Photo credit: Anthony Scarlati
Photo credit: Anthony Scarlati

Engaging & Connecting with Rick Price

On 7 Dec, I found myself seated in the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall, waiting for an acoustic show to start. The setting was a lovely venue with great acoustics, and the stage held a Steinway piano, an acoustic guitar, a harmonica, a table with 2 bottles of mineral water, and a standing mic. After a short introduction, a man dressed in a shirt and jacket, wearing glasses and a hat walks onstage, and starts to play the guitar and sings. He moves effortlessly between guitar, piano and harmonica, and 20 songs later, he has me leaving the concert hall feeling like the world’s a better place. Who is this man? It is Rick Price.

In 1992, Rick Price released his debut album, “Heaven Knows” and did a promotional tour of South East Asia. In 1993, he played in the Sentosa Music Festival to a crowd of 15,000 people. That same year, he received an award for Song Of The Year at the Singapore Music Awards.

Now, 20 years and 8 albums later, he does an acoustic show, totally engaging his audience and taking them on a journey with him for 2 full hours, presenting a practically flawless performance. This is no mean feat, as most folks will tell you that an acoustic show is to a musician what acapella singing is to a singer. There are no special effects, no fancy lighting, no pyrotechnics, no one and nothing else onstage to distract you from the artist and his performance. There’s only him, with his instruments, the spotlight, and you.

He opens the show with “If You Were My Baby”, and goes on to play familiar favourites like “Not A Day Goes By”, “Nothing Can Stop Us Now” and “Fragile”, mixing it up with more spiritual fare like “River Of Love” and “Hallelujah”.

During the show, Rick tells the audience how he came from a small country farming town in Queensland, Australia, where his father and grandfather built wooden bridges, and his mother would sew band uniforms for him and his siblings, driving them to their performances every weekend. It is clear how his background inspired songs like “Bridge Buildin’ Man”

The theme of love resonates throughout this intimate show, with Rick dedicating “Love Never Dies” to his mother and the undying support she showed him when he was just starting out in music, and dedicating “The Last Goodbye” to his beloved dog who had passed away. Thinking about his loved ones has also inspired him to write songs like “You’re Never Alone” which was written to let his son know that he would always be there for him, and “Shape Of My Heart” which was written for his wife. Yet another song, “Reach Out” was written in support of a cause that Rick very much believes in, an organisation called CASA that represents children who are estranged from their families because of abuse or neglect, perhaps due to crime or drugs; these kids are split from their families with nowhere to go to and no one to take care of them.

Sharing songs from his latest album, “The Water’s Edge”, songs like the sweet lullaby “Angels”, the very gracious “I’ve Got It Good”, and the romantic “When I Fell For You”, he even took the time to dedicate to one rather flustered writer in the audience her favourite song, “It Started With A Kiss”. He also treated the audience to a sneak preview of a few unreleased songs that night, songs that he had very recently written, like “The Heart You Left Behind”.

And did you know that Rick had written a song for the Daniel Radcliffe movie, “December Boys”? It was aptly titled “Nobody Knows My Name”.

Keeping the very best for last, he closed the show with an encore performance of “Heaven Knows”… and heaven knows, this very personal concert really showed off the musical and vocal skills and talents of a versatile performer, a down-to-earth guy with a lot of heart and a self-deprecating sense of humour. This is obviously someone who remains well aware of his roots and where he came from, and has no airs about his accomplishments and successes throughout the course of his career. And that night at Yong Siew Toh, he engaged, he connected, and he was present with his audience every step of the way.

Earlier that same day, I had the pleasure of sitting down with the man himself, speaking to him about music, songwriting, producing, and how he got a chance to stand in John Denver’s shoes.

Coming from a family of musicians, were there any expectations placed on you when you were growing up?

No, I never felt pressure to perform or anything, I was very supported by my family, by my parents. They believed in me and encouraged me, supported me, so I felt very fortunate in that way. My mother used to make band uniforms and clothes for me to wear when I was really young, drive crazy long distances to my performances every weekend, I was very lucky in that way. I’ve never felt any pressure, always only love and support.

Who are your favourite artists and who do you enjoy listening to?

I listen to all kinds of people now. I listen to mostly singer-songwriters. There are a lot of American singer-songwriters I like. I love Ryan Adams. (Well, I love Bryan Adams too, but I’m talking more about Ryan Adams). I’m still a big fan of James Taylor and the old school people like that. I’m a big fan of Sam Cooke, and some of the old singers like Otis Redding, Ray Charles, and I bought a record by Amos Lee, I really like his record. I love that roots-y style of his.

As a singer-songwriter, can you share a little bit about your creative process, like what inspires you, and is there a ritual that you go through when you write a song?

It always starts with the music, and I write on the guitar and the piano, and I’ve recently started writing on the ukulele. Yeah, it’s a beautiful beautiful instrument, and I’m not very good yet, I’m still learning, but I’ve already written quite a few songs on it, just in the last couple of weeks. I’d just be hearing a piece of music, and then a melody comes with that music, over the chords, and I’m creating a feeling, an emotional picture in my mind, and then I’ll write a lyric. Often I’ll bring in another lyricist to write a lyric. Recently, I’ve been collaborating with a new songwriter friend of mine, who I’d never worked with before, and he gave me his ukulele, which was a gift to him from George Harrison, so I’m playing it, and we just started writing a lot of songs together, and so the music just comes really quickly for me. And then he started writing lyrics, which I just thought were just magnificent. So we’ve been writing songs about really heartfelt stuff, and songs about just being happy in your life, being grateful for how powerful life is, songs about civil war. For some reason, I’ve always had a fascination for that period of history. And a couple of cowboy songs. It’s limitless what you can write about, so now I just try to create a piece of music that I really love and I know then that that’s going to inspire a story. And instruments inspire stories and songs, you know. I remember when I first had my piano delivered to the house, I just couldn’t stop writing songs on it. And when I got the ukulele, I just couldn’t put it down, kept writing songs. So instruments give you songs.

Relocating to Nashville, Tennessee in the USA, how has that affected you as an artist and a songwriter?

Nashville is a great community of musicians and music people. It’s a very creative part of the world. A lot of people in the creative arts, music and film have moved there, and it’s become a bit like what the village in New York was like in the ‘60s. There’s this sense of community. There’s a lot of performing that goes on there. I go out and play lots of times, just for free, just to sit in and play with people. For me, it’s about writing, recording and performing music. And I often produce my own records. I play a lot of my own instruments. For me, moving there was about setting up my studio there, setting up a base there, and bringing in lots of different musicians to work with. So I’m doing that at the moment, I’m writing with some different people, just to create some new and interesting experiences, and to help flesh out the music that I hear in my head.

You’ve re-visited songs that you have written in the past and re-made them, can you share how you re-invented all of these classics?

I’ve recorded an album called “Re-visited”, which includes “Not A Day Goes By”, “Heaven Knows”, “You’re Never Alone”, “If You Were My Baby”, “Fragile”. I started with a performance on guitar and voice, piano and voice, singing and playing at the same time. And as I played everything myself, I just added instruments. I added some bass guitar, I added some drums, a little bit of brush drums, and sometimes some harmonica, electric guitar, just little colours. I wanted the album to sound like when I go out and play live. Just guitar and voice, with just a little bit of colour allowed, without all the big pop production, a warmer sound.

The style of your latest album is very different from your past albums, it used to be that you wrote songs about heartbreak, can you share with us what caused this change in the style and direction of your songs?

I think the circumstances of my life changed a little bit. I just started to write songs that were more focused on the celebration of love, instead of the loss of love. I think I wrote enough heartbreak songs to last an entire lifetime, so I started to write songs about being grateful and about the simple pleasures in life. “The Water’s Edge”, which is the title of my latest album, is about remembering the joy of being a kid and swimming at the beach, building sandcastles, and we didn’t have anything to worry about. That’s what that song is about. And I got married last year, so I’ve been writing a lot of songs about being happy in love and the joy that that relationship has brought to me.

Is that any song on your latest album that is particularly significant to you, and why?

I think “Shape Of My Heart” is definitely significant. That’s a song about meeting my wife, and falling in love with her, and the beauty of marriage. It’s a great opportunity to grow and to learn and to improve as a person, so that would be the most significant song for me.

So how do you produce an album for a singer-songwriter, ‘cos I understand that singer-songwriters might be very strong in terms of their concepts, like in how they want it done, or how they want it to sound?

Quite often, I would write the music with them. And I’m coming from the place of trying to help them get their ideas on what do you want to write about, what’s going on in your life right now that’s got you stirred up, and then, I’ll get a vision for how I think the song could be produced, with what instruments, and the arrangement, the tempo, the feeling of the music, and I just go for what I love, and then hopefully, that’s going to translate for the artist. I’m also interested in what they want to get with the song, so I’ll bring in some of their ideas, if I think I can make that work too. But I think essentially anything creative has to be driven by a passion. If it’s driven by that, and it moves me, then chances are, it might move somebody else too. I try not to engage in doing things that don’t interest me, ‘cos I know I’m not going to do a very good job of it.

What is your most unforgettable collaboration in producing an album with an artist?

There’s an artist in Australia, a singer-songwriter, her name is Tamara Stewart. She is a great singer, a great songwriter, a great artist. She’s just released a new album that she produced herself, and it’s receiving really great reviews in Australia in the country music market, and I actually sang and wrote songs on this record. I wrote one song with her, and I sang and played on her album for her as well. We produced an album together back in 2002-2004, and that was probably the most powerful production experience I’ve had that I really felt I was super proud of.

What advice would you give to an aspiring singer-songwriter who wants to make it big?

Surround yourself with people that you trust. Trust your instincts about people. If someone doesn’t feel right, don’t work with them. If they feel right, embrace it, go for it. And it’s an old saying, but I think you’re at your best when you’re doing what you love. ‘Cos if you don’t do what you love, the end result won’t be what you love. So reach down and do your best, just strive for your best, ‘cos that’s all we can do as songwriters and performers is to do our best, put our best efforts in, and the results are up to God. We can’t control the outcome or the results, so just do your best work.

You starred in a narrative concert, “The John Denver Story”, how did you get that role, and what was that experience like for you?

It was offered to me. There’s company in Australia called Bold Jack, and they had a few of these shows on the road in Australia – one with Johnny Cash, another one with Doris Day, and one with John Denver – and they asked me if I would I do it, and I said, “Yeah, this would be an interesting thing to do, to tell a guy’s story.” And I’m not impersonating him, I’m not trying to sound like him, or look like him, purely just going out, telling his life story, and presenting 24 songs throughout the concert. It was really enjoyable. It’s not something I would want to do all the time, but I enjoyed it.

How much do you practice and at what point in time do you feel that you are 100% ready to perform songs?

I’ll play a new song quite a lot, ‘cos I want to get familiar with it. I want it to be so familiar to me that I don’t have to think about it. And through singing the song a lot, over and over and over, I get a sense of what really works and what doesn’t work, and the song starts to take its own shape and image, and you can feel, as the song’s going along, “Oooh, it’s dragging here”, or “This part’s really not working, what can I do to make this feel better, to flow better?”, or it might be just a change in the melody a little bit there, or just lift  the tempo a little bit there, something to make it better, and then you feel like, “Oooh yeah, this is feeling good”. So I’m in 2 minds about this. I love spontaneity, and when I go into the studio, I don’t want to be learning a song going into a studio, I want to know it before I go in, so that I can catch the first couple of performances, because they’re always the best. As soon as you start thinking about your performance, it’s gone. So there’s a time for preparation, and that’s when you’re thinking a lot about it, you’re working on it, you’re really building up the arrangement, then you go put all that aside, and go and do a spontaneous performance. So I think it’s important to have both those aspects.

Is there a pre-concert ritual that you go through?

Yeah, there is. I like quiet before I go on. I don’t like to have anybody around, so I like to be in my dressing room by myself for at least half an hour or so before I go on. I just like to be really present, present with this moment right now, be grateful for what I’m going to experience, and I focus on making it a powerful experience for myself and the audience, and I see myself onstage at that place, and I just go and visit myself in the future a little bit as well. So it’s about being present, but it’s also about imagining myself in that place. I see myself engaging with the audience, embracing the moment, because that’s what it’s about for me. It’s about being really present and engaging with the audience, engaging with myself. So that’s why I like quiet time before I come out, to keep my mind on the right track.

You’ve travelled to many places in the course of your career, is there any particular place that stands out to you, any place that you love?

You know, I tend to love wherever I am, and I know that that sounds cosmic, but it’s true. I don’t really care so much about what trees I’m looking at, what buildings I’m looking at; is this a wealthy country, or a poor country; is it pretty, or is it not so pretty… I don’t really care too much about that. I’m engaging more with people and with the experience of being, so I can look back and say I’ve had some good experiences and some not so good experiences. It’s always to do with how present I am, how engaged with people I am, that’s what makes that experience special to me. As far as beauty, when I went to Germany, it’s such a beautiful country to look at. When you drive through Germany, it’s like, so gorgeous! New Zealand’s like that too, and parts of Australia. I’ve enjoyed travelling in different parts of the world for different reasons sometimes. The thing I love the most about coming to South East Asia is that there is a gentleness here that doesn’t exist in other parts of the world, there’s a softness here that I like, there’s the warmth of the people, and that’s part of why I’ve always liked to come here. I appreciate the people.

You’ve been to Singapore a few times already, I’m sure you’ve tried our local food. Do you have a favourite?

Well, you know, I just couldn’t stop eating nasi goreng when I first came. Wow, it’s incredible. It’s a simple dish, but I love it. In the early days, I just loved spicy food. I can’t eat too much of it anymore. I guess I had too much of it or something, but yeah, that’s probably one of my favourite dishes.

What are your plans for the future?

I’m working on another album. I’m always working on a new album, because I’m always writing. And I only want to do what I love doing, only what really inspires me. If it doesn’t really inspire me, I’m not going to do it. That’s my plan. Just to engage, to try to be really present in my life, putting my best into everything, because that’s what’s important. ‘Cos I can’t tell what my experiences are going to be like. In 6 months from now, I don’t know where I’ll be, I don’t know what I’ll be doing. But my intention is to be right there and to engage in the moment, to give my best to it.

Would you like to say anything to your fans in Singapore?

Hi everybody, this is Rick Price, and I just want to wish you all a beautiful Christmas and a happy, joyous and peaceful New Year. I also want to invite you to come and hear some of my new music at www.rickprice.com.au. Please come and say hi, and have a great, great year!

(Jeanette Chin)

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