In 2016, the good and the great of prog rock paid tribute to the late Keith Emerson with two concerts, in Los Angeles and Birmingham, UK. Alongside luminaries such as Jordan Rudess, Eddie Jobson, and Steve Porcaro, the line-up also included Rachel Flowers, who entranced audiences with The Endless Enigma, The Barbarian and Emerson’s Piano Concerto No 1 – Third Movement: Toccata Con Fuoco.
A prodigiously talented multi-instrumentalist who plays piano, guitar, bass and flute, Flowers has performed alongside Dweezil Zappa, members of Gentle Giant and Brand X, and Emmett Chapman, the inventor of the Chapman Stick, another instrument in Flowers’ repertoire. Her third solo release, Bigger On The Inside, sees Flowers handling all of the instrumentation herself, which is all the more impressive when you consider she’s been blind since infancy. The music finds Flowers embracing her prog rock influences, paying tribute to her musical heroes, and exploring themes about self-belief and finding light in the darkness.
“Most of the songs I’ve been working on for a long time,” she says. “This Is The Way I Am, I started writing that sometime around 2012. My mom wrote the words to it, that’s one of the rare times that I did not write lyrics.” That particular tune was borne out of Flowers’ frustration at dealing with schoolteachers who tried to undermine her passion for music, telling her it couldn’t possibly be a viable career. “My mom and I, we would have conversations about stuff that had been bothering me when I was at school with bullying; they weren’t students, but they were teachers,” says Flowers. “It was very confusing, so once we started talking about it, my mom was able to help me find the best way to express it.”
But This Is The Way I Am is not an angst-ridden or downbeat song. As someone who loves the music of Earth, Wind & Fire and Stevie Wonder just as much as ELP and Gentle Giant, Flowers prefers to accentuate the positive, not wallow in the negative. “It’s something that I’ve always liked doing,” she says. “I’ve always liked stuff that would have an uplifting feeling, that’s just the type of person that I am.”
It’s not the only track on Bigger On The Inside that’s been gestating over a long period. “A lot of the songs I started recording around 2016, 2017, and I’d just like to take the time until I’m able to get the words and then finalise the songs until I’m happy with them,” says Flowers, who recorded everything at home in her bedroom.
From studying classical music as a child to embracing jazz and then prog rock after hearing Keith Emerson, Flowers is conversant in an impressively diverse range of genres. Her Soundcloud features covers of King Crimson and Frank Zappa, Tears For Fears, Prince and Weather Report, alongside classical compositions by Bach, Debussy and György Ligeti. With her original music, she waited until she had a collection of songs that fit naturally together to form Bigger On The Inside. “It’s interesting, I’d work on a rock-inspired album and at the same time I’d do cover songs for fun and then I might do some jazz compositions, classical compositions,” she says. “Then if I feel like I have enough songs in a rock feel or cinematic feel, that’s when my mom and I would go through the songs and talk about, ‘Okay, this song works for this album, this song maybe not for this album but for a future one.’”
When recording, Flowers often lays down the drum groove first, which she does with a keyboard. “It’s not programmed, it’s not sequenced, it’s all played right there on the keyboard like playing piano,” she says. “It’s exciting that technology has been able
to actually sample all the nuances of a drummer so when I play it on a keyboard, it’s like having a live drummer in the room.”
It’s not just the impression of a real drummer that Flowers can conjure up; the album features spectacular symphonic orchestrations and, in a nod to Emerson, Flowers plays a rousing organ solo on Take Me Away. Her instrument collection includes a Moog Little Phatty that Emerson helped procure for her. When Flowers was in high school, the family home was burgled, and she lost her instruments. Flowers and her mother Jeanie were in contact with Emerson’s girlfriend, Mari Kawaguchi, on social media, and when Emerson learned what had happened, he helped persuade Moog to send Flowers the analogue synth. “I used it for basslines, but I used it in my cover of Trilogy, which is up on Soundcloud,” she says. “All the synthesiser stuff, I did it all on that keyboard.”
In addition to her virtuoso piano skills, she’s a mean shredder too, and the song AB is a tip of the hat to Adrian Belew. “I was at Cruise To The Edge in 2019 and Adrian Belew was performing,” she says. “After the show I went back to the cabin and immediately started singing this new idea.” In a different vein, Too Much is a real showcase for Flowers’ range and power as a singer, particularly in the crescendo as Flowers reaches into her upper register with some improvised vocalising. “It’s like a jazz thing, operatic jazz, not exactly operatic but that improvisation on the spot towards the end,” she says. The closing vocals were captured in one take. “That last part was all spontaneous,” she says, “That was in the moment, but the rest of the songs I probably did several takes until I got it right.”
From jamming onstage with Brand X’s Chris Clark or the late Emmett Chapman, Flowers is a fluent, expressive improviser, a skill occasionally overlooked in prog circles. “Even when I was doing classical music I’d listen to jazz stuff on the radio and the different approaches to improvising,” she says. “I wasn’t quite sure how to do a lot of solo improvisation until I checked out Keith Jarrett and his solo piano performances. Once I started checking that stuff out, I was like, ‘Oh, so you can actually make up stuff right there on the spot in the room!’ Another favourite that I love studying is the live Grateful Dead jams. It’s a lot like counterpoint fugues, but it’s all improvised right there by the entire band. The same with Yes, the beginning of Close To The Edge has some pretty wild improvising, it’s part-written, part-improvised at the same time. And of course, ELP, Tarkus, that’s one of those songs that had a lot of moments for improvisation and jamming, so a lot of that was pretty cool.”
While the arrangements on the album are multi-layered and rich in depth, live Flowers prefers to strip everything back and perform unaccompanied on the piano. “I like doing it solo,” she says. “It’s going to be hard because a lot of these songs are a huge wall of sound; if I had a band, I don’t know how it’s going to sound in a live room that’s going to be very echoey, I don’t know if they’re going to really take rehearsing seriously. Like in terms of rehearsing and getting the hits, Chick Corea and Frank Zappa, they had those killer bands because they did a lot of rehearsing. I would like that, but I don’t know how or when.”
Next, she’s working on a jazz album and a hip hop/jazz crossover record, but with Bigger On The Inside, she’s cemented her place in the annals of prog rock. “A lot of the compositions,” she says, “like Take Me Away and Feel, the epic stuff, I was thinking about what I love about classical music and film scores and rock music, and mixing them together to create this unique sound.”
This article originally appeared in issue 126 of Prog Magazine.