CD: Signature – Solo
Artist: Fiona Joy
It’s not often, as a music writer, that I have the opportunity to be present in the studio when an artist’s album is in the process of being recorded. However, I was happy to receive an invitation from award-winning Australian composer/ pianist Fiona Joy to stop by when she was here in the San Francisco Bay area working on her new album as a Blue Coast Records artist at their impressive OTR Studios. Signature – Solo is the fifth Fiona Joy CD I’ve had the pleasure of writing about including: 600 Years In A Moment, Sensual Journeys, Blue Dream, and Christmas Joy, as well as reviewing a live concert she performed with Trysette Loosemore. Interestingly, Signature – Solo is Fiona’s first solo piano release. Readers who are interested in learning more about Fiona Joy’s background and music will find a lot of information in those above-mentioned feature articles on Music and Media Focus.
One of the things that distinguishes Fiona in the genres of contemporary instrumental, new age, and solo piano is her commitment to releasing her music on a wide variety of formats including super high fidelity audiophile recordings. As mentioned, this album was recorded at OTR Studios with producer and Blue Coast Records label owner Cookie Marenco, who is a well-known advocate for audiophile recording, and has worked with a long list of top recording artists. In fact, she has partnered with Sony Music to deliver hi-resolution music to discerning consumers. According to Fiona’s press release, “the album was tracked live to analog tape and mixed to Double DSD Digital by Marenco. Every nuance is captured as Fiona performs on an impeccably-restored 1885 Steinway piano.” Signature – Solo Audiophile Edition is available on SACD from Blue Coast Records. High Resolution Downloads in DSD128, DSD64, 192 WAV/FLAC or 96 WAV/FLAC are available at Downloads NOW!
The album is also being released in more “mainstream” CD and mp3 versions through Tiny Island Music. Fiona’s album is the initial release on this label, which was recently created by Cookie Marenco as a division of her Blue Coast Music Group, a music company that caters to customers seeking a higher-quality audio experience. According to Cookie, “Fiona’s masterful performances are the perfect music to showcase the kind of clarity double DSD audio brings to the home listener; Fiona’s fans needed a way to have a CD, mp3s and access to internet radio, and we deliver that through Tiny Island Music.”
I will admit that my experience in the high end audiophile world has been limited, but what I heard at OTR Studios made a believer out of me. Through her partnership with Sony Music, Cookie has installed an absolutely state of the art pro sound system that most music lovers could only dream about. Taking a break from recording, we retired to the listening room in another part of the studio to hear some of Fiona’s tracks on that monster system with its’ four foot high speakers. I thought that I had heard some pretty nice sound systems in my day, but this was in another universe. The detail and clarity were staggering. It’s actually hard to find words to describe it. But the icing on the cake for me was when they gave me the opportunity to play a few tracks from my own Ambient Alchemy CD with Steven Halpern and Michael Manring on this incredible system. Even though I had done most of the recording and engineering on the album, I literally heard things in there that I had never heard before, especially in the ethereal synthesizer textures and fretless bass harmonics. And that’s from just a standard CD, not even a high-resolution recording. The experience gave me a newfound appreciation for what Cookie and Fiona are doing in this regard.
While Fiona often performs as a solo pianist, her previous recordings have featured accompanists, many of them high-level studio musicians. A short list includes T-Bone Wolk (Hall & Oates), Tony Levin (Peter Gabriel, Dire Straits), Jeff Haynes (Pat Metheny), Eugene Friesen (Paul Winter Consort), Heather Rankin, Charlie Bisharat (Yanni), Rebecca Daniel (ACO), and many others. She has also worked extensively with Windham Hill Records founder and GRAMMY winning producer Will Ackerman who called Fiona’s Blue Dream album: “the most ambitious project of my entire career and resulted in one of the most remarkable collaborations this genre has ever known.” That is lofty praise from a producer who has worked with some of the finest musicians in the world. Fiona’s recordings have also earned many international awards and nominations, too numerous to detail here. In addition to producing her own music, Fiona recently served as a co-producer along with Will Ackerman on an album by fellow pianist Jennifer Defrayne.
Signature – Solo which was “written with magic in mind,” according to Fiona, opens with a ceremonial piece, appropriately titled “Ceremony,” which she wrote for her wedding. The track begins with a lovely and lighthearted arpeggio that unfolds in a way that brought to mind the path a couple might follow as they begin their life together. And like life itself with its ups and downs, Fiona’s playing covers the entire range of the keyboard from one end to another. The song has an effervescent quality, and some of the tinkling high notes reminded me of the bubbles in a glass of champagne that one might have at a wedding or special ceremony.
A notable distinction about Fiona’s next song, “Grace,” is that a version of it appears on the Winds Of Samsara album by Ricky Kej and Wouter Kellerman, who recently won the GRAMMY award in the new age category for this album. While this is certainly a wonderful accomplishment on the world stage for Fiona, the song also has a more quiet and personal back-story that holds deep meaning for her. She wrote the song after receiving a letter from a fan who had given birth to a stillborn daughter named Grace 10 years earlier. The woman spoke about how Fiona’s music helped her heal from the tragedy and how she still listens to it with her new daughter. This was a profound experience for Fiona to make a difference in someone’s life, and she wrote the song in honor of that. I had the opportunity to hear Fiona first perform this piece live in concert and I found it quite moving back then. However, listening to it now after reading about what inspired it, its wistful strains take on a whole new level of emotional depth for me.
A track entitled “Once Upon Impossible,” which Fiona describes as: “love that has tried its hardest but cannot work,” appears in two versions on the album, one as a solo piano, and one as a duet with guitarist Lawrence Blatt, the sole accompanist on the album. The duet version also features Fiona’s airy Enya-like vocals. There is an interesting and remarkable fact about this song, as well as the album in general that Fiona shared. In her words: “the whole album was recorded using only two edits. Lawrence Blatt didn’t even know what we were playing before we hit the record button – and he didn’t complain! It only took us a few takes to get a single perfect recording.” Considering that many takes and extensive editing usually go into recording an album these days, it is quite impressive indeed.
The inspiration for “Invisible Train” goes back to Fiona’s childhood and her fascination with the story of “The Little Red Caboose.” Here she has done a wonderful job of recreating the sound and ambience of being on a train. This would make a perfect soundtrack for a film depicting railway travel. The next track (no pun intended) takes on a very different feel. It is the album’s title track and according to Fiona: “ It is about magic and has a mesmerizing and hypnotic feel because something that has died is charmed back to life. It’s a very sad piece about being on borrowed time.” One of my favorite songs was “From The Mist,” which Fiona characterizes as a “Celtic fairy march,” and draws from her Irish and Scottish roots. It is especially significant and dear to her since it was co-written by her father. The album closes with a dreamy tune called “Little Star” that also goes back to Fiona’s childhood and is based on a movie theme that she’s always loved. In her words: “Its about stars in the sky and reaching for the stars,” and makes a wonderful ending piece to drift away on.
It was interesting to hear Fiona’s music without the additional musicians that usually adorn her compositions. In a way, it was the musical equivalent of a one-woman play, where her piano is the singular focal point. What impressed me the most was the emotional range and diversity that emanates from Fiona’s heart and soul into her fingers as they dance on the keyboard. Fiona Joy’s piano artistry is like a rainbow that sparkles with every color in the spectrum. From passionate reds, sunny yellows, and on into the more introspective indigos and violets, every tonal shade draws the listener in to what she is feeling and expressing. But no matter what the mood, anything that Fiona plays is marked by an elegance and gracefulness that is deeply evocative and inspiring. In contrast to her previous recording, Fiona views this as “a more inward journey, an exploration of maintaining magic in our lives, even when life itself gets in the way.” In closing, she addresses her listeners saying: “You will hear my feelings in these songs; they are dedicated to saving that small place in everyone’s heart, the place where fairytales linger, and where we find the strength to meet our reality…with grace.”