If you like classical music that kicks, you’re in for a treat. Violinist, pianist, classical composer, performer, and mother, Jennifer Thomas brings quite a bit to the table, and yet she manages to seamlessly transition from modern to traditional, from dramatic to gentle, from tempest to forest and in between. Listeners will at once connect with her melodies and themes. Her compositions are complex enough to resonate with fellow musicians, but Jennifer is also quite adept at emotional connection with the lay listener. Jennifer has quite a bit to say about her musical process, and has taken the time to answer some questions for us. She talks about promoting her music, how composition requires hard work, and how she feels God helps her as she composes her music.
You seem to be gifted in several areas, including writing orchestral music, performance, writing for soundtracks, and playing piano and violin. Many of our readers might be wondering what you feel your primary talent is?
A: While I do play both piano and violin, the piano is definitely what I consider my solo instrument. I just feel really comfortable and confident there – from both a performing and composing point of view. In fact, most of my music is written with the piano as the forefront instrument.
I have always been an ensemble player on the violin, and I’m actually very grateful because it’s given me a lot of experience being in the middle of a symphony orchestra. It really helps me now as I orchestrate music to hear where things need to go – balance wise.
You don’t always find a piano in an orchestra unless a specific piece of music calls for one. I always got very excited when, as an orchestra member, we would accompany a soloist on a piano concerto. The combination of sound was incredible when a piano played with the symphony – it stood out, yet blended in a way other instruments could not. I think that is why I love to combine the two sounds so much within my own compositions.
Tell us about your latest project, The Lullaby Album. On this album, you worked with your mother, Carolyn Southworth. Is she also a musician?
A: Yes, my mom is definitely a musician and she is actually the person I owe so much to regarding my music (and a lot of other things in life, obviously). She started teaching me the violin and piano when I was 5 years old and taught me all the way up until I was a teenager before I finally switched to a different teacher.
The Lullaby Album was an idea that came about shortly after I had my first baby in 2008. My son was not a very good sleeper, and I found myself making up songs on the piano to lull him to sleep on many occasions. They were very simple melodies; absolutely anyone who could play the piano could certainly play these songs I was coming up with. But I found that it was really one of the only types of music babies could tolerate – one lined melodies, rhythmic, and gentle. (No wonder lullabies are of the nature that they are right?)
After seeing how my songs were helping my little one get to sleep, the idea came to me to create an album full of lullabies. I asked my Mom to join me on the project – as I thought that would be very fitting as she once lulled me to sleep with lullabies when I was a baby as well. And it really was a beautiful mother-daughter experience.
While it was originally intended to be a very small-scaled Internet-release-only project, it actually ended up being a full-fledged hard print 2-disc album. So there was a lot of time and hard work that went into it – but I think the end result turned out perfect. Well actually way more perfect than I even intended it to.
On The Lullaby Album you worked with several very talented musicians, including Jillian Goldin, Jace Vek, Lori Cunningham, and Paul Speer. What made you decide to get such a powerful cast together?
A: I don’t know if it was that we sought after a powerful group, but it just so happened that within the circle of musicians that we knew and were friends with, there were some highly talented people.
I’ve known Jace Vek for years as a fellow pianist and orchestrator. He and I have performed together in concert as well. He is a composer whose music I feel a kinship with as we both tend to gravitate towards writing cinematic, passion-filled orchestrated piano-based music.
Paul Speer had produced my Mom’s first album and in the process became a friend of the family. He has an extensive background in mixing/mastering symphonic music, and so we really wanted his skills in the engineering process of the album.
Both of our vocalists, Lori Cunningham and Jillian Goldin (now Jillian Aversa) I got to know through that awesome thing called the World Wide Web. We have cultivated lovely friendships and I had just been waiting for the perfect project to one day use their talents for – and as you can hear on “Sweet Dreams”, their voices were just the angelic touch we needed for that lullaby.
Your bio on your website does a great job of telling your story of how you began writing and playing music. Were you mostly influenced by classical music, or were there any contemporary pop or rock bands that influenced you?
A: Oh yeah, I am definitely influenced by a lot of other music aside from Classical – though I would say Classical is probably number one. Movie soundtracks have a big impact on me – a few of my favorite composers would be Hans Zimmer (Pirates of the Caribbean, The Da Vinci Code), Danny Elfman (Edward Scissorhands, Spiderman), John Powell (The Borne Identity Triology). I also love popular groups like Linkin Park, OneRepublic, and don’t shoot me… but I like some of Justin Timberlake’s music as well.
It’s taken me a few years to finally put a finger on what exactly to call my music. When I first released my debut album, I called it “New Age” because honestly I didn’t know what else to define it as – even though I didn’t feel it was the right genre for it. But looking back at my style over the years, and with the new music that I am writing now, I’ve realized that my music is considered to be “Classical Crossover”.
A previous Linescratchers interviewee, Australis, said that, though New Age, Ambient, and Classical music aren’t the biggest money-makers in the industry, there are still several ways to get heard. Where do you promote your music?
A: You know, this is a good question. And I hope that if there are any other musicians out there reading this that they’ll take to heart what I’m about to say…
The way the music industry operates now is so different compared to even just 10 or 15 years ago. Pretty much anyone off the street can buy a computer, a keyboard, some cheap software and make an album. The web is flooded with garage bands, home studio musicians, and record labels are not needed anymore in order to gain popularity as a musician.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a garage band, or a home studio musician. I am an independent musician myself. In fact, I think it’s beyond cool and takes a lot of guts for someone to go after their dreams and make them a reality on their own. But you’ve got to be good at what you do. Well, not just good, but awesomely fantastically good! You have to be in order to make yourself stand out amongst all of the other garage bands out there online.
What I’m trying to say is the Internet is a really useful tool to get your music heard, but I also think that people get bombarded on Myspace, or Facebook or whatnot by all the different indie musicians trying to get heard. I used to use MySpace as a great tool to market my music, but not anymore. I rarely check my account these days, and when I do, the only messages in my inbox are self-promoting spam from other bands who pretend to know me just so that I will go to their page.
I use a lot of internet social networking sites to promote my music, but it’s more for the purpose of letting my fans know about who I am as a person and not a means to spam them with music sales. I also use iTunes, Amazon, Cdbaby, and Pandora as a means to get my music out there. I have a website and blog that I continually post on, and I also have a YouTube channel. I actually intend to utilize YouTube a lot more in the next year by adding video blogs and even tutorials to help other musicians.
I think the key is to get personal with your audience. Whether it’s putting on concerts in person (so you’re not just an “Internet musician” but a real live person and performer), blogging, personally answering emails and comments, social networking, etc. I know there are still a zillion things more I can be doing, but for now these are the things I work hard at.
Your music is instrumental but it isn’t “LDS music.” Is it hard to break into a predominantly LDS market if you’re not categorized as “LDS music?”
A: Honestly I’ve never sought to break into the LDS market, mostly because I didn’t want to get type-casted. Yes I would love to have my albums included in stores like Deseret Book, but I’m not looking to become the next “LDS artist”.
But to answer your question, yes, I do think to break into the LDS music market is difficult for the simple reason that I’m not an “LDS artist” and my music isn’t “LDS music”.
I am grateful for the opportunities my music has been given on radio stations such as K-BYU Idaho, and KZION. So for all the listeners that turn their radios on to hear their favorite LDS artists, they’ll also get a little bit of mine as well and hopefully be introduced to something new.
Let’s talk about your 2007 album, Key of Sea. The music is quite eclectic, but has several songs about the sea and nature. Where did you grow up? Did this influence your compositions?
A: I grew up in the Pacific Northwest – always near the ocean. If we weren’t living in a beach house, we were living only a few miles from the beach. Summers as a kid were spent combing the beach for shells and crabs while the tide was out, digging for clams and other crawly creatures, swimming, and boating.
I have so many great memories of the ocean, so it was definitely on my mind a lot as I wrote the songs for Key of Sea, as well as came up with the album concepts for photography, etc. Two of the songs on the album specifically have to do with the ocean – “A Beautiful Storm”, and “The Tempest”.
You mentioned on your website that you believe composition is a gift from God. Tell us about how your faith influences the music you write.
A: Honestly there are days when I think to myself that I have no talent in composition and I must have everyone fooled. The only possible way I can write my music is with the help of my Father in Heaven. Even when I feel that I have hit my “writing cap” and couldn’t possibly write anything better, He usually gives me some kind of wake up call to let me know that there is more inside of me. I am constantly also always praying for help and guidance when it comes to my music.
Is music something that you are able to make a living off of, or do you have a “day job” too?
A: I teach piano and violin as well. Right now I have 12 students and it definitely keeps me plenty busy. I think I could sustain my music career without teaching, however, the money I do make from teaching enables me to do the extra stuff – like purchasing new and updated software and equipment (which gets really expensive), manufacturing more CDs, etc. My husband has a career that provides for our family, and what comes in from my music basically keeps the music machine well oiled.
I guess I’ll get to see how well my music sustains itself pretty soon though because as of this Summer, I’ll be done teaching – as we’re expecting baby #2. I do have a few projects in the works though, such as film scoring, licensing, and collaborations though. And not having to teach will actually allow me more time to work on those projects, as well as my own upcoming album.
It my dream though that one day my music will make me enough money to buy myself my dream instrument – a Fazioli grand piano.
What awards or recognitions are you most proud of so far in your career?
A: Hmmm. I think the most rewarding experience I’ve had was getting to solo with a full symphony orchestra. That’s just not something you get to do every day. A few years ago I was able to perform the MacDowell Piano Concerto No. 2 in Salt Lake City with an orchestra. It was incredible. That has definitely topped my list. Hopefully one day I’ll get to do that again, but who knows.
NBC Universal Sports also used one of my songs last summer for a 30 second TV promo that ran for 2 weeks, and that was pretty awesome as well. It was really neat to see my name on the commercial and have all my friends and family hear my music on national television. Kind of surreal.
You mentioned that you haven’t had as much time to perform your own music live. Any new developments or chances to see you live?
A: I did quite a lot of performing in 2007 and early 2008 after I released Key of Sea, but then took a hiatus when my son was born. I’ve done a few smaller performances here and there recently, but have not put on any solo concerts or anything in quite a while.
Performing solo concerts live is kind of a big fish to take on in the sense that there is a lot of preparation, promotion, and practice time involved. I also use backup tracks with some of my music, which take a lot practice to sync to. I would absolutely love to concertize again, but I probably won’t until after this next baby is born. I am tentatively planning some bigger performances for Christmas of 2010, and a release concert after I release this next album as well – sometime in 2011. I would also love to get a great group of musicians to come and perform with me at an outdoor summer concert up here in the Northwest.
Where can interested readers find out more about your music, or purchase your albums?
A: They can go to my website – www.jenniferthomasmusic.com to purchase music directly from me, and also read more about my music or myself (there is a link to my blog from my website). My music is also available on iTunes, Amazon, cdbaby, and most digital retailers.