“I think that we all have that within us and how we use it depends on what our specific needs are personally. Some of our creativity may be to just simply be the consumer of creativity and have the sensitivity to it, not necessarily having to create it themselves.” ~ Chip Davis of Mannheim Steamroller
John: Our guest this week on Art of the Song is the Grammy-Award Winning Founder of Mannheim Steamroller, Chip Davis. A musical prodigy, who wrote his first song at age 6, Chip went on to form the American Gramophone Label in 1974. A multi-platinum selling artist, he’s widely credited with launching the New Age music genre. Mannheim Steamroller has sold more than 40 million albums, making it one of the 50 top-selling musical artists of all time and THE top-selling Christmas artist of all time.
Viv: I have to say, Chip Davis really blows my mind. Beyond his work with Mannheim Steamroller, Chip has developed Ambient Therapy, an innovative use of composed and natural sound designed to heal and calm, which NASA has approved for use by astronauts in long-range space travels. Davis is the author also of seven best-selling children’s book and the creator of a line of food and home products under the Mannheim Steamroller moniker.
Viv: We’re welcoming Chip Davis, founder of Mannheim Steamroller, to Art of the Song today. Thank you so much for joining us.
Chip:Absolutely. My pleasure.
Viv: Chip, would you tell us about how you got started with music?
Chip:Well, that was a pretty natural thing for me to do. I’m a third generation musician on both sides of my family, so my grandmother, my father’s mother, was my piano teacher from the time I was about four years old, and I just started with that essentially. A little weird story aside here was that I actually needed glasses, but I didn’t have glasses yet, so my grandmother thought I was reading the music and actually I’d say, “Could you play that for me again Grammy?” and then she’d play it and my ear would pick it up and I’d play it and she thought I was reading the music. Well, the reason I’m telling you this is that’s probably what made me end up being a composer instead of just playing off the page because my ear developed as a result of that.
Viv: That’s a fascinating story and I hope, well I know that will inspire people because I think there’s quite a few people out there who faked their way through to brilliance.
Chip:I like that. That’s good.
Viv: One of the things that really stands out for me is that, with Art of the Song, for both John and me, we talk about the creative process and the importance of creativity. Your story is so extraordinary in that you basically said, “Tell me what else I can’t do.” You face adversity with this kind of “Oh really? Huh. Ok.”
Viv: That true entrepreneurial spirit that comes from a musician is so inspiring. Can you talk a little bit about where that comes from, what it took, and maybe how it felt when you were in the middle of it, and how you got through it?
Chip:By the time I was eleven, I was writing music on my own for myself. I wrote my first piece about my dog Stormy. I started writing music at an early age and as I developed, I wanted to be a composer, but where do you go to do that in high school? So, I was doing that on the side, but I play bassoon in the band and that’s what I actually ended up going to the University of Michigan, was a bassoon education major. So, when I graduated from Michigan, I had an education degree and when I got out of school, the first thing I did actually was I taught school outside of Sylvania at McCord Junior High. You might remember that one too. I was the first music teacher in that school. They had just opened the Junior High School. So, I got started doing that and then I gradually gravitated toward being able to write music. Of course, that involved a lot of peanut butter and one pair of blue jeans. I didn’t live too high on the hog there, as you’d say. But I stuck to it and if it’s something I really wanted to do, I just never gave up. It’s like you say and I’ve said in the bio, “Go ahead, tell me I can’t do that. I’ll figure out a way to do it. Go ahead. Put me in a box.” I was doing that as a jingle writer too. I’d get a phone call, an ad agency, and they’d have to have something right away. Well, how right away? “Oh well, by tomorrow.” I figured out that I couldn’t write music just by inspiration alone, I had to write with a sense of craft which is where my musical training at Michigan came in and my ability to be able to use form and structure and different things to be able to create these jingles overnight.
Viv: The pressure of time on inspiration. Sometimes people say, “Well, I need time to create”, but it sounds to me like the deadline it sort of ignites your creativity.
Chip:I’d absolutely agree with that. When I get put in a corner and have to create right now, it’s amazing how resourceful you can be if you have to do it. If you have the luxury of time, sometimes you might come up with some better stuff, but the volume of work seems to fill the time available and if you don’t have much time, you’ll do it really quick.
Viv; That’s brilliant. Now, did you have disciplined practices that you used to make sure that you were sitting down and addressing the page? That’s not something you leave up to chance.
Chip:Right, in terms of playing the bassoon, at the University of Michigan and being in the Michigan band and having that pressure, which was enormous, I spent about six to eight hours a day in a practice room, besides the regular classes that I had to go to. Sunday morning, you get down there at 7 am so you could get in a practice room before everybody else flooded the practice room area. So, I couldn’t do that by just sitting around, I had to absolutely go do it. The same thing applied to when I composed music. when I decided to quit being a school teacher and I was going to be a composer as a job, I treated it as a job. 7 am, 7:30 am, I was up and writing music, even if I didn’t know what it was going to be about. I would start writing something. Actually, the result of that something became Fresh Air One.
Viv: Let’s talk about Fresh Aire 1. What was the reception when you started trying to market your work?
Chip:When I first took Fresh Aire around, at the same time you have to remember I was writing country music for C.W. McCall and had a number of hits under my belt. I know that’s a sort of strange thing. Here I’m doing this eclectic Mannheim Steamroller thing, but actually I had a bunch of country hits going on. In fact, at the time, the touring band for C.W. McCall was the same band as Mannheim Steamroller and we were our own front act one time. The front act didn’t show up for McCall so the promoter said, “Hey, do you know anybody that could be a front act? They aren’t showing up.” And I said, “Oh, yeah, I got an idea who could.” So, we went and put on some different clothes, we came out, played as a front act, went back, changed clothes, came out as a country band.
Viv: That’s like something straight out of Spinal Tap.
Chip:Spinal Tap got that from me, I think, because we had done it before them.
Viv: They must have.
Chip:When I saw that in Spinal Tap, I said, “Oh, somebody knew about our story.”
Viv: Somebody was paying attention. That’s nuts. To be that versed and that musical that go from being Mannheim Steamroller then rock it out into a country band. How difficult is to find players that have a love for all forms?
Chip:My initial and original guys, which several of them are still with one of my two touring bands, were my studio players. They were the guys that I called up in the middle of the night and said, “We’ve got a jingle call tomorrow at 10 am at the studio. Be in Studio A ready to go by 10 and it’s going to be an R&B session, so bring the appropriate equipment.” It was that sort of thing. The players that I had, being jingle players, when we had to do McCall, when we did Fresh Aire, whatever we did, they could just switch gears because they knew. A lot of the music was written out. I had written out specific patterns for them. Some of it they’d improvise, but they had guidelines to go by.
Viv: So, then what happened?
Chip:Then, we made a bunch of money.
Viv: I love you for that.
Chip:So, does everybody that worked for me.
Viv: Yours is just this extraordinary tale. Not only have you been wildly successful in marketing your stuff, you used really creative methods. It seems like every time you were faced with a ‘no’, you just go around the side or you find some other avenue in to get to your goal.
Chip:Absolutely. I called it ‘looking around the corner’. When I was a kid, I had a little periscope, like they have in the submarines. I noticed that you could not only look up but around the corner. So, looking around the corner and seeing what might be around there gives you a target and a goal to go for. Once you start doing that, you free yourself from where you’re at the moment and allow your creativity to flow more openly.
Viv: And that goal of financial success through being a musician comes to you because of that.
Chip:Absolutely, and what I might have to say too, very clearly, is that the financial goal was not the end goal. It just came along with it. We were all doing it just because it was a lot of fun.
Viv: Now, your fans are in the millions. Millions and millions and millions. I love the fact that if you stacked up all of your CDs that it’d be 640 times taller than the Sears Tower.
Chip:Our goal is to reach the moon. I bet if we stood them on edge we would be.
John: Wow, that’s amazing.
Viv: So, I’d like to switch gears a little bit since we’re talking about the moon.
Chip:Sure, I love astronomy.
Viv: You’ve worked with NASA. Why?
Chip:Ok, back to when I was a little kid in that farm town in Ohio. My grandfather got me caught up in looking at the moon and the stars and the sky and all that I gained a really healthy respect for it and the wonder it created. He gave me my first telescope when I was 10. It was a little copy of Mt. Palomar Telescope. I could see the craters of the moon. Fast forward from 10 years old to now, I have a big telescope on my farm and I’m really interested in that sort of thing. I can track when the satellites go over and all those sorts of things with it. I was so interested in space that I wanted to go see what that was all about. I was very fortunate to meet a gentleman by the name of Jim Kennedy, who was running the Kennedy Space Center on Cocoa Beach. I went down and saw a couple launches. Then, they allowed my recording team, one of whom is sitting recording this right now, to go out and record shuttle launches. We recorded several launches and then we recorded landings. Then everybody is like, “Well, there isn’t any noise when it lands. All the boom booms are when it’s taking off”. I went, “You make sound by moving air, I’d bet that great big ole wing up there is pushing a lot of air.” Well, you’d be amazed at how loud it was and the amount of bottom end that it generated. So, we recorded launches and landings and then used it to be bookends on a show that I created for NASA to help bring awareness to what NASA is about and the importance of space and the medical research and the different things that happen out there that people usually don’t hear about.
Viv: Can you talk a little bit more about that? What sort of program was it and did it accompany the people on the space craft?
Chip:We did actually digital downloads from them. We did an uplink and downlink with some of the astronauts that were in the International Space Station. The name of the concert was called “Music of the Spheres”. “Music of the Spheres” is actually a name generated by the famous astronomer Johannes Kepler in 1609. He had a theory that he thought the density and distance of planets from one to the other was equal to the distance and frequency to the notes on a staff of music. I thought that this was a really interesting thought for 1609 making that kind of correlation. It turns out it’s not absolutely true, but it’s kind of true. What I was interested in was the concept, so I built an entire concert around that. I played things from the Holtz planets and when we would be playing Venus or one of the beautiful pieces that was soft, Jim Kennedy would do a speech and talk about the importance of space and what it does for the people on earth and moving forward in scientific areas and medical areas and so forth. So, the concert became a platform for really talking about what is necessary and why we should have a space program, because there are a lot of naysayer from time to time. But there’s a lot of really good reasons we should have that.
Viv: You’ve worked with hospitals to create a healing atmosphere.
Chip:Absolutely, working with the Mayo clinics and with Wake Forest and the Intrepid Center in D.C. where the amputees come back. The process I’ve created creates a four-channel algorithm of nature sounds. We recorded them real with microphones that were very sensitive. We recorded everything from Midwestern Fall, Midwestern Spring, the Oceans, the Oregon Coast out by Haystack Rock. We recorded deserts outside of Tucson. So, I have locales that are all over the place and they are in this box that can play back 4-channel audio and create what one of the scientists called “a sonic hologram”. So, if you can picture four speakers on a ceiling and you’re laying there in a hospital bed, you’re getting this sound coming down as though you’re standing in the middle of the woods or right at the edge of the ocean. The purpose of it is to take you away from the noises that are in a hospital, the apprehension that is in a hospital, and it’s to help you dream your way into another world and be away from that. The outcome was that the amount of meds that were needed ended up being less by a certain percentage because the patient’s bodies were able to receive this more. Things have been going really well with that project.
Viv: What drove you to get involved in it in the first place?
Chip:Going back to my childhood (I hate to keep doing that but you’re a product of all that), my grandfather was a country doctor. A horse and buggy doctor literally. My grandmother was a piano teacher. Then both my parents were musicians. So, I came from a background of going out on house calls with my grandfather. I knew who had what out in the country. I knew who had a cold and who had the measles and all that. I grew up around the medical world and, at the same time, the musical world. I think the two came together and turned into my project called “Ambience”.
Viv: Nature has played a very large part. Even on your website, you have aromatherapy. You have things that create environment on all levels. All the way from food to bath and body products and scented candles and they all come from a very strong natural root.
Chip:Yes, absolutely, they are the kinds of things that we experience on earth. If I can put some of those things together…For example, I have a scent that’s made from the lotus flower, “Egyptian Nile”, and what I’ve made is a linen spray. It’s in a little bottle that’s a spray bottle and you can spray it on your pillow, and it has lotus and it has the types of scents that help you sleep. I’ve got that. I have bath and body. The bath and body things are sometimes more oriented toward the seasons. I have a summer scent that smells like watermelon. I have a spring scent that smells like freshly mown grass. An autumn scent that smells like when you walk through the forest and smell the leaves that have fallen. A lot of the things that I make are nature-related but I believe we’re all a product of nature and it’s my easiest way to help you in some way or another. If it’s to help you sleep, just make you feel better, or just enjoy the scent and the sounds.
Viv: There’s this overarching theme of creating environment for people to really truly experience themselves as humans, particularly with the Christmas album. You came out with the Christmas album at a time when Christmas music signified the end of your career.
Chip:Absolutely, that was what they told me too. They said, “Chip, you don’t want to do that. You want to make another Fresh Aire record, because if you do a Christmas album, guys only make Christmas albums when they’ve run out of ideas. It’s a big red flag.”
Viv: It’s great for us because, again, they said ‘no’ and you said, ‘watch me’.
Viv: With the Christmas album you have 27 million records sold.
Chip:I think with McCall and everything else we’re closer to 50 million.
Viv: Wow, there’s this thread that goes through all your work about delivering music and environments and creating environments where people can experience joy and feel at peace and sleep well. Where does this come from, Chip? It’s all-encompassing. It’s not just music.
Chip:Let me digress just a second. If any of my friends at NASA are listening, this is exactly the reason that I want to make sure we get this product on the Mission to Mars because that’s a long ways out there for those guys and after talking to a bunch of astronauts, I think if they had this on an iPod in a binaural sense and could take it with them, it could be a really nice touchstone. So, if they start missing Earth some, hopefully that could do a little bit of help there.
Viv: It sounded like with the different places with the ambience, with the different places you were going, you were really touching on places that were home for many people. That they could feel, even though they are at the Mayo Clinic, or in D.C. in a hospital bed, or recovering, they can still be taken back to the Oregon coast, which might be where they’re from, or the desert where they’re from, and hear the sounds that make your body relax and open to healing.
Chip:Absolutely. That’s what’s turned out to be the main goal.
Viv: That’s brilliant. Well, I have to say I appreciate the breadth and the depth of your commitment to us as humans.
Viv: I’d like to ask one last question about the creative process. A lot of people think that you need to born under the creativity star or you have to have some trait gifted to you. Do you think it’s important that everyone find their creative gifts?
Chip:I think that we all have that within us and how we use it depends on what our specific needs are personally. Some of our creativity may be to just simply be the consumer of creativity and have the sensitivity to it, not necessarily having to create it themselves. When you create it yourselves, then you start getting into the more complicated area of craft and all the other things that go with that. I would say that there are varying degrees of creativity depending on if you’re actually creating things or if your creativity is involved in being involved in the music or the art or whatever form that you’re talking about.
Viv: So, the audience is as creative as the people who are producing with the craft.
Chip:Without the audience, who would we have to play for?
Viv: And that circle of reception is key, isn’t it?
Chip:Absolutely, got to have it because the feedback you get from the audience is what keeps a guy like me going.
Viv: Tell us about the new release that’s coming out this year.
Chip:“Live” is, well, it’s better than dead. I thought it was a better title anyway. Besides somebody who got that and said they were grateful! Anyway, it’s a bunch of great tunes that we performed live and one of the things (I have to honk the horn here a little bit) is I have a little daughter named Elise Marie Davis and she is just an absolute awesome singer and she’s singing a version I did of “Greensleeves” for her on that album and she’s just one of the little stars in my heart right now. This kid, on that record, she’s just 14. She’s 16 now, but on that record, we recorded it when she was 14 and she can go out in front of 4,000 people and not blink an eye and just do it straight out. In fact, we were in Mexico and she sang with one of the Steamroller touring companies for the Vice President of Televisa. It doesn’t matter where she is, she really does it. Those kinds of things keep me going too, when you’ve got your kids involved. My oldest daughter is involved with our social media stuff and things to help perpetuate the whole thing. Having your kids in it really gives you another reason to do it.
John: It’s turned into a family business.
Viv: So, they’re claiming fourth generation, as you’re third, so they’re just keeping in the family tradition.
Chip:Well, and my youngest daughter wants to go to the University of Michigan. They’ve already heard her and I’m pretty sure she’s going to do that. She goes, “Dad, I’ll be the third generation musician to go to Michigan” because my grandmother and grandfather went to different schools, but from mom and dad and myself and then Elise, that’d be really cool to have a third generation Davis out there. In fact, I just gave a whole bunch of money to the University of Michigan, I don’t know if you know about this or not…
Viv: No, tell us about it.
Chip:The music school at the University of Michigan wanted to develop an area called a Technology Center that uses Pro Tools and all the devices like we use today for composing. So, they, of course like all universities, are building a new wing and needed help and everything. So, I got talked into paying for a whole section of that and it’s called “The Chip Davis Technology Center”.
Chip:To be able to leave something behind, with my name on it at the college where I went and my parents went, what a cool opportunity. Timing is such a weird thing. If it had been five years ago, I probably wouldn’t have felt like I could afford to do it. And if it were farther down the road, I probably wouldn’t have done it. The timing just worked out great so I’m very, very grateful to do that. Another thing, I don’t know if you know this or not, but I’m a hemophiliac. I’m a bleeder.
Viv: We did not know that.
Chip:It’s pretty under control. Other parts of me aren’t under control. But I was able to start a hemophilia foundation for children, for young boys to be able to go to male clinics summer camp in Northern Minnesota. The kids who couldn’t afford it and need to be able to get away from the places they’re at and be able to go and just be kids again. So, we’ve got that going too. It’s self-perpetuating. It’ll go on forever.
Viv: This is a really profound thing for me today, hearing your story.
Chip:Well, thank you.
Viv: Yeah, because it goes so far. It’s beyond the learning of the hemophilia. I find that if that if anything is going to stop you…that could stop many people from wanting to walk out the door, or risk, or take any kind of actions.
Chip:Yeah, so I climb trees instead.
Viv: Fabulous. A life of “bring it!”
Chip:Well, maybe a little on the crazy side.
Viv: Well, that works.
John: Chip Davis, thanks so much for talking with us on Art of the Song.
Chip:Absolutely, it’s my pleasure and I’d be more than delighted to hang out with you guys again when we have “Exotic Spaces” ready to go.