By: Rachelle Henry | PHOTOS COURTESY Emily Rawlings, Michelle Moore,
Shane "Lord Fotog" Williams
- Los Angeles, California
Producer Josh Rawlings talks Macklemore's The Heist, and being nominated for a Grammy. Also Josh talks about touring with Soul/R&R singer Allen Stone while playing for 60,000 people.
Josh, I met you when I was young, maybe 9 to 10 years old, when you and your band were playing live music for us to tap to at Jessie Sawyer’s TAP JAM dance events. I feel like I’ve been aware of how talented you are and the power of your music for all my life! How old were you when you started learning piano, do you play other instruments, and please share with us the journey that led to a GRAMMY nomination for your piano work on Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s album, THE HEIST, which won 4 individual Grammy's.
Thanks so much Rachelle. It’s hard to believe you were 9 or 10 at the time we first met, but I definitely remembered your spark and smile! Believe it or not, I started playing piano when I was 3 years old. My parents got me my first keyboard that I still have to this day. It set me on a path of musical discovery that continues to this day. That keyboard had maybe 20 keys on it, but it also had a drum machine that I could program drumbeats and play around with. It was pretty cool for a kid’s toy keyboard.
I remember sometimes sneaking it under my pillow so I could turn down the volume and play it at night! So yeah, basically I was hooked on piano and music very early. I didn’t really start studying music until I started kindergarten around 5/6 years old. I wasn’t a great student most of my young life and caused my piano teachers a lot of headaches with them trying to get me to learn to read music. Eventually, when I started taking it more seriously in high school, I did make major strides in my musical education and sight-reading that lead me to get excited about studying music in college. I went to Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle from 2001 to 2005 and since then I’ve been working as a professional gigging/working musician in Seattle.
Along with the piano I play guitar, drums, all kinds of percussion and I also sing. My parents actually said that I started playing drums before piano…basically at the point where I could hold wooden spoons in my hands and dig into my Mom’s kitchen cupboards. It makes sense why they wanted to move me to a melodic instrument and have me stop banging on all the kitchen equipment!
The journey that lead to my GRAMMY nomination with Macklemore & Ryan Lewis really came through a weekly jam session I played with my group The Teaching here in Seattle. We played every Thursday night in town and lead a jam session called ‘The Hang’ for nearly 4 and ½ years. Along with my bassist Evan Flory-Barnes and drummer Jeremy Jones, we were the house band for these jam sessions, but we also had our group that gigged around town under the name The Teaching. Long story short, a local trumpet player name Owuor Arunga (who went to Garfield with Ben Haggerty/Macklemore) knew us from the local Jazz scene, but he also happened to frequent our jam session when he was in town.
Anyway, Macklemore’s producer Ryan Lewis was looking for a jazz trio with a special vibe/sound to create a sort of Nina Simone thing in the studio and Owuor said he knew just the cats…well I got the call and we went in to Avast! In the Greenwood neighborhood a little over 5 years ago to record for him. Ryan loved my piano playing so much that he continued to call me for studio work. We’ve built quite an amazing relationship over the years and now I get to help co-write a lot of music with Ben & Ryan. I also played piano/keyboard on ‘Same Love’ and ‘Neon Cathedral feat. Allen Stone’ on their multi-GRAMMY winning album. It was really exciting to be a part of that break-through album and no one could have ever predicted (especially me) it would have been as successful as it was and lead me to the GRAMMY’s just like that. So yeah, the rest is really history now, but it honestly all started with that inner-connection within the Jazz community here in Seattle and Owuor recommending us for that first session with Ben & Ryan. That tune we recorded turned out to be the only instrumental track on their album – ‘Bom Bom’. Pretty cool huh?
Your piano style adds so much emotion and beauty to songs such as “Same Love.” Since you played two live shows with Macklemore & Ryan Lewis the Summer of 2015 in Germany for audiences of 60,000+ people, tell us about how that song was received, as well as the rest of the music you performed on The Heist Tour.
I appreciate that Rachelle. I unfortunately didn’t get to play ‘Same Love’ on stage with them, but I did do a little featured keyboard thing on another tune I recorded called ‘Neon Cathedral’. It was really fun and super exhilarating as I’m sure you can imagine playing in front of all those music lovers…however, the show was very tightly knit since the entire set was linked to Ryan’s computer playing the foundational track of each song. So while it was exciting playing and feeling the energy of all those people – musically speaking it didn’t blow my sails back playing to a “click track”. That’s mainly why I continue to focus on the songwriting/studio-recording side now. I also have 3 little children right now so touring isn’t a big interest at the moment for me.
That all said, Ryan and Ben are fantastic human beings and it was really amazing to watch first hand how they work on stage for live shows. They really do put on an amazing high-energy performance that feels authentic and fun. Despite not having a lot to play and do for those few performances, I still consider my experience playing live with them a major highlight of my performing career. But yeah, speaking of the emotion that I love to put into my playing, it was hard to really relate that in front of so many people and playing a keyboard…if I had a grand piano however and a bigger song feature where the room/audience kind of came to a lull for a moment…I could imagine that would feel pretty incredible. We’ll see what the future holds! One thing I’ve learned now from being a gigging musician for almost 20 years is there are always opportunities to perform if you want to and sometimes the smaller more intimate shows have the biggest effect. It’s quite a gig!
You also toured nationally with Soul/R&B singer Allen Stone during the summer of 2013. What is a typical day on tour, and can you share some of your experiences on that tour? Has being on tour impacted your ideas/concepts about your style for creating new music?
My tour with Allen Stone in a way was a longtime dream of mine. I really wanted to experience what a National tour would be like riding around in a tour bus and the whirlwind performance schedule city-to-city. What I learned about that musical path and lifestyle was incredibly eye opening for me. The things I thought about the day-to-day and how awesome it must be playing cool venues and festival stages flipped after the first few weeks because I didn’t factor 2 important things while I was admiring the so-called “Rock-Star” touring life. Those factors were: 1) What it feels like longing to be back with your family and not being able to be there whenever you want – and 2) The hard work that actually goes into every aspect of the putting on these show on a given day will have you wanting to collapse into your tour bus bunk the moment you leave the stage…it’s a lot of work!
A typical day on the road would be spent sleeping on the tour bus early morning and sometimes waking up at a gas station or pit stop for food and bathroom breaks. The normal morning drill would be to nurse the hangover (sometimes) from the night before, search for the coveted morning coffee and start to piece together where in the world you were now. Ha! Let’s just say it was a little slow going in the morning – however, sometimes we’d already be at the venue and only a few hours from having to start loading all our equipment/instruments in. We were the first opener for O.A.R. for their National summer tour and that meant we got stuck with having to deal with strange hours for load-in, waiting for what seemed like an eternity sometimes for the 2nd opening band to finish sound check (or the headliner) and jumping to the quick when it was time to do anything. It was a privilege to support O.A.R. and see the huge crowds they’d pull out to their shows, but we sometimes got treated like ordered/pushed around and that didn’t always feel great. Nonetheless, after load-in we’d often get a staff catered lunch. What was amazing was that the staging, lighting, sound, cabling, etc. etc. was all setup early, early in the morning by the stage hands before we even got off the tour bus…so those guys ate first…and everyone had incredible respect for the hard, hard labor intensive work they had to do for every show. So we’d have lunch and then sometimes have several hours to kill.
Congratulations to you and your band of 11 years, Industrial Revelation, for winning the 2015 Stranger Genius Award for Music! You just toured in in Italy and will be headed to Switzerland next. What elements do you think have contributed to creating such a strong, long-lasting team? Please introduce us to your band mates and tell us about how each gear makes the machine work.
Thank you! It amazing to me that over a decade can pass of making music with people you love just like that. Seems like we started playing music together a few weeks ago! It’s true that there have been some incredible opportunities, breakthroughs, successes and press in recent years for Industrial Revelation and I couldn’t be happier. We just played to a near full house at a venue in Milan, Italy last March. That trip was like a dream-come-true for me because I had a vision almost 10 years ago (shortly after the band had formed) and having an almost chance meeting with the bassist Evan Flory-Barnes in Paris, France – I dreamt that we’d eventually play in Europe as a band.
It’s something I really believed we could do and that audiences would be incredibly kind and receptive to our music. That’s exactly what this Milan trip ended up being. It was so successful that the booker/promoter who discovered us and invited us out to play invited us back for a festival in Switzerland this September. However, due to unforeseen circumstances, it appears that we won’t be able to attend the festival this year. Nevertheless, it really seems like we just broke the ice and some really exciting things are on the horizon for us to potentially gain more and more opportunities to perform over there…that is the hope at least!
Jam sessions seem to have played a major role in your career. Tell us about how jamming with friends have led to amazing personal and business relationships and has led to you creating some of your greatest work?
Jam sessions for me were really the training ground where I felt safe to try new things I was learning in my music degree program at Cornish College of the Arts. They also challenged me when I’d play with musicians who were better sight-readers, improvisers or just more experienced that me. It was also at these Jam Sessions that I really networked meeting countless other live musicians on the scene and getting my name out there. It’s this training ground that I encourage all my students over the years to try to find the courage to go to. No mater what genre of music you gravitate toward, Jam Sessions are just a wonderful, pure and open-hearted way of creating music with strangers, practicing your craft and meeting all kinds of people.
Now that I have 3 kids and spent a great number of years playing at Jam Session and leading them, I don’t tend to get out as much, but I will still hop down to a spot like Owl ‘n Thistle on a Tuesday night to jam with some of my fellow Jazz musicians or a Monday night at Mo’ Jam Mondays at Nectar or music at Capitol Cider on Capitol Hill. There’s an abundance of all kinds of jam sessions around town but sometimes you just need to be a little savvy on finding the right one that fits you. There used to be a jam session I think on Tuesdays at a spot up in Shoreline’s Richmond Beach that used to love going to because it was always filled with locals and they’d play classic Folk tunes. They had this old beat-up upright piano and I’d just help myself and join in the fun…always got greeted with friendly smiles and a warm welcome whenever I’d pop in. That’s what Jam Sessions are all about for me…the fun…the gathering.
You are working with both Macklemore and Ryan Lewis on their upcoming solo projects. What can you tell us about the upcoming collaborations?
Yeah, now that they’re working on their solo projects I’ve essentially split myself into 2 Josh Rawlings! Kidding! I’m lucky that I forged a strong relationship with both of them and continue to work with each of them now they’re on separate musical paths.
At this point I tend to work most closely with Ryan Lewis and I’m currently gearing up for a month long writing camp out at his private residence/studio cabin out near Leavenworth, WA. I’m super excited about it because I’ll get to work with a lot of other writers and artists during this time and most importantly I’ll be getting writing credit on any songs that go somewhere after this writing camp. That’s in a nutshell my new trajectory as a working musician and I’m incredibly excited about this opportunity to write music with so many professionals in the business…let alone with Ryan Lewis. Over the past year I’ve been flown to London, LA and Priest Lake Idaho to name a few places – all with the purpose of writing music for prominent artists and furthering songs Ryan and I have been grinding on to make masterpieces.
All of the music at this point has been a work-in-progress with the goal of getting it to that “perfect” place in order to have that “something” that will hopefully find it a home on an Artist or Group’s upcoming hit album…or to write a hit single. It’s crazy because a song could get picked up in 2 weeks or it could be years until it sees the light of day. Nevertheless, we keep working and digging for gold hoping that something really catches. The most recent single “Praying” that KE$HA release in anticipation for her soon-to-be-release album was a BIG success for Ryan. While the piano playing on the track didn’t end up actually being my handy work, I did do some work in the studio on the song and I feel it’s a sign that things are only going to get better now. Super excited.
You are a husband and father of 3 beautiful kids, ages 6, 3 & 1. How do you maintain a balance with family life and all the amazing musical opportunities that you have worked to achieve with such dedication and hard work? Do your children show musical abilities and are you doing anything special to nurture a love of music in them?
Balance!? What balance?! Kidding. It is quite a juggling act, but honestly I don’t know how I’d do anything I’m doing today without the amazing help and support of my wife. We’re both self-employed, which feels incredibly risky with 3 kids, a home-mortgage and everything else, but we do it. People ask us all the time how we do it – there really isn’t a great answer for either of us other than we just do it. I will say that it does absolutely take a village.
For instance, both our nanny’s we use throughout the week are both former Cornish Music grads. I went to school with one of them and another I met via Facebook when we were scrambling to replace a long-time nanny of ours. It’s amazing that we can support them in their music career development and they can in-turn help us pursue ours. Week to week is always changing drastically and we have to be pretty quick to make last minute plans and be as malleable as possible, but all in all we do it and in certainly helps too that both sets of parents on either side live about 30 minutes away and love their time with the grandchildren.
Do you still offer piano lessons to aspiring musicians? What advice would you give to young people who would like to pursue a career in the entertainment industry?
My advice for young people wanting to pursue a career in the entertainment industry is really pretty simple…just make up your mind what you’d like to do and try doing it. Try doing the thing that scares you the most…try doing the thing that excites you the most. Whatever the case, you’ll be surprised at what you learn. The road to life is never a straight path, but it’s who you know (people you meet and form life-long relationships with, etc.) and the risks/chances you make that challenge you in really unique ways. Everyone’s path to their success in the entertainment industry is so infinitely unique that it’s impossible to know how it’s all going to work out, but I really believe in doing what you love and trying to learn and challenge yourself as much as possible. If you have the will, make your way and with keeping a positive attitude and not focusing on living perfectly…just doing your best…you will not fail…you will become something you imagined 10 years ago or 2 months ago and be all the richer for it. It’s all worth it and the harder you work and keep yourself open to the little signs and shifts that are bound to happen, I think the easier it is.