Pianist Holly Bowling Creates Grateful Dead Tribute [INTERVIEW]
In this interview, PledgeMusic speaks with talented piano player and transcriptionist Holly Bowling about her latest work, a Grateful Dead tribute album titled Better Left Unsung, a followup to her first work transcribing Phish's music.
Guest Post from PledgeMusic News
It wasn’t long ago when Holly Bowling used her piano talents to transcribe Phish’s music into a beautiful tribute project. Fan response was so strong (and Holly’s talents so incredible) that a second project emerged after being asked to do the same with a Grateful Dead tune. Better Left Unsung is the new album, which had us curious to find out more.
When you reflect back on the full cycle of creating and releasing your last project, Distillation of a Dream, in what ways did it match your expectations and in what ways did it surprise you?
Distillation of a Dream was my first record, so I didn’t really have a lot of expectations. Its entire existence was kind of a surprise. When I was transcribing the “Tahoe Tweezer”, I never expected that it would grow into an album.
I learned so much at each step of the process along the way. Every day I was trying to do something I had never done before and oftentimes knew very little about. Creating the music and recording it was actually the part I felt comfortable with. The surprise there was how much the process of digging deeper into these songs made me fall in love with them all over again. I had kind of a renaissance with this music I thought I already knew inside and out.
Was it immediately clear that you would bring the process to a new project like this?
I guess expanding into the music of the Grateful Dead was the natural next step, as I grew up listening to the Dead and their music has always been close to my heart and part of my life. But the idea for Better Left Unsung didn’t actually come along until about a year after I recorded Distillation of a Dream.
JamBase was doing this really cool project leading up to the GD50 / Fare Thee Well shows, called “Songs Of Their Own" where they had 50 different bands each offer up their take on a Grateful Dead song. They released the videos one by one as they counted down the days to the final shows, and this album grew out of JamBase’s invitation for me to do a song as part of this series. I suggested “Eyes of the World” —somehow no one had claimed it yet — and starting playing around with my own arrangement of the song.
David Onigman, JamBase’s CEO, asked me to do a jam transcription or encouraged me to at least do a quote from a famous “Eyes” that people would recognize, even if I didn’t do the whole thing. We were on a tight time schedule and I was on the road for much of it, so I resisted initially as I didn’t think I had enough time to devote to doing it right. The “Tahoe Tweezer” took me a year to transcribe and arrange, and although my process has gotten faster as I’ve done more jam transcriptions, it’s still a huge investment of time.
Add to that, I’m somewhat of a perfectionist and want to keep making changes to the arrangement over and over again until I’m really happy with it. There are so many possibilities and permutations to explore before you get it right. Plus, even once the arrangement itself is done, learning it and becoming comfortable enough with the notes and the physical part of playing the music that you can really have the freedom to put emotion and meaning into it takes time as well — time to learn it, and practice it, and then time for it to settle before its really in your fingers and a part of you.
For these reasons, it seemed like a full jam transcription was out of the question, but I figured I could just do a small segment maybe. So I asked a friend who knows the Dead’s catalog inside and out for his top five “Eyes". I think 6/18/74 was the second one I listened to and I immediately said, “This is the one”. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do just a part of it and leave the rest. I dove into the music headlong and pretty much didn’t come up for air until it was finished. That arrangement ended up being the catalyst for this album. I just fell in love with the way the Dead’s music translated to solo piano, and I loved the different range of emotional expression it opened up in my performances.
Is that the normal way you work, where you said you didn’t come up for air until you’ve finished? What’s the longest you’ve ever worked in one sitting on a project?
I work all kinds of different ways, mostly out of necessity. It’s very easy for me to get completely immersed in a project and want to work on it nonstop for days on end. There’s an intense headspace that comes from letting myself get really deep in a project without distractions for a few days on end; it creates a space for ideas to make their way to the surface that wouldn’t have seen the light of day otherwise, and there’s a good trajectory to the work that comes out of sessions like that.
Having time like that is a luxury though, and in reality it’s not always possible. So I end up working on things in bits and pieces whenever I can carve out some time – on planes, or at night when everyone else is asleep. I have no idea what the longest I’ve ever worked on a project in one sitting is. I tend to lose track of time completely when I get really into a project and kind of disconnect from reality a little bit.
What is the emotion or thrill like when you finally finish composing a piece like this?
I think maybe the most exciting moment in the process, even more than performing the finished work and feeling the momentum of the music when it just flows, is the first time it takes shape enough to hear the all the pieces start to come together — when it’s not done, but I can see it start coming into focus. It’s the first glimpse of what all those hours have gone into and what its going to become, and that’s incredibly motivating.
That’s good, because when the arranging process starts to wrap up, that’s when the work of practicing begins, which is a whole additional undertaking in itself. Even when I have the finished score in front of me and it’s tempting to say, "Yay, I’m done!” Then I remember, “Oh right, I still have to learn how to play this thing”. I’m finished, but I haven’t even really started.