Living Outside the Box: A Q&A with pianist, activist, and musical auteur Lara Bolton

Lara Bolton // Photo courtesy Lara Bolton

Lara Bolton’s impressive array of performances, creations, and occupations defies any attempt at being clearly labeled, and her work⁠—imbued with sparkle and elan⁠—can be relied upon to trigger something of the unexpected in those who experience it.

Recently praised by the Star Tribune for her “heroic presence at the piano,” Bolton is known for her versatile solo work as a pianist, collaborations with singers, and is a highly sought after vocal coach and arranger.

“We’re very proud of her because she’s an alum of the Domingo-Cafritz Program,” says Rob Ainsley, the current director of Washington National Opera’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program and American Opera Initiative, and former head of music at Minnesota Opera. “Lara is that sort of rare combination of people skills and serious technical piano chops that you need in order to be able to navigate the personalities, idiosyncrasies, and stresses of young singers,” he continues, speaking to Bolton’s intuitive ability to help develop artists.

Bolton is also on the leading edge as a pianist, in particular, collaborating with top talent on a variety of projects. Notably, she recently played on a recording of a collection of four song cycles by Minnesota composer Libby Larsen with McKnight Fellow soprano Tracey Engleman, who praised Bolton for her “incredible musical integrity.”

“One of the things I enjoyed most about working with Lara is that she always tells a story when she plays,” says Engleman. “Every note has a color and every phrase has meaning and direction. She never missed an opportunity to ‘say something’ with her playing.”

Bolton took a break from her busy schedule to discuss her development as an artist, her take on pop music and classical music, and why she’s heading up more projects than ever.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Lara Bolton at Weisman Art Museum for Opera + Jazz/Soul 2018 // Photo courtesy of Lara Bolton

The Growler: You attended Interlochen Center for the Arts, a prestigious fine art boarding high school in northwest Michigan. How was that for you?

Lara Bolton: It was formative for me. Coming from a small town in Ohio, I didn’t have a lot of resources. The first thing I saw when I drove in was a guy that had blue dreadlocks. I would’ve never seen that in my hometown. There were people from all over the world achieving amazing things at that age in music and arts, and we were allowed to just be who we were.

How did you end up at Interlochen?

I was playing [holiday] music in Cracker Barrel because my mom worked in the gift shop that season. This man came in and he watched me play for a very long time. He’d known that my mom was also there, so he was asking a few questions. As he left, he gave her a check for part of my education, and then he called Interlochen and asked them to send me an application. I felt like it was divine.

You ended up at Washington National Opera right after receiving your master’s degree from the University of Maryland-College Park, propelling you straight into the professional, international opera scene. What was that like for you?

It was like diving into the deep end. We had high-stakes coachings, meaning we had master teachers coming in and teaching us and expecting a lot from us. It was training just by ‘go.’ I really enjoy that rigor—10am to 10pm in a musical place.

You produced a well-received, eclectic benefit concert called “Love Answers:” in February of 2017. What motivated you to put on that concert?

The election was heavy on my mind. All this new hatred and vitriol was becoming a dominant force in a way that I had never sensed—how it was encouraging those behaviors in other was just upsetting. And Philando Castile worked at my son’s school and his death was a real turning point for our family and for the school family. “Love Answers:” was answering with love to violence, fear, and hatred.

Recently, you’ve pushed quite a few boundaries. In your music directing for Pergolesi’s 18th-century opera “La serva padrona” you swapped the typical harpsichord and cello accompaniment for a synthesizer and electric guitar; you were involved in a project that paired opera with a competitive boxing match; and you performed with John David and the Jerks for their most recent vinyl release party. On top of that, you’ve created and performed original arrangements that combine opera, jazz, and soul. How did you go about deciding to combine these seemingly disparate elements?

I’ve always had one foot in classical—having the classical piano training and then learning classical voice stuff and all that—and I’ve had one foot solidly in everything else. I heard those [arrangements] in my head. When I decided to start writing that stuff down it literally took an hour. It wasn’t something that I had to work on; it was just already fully formed in there. That particular project represents a lot of stuff that’s just inside of me.

What do you like about pop music?

The thing about pop music that I really love is that it’s popular—it’s for everybody and it’s more accessible to everybody. When I play pop music and jazz music, I’m more open in a sense, and spontaneous—and that’s a really interesting zone, especially coming from classical where you practice, practice, practice to get it right. The rules are different.

Classical music is relatively expensive to produce and has accessibility issues. What keeps you coming back?

I think what keeps me in classical is the human voice. I’ve always loved the human voice and the classical technique. Learning how to be your own amp and microphone is amazing. Also, everyone’s voice is different and it’s kind of like a mirror into someone’s person. Figuring out how to sing well has so many implications into someone’s life process. I really enjoy helping that process along and helping put things in place so people can free themselves up. If I didn’t work with singers I don’t know if I would be so solidly in classical.

Lara performing with Dom Wooten at the 75 Club in NY // Photo Courtesty of Lara Bolton

Many of your projects are socially conscious, and you are both an artist and an activist. What’s the difference between the two?

“Activist” seems like there’s more of a constant focus on issues—the issues that you’re active about. I think for myself as an artist, it’s not always about the issue that I’m talking about. I feel like when we’re in the zone with music and we’re really connected, it’s mystical and it elevates us. It elevates us out of our mortality and connects us to our source at the same time. As an artist, I feel like the more of an open column you are to that place in yourself, [the better]—that’s what art is all about. It’s different than the issues.

What’s next for you?

The more projects that I head up, the more right that feels, so I’m currently going more toward projects that do that. I’m really turned on by collaborating with people [with whom] there’s a kinetic energy, and I would love to go further down the line. At this moment I’ve had a lot of projects inside of me that I have not had a timeline for, and so I’m creating more space for those instead of always having my timeline be dictated by other people’s needs.

By all accounts you bring a lot of energy to the projects that you participate in. How do you recharge?

I have children. I always wanted to have the experience of having a family. They create a balance—a slice of life. That said, I don’t not need to do music. Music fulfills me. If I didn’t have anything else to do, I would probably play the piano for eight hours a day, and just do things and create things, because that feeds me. I never get tired—I get more awake.

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