A few moments with Tara O’Brien, “Unchained”

Can you give us a little background information about yourself as a performer?

            Of course! I’ve been playing piano since the age of 4. Let me preface all of this with the following story:

It all started when I would spend my afternoons at my neighbor’s house. She was a voice coach and I would watch every lesson as she would play the piano, do vocal exercises, and have her vocalists sing. As she would walk her students out the door and greet the following, I would run the piano to imitate the warm-up exercises she would give her students. I did this for about 6 months until my neighbor finally went up to my mom to let her know she needed to get me into piano lessons. My mom was baffled hearing this and believed there was truly a mistake. Nonetheless, my mom saved up $20 bills from all her extra hours in French tutoring lessons until she gained enough to buy a second hand piano. Long story short, I’ve never stopped playing since…!

That’s how it all began… and then I continued taking lessons with several teachers. My first teacher actually scared me and I remember picturing my lessons as being dark. All I would do is cry before heading into those lessons. Luckily, my mom stopped me from going to those lessons while looking for another teacher. She then found “the one.” I say that now with hindsight because I couldn’t speak more highly of her: “Edith” … an angel sent from heaven. Although I truly believe I’m meant to play and been given this “gift” for a reason, I know Edith has had the biggest impact a teacher can have on a student. I saw her passion for piano and music. The love she had for playing transpired through every fiber and pore she had… it just made me want to play even more, despite the innate obsession and fasciation I had with the piano to begin with.

Honestly, I should tell you about the cusp moment where I had to choose between piano and ballet. I grew up playing both simultaneously, but there came a point, at age 14, where I was told I had to make a choice between the two. Financially, my mom was basically raising my brother and I alone and financing both loves was no longer possible. I was faced with the following questions: “Which one can you no live without?”  Looking at it from that standpoint, it was undeniable… piano was my breathe… my air… my everything… my escape… my therapy… I literally couldn’t live without piano…

I continued to learn from several teachers, all the way through college… And I still continue to learn until this day. I believe you’re never done learning!

Hopefully I answered the question! I think it’s more “my life as a musician” because I don’t perform a ton. I’ve been teaching since I’m 14 and my life revolves around kids, piano, and making my own music. Maybe one day, when I work less, I’ll play and perform more!

 

You have just released your fourth album, Unchained. What process did you employ from the initial germ of thought about music to recording it?

            Oh man… Unchained… What a project and journey it has been… I started Unchained in 2010 and was still in college, Chapman University, at the time.  I remember coming back home and starting to write the piece “Unchained.”

This is personal but all my music is personal and hiding where it all stems from would defy the purpose of sharing…  During my last semester of college, things started falling apart at home (in the Bay Area, more specifically Marin). My father began using drugs (as he had done in the past) and it escalated to the point where my childhood home became a drug addict platform. After graduating from college, I came home and saw my dad spiral down in the world of drugs… I became more and more defensive and refused to overlook the way he had treated my mother and brother all these years.  He had always been an alcoholic and physically and emotionally abused both my mom and brother. Ever since the day I refused to accept that behavior, and felt the role to protect my brother and mother, anger began to grow towards my father. That’s when I started writing the piece “Unchained.” It felt so dark as I began to compose it, but helped be relieve so much pain I was withholding. It took a couple months to complete (the piano version) before I swore to myself that this was one of my greater compositions, and that I would orchestrate it and push myself beyond what I had done before.

The journey of Unchained was about 5 years long. It took my at least 4 years to write and come up with all the pieces I wanted for the album. I took some pieces that I had written in 2010 and started orchestrating them in 2012 and 2013. This is the first album where I took my time and didn’t rush the process. Once all the pieces were composed and completed, that’s where I started looking for a studio that would be able to record with live artists. After finding Fantasy Studios, the recording process began January 1st 2015 … way to start that year, right!? I spent 16 hours (over two days), 10 the first day, and 6 the next, laying down all the piano tracks… I was drained! But then the real fun began! One by one, the musicians would come in and record their parts over the piano tracks. Adding the 15 other instruments took about 2 months. We then moved to the editing, mixing, and finally, mastering! The album was finally done and released on June 30th 2015 =))

What is your favorite composition on Unchained?

Trying to choose between the 24 pieces on the album Unchained is nearly impossible… Of all my albums, I’ve always had my top 2 or 3 favorites… Well, on this one… honestly!?!?! With the exception of one piece, I could listen to all of them 24/7!!! I’m basically obsessed with my entire album…!

BUUUUUUT, if you must REALLY know… oh my gosh… ok. This is so hard…. Let me pick my ALL TIME FAVORITE(S)??? (still, this is so unfair! I could pick them all!!!!)

Ok. I’m going to go with my top 7

      1. Unchained: both Orchestrated & Piano Solo
      2. A Dark Waltz: both Orchestrated and Piano
      3. Mesmerizing: orchestrated & piano solo – because it’s addicting to play.
      4. The Storm: orchestrated especially, because it’s the biggest orchestration I’ve written for (15 instruments) so I’m very proud
      5. Hearts on Fire: this is a solo piano piece. It was the last piece to make it onto Unchained. Originally, it was supposed to be another piece but I fell in love and wrote this piece, hence the title “Heart of Fire” …. I just felt like my heart was burning in flames from how in love I was feeling with the person I had just met. This piece is addicting to play…
      6. Hurting: both piano and orchestrated versions… The piano version feels so good to play but the orchestrated version adds that intensity that the piano can’t… I’m addicted to this piece as well… I could listen to this one on a loop.
      7. A Maelstrom of Notes and seriously all my other solo piano pieces… I just can’t speak more highly of them… As a musician and composer, playing the pieces on this album just feeds my addiction and nurtures my need for playing…

Sorry I couldn’t narrow it down more!!! I’m just so in love with my fourth album!

Which musicians possess the greatest influences to your overall sound? Have these influences changed from your debut Cascade to Unchained?

            All the classic composers have had the biggest impact on my music. I’ve been obsessed with classical ever since I could remember. Composers such as Chopin, Beethoven, Bach, Liszt, Rachmaninoff are probably my top guys… and I’m a romantic at heart so I definitely mix in those emotions into my compositions.

I also love Yann Tiersen and Ludovico Einaudi and hope my music becomes as prevalent in movies as theirs is.

 

While an artist’s font of influences may change over time, one thing we’ve noticed is that a musician continually grows and changes. How has your music evolved since Cascade or even since My Love for You?

I have definitely grown as a musician since my first album Cascade. I feel my pieces have gained more structure and depth as well as difficulty. Of course the level of difficulty doesn’t always resonate more in people, but as a musician, it’s fun to see my technique evolve.

And there’s also the undeniable fact that I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone of piano and added all these orchestral instruments in my fourth album Unchained. I had never written for other instruments until this album. It’s funny though because I feel my orchestration isn’t the “normal” way… meaning, I’ve composed in the perspective of a pianist’s mind. I definitely feel I have a lot more growth to do in the orchestral world but one must start somewhere!

 

How can listeners hear samples of your music?

            The easiest way to hear my music would be Spotify since it’s free for the listener and my entire albums are available. Actually, I just noticed my 3rd album My Love for you, isn’t there. That will be taken care of soon! So yes, Spotify, iTunes, or Pandora are the best ways to hear my music. I also have YouTube versions of many (older) pieces. I’ve been more secretive and saving the pieces from Unchained so you’ll find less of those pieces on YouTube.

 

How does your approach to music change when you put on your different hats (as a musician, as an instructor)?

            Oh man that’s a great question… well honestly I don’t perform much as a musician. The biggest performances are at my student’s recital (or rather, I should say, my music school’s recitals…). I’ve given several concerts but have been mainly concentrating on growing my music school. I currently have 14 music teacher teachers working for me… anyway…!

My approach to music when I put on my different hats… Well, I am always trying to better myself as a musician and am always pushing myself to learn new classical pieces. I’m obsessed with classical and have a weekly craving for learning from the great composers (like the ones I mentioned above) I can never learn enough. The more I learn and gain in my classical repertoire, the more I can give to my students.

That’s where my hat changes when I teach. I never impose my love of classical on my students. Honestly, the age range of my students is from 3 to 82 years old… All students learn differently but my main purpose in life is to share and pass on my love for piano to all those I teach. Of course I would love for all my students to play classical because that’s what I feel is the hardest and what makes you the strongest pianist… but I never impose. When they start to be older, and that the love for piano has already been instilled, I test the waters and see if classical music is something they’re be interested in trying. By the time my students are teens, they’ve learned to read music and have developed an excellent ear. It’s around that age that I’ve noticed students desire play more challenging pieces (“harder music with notes”).

When my instructor cap comes on, I am the most passionate (well, that doesn’t change from my musician side!) and most understanding teacher there is. I adapt and mold myself to the student in order to grow the music seed they have in them. I am here to water, grow and nurture it to become the most beautiful music flower it can be! All flowers have their own distinctive appearance and charm… it’s the same for music. We’re all unique and I hope I can help develop and grow that uniqueness in every one of my students.

 

What other events, music, and matters does the rest of 2016 hold for you?

            To date, I can only think of one event: December Teacher Concert. I own a music school: Cascade Melody School of Music, and in December, I will be gathering all our talented teachers to perform for all our students, as well as friends and family.

I would love to do another concert, but my time and energy has been consumed running and growing my music school.

 

What has been more of a boon for you – traditional word of mouth meeting or online (Soundcloud/Facebook) interactions? Generally, what has the role of the internet been for you as a performer?

            I have never been a big promoter for my own music. It used to be a lot harder for me to tell people how many albums I have, that I’m on iTunes, Spotify, and Pandora… I didn’t even tell people I had released my first album Cascade!! IBut now I explode of passion when I talk about my music and people can only be excited when they hear about it!

Honestly though, the biggest promotion has been spotify and Pandora… I’ve gotten emails from people all around the world telling me how much they love my music, or how it has affected them… My favorite emails are those where people ask where to find the sheet music for the pieces off my albums. It’s the biggest honor to receive any kind of emails of that nature.

 

Finally, do you have anything else that you would like to mention about yourself, your music, or anything else to our readers at NeuFutur?

            Yes, one fun fact: I have the same birthday as Mozart (January 27th) … He’s a little older than I am though… haha

 

Tara O’Brien – Unchained

Unchained is the fourth album by Tara O’Brien. The release begins with Holiday Love, a tremendously dense and detailed composition that has O’Brien weave a narrative as alluring as that created by any vocal-heavy artist. The tender piano compositions that comprise the effort will immediately pique listeners’ interests, keeping them on the edges of their seats. On Cloud 9 is a track that stands up to repeat listening. Continue reading “Tara O’Brien – Unchained”