall was a week away, but I found myself going straight home to the piano and writing four Halloween rounds inspired by the traditional American round, “Ghost of John.” I adore “Ghost of John” and find it thoroughly haunting in the true sense of the word – it lingers with you. Right then and there I decided that the world needs more Halloween rounds. My long-time project had become clear and I began to write the Halloween Carols.
We all pull out our Christmas CDs in December, but what do we pull out in October? Spooky sound effects, “The Monster Mash,” and other junk? Blechhhh. Halloween has evolved into a month-long celebration and I want to provide beautiful, enchanting music to celebrate it with.
How long have you been a member of the Church? Does this influence your music at all?
A: I’ve been LDS all my life. It influences everything in my life, of course. I write music because I believe to do so is “filling the measure of my creation.”
I hope my music makes people happy. Some of my songs are totally silly, and some might lead one to become enchanted by the mysteries of old traditions, present traditions, lore of every age, past cultures, present life. Or maybe my music will be “good driving music” to some, or simply set the evening for a gourmet dinner in pajamas. But I hope most of all that people will use it to celebrate the whole month of October, and to ready their wee ones for trick-or-treating.
I wrote my Halloween music for everyone. Other Christians, Muslims, Jews, Wiccans, Buddhists, Agnostics, Atheists. Historians, joggers, milkshake enthusiasts, Europeans, soup lovers, doctors, farmers, belly dancers. Polynesians, pilots, good cooks, shoemakers, duck feeders, 1st graders, college students, businessmen, scientists, pea shuckers, land lubbers. Everyone.
Some very traditional or conservative members of the Church view Halloween as too dark, or view depictions of witchcraft, ghosts, or the like as evil. Not too long ago some members of the Church were even upset about Harry Potter. What would you say to these members?
A: Nothing. Every religion will have its extremists. These people are not to be heeded.
I find Halloween endlessly fascinating. The ancient customs it hails from reveal so much about people, about cultural history – why people do what they do.
And it’s just fun! It’s fuuuuuuuuuuuuun. I love the whole feel of lit-up jack o’ lanterns, ghosts, silhouetted-Halloweeny-branchy trees, costumes, candles, old stories, mythical creatures, silly antics.
And that’s funny about Harry Potter. All the Mormons I know adore Harry Potter.
Is music “what you want to do when you grow up?” What goals or plans do you have with your music?
A: Oh yes. I plan on the Halloween Carols being one of my life projects. Of course if a fine suitor wins me over, I will certainly make family a priority, but a gentleman who is right for me will understand my life’s work and support me, just as I will support him. I think having a healthy family means encouraging “life’s works” in each person, most importantly by setting an example, and sometimes sacrificing for a season to help others get going. We are all born to be interesting.
I have over 50 Halloween songs and carols written to date. I plan to publish 13 of them in Volume One and continue to add volumes.
I am building my own type of Halloween Empire. I plan to develop my music into stage productions and movies and release different books, decorations, cards, and merchandise with beautiful artwork. I’m happy about it and excited to see where it goes.
As for future projects, I have so many non-Halloween ideas and tunes that come to me. I scribble them down fast, but it’s like my brain is a deli and I have to tell them to take a number, because it’s just me behind the counter slicing the ham.
How can we help support you with your music, Kristen? Is there a CD we can buy or a website we could visit?
A: Well, thank you for asking. Everyone can come to my WebbySite for a free trick-or-treat download of one of my songs:
There you will find a link to buy my 5-track EP on cdbaby.com, if my tunes appeal to you.
What would really help – PLEASE TELL FRIENDS! Everybody knows at least one person who is a “Halloween freak” or a “Danny Elfman freak.”
So many people are looking for good Halloween music and don’t know where to find it. And this isn’t like Bo Peep’s sheep who just find their way home – we need to TELL people about the Halloween Carols and spread the treats from porch step to porch step. And my music appeals to all ages (I’ve tested it!). Let’s celebrate Halloween with more music!
I will be playing the organ with the Pacific Symphony in their “Halloween Spooktacular” at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on October 18th. It’s a children/family concert, so anyone in Southern California is welcome to come!
To buy Kristen’s Halloween epic Arachnitect, click here.