Pianist Sheldon Pickering in midst of creative bonanza
New work allowing local musician to reach nationwide audience
FARMINGTON — As a husband and father, businessman and member of the Central Consolidated School District board of education, Sheldon Pickering has taken on plenty of commitments that demand near-constant attention. Yet, he still finds time to balance those interests with an ambitious music career that highlights his skills as a pianist, composer and arranger.
But his ability to juggle all that likely will be challenged this summer. Pickering has just released a new eight-song collection of hymns called "Blessed Assurance" and has another, as-yet-unnamed album of original tunes scheduled for release in October.
Those efforts follow the release of his disc "Along for the Ride" in spring 2018, the first album of Pickering's career that was focused on his work as a composer rather than relying largely on material from other songwriters.
Releasing three albums in approximately 18 months is a task that might drain even the most energetic of full-time musicians. But in Pickering's case, that creative spree simply seems to be the result of perhaps the most fertile period of his career.
Inspired by much of the music on the Grammy-winning "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack, Pickering recorded the material for "Blessed Assurance" two years ago in St. George, Utah. The minimalist set of instrumental tunes features longtime Pickering collaborators Ryan Tilby on guitar and bass, and Mauricio Espinal, who performed the strings parts.
Pickering describes the collection — which includes such well-known tunes as "Swing Low" and "Poor Wayfaring Stranger" — as inspirational songs that are deeply American.
"I guess songs of faith are so tied up in our history and are such a building block of our history, that meant a lot to me," he said. "Because they're so timeless, I've always wanted to do something with them. But I think they're done in a way that people can enjoy them, even people who aren't necessarily tied to the Christian faith."
While driving to St. George to record the album, Pickering took the opportunity drive through Zion National Park. That relaxing experience left him in an almost-meditative state by the time he reached the studio, he said.
"I took in that beauty and that scenery around me, and I tried to reflect that feeling of peace in the music," he said.
The collection of mostly original tunes that Pickering will release this fall was recorded under different circumstances. Taking advantage of his home recording equipment, Pickering recorded the piano parts alone and conveyed the files via flash drive to his collaborators around the region so they could add their parts.
Those included Espinal, who developed the strings arrangements, and two new collaborators – guitarist Michael Dowdle and percussionist Bart Olson, both of Utah. Pickering raved about their contributions to the disc and said their presence contributes to a more upbeat sound than listeners may have heard on "Along for the Ride."
Much of the material for the disc was written during a time when Pickering was making a conscious effort to compose something new every day — not necessarily a full song, but at least a snippet of one or a "musical sketch," as he called it. Some of those bits and pieces eventually coalesced into full songs, providing a musical language to express many of the emotions Pickering was experiencing at that point in his life.
"The cool thing about them is that a lot of them were about feelings," he said. "Whether I was having a good day or a bad day, I wanted to sit down at the piano and get it down as quickly as I could when a feeling struck."
Pickering seems to be growing increasingly adept at conveying those feelings in his art. While the hoped-for commercial success — including the licensing of his songs to film or TV producers — hasn't necessarily followed his increased output in recent years, Pickering is gratified by many of the opportunities that have come his way, citing recent TV appearances. His social media followers now number approximately 10,000, and some have become more than casual fans.
Pickering related the story of one such follower, a man in the Cleveland area who had become a self-described "superfan" after being inspired by Pickering's music. While performing in the area, Pickering surprised the man by dropping in unannounced at his home, taking him to lunch and gifting him the CDs from his catalog the man didn't already own.
"That's been the fun part of this — the connections, making new friends and learning," Pickering said.
Those kinds of experiences also reflect his philosophy about where he wants his music to take him. Pickering keeps what he a calls a "vision board" in his home — essentially a bulletin board upon which he attaches images downloaded from Google that speak to him in some way. The most significant of those images, he said, is one that pictures a sign reading "Music ministry."
Pickering immediately related to that message, realizing it reflected what he wants from his career. He is now engaged in the task of exploring how he can use his music to help people find the peace he said his art has brought him.
"There's a lot of power in music, and there's a lot of opportunity that wasn't there before to reach people and share it with them," he said. "At the end of the day, I don't know if there's a film or TV show that wants to use my work, but did I enjoy it? Did I reach somebody with it? If so, then it's a success."
Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610.