David Lanz

by Carl Wiser

"New Age" music became a thing in the late '80s, with the likes of Kenny G and Yanni selling oodles of albums and earning airplay on MTV's mellow cousin, VH1. Kenny G even landed a Top 5 hit on the Hot 100: "Songbird."

In 1987, the Grammys introduced the Best New Age Album award, and a year later Billboard started a New Age Albums chart. The first #1 was Cristofori's Dream by the piano composer David Lanz. The title song is a landmark of the genre, with over 2 million views on YouTube.

We don't feature piano composers very often on Songfacts, but Lanz has some edifying insights into his compositions, and is one of the few people who can dissect the "New Age" trend in popular music. Turns out, Clive Davis had something to do with it.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): What was going on in the late '80s and '90s that made your music so popular, along with artists like Enya, Yanni and Kenny G?

David Lanz: Ok... let me try and set the stage here. This was at first, a more underground musical movement in Japan, Europe and in the US (primarily on the West Coast). Both electronic, starting with groups like Tangerine Dream back in the '70s, Kitaro and before him Tomita in Japan, and of course the mostly acoustic music from Windham Hill in Southern California. Artists like pianist George Winston and guitarist Will Ackerman... deemed "hot tub music" :-)

At the same time, there was a growing interest in yoga, eastern religions, meditation and boomers looking for a different way to relate to high-stress lifestyles. Listening to a more relaxing, at times experimental music which had elements of folk, jazz, Eastern classical music and even nature sounds, started to become more common.

Much of this music was instrumental, non-threatening, not like hardcore jazz might have been viewed, and it filled the space soft rock was also occupying at the time. At first, this was not mainstream, and pretty much under the radar, so to speak.

Enter Clive Davis, who put his hand on Kenny G's shoulder, and saw him as the very commercial answer to this non-threatening, jazz-tinged easy listening music.

I knew Kenny, actually worked with him when he was just a local player in Seattle named Kenny Gorlick, and he gets a lot of heat as a hack musician, but in reality, he is really a great player who just went off in a different direction than most jazz players.

Kenny went very mainstream and Enya worked both sides of the fence. Her fans were those who liked softer vocals, and you could also meditate to her music, so it filled the void for accessible spiritual music that was also commercial. Being a singer, her appeal was much more far-reaching than much of the strictly instrumental music.

Yanni was doing so in the late '80s, but when he teamed up with Linda Evans and showed up on Oprah, mainstream women saw this as soooo romantic and his sales went through the roof. He also backed it up with one of the first major PBS music specials on TV and his Greek heritage and his show set in the Acropolis played well with the mainstream viewers at the time.

I was fortunate at the time to be with a small, but aggressive label, Narada, who got behind me. One of the things that helped launch me at radio was my cover version of Procol Harum's massive hit, A Whiter Shade of Pale. I worked with Matthew Fisher, Procol Harum's original organist and one of the writers of the song. I always felt that this gave my version a certain legitimate aire. This song resonated well with the boomers, and my version fit into the instrumental radio format at the time.

Once you find a way to relate and introduce yourself to a larger audience, you have a better chance of success. This was a part of that puzzle for me.

Songfacts: What are your thoughts on the moniker "New Age"?

David: Not a very good musical term. More of a lifestyle term. I prefer "classical crossover" for most of what I compose. Or what I jokingly refer to as "Heavy Mellow" ;-)

Songfacts: How do you typically compose a song?

David: Each piece has it's own beginning. Either as music for music's sake where the song develops over time through improv and exploration, or occasionally I start with a more definite musical idea in mind or even a title. This is how I wrote my most well known piece, "Cristofori's Dream."

Songfacts: Please describe the inspiration and composition of a few of your specific songs.

David: Speaking of Cristofori's Dream, this song was inspired by reading a book about the piano where I discovered for the first time the name and story of the inventor of the piano: Cristofori.

This was a magic moment for me, and the title, "Cristofori's Dream," struck me right away! I wanted this piece to sound somewhat classical and also a bit like a romantic Italian movie theme (Cristofoi was Italian). This piece set the stage for my career as it became the very first #1 charting album on Billboard magazine in its genre, and stayed at #1 for six months!

On my latest album, Norwegian Rain, I was inspired by time spent with my Norwegian wife, Kristin Amarie, who is also a musical artist, and her family when were visiting in Norway. Several of the titles were directly influenced by the Norwegian landscape and Nordic mythology, "Fjord Spring" and "Troll-dans" (troll dance) in particular.

Last year Kristin and I released Silhouettes of Love, an album inspired by our very romantic take on love and our relationship in particular. I know this is not a very original theme, but this was music written clearly from the heart and was reviewed as "A Romantic Masterpiece." Showing that when music has a clear intention it can be very impactful!

Songfacts: What are some specific musical techniques you employ and on what passages can we hear them?

David: Interesting question. My left-hand repeated patterns often resemble what a guitar player might play when accompanying a vocal. My right hand alternatively focuses for the most part on melody, or what a singer might be heard singing. In this way, most of my music has a pulse/rhythm, and a strong melodic element, much like a pop song. Not as ambient as much of what is referred to as New Age music.

An example of this can be found on a song deemed to be one of the first New Age hit singles, "Behind the Waterfall" from the album Natural States with guitarist Paul Speer. Here my left hand repeated pattern was played on a moog-style synth, and the right-hand melody was performed on a Celtic-sounding harp patch played on a Yamaha DX-7 keyboard.

You also might refer to my approach in this way: The left hand performs what a band's
rhythm section might provide - bass and a groove - and the right hand is the lead singer.

You can hear this on many of my original pieces. Maybe even more easily heard, for example, on my cover of George Harrison's lovely song "Here Comes the Sun."

Songfacts: What is the audience for the music you make?

David: I obviously have a great number of pianists listening and Hal Leonard has produced a great number of songbooks of my compositions, so they are also playing my pieces as well. The Baby Boomers and their children make up a good part of my listeners as well. My popularity mushroomed in the late 1980s and '90s, and I sold several million records. The Boomers really embraced my style of music and their children have come along for the ride as well;-)

Also a lot of piano teachers and their flocks of kids have taken to my music.

Songfacts: What are some hit songs that have impressed you with their composition?

David: Oh my. Well, the English Invasion period with The Beatles and The Kinks writing so many great hooky songs really inspired me as a young musician. I have covered their music as well as Procol Harum's AWSOP and the Moody Blues "Nights in White Satin."

Pop songwriters like Burt Bacharach, Henry Mancini, Jimmy Webb, Brian Wilson to name a few, I also found great inspiration from as I was developing my own songwriter skills. A list of songs would be almost endless as that era of music produced so much great material!

November 10, 2016.
Get more at davidlanz.com.

More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 1

  • David from Salt Lake City, UtahOne of the most beautiful and yes, haunting songs I have ever heard. My wife and I were lying n the bed late at night shortly after we were married when this song came on the local smooth jazz station. We were immediately transfixed and though it was late, we called the station and the DJ actually answered the phone and told us what it was. My piano playing kids have both played this song at recitals. Nice work, David Lanz!
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