Farmington pianist, composer breaks new ground on latest disc
Sheldon Pickering shines on "Along for the Ride"
FARMINGTON — Local pianist, composer and arranger Sheldon Pickering is no stranger to the recording process, as he has released a half-dozen discs over the course of his career.
But he says there's no question that the experience of putting together his latest release, "Along for the Ride," which came out last week, was considerably different than anything he had undergone before.
"It was," he said. "Music is my way to cope."
Pickering had plenty to cope with when he began work on "Along for the Ride" roughly three years ago. A family crisis shook him to the core, and though he politely declined to discuss the specifics, he described it as a "soul-shaking experience."
When those events transpired, Pickering was the midst of preparing to perform a benefit show for a friend who was battling cancer. Pickering found himself in no mood to go before an audience, but felt obligated follow through on his commitment.
Then, something unexpected happened during rehearsals for the show. The emotional turmoil he was experiencing unlocked the greatest burst of creativity he had ever experienced, leading him to write a handful of new tunes. Those songs would go on to provide the backbone for "Along for the Ride."
"I had done several albums in the past, but they were mostly covers, with maybe one original," Pickering said.
To his amazement, Pickering found new songs were all but seeping from his fingertips. Before long, he had enough of his own material to do an entire album and didn't need to rely on the work of others.
"I basically cringe when people say 'original music,'" he said, laughing. "Because I'm so inspired by Beethoven, and everything stems from that. … But this helped me process some of the things I was going through."
Those bursts of creativity continued over the next two years, yielding more and more material. It wasn't long before Pickering found himself making regular trips to a studio in St. George, Utah, to record the 14 new tunes, where he was accompanied by Four Corners musicians Mauricio Espinal on strings and synthesizer, Dave Ortiz on bass and Rusty Simkins on percussion, along with St. George musicians Ryan Tilby on guitar, mandolin and bass, and Dutch Workman on percussion. After putting the final touches on the project two months ago, Pickering turned it over to a Nashville-based digital marketing company which is trying to take the music of the Farmington businessman and Central Consolidated School District board member to a new audience, perhaps even licensing it to TV or film productions.
Pickering describes his musical style in almost dismissive terms as "New Age-borderline-lite jazz," but there's no mistaking the enthusiasm in his voice when he talks about the new album and its potential for getting his musical career — and perhaps the careers of others — to a new level.
"It's exciting to see it go somewhere," he said. "It's nice to think people from around the world are going to be hearing these musicians from the Four Corners. I would like this to become a meaningful business that participates in the local economy. What if we could make really great music in the Four Corners and export it — and maybe even employ a few people?"
Pickering said the creative bursts he experienced during the production of "Along for the Ride" weren't completely unknown to him, but they seemed to disappear as quickly as they came, and he was unable to harness them. But his experience over the past three years has given him a new maturity as an artist, Pickering believes, and he's grateful for what he's learned.
"I kind of found out that creative people who produce great art – not that that's what I'm doing — almost always comes from pain," he said. "If you don't process that and go through it, I don't think you get to that point. For me, this was a mechanism for finding peace and tranquility."
Pickering said he makes a point now of crafting at least a snippet of a song nearly every night now, taking care to record his efforts so they aren't forgotten. Sometimes, those "musical sketches," as he calls them, blossom into full songs, and other times they don't. But that process keeps him fully engaged in a creative mode, and he now views himself as a composer as much as a performer.
He describes that new hard-won perspective in a way that sounds more applicable to another art form, comparing it to a painter discovering new colors or explaining how he yearns to speak to the listener through the piano, avoiding the usual chord changes. Pickering said his studies under Grammy-nominated pianist and songwriter Jim Brickman have aided in that effort. The experience of transcending his pain and distilling it into creativity has only whetted his musical appetite, it seems.
"I'm still looking for ways to learn and to grow and to add to the palate I have," he said.
Pickering will perform Friday, June 22 in the Healing Garden at the San Juan Regional Medical Center, and he'll be the featured musician before this summer's Sandstone Productions presentations of "Mary Poppins" at the Lion's Park Amphitheater in Farmington. He also has plans to schedule a CD release party in Farmington this fall that features all the musicians featured on "Along for the Ride."
The new disc is available for digital download on iTunes and is expected to be available soon on CDBaby. Other songs from Pickering's catalog are available or will be soon on Pandora.
Mike Easterling is the night editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.