Known as Australia’s Queen of Boogie Piano, Jan Preston has a reputation as an astonishing piano player with a rich resonant voice who is a magnetic live performer. Jan captivates audiences around the world with her original songs, compositions and her mastery of boogie woogie. ABC Music’s Winner of five Music Awards for her CDs and soundtracks, she plays festivals and concerts throughout Australia, NZ and Europe, tours her own shows, writes music for film and TV, and composes and performs for Silent Movies.
Image Credit: Tony Mott
Jan Preston talks to The Street ahead of the Adventures in Pianoland season.
DESCRIBE YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH MUSIC.
Music, and piano playing specifically, has always been my passion in life for as long as I can remember. The physical, psychological and spiritual state that occurs when playing and singing has always been the time in my life I am completely in the present moment. It’s a transporting experience.
Science has shown that pianists have different brains than others? What is your take on this and the skill and demand required to play this instrument?
Ah! I am constantly asked if I am left handed (which I’m not), because my boogie left hand is so relentless and powerful. Since my right brain left brain functions have always been connected by piano playing (I started teaching myself when I was 3) I can’t imagine a brain working any other way.
YOU WERE ON THE PATH TO BEING A CLASSICAL CONCERT PIANIST IN NEW ZEALAND. WHAT CHANGED YOUR MIND?
It took many years to change my musical path and it was very challenging and painful. Different structures, improvising, thinking of piano music in a completely different way, these things took years to feel natural to me. I was always drawn to boogie and ragtime, but in a small town in NZ during the early 1960’s no one could ever show me how to play it. I regret not living in Hamburg in the 1970’s during the big Boogie piano explosion there, which ultimately created a worldwide reigniting of this style. My musical life would have been a lot clearer and easier if I’d lived in Hamburg during that time.
WHERE DID THE IMPULSE TO CREATE adventures in pianoland COME FROM?
Gaylene (my sister) and I were talking casually one day about family background, musical background, and the multiple changes in my musical and performing life. I’ve often felt I didn’t really fit in to any one scene, be it jazz, blues, cabaret and so on, and in reflecting on this I’d had the idea to create a unique and engrossing personal show combining projected photos, stories, instrumental music and songs.
WHAT WAS THE DEVELOPMENT PROCESS? .
Gaylene is creatively fearless, she doesn’t accept boundaries and is much more courageous in this regard than me. After our first casual chat, we set off in a loose but earnest way and, after I’d raved to her for hours, she came up with the script while I sorted through the music.
Interestingly, although she’s very open and easy during the creative process, she’s also got a very firm hold on overall structure.
WHAT HAVE YOU DISCOVERED ALONG THE WAY?
I’ve discovered what a crazy career I’ve had! I’ve discovered a different relationship with my sister and I’ve discovered new material.
WITHOUT BEING A SPOILER TO ADVENTURES IN PIANOLAND, WHAT ARE SOME OF THE THINGS THAT HELPED YOU STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE PIANO?
Playing boogie, ragtime and improvisatory styles of piano music and songs have helped me relax musically. Although I always loved classical music, and still do (I adore playing Chopin and Bach at home) overall I was a more uptight player when I was younger.
Now I’m more than ever aware of keeping a rock bottom love and enjoyment of music as the main thing, as I’ve had periods in my life where the pressure to succeed has overpowered this.
And oh, by the way, I still worry…….sometimes!
ADVENTURES IN PIANOLAND IS DIRECTED BY YOUR SISTER GAYLENE PRESTON. TALK US THROUGH THIS COLLABORATIVE RELATIONSHIP AND HOW IT HAS INFORMED THE WORK?
Quite aside from Gaylene being my older sister, so we have a personal relationship, I have always admired her filmmaking. She is an outstanding filmmaker who has had great success worldwide both in drama and documentary, and I consider myself very lucky to be able to work with someone as experienced and creative as her. Indeed in many ways there is no other writer/director in the world appropriate for ‘Adventures in Pianoland,’ as there is no one else who knows my professional and personal life as well as Gaylene. She was either there when it happened or knew about it!
But because it didn’t happen to her she has a different take on my life, which strangely gives me an insight into what was going on from outside myself. It’s hard to explain, but then we are Geminis and our birthdays are one day apart. (She’s 4 years older) Maybe all my life I’ve been directed by Gaylene, something I think you can see in our childhood photos together.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT COMPOSING FOR FILM THAT ATTRACTS YOU?
Entering the world of the film and finding a musical voice for that world is the most exciting, inspirational and terrifying creative challenge. The difference between getting that exactly right, or slightly wrong, or very wrong, can be very subtle changes in the score. It’s endlessly fascinating. Surprisingly often after I’ve finished a film score I can’t remember how I got there but can feel when it’s right. And whenever I start on a new project I think I’ll never find it again!
THE NATIONAL FILM AND SOUND ARCHIVE ASKED YOU TO COMPOSE A SCORE FOR THE KID STAKES, THE EARLY AUSTRALIAN SILENT COMEDY CLASSIC ABOUT FATTY FINN AND HIS GANG. TALK US THROUGH THE PROCESS OF BEING TRUE TO THE SPIRIT OF THIS CLASSIC.
I have a joke that Silent Movies are the best film project any composer could be given…..there are no sound effects or dialogue, and the director’s dead! And even as I joke about that I am well aware of the huge responsibility in that situation, since the music score is completely carrying the story, characters, emotion and pace from the first frame til the last, and I can’t access the director for creative guidance. With the ‘Kid Stakes’ I want to feel that Tal Ordell (the filmmaker) could come back from his grave, walk into the cinema, and feel perfectly comfortable about the way my music is working with his film. For myself, a lot of contemporary silent movie music performances may be fantastic music, but not particularly connected to the film. I approach these projects (I’ve written and performed 15 Silent films) exactly the same as composing for any contemporary movie.
YOU HAVE A LONG ASSOCIATION WITH THE ABC AND HAVE WRITTEN SEVERAL TV SCORES, INCLUDING AUSTRALIAN STORY WHICH WAS HEARD FOR SIX SEASONS. WHY DO YOU THINK IT WAS SO SUCCESSFUL?
All of the ABC projects I’ve composed for, be it the Dynasties documentary series, Australian Story, drama Bastard Boys, have all been fabulous projects and it’s been a great pleasure to work with the dedicated and talented directors, editors, and producers of these series. Having the local Australian voice on TV is of utmost importance to all of us, and I hope and pray the ABC has the funding to continue making and broadcasting work of this quality.
YOU HAVE BEEN A SOUGHT AFTER PERFORMER FOR THE NATIONAL FOLK FESTIVAL. HOW DOES PLAYING AT A FESTIVAL COMPARE WITH PLAYING IN A THEATRE?
I love playing everywhere! Be it a small concert in a tiny town in rural Australia or NZ, a large concert hall in Berlin, or the fabulous National FF in Canberra, I love live performing. Ironically, whilst it seems to be all about the performer, the concert is actually about the connection between the performer and the audience. Theatres usually have a piano, which I much prefer than playing on a keyboard, then I can really fly. At the Street Theatre, I’m thrilled to be performing on a spectacular 9 foot Grand piano which was recently rebuilt by outstanding Australian piano maker Ron Overs. It will be in prime condition just waiting for me!
ARE YOU SUPERSTITIOUS? IS THERE A PROCESS THAT YOU ALWAYS LIKE TO GO THROUGH BEFORE STEPPING OUT ON STAGE?
I don’t know that you’d describe it as superstition, but I do have strategies in place to help focus myself and cope with the pressure. I have a book called ‘Effortless Mastery’ which I travel with and often read bits of it before stepping on stage. It’s by Kenny Werner and it’s incredibly good, he touches on things like avoiding fear based performance, self belief, etc. Very helpful thoughts when there are hundreds of people waiting out there!
WHAT’S INSPIRING YOU CREATIVELY AT THE MOMENT?
All the music that I listen to on a daily basis is very obscure. I could real off a whole long list and no one would have heard of any of it! For instance the Hamburg Boogie Woogie Connection rerelease, featuring my longstanding mentor and friend Axel Zwingenberger, and Anne Rabson’s ‘Music Makin Momma’. Anne was the main songwriter for the Uppity Blues Women and she was a great talent. (I had an invitation to meet Anne but sadly she passed away suddenly last year.) Local music I’m hooking into includes Phil Manning, NZ band Rococo, and Nick Charles.
WHAT ARE YOU READING AND WATCHING CURRENTLY?
I’m reading Margaret Forster, Australian writer Ursula Dubosarski, and flicking through a reread of ‘The Piano Shop on the Left Bank’ by Thad Carhart, highly recommended for piano freaks. The drunken piano tuner is one of my all time favourite characters.