Score one for local inspiration: Composer leans on Northampton experience for instrumental piano album

  • Isaac Owen recorded his instrumental piano album, “Graves Ave,” at this Northampton apartment. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Isaac Owen, who once worked in Los Angeles as a film composer, recorded his instrumental piano album, “Graves Ave,” at this Graves Avenue, Northampton apartment he lived in for three years. STAFF PHOTO/kevin gutting

  • Isaac Owen’s debut album of piano music, recorded in his former apartment on Graves Avenue in Northampton, offers a range of styles including blues, tango and classical crossover. STAFF PHOTO/kevin gutting

  • Owen played the compositions on his album, “Graves Ave,” on a piano that dates from the early 20th century, which he obtained for free from Craig’s List. Image courtesy Isaac Owen

  • Home recording: Owen gets ready to record at Grave Avenue. contributed/Isaac Owen

Staff Writer
Published: 1/6/2022 1:20:30 PM
Modified: 1/6/2022 1:19:53 PM

Isaac Owen had been thinking for some time that he’d like to record an album of original music. The pianist and composer, who grew up near Athol and studied at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, had been writing instrumental piano music for years, but he’d long kept much of that work to himself, almost like a form of journaling.

But a few years ago, Owen, who’s 32, hosted a house concert for friends and neighbors at his apartment on Graves Avenue near downtown Northampton, at which he played a wide range of his compositions — and the positive response he got convinced him to make an album.

Now he’s done just that, recording 10 piano instrumentals that showcase a variety of styles: classical and classical crossover, blues, a touch of jazz, and what might be called impressionistic or folk. And in a nod to where some of that music was composed and all of it recorded, he’s titled the album “Graves Ave.”

Owen, who previously spent several years working as a film composer in Los Angeles, also brings a good amount of emotion and atmosphere to his music — indeed, you can imagine a number of these tracks, such as the alternately spare and dramatic “Tango in A Minor,” serving as film scores.

“A lot of my pieces begin as improvisations that come from a feeling or an impression of a particular moment,” Owen said in a recent phone interview. “I build on those improvisations and try to capture those feelings in my music … I’m trying to create a bottle to hold it, though it’s hard to get it all completely.”

Owen, whose full name is Isaac Owen Richardson, is actually living in Royalston at the moment, close to where he grew up in Phillipston, after he moved back there about six months ago to stay with his family while recuperating from knee surgery. Liking the quiet of the area, he found an apartment in Royalston.

But Owen says he still comes into Northampton at least once a week for various things, and he gives online piano lessons through Downtown Sounds. He says Northampton’s overall artistic vibe has been an inspiration for his music.

“I lived on Graves Avenue for three years and really connected with my roommates, my neighbors, and other people I got to know,” he said. “I think all of that helped in developing [these compositions].”

He recorded the album tracks at his former apartment, positioning two microphones over an old upright piano he’d obtained for free on Craig’s List (that piano is still in the apartment; Owen has two other pianos, including a smaller traveling model, in Royalston).

Looking back, he says the pandemic provided something of a small silver lining, in that he had more time to work on his music. He also became a member of Patreon, an online membership platform that supports artists via a subscription service, giving subscribers perks such as private online shows.

“One of my friends suggested I join [Patreon], and this album was the result of that,” Owen said.

Doing those online shows “was a little strange at first, when all you have in front of you is a camera and a computer,” he added. But performing for an audience also helped him develop his musical ideas a bit more.

Owen says he started classical piano lessons at age 5 and later moved on to blues and jazz; he also spent two years at the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School in South Hadley, where he studied under multi-instrumentalist Mitch Chakour.

At Berklee, he studied jazz piano before switching his major to film scoring and composition.

“I like to write in different styles, and composition gives you the structure to do that,” he said.

You can hear that in the variety of music on “Graves Ave.” Tracks such as “Ode to a Moment of Beauty” and “Swaying in a Warm Breeze” move slowly along gentle melody lines, while the blues/ragtime rhythm of “Boogie Woog” has Owen cutting loose with fast runs up and down the keyboard.

The sprightly “Cane Walk” — Owen describes this tune as “an old man with a cane and a lot of energy” — has a music-hall feel to it, and the richly melodic “Eb Major” recalls the work of George Winston.

Owen says the album is also informed by his experience working as a film composer in Los Angeles. After graduating from Berklee in 2012, he drove to California and found work, first as an unpaid intern and then as an assistant to a number of Hollywood film composers, including Hans Zimmer, who’s written music for over 150 films including “The Lion King,” “Gladiator” and “The Dark Knight” trilogy.

Owen ended up writing scores primarily for independent and short films, and he also began teaching music. “There’s only so far you can go on an unpaid internship,” he said with a laugh. Eventually he missed New England and its change of seasons and came back East, settling in Northampton.

He’s played in some bands over the years, including in college, and he’s jammed with some musicians here in the Valley. But he sees himself mostly as a soloist and is interested in composing for film projects here. He’s also played solo gigs in the area — outside during the pandemic — at private gatherings such as weddings.

Owen sees “Graves Ave” as an “appetizer” for a longer, full-length album: “I have a lot of other work I’d like to record.” He’s also hoping listeners will feel the emotions he’s put into his compositions, though he recognizes someone else’s response to the tracks could be quite different than his.

“That’s OK,” he said. “Music is all about connecting people, and that’s what I’m interested in.”

“Graves Ave” is available as a digital download, though Owen says he may make limited copies available as CDs or on vinyl. You can find out more about his music at isaacowen.com.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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