We spoke with Fiona Joy Hawkins about the drama of the black keys, getting rid of mental noise, feeling physically ill from emotion, why music should transcend intellectual assessment and the aural properties of cicadas.
Fortunately, we are all on the same wavelength, so improvisation, where you listen and respond to each other, is an important part of our performance.
It’s great to be able to talk with you — I previously spoke with Jeff Oster and William Ackerman and was hoping to connect with more members of your ensemble, FLOW. Seeing this group play at Carnegie Hall was a memorable part of last year for me. What was the preparation like to bring this relatively unusual collaboration to a live audience?
Fiona Joy Hawkins
I’m pleased you enjoyed the concert! Playing at Weill Hall in Carnegie was certainly a memorable part of last year for me also. Coming from a small village of 830 people in rural New South Wales, Australia, it was just a little daunting! I never expected I would set foot in such an iconic concert venue complete with chandelier, Steinway concert grand, a handful of music legends on stage and a full house. No pressure!
Carnegie was only the second time we had played together in public. People often wonder why that’s a big deal when we wrote and performed the album together, but the translation of music to the stage requires a lot of preparation and isn’t as simple as just playing the studio part. Fortunately, we are all on the same wavelength, so improvisation — where you listen and respond to each other — is an important part of our performance. I love playing with the boys. Am I allowed to call them that? Due to a positive response, we are planning to do a tour, and I can’t wait to announce where and when.
To be honest, I’ll be just as nervous each time. It wouldn’t matter if it was a house concert or a concert stage at Carnegie — it’s all about giving your best performance to the audience and taking them on a journey. FLOW is about connecting with that quiet place we are all searching for amid the noise and haste around us. We aim to draw the audience into our music, and in a live performance we need to go where the music came from in order to do that. The origin of the group and the basis of that is friendship.
Another big aspect of seeing this project in person, for me, was that it kind of reignited a love of new age music for me. I’d always tended to do without that sort of meditative, instrumental music, but I went through a time in my life where I could really use it. It actually held a tangible, real psychological benefit for me. Suddenly, all those Windham Hill jewel cases I grew up with were contextualized! As an eclectic performer and listener, what draws you to the gentler side of the emotional spectrum in your own work?
I’m pleased you came back to the folds of new age music. Coming from rural Australia, I only discovered that Windham Hill existed when I moved to San Francisco for a few years at the age of 20. I heard George Winston and realized there was a name for the music I wrote. I felt what I was writing didn’t fit in anywhere, but after hearing this music, I had a sense of belonging. I was totally drawn into pursuing that possibility.
Around 2004, I naively wrote to Will Ackerman and asked how I could record with a label like Windham Hill. No answer. Then I read somewhere that he believed there were a million George Winston “wannabes” in the world. In reality, I was just another one of them and expected to never hear back from him.
In 2007, I got an email from Will. I nearly fell off the chair backwards. He had heard some of my music — recorded on a keyboard — and said I needed to come over and record on a real piano like the Steinway B in his studio. I was like a rat up a drain pipe. I went home and wrote Blue Dream in four months. It was a big opportunity and a dream come true to record at Imaginary Road Studios with Will as producer.
Your question asks about my connection to the emotional content of my own music, but it’s not really my choice of music to listen to in my spare time. It’s the creation of music that attracts me the most. I fall in love with the discovery of a new combination of notes that can make me cry, laugh and feel all sorts of emotions. It creates vulnerability that both opens and heals wounds but is always cathartic.
I love playing to an audience, but listening to one’s own music is more like work! I always had this dream that I would hear my music playing on radio and be totally blown away by that, but no, I turn it off! It’s the writing and performance of it that has the connection. I listen to other people’s music for enjoyment!
I’m intrigued by the idea that sounds from the village can be bridged by time, distance and space and something tribal or ancient can coexist with contemporary music without losing its flavor.
To this day, I find myself looking up strange CD compilations that somehow made it on streaming from when I was a kid — music boxes, Celtic harps, carnival music. Any obscure sounds in your life that you’re drawn to outside the normal realm of artists and records you might consume?
I love the idea of globalization in a musical sense, where world music and ethnic instruments are used. I’m intrigued by the idea that sounds from the village can be bridged by time, distance and space and something tribal or ancient can coexist with contemporary music, but without losing its flavor. I love Mongolian throat singing and instruments like the morin khuur, the didgeridoo, Irish whistle, African drums, etc. There is such depth of emotion in listening to instruments that take us to another time and place. I explored that a little myself with 600 Years in a Moment, but I also listen to music that has those elements and brings them into the 21st century alongside modern instruments like the piano and electronic sounds.
I’m interested in the idea of artistic juvenilia — works made almost as like a trial run to a musician or artist’s real body of work. I wonder how, exactly, one gets to make that distinction. Since you’ve been doing this since before you were a teenager, to my knowledge, do you see a point in your career where your “real” work began? Or do you see everything you’ve done as being of equal importance in your own growth?
Every creative thought and musical note has been part of the journey. I still have the manuscript for “Thoughts,” a piece I wrote at age eight. There was one “Aha!” moment just at the very beginning of my recording career where I had a violinist and cellist in the studio to record “Song for Ben” when it occurred to me I felt totally at home working with musicians in an environment that was totally new. It was oddly familiar and a “fit” even though I had never done it before. The recording studio is probably my favorite place on Earth.
When music truly touches me, I feel a deep underlying sadness, a yearning and emptiness that makes me feel physically sick in the stomach.
Do you see music as something that could calm someone or soothe trauma? Have you experienced any examples of this happening to yourself or others? How do you wish to participate in that whole process, if so?
The best reward as a musician is when someone emails to tell you that your music has made a difference in their life, helped them recover, heal, get back on track, or just to get to sleep! The most sobering moment is when you hear your music was listened to by someone as they lay dying, because it was all they wanted to hear. That brings a tear to my eye and makes it all worthwhile. I certainly do understand the power of music and it can be such a beautiful thing.
I read recently that some people get butterflies in their stomach when they listen to music. The article suggested those people love music much more than those who have no physical reaction. When music truly touches me, I feel a deep underlying sadness, a yearning and emptiness that makes me feel physically sick in the stomach. I am limited to how much I can listen to and it often drives me to the piano as a response or a way to deal with it. It’s hard to explain. Recent examples that gave me this feeling are Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu’s “Bapa,” Leonard Cohen’s “If It Be Your Will” sung by the Webb Sisters or Luka Bloom’s “I Am a River.” Sure, some music leaves me cold with no real reaction other than an intellectual assessment — more often than not, sadly — but when it touches me, it really has a profound effect. I’m not sure if that’s normal, but there you go!
Can you tell me which scale, mode or other chromatic property of the piano is most evocative to you? What feels the best to play, perhaps in a very abstract and personal way? Is there anything else in the world, especially something nonmusical, that this particular figure brings to mind for you?
I’m intrigued that a song can sound so different depending on what key it is played in. I gravitate to mostly minor keys! D, G or A minor are my go-tos if I’m improvising. There seems to be more drama in black keys. Playing on all black keys (with the addition of F natural) is a favorite and one I’ll often throw in the middle of a concert if I need a mental break.
I’ve never been to Australia — please describe the physical landscape of the town you live in. Is it a bit unusual to be the type of performer you are in Australia, or do you have a bit of a community there?
Kendall is a small coastal village 15 mins from the beach. It’s situated on a river with a population of 830 people. There are no roundabouts, traffic lights or stop signs. I don’t know many people in town, and apart from the loud cicadas and noisy birds, it’s quiet — just the way I like it.
Finally, can you describe exactly what you’re hearing around you as we have this conversation? This could be something loud or quiet, something that grabs your attention or an ambient noise. Is it nice to hear, or a nuisance?
Funny you should ask! I have taken decibel recordings right where I’m sitting now at over 63 and when I’m out walking in the bush at over 90! Cicadas are the biggest offender, and though they’re noisy now, they are slightly quieter with the weather cooling down. Sometimes I have kookaburras sitting on the wires outside the window laughing at me. At the moment, I’m also hearing a mixture of birds calling and answering. Ten minutes ago the cat was calling me to let me know he had found a blue tongue lizard on the driveway — I made a mad dash out there for an emergency rescue. The cat was promptly picked up, sternly yelled at and put inside until the lizard passed. I think I’ll go and play some music to calm the cat down.
Curated by: Morgan Enos
Conducted by: Email
Published: February 6, 2018
Total questions: 8
Word count: 1846
Reading time: Seven minutes
assessment, Australia, bridge, cello, cicada, decibel, didgeridoo, emptiness, Fiona Joy Hawkins, flow, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, George Winston, globalization, gravitation, illness, improvisation, Jeff Oster, Kendall, keyboard, kookaburra, Leonard Cohen, lizard, Luka Bloom, morin khuur, new age, New South Wales, performance, physical, response, sadness, sound, The Webb Sisters, tongue, village, violin, wavelength, William Ackerman, yearning
About the curator
Morgan Enos is a songwriter and journalist originally from California. His curatorial work for North of the Internet aims to strike a deeper place in his conversation subjects — the dreamy subtext to the linear everyday. Morgan also frequently writes power pop records as Other Houses about joy, outer space, frustration, chess and spiritual light. He resides in New York, where he continues to creatively fire on all cylinders.
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