Asbury Park composer-pianist David Ross Lawn’s latest EP, “Nocturnes,” is a four-song dive into the silence of solitude to find light within the darkness of the COVID-19 pandemic. PHOTO BY VANESSA MAESTRI
Nocturnes, compositions that evoke and interpret feelings of the night, have been created by such beloved composers as Satie, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Debussy, and Chopin. Within the Asbury Park music scene, that list now also includes David Ross Lawn, whose third solo piano EP, the four-song “Nocturnes,” is a creative response to the COVID-19 pandemic. With the world still on pause, the Asbury-based artist aims to allow the listener to dive deep into the silence of solitude, to find light when all else feels dark.
A composer and performer of contemporary vocal and instrumental music with a master’s degree from Westminster Choir College in Princeton. David’s work has been featured on national television and in high-fashion media. His 2018 debut EP, “Songs of the Sun" released on the Swedish indie Kning Disk, can be heard on television in his native Scotland, as well as in a variety of advertising. Also preceding “Nocturnes” is the 2020 holiday collection, ‘Contemplative Christmas”; a 2020 collaboration with fellow Asbury artist Blaise on a sonic stripping of the singer-songwriter’s 2018 LP, “Velvet Noir,” and a variety of award-winning choral works published by GIA Publications.
David and Blaise follow-up their album with a “stripped” version of the latter’s latest single, “Not for Sale.”
Enjoy the following chat with David about his rewarding international music journey.
Where are you originally from, and what brought you to Asbury Park, when, and why?
I originally hail from a small village by the West Coast of Scotland. I came over to the States in 2015 to pursue a master’s degree in music theory & composition at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, and upon graduation I moved into Asbury Park to live and work freelance in music and visual arts.
How do you feel about the way Asbury Park has responded to your music, which by scene standards is unique?
I enjoy being able to perform in whatever medium I want to in Asbury Park: whether in classical piano recitals, opera/musical theater concerts, or playing ambient piano improvisations for crystal stores and coffee shops. The city offers a place for musicians of all abilities and aesthetics to perform and explore, and I’ve found any time I perform that there is a certain ‘welcome’ feeling that is special.
David Ross Lawn’s “Nocturnes” EP was influenced by Chopin, among other composers of “nocturnes,” which are compositions influenced by night. PHOTO BY LIAM FRANK
How do you identify sexually, and did that influence your decision to settle in Asbury?
I don’t think my sexuality or preferences have any initial influence, but in terms of LGBTQ+ representation: Asbury Park is a place where I feel safe and welcomed.
Has your sexuality influenced your music?
There are many forms of influence for my musical output, but my sexuality has no part of it. I am very proud to be an individualist and creative, and I am bold with my queerness, for sure. But that is more a visual aspect to me rather than anything to do with my music.
A native of Scotland, David Ross Lawn has a master’s degree in music composition & theory from Westminster Choir College in Princeton. PHOTO BY VANESSA MAESTRI
Did studying in Aberdeen and Princeton shape your music and why?
Certainly! My time spent ’training’ in the field of composition, theory and performance of my instrument has really helped me to embrace and understand what I do on a lot of levels. I always say that I don’t think music school is essential for any musician: my stance -- and what I tell my students -- is that it depends on what it is they feel they want and need, and their goals with an instrument or direction. For me, I’m very interested, invested and inspired by music of the baroque, classical, romantic and 20th century: and to perform pieces by such composers of the era requires a certain kind-of approach. Having training for years in those worlds helped me to understand and unlock that kind-of influence in what I create myself. The master’s degree in composition & theory also presented me with a ’toolbox’ of abilities that I can bring out and employ when I want to, such as using software to create my own sheet music, writing advanced orchestration with the goal of film/TV scoring, understanding classical voice leading, counterpoint, etc. It basically allows me to ‘be able to’ achieve what my brain and heart wants to create musically.
What and who inspired the composing and production approach you took to ‘Nocturnes,’ and how is that approach different from your 2018 debut EP, ‘Songs of the Sun’?
With the current pandemic still putting us all at risk and keeping many of us from our work, I decided to use the isolation as a form of inspiration for the ‘Nocturnes.’ Since nocturnes are historically pieces dedicated to ’the night time,’ I figured this would be a good concept for me to channel in my release. These are pieces that are specifically composed with the pandemic in mind: pictorial elements of the pandemic that are cinematically vivid in my head being set to music.
How do each of the four nocturnes — ‘Luna,’ ‘Vigil,’ ‘Valerian,’ and ‘Onward’ — evoke and interpret feelings of night?
Each piece was written with the intention of ‘moments’ I’ve felt during the pandemic. ‘Luna,’ meaning ‘moon,’ is the idea of taking a night time walk alone, when the rest of the world is asleep. I found myself doing this a lot at the beginning of the lockdown when I felt the most safe to get some fresh air. The melody is something that, to me, has a certain sense of comfort in the night time, and yet still the yearning for normalcy to return. It’s a piece of ‘beauty’ but shrouded in the dark: waiting for something to return.
‘Vigil,’ the second track, is a little more on the dark side of my outlook. It is a scene in my mind of someone losing a loved one to the pandemic. It starts with an incredibly simple motif, building one note each time until bursting into something more dramatic. I think of ‘Vigil’ as a church scene: somebody on their knees, lost and crying for help. Not the happiest scene by any means, but this time is pretty bleak.
‘Valerian’ is a piece that has a lot of movement in it: It makes me think of running. I am sure everyone has felt the urge to run and not stop, just for a while: to shake them of this isolation. That’s what this piece is dedicated to.
And finally ‘Onward’ is a piece to send the listener off with something contemplative. Something that isn’t necessarily happy nor sad, but just a gentle push forward. Almost like a message of ‘everything is going to be OK.’ I was toying with titling the final track that, but decided against it.
What impact and catharsis did composing and performing these songs have on your solitude?
It’s interesting because my relationship with the piano and my music has always been a form of its own communication between me and myself. If anything, creating and releasing this album is a moment of excitement: and a moment to connect with the people who enjoy my music. I’m really glad there’s now a bit of an audience for it: I hope that my music can reach these people and give them a moment with me -- virtually, of course!
David Ross’ Lawn’s contemplative piano music also is featured on his 2018 solo debut EP, “Songs of the Sun," released on the Swedish indie Kning Disk, which also is the distributor of the new “Nocturnes” EP. PHOTO BY VANESSA MAESTRI
How do you expect and hope the EP will impact listeners’ solitude and isolation?
I hope that it can serve as a moment for contemplation during their time listening. I expect it to hit some listeners in an emotional way, as the pieces are not by any means ‘happy,’ but my music is oftentimes more on the contemplative, emotive side!
What and who else inspired the EP’s songs, how and why?
In creating this EP, I found myself listening to a lot of other composers from different eras and their approaches to their own nocturnes. Chopin, for example, is one of my favorite composers, and his nocturnes are iconic: played across the world on a daily basis by players of many ability ranges. I have been studying a number of his nocturnes as a performer for the last few years, playing my way through the book of them. They have certainly had an influential element in my own creations.
How did you like working with recording-mixing engineer Connor Hanson , why, and had you worked with him before?
Connor recently became a closer friend of mine, and I knew I wanted to work with him on my next EP as anything he records is always of excellent quality. I trust him as a person, as well as an artist/engineer, and admire his work ethics. As an introverted composer, I optimally work with other similarly-minded creatives who feel like they can work in a relaxed, quiet atmosphere. Recording with Connor was exactly the environment that I work best in. We actually did every piece in one take, using that ‘one take’ as the final moment for mastering. I think that in itself is a good nod to Connor’s ability to work with an artist and capture what needs to be captured.
What is The Palaia Theatre in Ocean Grove, why did you want to record there, and have you recorded there before?
The Palaia Theatre is part of the Jersey Shore Arts Center in Ocean Grove New Jersey. I teach in one of the rooms of this place, and it has such a beautiful energy in the building. I recorded there as it is safe to remain socially distant with recording, and I have the keys to the building as I teach out of there. There was a storm happening outside during the recording, and it made for some glorious ambient sound during the recordings. This was my first time recording a release in the theater, but I use the space regularly to film YouTube videos and audition recordings.
How else will you be promoting ‘Nocturnes’?
A lot of my audience comes these days from the app TikTok, where I have grown to around 56,000 followers. I do regular livestreams there playing piano improvisations and renditions. I always make a point to remind my audience of the release. I think that a lot of people are already excited about it being online, as I play songs from it often on the livestreams. I’m thankful to have grown this audience during the pandemic via my video content.
How did you connect with the Swedish indie Kning Disk for ‘Songs of the Sun,’ and what impact did the label have on your career?
I found Kning Disk for my initial release, ‘Songs of the Sun,’ and decided to digitally distribute with them again for this EP, as they are great for helping me with playlisting and placing my music into new arenas. When it comes to solo piano music, I aim for these projects to reach people around the world: those who teach yoga classes, short film directors, advertising, bloggers, etc. By working with a small label, I’ve managed to reach these kinds of audiences, and I continue to get emails from people wanting to use the music for their own projects.
You have been commissioned to compose for live performance and television productions and commercials, which also have featured your recordings. Out of all those opportunities, which has meant the most to you and why?
That’s correct! I’m really excited whenever I get a cool opportunity to create for something with a large audience. I’d say my most recent ‘big one’ was getting my music on one of my favorite blog teams’ design videos. They’re called 1924US, and they have such a beautiful aesthetic. To be able to write music for them is huge for me as I’ve been following them online for many years.
You actively post on YouTube, improvised contemplative piano renditions of your favorite artists, such as British-Filipino singer-songwriter Beabadoobee, American singer-songwriters Clairo and mxmtoon, the L.A. rock duo Best Coast, the L.A. electronic-pop trio Muna, and the rock bands Taking Back Sunday and Bombay Bicycle Club. Have any of the acts responded to your interpretations?
I have a very long list of artists that have reposted my renditions! For those interested, go to my ‘Liked Tweets’ and scroll down!
I’ve had such a great time posting piano renditions of songs -- and oftentimes entire albums -- that I like. I decided to start doing this more regularly at the beginning of the lockdown in March, and I’ve already bypassed 4,000 subscribers. Very happy to be growing on that platform.
Bob Makin has been a New Jersey music writer for 40 years and is a former managing editor of The Aquarian Weekly, which launched this column in 1988. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. And like Makin Waves on Facebook.