By Ian Krietzberg
David Ross Lawn first set foot on his musical journey in Scotland at the age of nine, when his mother presented him with a miniature keyboard. Sitting in front of the TV without an ounce of musical education in his veins, Lawn found that, without understanding what he was doing, he was able to translate the music he was hearing on the screen into melodies (albeit with only one finger) on his toy keyboard.
Any musician can train his or her ear, over time, to more quickly identify the specific notes in a piece of music they might hear. But it is not often that a musician, without training or experience, has the ability to intrinsically understand what notes they are hearing and reproduce them.
When he first began piano lessons, Lawn had two teachers: one with a greater focus on the classical side of music, and one with a greater emphasis on pop and rock chords, theory and music.
“I never liked the classical ideals of ‘this is how it has to be,’” Lawn said. “I liked the idea of understanding the form of songs, understanding how melody works, but I was always really more of a composer — I want to know how to do this but I also want to know how to twist this into my own way, and that was what my keyboard teacher was awesome for.”
From a young age, Lawn’s life was infused with music, from pop and rock to Romantic and Baroque era classical. But it wasn’t until high school that Lawn started taking music more seriously — reaching an advanced level of skill at the keyboard, he picked up and quickly mastered the oboe, with which he applied to several music colleges in the area. He enrolled at the north Scotland University of Aberdeen with a dual major in oboe and piano, the place where he first encountered composition.
“There was a module where if you’re doing a music degree you have to take at least one composing and arranging class, and if it wasn’t for that class and that teacher,” Lawn said, “I wouldn’t have discovered my abilities in composition.”
Faced with a standard assignment to create a 10-minute long original composition, Lawn threw himself into the task, researching methods of composition for certain instruments, eventually creating a piece that operated around a string quartet.
“For some reason, my soul took to this task,” Lawn said. “I remember getting taken into the office by my teacher and I thought I was going to get in trouble for plagiarism, and it turns out he took me into the office, and [he said], ‘I don’t know if you know this yet, but you’re a composer.’”
Following this realization, that teacher took Lawn under his wing, inspiring Lawn to create a music portfolio. At the urging of his compositional teacher, Lawn applied and was accepted at Westminster Choir College in Princeton.
“And that’s when I created a piece on my first album, I made that as part of my undergrad portfolio. So all these pieces that are still floating around stemmed from my childhood,” Lawn said. “I think it’s important to remember that, as a perspective point, we only know what we know right now and we have to just keep moving with what we know. And with piano, I think that’s what does the best, when you go back into your younger, vulnerable self and create something beautiful. It can just be something that is a truth for you, or a memory, nostalgia. That’s really what it is, I think, as a composer that I try and channel. It’s been like that for me, ever since the younger age, ‘oh, I feel something, let me go to the piano.’”
Like with all art forms, Lawn views music as a response to and a reflection of the outside world. The inspiration for his most recent EP, entitled “The Nocturnes,” is the sweeping horrors of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The reason this album is called ‘The Nocturnes’ is that it’s the pieces of the nighttime,” Lawn said. “These pieces for me are my response to the darkness, the darkness that one would feel when they are getting told that they have to stay inside, they can’t do anything really artistic or have an audience in front of them, and so I think it goes deeper into the darkness that someone would feel during this time. And that’s where I drew my inspiration for this, I just kind of sat at the piano and went for it.”
In 2020, spurred by the pandemic, Lawn returned to Youtube, posting New Age piano covers of pop songs that hail from a variety of genres. Since March of 2020, his channel has grown by more than 4,000 subscribers, which has led to a variety of other social media avenues that all combine to make a more profound and complete career as a modern musician.
“I felt it was necessary for me to take to the Internet,” Lawn said, “to take to the social media, to take to maybe just creating a little EP and releasing it, just seeing what I could do as a composer and performer that’s safe and hopefully effective. In this day and age, it’s almost all about how you get other people to see [the music] and hear it, and how you can have other people use it in order for that music to be heard.”
Though he posts often to Youtube with his New Age or minimalistic piano covers, his other platforms don’t have an intrinsically musical focus.
“As an artist, I identify very much with gender fluidity, and so I go between all kinds of gender identities within what I project,” Lawn said. “And I think that the clothes we put on our back tell so many beautiful stories about ourselves and also about how we want to be perceived. So, on my internet aesthetics, I really just channel the artforms that I love — I love the Baroque era of clothing, I love Victorian, I love Edwardian, late 18th-century clothing, and I actively spend a lot of time trying to find this clothing or find brands that replicate this kind of clothing, and I just like to wear it.”
This style is central to the core of who Lawn is, and has created some hurdles in the classical music realm of physically getting hired to perform, or commissioned to write and play a piece.
“The way that the classical music world works is very unforgiving on the way people look, unfortunately,” Lawn said. “And, we’re trying to change that, we’re working on it. You should be able to show up and just get hired for your talent.”
With close to 20,000 followers on an Instagram account that is devoted to his unique sense of fashion, Lawn has begun to work, in some capacity, with the clothing brands he loves the most, featuring their work on his page.
“For me it’s all about using fashion to tell the story, so as long as it feels authentic to me,” Lawn said. “I know it’s a bold choice, especially on someone that projects more on the masculine side, but that doesn’t really faze me, it doesn’t change who I am or want to be.”
More recently, Lawn has taken to Tik Tok, the infamous video-sharing app, where he now has close to 60,000 followers, though it started as nothing more than a fun experiment. Lawn threw together a few outfit-compilations that, once posted, went viral, rapidly increasing the size of his audience.
“I’m trying to be that voice for the people that didn’t have that voice when they were younger, that it’s okay to be yourself and wear whatever you want,” Lawn said. “If it makes you feel beautiful, then you should do it. And I think that’s the ultimate ideal of style and fashion, it’s really doing what you want to do.”
And despite the simple authenticity of his ideals that he displays, the reaction these Tik Tok’s garnered was not at all anticipated.
“I did not think that the response would be so positive,” Lawn said. He gets DM’s “every single day from people on Tik Tok just being like ‘I wore a dress to school today because you inspired me to do that;’ so many people reaching out just saying ‘thank you for doing what you’re doing.’ It’s definitely building a small community of people that are allies at least, in some way, shape or form of this kind of craft and this kind of direction.”
“I like Tik Tok,” he added with a laugh. “I think it’s very misunderstood. My channel is more on the motivational, inspirational side, and I’m definitely going to continue using that platform to try and help people understand that you can be whoever you want to be.”
In 2018, Lawn released his first original EP, titled “Songs of the Sun,” part of which was featured on a Scottish TV promo and an Air New Zealand playlist. The title of the album is representative of the core idea of the album — a return to his childhood, something he associates with the imagery of the sun.
“The titles are born from the specific visual elements that I had in mind when I was writing the music,” Lawn said. “‘A Conversation Between Lovers’ was actually not a conversation at all, it was two people sitting in silence, and it was me musically interpreting what happens when people can stare through each other and not speak. I think there’s something really powerful and weirdly beautiful about that. I just go into that feeling when I’m playing that music; I do my best musically when I just think about something in my life and I somehow have the ability to translate that into music. It’s about the life experiences that I’m putting into the music.”
While “Songs of the Sun” has this focus on birth, life and adolescence — a musical outlook into the human condition, Lawn’s upcoming album “The Nocturnes” acts almost as an inverse to his first album, exploring the darkness that is, in this case, the pandemic.
“The pandemic, the isolation, the loneliness,” Lawn said, “but it’s also the silver linings, and being able to create art from the house and being able to stay safe. I think there’s motivation in this album and there’s light at the end of the tunnel in this album just as much as there is the songs of the nighttime.”
For the first track of the EP, “Luna,” Lawn worked to emulate the distinctive, almost simplistic beauty of Chopin into a “waltz under the moonlight.”
The song “Vigil” is incredibly reflective of our current environment, an environment where more than 2 million people have been killed by Covid-19.
“The visual that I have for this is dark, but here we are,” Lawn said. “It’s people on their knees praying in a church, but it’s because their significant other has perished due to the virus. I couldn’t help but think of that trauma of going to religion: ‘God, why did you make a virus?’ People do that often when something terrible happens, and it’s the silence — there’s not really any response of ‘why is this happening,’ we just have to find our own reasoning and find our own excuse and find our own understandings.”
This song, in particular, utilizes a concept that Lawn called a “wall of sound,” where he creates a “cluster of dissonance consistently clashing with consonance,” creating a relentless tension and release by adding notes to a chord while maintaining the base of that chord.
In the song “Valerian,” Lawn worked to create a soundscape that is representative of someone falling asleep, resplendent with carefully produced echoes near the end that serve to mirror the action of falling into unconsciousness.
The last song of the EP, “Onward,” did not come immediately to Lawn. He had the music and the melody, but the title proved elusive. His mind kept returning to the word itself — “onward” — and how it can so often be perceived as a command, but that there is a softer, subtler side to the word.
“You have to move on you, have to go onward,” Lawn said. “I like the duality of the definition of the word, and I couldn’t get that word out of my head when I was playing the melody. If anything I’m trying to tell people that it’s okay to move on in whichever way that you feel comfortable. Pandemic-wise, it’s really hard for us to see the sun, metaphorically right now — the word onward is a play on that, a push forward in any way, shape or form.”
And through years of musical education, composition, performance, arrangement, creating content across social media platforms and instructing students, all strung together with the goal of composing for film and television, the task has never felt like a chore.
“I’m really proud to say that I don’t create anything if I don’t feel like it,” Lawn said. “If it ever felt like a job, I wouldn’t do it. There might be days that I don’t practice the piano or I don’t play — I don’t have a set structure. It’s funny as a piano teacher, you’re always telling your students ‘make sure you practice every day’ — I don’t say that. I say ‘make sure you practice when you feel like it,’ but ‘make sure you feel like it.’”
For Lawn, it all boils down to inspiration — whether that means he is personally feeling inspired, or if that means he can work to help and inspire others.
“It’s my role as a teacher and as a creative even to always make sure that I’m feeling inspired,” he said. “I think that you do it when it feels right, and when you feel called to do it, that’s the best time. And that’s the role of any musician. It’s all about just finding that within yourself. The instrument’s always going to be there, it’s what you put into it that matters.”
You can preorder David Ross Lawn’s upcoming EP, “The Nocturnes,” here.