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A Gift to Be Given with Bill Davies

What motivates you to create? For Bill, it was the wake-up call of a cancer diagnosis combined with a deep desire to share his passion for music. In the midst of all this Bill discovered handpans.

Amazing Grace Jam by Bill Davies:

Michael Colley's Album Recorded in Bathrooms:

Podcast Transcription:

Sylvain: Hey, it's Sylvain, and this is the handpan podcast.

Sylvain: There is something fundamentally human in telling stories, relating to someone else's experiences and learning from their journey. All of us do it all the time. That's why I like the medium of podcasting a lot because so much transpires through audio. It feels as if you were there. So whether you're listening while driving somewhere, taking a walk or doing the dishes. I hope you enjoyed today's episode with my friend Bill Davies. For some time now, I've been intrigued by Bill's creative drive, his determination... and this conversation explains a lot. I'm excited for you to get to know Bill, as I did in this episode, and to hear what he's doing with the handpan. Here we go.

Sylvain: I love turning a living space into a recording studio for, for an instant. So this is fun. Well Bill, it's really nice to hang out. Thanks for coming all the way. Yeah, thanks for having me, man. Yeah, this is probably the most relaxed episode of the handpan podcast. It's nice to be in person. Sure. And um, you brought me coffee. Thank you for that. Yeah, it's, it's really fun. Um, after jamming we're recording this conversation and, um, why don't you start with telling me a little bit about you, where you're from, where you live now? Um, just a little bit of an introduction.

Bill: Sure. Well, I was born up in upstate New York, like near Syracuse, up in the mountains and there was snow in the winter and stuff like that. So those are good memories. My parents moved out here to Phoenix when I was seven or eight years old. I kind of grew up here ever since. So and I live up in North Peoria right now. Yeah.

Sylvain: Yeah. I remember now that you grew up in upstate New York. My first year in the US was in Albany, NY.

Bill: Oh, sure. Yeah. Yeah.

Sylvain: So I got to experience the cold winters. The culture is a little bit different. Describe a little bit of Syracuse. What was that like?

Bill: Oh, I was little. I barely remember it. I mean, I remember getting on the bus to go to school. I remember not having a nickel for my chocolate milk one morning and having like this big problem and you know, and, and uh, I loved nap time when I was a kid, I remember in kindergarten because I was, you know, little then, and I remember tobogganing down hills in the snow and you know, the trees and my lived on a farm actually, so we got to ride the farm owners tractor, you know, he would drive it, but we'd sit in the seat and stuff. Wow. So it was, you know, good, good memories, you know, as a little kid, I didn't understand the world yet, so it was all is all happy and fun.

Sylvain: Were you introduced to music at a young age?

Bill: Um, I don't, well my mom sang, you know, just around the house and things like that, but not, not really. I don't, I don't really know how I actually picked it up. You know, my parents did have a piano and um, I started actually, my very first instrument was an old Thomas organ that had a lighted keyboard underneath. You could flip a switch and it would light up like the c e g to see where a c major was and it would show you the different chords. And that was my first introduction to music theory. So I kind of learned a little bit on that and then, uh, transferred to the piano and played that for awhile. Kind of all self taught stuff. So.

Sylvain: So what brought you to the handpan? How did you discover the handpan?

Bill: Sure. Well, I've been playing guitar and keyboards since I have probably six, 16 or 17 years old, you know, for decades. And it kind of got tired of that and stopped playing that, started doing some artwork and then I saw a video on youtube, probably just like a lot of other people, right? So he see a video somewhere and think, oh my Goodness, wow, what is that? I want that. That's, I got, I've had to, I have to do that. And then as I was doing some music, um, like software workstation on my PC, so I went and bought a sampler that had that, I think it was the soniccotour pan drums, which was a sample of a hand pan and tried to kind of play that, you know, obviously not satisfied with that. Then several years later, finally scraped up the money, sold all my other equipment and started buying handpans.

Bill: I don't know when I actually discovered it, probably it had to be like maybe 2012 or you know, was it was a good number of years ago. Probably when the handpan was pretty new, 20, 2010 maybe. I don't know. It took awhile and it wasn't until December of 2017 that I actually got my first handpan.

Sylvain: Oh Wow. Yes. Yeah. Still pretty recent.

Bill: Still pretty recent. Yeah.

Sylvain: And you've got three now. So you've increased your passion for the handpan very quickly.

Bill: Yes. Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I want another one. I mean, how could, you know it's, yeah, it's hard. It's hard not to want more with a slightly different timber slightly different scale. You know, I mean it's, you know, yeah.

Sylvain: it is interesting, right? It's inherent to the instrument wanting another one at some point.

Bill: I think so. It seems like it. Yeah, sure is for me. Yes.

Sylvain: What is the limit, do you think? How many is too many hand pans?

Bill: Oh, you know, that's, that's a personal, I think each individual has to answer that question for themselves. You know, cause I mean, I've seen people play, you know, with six or seven handpans on stage, uh, you know, that they do chromatic orchestral-type arrangements in and that's phenomenal. It was great. And uh, but there's plenty of people who can get by. I'm not just get by, that's, that's kind of a bad Freudian slip probably, but you know, have just one hand pan and be totally good at it. Happy, very skilled, you know?

Sylvain: Yeah, yeah. The more instruments I have personally, the less time I play on each individually. And I do think there is value in spending extended amount of time with a specific instrument to really explore its potential and subtleties. And it's like there are always melodies and passages that are almost locked. They're locked in and you have to work hard to reveal them.

Bill: Yeah sure. Sure.

Sylvain: Um, yesterday you shared a video on your E Sabye, a cover of amazing grace, your rendition.

Bill: Yes. Inspiration by. Yeah.

Sylvain: Yeah. I'll link to that video in the show notes of the episode because I think it's really a remarkable video. And in that track you were using effects. Tell me about gear, effects, kind of your experimentation with all of that and the handpans.

Bill: Sure. Okay. Well I mean, it comes from my guitar playing days. I played electric guitar for years and end, you know, you have to have lots of effects are if you're going to do electric guitar. And I also was into ambient music, you know, like back when Fripp and eno first came out back in the 70s and things real. So I've always been a big kind of a delay, kind of a delay guy. I like to have lots of delays. Um, I've been in a loopers for long time. I haven't done that much looping on the pan yet. I've tried it, but I haven't haven't perfected it yet. But, uh, the, on the video, it's basically a delay and then, uh, into a reverb that's just a huge, insanely long reverb and it just makes it just a kind of a cavernous space. I kind of just try to figure out how to dial that in for like a live, like a live situation, you know, it's kind of an experiment. Mic'ing the handpans is not, it's not very, it's not easy, you know? I mean, I've tried dynamic mics's and they kind of don't work very well. I've tried contact mics, AKG whatever, the C11, I've tried that, they worked pretty well, but you have to use a lot of the EQ. So anyway, just on the video it was a, it was a shotgun, a shotgun condenser.

Sylvain: But yeah, I thought that that Shotgun mic' did really well. And obviously it's a mono track.

Bill: Yes. Mono. Yes, yes. Yeah. Well I record everything basically into a mixer and then into my iPhone, you know, so it's like, yes.

Sylvain: Tell me about that.

Bill: Okay. So I use, I just use iPhone up on a little camera stand and then, uh, I run filmic pro, which I think is cheap, 15, $25, whatever app. And then, um, out of the mixer I have a Usb to lightening cable and I just plugged it in and uh, just configure filmic pro to take input from the USB hookup. And then you get the video and the sound at the same time it's mono, but uh, that's okay. Oh, and plus I'm deaf in my left ear so I can't hear stereo anymore. So I thought, I don't want to take the chance to try to produce a stereo product or track and not be able to judge the stereo-ness of it. So everything I do now is in mono.

Sylvain: Okay. Wow. That's a great setup because it bypasses the need to sync the video and audio files.

Bill: Yes. Yeah. Yeah.

Sylvain: That's great. Yeah. I love hearing about gear and setups that remove friction and make it easier to create and to release your art. And I love that you've been more active recently with your recordings and, uh, it's really great to see our stuff.

Bill: Oh, cool. Thank you.

Sylvain: Um, what gets you most excited about the handpan? You're a multi instrumentalist, but what keeps bringing you back to the hand pan?

Bill: I think it's the simplicity of it, you know, and, and, and not just that, but it's the immediate tactile experience, you know what I mean? It's, it's just different than a guitar or piano. They're all mechanical, kind of complicated, if you will. And, but the hand pan, you can just pick up and just, you know, if you're gentle, it's gentle. If you little more aggressive, it's, it's can be, you know, louder and more aggressive and stuff. It's more, I don't know how to explain it. It's just more, it's more accessible. It's more immediate.

Sylvain: Yeah.

Bill: And actually I was thinking the other thing too, besides just the accessibility of men, it's just the tone, right? I mean, it's just that it's, it's bell, it's bell-like, you know, it'd be kind of, you know, I mean, it, it just, the tone, it's hard to describe that, but it's just something about the tone. It's just very, um, alluring if you will, you know?

Sylvain: Yeah. It's a simple instrument by design but it's not as simplistic instrument because it has this rich layered sound, which makes it sound complete. It's not lacking, you know? You could pick up that little xylophone for children, um, with seven or eight notes. Right. You have the same limited amount of notes on the hand pan, but because it's layered with the overtones, the attack of your finger on the steel, the sympathetic resonance between harmonious notes, the Helmholtz like it's such a rich, it's not lacking at all.

Bill: Agreed. Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Sylvain: Where has the hand pan that taken you?

Bill: Ah, well, I don't know. I guess, I mean, lots of places I suppose. I mean, I do, I did a lot of open mics for awhile. I did, um, did the Pantasia last year, that, that was a lot of fun. You know, pretty good to see all the different players. Try to different, different hand pans. That was cool. Um, I wrote a letter to a couple of schools nearby and told them that I'd be interested in coming in and presenting the hand pan if they wanted their students to see it. Or maybe you get a chance to play it. Haven't heard back yet, but you know, I'm kind of trying to push out a little bit to try to let people, you know, give people an opportunity to actually play it in, you know, in a experience it live. Because I think a lot of people may have seen a video that's, which is fascinating and interesting, but when you actually see one live, we're actually play one that first couple of times you get that tone out of it and when he strike it right, you know, it's an amazing experience. People light up so that, that kind of moves me and I'd like to do a lot of improvisation. I've done improvisation behind people who do spoken word poetry, things like that, that I loved doing that. That's a, you know, just setting the mood, kind of sit in the background. I'd love to, I'd love to do that sort of stuff.

Sylvain: That covers a lot. You've been so creative, so productive with, with your hand pans. I love that. And I also really appreciate that you're thinking outside of the box and reaching out to, you reached out to the musical instrument museum in Phoenix, to these schools, introducing new audiences to this instrument. You're a go getter.

Bill: I try to be, I mean, you almost have it to be, you know, my, I, I like sometimes it's nice just to sit at home and play, but you know, really it's about, it didn't in my mind it's about interaction too. You know, I'm going to have to have a balance of both, so I kind of sometimes have to go push a little bit to, to, you know, make things happen, make opportunity, look for opportunities. Yeah.

Sylvain: Yeah. I love that. And it's the sign that you have been impacted by this instrument.

Bill: Yeah.

Sylvain: It's something I love about the history of this small community that we're a part of. Um, you know, no one is forcing us to buy a plane ticket or, you know, drive six hours and go to a handpan gathering. Like it doesn't feel like, but no one's going there reluctantly.

Bill: Right. That's true.

Sylvain: You can see people coming from all over the world that eager rushing to these events and, uh, really being self starters and, and picking themselves. Like, I think a lot of what you're doing, a lot of what I've done and I tried to continue to do is not, mm, not wait for the gatekeepers to let you in but just initiate, create, go out there and just make stuff. And that opens just such incredible opportunities to, I mean, we would have never met.

Bill: Yeah, that's true.

Sylvain: And you came to, um, um, a small Gig I had at, at library in Phoenix, introduced yourself and said, Hey, I play that too. Yeah. Yeah.

Sylvain: What are some of the projects that you're working on or ideas in the back of your mind about what could be done with the instrument or what you specifically want to do with it in the future?

Bill: Yeah, I don't have any like specific projects. I like a to do list or anything. And I'm working on, I just, other than trying to just work out like a rig of, of effects and things that I could take to a live setting. Um, but, uh, I want to get, I would just want to get better. I want to, I want to have more opportunities to play. Um, one thing I've really, I mean, like I said, I like to, I love to play behind spoken word and uh, I am a Bible Believer, right? So I would love opportunities to go to like a church setting and have somebody read some inspired passages from the Bible and have somebody like, you know, my, myself or really anybody but playing hand pan behind that because I think that, my guess is most of the people there probably will never heard that instrument before. And I think it's so beautiful and as such an opportunity to invite people in and then, and it kind of invokes that sense of wonder. And I think if someone's reading something inspirational at the same time, I think it's just like a, a beautiful potentially awesome combination of, of things that could happen, you know? So that's, that's kind of like really my, that's one of my big kind of motivations that I haven't moved on it too much, but it's kind of like internally, I know that's where my passion is. I know that's where my drive is and I'm like getting onto the cusp of starting to maybe reach out and started asking people if they'd be interested in something like that.

Sylvain: I love that we share the same beliefs and I think there's so much overlap between music and the power of music and worship and spirituality. Um, cause it's artful and... I like to read the psalms.

Bill: Yeah.

Sylvain: And you know, the, the wisdom literature,

Bill: That's where I started actually, Ecclesiastes was like my first experience. It's like, wow, this is a lot of good stuff in here.

Sylvain: Yeah. If you, wherever you, you find yourself, whether it's hopeful, enthusiastic about the future or really in a dark place and cynical, Ecclesiastes covers this whole range of emotions. And with music, with the hand pan, we can do part of that, like, expressing ourselves, letting those emotions out through music. Has the handpan ever been this kind of emotional outlet, this expressive outlet for you?

Bill: Oh sure. Yeah. I mean that's, yeah, yeah, yeah. Oh, music has always been like that for me. Yeah. I'm not even honestly very good at like remembering parts, you know? Um, but I'm pretty, my, my heart really is more towards like an improvisational type thing. Know with enough practice I can actually can repeat things. But most of the time I just kinda like to go with the flow and kind of Hook, Hook into what's happening and try to make it better or try to add or not getting away, you know? But yes, yes, certainly. It's always been a, I think that's why I still have passion for it is because it's opportunities to be, to express that emotion, you know?

Sylvain: So two of your hand pans are very bright and open um, you know, based on what we're talking about, there would be value in perhaps having a really dark hand pan scale to, you know, at times when you're not feeling uplifted and you need to let that out, that would be cool to have an outlet that just really dark, really intense uh, and maybe come out of that with a brighter, on a brighter note.

Bill: Yes, absolutely. No, totally. Yeah. When I was doing guitar and piano stuff, that's what I thought I'd be, whatever mood I was in, I'd start out like that. But then after awhile you kind of let it out. Then it starts to get just to get nice again, you know? But uh, yeah, I'm just have to figure out what scale and scale maker, how many notes, you know, it's just a lot to go. A lot of, not to put a lot of thought to put into it, you know, it's a big, it's a big decision.

Sylvain: Do you like that it's kind of an obscure art form where, there really isn't an choose option, a, B, or c?

Bill: Oh yes, yes. I do like that. It's a lot of custom hand built. The, the, and the passion of the makers, you know, that they, that they really put their heart and soul into the instruments, you know, they're proud of what they're doing and they like to see their instruments valued, you know, things like that. I mean, I think that's, I think that's great and I think it's nice that you can contact a maker and you know, have some custom notes or custom features, you know, and uh, and I think that, yeah, I think that adds value to the art form.

Sylvain: Absolutely. Yeah. Obviously it's impossible to know the future, but we may very well be in the golden age of hand pans where everyone's engaged, everyone's committed to the craft. There is a shared passion and, and we understand it because we're a part of it and we've been empowered to go out there and take the handpan with us.

Bill: That is something else I do like about the handpan too though. To take it with us. You pretty much can just put it in the car, drive to the park, sit down in play. You know, I mean it's not like you have to take, uh, an amplifier and have a little stage or you don't have to have an outlet, you know, it's very, um, portable, you know, and, and there are obviously some places are better than others for playing it. You don't want to be in the sun. You want to have a little bit of sound reflection if if possible so you don't have too much background noise. But uh, I mean, but basically you can take it pretty much anywhere and, and enjoy it.

Sylvain: Yeah.

Bill: If you long as you take care of it afterwards and no, no, like not at the beach with the salt water and stuff like that. You have to be careful. But you know what I'm saying. It basically, as long as you maintain it and, and treated well, then you can take it just about anywhere.

Sylvain: And it changes the acoustics depending on where you play. You might experience like outdoors versus inside and a small space in a big space, a large church. Have you had some of these experiences playing in various settings and, and hearing the acoustics and the natural reverb?

Bill: Sure. Yeah. Well, the, my little room that I practice in is just an old bedroom and it, it's, it's, it's, it's small so you get very, you get very much have a, it's very bright, you know, everything, all the sounds come through. If I take it outside in the backyard, it's a, it's a little more mellow on the top end because the sound is kind of propagates farther. Um, when we played at Pantasia in that, the harmony hall downstairs designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, which I think has a natural seven second reverberation or something. I think you just hit a note and that just kind of rings, you know, it's, it was really beautiful down there and uh, that was really something. And um, but yeah, every place you play is going to have its own kind of, you know, sonic signature. So...

Sylvain: Which makes it so fun and makes me want at document and journal the experience of bringing a pan and like a bunch of different acoustic settings and maybe record some of that. You know, um, I think it was, I, I hope I'm not mistaken, but I think it was Michael Colley, the maker of Aciel, who recorded his album in bathrooms, like in restrooms.

Bill: Oh sure. You get that really nice. Yeah. It was quick reverb kind of thing. Um, that's a good idea. Yeah.

Sylvain: Yeah. Anything else that's on your mind that you want to share or closing thoughts on whatever's going on in your creative journey?

Bill: Sure. Well, there's actually one thing that came to mind while we were talking. So a couple of years ago, I mean, I, like I said, I didn't play guitar and keyboards and then I kinda just was thinking about getting into hand pans and things and I had a cancer diagnosis. Right. So then I went through surgery and some radiation. And so then when you kind of faced with that, then you start thinking, okay, mortality, you know, and then it really kind of spurred me on to like, well, I gotta make this count now. You know what I mean? So I don't have time to kind of wait to get things done anymore. I kind of have to push to, to, to try to see the, you know, whatever vision I have for the Pan, you know, to get it out there. So it was a real, it was a real motivator for me, a real wake up call to, uh, actually, you know, take a chances and, and get into it and, and do things that I might have, you know, kind of put off earlier.

Sylvain: Wow. So I had no idea. No. Was there a, a before and after Bill across that experience? Like did it change you? I mean, obviously.

Bill: Uh Huh. Um, I mean probably some to some degree. Sure. I mean, I think, I mean, probably, probably, you know, I, I just, I don't know, ask my wife, she would be able to use these more than more than I would. But, uh, I mean, it does, it, I mean, it gives you pause, you know, it'll, it'll, it'll change your perspective on things. So, so yes probably.

Sylvain: Yeah, that makes sense in it helps me understand your drive and because it's something I really appreciate that in you. Um, and you're right. I mean it's, it's a good reminder that we have our role to play in making things happen. We can't just wait for them to happen to us. So it's a good reminder.

Bill: And I think that musical talent, musical passion, whatever is a gift and it, and it's the kind of gift that it's really needs to be given to be really be, you know, come to full fruition. So I'm thinking, okay, I feel like I've been given a measure of talent, you know, and then I need to, you know, express that talent because that's what it's there for. You know? So it's like combined with the, you know, time may be short here so it gets something done, with also thinking, okay, I really need to express this to, to mix, make it worthwhile, whenever make it, make it valuable. Then uh, so those two things together is what really is what motivates me.

Sylvain: Yeah, that's exciting and I'm glad that we live in the same city because uh, I want to be a part of that and I want to share in the journey, so to be continued for sure.

Bill: Absolutely. To be continued,

Sylvain: But yeah. Thanks for sharing your story. Um, and uh, it's fun because now we get to jam some more. Excellent. All right. Thanks bill.

Bill: Sure. Thanks Sylvain.

Sylvain: I am sure that I don't know the half of what's being done with the handpan out there, but every time I get a glimpse of this kind of passion that you can hear in bill's voice there at the end, I'm inspired. Is it the magical sound of the hand pan? It's weird shape or the blank slate that this young art form represents. I don't know, but something powerful is happening here. A sense of freedom. I love that about the hand pan, and by the way, passion is going to look different for everyone, and that's a good thing. I believe that the secret ingredient to the success of your specific projects is you, I know it sounds Cliche, but with the hand pan, you don't have to be picked by gatekeepers. You can pick yourself. You have the power to create today to share your art and to impact someone's life. Again, it doesn't need to be on stage. It doesn't even need to be online. You get to define that.

Sylvain: Thanks for listening to this episode of the handpan podcast and talk to you in the next one.

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