PA Musician Magazine
Cover Story - Feb. 2023 - Keith Randall
By Josh Noll
FUEL FOR THE FIRE FOR THOSE WHO ASPIRE
This month we sat down with Keith Randall to talk about his new full length album “Aspire” dropping February 1st. Following on the success of his single “I Feel It Too” , which is nominated for CPMA’s “Best Instrumental Record”. “Aspire” is sure to awaken your musical senses. Keith, accompanied by his wife Sonya, have a way of arranging notes and musical styles like no other. With a vast array of instruments each song is unique in its own way. For a full review of the album check out what The Professor has to say on page 20.
Q: Keith, Tell me a little bit about your musical background, when did you start playing, who/what were your musical influences?
I started playing the drums when I was a child. My Father was a musician and my Mother loved to sing around the house. He was a classic rock guy and my Mother loved the Beatles and Elvis. My step-father loved country music and as a teenager I got into my Uncle’s hard rock vinyl, so I’ve been listening to a wide spectrum my whole life. As a child I was fascinated with the drum kit, so I started taking drum lessons at a pretty young age. By the time I was in 5th grade I was behind a drum kit backing up my music teacher during assembly. I was a teenager when I discovered Van Halen and there was an immediate switch to guitar that followed. Eddie was my guy. He was my first musical hero and I was saddened when he passed away in 2020. On my 15th Birthday, my step-father bought me a used strat-styled Ibanez guitar and a small, solid-state Marshall amp. I spent the majority of the coming years working on two-hand tap and whammy bar trick’s trying to be like Van Halen. Since those earliest days I’ve spent time listening to the who’s-who of big names in guitar across all genres of music
Q: Keith, What can you tell us about your new record Aspire?
When I released my first EP, “I Feel it Too,” back In February of 2022, I wasn’t sure what was going to come of it. Having composed, produced, and performed the whole thing with only my wife Sonya accompanying me, I was certainly feeling a little insecure about it. Also, it was instrumental and I know that popular music typically has vocals but it was a passion project and I was determined to see it through. Needless to say I was pleasantly surprised with all of the positive press it received. The record got some streaming play in Europe and a couple of American radio stations played it. Album reviewers, like those in Pennsylvania Musician Magazine and Blue Rhymez Magazine gave it great reviews and the whole process just energized and inspired me. I was going to put a live band together to showcase it but I was just so inspired that I started writing its’ follow up instead. The first song I composed was the title track to this new record, “Aspire”. The rest of the music came to me rather quickly. Like my first EP, all of the instruments were performed live by either Sonya or myself. There are no “canned” instruments except for the drums which I programmed.
Q: How would you describe your music?
Isn’t that always the most loaded question? So, I look at it like this. I am an artist and music is my medium. My influences run throughout every style, genre, and era there is because I simply love music. All of it. These instrumental records of mine are influenced by Rock, Pop, Classical, Jazz, Latin, Greek, RnB, EDM… you name it and it’s an influence. I’m content enough calling it contemporary instrumental.
Q: You mentioned the fact that these are instrumental records. Why instrumental and do you have any plans to do a vocal record?
I have a decent singing voice. Sonya has a really cool vocal tone that I would love to get on record. However, I personally love the process of composing music. What’s more is that I feel like the listener doesn’t need for me to tell them what my music is supposed to make them feel. If they open up to it this music will take them somewhere uniquely their own without my words directing the course. I may do a vocal record some day but it’s not currently in my plans. Sonya would like to do some devotional music down the road and I look forward to recording her voice, maybe producing her record, when she’s ready.
Q: Keith, The only other person to appear on both of your records is Sonya. Can you tell us a little about how that dynamic works?
I honestly had no idea that Sonya had any musical talent until well after we were married. She had mentioned in passing that she played flute in school and then one night we were sitting around a camp fire at her folks house and she started playing a violin. I couldn’t believe it! We started a little acoustic duo after that and then, when I started writing my first record, I thought how great it would be to include her. It’s all grown from there. Once I heard how good she was on the saxophone I started writing music that featured her. Now I’m always trying to write lines that challenge her and keep her growing as a musician while exploring the sonic textures that her instruments add to my compositions.
A: [Sonya]: It’s not always easy spending hours in the studio with your husband as the producer.
A:[Keith]: Haha, yeah, I run a tight ship
Q: And so how many instruments do you play on this record?
Besides the Nylon stringed guitar, which is my main instrument, I also play the bass, bouzouki, mandolin, percussion, and keyboards. In an attempt to keep the record as organic sounding as possible I limited the keyboard usage to piano and organ sounds. Everybody always asks me about the drums because when I was a kid I use to play a drum kit. These days I can only keep a basic beat on a trap kit so I chose to program the drums on both records with the prospect of adding a live drummer some day. For now I like keeping it just between Sonya and I.
Q: Wow, You play a lot of instruments tell me about the bouzouki and the song ‘Laiko’?
I did not have what some would consider a typical American childhood. My Mothers family are Greek and I spent my childhood being raised with that tradition. One of the many unique and wonderful things I was exposed to in my family was Greek music. My Yiayia and Popou (Greek for Grandmother and Grandfather) used to regularly listen to Greek music and when writing for this album I wanted to do something as a tribute to my heritage. So, I ordered a handmade bouzouki from Athens, Greece, and learned to play it.
The bouzouki is a type of lute. It has 4 sets of strings in courses of two, like a mandolin or 12-string guitar. It is tuned between strings the same intervallic distance as the highest four strings of a guitar, so the fretboard was easy enough to figure out. The only adjustment I really had to make was working around the bouzouki’s large, bulbous body. Laiko music is a style of Greek music which combines traditional Greek instrumentation with modern pop production. I named my composition “Laiko” after that genre and borrowed from it’s concept. The main theme is a riff I composed using what’s known as the Phrygian scale in music theory. That scale is not unheard of in American music but neither is it all that common. For the beat, I kept it as a straight 4 on the floor club beat because I wanted to have something danceable on the record and because modern Laiko music often has a club-beat behind it. Where things got really interesting for me was in the song’s bridge. I wanted to add some traditional Greek music in the composition so I did a little studying and came up with the Hijaz scale, referred to as Phrygian Dominant in Western Music theory, to give the song it’s Mediterranean vibe. This was my first time studying Greek music and I’m hoping my journey as a composer finds me down that road again some day.
Q: And Sonya, you perform on alto saxophone, violin, and the flute on this record? What is your favorite instrument to play and why?
[Sonya]: My favorite is the Saxophone. I’ve always loved the sound of them and as a child wanted to play sax but was assigned flute in school band. In college I picked up a used saxophone and taught myself to play. Years later, I purchased a beautiful Cannonball alto saxophone and fell in love.
Q: How long have you been playing each instrument?
[Sonya]: I’ve been playing the Flute on and off since the fourth grade. I started playing the Saxophone since college and I’ve been playing the Violin for about four years.
Q: Do either of you have a favorite track on the record?
[Keith]: The title track, “Aspire,” is my favorite track on this one, followed by “Catching Feelings, Catching Fire.”
[Sonya]: “The Moonlight and You” is definitely my favorite because it a sexy piece to play on the saxophone. “Silk” is my second favorite because I surprised myself with the way the flute solos turned out.
Q: Keith, the liner notes state that you “composed, produced, and performed” all of the tracks and also states that all of the music was recorded, mixed, and mastered at your School House Sound studio. Can you tell us a little about the process that goes into making a record?
Typically I start off recording a demo of a riff I wrote or a theme I want to explore. Once I arrange the song structure I’ll start programming the basic percussion and then work on the bass line. I can’t stress enough how important a solid bass groove is. It’s usually at this point I’ve got an idea of what the song’s foundation sounds like and I’ll start hearing melody lines, unless of course the melody is the theme I was exploring in the first place. Anyway, I’ll track the melody lines on a guitar or a DAW emulating whatever lead instrument I want to perform the melody. Then I start to compose the accompaniment, which is one of my favorite things to do. Then I’ll take the rough mix on a drive and see how the music makes me feel when I’m out of the studio. Phase two involves re-recording scratch tracks and introducing Sonya to her parts. I transpose them so that she can read the music for whatever instrument she is using and then, using her real instruments, she re-records the virtual instruments that I recorded with the DAW. Phase three is the production phase. There is a lot that goes into this process, the details of which I won’t bore you with. Mixing and mastering require their own skillset and also require you to detach yourself from being the performer. The mix, at least for me, has to come first. Production can be rewarding but it can also be daunting and I don’t mind telling you that I spend countless hours listening and tweaking during this process.
Q: Do you have any plans to perform these songs live?
I absolutely plan on performing this music live some day. I am not sure when, but it’s coming. I’d like to do a live record too. Finding the right musicians with both the technical ability and the desire to play this sort of music will be difficult but I know they’re out there. I am in no rush. I’ve got what feels like an endless supply of new original music to record as well and I am already looking forward to starting the next record.
Q: Where can we hear Aspire?
We’ve got a standard publishing deal with Tunecore Publishing that puts us in over 150 online locations in just as many countries. So, this and all of my records are available on all of the most popular streaming and download services including iTunes and Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora, iHeart Radio, Amazon. If it’s a popular service you can find us there. For more information visit http://www.keithrandallmusic.com
Q: Is there anyone you would like to thank who has helped you along the way?
Absolutely! As I talk about the past I’d obviously like to thank my Family. The motley collection of people that I call Family have been the most loving, encouraging, and fun-loving people anyone could ask to share their lives with. It’s a humbling thing for me to say that there are fans of my work but I am so very grateful for the people that get what I am doing. I am all too aware that instrumental music is a niche market, so their kind words are fuel for my artistic fire. I’m grateful for everyone who I’ve ever been able to call friend. I’m also grateful for all of the musicians I’ve called band-mate. We all learned how to make music together and whatever I am as a musician is due in part to the company I’ve kept. Entities that elevate indie artists are so invaluable to artist growth… this magazine, the CPMA’s and CPMHoF, radio stations who play indie artists like Jim Price at Q94 and Mike Lundy at WXPI, the Podcasters, Online Reviewers, Jeff over at PA Pipeline Music TV… I’ve been fortunate enough to have been supported by all of these entities. THANK YOU!
And of course, there’s my Wife. If ever there was a lucky man, he would be me. Sonya has been everything a man could wish for in a Wife. My name is all over these records but Sonya’s musical talents are what really make them something special. Thank you love