Music became the driving force in Kyle Petersen’s life after he played his first song on the piano at the age of four. He has worked as a concert pianist and behind the scenes in the music industry, serving as a musical director for more than thirty shows. In 2011, he moved into the role of performer with the release of his debut solo album Project One. Kyle has worked with some of the top musicians in South Africa and will be playing with the London Philharmonic next year. Ayiba’s Rara Reines recently spoke with Kyle about his musical influences, his songwriting process, and his transition from directing to performing.
How would you describe your own individual sound?
Not something I’ve really thought about to be honest. I just sort of go where the music takes me, but if I did have to give it an identity I would definitely say a strong melody-based form of pop rock with an infusion of simple classicism.
It seems that for much of your career you were involved in directing behind the scenes and have since moved more into the spotlight. Have you faced any challenges with that transition?
Yes. When you’re stepping into the “limelight” you need to grow your confidence level accordingly. For me that took a little bit of getting used to, but practice makes perfect, and I’m very at home on stage now—whether in the front or behind my keyboard rig.
What have been the major influences on your musical style?
All of the greats, from Beethoven to Michael Jackson to Stevie Wonder. I love how these artists and artists like them have been able to create music that connects with their listeners and audiences on an emotional level.
Could you walk us through the process of putting together your album Project One?
Project One was my first experience in terms of producing my own material. I had worked for many artists before that, but when it’s your own material it’s a bit trickier as you’re so close to the product it’s difficult to “let go.” However, the process was amazing. It starts, in my case, with just a piano part and vocal melody followed by the lyrics. Then the instruments are placed around it, until eventually the song takes on its own direction and the effects and mix finish it off.
Having just come back from Australia where I have been working on the debut album for our international band LIFE, I can tell you that sometimes the process is completely different and even more fun! While putting together the LIFE album with fellow members Mick Evans, Rebeka Rain, and Darren Petersen we started some songs with drums, others with vocals, others with guitars, and all sorts of weird and wonderful things. That’s why collaborations always produce the strongest final products—when creative people bounce off each other and push each other, it always leads to something unexpectedly special.
How has your background being a concert pianist influenced the type of music you produce today?
I understand the importance of spending time developing your craft and the benefits that come with doing that, because that’s what I had to do when I was playing classically. So, because of that, I now put as much time practicing my production skills and mixing skills and compositional skills, because I know it will help me develop into the best producer I can be.
What is your songwriting process like and what do you write about most often?
Musicians reading this article will know that sometimes it starts when an idea pops into your head at 3 a.m. and won’t leave. It could be just a simple melody or a guitar part or piano part, etc., but what I do then is immediately get up and go upstairs to the recording studio to put the idea down. Next I’ll think of a scenario that the music lends itself towards and start writing from there. Once I have a full melody and chord structure, the real fun begins. But I try to always leave a day or two in between so that when I come to fleshing out the musical identity of the song, I have a nice fresh approach and not a sleep-deprived brain.
What kinds of music did you study while attending the Berklee College of Music in Boston?
All sorts, but I focused on pop and rock performance.
What are some of the ways in which you’d like to change the South African music industry?
I’d like SA artists to help each other more. Share their knowledge and talents instead of protecting their intellectual capital out of fear that someone will supersede them. Let’s grow the industry and take the average caliber of musician, producer, and artist to the next level. We have the talent to do so.
You are very active on social media. What about the medium is most important to your profession as a musician?
Networking. In this very saturated industry we work in the cliché “out of sight, out of mind” does ring very true. Also, I find it’s a fantastic way to give back to your followers and supporters. Let’s be real, they’re the people who helped you get to where you are so why not show them what you’re up to and share with them the success that they have helped you to obtain. We’re all in this wonderful journey together.