Grammy-nominated keyboardist, singer and songwriter Rachel Eckroth is in the midst of a super-productive career spell. The Arizona native, who had a six-year stint in Southern California between Phoenix and her now-home of Tucson, has just released a new solo album called The Garden. Not only that, but she’s the keyboardist in St. Vincent’s band, and Rufus Wainwright’s too.
These are the days that need to be enjoyed. There are few more exciting artists in popular music today than Annie Clark, a fact that Eckroth gets to enjoy night after night. But she’s no mere sideperson. Eckroth is an accomplished solo artist and bandleader with four albums, an EP and a number of singles under her belt. The Garden is the latest, recorded back in her home state.
“We just left L.A. because of the pandemic,” Eckroth says. “I moved to L.A. in 2016, just for a few reasons. I was living in New York, and New York was done for me at the time. I had met my husband [bassist Tim Lefebvre], and he lived in L.A., so that was a good reason to move out to L.A. Plus to be somewhere warm.”
Interestingly, the couple chose to live in Tucson rather than Phoenix when she returned to Arizona.
“It’s such a beautiful place,” Eckroth says. “We’re living on the edge of the desert, just out in nature. I went to school here when I was 18, so I knew a little bit about Tucson and I knew how cool and beautiful it was. So when we were thinking of splitting L.A. when things went downhill last year, we just thought of Tucson and we found a really cool place to stay.”
Eckroth says that she’s always been a bandleader, having had a piano trio in her twenties.
“I was always composing and writing, and then I started songwriting when I was about 30,” she says. “The progression of how it all went was, I’ve always been a leader and creating my own gigs and shows, and I guess it was always that way from the beginning. But I’ve also been a side-man a lot of the time too. It all came in different forms.”
She was about 15 when she discovered jazz, joining the high school jazz band and going to jazz camp for the summer.
“I learned so much about harmony and improvisation, and playing with people,” she says. “As a pianist, you grow up not playing with other musicians because you’re at home practicing by yourself. So it was really fun to be in a band and actually make music with other people. I started studying jazz and getting to know the musicians that came before and that are current. I just really loved the improvisational aspect of it.”
Eckroth lists Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner and Geri Allen among her major influences, and she refers to her sound as “beyond jazz,” something that’s apparent on the new album.
“There’s a heavy electronic presence there,” she says. “It’s not electronica, but there’s a lot of effects and stuff that we played with in the studio. Live, and during mixing. It’s The Garden, so it has a garden theme. Every song has a different botanical theme and title to it, which was something that sort of occurred to me while I was writing the album. Because it was me pulling from all the seeds that I sowed throughout my career, style-wise and all the things I learned about arranging and composing. I put them in this record, and so it just felt right to call it a garden because everything was a little bit different. A bunch of different sounds, different plants, all in one place.”
The artist says that working with the likes of St. Vincent and Rufus Wainwright inevitably influences her own music.
“I love to see pros doing what they do,” she says. “Everybody just does it to such a high degree, and you can tell who’s really a great person or a professional person by the way they treat their band. Both of those artists really treat their bands well. So I guess I try to mimic that, do the same thing. I take their work ethic and try to do the same thing when I’m working.”
The St. Vincent connection, much like anything else these days, came about thanks to an online message thread.
“My husband Tim, who is the bass player on the record and also the producer, he’s friends with Justin Meldal-Johnsen who is a bass player who played with Beck for a long time, and he’s a producer,” she says. “We were chatting on a thread, and Justin was looking for a female keyboardist that plays the vintage keyboards. A bunch of people on there shouted out my name. That’s basically how it happened. They were looking for somebody and there I was.”
It’s got to be a thrill, performing in front of enormous crowds and doing TV spots. It’s a similar story with Rufus Wainwright.
“I did a record in 2018 and the guitarist Gerry Leonard was a David Bowie musician,” she says. “He played on my record, and then down the road, he remembered that I have a solo project and am also a keyboard player. He happened to be the musical director for Rufus’ project that was happening. So they called me up and asked me to open for Rufus and play in the band.”
Gerry Leonard isn’t the only Bowie connection to Eckroth either. Husband Lefebvre played bass on the great man’s final album Blackstar, as did fellow collaborator Donny McCaslin.
“Blackstar has been playing in our house ever since – that’s something ingrained into my body at this point,” she says. “There’s a lot of Bowie connects happening with my music.”
Eckroth just played an L.A. show at Sam First and, looking ahead, she’s hoping for more.
“We have about five dates happening before 2022, so we’ll play music from The Garden and then next year booking a lot more of that,” she says. “I’ll be doing some new writing, and then eventually starting the summer touring with St. Vincent again.”
Rachel Eckroth’s The Garden album is out now.