An Interview With Jazz Crooner LUKE CARLSEN On His Newest Music, Being Featured On the HBO Show Perry Mason and More!
Having been a fan of jazz and big band music since childhood, singer-songwriter Luke Carlsen naturally began singing in the genre very early. While still in college, his big band professor, Albert Alva, introduced him to legendary jazz singer, Barbara Morrison, at Steamers Jazz Club in Southern California. Morrison invited the young singer on the stage with her to sing “Fly Me to the Moon.” The crowd erupted with applause after his performance, and his career in jazz performance unfolded.
In the spring of 2016, Carlsen and his band played a Frank Sinatra tribute at Barbara Morrison’s club for Jazz and Blues Month. That performance launched him to perform in several other jazz clubs throughout LA as well as at the Disneyland Resort. Within a couple of years, his band expanded from a 5-piece to a 12-piece band.
In 2019, Carlsen met Patrick Tully, the arranger for The Chainsmokers and a very successful pianist. Together they recorded six jazz songs and one original song over the past few months during the pandemic shutdown. This coming February, Carlsen is excited to introduce his debut EP, “My Love,” to the world. He says, “It’s 100 years after the Jazz Age began, and I am playing a small part in continuing to breathe life into this sensual, complex, and romantic music. I would not be able to do this if not for the people who still love this music like I do. So, I thank them for giving me the joy to entertain them.”
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Learn more about Luke Carlsen in the following All Access interview:
Thanks for your time! So how are you keeping busy and musical these days during the pandemic? How are you staying connected to your fans? Are you finding that social media is even more useful now?
Hey, thanks for having me! I read earlier that we are not going back to our normal lives due to the pandemic for at least a year… probably closer to a year and a half. My music career was built solely on live performances, but I knew that was not going to be logistically possible. I made a decision earlier this year that this was the time to write, arrange and record. I have been listening to an eclectic group of musicians and artists, while learning and perfecting more instruments throughout my time in quarantine. Facebook, Instagram and emails have been the primary form of communication with fans these days. I know social media can get a bad rep, and some of that is well deserved, but there are definitely net positives in a pandemic.
Can you recall the moment when you thought you could be a musician? What do you think motivates you day in and day out? How has that drive changed since you first started writing songs?
After I graduated from college I was strongly considering moving to D.C. to work in government in some way. I had a chat with my dad about it and he, funnily enough, discouraged me from moving. Back in 2015 he thought that politics was only going to get more dysfunctional and boy, was he right. I then decided to take the plunge and start playing jazz gigs around Southern California with a group of some of my favorite musicians.
How do you think your hometown has influenced the kind of music that you make? If not, why is that?
Growing up my mom and dad loved listening to The Beatles, Nat King Cole, Harry Connick Jr., Rosemary Clooney, Ella Fitzgerald, and Frank Sinatra. My dad also started a jazz festival in my hometown of Sioux Falls that would attract over 100,000 visitors from around the area. Herbie Hancock headlined the second year, and it really took off. This was right around the time that my mom had me, so I was born into a thriving jazz community in a surprising place.
Growing up, how important was music in your life? Was your family and friends always supportive of this career choice? If you weren’t a musician today, what else could you see yourself doing?
I have talked with a few other musicians about this, but I have pretty bad ADD. I’m also a night owl and was not a fan of going to bed early when I was a wee lad. The only thing that would settle me down would be the instrumental Beatles album that my parents would play for me at night. I’d say it was essential to helping me become a functional human being. Thankfully, my parents were always encouraging me to pursue the arts. Even when I didn’t believe in myself, they have always encouraged me to keep at it. It’s been very hard to keep going while live shows are down, but I got some good advice from an acting coach that I had dinner with when I was in college. He said when you get to LA you have to say to yourself, “No matter what happens, this town isn’t getting rid of me.” I took that advice to heart, and I’m sticking to it. For any artist trying to pursue their ambitions, I would make the same recommendation. There will be plenty to get you down, but stick it out and keep working at it. Don’t be bullied.
If I was not doing music, I would be screenwriting and acting. This is something that I plan on pursuing anyway. I’ve been screenwriting television pilots with an up and coming friend of mine who is a writer/director, and I’m proud of what we’ve worked on so far.
What has been the biggest surprise so far about making music your career? What has been an unexpected or welcome challenge to it all? Is there anything you wish you could go back and tell your younger self about this industry?
I’ve been surprised at the crazy amount of talent in this town. There are people that blow me away every time I hear them or see them, but they are struggling, and I see people that I don’t think are anything to write home about, but they are doing comfortably for themselves. I chalk it up to the unpredictability of the universe, and I’m not sure there is much I can do about it except promote who I think is doing good work. I would tell my younger self that it’s important to make a monopoly for yourself in some way. Take Tom Hanks, he is known as the “nice everyman” and owns that market and nobody else can touch it. Figure out what market you can own.
Tell me what it was like being on the premiere episode of Perry Mason in June? How did that all come together for you? Would you like to do more acting in the future? What would be a dream show for your music to be playing in?
The day I was on set was one of the best days of my life. It’s a crazy story actually. Someone from Current Music who was working with HBO reached out to me about appearing on an HBO show. I wasn’t sure if it was real at first, but I inquired further about it. Turned out an engineer I had worked with on a live video for my big band had recommended me. They wanted me to sing “It Don’t Mean a Thing” so I had a recording of it ready to go for them. Current Music sent my stuff over to Tim Van Patten, the director, and that was that. The following week I laid down my vocals for the two songs they needed me to sing on and the next day I was on set at Paramount. I could give a whole interview on that day itself, but I will keep it short. Matthew Rhys is a true gentleman, and Tim Van Patten is a generous and upbeat leader on set. They were both nice enough to hire the musicians I work with in my big band to serve as the background musicians. I was there for about 14 hours altogether and I could have done another 14 as the band and I were having a gas, cracking jokes and keeping it light. I would love to do more acting in the future and actually got an agent right after I was cast. I love Epix’s Get Shorty with Ray Romano and Chris O’Dowd. Most of the incidental music is just jazz drums by Antonio Sanchez, and it’s glorious. I’d love to sing on that show in some way.
Let’s talk about your new song “What I’ll Do.” Why did you decide to cover this Irving Berlin track? How would you say that it compares to your previous songs? How does it differ from the other 7 singles you plan on putting out in the coming months?
“What’ll I Do” is a gorgeous jazz standard with a haunting melody that punches me in the gut. Irving Berlin, the songwriter who wrote “White Christmas”, composed it in 1923. You may or may not have heard versions by Nat King Cole or Frank Sinatra, but it’s not an overtly famous song, so it’s possible this will be the first time you hear it. My arrangement of it is a stripped-down, acoustic blues sound. I’ve loved the song “The Only Exception” by Paramore for quite some time, and I drew some inspiration from the style of that pop rock tune. This helped me create something completely new out of a song that’s almost 100 years old. It’s one of the reasons I love jazz standards so much. The melodies are timeless, and with some contemporary influence, they can be modernized and still sound cool. Before I did these recordings, I mainly was a straight ahead jazz crooner, but I’m twisting them to make them my own. The other tracks will be standards, aside from one original, with flavors of different genres sprinkled into the arrangements.
What has it been like working on your debut album during the pandemic? How did you go about choosing your engineers to work with on it?
I was lucky that my friend Pablo Rossil told me about Nolan Shaheed’s home studio. I had been introduced to Patrick Tully the year before through a mutual friend at a Game of Thrones watch party. We hit it off right away, so I already knew Patrick was the guy I wanted as a producer. Patrick has been working as the arranger for the Chainsmokers for the last few years since they erupted to international acclaim. He’s also a wizard of an engineer, and best of all, Patrick is one of the kindest people you will meet. If there are other artists out there looking for engineers or producers, I suggest you find him at Patrick Avalon online and reach out.
I am curious to know what you learned from your experience working for the Disneyland Resort with your 5-piece band and 12-piece bands?
I went to college right around Disneyland and learned that Steve Martin got his start playing banjo there. If it was good enough for Steve Martin, it was good enough for me. It’s a great place to develop as a vocalist because the audience members are so kind and nice. A lot of them are already super fans for Disney, so they naturally are enthusiastic for bands. There is also a thriving swing dance community that has been there since Walt started the park, so it’s an honor to be a part of a 60 year tradition and play in the place where Walt would go dancing. It’s been great to play on a stage that has featured Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Tex Benecke, and Buddy Rich. I’m glad I learned how to be a performer there.
What musicians would you absolutely love to work with in the future? Who has consistently been inspiring you and the music that you make?
John Legend, Regina Spektor, Michael Buble, Harry Connick Jr., John Mayer, Alicia Keys, and Norah Jones are my favorite singers and musicians. I would work with any of them. As to who inspires me, I would say those people are John Lennon and Paul McCartney. I’ve listened to them since I was a kid and whenever I need to turn to some music, I go back to those roots.
At the end of the day, what do you hope people take away from your music?
I hope they get some joy and it serves as a balm for polarizing and challenging times. I’m all about bringing people and families together and I think music is one of the few things that has that ability.