Most parents believe their children are special, maybe even gifted, but thinking your child is a prodigy is another matter. For Jeanie Flowers, it was what she calls “an evolutionary process” when it came to her daughter, Rachel.
“Rachel’s dad and I always had music playing in the house,” she says. “We were listening, practicing — we were performing ourselves at the time. So there was always music going on. Rachel was still in a high chair, and I swear she had her rattles going in rhythm with whatever music was playing.”
Rachel Flowers was born 15 weeks premature, weighing 1 pound, 5 ounces, and lost her eyesight to Retinopathy of Prematurity at three months of age. When she was two years old and clearly showing interest in the instrument, her mother taught her to play “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” on the piano. From that point on, there was no stopping the toddler. “She would get up in the morning before we did, and I would hear her playing the piano before we got out of bed,” says Jeanie. “She was playing little things that she was hearing, working on getting both hands moving together, and starting to add harmony.”
Jeanie sensed that her daughter was unique and innately talented. Still, “You see things as a mom, and then you think, Oh, I’m just being a mom,” she says. Until the night when Jeanie’s parents joined them for a family dinner in their California home and all doubts were erased. “Rachel was playing the piano, my dad looked at me, and in his typical vernacular he said, ‘Dammit, Jeanie! When are you going to get that piano tuned for that girl?’ He recognized what was there, and that’s when I knew it wasn’t just a ‘mom thing.’ When other people see it too, that’s when you know, It’s not just me.”
There’s more to Rachel’s remarkable story. At age four, she began studying at the Southern California Conservatory of Music, where she learned Braille Music Code and SONAR computer software. News of her talents grew quickly, and over the years she has won numerous awards for classical flute and jazz piano. Additionally, she has mastered guitar, violin, bass, ukulele, and other instruments.
Now 25, she has been featured on 60 Minutes and was the subject of an award-winning documentary, Hearing is Believing. Her YouTube videos, featuring original songs and her note-perfect, multi-instrumental covers of complex works by the likes of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, Frank Zappa, Prince, and Joe Satriani, have amassed hundreds of thousands of views. She has performed at prog-rock festivals, NAMM shows, and with a list of artists including Dweezil Zappa, Grammy-winning jazz trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, jazz pianist Taylor Eigsti, and a soundcheck jam with Greg Lake..
In 2016, she released her debut album, Listen, which featured eight original instrumental songs. In addition to writing the material, she produced the album, which was recorded in her home studio. The long-awaited project was widely acclaimed, garnering stellar reviews and expanding her already-growing audience.
Guitar Girl caught up with Rachel and Jeanie Flowers in September, while Rachel was putting the finishing touches on her sophomore disc, Going Somewhere. Like Listen, it is self-produced, recorded at home, and Rachel plays all of the instruments. This time, however, the songs feature her on vocals. She was also looking ahead to performing at ProgStock, as well as some solo concerts, and of course the upcoming winter NAMM show.
How is Going Somewhere the next step in your musical journey and a natural progression from Listen?
Rachel Flowers: Listen was an instrumental, jazz/classical, complex-type album, and Going Somewhere is getting into a lot more vocal/lyric/melodic things.
Why the decision to add vocals? Was it a conscious decision to go in that direction, or did the songs lend themselves to adding lyrics and vocals?
RF: I have no idea! I just started writing lyrics one day on my computer. My lyric writing started after I learned about Prince and his influence on popular music, and listening to Purple Rain and his other albums, listening to the lyrics and the vocal stuff that he was doing. I got inspired to write more lyrical pieces and sing more.
What is the songwriting process like for you? Do you hear completed works and instrumentation in your head while you work, or do you hear each instrument individually?
RF: I hear the whole song in my head as I’m writing down the words or playing different instruments, and I record each part.
Some of the pieces on Listen are ten minutes in length. Do you track in sections, in layers, what is your process?
RF: Most of the time I’m doing the whole song from start to finish. If I’m doing a guitar track, I focus on the sections that use the guitar, and the same with vocals. So the combination of instruments, I might do the whole thing from start to finish or I might do one section for that particular instrument.
RF: For the guitar solos I used two guitars. One is a custom-made Marblehead Imperial made by Matt Levonian. It has a nice sound to it. The other is an Ibanez. I was at a Guitar Center one day with my friend Brian Hutchison, and there was a small, 24-fret Ibanez [GIO MiKro]. Brian worked on it and put in a couple of different pickups and a Sustainiac. I also have a Strat that I would love to play more, but it needs work on the setup, and a five-string Brice bass that I used on some of the new tracks. I used a Line 6 POD with it that I’ve been using for a while. My main amp is a Vox [Valvetronix VT20X]. For mics, I mainly like to use a Lewitt condenser microphone for guitars and vocals, and sometimes I use other Lewitts, depending on the sound. [Note: Rachel is endorsed by Lewitt and Nord keyboards. She plays a Nord Piano 2 HA88 and a Nord Electro 4D, as well as a Yamaha MO. She also plays a Marblehead fretless bass and SX Fender Jazz copies.]
Do the songs sometimes change direction while you write?
RF: Not really. I usually start my songs by improvising an idea that’s going through my head, and I add in the rest of the instrumentation for it. It’s a combination of improvising in the moment and also picking up the structure and all the other instruments.
You engineer and produce your music. When did you move into the pro audio aspects, and why do it yourself?
RF: I don’t remember how I first became interested in producing. I was always doing production in my head, and learning about reverb and delays, and a lot of the stuff that most producers use. It’s easy to do it by myself because I know exactly what I want, rather than having to ask someone to put reverb on a part of the song and not doing it the way I imagined it would sound. I use a program called SONAR on a PC computer. It’s an early version of SONAR that’s accessible to use. I started using SONAR when I was five.
Jeanie Flowers: She was very fortunate. She started taking classes at the music conservatory when she was four, and when she was five, a teacher named David Pinto started working there. He had started developing the adaptive software so that blind musicians could do their own recording. Rachel was one of his first students, and so she started learning this software as he was developing it, and she’s been using it ever since. It’s been a process for her. She started out doing just very basic things, but as she started writing and especially composing more complex things, she wanted the control, so as time went on, she got deeper and deeper into the programming and learned how to do things herself.
How do you use the software? There are videos of you working via keyboard. What else do you use?
RF: It’s a speech voice, JAWS, and on Cakewalk, I use SONAR 8.5 Producer edition with the talking script. That tells me where I am on the computer to create an audio track. I make a lot of adjustments using the keyboard, and the voice tells me where I am on the screen, or to get to production I press on the arrow key, find the buttons, and press tab to go up or down the different navigations.
Is it difficult to let go of a song? How do you know when it’s done?
RF: Usually it’s when I feel really happy with the vocals at the end or getting the instruments to sound final. If it’s a cover song, I think about what I like about the recording and try to get it close to the final version of the song. For a while, I had a hard time recording vocals because during the first half of this year there was a lot of construction work on the streets.
JF: The city decided to put in new mains while she was working on this album, and there were jackhammers and bulldozers. There were days on end when she was trying to work on her album, but she couldn’t. It was very frustrating. That affects how quickly she works because if she’s doing a take and a truck goes by … . So a lot of times she will work at night. Of course, now the construction is done, so she tends to get a lot of work done in the mornings, and during the day when I’m at work and her brother is at school and things are quiet. Her bedroom is not soundproof, so she is at the mercy of the elements at times.
When you play so many instruments, how do you divide your time for practice to give enough to each?
RF: Most of the time I practice the main parts of what I’m going to be playing on that song a few times, and once I have it where it works well, I record it until I get the best take. I start with a couple of scales here and there just to warm up the muscles, but most of the time I’m working on the music.
Is piano at the core of everything you do?
RF: That’s part of it. I started out playing piano. José Feliciano got me interested in playing the guitar. Then it was Pete Townshend and The Who, and then gradually by exploring Frank Zappa and the Grateful Dead. At the same time, I was taking ukulele lessons and there’s a lot of similarity, so a lot of my guitar playing is the way I play ukulele, with the fingers and not using a plectrum.
JF: When she was four and we got her hooked up with the music conservatory, she had a wonderful piano teacher named Grant Horrocks. The things that she understood intuitively already, he helped her understand intellectually, theory-wise. Starting so young, I think it’s integral to her thinking process now, so when she picked up the guitar, as soon as she heard how the strings were tuned and how it was laid out, it made sense to her.
How much acoustic guitar do you play?
RF: Not as much. I play a lot more electric than acoustic, mainly because of the music and what ideas come to mind on that instrument. But I do play acoustic on the title track of Going Somewhere.
So much of your repertoire focuses on classic rock and prog rock. How did you discover this music? What was your introduction to it?
RF: I listened to classical music when I was little. My mom and dad and my brother and I were at a friend’s house. I was nine at the time, and I heard ELP’s Trilogy album on their stereo. When I heard “The Endless Enigma,” and the synthesizer, I got my cassette tape recorder out and started recording. One day I accidentally erased the tape, and Mom bought me a Best Of compilation of ELP. I heard “Karn Evil 9,” and I bought all their albums from the ’70s. I listened to classic rock on the radio a lot. Mom would play Sting albums, my dad would play Joe Satriani and Eric Johnson albums, Pat Metheny, guitar stuff, and I discovered jazz on the radio — John Coltrane, Miles Davis, all kinds of things. Recently I’ve been listening to Beyonce’s Lemonade; I like the production and vocals and harmonies, and the multi-layered choir vocals. I like all kinds of stuff from different eras.
Visit Rachel Flowers online:
Preview Listen and view the gear list:
Rachel Flowers on YouTube:
Rachel Flowers and Dweezil Zappa – “Montana,” from Zappa Plays Zappa:
Southern California Conservatory of Music Braille Music Division:
Hearing Is Believing documentary:
Rachel Flowers Gear List:
Yamaha NTX700 Classical: 1
Fender Stratocaster: 1
Marblehead Imperial: 3, 5, 7, 10, 12, 13
Ibanez Gio MiKro w/Sustainiac: 3-6, 8, 9
SX 4-String: 1-5, 7, 10, 12, 13
Brice 5-String: 6, 9, 11
Nord Sample Libraries: 2-13
Synthogy Ivory: 3, 9
Garritan Personal Orchestra 5: 6
EastWest Hollywood Strings: 1, 3, 11, 13
EastWest Hollywood Brass: 3, 11, 13
Vienna Symphonic Library: 7, 11
Sonar DropZone: 1
Garritan Jazz & Big Band: 1, 5, 11
Sonar Session Drummer: 2-13
Nord Sample Libraries: 11
Line 6 Bass POD: 1-7, 9-13
Line 6 Guitar POD: 6-10, 13
Vox Valvetronix VT20X: 1, 3-5, 10, 12
Muramatsu EX Flute: 5, 12
Egg Shakers: 4
Lewitt Microphones: 1-13