"The Endless Summer" - An Interview with Michael Whalen

Michael Whalen is a composer, producer, recording artist, and Cherry Audio supporter who has created vibrant music spanning various genres. He has produced 44 solo albums and won numerous awards for his film, television, and advertising work, including two Emmy® Awards, ten Clio Awards, a BMI Award, and four Global Music Awards. Whalen's ability to blend classical instrumentation with modern technology has made him a pivotal sound designer and composer, collaborating with industry giants like Stephen Sondheim, Fiona Apple, and Brian Wilson.

Michael's latest release, Watercolor Sky, celebrates his love for Windham Hill Records, the independent record label in the 1980s and 1990s that practically created its own genre. Watercolor Sky is nine tracks of contemporary instrumental music from the prolific composer, and features a dream team of musical talent including Mark Isham, Michael Manring, Nancy Rumbel, Will Ackerman, and Charlie Bisharat. The album is available now, and you can purchase signed copies of the CD from Bandcamp.

We caught up with Michael last week on the response to Watercolor Sky and to see what he thought of Cherry Audio's latest release, Wurlybird 140B.

Q: Congratulations on the release of Watercolor Sky! We were thrilled to see it pop up on the dashboard a few weeks ago on Sirius XM's Spa channel, as well as occupying two spots on One World Music Radio's Top 20. Has the reception to Watercolor Sky met your expectations?

Thanks so much. Yes, this album wasn’t planned but it exploded out of my head and my heart and I am so glad that it did. I am very grateful for the support of radio for this music. For ambient and New Age music, radio is still a factor. So, getting the music out to as many people as possible is a privilege. These days, finding every opportunity to get the music heard is absolutely necessary. Artists have to go find their audiences. I endeavor to do that...

Q: Watercolor Sky is your second album this year, following Brokenhearted Lopsided Blues, a mix of melodic jazz and R&B, shortly before that. Were you working on these two project simultaneously?

Brokenhearted Lopsided Blues was complete by the time I started Watercolor Sky. Like I said, I wasn’t planning on doing a second album. I was just playing with some piano ideas and it HAPPENED! (Laughs) Honestly, I am really comfortable handling many different styles simultaneously. After 30 years of advertising music, you get stuff thrown at you multiple times a day 7 days a week for years. I thrive on doing lots of different things. “Brokenhearted Lopsided Blues” because it was the first of my jazz fusion albums I have done alone - - including playing drums and guitar! It was a fun challenge. Next time, I will definitely use a band again. But I have been working my drum chops back for years so it’s been fun to record on drums again after almost 3 decades! On previous albums, I have worked with Vinnie Colaiuta, Tony Levin, Simon Phillips, Michael League, Michael Brook and many others. Collaboration is awesome. But part of being an artist is shaking things up. 

Q: You recently relocated from New York City to the waterfront in Jamaica Bay, Queens. In hindsight, what do you think had a more significant influence on the tracks of Watercolor Sky: capturing the Windham Hill vibe with a dream team of artists, or the nature that now surrounds you and clearly inspired so many tracks?

Yeah, the move has been epic. I live on an island in the middle of Jamaica Bay, Queens. It is a beautiful spot that also happens to still be inside the five boroughs of New York City. All of that natural beauty is so inspiring. I grew-up listening to the classic Windham Hill albums that really helped form me as a composer. So, bringing in the artists that I listened to 40 years ago to collaborate was a dream come true. Truly. A wonderful experience with people that I consider friends who were so generous with their artistry. I think composers and songwriters need to tune in to their surroundings. My room. My location. It makes such a difference to my focus and workflow. In this new house, I have found a great spot that has empowered my creative process. 

Q: Could you walk us through one of the tracks on Watercolor Sky and describe your process from start to finish, including the online collaboration?

Sure. The first track on the album “The Endless Summer”. It actually started as a looping sequence from the Cherry Audio CA2600 Synthesizer. I started jamming away. I laid down the piano and wrote the melody that I wanted the oboe to play. For me, improvisation is the most important thing. How does the music feel? I am confident in my ability to create melodies, forms and structures on the fly. After doing it a few thousand times, you build that muscle! (Laughs)

As soon as the form was done, I sent the track to bassist Michael Manring. He is a genius. His ability to bring textures, add to the melody, go into the harmony and voice leading and basically be “sniper” on any track he plays on. After getting his part, I edited it and sent it off to  Nancy Rumbel for oboe. I sent her a chart so I knew exactly what she was going to do. She has such a beautiful pure tone. When I got her part back, I edited it and sent it off to guitarist Will Ackerman. I told him I needed “color” and “texture”. He did such a great job. After getting his part, I didn’t touch it. It was so well done. So, I sent the track to Charlie Bisharat. Charlie is the master of color and supporting melodies. Producer Quincy Jones once said (paraphrase): "a good producer calls great players and lets them do what they do. Let them use their instincts.” So, that’s what I did and I got great performances back. Now, the mixing and putting together the final version took a bit of effort to make it feel like everyone was in the same room. But I am pleased with the result.

Q: Your career has grown alongside a significant technological shift - music and otherwise - over three decades. What has been your favorite part about it, and what has been the most challenging?

Technology has exploded and given us tools that we could only dream of 30 years ago - - that’s the good news. The bad news is that technology has become a crutch for too many artists, music has become much too easy to make and produce and the public has devalued music because the world has commoditized the create process whether it be music, film or any other discipline. The magic of the PERFORMING arts has vanished. It is depressing because new music has lost its allure. Now, you have to spend time showing your fans and listeners what the opportunity is of spending time with your new music. Music does NOT sell itself. 

Q: Whether it's composing the music, handling the production, or promoting it, you are a one-man band making it work. What advice do you have for aspiring artists who are looking to get in front of their audience as you have?

The key is having an audience, knowing them, being in a conversation with them and building trust between you and your audience. I am actually writing my first book about this very subject and it will be out in early 2025. You (the artist) must be 100% engaged in a conversation with your audience. Now, this conversation could happen on social media, a website, a mailing list or another platform. The key is that the audience needs to KNOW that you are committed to being part of their lives as well as making music. Yes, it is a lot. However, finding a way to be connected to your audience is absolutely essential if you want to be successful. 

Q: Tell us about Artist Expansion. With your additional expertise in copyright, music monetization, and digital rights, this must be an excellent resource for those same aspiring musicians.

When I am not making music, I work with a select number of artists on marketing, branding, “best practices” for social media, I do full label services for the release of new music, design covers, shoot music videos and most importantly, I coach artists so they can take these practices and integrate them into their careers and future releases. The method I take is unique because I am an artist myself teaching, consulting and empowering other artists. I ran a record label and I am an expert in copyright law and digital IP. My services are not cheap. However, I have worked successfully with almost 100 artists. Go to artistexpansion.com and watch the videos that will give some context about how I work and what to expect. If you are interested in finding out more, there is a questionnaire on the contact form.

Q: It's always a pleasant surprise for us to see one of our instruments on your screen or get a quote cheering us on right before we release something new. Do you have a favorite Cherry Audio instrument, and is there another remarkable piece of classic gear you're hoping we might do someday?

That’s easy! (Laughs) The GX-80 is my very favorite instrument that Cherry Audio has done so far. I use it everyday. Literally. I am also quite partial to the Quadra, the PS-3300 and Eight Voice. Cherry Audio has saved me tens of thousands of dollars in not having to buy the hardware versions of these synths! (Laughs). Seriously, Cherry Audio make the best synth plug-ins around. Honestly, I have changed over my studio and I have sold 15 hardware synths this summer and I am using my Cherry Audio plug-ins for the majority of the work I am doing now. I love hardware instruments but it’s long past time for me to streamline my workflow. 

In terms of future instruments, I would suggest doing: a Yamaha CP-70 electric grand, a Moog 55 modular synth, and a truly epic Hammond B-3 plug-in would be much appreciated! (Laughs)

Q: We've just released Wurlybird 140B, our first sample-based electro-acoustic virtual instrument. One cool behind-the-scenes aspect of this release is that the concept and the sample programming came from our mutual friend, Mike Martin. Was this collaboration a nice surprise, and how do you think we all did on Wurlybird?

The Wurlybird is a great plug-in. You guys and Mike did a GREAT job on it. It has a great sound. Honestly, I wasn’t sure how it was going to be when I first used it. So many companies have done Wurlitzer plug-ins. However, the quality of the sampling, the user interface and presets all put the Wurlybird far above other plug-ins. I would highly recommend it. 

Q: Have you taken a break, or are you already working on what's next?

Yes, I am slowing down a bit. But I do have a few collaborations getting finished. I am not sure what will be released next or in what order. My focus this Summer and Fall is to finish my book on music business.

Thank you so much for the opportunity to talk about my music, the work I do with artists and my love of plug-ins by Cherry Audio. 

And we extend our sincere gratitude to Michael for sparing time from his hectic schedule to engage in a conversation with us, for his unwavering support, and for consistently sharing phenomenal music with us year after year.

Michael is an accomplished composer and songwriter with a decades-spanning portfolio of award-winning music. His success is a result of his hard work, exceptional musicianship, masterful production techniques, and skillful music supervisor management. Some of his most notable works include "Veronika Decides to Die", "What the Bleep Do You Know?", as well as themes for HBO, CBS News, ABC News' "Good Morning America", "The Oprah Winfrey Show", numerous specials for PBS, National Geographic, Discovery, The BBC, NHK, and the History Channel, and television films for Lifetime and the Hallmark Channel.

Additional Michael Whalen Links: Michael Whalen Music / Spotify / Apple Music / Facebook