A Word with Kareem Powell
By Joleen Knowling-Norman
Reflections in Black and White
JO: I love the title of the CD. How did you come up with it?
Kareem: While I was practicing the piano, I happened to look down and see the reflection of my hands on the keys.
JO: How did this project come about?
Kareem: My concept of being a professional musician has always been centered around recording, touring, and performance. While I had been playing with different bands and working as an accompanist and choir director, I knew that none of those alone would pave a road for my working and touring with major artists. To reach that level, I needed to shop around something that showed a taste of my musical abilities. I needed my own product!
It’s nice to have the idea, but the actual execution was more than I counted on. Recording costs money and with my chief sources of income being from part-time and contract work, that meant a shoe-string budget. I even took a loan out against my car! It was well worth it. I learned so much.
Time, money, and lack of experience were all factors, so I made it a priority to keep everything as simple as I could. The entire album is strictly solo piano with every track either an original compositions or an arrangement of a public domain songs. Where genre is concerned, I decided against either jazz or classical. The competition for either is overwhelming, cut-throat, and not the direction I was headed. With my personal stake in this so high, I wanted to maximize the opportunity and set myself apart in an extremely crowded field.
As reluctant as I was to embrace the New Age title, I knew that was my best opening. It provided a clearer route to my goal of breaking into recording and session work. I knew I could create an individual “sound” that others could possibly hear and imagine being on their projects.
Using an acoustic piano was extremely important to me, not only in terms of artistic sound quality, but legitimacy to myself. Just to make it clear, I understand why others prefer electronic pianos. They’re mobile. They don’t have to be tuned. They can be plugged directly into the sound system. They can imitate a range of other instruments. They can loop, sequence, and a bunch of stuff I don’t know. A particularly lazy pianist can get around playing in other keys by pressing a button.
My background and training is as a pianist, not a keyboard player. Once it involves buttons, switches, a programming book, or more than three pedals, you’re getting away from my core as a musician. There is also the visual aspect. I have noticed a tremendous difference in how people respond to me after I’ve played an acoustic versus an electronic piano.
I better stop. I’ll talk about this all day!
JO: Now that the recording is released, how does it feel to have fans creating playlists with your music all over the world? I hear that your music is even being played in Austria…
Kareem: The Digital Age is something else, isn’t it? It’s both amazing and humbling that it is easier than ever to distribute your music all over the world. Where the challenge before was distribution, the new challenge is in finding ways to cut through a highly-saturated market. More musicians than ever are pushing their music out there and the danger is in becoming yet another one jumping up and down screaming “HERE! HERE! LOOK AT ME!!!”
At the same time, you have to find places where the fans are. Right now, I’m being carried on Pandora, Woodroot Radio in Austria, SoloPiano.com, and Sky.Fm Solo Piano Radio. Distributing through CD Baby has been particularly useful in getting my music out to other digital platforms such as iTunes and Spotify. It’s out there and available. The challenge is getting people to remember your name! As you can see, I focused primarily on internet stations. Perhaps I’ll figure out terrestrial radio next…
JO: How did you get into music?
Kareem: I was about five when I started. My older sister was taking piano lessons and I got extremely jealous... and probably very whiny. At the time, there were five other children in the house and my parents likely wanted a reprieve. I took piano lessons for a few months before my teacher moved and then didn’t have another one until I went to college! Obviously, I hadn’t stopped playing the piano.
JO: So your sister inspired you?
Kareem: That won’t see print, will it? I don’t want it to go to her head…
JO: Have there been any significant mentors or role models along the way?
Kareem: Absolutely! A lot of them. There is Paul Murachanian, from whom I took both clarinet and saxophone for nine years and was constantly pulling together instrumental ensembles. My high school choir director Malana Turner went out of her way to provide opportunities to grow.
One of my greatest influences was Dr. Maria Thompson Corley, my piano instructor at Florida A&M University. That woman put me through my paces both at the piano and away from it. Literally. I had to walk a mile off-campus to the Florida State University music library to do research for her legendary take-home exams. She did a lot to inform me and other students about what it takes to be a professional musician and perform at that level.
Getting away from just people I know, I also looked at the career of Jim Brickman. In terms of mainstream music, he’s an excellent model in maintaining his identity as a pianist and songwriter even while collaborating with the likes of Dave Koz, Martina McBride, Lady Antebellum, and all these other artists. One of my goals is to be one of those pianists so iconic that a listener will be able to pick me out just from the sound.
JO: How do you feel about “Reflections in Black and White” right now? Is it doing pretty well?
Kareem: It has exceeded my expectations! I had made the decision at the beginning that this was going to be a starting point, regardless of how it sold. The project served as a foundation to field further opportunities and build my career. It hasn’t been easy, but it has been rewarding.
JO: How so?
Kareem: It’s an entirely new learning curve that comes with it many opportunities to mess up. It sounds cliché, but mistakes teach you more than getting it right. In the process, I’ve learned a lot about the recording process, promotion, and marketing. (I still consider myself to know only slightly more than nothing, however.) It has shown me which directions I can grow and invest my time as an artist and businessman. The feedback has been tremendous and getting an endorsement from writer/director/producer Reginald Hudlin didn’t hurt either!
JO: Academy Award nominee Reginald Hudlin?
Kareem: Boomerang, Bebe’s Kids, Black Panther, The Boondocks, Django Unchained… Yep. That guy. He even mentioned it on his website! He said it passed the “play in the car” test. I’ll take it! It sounds much better than if he hurled it out of the window, ran it over, and then backed back over it again to make sure it was completely pulverized, along with the rest of my hopes and dreams…
JO: You’re melodramatic, aren’t you?
Kareem: How so?
JO: SO… What have you been up to lately?
Kareem: My big story is that I got to play the Grand Ole Opry House on September 18th.
JO: The Grand Ole Opry? Nashville?
Kareem: Technically, it was the Tuesday Night Opry, but yes… Same venue!
JO: How did you get to the Grand Ole Opry House?
Kareem: Twitter! It was a fluke and an awesome example of serendipity or God’s grace.
A little over year ago, I was looking into Nashville. Twitter suggested a country singer/songwriter by the name of Jimmy Wayne. I knew nothing about him or his music, but I clicked “Follow” anyway. Glad I did!
The man has a powerful and inspiring story. Here is the Cliff Notes version: His mother was in and out of jail. Jimmy and his sister were in and out of foster care. When he was a teenager, his stepfather dragged Jimmy and his mother all over the country trying to escape from the law. Jimmy was dumped at the bus station at gunpoint and left on his own. While he was homeless an older couple took him in and housed/parented him enough so he could finish high school and go to college. He’s dedicated his life and music to advocating for kids who have been in his position.
Anyway, Jimmy and I started tweeting back and forth at some point. He announced this “Spotlight Artist of the Week” feature on his website, so I sent in a link to a YouTube video I’d done of “Take It Away” from my album. It was selected and he said to me in his Appalachian drawl “You know, we should do the Opry together.” I figured that was the last time I’d hear anything. That was the beginning of August.
On September 13th, he called me up and asked me to accompany him on the Tuesday Night Opry on a not-yet-released song he wrote with Pat Alger called “How Jesus Felt.” (Pat Alger also co-wrote “The Thunder Rolls” aka the biggest country song ever.) It was only going to be me on the piano and him. I think I said yes before he even finished asking…
The entire situation was definitely intimidating. I was on one of the world’s most famous stages with a national artist in front of 4400 people and being broadcast by WSM Radio to countless more people all over the country. Also performing the same program was Lorrie Morgan, a freshly-shaven Kellie Pickler, and Dierks Bentley. Jimmy was a pro and the performance came together exceptionally well. The coup de grace was when the Opry House raised its lights to show the audience applauding on their feet. I was all done after that.
JO: Wow! So what happens next?
Kareem: As far as a definitive follow-up, I cannot say. I’m pretty sure Jimmy and I will be working together again at some point. (We played The Ryman Auditorium on December 11.)
In the meantime, I’ve been working on tightening up my music-writing and piano. Nashville is a highly-addictive place for a musician and I’ve been making every excuse I can to get there as much as possible and meet people! My goal remains to break into the major recording and touring circuit, which means I need to make some new friends and become a part of the community. The most intimidating part is the sheer amount of stuff I don’t know. Well… and bills don’t pay themselves.
Regardless, another album is certainly in the works. 2013 is set to be an exciting year!
JO: I agree! JO Magazine congratulates you on your start and wishes you much success in this new direction. Thank you for speaking to me!
Kareem: Thank you! This looks like it is going to be a year of growth for both of us! I wish JO Magazine nothing but the best. Let’s go places!