Successful Musicians Podcast Episode 12
Interviewee: Steve Rivera
Interviewer: Jason Tonioli
Hey, this is Jason Tonioli. I’m a piano player that grew up believing it wasn’t possible to earn a living and support a family with music. I’ve proven that idea was wrong and I’ve met hundreds of other people who have found success with their music. This podcast features stories of musicians who have found their own personal version of success and fulfillment in both music and life. This podcast is meant to inspire musicians and help them believe in their abilities and motivate them to share their talents with others. This is the Successful Musicians Podcast.
Jason: Hey guys, it’s Jason Tonioli here with the Successful Musicians Podcast and my special guest today is Steve Rivera. He is a multi-talented composer that’s worked with a lot of interesting people over his career. He’s a piano consultant as well but he does music for his career, he touches multiple pieces of it and he’s got a really interesting story from growing up too so Steve, why don’t you just take us away and give us kind of how you ended up getting started in music? Give us your background.
Steve: Jason, it’s great to be here on your podcast. Welcome everyone! Your regular listeners and maybe some new listeners that are listening in. Jason’s doing a fantastic job of bringing some of the successful musicians that are making a living doing music so thank you, Jason. Awesome!
So, basically, I grew up around the piano. My dad plays. He’s more of a blues player and they tried to make me take lessons when I was like seven or eight, but you know growing up in South California, I wanted to surf and skateboard, go snowboarding. I didn’t have time for piano lessons so…
Jason: Sounds like many of us. I was the same way. I hated practicing. [Laughter]
Steve: Yeah. Practicing is absolutely necessary if you want to advance.
Jason: But I think for me, it was… I hated practicing – stuff that I was told I had to practice. If it was my own thing and what I wanted to do, it was a whole different story.
Steve: Well, and actually that’s what got me into really playing a lot. Now, I’m going to date myself. There’s a radio station out here called K Rock and they started playing like
Tears for Fears, Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, all these heavy synth bands and so I would listen, and I started just playing by ear and picking it up and being able to play these songs that are on the radio and then I thought, “I can actually do this”, and I had started going to church at that time and they wanted me to start playing with the worship band and everything and so I did. I learned how to read chord charts and play by ear and so after high school, I thought I’ll go to college and major in Composing and Conducting which is exactly what I did.
Jason: Very cool! Was there a specific moment in time when you decided “Oh my gosh, I need to do music as a career, that it hits you. You know that “aha” moment?
Steve: Aha! That’s a great question because my musical journey has been very interesting. Like I said, I started going to college and majored in Composing and Conducting and then after 3 years of college, I had the opportunity because I started watching professional ice hockey and for any listeners that were watching hockey back then, my first actual hockey game was going to a Los Angeles Kings game and Hartford Whalers so that tells you how long ago it was.
And I thought, “oh my gosh, I want to play hockey and since I’ve always been pretty athletic, I started playing hockey and they announced that they were building the pond in Anaheim for the Anaheim Ducks, and I thought I want to work for a professional hockey team, and I ended up becoming really good friends with the head equipment manager of the lakes and a position opened up as an Assistant Equipment Manager and so I quit piano, I quit school and started working for the Kings.
Jason: So, you didn’t even finish your degree?
Steve: Didn’t finish my degree. I worked for the Kings during the mid ’90s when Wayne Gretzky was there, Marty McSorley, Yari Curry – all of these legends of hockey.
Jason: Very cool.
Steve: Yeah, so I did that for about almost six years and then left the hockey team and started playing piano again and played at Nordstrom’s
Jason: Okay. So, how long did you do the Nordstrom’s gig? Was that like a daily thing? Was it every couple weekends
Steve: Well, that’s an interesting story too. I was one of the younger pianists at Nordstrom’s because most of the pianists that played there were older and retired and maybe did like one or two shifts a week at one store and so I went in, and I did two shifts at a store and then I thought I want to do this full time, so I started reaching out to other stores and then I started playing at like 4 or 5 different stores every week so it became a full-time job.
That’s when I did my first initial album that I self-produced and it actually played on the music system throughout all the Nordstroms in the country.
Jason: Very cool. Interesting! And I’m sure when you are playing every day in Nordstrom’s, you’re probably just changing things up and you probably get tired of playing the same songs or getting the same request but that’s probably where you got really good at piano then, right?
Steve: I have never ever heard somebody say, “Hey, can you play that one song. I don’t know what it’s called or who wrote it but it kind of goes “Dandarandarandan…” Do you know it?
That was the most requested song. So no, I carried this through to today, realizing, like you said, is it hard to play that many hours and like being able to change it up and playing different songs is something that I carry through even to this day when I play is realizing how fortunate I am that I can play music and that there might be somebody listening to me and hearing my music that has never heard me before and they deserve to hear the same music that somebody else is who has heard me play before which keeps me conscientiously saying, “I want to play as with as much energy or passion as I possibly can.”
Jason: Got it! Very cool. So, you did the Nordstroms thing and then fast forward. What’s happening between? What are you working on now?
Steve: Okay, well let’s see. I’ll fast forward as quickly as possible. After Nordstrom’s decided that they didn’t want to have pianist in their stores anymore, so they got rid of all their pianos and all their pianists and my older brother before he passed away had a very successful telecommunication and networking company, so I went and did IT for like 12 years and anyways did that. My brother unfortunately passed away and so I decided I wanted to do music again and just went on Craigslist and answered a couple ads for bands and for keyboard players for a band and so I started playing keyboards.
One of the first bands I played in was like this Lollipop rock-and-roll kind of band and we geeked out and that lived its life then of all things, I had somebody ask me if I wanted to play in their gothic metal band.
Steve: Playing a heavy… and what’s that band? I think it was like Ever Essence or something. Anyways, it was this metal gothic dark band and I came out in a cloak and then somebody else asked me to come and play at their restaurant. Totally different transition.
So, I started playing at the restaurant where i still play at today for about 11 years now and after about two years of playing at the restaurant and starting to get back heavily into playing and practicing at home and relearning everything, I decided I want to do another album and so that is when I became friends with Will Ackerman who ran and founded Windham Hill Records. We produced my album, my first album, Dividing the Darkness there.
Jason: Awesome. You’ve got a little girl, that’s I know your pride and joy and when we first met, that was what I remember. You talked about her . She was your everything for sure. I’m curious, as you’ve written music, you’ve done two albums, now the original songs, where do you find inspiration and ideas? Where do you feel like you get the best
ideas and inspiration for your music?
Steve: That’s a great question. And I have my older daughter too who’s fantastic. She’s with an airline, in corporate doing training and what’s called initial hires and current so she’s living her corporate life now and so I’m super proud of her and then my little girl who’s going to be 11. She’ll sit at the piano with the phantom score, with the score phantom and she had to write a letter to Santa Claus because she wanted to be able to keep her elves on the shelf and you have your little girl, so you know…
So, she sits at the piano doing the phantom score, teaching them the lead line, the vocal line. So yeah, she’s amazing.
Where do I find my inspiration? You know, I’ve been all over the place musically and now with “Dividing the Darkness“ and “Beyond Measures in Time” what I almost always say during interviews is they ask me how I would self-describe my music. Where do I find my inspiration?
Since I’m classically trained, with my albums though, I try to conscientiously have a restrained simplicity while still making it emotionally moving and I find and this leads into where I find my inspiration. If my life is chaotic and stressful, then a lot of the music that I’m going to put out there is dissonant chords and just off tempo – something that’s not syncopated, right? Because it’s chaotic and it’s not predictable. When I’m in a better place in my life and I’m just being in the moment and being in the now, I find that simplistic
Does that make sense?
Jason: Well, it makes a lot of sense. I think the emotional state you’re in really dictates a lot of how your music comes out so that makes total sense.
Steve: And that inspiration depends on if I’m working on a particular project. For example, when I did Beyond Measures in Time, if this whole idea was going to be like ology, the “study of” which is why on the album cover it’s like a piano taken apart with mannequin hands. It has a watch on one hand and then you see an hourglass, so it gives this distinction and a lot of that is based on trying to put together things that normally wouldn’t work but making them work and deconstructing it and coming to the music in this; not philosophical but like I said, like “a study of” like why am I doing this music, where is it coming from, how can I put it together, contrast that with a musical that I mentioned them briefly before we started, writing a full production musical and I’m writing the book and the lyrics and the music and so coming into those, I’m writing it for a particular purpose it starts at the point A and by the end of the song it has to be at point B.
Jason: Got it. Very cool. Well, I’m curious especially since so you lasted longer in the College of Music Program than I did, I was also a dropout, but I think I lasted three days, and I was and i switched over to the business and marketing world but if you had advice for so let’s say, you’ve got you know your daughter or somebody you know is young and trying to decide “Man, I think I may want to do music as a career” but I know all too often, people tell, well-meaning people tell people not to go into the music as a career or just the music industry because it’s going to be hard and I think they’re trying to protect them but I’m just curious what your advice would be for somebody that’s kind of on that fence and kind of in that moldable phase of life. What would you tell them to learn or do? If you could go back and give that advice even to yourself, I guess.
Steve: That’s a fantastic question. Without making it too long, I had to experience that with my older daughter Rachel who was going to college and majoring in the Nursing program and wanted to become a nurse practitioner. Okay and then her mom passed away, my ex-wife and then my daughter decided she wanted to travel the world and leave college and I told her “You follow your dream. You do what you want to do because life is now.”
Life is now. Obviously be prepared for the future and do things that are going to secure our future for us but at the end of the day, all we have is now and if you have the dream and the passion to share music with someone or be creative in any capacity – whether you’re an artist and you paint or you sculpt or you do woodwork, music, whatever capacity, if you have that passion and that drive and that determination, then follow your dreams because at the end of the day, what do we have?
15:42 Honestly, at the end of the day, if we’re not doing the things that we love, this is our life right now, our life isn’t tomorrow, our life isn’t yesterday, it’s right now. If we’re not pursuing and doing the things that make us happy then what’s the point?
Jason: You’re gonna live with a lot of regrets and I think far too many people do that and get stuck in their job and then they’re just…it’s a long 30 or 40 years of a career and then you wonder what just happened, right?
Steve: Oh, and you have children too. You’ve realized that time goes by so quickly. I was just barely at the hospital holding them when they were born and now, I’m buying them a car and their driver’s license. They’re getting their driver’s license and then they’re going off to college.
Jason: I just sat through my son’s graduation and just sat there thinking what in the world just happened. I was in the same building, same place. Whoa!! This was crazy.
Steve: Yeah, and life can be very fragile and how many times have you heard people say they go into their career and then 30 years later they’re looking back going – “I didn’t go on that vacation, I haven’t traveled the world like I’ve wanted to, I haven’t gone and seen the pyramids in Giza, I haven’t gone here, I haven’t done this” and all of a sudden, their life was so consumed with what?
Jason: … stuff that maybe doesn’t matter. As I look back on our very first interaction, when we met each other, you were like, “hey, whatever my daughter needs, that’s my priority and I really respected you for that. You drop whatever you were doing and build around that because I think you’ve got an older daughter now, you realize it’s like wow this is going to be done before I know it.
Steve: Well, I tell my older daughter that all the time. I said, “Rachel, if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t realize how valuable spending time with those that I love is and how quickly that time can just go away.”
You know there’s no guarantee of tomorrow and so anybody who’s doing music or wants to do music or wants to go in that avenue, no matter what career path you choose, it’s a challenge whether you want to be a doctor, an attorney if you want to work as a CEO of a company, if you want to start your own company, all of that takes determination and time
and people are always going to…it’s really funny because it’s usually people who haven’t succeeded that are going to tell you “Oh don’t even try it, it’s not worth your time. You need to go down over here and get a job that’s sustainable that’s going to give you a future and a 401k, right?”
Steve: …and look at people’s 401k right now? We don’t even want to talk about that. So, it’s no fault of their own and so they have to look back from the 30 years that they’ve lived. Has it been fulfilling?
So, anybody who’s looking to do music or art creativity as a career, it is a challenging industry to navigate but it is well worth it, and you can absolutely succeed and the thing that I would say has been the key to my success – is having sincerity and being genuine at the same time realizing that I have a talent and creativity that is shareable, and that people enjoy.
Jason: Outside of your family, I guess when we just talk about the music side, what part of your music journey that you feel like has been the most fulfilling? and why do you feel like that?
Steve: Well, I’ll give you one example. When I was recording my first album, Dividing the Darkness and we’re at the studio with Will and Tom Eaton who’s a fantastic engineer, we had other musicians come in and like so that first album has cello and violin and percussions and some vocals and a few other instruments and I have these Grammy award-winning artist coming in and saying, “Okay, Steve what do you want to do here? How do you want me to approach the music? What direction do you want to go?”
And so, I basically, from humility, right here I am working with these kinds of talented professionals and so telling them, what I really would like is for you to play exactly what you feel. Whatever is feeling in here, whatever you’re feeling inside, let that come out and so for example, the cellist Eugene Friesen – phenomenal, he would play in the songs and after he played, he literally would sit there for about 20 seconds in dead silence, contemplating what was just pulled from him and the fact that my music was what I’ve written, was written in such a way that it gave him that wherewithal to just ponder what he just did and that was exciting for me. I think Eugene has won like four Grammys himself and for him to just sit back and just being off what was just taken from him, what he just contributed and poured out of himself from my musical structure was like wow that is so cool.
The other musicians that we had wanted to keep on playing, wanted to add more stuff to more songs. He was super excited about the project and my producer, Will Ackerman had to be like “No, no, no, no, we’re just gonna use this here and here” and so to see that enthusiasm, yeah, to see the enthusiasm so quickly gone from that first album from Dividing the Darkness so quickly gone, I had written and Will himself was so moved by it that he asked me permission. Will Ackerman ask me “Can I put some guitar on there?”
Just because he was so moved from it and that having somebody like that so moved by your music makes you want to cry, literally.
Jason: That’s awesome. We’ve taken up a lot of your time but if people want to go listen to your music, I’ve listened to it, I still listen to it. When we were together. We both played some songs for each other, and we’ll share some of that and it was awesome but to go check out and find more of your music, where do they go?
Steve: If they want to go to my website which is www.steveriveramusic.com, they can find all the links to all my music and everything on there.
Jason: Very cool.
Steve: … and then that’s one thing. Thank you for bringing that up, Jason. How awesome of Michelle to open up her home, to have that many pianists come in and that’s where I met you and open up her home for what 25 different piano artists
Jason: …to come hang out and we had a great…an amazing piano to play on but just you get to meet good people and I think what’s been really interesting for me is throughout my career and I’ve worked in a lot of music and met tons of music people as well but the musicians in general are just such kind and helpful people. I love that part of this industry for sure and the more you get to know people and who they really are, you see the true colors come out and they’re pretty awesome colors so…
Steve: Well, yeah, because they’re exposing their vulnerability to you, they’re sharing everything within themselves.
Jason: Yep. You were there that night. As we were all sitting around the piano and I took a turn playing a couple of my songs that were brand new and just open it up to feedback and I mean you want to like totally to be exposed, feel like you’re “here it is and give me feedback” and that was that from that night with you is the more you can be willing to take
input and advice, the more you’re going to be able to grow. So, if you want to get better, be willing to not only get advice from others but self-critique but don’t be ashamed of who you are and what your music sounds like either. Don’t try to be somebody else. Be you. I think that will always serve you well, whether it’s in the music or whatever career somebody does decide to take.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help because people do want to help and see you succeed.
Steve: You’re absolutely right and I would say that if you have confidence combined with humility – confidence with who you are, what you can do and what you can create and the excitement and enthusiasm for that but with humility.
Jason: That’s some great advice. Definitely, go check out Steve’s music. It’s steveriveramusic.com. You’re probably gonna plan on blocking out a good hour of your time because you’re gonna probably want to keep listening to the album. It’s really well done, so go check that out.
Steve, it’s been a pleasure chatting with you. We’ll have to get together and chat some more another time. Thanks so much.
Steve: I look forward to it, Jason. Thank you very much.
Hey, it is Jason here and I hope you have gotten a lot of value out of this episode. Be sure to check out our show notes to learn more about our guest for today and if you’d like to support our podcast, there’s a few things that you could do to help us grow.
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Finding success and fulfillment in the music industry is possible. Looking forward to seeing you in our next episode.2
How to Connect with the Featured Guest:
Our guest for today is a multi-talented pianist and composer who’s worked with a lot of notable musicians over his career. Steve chose to work with one of the premier new age and contemporary instrumental producers in the world; the GRAMMY-winning founder of the legendary Windham Hill Records, Will Ackerman. Along with Will’s roster of world-class studio musicians at Imaginary Road Studios, Steve has created two albums that have garnered critical acclaim from highly regarded reviewers in the genre.
What You’ll Learn
In this episode, Steve will take us with him on his extraordinary musical journey from playing in Nordstrom, to joining metal gothic dark band and to achieving his level of consummate artistry he has achieved today.
He also shares how and where he gets his ideas and inspiration in creating his music.
The release of his two albums “Dividing the Darkness” and “Beyond Measures in Time” were very successful.
We will also be getting some wonderful life tips on valuing time, regrets and reaching for your dreams.
Things We Discussed
Dividing the Darkness – Steve’s first album. has charted at Zone Music Reporter, Secret Music, and One World Music Radio since it was released in October of 2015. Steve Rivera received a nomination as “Best New Artist” at Enlightened Piano Radio and was Featured Artist in April of 2016.
produced by Will Ackerman and Tom Eaton, and what a beauty it is! Backed by the stellar line-up of musicians at Imaginary Road Studios
Beyond Measures in Time – Steve Rivera’s new release, recorded at Imaginary Roads Studios.
Connect with Steve Rivera
Connect with Jason