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- Posted on Oct 1st 2009 4:00PM by David Chiu
On his new work, 'Out of My Hands,' the Chicago-born artist mixes it up a bit. It is a work of piano interpretations of songs by artists such as Nirvana ('Heart-Shaped Box'), Cocteau Twins ('Blue Bell Knoll'), R.E.M. ('World Leader Pretend') and Pink Floyd ('Us and Them'). "I just felt it was more true to what appeals to me and what compels me to make these arrangements, to do it really based on the song and not based on one artist or one band," O'Riley tells Spinner.
One of the songs he covers on the new record is Tori Amos' 'Mother,' which appeared on her 1992 album 'Little Earthquakes.' "I've learned more about playing rock music on the piano from working on that Tori Amos piece than I did anywhere else," O'Riley explains. "Each note is really invested and yet there's still buoyancy there that belie that accentuation. That was, to me, the essence of her playing that really informs a lot of what I do at the piano now."
O'Riley also interprets the Smiths song 'Asleep' on the album. "Luckily 'Asleep' is really dead-on in terms of intonation," he says, "so I can actually hear [Morrissey's] voice in my head while I'm playing and not feel that I'm approximating it or playing it too flat. And then of course Johnny Marr's piano part, which is iconic, really makes it a beautiful piece to play."
Although O'Riley's education was in classical music, his other interests included rock and jazz. "By sixth grade, I got really tired of being the classical music geek," he says. "My sister turned me on to the Beatles and I was listening to Top 40. And then there was a lot of underground radio in Chicago."
In addition to being a performer, O'Riley is the host of National Public Radio's From the Top, a program that features musicians from elementary to high school age. During a break in the program, O'Riley started performing music just by himself. "I thought, 'Let's see what can happen,'" he says. "The announcer would be saying 'That was our host Christopher O'Riley playing 'Karma Police' by Radiohead.' Then we would get an e-mail into the program saying 'Who is this Mr. Head and where I can find more of [his] beautiful music?' That was how I was encouraged to do what I was doing."
Responses from the actual artists to O'Riley's renditions of their works have been positive, according to the pianist. Radiohead guitarist Colin Greenwood gave O'Riley his approval backstage at a band concert several years ago. "The guys in R.E.M. have been very supportive for a long time," adds O'Riley. "We went to see them last summer and I kissed Michael Stipe's hand. He was probably freaked out about it."
While 'Out of My Hands' draws from the music of a variety of artists, O'Riley couldn't avoid covering Radiohead one more time, recording 'Videotape' and 'All I Need' from 'In Rainbows.' "As much as they have changed, they've remained the same," O'Riley says of the band. "If we take it as a given that their music has become more dissonant, well that's just much easier. There have been more elements of richness that can be drawn upon. The farther they go, the more compelling it is for me to do a lot of [their] music."
Check out a clip of O'Riley performing 'Karma Police' below. 'Out of My Hands' is in stores now.