Photo: Shervin Lainez
Where Do Pop And Classical Music Truly Meet? Cardi B Pianist Chloe Flower May Have The Answer
Chloe Flower may have landed in the public consciousness by accompanying Cardi B at the 61st GRAMMY Awards, but two years later, she's not fading away. The classical pianist and composer wants to fuse pop and classical in a more encompassing way. Welcome to Popsical, Flower's self-conceived genre tag that aims to close the gap between trap beats and Franz Liszt.
"To me, the whole idea of Popsical is that I felt instrumental music had that stigma. It had to be a certain way," Flower tells GRAMMY.com over Zoom from her Manhattan high-rise. "People told me my entire life 'You have to be really successful in solo piano first before you can add drum beats to something.'" Because Flower loves all kinds of music, from pop to reggaetón, this was a quandary for years. But on her debut, self-titled album, her catholic inspirations have blossomed big.
Chloe Flower, which dropped July 19 via Sony's Masterworks imprint, is the perfect entry point to the musical universe of Popsical. Subdivided into acts with narrations from alternative medicine king Deepak Chopra, the album splits the difference between classical orthodoxy ("Prelude No. 1") and full pop immersion (including an electrified cover of Billie Eilish's "Bad Guy").
While Flower has the headstrong personality and label encouragement to pull off such a feat, she's aware that few other women—especially those of color—have those resources and support systems. With the interest of making classical music a more attractive and inclusive arena, she has a few ideas as to how that world can open up to everybody, not just a few.
Read on for an in-depth interview with Flower about the nexus of pop and classical music, constructing Chloe Flower like a front-to-back cinematic experience, and how young women of color can be encouraged to become producers and composers.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I'm a classical music fan, but I don't hear much about it outside of history books or the pages of The New York Times. What's the state of this artform?
I would say it's completely changing. Classical music is so different today, in 2021, than when I signed with Babyface in 2010. It was either crossover—there were a select few crossover artists—or it was strictly classical. I think [the shift is] because of social media, YouTube and all these other outlets, when people can express themselves in any way they want and it's not just up to The New York Times to decide something is cool or OK to do.
Who are the key people to know in modern classical?
There are so many new artists I've been following. I tend to follow pop artists, and that's part of the reason I wanted to start this Popsical movement. I didn't feel like there were enough people on the instrumentals. Not just classical music, but instrumental. People would always be like, "Oh, you play piano! You're like Kenny G!" but that's not the only sound there is—smooth jazz or adult contemporary.
That's why, back in the day, I loved Vanessa-Mae. She's one of the first crossover artists to come out of the U.K. She did Bach's Toccata in Fugue—a song I have on my album as well—with an EDM beat. EDM music doesn't resonate with me in the same way that a trap beat or hip-hop beat does, [but] I was always looking for that artist who was that mixture of pop and instrumental.
I think there must be other people out there who want to explore that instrumental space but don't necessarily fit into that Vanessa-Mae category or the Piano Guys category. I love Piano Guys. They're another crossover classical artist that has done so well. So successful. David Garrett is another one who's been so successful at the violin, doing crossover music, but so different from what I do.
I'm sure Babyface saw that versatility in you when you started working together.
Yeah, I was so shocked. He was the first producer I ever asked to work with me and he was the only one I'd heard of! I just cold-reached out to him on Google. I found his manager's email and just randomly sent him a demo. I think he understood that maybe there was a space here for a new kind of sound.
Deepak Chopra's presence on your debut album is interesting. He's synonymous with new age, a style I find a lot of value in that nonetheless gets a lot of flak.
When people say "new age," there's definitely a stigma associated with it. Even in film. You'll watch movies like [2001's] Serendipity from back in the day and see the crossover flutist, and it's kind of a joke in the movie. That has been the reputation of new age, but as with classical music, audiences are embracing a new style, a new sound. I think a lot of people nowadays are embracing spiritual and holistic health practices.
But for me, Deepak is a close friend. I've known him for many years. I know him personally and he really practices what he preaches. He's very authentic in what he believes. He is truly a believer that music is a powerful tool for healing. It was perfect for me because that's how I view music too. I believe music education should be as accessible as religion or sports education. It's completely inaccessible, and part of the reason is that there's no demand.
People think of instrumental music as Kenny G or new age. They think of it that way, so kids aren't demanding to learn an instrument because they don't necessarily want to. I feel that music is so important because it has that healing power.
We saw during the pandemic how music brought people together, from the people singing on balconies in Italy early on to people using pots and pans in New York City. We could hear it because we live right near a hospital [in Manhattan]. That was music too—it's all a form of sound and using that sound as therapy. You can listen to a song and be in a better mood or feel empowered to take action on something. Deepak shares that philosophy with me.
That's why I'm interested in new age. It has literal utility. And while your music has its own genre tag—Popsical—I can hear that component in your work as well.
I'm so honored and complimented by that! To me, the whole idea of Popsical is that I felt instrumental music had that stigma. It had to be a certain way. People told me my entire life "You have to be really successful in solo piano first before you can add drum beats to something."
I'm not just a solo pianist. I love trap music. I love beats. I love reggaetón. All these sounds together—they don't fit in any category. I really call my album an instrumental mixtape because it's all these different sounds. I can never fit into that classical crossover box ever.
Is there a barrier between young people and classical music that Popsical can traverse?
One of the things that is definitely becoming huge in the instrumental space is what we were talking about earlier: The utilitarian function of music. Peaceful piano, right? That's been huge on playlists: People listening to music in the background. But I feel like instrumental music is more than peaceful piano, [even though] that's a huge market. It's huge. But it doesn't necessarily translate into performance.
Like, would you go play a whole peaceful piano playlist in Madison Square Garden? Would someone buy tickets for that and listen to 90 minutes of peaceful piano? I'm not sure, but I think the market has expanded greatly because of that playlist and that sound in the background.
But the idea of Popsical, to me, is to generate demand in younger people. And not just in younger people, but older people too. I don't think it's ever too early or late to learn an instrument, or to listen to music in a different way—not just to sleep.
Beyond blurring styles, what was the artistic intent behind Chloe Flower?
My album is self-titled—not just because I produced and wrote it—but it was a reflection of me. Like I said earlier, I'm not just a solo pianist. On my album, there's actual works by classical composers and then there's solo piano music that's not classical—a little more pop with a pop structure. Then, there's trap beats.
Track 14 is called "POPSICAL," and it's called that because it's a medley of most of the songs I wrote on the album. It's a medley of those themes. It has a very cinematic quality—I imagined it to be like the end credits of The Sound of Music. That's what I was thinking when I wrote and arranged it. It's a reflection of me and the fact I'm not just one sound.
The label and I were really excited. It's risky for any label to do something that hasn't really been done often or well. It was scary, but it was really cool. I think that's the idea behind this: To showcase instrumental music and the way people listen to it in a different way.
It's interesting that you call it a mixtape when it's separated formally by acts. Was it challenging to square that circle?
No, actually, it was so perfect. That's partly why I had Deepak there. Because it's an instrumental album without lyrics, I wanted people to listen to the album however they want, but [also] from beginning to end, which is why it starts with the prelude and ends with the end credits—the big, thematic Hollywood ending.
Which instrumental records have you been checking out lately?
I actually listen to a lot—a lot—of classical music and Disney soundtracks. I've been listening to a lot of Leroy Anderson. Obviously, a lot of Liberace. I love his brother, George Liberace, who was kind of the quiet, silent partner behind Liberace. He wrote all the arrangements and orchestrated everything. He was a genius arranger. Vladimir Ashkenazy is one of my favorite pianists. I'm always listening to him and Evgeny Kissin.
How can young people interface with classical music in a way that doesn't involve dropping $400 on a ticket?
Totally. It's so inaccessible in that way. And you have to buy your outfit, because you have to dress up when you go to Lincoln Center. You can't just show up in sweats. I think using platforms like YouTube and TikTok [is the answer]. I see so many people who'll tag me doing the Cardi B cover or a classical cover. It's usually "Für Elise" or Bach's Toccata in Fugue, but they're doing it with their own trap beat and it sounds so cool.
As you start to research, you'll see a lot of instrumentalists out there. It's really cool.
I wonder if Popsical can show that classical can not just be melded with pop, but be pop. I'm pretty sure it was pop music hundreds of years ago.
Definitely. I think Mozart was the Justin Timberlake of his time.
I also [wanted to] tell a story. It's a musical journey from beginning to end. I thought of it as a life cycle. For me it was about, in essence, being born with a clean slate. The hardships of life and dealing with that. The darker songs are in the second act and Deepak talks a little bit about suffering. And then you end with hope. If people were to listen to it from beginning to end—which I hope they did—they would experience that with me.
Have you faced any discrimination in the music business based on who you are or what you look like?
I haven't had an experience that overt, but definitely, as a producer and composer, 100 percent I'm always the only woman. I'm typically the only woman in a studio. It's just me. That by itself is a problem, right? I have such a strong personality and I'm so used to not fitting in, so I can survive that kind of environment and [be] fine, but that's not the case for every woman out there.
I think it's important for there to be more female composers and producers. That's why my label and I wanted to call it Chloe Flower. "Produced by Chloe Flower. Written by Chloe Flower." Because, as a female and a person of color, I represent such a small group of people. Those numbers need to go up.
I met a girl who's 14 or 15 and she's Asian, and I'm working on a solo-piano Christmas album, so I told her I'd include one of her compositions. She's really good.
How do we encourage more young women of all backgrounds to enter this field?
I think definitely by promoting as many female producers and composers [as possible]. Not just artists. It's important. So many women don't get songwriting or producer credit. I've been in so many sessions where I play piano on songs and they look at me and go "You don't need the credit."
I've done so many free sessions that I joke about it. When I do a concert, I'm like, "That's a great fee, but if you divide it by the number of hours I've worked and practiced and done free sessions, it's like negative $1,000 an hour."
When I go into a studio and it's all dudes, it doesn't necessarily make me so excited to be in the studio. It's all the time, and I think when women see other women in the studio, it's more fun. It's more empowering than being the only girl.
So, I think it's definitely about promoting and highlighting and honoring these new, young, female composers and producers and showing other women it isn't just a male space.