If it ain't broke, don't fix it -- and there aren't many musicians as far from broke as Yanni. Since his 1984 debut instrumental album, the self-taught composer and keyboardist has sold some 25 million records, along with DVDs of his PBS-staple performances at the Acropolis, Taj Mahal and Forbidden City. But despite his winning formula, Yanni has just pulled a 180 -- and not just by trimming his trademark mustache.
Voices is his first album to feature vocals and lyrics, and includes vocal reinterpretations of some of his best-known melodies, composed decades ago. The four young singers -- Leslie Mills, Chloe, Ender Thomas and Nathan Pacheco -- worked with Yanni and super-producer Ric Wake at the "Camp Yanni" studios for over two years, and are now hitting the road. When Pacheco sings "Adagio in C minor," originally written for the Taj Mahal performance, "he gets standing ovations every night," says Yanni, via phone from the road. "It's like a soccer match, it's like football or something!"
That's music to a Pittsburgher's ears.
Do you feel lyrics make the music more universal, or less? Does an instrumental theme resonate more across your large audience?
I've always avoided lyrics, because an instrumental piece is pure emotion, and you can write your own lyrics to your own story. [But] as long as the lyrics retain the heart and the soul and the center of the piece of music, then I didn't mind it. It had to turn me on -- I had to believe it.
It's surprising that you allowed the singers to pen their own lyrics -- why not bring in someone well-known? Was Tim Rice busy?
We thought of that, and thought that if our singers can't do it well, then we will try to hire somebody who is famous for it. I wasn't going to destroy the music. I don't care if the voice is really great -- if the lyrics are not right, things don't work. Sometimes I told the person, the singer, what I thought the song was about when I wrote it. And sometimes I refused to explain it to them. And they would say, "What did you write this song about?" and I said, "Well, why don't you listen to it, feel the emotion and tell me what it's about." And it worked either way. I played little games with everybody.
As an experienced musician working with new talents, what lessons have you tried to impart?
Everybody has to learn on their own, you know -- personal experience is irreplaceable. But I've warned them about certain things. It's total artist development: You have to tell them what it's going to feel like on stage, what problems might they have, how to give interviews, how you talk to the press. [Laughs.] How not to get hurt if somebody doesn't like what you're doing -- don't take it personally, or learn!
Could you explain the differences between your contemporary instrumental music and the kinds that come out of more academic environments?
I'm not sure I understand the question. Labels for me don't really apply very well to music. When I look at society, labels are really good, because if you go to the grocery store and go to the dairy section, you can find milk. But when it comes down to music, art, putting labels on it does not compute with me. I know I've had this New Age label put on me about 20 years ago, and I still can't shake it. What's New Age, and what's contemporary instrumental music? I write music.
But there's a real difference between you and say, Philip Glass -- even though you're both recognized and successful with mainly instrumental music emphasizing keyboards and rooted in classical traditions. Is it that you foreground melody?
Yeah, I see. Absolutely -- my music is melody-based, for the most part. That's why it was so easy to turn it into songs that can be sung. 'Cause essentially what I do is, I sing with the piano or the keyboards. I'm very melodic based, and a lot of the rhythms I use are from the Mediterranean, Spanish, North African; I like Latino kind of blends. I think of my music more as world music, but if you say that, you think of African drums or atonal, jazz -- I'm a little more center.
Tell me a little about your new partnership with Disney's label -- will you be providing music for their films and programming?
Ric and I have recorded an enormous amount of music in the last two-and-a-half years. We've pretty much completed individual albums for all four of the singers. There's a lot more music here, and a lot of them are film scores, they're film themes. And I know a few of them will end up in movies ... coming up ... real soon! [Laughs.] Maybe in the next few months.
I expect I'm going to be touring with the vocalists for a long period of time ... I'd like to take them all over the world. Our imagination is the limit.
Yanni Voices: Live in Concert. 7:30 p.m. Tue., May 12. Mellon Arena, 66 Mario Lemieux Place, Uptown. All ages. $26.25-99.75. 412-642-1800 or www.mellonarena.com