“Instrumental music in particular can communicate better than almost anything else” says English composer/pianist Richard Anthony Jay. “Without lyrics and a vocalist, the listener has to use imagination, and to feel what the music is about.”
For Richard, “feeling” what music is all about is now one of the driving principles guiding his life and music career, but that hasn’t always been the case. Like many working musicians, Richard’s life was “99% music, and one percent everything else” he says. That imbalance – coupled with his need to make a living making music – soon robbed Richard of his creative inspiration and drained his musical joy to the point where he didn’t want to write his own music or listen to anyone else’s music at all. It took a series of personal and musical realizations in his 30s to get back on the path of writing and enjoying music again.
Long before Richard’s “light bulb” moments, he was a self-described “unpopular child” with a hatred for school and its rigid schedules and predictability. He studied music back then, but only earned a C grade – his report cards for that class made him seem average, unlike the music professional he has become. Even with the average grade in music, Richard says he knew “from 10 years old that I wanted to work in music.”
Between the age of 10 and leaving formal education at 16, Richard says he was on a voyage of self-discovery, trying to find a genre of music that he wanted work within. His childhood interests quickly went from playing around on guitar to a love of keyboards, while his musical interests included an obsession with Motown artists and enjoying his father’s collection of lounge and Henry Mancini records.
With his mother’s help, Richard started to buy equipment of his own so that he could write music. He had one or two keyboards, a sequencer and miscellaneous other instruments and gear – very basic by today’s standards, but in the early 80’s this was a big deal. Writing music, he says “was pretty much my only interest in life.”
Richard started at the bottom of the music industry at 16 when he landed a job as a trainee at a recording studio. He says he “went from being the very shy, quiet, child” in school to working in a “glamorous and interesting place alongside equally glamorous and interesting people.”
The world of the recording studio was a far cry from the conservative family life he was raised in as a child. Two things converged together at that time that prompted Richard to make a huge change in his life. He became more attracted to the culture and big city life in London over his provincial upbringing, and he also discovered a new kind of music. A co-worker gave him a copy of The Serpent’s Egg by Dead Can Dance, an eclectic, critically acclaimed London-based alternative band which launched the career of Lisa Gerrard.
“I can still remember listening to it, sitting in my bedroom with my headphones on in an almost trance-like state,” Richard recalls. Other bands like Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil became strong early influences on his writing style. After years of searching, he’d finally found a genre that spoke to him. Having found his musical identity, Richard made the move to a tiny London apartment to be at the centre of the Music Industry where his musical horizons broadened. “London had saved me,” he says without hesitation.
Richard had worked his way up to the position of sound engineer at a London studio, where he was playing a recording one day in the presence of another studio engineer. The music caught the engineer’s attention, and he quizzed Richard about the artist.
“I told him that it was my music, and he said I shouldn’t be messing with the studio work – he said I should be writing the music” instead of mixing the music, Richard says.
Before then, it had never occurred to Richard to focus on his music instead of working to record other people’s music. Less than a year later, fate stepped in and the studio closed; the victim of an economic recession. Losing his job – the last real job he would ever have – he says, was the best thing that ever happened to him. Over the next year, and with generous unemployment benefits, Richard immersed himself in the culture and creative environment fostered by the arts and music scene in London. Among the dance clubs and rock music venues, Richard was drawn to classical music. He says the music of composer Michael Nyman was the first time he’d heard modern pop and rock rhythms and instruments mixed with traditional classical music. Richard spent the next year writing nothing but modern classical music, including a string quartet and an opera.
As the unemployment benefits neared an end, Richard decided to become self-employed and placed a ‘Producer/Arranger for hire’ ad in Melody Maker. For the next few years, he successfully produced music for a wide range of artists. Music with one of those artists led to a series of live performances at well known venues like The Marquee, and they were offered record deals by Sony, Parlophone and others. With three years invested with this one artist, all the deals fell through for various reasons, and the pair stopped working together.
The experience showed him the value of music publishing rights, so Richard founded Burning Petals Music, a publishing and production company. He had limited success writing music and selling it for different outlets around the world. Before long, he yearned to work on another music project and hooked up with a second talented female singer. Two years of hard work landed the duo a record deal in Japan, but that too fizzled out like so many other record deals dangled in front of thousands of other talented recording artists over the years. Richard was devastated again, with nothing to show for years of work for a second time in his 20s.
He walked away from working with artists and devoted himself to writing instrumental music. The only markets buying instrumentals were television and advertising, so Richard focused his efforts on cracking those markets. Over the next three years, he had music placed in TV spots all over the world through most of the major networks and advertising companies. The money was good, and he became such an expert at placing music on TV that he was paid to write a book on the subject.
At 30 years old, Richard was making a good living, but happiness eluded him. Music, he says, had become a job and a chore. With a newfound personal life (he’d recently married), he seemed to have lost his drive and passion he once had for music, confessing that he only turned on his music equipment if he was being paid to do so. Not only had the professional joy for music run dry, his personal enjoyment for music was also gone. Richard wrote numerous pieces in a short time across an amazing range of styles, but he says they were all snippets – written solely for commercials or as short background pieces.
“I had turned into a hack, with no voice of my own,” he laments. “Worse than that, I didn’t even have a stereo at home. I’d quit buying cds, quit going to concerts, and listened to music only while driving to prevent boredom.”
Without even realizing it, Richard had somehow ended up back in a dreary suburban town, much like the one he fled at 16 years old. Outside of being happily married, this was the worst time of his life. Like he had so often before, it was in this unhappy state that Richard had one of those life epiphanies – there was a void in his life where music used to thrive. With his wife’s support, Richard began to re-arrange his work and personal life to find musical joy and inspiration again. They moved from the dreary suburban town to what he describes as a “farm in the beautiful English countryside.” Richard also started to hang out at his old London musical haunts he frequented as a younger man; a move he says brought him back in time and helped restore that musical passion he overflowed with in his 20s.
Richard bought a stereo and started listening to music again. He also made the decision to stop writing “pastiche” musical clips for TV. Using the money he’d made from his advertising and TV work, he bought a small building near their home and filled it with all the studio equipment he’d dreamed of owning over the years. Getting back into music enjoyment and listening also inspired him in other ways. Richard discovered a whole host of music artists that were predominantly instrumental, self-releasing their music, and most of whom were over 30 – and then it hit him – that is what he should be doing.
“I thought that if they can do it, why couldn’t I? I spent 10 years working with singers because I thought I didn’t have a choice, but I did,” he says. “I’m not somebody’s engineer, somebody’s producer or co-writer. I am the artist.”
As someone who has single-mindedly followed his own path and own vision rather than the path which was fashionable or cool (purely because it was fashionable and cool), Richard says he’s never felt like he was being guided by fate or some other force to reach this point in his life. Instead, he says his musical path “felt like I’d driven from London to Edinburgh via Texas!”
He admits to getting restless quite easily and needs to change things up musically every few years. Perhaps that restlessness stems from the multiple dead-ends Richard experienced in his 20s.
“The last 20 years seemed like a very random journey to me,” he says. “This may not be the start of the rest of my life, as if I’ve found my ‘place’ in the musical universe. But if it turns out I have found my place, then maybe I won’t need that change in my life anymore.”
Whatever the future holds musically and professionally for Richard, for now, he is indeed the music artist, steering his own destiny and making the music he wants to make.