KEXP Q&A: Josh Rawlings

Local Music
Jake Uitti

Josh Rawlings plays keyboards with some of Seattle's most influential musicians and performers, from Macklemore & Ryan Lewis to Allen Stone to his own band, Industrial Revelation. A graduate of Cornish, and recently a new father, Josh balances his time between family, being on tour, recording and playing live shows. We caught up with Josh - despite his busy schedule -  to talk about how all of these musical triumphs came to fruition.

Before we get into what you're working on now, let's talk a little bit about 2012 and 2013: You played on several tracks on Macklemore's The Heist, including "Same Love". How did that come together?It’s hard to know where to begin because the last few years have been a complete blur. If it weren’t for my meticulous and borderline OCD organization (keeping dated email folders with all my important email conversations) I honestly think I wouldn’t really know what I did all year. This sort of blur intensifies when a kid (and there’s a second one on the way this April) enters the picture. I live a pretty abundant and eventful life, and outside of the occasional minor nervous breakdown I manage day to day, I still feel like I do what I love: creating music and having fun and working incredibly hard.

You could pinpoint this wild ride I’m on to a heart-centered open jam session conceived by my great friend and bassist Evan Flory-Barnes, simply called The Hang. We first started the session back in early May of 2007 at Lo-Fi Performance Gallery. In the early days the weekly session just started off with me and Evan holding court and having rotating drummers until our friend Jeremy Jones (who we started a group called The Teaching with) returned from Yoga Training later that summer in 2007.

It started slow, but as word got out we started attracting all kinds of musicians, visual artists, poets, rappers, break dancers. People started getting hooked on the vibe and literally coming to hang and be a part of it all. We ran the session at Lo-Fi for two years and then relocated it to LUCID Lounge in the University District until about mid-2011. We had several high-profile "cats" come to The Hang and jam, including Grammy Award Winning Jazz Pianist/Composer Robert Glasper, Grammy Award Winning Jazz Trumpet Player/Composer Roy Hargrove, Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, Guitarist Charlie Hunter, Jazz Pianist/Composer Aaron Parks and even a Blind Pianist from New Orleans named Henry Butler. It was a total melting pot party over the four years we ran it.

One of the local cats that would come through off and on was Macklemore’s very own trumpet player and musical collaborator (or sultan of “swag” as they like to call him), Owuor Arunga. Owuor was a dear friend, he knew Evan, Jeremy and me and was plugged into (as we all were at times) with other musical scenes. Long story short: Ryan Lewis was looking for a Jazz group that could jam in the studio on a very rough sample he found and called “Bom Bom”. He had this idea of a Nina Simone “Sinnerman” vibe mixed with a groovy Jazz Trio thing he was hearing in his mind. I don’t know that he exactly knew what he was looking for, but he trusted Owuor when he told him he knew just the cats to play.

Funny story: I was the one who first got the call from Ryan Lewis for the session and when I called him back my son was crying his head off in the back of the car. Needless to say, I was sweating bullets because I totally timed the call wrong having no idea my son was going to burst out crying like that and I thought I was going to lose the session because of it. I should also say that I didn’t really know who Macklemore & Ryan Lewis were and didn’t realize that they had a pretty substantial following already. Miraculously I still got the gig for The Teaching to play in the studio that evening and when I got there Macklemore (Ben Haggerty) told me that he heard my son Leo crying through Ryan’s cell phone and thought that any dude who can manage driving and booking a session while his baby is crying in the background and keep his composure must be some kind of bad ass musician!

So we went in the studio as The Teaching on September 21st, 2011 and knocked it out of the park for them within a couple hours. We had no idea they’d turn it around into the only instrumental track featured on The Heist. We also had no idea how successful their album would become (although our gut told us something was definitely on the horizon, which is why we pressed to get our name featured in the track title of the song). And now the album is nominated for Album of The Year at the 56th Grammy Awards.

With regard to the other songs I played on The Heist - Ben and Ryan dug my piano playing so much in that original session that they called me back to play piano on “Same Love” and work with Allen Stone playing the Wurlitzer Electric Piano on the track “Neon Cathedral”.  Since then I’ve done studio work for their music video for “White Walls” and have been doing some keyboard/piano parts for new songs within the last month or so.

Along with your work with Macklemore, you were also recently on tour with Allen Stone. What was that like?

Touring around the country with Allen Stone this summer was a dream come true and an incredible growing experience. It really opened my eyes to the lifestyle of a touring musician and answered a lot of questions I had about touring on this scale. I’d certainly done smaller tours up and down the west coast and regionally with some other local Jazz groups, but nothing really prepared me for touring on a bus for almost two months and playing night after night in amphitheaters and large venues - and having a wife and almost two-year-old son at home. I missed my cousin’s wedding, my son’s second birthday and my Mom’s 50th birthday.

The way it all came about was really kind of funny. The first time I was introduced to Allen was when he showed up late night at my place in Ballard the summer of 2011. He pulled up in an old Conversion Van straight out of the 70’s, and he almost looked like he time traveled from the 70’s himself (with his long-curly reddish-blond hair and huge glasses). I really had no idea who he was at that time and the reason he came to my house that night was to actually pick up a keyboard case for my buddy Mark Sampson.  Mark was playing Rhodes and keyboard for Allen at the time and he asked me if he could borrow a case for a national tour. This was also right around the time that Allen first appeared on TV performing on the Conan O'Brien show.

Fast forward to Fall 2011 when I was working with Macklemore & Ryan Lewis on their album The Heist. I got a call from Ryan one night to come in and record some keyboard parts for “Neon Cathedral” with Allen. When that happened it was starting to become very clear what an incredibly small world the music community actually was. I had a blast working with Allen on the track and I think I made such an impression on him that, in a day or two after that session, he called me to sub for Mark for a KEXP Live Studio session. That was the first time I really got to experience his music in full and play with his regular working bandmates.

Then, in late Spring 2013 I was working on the computer in a coffee shop in Greenwood when I suddenly get a call from Allen asking if I’d be open to doing a three-show tour in Nashville, Alabama and Arkansas. At that time Mark decided to leave the group (for reasons I’m still pretty unclear about) and Allen was scrambling to get a keyboard player to fill in and possibly take on the already booked Summer tour schedule he had lined up. I took the gig after a lot of back and forth in my mind, but in the end is just felt like too good of an opportunity to pass up.  I played the three-show tour and came back feeling electrified and excited about the prospect of going on the full two-month summer tour around the country.

In all honestly it was completely amazing and everything I dreamed it would be, BUT none of it really felt as fulfilling as I thought without my wife and son there. It’s a strange thing, but after the first couple of weeks the excitement kind of died down and I realized what this lifestyle was about. Sure there were parties and crazy experiences (within reason - I’m a married man and father), but it was mainly about working hard and putting 110% into every performance. We had to deal with all kinds of weather conditions, changing opening slot situations, big audiences and small, both of my keyboards broke down, and the loneliness of the road that no one can really explain to you but you just have to experience. They say distance makes the heart grow fonder and it certainly did that for me and my family, ten-fold.

If this opportunity had come right after graduating from Cornish I could honestly say I probably would have done this for a while to really experience this music path and all it has to offer, but my life has given me different circumstances and different priorities to care about. It all boiled down to the lesson of time and how you spend it. I’m not going to say I’ll never tour again because shortly after I came home I toured for two weeks with my band Industrial Revelation, but even then, my heart starting yearning to be home. I have no regrets about touring this summer with Allen because it taught me so much and showed me where my heart was again. 

How does all this experience influence your playing with Industrial Revelation now?

Living in Seattle, studying at Cornish and working with stellar artists such as Macklemore and Allen Stone just six years after graduating has been profoundly satisfying. To me it tells the story of the opportunities and incredible artistic richness this city has to offer. No doubt, just like New York, L.A. or Nashville, you need to be determined, but the main difference Seattle has is that there’s something hard to quantify and put your finger on. It’s not like there’s a ton of more opportunities here than any other city, and it’s not like there’s this overwhelming (or lack of) artists working and pushing here - but I think the difference is in the air, the beautiful natural surroundings, and the recognition of a certain quality, a certain type of collaborative abundance. There’s this thing called the Seattle Freeze and I just don’t think it applies to people in the arts community. This passion for creating beautiful art and the interconnectedness has quite literally been the foundation to every success I’ve seen in my career.

I remember when Industrial Revelation was recording our first studio album and working on a song of mine called “Always Good, Always Safe.” I had heard some type of voice singing the melody on the track like the voice of a mother singing to her child. Without skipping a beat, one of the first people who came to mind was Seattle’s own vocalist Choklate (who Evan, D’Vonne and I had recently worked with selling out two shows at Jazz Alley). She came into the studio and sang the intro and outro melody to my song and simply took my breath away. It was exactly the way I heard it in my head, the song is still haunting for me to listen to. We also called in Owuor to play on another trance-like track on the album called “Shattering". The music scene in Seattle, I think, could best be described as a very collaborative and encouraging. We ALL want to see each other succeed and we ALL want to make music together.

Thinking about all these exciting developments and how it’s impacted playing with Industrial Revelation, I can definitely say all of these recent experiences and successes just fuel the fire. After playing the same set and same song arrangements with Allen night after night, my soul yearned to create the passionate, hard edged, instrumental music I get to play with Industrial Revelation. It was about two months after retuning from Allen’s tour that Industrial Revelation released its second studio album and went on a short two week northwest tour. It’s almost like all the goodness I learned on the road with Allen fed right into Industrial Revelation growing in my beloved city. We were recognized by The Stranger, Seattle Weekly and CityArts as being one of the top Seattle break-through groups of 2013, and the local response to our latest album Oak Head has been incredibly humbling and gratifying.

Make no mistake though, I’m stoked with everything that has happened and I'm extremely encouraged to keep pushing. If anything, I think I have an even greater curiosity for what else is around the corner. I also feel 2014 is going to be a year to sort of recharge the batteries so to speak. I plan to focus more on a very select number of private and high-quality performances such as the Doe Bay Music Festival I just learned Industrial Revelation is invited to this year. I also plan to dive deeper into writing more music and exploring the music licensing/publishing world (let’s see if we can get an Industrial Revelation song on the next Iron Man movie or something!). In other words, I’d like to be closer to my family and not run around like a chicken with his head cut off so much.  I’m still recording with Macklemore and subbing gigs with Allen Stone from time to time (which I continue to enjoy case by case), AND I’m excited to see what’s to come.

To quote Evan Flory-Barnes “Life is RICH!”


Industrial Revelation’s next show will be Friday, February 21st at Lo-Fi Performance Gallery with GEMS & Real Don Music.  

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